Student Teaching in London

The First Week


The plane flight was scheduled for 9:00 PM Saturday, October 31, from JFK airport in New York. The airline was arranged by Lock Haven University: Air Kuwait. Not a good idea! I got there, and discovered that I was not booked on the flight! I was put on stand-by. That was not one of the high-points of my adventure.

I got $191.10 changed at the airport. The exchange rate was 1.82, so I got £105 (there was also a $3 service charge).

Then I waited around, until eventually, I got on the plane, then another half hour for the plane to actually take off, at 9:30.

After that, the flight wasn't too bad at all, except that the plane was like an oven. There were headphones and music to listen to, but it was all in Arabic. But the meal that was served was rather exotic and quite good, which was something called grilled beef shashlyk, and ratatouille, and an English desert, cream caramel. And the movie that was shown, "Solarbabies", I enjoyed watching.

For breakfast there were croissant and rolls and fruit and orange juice (less exotic).

The plane landed at Heathrow Airport around 9:30 A.M. English time (7 hours + 5 hours time zone difference), Sunday, November 1.

At Heathrow, I found out that there were three other students teachers who had been on that flight. We went together to find the place where living arrangements had been prepared by Lock Haven University. We took the subway, or "tube", Piccadilly Line, to the stop we had been told, Manor House.

After getting luggage, going through customs, getting the ticket to Manor House, and the hour ride to get there, it was after 11:00 by the time we reached our destination. It was a nice ride, in the beginning, while we rode above the ground.

At last, we reached Manor House. We quickly gathered our luggage and got off. At least, half of us did. Two of us got off, but the doors of the tube slammed shut with the other half of our party still on board!

We had no idea where to go when we got up to street level. We had to find some place called Kent House. The streets went in about five different directions, and it was raining a little. We decided that I would stay with all our luggage, while she went to see if she could find Kent House.

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Well, somehow or other, we found our way to Kent House eventually. The other two girls, whose adventure in traveling had continued when the doors shut on them, joined us eventually.

Kent House is not an inviting place. Oh, it was clean, and reasonably quiet, but it was not the most pleasant place to stay.

I went to the office, made a first payment of £45 plus a £5 deposit for the keys. The people there seemed pretty nice. It is run by a Finnish family.

At least, I was glad, my room was on the first floor! My roommate, Chuck, was not home. He had come a couple weeks or so earlier. I had met him once, at the second meeting at Lock Haven. It was at least fortunate that there was at least one other guy going, so I had a roommate.

The room was terribly small and cramped. It was a single room with two beds jammed into it. I unpacked much of my suitcase (the rest I leave in and live partially out of my suitcase).

By this time, I was well into jetlag, disoriented, lonely, and tired. I don't like overnight plane rides because I can never get a bit of sleep on planes. On top of that, it was both Sunday and All Saints Day, and I had to find a Catholic church to go to! And I got a note saying that a meeting, with dinner, was planned for all the student teachers for that very evening at Myra Tingle's house in some terribly hard-to-reach part of London. Myra Tingle was in charge of the student teaching program there in England.

I called home (collect) at around 11:45 to let my family know I had made it safely to England, and was settling into Kent House.

Then I tried to find a church. Already past noon, most of the Masses were over, for all the difference that made anyway since I had no idea how to find a church. I eventually found out that there was a church "right around the corner", wherever the corner was! I went out and tried to find it, hoping that maybe I would get lucky and they had an afternoon Mass. I wandered around as long and as far as I dared on my first day in a foreign country. I never did find it that day.

I got some lunch at a little grocery store nearby. I got some English soda called Tizer (that's good stuff) and some fig rolls.

The meeting was scheduled for 5:30. We all left together. We each had a map, but it did not look like an easy place to get to. We all left around 4:30. First, we had to get to Elephant and Castle on the tube. That was not hard to do. Then came the portion of the trip that required a bus ride. Along the way, wouldn't you know it, the bus broke down! Well, eventually we were on our way again. And, naturally, we missed the stop where we had to get off. The bus driver was actually nice enough to take us back to our missed stop! Then it was only a short walk. But, of course, we managed to get lost.

Amazing as it may seem, we finally did make it to Myra Tingle's house! It was 6:30 when we got there, though.

There was wine, lasagna, bread, and trifle and chocolate things for dessert. The hospitality we received was better than we could have hoped for. Everything was very informal and could not have been more warm and friendly. Maybe coming to London for doing student teaching wasn't such a bad idea after all.

