Rainbow awards, house points, superheroes, ladders, reading records, guided reading groups, casting off and peeling off, phonics, SEN and ten other acronyms, new behaviour policy not to forget the national curriculum with fourteen subjects to be internalised. My head was spinning.
I thought I had some idea what to expect when I walked into the school on my first day in July, but in the weeks that followed I was reminded that a school in a different country with a different language and a different culture could still give a significant culture shock.
I started working at Central Primary in the summer term before I had to take on my own classroom thanks to the freedom and flexibility that the head teachers have to hire their own staff. This is unheard of in Finland, but resembled in my mind the introductory period that I always felt could be useful in Finland as well. In Finland people sure graduate with a MA in Education but soon find themselves in the front of a classroom just a few days before they are supposed to be in charge of everything that goes on within those walls. And many people find this quite frightening. What I noticed here is that this month long period gave the newly qualified teachers a chance to get to know the routine of the school. For me this three-week period was a period of initial shock. Luckily, it was also the time that helped me get through that shock and get prepared for what was to come.
I spent the three weeks between the reception classes getting to know the children that would be in my class in September and a Year 1 classroom getting to know their daily routine. Many primary schools in England have a nursery and a reception in the same grounds as the primary school, which enables smooth transition from reception (or pre-school) to more formal primary education. This time allowed me to explore both areas of the school and get a feeling of how things worked here. Although in all honesty, most of the time I spent looking around thinking how different everything was.
Things look different. Classrooms are colourful and big with displays and working walls covering most of the walls. Different play areas are set around the classroom with toys, books and even a sandpit for the children to play with. The layout of the classroom is different with having a big carpet area in the front of the classroom so that children can sit on the carpet during teaching. The tables are set into groups at the back of the classroom where the teacher would send children off to work. Also there is a set of rules how to sit on the carpet, and these had to be followed especially sensible in assemblies with the head teacher, where everyone had to show their assembly behaviour.
Classrooms are full of children all looking the same in their school uniforms. And there is a whole class full of them with a standard class size being 30 children whereas in Finland a class of 25 is already considered big. Teachers all look smart since there is a dress code for us as well, which I luckily leaned early on. No more jeans to work.
Things also sound different. Teachers around me used phrases that I had never heard. “Give me five”, “Sit sensibly” and “Show me the good choices” echo in the classrooms. There is also a lot of clapping. Clapping in the assemblies, clapping in the dining hall and clapping in the classrooms. The idea of clapping is that a teacher claps first to get attention and silence the crowd after which everyone echoes the clap, which hopefully silences the room.
The daily routine is different with school days finishing only at 15.30 for Year 1 children as well. And the afternoons are busy with some sort of an assembly almost every day. Every Thursday there is a Good Work Assembly where some children from each class are sent up as “Starts of the week” and the teachers talk in detail of how good or persistent or sensible they had been. The Good Work Assembly is to celebrate the work and behaviour of children, but coming from Finland this kind of public praise of children felt strange at first.
At school all adults are called by their surname when children are present, so it wasn’t enough to learn your colleagues first names, because anytime there is a child around that name was off limits. And all of a sudden I had to learn to respond to a choir of children calling me by “Miss” which was followed by a name that resembled by surname.
The first three weeks passed by in a haze of uncertainty and fear of not been able to do any of that. One afternoon I hid in the tiny resource room organising it convincing myself that cleaning was something I still knew how to do. After all the positive feedback from my new colleagues who walked by and mentioned the room had never been so tidy I got some confidence although here they do not clean but they tidy up. Also they do not queue, but they line up. And there’s a song for everything. Song for lining up, song for listening, song for making a circle and sitting down.
My head indeed was spinning and I couldn’t believe that in just a few weeks it was my turn to do all that, it would be me in charge of a Year 1 classroom in a completely different school environment.
The good thing about all of this is that one can learn it. Start by easy things. Clapping. I’ve done that before I know how to clap. Then pick your favourite phrases from what you hear other teachers using and repeat them over and over again in your head on the way to school. Then accept that children do not call you by your first name and get used to the choir of “Miss” around you. And finally figure out where to print a rainbow award and write one to yourself for being so persistent.
Then slowly without you even realising you are the one singing the song to make a circle and clapping your hands to get the class to settle down and so you have become a teacher in that new culture. All you need is some time and an open mind.