Romancing the Uists

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Sandy beaches, superb surf, dolphinsfollowing the ferry. Eleanor Caldwell finds that life as a peripatetic teacher in the Western Isles is anything but dull.

It was the trendy, post-graduation habit of its time. Teachers, now "of a certain age", who had drifted comfortably through university and college in the Seventies with no loan or overdraft and the reasonable guarantee of a job, set off on prolonged Inter-Rail trips round Europe, went into VSO jobs in Africa, or just took a year out to work in "real" jobs with "real" people. "Finding yourself" before starting probation was essential.

Twenty years later the 40-somethings now bask in romanticised memories of shift work in pea-canning factories, hitching slowly across Europe or sluicing out the toilets in the geriatric ward. Romanticised memories they may be, but the experiences altered perspectives, widened horizons and developed a broad-mindedness in the young teacher. Afterwards, it was down to the serious business of building a career.

For today's graduates, leaving university with a degree and an overdraft under their belt, it is harder to take time out. Nevertheless, it is still possible to do something that little bit different, as Eleanor Stewart, a 26-year-old language teacher can testify.

Eleanor's own education in the late Eighties was stock-piled with rich experiences. She spent time before and during her university and college years working in France and Spain, and spent her probationary period teaching French and Spanish in Wallace High School in Stirling, where she was able to share her passion for canoeing. It came as no surprise to friends and colleagues when her eye was caught by an advertisement for the post of itinerant teacher of French on Uist in the Western Isles.

At the end of 1995 the young probationer packed her bags and moved to a flat in the school hostel at Lionacleit on Benbecula, the island between North and South Uist. As the only teacher of French on a cluster of islands, the semantics of her everyday working life acquired new meanings. "Going to school" became driving to one of three island schools - Paible on North Uist, Daliburgh on South Uist, or, further south by ferry, Eriskay. "Teaching the first year" became taking a class of eight pupils, and "Monday morning blues" meant the ferry to Eriskay had been cancelled.

For the peripatetic teacher, the standard timetable might be better described as an itinerary: if it's Thursday, it must be Paible; if it's Monday, it's Eriskay, and so on, with the prospect of a half-hour drive from home base on Benbecula in the direction of the day. To some extent, Eleanor feels that her involvement with the three schools gives her the status of part-time teacher in each, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages. Itinerant teachers are an integral part of the school staffroom on Uist.

Of course, a school's a school, a classroom's a classroom, and the same outcome is expected from staff on the islands as on the mainland. At the start of a French lesson in Paible School, it's not so much the small class size that is striking as the all-too-familiar self-consciousness of the pupils trying to practise those pouted French "ou" sounds, so alien to the Scottish tongue.

There are advantages to the system in Uist, however. Eleanor admits to getting professional satisfaction from the order of sessions of group and paired oral work, compared with mainland classes where the large numbers of pupils disrupt classroom order. And at the end of a lesson, it's not a question of "see you again on Wednesday" but "we'll finish that this afternoon". According to Eleanor, this different version of a double period lends a new fluency to her work, which is obviously taken as the norm by the pupils.

It would probably be in class sizes that the mainland teacher would most envy Eleanor her position. In a school week, she teaches between 50 and 60 pupils, compared with the 120 or so in her mainland timetable.

Discipline, too, is not a problem, but with its disappearance comes a different pressure that cause different forms of fatigue. In most secondaries a small teaching group in S5 or S6 presents the perfect medium for concentrated study. However, in the S1 or S2 class (the only two secondary levels taught in the three schools), an unusually high level of focused concentration from both teacher and pupils is required. That said, Eleanor stresses that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and the small numbers create a positive teaching and learning environment.

The subject content of Eleanor's French lessons is no different from any other French class elsewhere in Scotland. But it's another matter when considering the relevance of language. Rather than wanting to know how to describe visits to the cinema or the fairground, Eleanor's pupils are more concerned about learning how to say cutting the peat or shearing the sheep in French - a linguistic challenge Eleanor enjoys greatly. It's a perfect example of the importance of teaching language appropriate to life and not just for its own sake. A knowledge of Gaelic also seems to help pupils in their studies of European languages; for example, the French word for church - eglise - is very similar to the Gaelic - eaglais.

So is Eleanor Stewart fulfilling that Seventies dream and, in her words, proving that she is not too "settled and boring"? She prefers not to over-romanticise her position, but a brief array of off-the-cuff thoughts convey her feelings. Itinerant teaching: usually better than a stuffy classroom. Holidays: the risk and reality of being storm-bound on the ferry. Life in the school hostel flat: understandably protected. Travel to Eriskay: dolphins sometimes following the boat. Gaelic: very hard, even for a linguist. Relations with colleagues: so good without the layers and layers of hierarchy. Family and friends: miss them quite a lot. Sea surfing in the kayak: brilliant.

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