After the meeting, we all went to a pub for a few drinks. Now there's something that's just not generally done in America! It was a historical place. Pubs are very important to English social life. Unfortunately, being allergic to cigarette smoke makes such social gatherings impossible for any length of time, and I ended up having to spend half the time outside, waiting for people to decide to leave (since there was no way I'd have any hope of finding my way back on my own).

Altogether, we did not experience any difficulty in returning to Kent House that night. We got back at 11:30. And the next day would begin my student teaching assignment. Fortunately, though, we only had to go for a half day, after lunch.

Monday, Nov.2

The next day I didn't get up until 9:30. In the lobby of Kent House is a color television for our use. I spent the morning watching English educational television. Educational TV in England is very much like it is in America, though perhaps with a bit more music.

The location of the school was on a map that was with the map to Myra Tingle's house. I thought the safest way to be sure of finding the school would be by walking. I carefully made note of the route on the map. Then, about 12:15, with map in hand, I was off.

It was a bit farther than it looked on the map. It took me about a half hour to get there, following the map every step of the way. It wasn't hard to get there.

St. John's is called a "Junior Mixed and Infant Voluntary Aided School". It is run by the Church of England.

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There are seven "classes", or rooms, Class 1 to Class 7, organized according to ages (no grade levels). Class 1 has the oldest children, 10-11 years old, Class 2 is next with children 9-10, then Class 3 has 8-9 year olds, all the way down to Class 7, with 4-5 year old children.

Classes 6 and 7 are in a separate building, of which the hall/cafeteria is a part. "Infants" in England are not babies; they do not use the word the same way it is used in America at all. The lowest three classes are the infants.

My assignment, Class 2, is called "Junior".

St. John's has a school uniform with school colours (note my English spelling); for the girls, it's a bottle green cardigan or "jumper", green skirt, and white blouse, and for boys, bottle green "jumper", grey or white shirt, grey trousers, and school tie. The uniform is common only among "infants" at St. John's.

First was the meeting with the Headteacher (Principal), Miss Sagar. There were three of us at St. John's. We had a nice talk and some tea, and we were taken to meet our co-operating teachers (our "co-ops"); mine was Anna.

Mine was with the class in the school hall at the moment, having "games" (that's what they call physical education). The hall is also the cafeteria.

There were four benches in the middle of the hall. They were playing a game with a ball like a soccer ball, kicking it around, and running. About half the class was barefoot. I never did figure out what they were playing or what the rules were.

Back in the classroom, it was time for "maths". They were doing addition and subtraction. They had an odd way of doing it, carrying to the bottom instead of to the top of the column. I just went around watching what they were doing. I asked one of the girls if she could explain what they were doing, how they were doing that carrying. I asked Nina, who is very little and shy; she smiled but was reluctant to talk to me.

There were about 30 in the class. The classrooms were a good size, but cluttered. There were some desks, but most of the children sat at tables, arranged in a somewhat organized manner. The floors were wooden, and the windows were very small. They had a crank to open and close them; I had never seen anything like that before. They have a hamster in the room, named Goldie.

The children sitting at desks by themselves sit there either because they cannot behave sitting with the others, or else because they simply work better by themselves.

Someone came in, and called some children out to work on something else; I think they went out to work on reading.

Maths lasted until the end of the day, but children also went to work on sewing and autobiography. The sewing they do is a cross-stitch pattern, sewing pictures or designs. The autobiography is a big project they've been doing, doing it in various ways. One girl, Jessica, showed me her autobiography. At the end, it would be sewn together to make a book.

After school, I stayed to look at some of their books. They have rows of shelves to keep their things in. Their notebooks they work in stay in cabinets. This gave me a chance to get an idea of the levels of the children and a bit of their personalities.

One thing I remember from this initial look at their books was that one girl had written how when she grows up she wants to marry somebody who is rich and who will let her do anything she wants. I also noticed that "mum" or "mummy" is always used where we would use mom or mommy. They also like to use the word "rubbish" for anything that isn't any good.

I also noticed a rather amusing spelling mistake: the name "Pernelerpe", a distinctly British mistake. The children's accent was delightful to listen to, or, as they would be more likely to say, "lovely". The problem was I could not understand most of what they were saying. I could tell they had a very hard time understanding what I was saying in my heavy Philadelphia accent. The worst of it was that I was having a very hard time understanding what the co-op was saying. But, as the days and weeks go by, this would gradually become less and less of a problem.

The children's handwriting is a bit nicer than the children in America. They often use the European type of school notebooks: with graph-lines.

After school, several of us student teachers went out to get a pass for the underground. Transportation is rather expensive in London, and a pass is really essential if a lot of sight-seeing, shopping, etc. is going to be done. There were about four or five of us. We went to Piccadilly Circus to get our passes.

