As I approach two months here in London I am starting to realize that I have become a bit slack in updating my blog, so I have devoted much of this weekend to catching up on it. There is a lot to discuss, and for the sake of your sanity I think breaking the topics up into different posts is probably the best idea, thus allowing you to read about what interests you.
The first entry I write today will focus on my life as a supply (substitute or reliever for those around the globe) teacher in the various communities in East London. I will do my best to bring some levity to this blog post, but unfortunately it is not the most enjoyable topic to discuss. I feel, however, that I do need to talk about these aspects of London and my experiences, in order for you to truly understand how my time is going here and just how much I am learning.
As I mentioned in the previous blog entry, I am working primarily in East London with my agency. I am currently still doing day to day supply but have frequently been asked back to two communities in particular, Hackney and Brixton. These are two of the notoriously rough suburbs of London, but in many ways I have grown to really enjoy working in these environments. The kids are so full of personality, they learn things so quickly, and the classroom is an incredibly diverse place. I have learned an amazing amount working in these schools already, and if I can get the opportunity to work their full time I would jump at the chance. That being said, there are some incredibly trying aspects to the job.
This week in particular was a very trying one for me, and it had very little to do with my teaching skills. Much of the adjustment to this job is adjusting the environment in which you work and this week has been something that was a necessary step for me in doing just that. I spent the first two days of the week teaching reception (preschool) this week. The kids at that age are so fun and so eager to learn. I was very reluctant to teach reception but I was glad I got the experience to sing the songs and teach the phonics the kids learn at that age. The biggest dose of reality I got during those two days however was when a few of the kids in the class came up to me near the end of the day, gave me a big hug and said “daddy?” It was something that was a dose of reality for me, because as they looked up at me with big grins and hope in their eyes I had to tell them I wasn’t their dad and that I wouldn’t be back there tomorrow. I got a chance to talk to the Teaching Assistant about it near the end of the day and she explained, just as I had feared, that those kids didn’t have dads, or any male influence in their lives, and they had grown attached to me in that short time.
The next few days were spent teaching a year 5 class and the situation was not that much different to the one I had faced earlier in the week. As I was making my way through an English lesson, trying to encourage the students to work I came across this one boy who was just sitting there, not working at all. As I went over to him I could see that there was something wrong and crouched down to ask him the problem. It turned out the boy had not only failed to eat breakfast; he also had not eaten dinner the previous night and was basically too weak to do any work. At lunch time I thought I should talk to someone about this and went to another teacher in the school, who had previously taught the boy in year 4. She explained to me that the boy was from a single parent home, but his mother (the single parent) was severely disabled, so he was essentially raised by his grandparents who were struggling to support even themselves. While the family did have some food, the boy often gave up his meals so his brothers could have more food, as he felt it was more important.
Through further discussions with teachers and other staff I have come to realize that this is quite normal in communities such as this. Many of these children have never met their fathers and live in a home with no structure or discipline. Some have mothers who are either into alcohol or drugs, while some others have mothers who are working 15 or 16 hours a day just to provide their children with a slightly better life. After hearing these stories, I felt horrible being the teacher that was telling these students to do their work, or to lineup properly, or to stop talking, but as I thought about it more, I realized it is exactly what the kids need. They need an environment where they have to listen to an authority figure; they need an environment where they can learn respect, structure and discipline. This is much more about what teaching is in these communities. While Math, English, Science and all the other subjects are taught, the focus on discipline rather than academic achievement is what is stressed in these schools.
Despite the poverty and the lack of discipline in these communities, the kids are a breath of fresh air. In many ways they are very challenging to control, but when you do give them an activity they enjoy they are very creative and very engaged. They also are not shy in challenging the supply teacher by any means. In Brixton this week, as soon as I opened my mouth to introduce myself one kids arm went up…”are you Mr. Bieber” he asked, having obviously heard my accent. This naturally got a rise out of the entire class, and even a smile out of me. There truly never is a dull moment in my job, and always something to think about.
I am also learning an incredible amount about different religions and cultures. Many of the schools were closed last week for the Islamic holiday Eid, and many of the classes I taught were based around Eid and the culture. I think I was learning much more than the students! The interesting aspect to day to day supply teaching is that every day you have to learn a new disciplinary system (school policies) and you have to learn a whole new routine. It is a great way for me, as a relatively experienced teacher, to learn what works and what doesn’t in these systems and what routines and systems I would like to employ once I do get my own classroom. The negative part of supply teaching however outweighs that immensely. As I described earlier, it’s hard leaving some kids after only one day, especially when I feel like I could get through to them or be a positive influence in their lives.
I feel as though my “honeymoon” period in London is coming to an end, as I get more involved in the school system and hopefully find a permanent job, my perspective on things will certainly change. This week has already shown that. Anytime this week that I’ve missed a tube or had something not go my way I really just can’t help but stop and think about how lucky I am to be here at all. How lucky I am, and all of you reading this, to have had all the opportunities we have had in our lives. Long term I think this is going to be a tremendous experience for me and will only benefit me down the road as I move into different aspects of the educational sector. I feel as though things will get easier for me as a long term teacher in these communities so I hope that I can be lucky enough to get an opportunity. If not, I have already learned a lot and the experience has been worth it even if I were to return home now. While the honeymoon may be over, I think the best times are still ahead here in London, and as I begin to feel more like a local I am starting to enjoy this city more than I ever thought possible. You will see evidence of that in the next couple of entries I write!
As for now, this also being the day after Remembrance Day, I think everyone should just take a brief moment and think about how lucky they are to have had the chances they have in their lives. I know I have been thinking about that a lot this week!