Student for a day
“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” - Herman Melville, ‘Moby Dick’
I am a geographer and I love to travel to experience new places, new cultures, new ideas, new environments and new foods. I really enjoy understanding our world more deeply through first-hand experiences. On this page, I have recorded a few of my travel diaries to share with you.
In March 1999, while I was Chief Executive (i.e. Head of the School) at Kristin School in Auckland, New Zealand, I decided to “be” a student for a day, following the routine of a typical Year 10 student for the day to understand and appreciate their experience. I subsequently wrote about my experience in the April 1999 edition of “Kristin Kaleidoscope”, the school’s quarterly news magazine. This is what I wrote:
It was quite bizarre. A few minutes before 8.30 am on a cool and crisp March morning I found myself walking to class carrying my laptop computer. I had decided to do something very strange for a Head of School - to experience a school day from the point of view of a Year 10 student. And what better way to do that than to become a student for a day, attending classes, doing the work set and observing classes from a student's point of view.
And so at 8.30 in the morning I found myself sitting on a stool in a Graphics classroom ready for 10 minutes of tutor time. I suspect I may have been sitting in someone else’s seat, because one girl walked across the room, stared at me and then looked around the room as though she needed to orient herself and make sure she was standing in the right place. Having decided something must be wrong she then orbited the room a couple of times before sitting down on the floor and talking to one of her friends.
Apart from her, none of the students seemed to notice my presence. The roll was called, absence notes were chased up, notices were read, and there was, I felt, less than sufficient disappointment when it was announced that the jazz band practice had been cancelled due to the swimming carnival. No-one in “my” tutor group was on detention that day, and no-one had anything on the lost property sheet. I could not help thinking that the tutor group in which I was sitting seemed quieter than those in the surrounding rooms, so perhaps they were not totally unaffected by my presence after all. I remember being very surprised at how uncomfortable the stools were in the Graphics Room - why we would choose stools which don't seem much wider than 15 centimetres I don't know. When the bell went, I almost forgot to take my laptop with me in the rush to go to my next class, the first of several times I almost left it behind.
I was a little late to my next class but fortunately the teacher, Mrs Dwyer, was very understanding - she seemed to sense that even though I spend many of my schooldays teaching Geography I may have a poor sense of direction. I went straight to sit in the back row of the classroom commenting to a boy in the row in front of me “the troublemakers always sit at the back of the room, don't they?”
And then the class sprang impressively to life. There was immediate attention paid to the teacher as she began to speak. I remember being disappointed that it was hard to hear the teacher at times because of a lawnmower which was being operated just outside the window. Like the rest of the class, I was given a set of revision sums to do while the homework was being checked. “Revision” was the word, as it was almost thirty years since I had simplified algebraic equations. But it was wonderful to see how well the other students were responding to the positive and genuine affirmation given to them while the homework was being checked. I was able to finish the exercises on the board quite quickly, which gave me a chance to look around the classroom and for my mind to wander. As the teacher walked around the classroom to check the answers, I made sure that my responses were “spontaneously” placed in a clearly visible position for the teacher to see. I think my strategy backfired, however, when I was told “You didn’t write down the questions before writing the answers”.
“Oh, was that an instruction?”
As the chilling answer “Yes” came back to me, my halo of virtue evaporated.
The answers to the questions were then corrected. I was fascinated to see the difference between the approach taken by the boys and the girls in the class. When boys were called to give an answer, they usually stated the answer simply and without embellishment, whereas most of the girls prefaced each answer with “Is it.....?” or “Could it be...?”
I had forgotten the sensation of my heart missing a beat when working through a set of exercises and hearing the dreaded words “Two minutes to go”. But the two minutes was genuine and the bell went promptly at 9.35 am, just as I was settling in to quite a comfortable groove with my algebraic equations. The homework sheet was a coded message which could only be solved by simplifying the algebraic equations. Needless to say, I did the homework, not so much because I love equations, but because I was genuinely curious to discover the hidden message.
It was only a short walk across to the Computing Laboratory for my I.T. class in period 2 with Mr Skilton as my teacher. There was no doubting that I was in the majority group here - 16 boys and 2 girls. The class had been working on designing web pages on behalf of Kristin’s subject departments, but as the students had been working in groups for some time, it was difficult for me to join in on this project. However, I had been wanting to update my own biography on Kristin’s website for some time, so being fairly familiar with HTML scripting, I used this as my opportunity. I even e-mailed the changes to Mr Churches, our Webmaster. I suspect it is against school rules to e-mail messages during class, but I'm sure they will never find out.