First, we had to get our pictures taken, because they are required for a monthly pass. We went to one of those photography booths to get our pictures. It cost £1 for four prints. We were planning to share four prints, so we were all set for each one to jump out and the next person to jump in for the next snapshot. But, after the first one, we discovered that it doesn't work that way: you get four prints of the same pose for a pound. So we had to get them one at a time. Each one took about three to five minutes.

We then got our monthly passes for the underground (and busses). Most of us got them for zones one and two. We were living on the border between zones two and three. Zone one is downtown London. So, with a two-zone pass, we could get just about anywhere we would want to in London. It cost £23.10. That's a bit over $40.00 at the exchange rate at the time we bought them.

I then exchanged $600 in Traveller's Checks, most of which I would be using for the rent for the six weeks, which I wanted to pay all at once to make sure I wouldn't run out of money. The exchange rate was 1.735, and they got an 8% commission, so I got £318.16 for it.

I got back in time to watch "Doctor Who" on BBC1 at 7:35, having been a Dr. Who fan for many, many years. It was the first of a three-episode story called "Delta and the Bannermen".

I paid up the rest of the money for the full 6 weeks, which came to £275. I wanted to get that taken care of right away, so it would be something I wouldn't need to think about any more.

Then I went out and bought something for dinner at the Late Night Shop across the street. Late Night Shop was a very convenient little grocery store right across the street, called that because it's open until 9:00 P.M. I got a little cheese-and-onion quiche and some jelly babies (being a Dr. Who fan). I got a soda called American Kola, which tasted horrible!

Crossing streets was a bit of a challenge, since people in England drive on the "wrong" side of the street. It was several weeks before I finally started being able to look the right direction when crossing the street.

Tuesday, Nov.3

School is scheduled to start at 9:00 A.M. Tuesday, our first full day. I left at 8:15, and took the tube, from Manor House station to Arsenal. On the way, I got some blackcurrant juice for breakfast. Things made with blackcurrants are very common in England.

Arsenal is an important sports stadium in London. That stop is about four blocks from St. John's.

I was still very jet-lagged. School, as far as my body was concerned, started at 4:00 in the morning.

When we'd first get there in the morning, we'd always start the day in the staff room (teachers' lounge). Being in the staff room was interesting. There would be three breaks during the day: in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the afternoon, when most of the teachers would go to the staff room. Much of the time, I'd be outside with the kids during that time though.

There we could get tea or coffee. My co-op usually drank coffee; I was disappointed -- English people are supposed to drink tea! It was something different to me the way they'd have their tea. They'd put a teabag in a cup and pour hot water over it, stir it up and start drinking it. I suppose that was more a time-saving method than the preferred fashion. It's not hard to get used to, though.

There's no bell to announce the beginning of school. Kids drift in until a little after 9.

Every day starts with an assembly in the school hall, usually led by the Headteacher. They sang a lovely song with their pleasant English accents, a song about grass and wildflowers. Then she talked about Poppy Day, when the English people wear paper poppies in remembrance of those who died in war.

For most of the morning, I "heard children read." This was before I really knew what I was doing. Their individualized method seems to be so obvious to them, that I think my co-op just assumed I already knew how to do it. Actually, over a period of a couple weeks, I gradually picked up how it works:

Each child has his or her own reader. They use a series of books in each class. Each book in the series has a different topic, such as humorous stories, adventure stories, myths and legends, and so on. No two children are on the same story at any one time. Each reads at his own rate.

They all have a bookmark, which is a strip of cardboard, about 4x10 inches. On this card, the pages read are written down and "ticked off" (i.e. checked off), and difficult words (to read or to understand) are written down, and often comments on performance are also added. The child keeps the cardboard in the book, which is also kept, and often taken home. The child's name in the teacher's book is ticked of for that day, and at the end of the week there is a space for comments on the week's work.

About half the children are supposed to have reading every single day. Some children, the better readers, have it three times a week. The best readers only have someone hear them read once a week.

My main concern in the first couple days is learning names. By the end of that day, I knew the names of about a dozen out of the thirty children.

