Shernice Lazare, second grade teacher at John Muir Elementary School, returned to her classroom here on February 1st, after teaching the Year 3 group in Bradford, England at the Lidget Green Primary School for five months. She was one of 700 applicants to be awarded one of the 100 Fulbright Teacher and Administrator Exchange Fellowships for US teachers. She met with Carla Mawson, her exchange partner from Bradford, England, last April and again at a one-week August orientation and cultural workshop in Washington, DC, at which they got “stuff organized,” and prepared each other by trading information about teaching styles and what to expect in their new posts. In addition, they exchanged houses, cars, utility and phone bills, but kept their own salaries. Lazare, an obviously enthusiastic and dedicated teacher, is driven to create a vital learning environment for her students, which is why she is my daughter Chloe’s favorite teacher. Shortly after her return, she spoke about her experience in a new school in another country. Mirror: What were your first impressions when you arrived in Bradford, England? Lazare: Where we lived in Yorkshire County it was very green with cows and sheep, though it was not rural or isolated. Malls and stores were close by, but the landscape was so different from Los Angeles. The house we moved into was very small, and narrow, a big change from our three-bedroom home here. My salary was converted into pounds at the bank where $2 is equal to 1 pound, which meant I was getting half my usual salary as most things in England cost more than in the US. I was welcomed warmly at my school. No one ever judged me there. They were always open to my ideas. There were two Year 3 classes. Year 3 is equivalent to 2nd grade as English preschool ends at age 4 and Year 1 starts when our kindergarten does, with age 5. In other words children start learning one year earlier in England. My class had 33 children: 30 were either Pakistani or Indian Muslims, and three were white. In England, Middle Easterners are called Asian, and Asians, as we in the US use the term, in England are called by their country of origin; Chinese or Japanese. I had to learn all about the Muslim faith. For instance the children couldn’t say the word “pig.” If they came across it in a book they spelled it out “P I G” as their religion forbid them to say it aloud. I discovered that England is changing. The national dish is no longer Fish and Chips; it was officially changed to Chicken Tikka, a kind of chicken curry, while I was there. Mirror: What was your teaching day like? Lazare: My day started just a bit before 9 a.m. There was much more demanded of me as a teacher. In England, the primary school teacher teaches everything: art, science, physical education, music, religion along with reading, writing, and math; I needed to be an expert on everything. I’ve never taught all of these subjects before, never had so many children in my class, never had special needs children in my class, and never expected to teach the class as a whole all day long. I’ve been used to splitting up the class into study or learning groups. My class had six special needs children: an autistic boy, children with dyslexia or other learning problems, and a boy with a severe speech impediment. I also had five extremely gifted children. Mirror: How did you handle a class so diverse? Lazare: I was lucky to have two assistants. One worked for three mornings a week while the other worked two afternoons. In the first month or so of teaching, I stuck to the lesson plan expected of me. They teach with a ‘prescriptive’ or formula-driven lesson plan. Each subject is divided into small segments within an hour. For the first ten minutes we would read the lesson aloud together in class, the next ten minutes were focused on a particular skill or specific topic within the lesson, and then there were ten minutes of mini-lecture followed by 20 minutes of individual work with a ten-minute wrap-up in a reflection journal. The journal writing consisted of answering questions such as how could I do better in this topic? Or what do I still need to learn? I found this way of teaching extremely frustrating and let the principal know that I had to teach the way I know how, I have to be myself. So I tweaked the lessons a bit here and there. Whenever I had assistants I found a way to break the class up into learning groups. Mirror: Did breaking them up into groups help? Lazare: It made a huge difference. My teaching would have been wasted for the special needs students who didn’t understand anything, and for the gifted students who were bored. When I was alone I taught art or religion, or another lesson that worked for the whole group. The assistants allowed me to teach closer to the way I teach at Muir. It allowed me to spend time alone both with the special needs students and the gifted students at least once a week. It also allowed me to help the core group of students move ahead. Mirror: Was this way of teaching was harder on you than teaching in the US? Lazare: I know I make it sound incredibly stressful, but I felt less stress and pressure there than in the US. It may be because I was just coming in for a short time. But I’m not so sure. All of the schools in England seemed to work the same way. I visited many schools there. The way of life allowed teachers to have a life. My day started at 9 a.m. and ended promptly at 3 p.m. If I tried to stay later than 3: 45 p.m. as I do at Muir, the janitor kicked me out. Teachers were expected to go home and rest, or go to the pub. None of them took work home with them. They weren’t expected to. Every Thursday there was a four or five-hour block of time to lesson plan with my assistants, copy material, and get everything done for the next week. The Principal came to take over my class when I had to do report cards. All of my work was done within school hours. Every Friday at 3 p.m. my husband and I would be off on a trip to Europe. In general, they work teachers very hard in England, expect a lot, but give them time to have a life. Mirror: How different were the students at your school from the students at Muir? Lazare: All of them were really respectful, polite, and lived up to the expectations of the structured school environment. Also, Muslim students there have to do well and behave in school. 