After being placed in both English and American schools, I have seen quite a lot of differences between the two. One of the most noticeable differences even after just walking around the school is the relationship between students and teachers. In American schools, teachers blur the line between authority figure and friend much more quickly and easily. In English schools, there is almost more of a wall between those two roles, and I have only rarely seen that distance breached. For example, with my own teachers at home, I had their phone numbers and would not have hesitated to text them. I also regularly ate lunch with them during school just to chat and hang out. Our teachers knew all about our private lives; my principal once came outside to scold my boyfriend for not scraping the ice off my car during a snowstorm! At home, close relationships with teachers are not only normal, but also encouraged. Students that are failing in other subjects shine in classes when they have a friendly and familiar relationship with the teacher.
In English schools, I have seen much more of student-teacher divide. For example, during break times, students are not allowed inside the English block, or any of the other buildings I assume. Students are also required to knock and wait outside of the staff room if looking for a teacher. At home, teachers remain in their classrooms after class time so they are always quite accessible. Here in England, it is interesting to me that the teachers retreat to the staff room together. On the one hand, I think this is better because it gives the teachers a chance to wind down and catch up with other adults – whether to check in about a classroom practice or just to keep sane during a stressful day. On the other hand, I think it does create a gap between teacher and student when the teacher is more difficult to contact and removed from the student body.
The second biggest difference I saw between English and American schools is the emphasis on testing. I thought testing was very prevalent in the US, but I see it even more so in English schools. The pressure on students to achieve high grades on upwards of five exams during one year is incredibly stressful to me. In the US, high stakes testing in high school does happen but it happens outside of the actual school day setting, and the tests can also be retaken as many times as a student wants. In England, the testing takes place during the day and influences not only the student’s options for future education but also the school’s rating in the league tables, which can impact enrollment for the upcoming school years.
Testing also dominated most of the staff room conversations that I was a part of. Teachers were frequently discussing lessons and coursework with the inevitable testing date looming ahead. Sixth form teachers were almost always grading and revising coursework and meeting with students to help them perfect this large portion of their exam grade. Teachers also struggled with “target grades.” The temptation to give the students low targets knowing that they would surpass them was evident. If a teacher says a student is expected to get a C, and that student gets an A, the teacher looks really great. With issues like merit-based pay on the horizon, teachers could use all the brownie points they can get. I also had many conversations with teachers about American testing, and they all seemed shocked that US students are allowed to retake their SATs and ACTs and simply submit their best score. Shows us that we shouldn’t be taking those exams for granted!
While discussing testing, teacher morale is noticeably lower. Stress and frustration can be heard in everyone’s voice, and it’s clearly warranted. The teachers feel cramped for time and forced into lesson plans in order to teach what these students need to know in order to pass the test, not what they should know for higher learning or even just for life in general. Once testing has been pushed aside, however, teacher morale in the staffroom is usually pretty high. Sharing stories over a cup of tea brings a nice sense of camaraderie to the room and usually sets a relaxed environment. As a student teacher, I always felt comfortable walking into the staffroom knowing someone would be in there to chat.
I could see problems with recruitment and retention in English schools due to the new pushes of the National Curriculum and the testing that it forces on students. It has to be incredibly hard to try and entice future teachers to join the profession when all they are seeing and hearing in the news is how teachers are losing, not gaining, autonomy. If England truly wants to be recruiting the best and the brightest, the profession needs to be given the sense of professionalism and independence that it deserves. While the teachers at Beechen Cliff are in good spirits because they happen to be working in a great school, they also suffer from bouts of stress and irritation at the thought of things like excessive testing and merit based pay – I could only imagine these sentiments in schools not as prestigious as Beechen Cliff where teachers are struggling daily to meet their students’ needs. In order to recruit better teachers, we need to start treating the teachers we already have better than we are.