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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Iday Diary for Friday, June 22

Last full day in England! This time we left very early to drive to the school I was visiting. It was one of the more distant schools, plus my driver was dropping someone else off at another school. So at 7 am we left the hotel and began the long drive down to Werrington, near Peterborough, so I could see Ken Stimpson Community School. It’s interesting that this school and Thetford were my first and last interviews of the day, respectively. I had ranked them rather high on my own personal list, but I guess I came across well early in the day and at the very end.

With such a positive experience at Thetford, it seemed like I would do nothing but judge Ken Stimpson by comparison, but they really are quite different schools. Thetford is two campuses in a state of flux; it has a frenetic kind of energy from administration to the English department. Ken Stimpson, by contrast, is very orderly. I’ve already remarked upon the campus-like nature of UK schools, but this one felt even more like a university campus. Lots of key fob authentication and basically an entire wing dedicated to staff activities.

The “community” part of the name refers to the school’s integration with the surrounding community. It shares a parking lot with the nearby—I guess you’d call it a “strip mall”, though it’s not—as well as a Tesco’s. Its athletic facilities are available to the public after school hours, and its library is also a community library. All of that sounded pretty cool, and it’s fantastic to see schools that are so interested in being a part of the community instead of a separate little silo where children get herded for eight hours a day.

Prior to a tour, I taught a lesson. Actually, it was hard to call it that. I had twenty-five minutes to talk about solving linear equations to Year 8 (Grade 7) students. It’s not a difficult topic, but twenty-five minutes is barely enough time to get through the introductory material let alone do introduction, activity, and recap! So I struggled a bit with presentation, but I guess the lesson went well, because they didn’t chase me out of the school. The students were very well-behaved. I’m still getting used to the idea that everyone calls you “Sir” or “Miss”.

After the lesson I got a little bit of a tour from the math department head, and then he handed me off to the principal for a more exhaustive walk about the school grounds. Then he took me for a brief drive around Werrington itself, showcasing the surrounding area. It was very comprehensive, and I admit I was impressed the principal would take the time to do that with a candidate. We returned to the school, where I had some time to sit in the staff room and absorb the atmosphere there until the math department head collected me and took me for lunch.

Some more observations on the differences between UK schools and Ontario schools: oh my do they treat their post-16 students well. See, in the UK schooling is compulsory only up to the end of Year 11. Then the 15- and 16-year-olds write their GCSEs and go on with the rest of their lives. (Apparently the government wants to change all this and bring back what are called O-levels. I have no idea about any of this stuff but assume math is the same in England as it is in Canada. Otherwise I’m in trouble, and I blame Newton.)

If one wants to go to post-secondary education, one comes back for two more years (the “A-levels”) and specializes in up to three subjects. Students in these classes are a cut above the rest of the population. They have more free time in their timetable, don’t wear uniforms, and pretty much have the run of the place. Schools give them common rooms, where they can make tea and coffee and hang out between classes. At Ken Stimpson, as we poked our head into the common room, the principal waved his hand at the courtyard beyond some glass doors and said, “Sometimes they have barbecues out there” like it was perfectly normal.

Can you imagine if our Grades 11 and 12 were like that? Neither can I.

Following a lunch consisting of the biggest ratio of fish to chips in a fish and chips meal I have ever had, I had the opportunity to observe several math classes. The material they were covering seemed similar to the Grade 9 Applied students I taught in my first practicum, though the behaviour of these students was somewhat better. I left the school with the impression that I would probably not have much difficulty teaching there.

And so the problem. Both schools made me an offer. Both seemed very eager to have me—not just “we’ll hire you because you’re qualified and we need to fill a spot” but “we’ll hire you because we’ve decided you as a person are someone we want to work with daily”. Ken Stimpson was interested in both myself and another candidate, Mairwen, but we weren’t competing—they were willing to hire both of us and overstaff the math department. Thetford was dangling the carrot of a holy grail of math and English in front of me.

I mulled the decision as we picked up someone else and finally returned to the hotel around 4:30. One of the consultants generously allowed me the use of his phone to call my dad back home. Of course, my dad couldn’t really do more than offer the vaguest of advice—he did not have any special knowledge of these schools—but it was good to hear his voice. I continued pondering as the afternoon wore on and dinner approached.

In many respects, I know I’m extremely lucky. How many people fly to another country to interview for jobs and get an offer, let alone two? (Fortunately, everyone in our little group ended up accepting an offer, so we all had reason to celebrate tonight.) My situation could be a lot worse. Moreover, it was a difficult decision because I could see myself happy in both places. Hence, by that token, there really was no wrong decision.

