Before accepting the job as a Year 1 teacher in Central Primary, I visited three other primary schools in England. I had lined up the interviews for the week of my arrival, so the very first morning of living in Watford I set off to visit the first school. For full disclosure I have to admit that I have lived in England before. I spent three years studying for a BA in Development Studies and Politics at SOAS in London. So some of England was familiar to me and therefore the cultural shock was quite mild. Or so I thought.
The school visits ranged from a full on interview with an observed lesson to more informal school visits with a walk around the school chitchatting with the head teacher. As I understood already before my relocation, there is a shortage of qualified teachers in England. Reasons for the shortage are multiple but the implication from this was that all the head teachers were very eager to give me their big speech about their school, the same speech they had given to so many before me.
Even before I got to the head teachers’ offices, there was one thing that
took me by surprise. All the schools here are surrounded by fences. Gates are locked and you have buzz in to get to the school grounds. And if for some reason you want to get inside the school you have to fill in a questionnaire on the computer, smile for a camera and wait for the receptionist to print you a sticker that says “Visitor pass”. This is all unheard of in Finland. But then again, it is Finland I am comparing to, where the population of the capital is somewhere around 600 000. Also as I later on learned, it’s more a rule than an exception that primary school students in England (quite regularly up to year 4) are dropped off and picked up from school by an adult. Which once again is quite the opposite in Finland where the sense of security is often taken for granted. These were not the only differences as I soon realised.
With my “visitor pass” sticker on I followed the different head teachers around their schools trying to think of some stimulating questions to ask while taking it all in. And let me tell you, there was a lot to take in. All the first visits blew me away. The classrooms were usually huge, very colourful and filled with children all wearing the same clothes sitting around tables that were grouped in the middle of the classroom. There were book corners, role playing areas, water and sand areas and toys nicely kept around the classrooms. The walls were covered with all kind of things, ranging from displays to art and to certificates of excellence that the school had been granted. I was overwhelmed by the differences and for the first time I started questioning if I really knew what I had let myself into.
In Finland the interview process seems to put more emphasis on the formal interview and less so on the tour of the school. I got the feeling that in England the interview or the school visit felt sometimes more like a sales speech than an actual job interview, which reflects to the difference in the job market for teachers in the two countries. Also in Finland the amount of teacher’s positions open can vary hugely between cities with some cities having hardly any positions available and others having a huge demand for qualified teachers. In Finland it is relatively common to get a temporary position or even a few in different schools before securing a permanent position as a primary school teacher. Permanent positions are hugely valued and can be quite competitive with over 100 teachers applying to the same positions in many schools in Helsinki.
My first and only observed interview lesson was a Maths starter for Year 3 students in an English primary school. I had prepared a lesson plan, which I had not done since my studies years back in Finland, printed it out in 3 copies as instructed and seemingly prepared I walked to the front of the first English classroom I had ever taught. Well children are children everywhere and the lesson was fine. Although it very soon became obvious that teaching in English was something I was not used to. Luckily later on that week I accepted a job, which meant that I had plenty of time to get used to it.
So I took my tours in the four different primary schools before I made up my mind. I chose Central Primary school not only for the Finnish welcome on the website, but also for the sense of acceptance and belonging that that school seemed to offer. And my hunch was right. After the formal acceptance of the job with the head teacher I followed the school’s business manager to fill in the forms in her office. In the middle of all the bureaucracy, which this country seems to live and breathe, I had to tick a box of what kind of position I had accepted. Neither of us were sure so the lady helping me called up the head teacher to ask.
“It’s a permanent teaching position. Miss Paalanen is not going anywhere” was the answer from my head teacher.
And at that moment for the first time I felt a teeny bit terrified.