90% of the children went to Muslim school from 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 9 to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. Their teachers at the Masque would tell them ‘Allah is watching you you have to do well in school’. So there was also a cultural component to their discipline. Mirror: Was this because your school was so predominately Muslim? Lazare: Not entirely. I visited lots of other schools, particularly a teacher’s class in London who had the Fellowship last year. Her fourth grade class was extremely respectful, yet more diverse than my class. Many nationalities were represented, including blacks. One other thing, at our school they had an assembly every day just before lunch for about 20 minutes. On Mondays we sang songs all together, Tuesday we focused on a particular values like bravery, Wednesday children who had done good work shared it, the Principal was in charge of Thursdays, and Friday each class took an assembly and performed a play, or song. What was amazing was that every day 200 children filed in single file, totally silent, not a sound. They all wore uniforms, were expected to behave a certain way, and did. It bothered me at times. They seemed so fearful, eyes forward, hands down to their sides, almost robotic in trying to please. It was so teacher-directed that the kids lost some of their individuality. They did have recess, but were still more restrained than Muir kids. John Muir kids are always able to speak their minds, quirky, kids being kids, just being who they are. I didn’t see a lot of that over there, though I kept encouraging them to. Many Friday afternoons I worked with Year 5 and Year 6 kids and they seemed much more lively. Also, whenever a teacher was gone, they didn’t have substitutes; the children just knew what they were supposed to be doing and did it. A teacher would look in once and a while, but that was it. Hard to believe. Mirror: Were there any other differences in the school week? Lazare: The school year is broken up very differently there. We had six weeks to focus on a particular lesson, and then one-week off, six weeks, and one week off, and on like that except for big holidays when we had two weeks off. Their school year lasts much longer, from September to the end of July with only the month of August off for summer. Mirror: How did the parents deal with so much time off during the year? Did the children have camps or day care? Lazare: No. Out of the 33 parents in my class only one mother worked. So the weeks off the children were at home. Mirror: Was this an upper class school? It is hard to believe that so many mothers didn’t work. Lazare: No, this school was like Muir in that most of the families also got public help, like our Title 1. Over 50% were getting free lunch there or public assistance. I found that they value things very differently. They think Americans are crazy, 85% of American’s don’t use their vacation time. They see us with big houses, big cars, big platters of all you can eat food. Their houses are small, streets narrow, cars tiny. They don’t go into as much debt there. They don’t feel the need to have so many things. To them home and family is the most important thing, they save up their money for vacations, and the mothers stay home. Mirror: If you lost money in the exchange rate how could you afford to take vacations while you were there? Lazare: When we first got there, Thomas, my husband, a professional actor, had hoped to act in London. The commute was just too far for that to be a choice. The Principal discovered that Thomas was available and offered him a job teaching theatre to the students at my school two days a week. It turned out he made as much in those two days as I made in a week on my US salary, when the exchange rate was taken into account. He had a blast, we then had enough money to enjoy ourselves, and the children loved him. Every teacher, when they heard about Thomas, wanted to have him teach their class. So every student at the school had some theatre training with him, the upper grades more than others. Mirror: Was it hard to leave? Lazare: I learned about myself, and what I can do. They had such a different way of life and outlook: Europeans really know how to enjoy life. When they let loose they really have fun. The Principal was sorry to see us leave. He offered us both positions to stay. I just felt it was time to come home, with my new outlook on life. I made so many friends. My house is going to be very busy this August. Two sets of teachers are coming to visit from Bradford, and a teacher and her fiancé, as well as an American teacher on the exchange I befriended. Mirror: Do you have a final comment?I had a fabulous experience. Wouldn’t change it for the world.
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