Meghan Brautigam, Shaina Smolowe and Courtney Stefani donned their graduation caps and gowns one recent Friday, received sage advice from a speaker and shed tears as colleagues applauded their hard work completing rigorous university training and becoming full-fledged teachers.
The graduates stood on the other side of the world, however, from the American universities where they received their academic training. Through a prestigious exchange programme organized by the University of Iowa, they completed the final practical teaching experience of their undergraduate career at Thames High School.
“We all loved it,” said Brautigam. “It’s a better experience than what I had anywhere else.”
At the small graduation ceremony — organized in part because the student teachers missed their university graduations whilst in New Zealand — Thames High School leaders reflected on the value this exchange brings the school community.
The young teachers from overseas “bring different perspectives and new ideas,” said Sue Baker, Acting Principal. “The students have a million questions for them and love hearing about their experiences. It’s one more way we can broaden the education we offer.”
Though Thames staff focused on contributions this cadre of new teachers made, the American teachers focused on the lessons they gained.
“I’ve learned how important environment is,” said Smolowe. “The school environment here is a lot more open, staff are more cooperative and involved — here it’s a lot more of a community.”
This community defined Stefani’s experience as well. “You just want to be here at this school,” she said. “It doesn’t feel as much like work — it’s fun.”
Brautigam gained a new appreciation for learning outside the classroom from the experiences she saw in Thames, from hands-on geology field trips to outdoor education.
“It makes kids excited to learn what they’re learning,” she said.
Stefani said this focus on learning beyond the classroom shaped her thinking about her own career path. “The variety of opportunities they have is really great for students,” she said. “It made me realize I want to work in a place that has those types of opportunities.”
Of course, living in the Coromandel added to the teachers’ life lessons. “Where I’m from, it’s flat,” said Brautigam. “Here you have the ocean, the hills, it’s so green. And people here are so in touch with the region’s history. I love it.”
What about differences in the education systems? The teachers pointed out different approaches to grading and evaluation, opportunities for more creative lesson planning and the wonders of a mid-morning tea break.
Most of all, they said, their experience reminded them of what they love about education.
“It’s made me enjoy teaching a lot more,” said Smolowe.