Exchange – to give and receive reciprocally

Teacher librarian Karen Lindsay spent 2006 on exchange in Australia from Canada.


During 2006 it was my privilege to spend a year on exchange in Australia. Even though I don't consider myself to be a particularly adventurous or even energetic person, it was my third exchange in twenty years. In 1986 I taught drama to boys from preschool to Year 12 at a private boys' school in the ACT, travelling between three campuses to do so. What a workout! I learned so much that year, ate amazing food, drank wonderful wines and formed some lifelong friendships. Working with that range of ages was very challenging, particularly since my drama classes at home had been made up mostly of girls, but the social and cultural experience made it all worthwhile.

In 1998–9 my then eight-year-old daughter and I spent a year in suburban Paris. For the first time in my life, I taught English as a Second Language while my exchange partner took on my usual role teaching French Second Language back in Canada. I learned so much that year, ate amazing food, drank wonderful wines and formed some lifelong friendships. Working in a French 'collège' – middle school to us – was very challenging, particularly because the relationship between French teachers and students is quite adversarial, but the social and cultural experience made it all worthwhile.

Then, in 2006, I seized the opportunity to live and work in a small town on the far south coast of New South Wales. This time, however, I would not be going into the classroom. In September 2002, while halfway through my Masters in teacher librarianship, I had taken on the new challenge of running a school library program so this last exchange was as a teacher librarian. Once again, most aspects of the exchange were delightful and some were quite challenging. Once again, I learned as much as I taught, ate amazing food, drank wonderful wines and hopefully formed some lifelong friendships.

Some reasons to go on exchange

For me there are lots of reasons to go on teaching exchanges. For one thing, whereas I love to travel, I am never very comfortable being a tourist. The countries in which I can afford to travel make me feel guilty for being so rich and the shrink-wrapped, 'plastinated' version of a country one gets from staying at a hotel and doing tours is fun for a while, but has little to do with the cultural reality of the place. When you travel, you see the sights; when doing exchanges, you come to understand the people.

Another reason for going away for long stretches of time is that I always learn things about myself. There is no doubt that spending months making one's home and workplace ready for someone else to step into, living away from home for a year and then getting their home and workplace perfect for them to return to is stressful. However, it is during life's challenges that we grow the most and a teaching exchange is an excellent opportunity for personal development. Leaving home gives me the chance to reinvent myself in some ways, letting me explore new ways to solve problems, work through conflict and make connections. Leaving my support network puts me firmly at the centre of this process.

Finally, exchange teaching is a fabulous professional development opportunity that lets me experience different approaches to teaching and learning. I happen to think that, next to parenting, teaching is the most significant work in the world. Observing how other jurisdictions cope with its challenges, examining one's own practice and trying different approaches is a vitally important activity.

Exposure to different approaches
Before you panic about all the changes you might have to face while on exchange, you should know that there are more similarities between Canada and Australia than there are differences. Both our countries are large in territory and relatively small in population. In both countries the population is concentrated in relatively contained areas – yours along the coast and ours along the American border. Both Australians and Canadians are friendly and helpful people, although you are generally more easygoing than we are and we are generally more polite. Schools in both countries are partially funded federally, but are the responsibility of the states/provinces.

There are some philosophical differences, however. For example, Canadian schools oppose the streaming of students, whereas both New South Wales and France support its use. We believe that stratifying learners is a form of ghettoising that, in the long term, does not serve students or teachers as well as heterogeneous groupings. You believe that teaching becomes more possible when you can focus on a narrower range of abilities. It was good for me to be able to experience that because now my preference is not just based in habit or theory.

Schools are more strongly hierarchical in Australia than they are in Canada, and it took me a while to figure that out. I kept going to the deputy or the principal with questions or problems. Eventually I learned to go to my faculty head, who would either solve the problem or take it further up the chain of command for me. In Canada, you do your best to find your own solutions, and go to a vice-principal or the principal if needed. We do have department heads, but their role is not as broad. Australian faculty heads have significantly reduced teaching loads and receive a healthy bonus, so they are expected to carry a significant load. Ours earn about $120 per month and get no extra time, so solving teachers' discipline problems is not part of their job description.