Slightly less confusing than the menu at Prezo’s, this is the menu from Ask

We went to another Italian restaurant, Ask, for dinner. Their menu was slightly less confusing—though now that I think about it, its emphasis was also heavy on typography and light on the types of photos that I’m used to from menus in restaurants back home. This time I went for a pizza—a classic pepperoni kind called a stromboli—and promptly didn’t eat most of it. I also ordered a strawberry milkshake, but in the UK they have strawberry milk, and I suspect this was used in the making of the milkshake—it was rather vile. Oh well! I took the rest of the pizza to go, and we went out to find a pub.

I suppose I should backtrack and mention I made my decision before leaving that restaurant. I could have drawn it out, asked for more time, but I’m not that kind of person. I procrastinate in almost everything except decision-making, because I hate making decisions that much. But I won’t reveal my choice just yet. If you haven’t already learned it elsewhere, you could scroll down to the end of the post. For now I need to relate the last part of the night.

Everyone else seemed keen on finding a pub, or pubs, for that authentic English drinking experience. It was our last night in England, after all. Now, I don’t drink myself, and by that time I was feeling supersaturated when it came to socializing … but I tagged along anyway. I wanted to find some place to dance. I love dancing, and those who have seen me dance will understand why I remarked to the others, “You have not seen me dance” as if they were missing some fundamental component of their existence. (They were.)

Everyone else crammed into the Nutshell

So we walked around the town centre to find a suitable location. All the bouncers that I’ve seen, so far, wear suits. It’s very classy. The first place we tried was far too classy for us (and definitely neither a pub nor a dancing place). Eventually we meandered back to the Nutshell, where everyone decided to cram inside. (It is difficult to describe, so I have included a photo for your edification.) I chose to avoid the press of somewhat intoxicated bodies against my person and instead relocated to a bench across the street, where I could take some nice video of the surroundings and bask in the cool night air.

After everyone emerged from the pub, we continued walking, but at first we didn’t have much luck. It looked like we might come up empty-handed. Then we found this place called The Gym—small, though everything in England seems small, with a live band. Everyone else started drinking; I started dancing. There were only two or three other patrons in the place at the time, and it was nowhere near the size where I could hope to avoid being noticed. At one point, the lead singer of the band shouted out to me, “Hey, mate, what are you drinking?” Later, he came off stage and told me he had to give me a hug. I guess they appreciated my enthusiasm for their music. (I don’t have enough experience to judge such things, but I thought they were good. They even played some Rush.)

The others were uncool enough to just up and leave in the middle of a song. I tried to dance through such bad behaviour but eventually had to depart as well. We went to another club, LP, which was slightly larger and probably trendier—it had a second floor that wouldn’t open until midnight! Some of us were ready to call it a night, however, so Jodie, Ian, Arushi, Jenny, Mairwen, and I ended up walking back to the hotel.

As we left the club, I reclaimed my pizza from where the bouncer had kindly stored it behind the counter. Outside the club, Jenny looked at the pizza box and then approached me, her expression and voice absolutely deadpan. I wish my memory were good enough to replicate her actual words, but they were to the effect of, “I really want a piece of pizza”, and the complete gravity with which she uttered them just cracked me up. I, of course, shared my pizza.

Back at the hotel, I still needed to pack in preparation for our early departure in the morning. So I ran the bath tub while I packed, had a nice, hot bath, and collapsed into bed. We were leaving for the airport at 7 am, and I was ready to go home.

Oh, and as for the decision … I chose Thetford Academy. I’m not sure I can rationally explain it, though I have rationalized it. Both schools seemed like they would give me plenty of support and would be great places to teach. Thetford had a few more things going for it though: firstly, they seemed genuinely enthusiastic about having me teach both math and English; secondly, they already had a sizable contingent of Lakehead teachers there.

The students at Thetford would be tougher, in terms of classroom management, and I will be honest that this is a source of trepidation for me—my last practicum had a tough class, and I’m still not sure how good I am at confronting such issues. I could have gone the easier route and worked at Ken Stimpson, where such issues seemed fewer. Indeed, that was the kind of school I hoped for when I came over for the iday in the first place … but Thetford changed that. They communicated an effort to break students out of their isolation and get them to think about the wider world, get them to go off to post-secondary education and do great things. Anyone with a brain could teach the motivated, willing students at Ken Stimpson. At Thetford, I can make more of a difference. I don’t know yet whether I’m an amazing teacher or merely a good one, but I do know that I have plenty of passion and enthusiasm, both for my subjects and for learning in general. I can share that with my students, and maybe I can inspire them to aspire. That’s why I want to teach, after all; I might as well choose an environment where such passion is most needed.