One thing we were told to do was to make a list of the kids in order of ages. Since there is such a mix of levels, getting to know how old the children are is very important to get some idea what to expect from them. I forget when I actually made up the list, but here it is (youngest to oldest):

John & Nina 25 Aug.    |     Jessica      5 Jan.
Juliette    10 Aug.    |     Martinique  23 Dec.
Nicola       7 Aug.    |     Steven      22 Dec.
Georgina    30 July    |     Shelley     27 Nov.
Lindsay      6 July    |     Eloisa      25 Nov.
David       30 June    |     Joanne      17 Nov.
Michelle    25 June    |     Shuna        2 Nov.
Kathy        8 June    |     Simone       7 Oct.
Salah       27 May     |     Joanne      24 Sept.
Paloma      19 April   |     Priya        6 Sept.
Jamie       12 April   |     Andrew       5 Sept.
Esther       8 April   |     Leyla        4 Sept.
Dipash       6 April   |     Nicholas     ?
Leith        2 Feb.    |

Nicholas' birthday was not on the class list, because he was new at the school. There are two Joannes at the school (I'm not giving any last names).

This day, Michelle was talking to me a lot. She is a nice, cheerful girl. She's a big, pretty girl, with a deep but sweet voice, and a delightful laugh.

They also did more maths that morning, and started writing a story about a bonfire for creative writing, in anticipation of Guy Fawkes Day.

This was my first experience of "school dinners" at noontime. Lunch is fairly expensive (£1.05 for teachers), and was not as big as I had been led to expect. But it was good. The main part was spaghetti with fish. For desert, hot custard is almost always served. I had never heard of such a thing as hot custard! One day, I mentioned to one of the teachers that in America we have custard cold. She thought that was strange! Hot custard is good, though.

After lunch, I went outside to see what the children do out in the schoolyard. They have three large play areas. One area is fenced, and is used by the older children for playing sports.

There are stairs leading down from the main schoolyard to a smaller area, which is usually used by the infants.

The third area is the largest, and is used by everybody, with room to spare.

While I was out there, I went over to see what the kids were doing down in the smaller schoolyard. A girl there started asking me something that sounded like "Beggon?" I had to have her repeat it three or four times before I finally realized that she was asking, "Bell gone?" That is, she wanted to know if the bell had rung for the end of play. "Go" is a very general, all-purpose word in England.

I enjoyed going outside during playtime, and watching the children. I got to know several of the other children that way. Two little ones liked to stay around me. One was a 7-year-old brown-haired girl named Hazel. The other was a boy about 5 years old whose name was Christopher, with blonde hair and big glasses. The boy stood out for wearing shorts with the school uniform until the beginning of December.

There were also two 8-year-old girls, Katie and Emma. Those two meant trouble! In class, they had to be kept separated. But out in the schoolyard they'd stick together. They'd always come up to me and tell me to say something so they could laugh at my accent. They were cute; and I thought that was funny. Katie would say she wanted me to take her to America with me. And around the end of my stay, Katie started with her acrobatics, hanging onto my hands and turning upside down.

Another girl who liked stunts was Joanna, who was 4 years old. She was the sister of one of the boys in Class 2 (Jamie), but Michelle would always play with her. Joanna used to like to come running up behind me, and grab onto my arm and swing on it! I always wanted to get a picture of that because I thought it would look cute.

There were a few other kids who liked to hang around with me. One who was rather insistent was Philippe; I'll have more to say about him later.

It was interesting to watch the children play. One I always found especially interesting was Jessica, from class 2. She was a very intelligent girl. In class, she would be very quiet, and act very mature. Out in the schoolyard she was like a completely different person: the wildest girl in class 2, running around like crazy.

When play is over, a girl from class 1, whose name was Rula, would come out with a big bell. Often she would come skipping out, ringing the bell. That looked so English!

In the afternoon, my co-op left, and another teacher came in, an extra teacher who works at the school. The children spent the afternoon making up games. They were in teams of about four to six, writing up instructions and constructing the games with big pieces of card (i.e. cardboard). I did not have much to do but watch. That went well, until the time came to clean up. Chaos.

I noticed another funny English spelling error in one of their books that day: "helycopta."

In the afternoon, back at Kent House, I saw an amusing children's program called "Emu's Wide World" with Rod Hull on ITV at 4:25. I used to like Rod Hull and Emu, his puppet, when he was on an old American TV show, "The Hudson Brothers" many, many years ago. It is very slapstick (Emu always attacks or laughs at Rod Hull) and most of it is quite funny. There are other people on the show; they're not always as funny. They would have children on in contests too, which were usually pretty funny too. But Rod Hull's act with Emu was the reason for my watching the show.

Later that afternoon, I went out sight-seeing with some of the other student teachers. We took the tube, and then walked around for hours. We saw Tower Hill, Tower of London, the Tower Bridge, the Thames, the City, and other things. For dinner, we had walked down as far as Elephant and Castle (pretty far), and I had my first Fish and Chips, at a restaurant there. It was expensive (£2.95), but very good. I was hooked on fish and chips!

The First Week: Wednesday-Friday

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