Way down to St Louis

A lifetime's love of the wild west could not prepare Geoff Gilborson for his first exchange post to the United States, writes Reva Klein

As a child, Geoff Gilborson loved westerns. His father was a cinema projectionist, so he would sit watching Davy Crockett, the Lone Ranger and all his other favourites to his heart's content.

Not surprisingly, Geoff grew up smitten with North America. He married a woman who is half American, and immersed himself in American history and music.

As a religious education teacher at St Bede's United CERC voluntary-aided secondary school in Redhill, Surrey, he was involved in a few student exchanges with a school in New York City and got a glimpse of the country in short bursts. But he always had "a vague dream" of going to live in the United States.

Last year, that ambition was realised. It was not all dreamlike, because teachers' lives are not like that, but it was an eye-opening adventure none the less. He was among the 75 applicants whom the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges chose out of twice that number for a teacher exchange programme with the US.

Sadly, perhaps, his destination wasn't the Alamo. In fact, it was nowhere near Texas. The bureau offers three choices based on finding an appropriate match on the American side who can slot into the vacancy the teacher is creating in terms of school and housing. Teaching RE meant Geoff's choices were limited. But eventually a placement was found in the Midwestern city of St Louis, Missouri, at Charminade, an expensive Catholic boys' school in the leafy, very wealthy suburbs.

Visiting him there last spring, I experienced a certain frisson as I entered the ivy-clad, colonial style school. You see, I had attended the state high school down the road and had drooled for three years at the sight of all those hunky, sporty, blond, blue-eyed boys as they sped past in their red Mustang convertibles. Things hadn't changed, except that the Mustangs had been replaced by red BMW convertibles. And my drools had been replaced with a dry, tight smile. These kids' trainers cost more than my car was worth.

The privileged background of these great galumphing boys hasn't been lost on softly-spoken Geoff, either. "Occasionally the term 'rich brat' comes to mind," he replied with a wry smile when I asked his view of Charminade students. "Some people say that kids come here because they can't get into other schools. I'd say that some work very hard but a pretty high proportion just glide through. " Tellingly, a quarter of Charminade graduates flunk out of their first semester at university and return to St Louis to attend less demanding further education-style community colleges.

Although he was head of RE at St Bede's and taught the whole age range there, including sixth-form, Geoff was assigned to teach only 12th grade (17 to 18-year-olds in their last year of high school) at Charminade. "Here, I deliver the same class five times in a row. It's easier but I miss not being with a variety of age groups."

He also found when he arrived that, this being a private school, there was no set curriculum. "I was told: 'You're teaching world religion; do what you like.' "Each teacher is an independent unit. It goes with the American philosophy of the freedom of the individual - very different from the British system where departments work as part of a team."

An occupational hazard of working with the top age group in high school is "senior slide". "They don't want to be in school any more," explains Geoff. "After the autumn semester, it's a matter of entertaining the troops, or rather quelling the masses. I was surprised at how much discipline you need to administer with the seniors. Some act like the naughty set in a GCSE class. Towards the end of the day, lunacy and anarchy take hold."

Low academic standards provided another unexpected twist. Geoff found himself teaching the equivalent of GCSE level to students who were A-level age, and giving tests based on multiple-choice and true or false answers. Essay writing was limited to single paragraphs. "Here, the emphasis is on short-term learning. Students don't learn in a way that allows them to build up understanding and knowledge over time," he says.

But for all the jarring differences and lower standards, Geoff enjoyed his year in the US. He and his wife adjusted to the small but centrally located bachelor flat of his exchange partner and travelled to their hearts' content. And one of their trips was to the Alamo.

The Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges offers a range of annual teacher exchange programmes in Europe, the US, and Commonwealth countries. Applications must be made before the end of November. For details, contact the bureau on 0171 389 4004. www.britcoun.orgcbeve

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