Teaching children to read, and talk

One of the key aspects of teaching Year 1 anywhere in the world is most likely to be teaching children to read. This was definitely the case in Finland, where during my two years of teaching, I was able to teach in my mother tongue, children to read in their mother tongue, since majority of the children I taught had Finnish as their first language. Also the children in my classroom back in Finland were ready and eager to learn to read at the age of 7 and had been exposed to the language for their whole life. Many of them already read by the time they stepped into my classroom. Without sounding too naïve, I dare to say that teaching children to read in those circumstances was relatively straightforward.

Now let me give you a short summary of where I found myself after I relocated to the UK. I now teach in my second language a group of children of whom majority did not speak English as their first language either. The children are two years younger, had not been exposed to one culture and language for the first years of their lives but instead often to a mix of cultures and languages. I teach them a language (English) that by all measures is very demanding phonetically.

No wonder, teaching children to read in my new job turned out to be a bit trickier than in Finland.

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The schoolbooks I once had

Finland really is the promised land for schoolbook publishers. I wasn’t able to find any real data for this, but I feel confident to say that a very large majority of primary schools use schoolbooks in their teaching. Every subject had its own book series and teachers followed them quite happily. Students are very proud of their books, especially the first Finnish book that you get to keep as a memory from the first year of school. Things are changing in Finland with the new curriculum and the call for active and multidisciplinary teaching, but the books are still there and don’t seem to be going anywhere. At Central however, they are long gone.
It’s not really one of the things you’d come to think of to ask in your job interview. “I do have one question. Do you use schoolbooks in your school?” Coming to think of it, maybe it should be, since the answer can make quite a difference to your job as a teacher. I had some colleagues back in Finland who took a job in a school that was experimenting with bookless teaching. I heard their stories and thought, that’s a lot of work, and not for me. Only to find myself a few years later in that exact situation.

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Diversity at Central

You are going to find this hard to believe, just like I did when I first heard it during my job interview, but that’s exactly why I’m going to tell you this. Here it goes:  92% of the children at Central Primary school speak another language than English at home. Yes, you read correctly. Let me say it again in a different way. Only 8 % of children that go to our school speak English at home as one of their mother tongues [1]. We have children arrive into our classrooms, who know only one or two words English. One might be “hello”, one might be “toilet”. It takes a while to get your head around that fact and then to imagine what other things relate to language: religions, customs, festivities and traditions. Central Primary really is diverse.

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How it all started

It’s been less than a year that I’ve been working as a primary school teacher in Central Primary school in Watford, England. It’s the only school I’ve worked in England, but I think that I am very lucky that I ended up here. Central Primary school is something else, something quite hard to explain. Ask anyone who has worked there.

It was a year ago when my partner and I decided to move to England, more precisely to Watford after his new job. We were living in Helsinki, Finland where I’m originally from and I had no objections when my partner accepted his job since for years I had longed to live abroad again.

For a split second I was worried about my own career.  But being a primary school teacher with a Master’s degree in Education from Finland I had a feeling that I would find a job. So we decided to go along with the plans to relocate to Watford and I put a lot of time and effort into finding a new home but not so much into finding a job.

All of a sudden it hit me that it was only a month before I was meant to back my bags and move abroad. With no more time to waste I started going through websites that advertise teaching positions in Hertfordshire, the county where Watford is located. Names of schools I had never heard of in areas near Watford I had no idea what they were like appeared in the screen and honestly I had no idea where to start.

The open positions advertised for “NQT – Key Stage 1” or for “Class teacher – EYFS”, which in the beginning meant absolutely nothing to me. The English education system was a complete mystery to me with all the different types of schools (public vs. state-funded and academy vs. foundation vs. community) but also with the structure of the grades in the system.

After a little bit of research I decided to apply for KS1 positions (Year 1 and Year 2), mainly because I figured that learning the system would be easier for me with younger students and that the content of curriculum in KS1 would be easier to internalise. I also had 2 years of experience of working as a 1st grade teacher in Finland (although the children start school in Finland only at 7 years old) so I felt that Year 1 would be the place to start in England.

So I chose some schools in areas close to Watford, read the applications that were all looking for an enthusiastic teacher to join their hard working team, that all promised a good work environment and possibilities for professional development. That was the first difference that I came across because I felt that the job advertisements were actual advertisements of the schools, which was very different to how the teaching positions in Finland would be announced.  Randomly I picked a few schools and started looking into them.

Some would say it is destiny, I’m not sure what it is, but one of the schools I came across was the Central Primary school in Watford. I opened the website and in the middle of the website there is a slideshow of pictures with children dancing and making art and around the slideshow is written “welcome” in eleven different languages, one of them being Finnish. Finnish! I could hardly believe it.

I looked a little deeper and noticed that many teachers in Central Primary were bilingual, including the head teacher and that the school seemed to be very multicultural. The school was situated in the city centre and seemed very accessible so I applied for the position immediately. I applied for several other positions as well and after the initial fear that no one would be interested in hiring me I started getting replies from different head teachers, including an email asking for an interview with the head teacher of the Central Primary school.

Now just a year later I am proud to admit that I have become a completely different teacher in the last year. The experience of working abroad and especially at Central has completely shifted my perception of teaching and made me realise how profoundly planning and teaching can and should be done. I wish to share with you the experience of working as a foreigner in the English educational system and more precisely the experience working at Central Primary school.

I will explore some of the qualities of Central Primary school that I have come to think of as the reason why this diverse primary school in a beautiful old Victorian building in the city centre of Watford is not only an outstanding school for children but also a fantastic place for professional development of teachers. Even for teachers who were educated in Finland, which is considered as one of the most prestigious countries in the world in regard to their teacher training.