Letter from America 1: A very rude awakening!

A Fulbright teacher exchange

In the autumn of 2005, I took a break from my teaching in a small rural private school in England, surrounded by


Huntingdonshire countryside, and headed for the cavernous environment of a huge public High School in Michigan. For a period of six weeks, I swapped my post as a teacher of Spanish with a delightful, fun-loving lady from Michigan called Olivia Wylie, who also taught Spanish at Stevenson High School in Livonia. We were both to discover that the concept and practice of “education” can be fundamentally very different in two countries that share so many common cultural and linguistic roots. The following Letters from America offer some entertaining capsules of my experiences during that time. If you have read any of Frank McCourt’s books, especially those that describe his experiences as a High School teacher in the US (‘Tis and Teacher Man) you will  be familiar with much of what I describe. I was glad to have McCourt’s books at hand when I was ‘tripping and stumbling along’. They were imbued with fellow-feeling.

Stevenson High School, Livonia, Michigan: the first morning

As I entered my classroom for the first time on Monday morning 6.15am, less than 36 hours after my arrival at Detroit airport, my natural instinct was to ask myself “why?”. Still an hour before sunrise, even in October, and I am being guided into the cavernous corridors of Stevenson High School, hollow and echoing in the absence of nearly 2,500 students and staff, and waiting for that first wave to be bussed in by the characteristic yellow school buses, so familiar from the movies. That first wave will descend at 7am in preparation for a 7.25 start in the classroom.

As I frantically negotiate the geography of my new teaching space, find the books and technology to make my first lesson happen, new colleagues appear in my classroom to welcome their English visitor, and offer every assistance to make my transition from small rural independent school to massive American public high school a little easier. I am overwhelmed by their concern. But thankful that I can call on anyone and be assured they will be there in my time of need.

Viewing my seating plans, a quick calculation reveals that my groups number well over 30. The first ones appear and sleepily occupy their allotted places, some of them recovering from the Homecoming Dance at the weekend. Classes begin promptly, timed to the minute to finish and resume at 8.23 and 8.29 respectively. I discover that my last class finishes at 2.19 and wonder what happened to aesthetically pleasing round timings like 8.30 or 2.20.

The day progresses

The morning surges forward relentlessly and without a break, allowing 6 minutes between classes, until half way through my 4th hour (at 11.11am precisely) a bell rings and 35 students disappear like a flash of lightening for their 20 minute sandwich lunch. Staff, too, have only 20 minutes, and must be back in their classrooms to resume the lesson that was literally cut in mid-flight. To my surprise, all the students take up the curtailed activities automatically as if nothing had happened.

What strikes me forcefully about American students in these early lessons is how literally they abide by the timings and conventions of the school. Their promptness is startling, their attention at the start of a lesson is endearing, and a natural respect for the teacher seems embedded in their upbringing. In a class of 35 you might expect some need for crowd control from time to time, but at Stevenson High, that is not the case. Most seem concerned about their academic progress, the Parent/Teacher Conferences are imminent, they obviously want the teacher on their side, even though he is a “new kid on the block” and probably doesn’t have a clue what any of this is all about.

A pleasant surprise

In the thick of my second hour, I spot baskets around the room, full of tied up scrolls and bars of “candy”. I enquire about them and they tell me they are “wishing baskets” filled with their wishes for me, their new teacher, and the candy bars are ‘pick-me-ups’ for when I’m feeling low or lacking in energy. When I open some of the wishes, they are genuine expressions of welcome to both Michigan and to their school, and what shines through is how proud they are of their country, state and school. I am also showered with advice about where the best burgers and pizzas are in town, and that I must get a ticket for the football game (American) between Stevenson and their local arch-rivals Franklin High. This is going to be the big match of the season, and they are expecting over 6000 spectators (and this is just a school game!).

My Englishness

I discover that the English accent is major currency here in the mid-West. I’ve never thought of the way that I speak as being particularly remarkable. My accent may be reasonably ‘standard’ with just a trace of my northern origins, but here in Michigan people almost swoon at the sound of Britishness. They stop by and ask me to say something just so they can hear me speak! During my planning period of the morning (ie non-teaching) I pass an open classroom door and the teacher begs me to come in and just say something to her students who are dying to hear the accent. I’ve got to be careful here, I might find myself tuning the pitch and intonation just to give the Hugh Grant effect!

The trauma of a Parent/Teacher Conference

Then on Wednesday came the PTC! The first Parent/Teacher Conference of the semester, and FGB was landing himself in the firing line after only two days in the classroom. The great thing for the students is that it is a day’s holiday. The staff, however, are in school from 7.30am preparing for the big event. My whole morning is spent learning about grading systems, sorting out mark orders and assembling photos of the 160 students I teach, so that I wont sound totally dumb when parents start asking searching questions. The feverish preparations are interrupted by an invitation to a donut breakfast in the Dept of Global Education, where the discussion is deeply into the effects of emailing and SMS on the standards of essay writing.

The PTC started at 1pm with the first 3 hour session. I imagined that most parents would see me as a museum exhibit, and would come along to meet me out of courtesy and curiosity. It was heart-warming to be made to feel welcome by every parent that came, but they also wanted to talk serious business about their child’s progress, so I was very glad I had done my homework in the morning session!

The afternoon

After two hours break for dinner, it was back again for the evening session until 9pm. The great bonus on the horizon was something called the ‘compensatory’ half day on Friday whereby the students come in for half the timetable with all subjects being allocated just 25 minutes per class. This compensation for working late into the evening is an inheritance from the militant union days in Detroit.

After school today, the Principal invited all the staff to a cake and coffee reception in the main library, the principle objective being to introduce their English visitor more formally to the wider staff, many of whom I had not yet met along the corridors of this vast campus. Speeches completed, I was presented with a bag of Stevenson “goodies” that included a shirt, scarf and umbrella, so I can now stand on the terraces of the football game on Friday and shout out “Jolly-ho for Stevenson” and be indistinguishable from the crowd.


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on October 13, 2005, in Letters from America and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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