A 2019 teacher exchange

I am not going to lie, looking back to the end of 2018 and start of 2019, it’s all a blur! My days started at 8 am the same as they finished—in the pitch black, adjusting/not adjusting, the COLD and the SNOW. Oh my, that is something I cannot explain—although, crazily, I am missing the snow and the extreme cold.

I am getting a shirt printed with, ‘I survived winter 2019 Edmonton’. Minus 30°C and beyond is something else, and if we include a bit of wind-chill factor, it becomes minus 40°C. Funny how minus 20°C suddenly seems okay, but minus 30°C and below just is not! However, I do have about 600 cool jackets—with fur, without fur—and the best pair of winter boots EVER! I definitely will not be wearing them back here on the Sunshine Coast—thongs it is.

I remember in February 2019, when I was relatively new to the Canadian winter, one day my Principal was making the decision as to whether it was to be an inside or an outside lunch break. The office lady came and asked what it was to be. It was a nice sunny day with clear blue skies but it was minus 21°C (the cut-off for staying inside is minus 20°C). The Principal declared that it was a nice day; so let’s call it minus 19°C—oh man, did I laugh! No way I was going outside for my lunch break!

I had arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in December 2018 with my two sons—nearly 11 and six years old at the time. I still pinch myself about having been awarded this awesome exchange experience. It definitely wasn’t all smooth sailing—getting used to new processes, creating an all-new curriculum—again!; including Social Studies: Canadian History—six different classes of it!; driving, navigating, the cold, my young kids not adjusting straight away, heating, being indoors, shovelling the driveway, and the cold. I even sported a super-duper $1200 knee brace (kindly donated to me by one of my Deputy Principals) for four months after a spring skiing accident—it made me feel very Canadian, so I fitted in well. Being injured didn’t stop me. Wearing the knee brace enabled me to do most things. I was on a mission to be able to ski by December—my physio thought I was insane.

I guess you could say school life was the same same, but different. Kids are kids, so that’s no surprise. I taught Social Studies, Foods, Religion and a Health class, and introduced a Textiles program from scratch with very limited resources. I loved my Friday music sessions—Metallica, Nirvana and the confusion with words and language was hilarious! No doubt, the students thought I was crazy.

I was definitely learning all the time, especially while transferring from a Mac to a PC—which was nearly enough to send me mad—and then there was learning how to use Google Classroom. However, now that we are in this pandemic, I’m feeling pretty good about using a digital platform to teach!

Something I wasn’t expecting in relation to school life was the multiculturalism. It’s only since I’ve returned to Australia that I’ve realised how much I truly enjoyed that component of teaching in Canada. My students came from far and wide: Mexico, Spain, war-torn Syria, the Congo, Namibia and the Caribbean. I had students writing recipes in Arabic and others translating into French. I even received an assessment that had been typed on a braille machine.

Thinking about my farewell, I was sure that I wasn’t going to make it through my speeches to the staff and students. I was not ready for the last few days and it was tough for me. The students nearly tipped me over the edge with their gifts, beautiful handmade cards and kind words. In particular, Wendy (from Mexico) wrote in a handmade card, ‘Those we love can never be more than a thought away. For as long as there’s a memory they live in our hearts to stay’. Needless to say, I choked up on reading that.

During my teacher exchange in Canada I met some awesome people through work and outside of work and made some lifelong (I hope) friends. My two children formed amazing friendships and I think they too found it hard to leave. They still talk weekly to their buddies back there. They settled into Canadian school life amazingly well; the eldest quite quickly, while the youngest had an interesting start to Prep (the first year of school) but made an incredible transformation through the year.

I was lucky to have my mum come over for a long-weekend trip to Toronto and Niagara Falls.

We have certainly given it our all on our to-do list: the Rocky Mountains (a zillion times), Calgary and the Stampede, British Columbia/Kelowna, Cancun in Mexico, Vancouver, Ontario, Niagara Falls, the West Edmonton mall; dog sledding, ice skating, snow skiing in the city, tubing, RV camping, yurt camping, ice fishing, snow skiing in the Rockies, the Polar Express, the CFL final, country-music concerts, two-stepping, hiking, and Edmonton street festivals. Summer in Canada is something else—it’s like driving in a movie set. I think I’m in love with Canada. We made the most of every day we spent there.

Our exchange group was a cracker. We did loads together and made many memories—we are definitely friends for life.

My Canadian school was vastly different in all aspects from my Australian school; apart from that we are all teaching kids. I certainly learnt a lot and had many experiences—both good and interesting. I wouldn’t change a thing. I am a million times grateful to my Australian Principal Michael and my Canadian Principal Marie for accepting this exchange as well as to my exchange partners Tracey and Ryan.

So, 2019 was nothing short of AMAZING—the best year of my life! If you are open to change, up for a challenge and prepared to make the most of a situation, a teacher exchange is certainly all of that and much more.

Leesa O’Brien
Siena Catholic College, Sunshine Coast