All three exchanges have shown me school systems filled with professionals who genuinely care about their students' wellbeing and success. All are struggling to fund and integrate technology into the curriculum while losing none of the basics.

Before you go

If you haven't already done so, buy a good digital camera. Take lots of pictures of your home, school and surroundings to bring with you. People will be very curious about where you come from.

Buy a guide to your host country – Lonely Planet on a Shoestring is very good.

Join a listserv and ask if anyone has exchange experiences and suggestions they'd like to pass on.

Buy a thumb drive and take all your lessons and handouts with you. In Canada, you'll hear them called zip or USB drives. Same thing.

Take all the advice available from the exchange department. Their recommendations are based on years of experience and are more reliable than one's instincts and preconceptions.

Exchanges between teacher librarians are very different than those between classroom teachers. In some sense, we are running a small business at the same time as we are teaching information literacy, and this added factor means that the guidance offered by exchange organisers is insufficient to our needs. I recommend that you clarify a few key issues before you leave. Do you plan to observe one another's library and follow its practice, noting things that you would like to adopt in your own library when you get home, or do you agree to make changes while you are there? In what areas do you want your partner to be autonomous and where do you require consultation? How much communication do you want and on what issues? My partner never wanted to bother me with questions, but I wanted to be involved in decisions that would affect me when I got back; so I kept emailing her with questions about both libraries, modelling communication and collaboration. She kept not answering, modelling independence and autonomy. Both are good things, but clarity is even better.

Once you are there

Start saying 'yes' to everything. If you're a bit of a homebody like me, pretend you're not when you're on exchange. That's part of the 'reinventing yourself' part. I went on a blind date, joined a bushwalking group, took up yoga, invited neighbours I'd only just met to dinner, went snorkelling in what I was sure were shark-infested waters and ate meat. All but one were wonderful experiences. I'll let you guess which one was a disaster!

Both Australia and Canada have very active exchange teachers' associations whose members work tirelessly to make sure that exchange teachers make the most of the social opportunities available, connecting them to a network of current and previous exchangers and organising hikes, parties, tours, dinners and travel. Join in whenever you can, especially in the first half of the year. You will meet wonderful teachers from all over the English-speaking world and enlarge your horizons even further. My daughter and I took full advantage of the events sponsored by the NSW Exchange Teachers' Association and loved every minute. On one of the early weekends, I even reconnected with a teacher who had been on exchange at my school 12 years previously.

Take lots of pictures of your exchange house and school. When you get home, people will be very interested to see where you lived and worked while on exchange. Don't trust your hard drive! Burn the pictures you take onto a CD about once a month. We lost three months of our photos in a computer tragedy, including my daughter's 16th birthday and the school-wide Canada Day celebration I organised. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

You might want to create a blog as an easy way to share your experiences with friends and family back home. If you get too busy to keep it up, that's a good sign, too. Life is for living and you didn't travel all that way to sit in front of a computer on the weekends!

Do whatever professional development activities come your way. Save all relevant lesson plans and handouts you find at your exchange school onto that thumb drive. This cross-pollination is a big part of the value of an exchange.

When you get home

Keep on saying 'yes'. We only go around once as far as we know and it's better to embrace all opportunities to know the people and land around us.

Share your experiences with your staff. Put together a slide show of your year and show it to whoever is interested. I've had a couple of colleagues tell me they would like to do an exchange because of my experience. It's a good thing, not just for the individuals involved but also for the profession. Pass it on.

Join the local Exchange Teachers' League so that you can support, host, billet and entertain teachers on exchange. It's good fun and good karma.

Going on an exchange is not for the faint of heart, but teaching gives us strengths others know not of. Have a burl, mate!

Karen Lindsay
Teacher librarian
Ecole Reynolds Secondary School
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

In the next issue of Connections, we will publish an article by Christa Mood, the teacher librarian who 'exchanged' with Karen Lindsay. Christa will write about her experiences working in a Canadian school.