Smile, and you'll make a difference

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Young, confident and highly-regarded Australians are helping to plug London's staffing gap while MPs are warned of a huge shortfall in the number of British graduates wanting to train as teachers. Sharon Webb and Clare Dean report.

You can easily identify the Australians who walk into the staffroom, said Tasmanian teacher Liz Bennett: "They're the ones who are smiling. I guess it's easier for Australians to smile - eventually they'll go home to their own education system."

Her comment reveals a consciousness that the British education system suffers from what many Australasian teachers see as an obsession with exams and league tables detrimental to many children's welfare, and a teaching force blighted by an over-opinionated media and meddling politicians.

Liz should know. She arrived here 18 months ago, taught supply, and now has a full-time job in an inner London secondary school.

It was no easy ride: she admits that she cried in front of a class, but recovered and went on teaching. And one of her first jobs was a six-week stint in the West End teaching religious education - a subject she'd never taught.

"The school hadn't offered it for 10 years because it was afraid to, and the previous RE teacher had disappeared mysteriously; I heard that one of the kids had threatened her," she said.

When Liz arrived, she found part of the school had been burned down; she was teaching in a hut surrounded by mud. But she decorated the classroom and found herself teaching about Hinduism, her own learning staying just ahead of her pupils.

Her training, she said, had emphasised that she was a teacher first; her subject was of secondary importance. And she was accustomed to teaching subjects with which she was not entirely familiar. Adaptability and flexibility are the characteristics Australasian teachers always mention.

Sarah Bagley, who has taught in London primary schools for eight months, says she gets a buzz from arriving at an unknown school - and she doesn't want to be told about problem students, because she wants to give them a chance.

"I go into schools with the attitude that I am there to make a difference. I am not thinking: 'Oh God, this is another dreadful London school'. I've encountered a lot here that I hadn't experienced before - including kids who say: 'Oh wow! Are you in our class today?'" Former New South Wales secondary teacher, Andy Goodwin, also has a permanent London job: "I started by looking at the class. You can't approach a class in the same way as the one you had five minutes ago. That understanding comes from experience and being prepared to be flexible, ready to try something different. And then, if it doesn't work you try something else."

Commitment is also vital, according to Australian teachers. Andy has coached in basketball, rugby and soccer; he goes to discos and regards himself as being supportive of the whole school life.

Megan Jolley, another Tasmanian with a permanent job, says that she has taught in schools where she was told that if she could get the children into the classroom she would be doing well.

"That's all they expect of a supply teacher - containment," she said. "But it's not enough. I will take on home economics lessons, RE lessons. Attitude is important. It's that thing about caring about what you do."

Headteachers say that Australians have a structured approach to discipline which makes them good classroom managers.

And then there's the famous Australian sense of humour.

Andy Goodwin said: "I get some flak about kangaroos and Rolf Harris, but you take a bit and you give a bit back. They think: 'He makes us work, but he's not too bad'."

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