I just finished my first day of student teaching in Bath, England yesterday at St. Andrew's Primary School in the Year 5 classroom (comparable to 4th Grade in the states). My experience in the school was similar to American schools stylistically and conceptually; however, pretty different in a variety of ways. I found myself throughout the day debating in my head whether or not UK or US schools are better because the value system is pretty different, at least at my school.
One similarity that I found was that the set up of the classroom was very similar to what I am used to. All of the students were clustered into desks, and the school day was organized much like an Elementary school in America. They have periods throughout the day with different classes (including math, english, PE, etc.) and they start at 9am and end at 3:30pm every day. Although this is a pretty basic comparison, I was not sure going into it how similar the set up of the day would be, and I was very pleased when it was something that was familiar to me.
Another similarity that I have found between US and UK schools is the amount of care that the teacher has for the children. There was a tragic car accident that happened in Bath the other day where a bus spun out of control and killed four people. I was happy to see that the teacher sat all of the students down in a circle and gave them ten minutes to reflect, talk about their experiences, and pray for the families of those who had died. It is so important to give kids the opportunity to feel comfortable talking about their feelings and experiences because it not only builds your trust with them, but it creates a safe space within the classroom and allows for respect amongst the teacher and the students. I found this to be a similarity because the care for the students and the respect for their ideas and opinions was evident throughout the day and it was definitely nice to see.
I've found that one of the greatest differences between US and UK schools is the emphasis on discipline and the importance of its utilization in the classroom. I found British students to be more polite and eager to work than American students. They were the most well-behaved class that I have ever worked with and they, in general, were respectful of the classroom and of each other. However, even though they were extremely well-behaved, I was surprised by the amount of discipline that they were given throughout the school day. No one was allowed to talk at all throughout the school day, even when they had a bit more leisure time, and the misbehaving students were, in lack of a better term, "shamed" in front of the class for their behavior. One of the teachers who came in had a list of "good" and "bad" students and she would update it as the class worked. One student made a whistling noise at one point during the class and was added to the "bad" student section of the board. I found that to be kind of harsh, and the student got extremely upset and refused to do her work after that point. This experience has led me to believe that the disciplinary values in UK and US schools are vastly different. While discipline is extremely important in the classroom, and students and teachers need to be respected at all times, I think that there is a definite balance between being too lenient and overly exerting your authority on students. If I was the head teacher, I would have probably ignored the whistling or at least given her a small warning in private, because it was not a detrimental distraction to the rest of the class.
Another huge difference that I have found is the lack of separation or specialized focus on students who are intellectually, emotionally, or socially challenged. My school has one teacher per grade and about 25 kids in each class and no special education program is present, this results in full inclusion amongst every grade level. While inclusion is great, and necessary for some kids to feel completely normalized, I do think that going about inclusion in the wrong way can be detrimental socially and academically for the kids who require more specialized attention. About half of my class are ELLs, about a third have emotional and/or social problems, and a few of them have learning disabilities such as severe dyslexia and ADHD. The makeup of this class is similar to what I have experienced in Boston classrooms, so I expected there to be a similar amount of support for all of the children. However, this was not the case at all. There was outside support for the child with dyslexia, as he got to leave the classroom and go to a special reading teacher while the rest of the class worked on their guided and independent reading. However, I did not identify any differences in support when it came to the work that they did in class. All of the students had similar expectations and standards in terms of their behavior and their work, which I found to be kind of frustrating. For instance, one girl in my class (Student D) has severe emotional and social problems that my teacher made a point to tell me about on the first day. However, she would get yelled at for behaving inappropriately during class and when she would cry I was forced to leave her alone and not console her or solve the problem. I am so used to the amount of support that students with disabilities receive back in the states that it made me very uncomfortable when I was not allowed to comfort her. While this does go hand-in-hand with the school's expectations of behavior, I do not believe that full inclusion in terms of how you treat the behavior of children is the best way to go about things.
Overall, this school was very similar in the way that the classroom was run and organized; however, the values and practices of the school were vastly different from what I am used to back in the states. I think that it is important to solve emotional problems with children as well as allow kids to be themselves in the classroom without giving them too much leeway. I am confident that a balance can be made in terms of how much you expect from a child as long as they are respectful of you, their classmates, and their academics.