School looks better through sunglasses

29th April 2005 at 01:00
You can't escape assessment by teaching abroad, but you do leave the rat race behind, says Jaye Richards

It's just over a year since I moved abroad to teach in Tenerife. When I left Scotland, I cushioned the sadness felt at leaving a fantastic school with its dedicated staff and usual eclectic mix of pupils by repeating the benefits of working on a small island in the sun like a mantra.

No more freezing cold mornings shivering while the car heater warmed up; no more having to turn on the Bunsen-burners to warm up the lab while the antiquated heating system creaked and groaned its way into some semblance of a warm enough temperature in which to work and study; no more endless paperwork, meetings, politics (both staffroom, union and national); and an end to the constant round of exam, assessment, NABs, quality assurance audits, social inclusion initiatives. And not forgetting the sun. The list went on and on.

But what is the reality? Many things are, of course, different. Smaller class sizes are the norm (this is the private sector, after all), and the pupils are generally much more polite if not better behaved. Resources can be thinner on the ground when schools are run as businesses rather than local authority "charities" with the bottomless pit of taxpayer's money to back them up. But this makes good teachers more flexible and inventive in their approach to teaching and learning.

There is much less of the dreaded paper chasing. We are generally left alone to teach our students without having to keep one eye on the latest How good is our school? report or follow-up cycle, or national or school initiatives driven by the latest depute trying to make a name for themself.

And there is the sun. The problems we have at break times are usually "do we need to keep the kids in the shade?" or "factor 5 or factor 20 today?", rather than stopping the little darlings battering the windows, and each other, with snowballs, or slipping and sliding over a rain-sodden playground.

There is not a lot of opportunity for career progression, however, unless you are fluent in the language of your country of choice and have the patience to battle your way through the legendary Spanish bureaucracy to get your degree validated to enable you to teach in the state sector.

That's about it really. Because there the differences stop and the similarities begin, and I was actually amazed by how many of them there were. First of all, there is the problem of teaching second-language pupils. I was quite surprised that the majority of pupils at my school are Spanish. Many parents here attach great importance to language education and wish their children to be at least bilingual, if not multilingual, so they send them to English or German-speaking schools to be educated in a foreign language medium.

Teaching practice at schools in Glasgow with a high percentage of second-language pupils and observation of how their needs are met has stood me in good stead here. There are also the German, French, Belgian, Russian and Asian kids, who have to learn to work in English, as well as learning Spanish for outside of school. This is where all those differentiation skills learnt at college come into their own.

There is assessment - and lots of it, mostly summative. As we are a British school, we teach the English national curriculum to international GCSE and ASA2 level. This means the dreaded Sats tests at key stages 2 and 3, and the progress tests in between. Then there are the "mocks" to be set and marked, decisions to be made about candidates for "core" or "extended" papers and the end-of-term tests so beloved of the rather traditionally minded Spanish parents (and some of the others as well) who want their kids to be drilled by facts and regimented by figures from test to test.

And there are the same reports to write twice a year, as well as the same pastoral care issues to deal with. We still teach kids first, and subjects second. So, not much difference there.

We don't get the extreme bad behaviour and violence often reported in the press. Our pupils can be expelled without the need to satisfy 10,000 different committees. But kids are the same the world over, so classroom discipline is as much of a challenge here as ever I found in my (albeit short) experience in Scotland.

So for those of you who are tempted to give up the rat race (and the rat runs through traffic-clogged inner cities) what are the advantages of moving to somewhere like Tenerife? Well, it's that sun isn't it, because the rest is very similar. If you want money as well, go to the Middle East.

But if all you really want to have to worry about each morning is what to wear for the day ahead, and a really relaxed lifestyle where most things can be done ma$ana, what are you waiting for? Come on in, the water's lovely.

Jaye Richards teaches in Tenerife.

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