After morning tea, I was scheduled for a Science class with Mrs Wigglesworth. While walking to class, I had to set my mind at ease as Science was the subject I enjoyed least when I was in High School. I apologised to Mrs Wigglesworth for being a little late, saying that I had to deal with a phone call from the school’s neighbours regarding building construction noise. By the look on her face, I don’t think any of her students had come with that as an excuse to be late before.
As we began the lesson one of the other students sitting near me leant across and whispered “You know she’s not normally this nice, don’t you!” I’m sure he was just trying to kid me.
We were told to take out our laptops and set them up. We were reminded that laptops are used in every class in Science, but I could not help noticing that there is very little room for books or paper on a classroom desk with a laptop set up. Like several other students, the data file I needed to access had not been downloaded on my computer. Fortunately, I was carrying my own ethernet cord, so I connected and tried to download but found the ftp server was down. The teacher apologised that the data display projector was away being repaired and therefore she could not demonstrate the laptop routine to the class. One student’s response was to be playing a game of Klondike on the laptop – something I could see clearly from the back of the classroom but which could never be seen by a teacher at the front!
Having said that, in some ways the laptops were being used as an animated text book with sound. Accessing information on the laptops seemed to take more time thatn getting information from a book. Moreover, there would seem to be a need to have a set of floppy disks in each classroom as a backup for those students who do not have a file on their laptop or whose files have been corrupted. The focus of the lesson was exponential growth of populations using rabbits as an example, so my mind was very quickly brought back on task when one student asked the teacher an interesting question: “Excuse me, what is a rabbit explosion?”.
My experience in re-entering a Science classroom was much more positive and interesting than I had expected given my own high school experience. Nonetheless, I was already thinking about lunch, and given the choice between thinking about lunch and rabbit populations, I must confess that there were times when the former was winning.
No-one can say that our students’ days are not diverse. Having studied rabbit numbers I now walked across to the Library to join Mrs Kitchen’s English class doing a research assignment on Elizabethan England. We were given a list of themes which had to be related to the text being studied, Romeo and Juliet. I decided to research “the Reformation” on the grounds that books on something like that would probably still be left on the shelves by the other students who were more likely to choose topics such as Science and Astronomy, or popular beliefs such as Signs of the Zodiac and the Wheel of Fortune.
Using my almost forgotten memories of the Dewey system of library classification which I had learned in Primary School, I scanned the 200s and 940s and found our only book on the Reformation. As I had expected, it was still sitting there on the shelves. To be fair, our resources are not as tight as I had anticipated. Our English staff had prepared for this unit of work by contacting the National Library and pre-arranging to have a box filled with resources for the students to use in our library.
I can honestly say that I finished the class with a much better idea of the impact of the concepts of good and evil in Shakespeare’s writings than I had when I drove to school that morning! In fact, it was almost as interesting as some of the conversations taking place among the students on the tables near me - a get-together on Saturday, the next school assembly, sports day tomorrow, fashion and dresses, and a range of other matters which were similarly intimately related to Romeo and Juliet. I couldn’t help noticing, though, how the conversation would shift like a Mexican Wave as the teacher walked around the library, changing gear to a deeply philosophical discussion about (can you guess?) - Romeo and Juliet.
And then there was the surprise uniform inspection. How many schools other than Kristin would choose the day that its Chief Executive was being a Year 10 student to undertake a surprise uniform check? Fortunately, my shirt was tucked in and with five minutes to go we began the process of packing up. While I enjoyed my escape into the world’s great literature and history, I was certainly ready for my lunch.
After a lunchtime that was anything but typical for a Year 10 student (seeing staff, taking phone calls and arranging a television interview), I headed off to Economics with Miss Wedding. Once again, laptops were needed, this time developing a spreadsheet exercise to track a share portfolio.
Given the enjoyment that some of our Year 10 students derive from spending money, it is not surprising that they seemed to enjoy this task immensely. It also struck me that spreadsheet exercises such as these are a valid use of the power of laptops, as they provide opportunities for financial modelling that would be laborious and time-consuming without access to computers of some kind. Only two of the fourteen students in the class were without their computers. The second part of the lesson examined ways of obtaining a loan to buy a car. Unlike the rest of the class, I have been through the process of buying a car enough times to have an almost irresistible urge to doodle on my writing pad during this part of the lesson. I resisted the temptation and stared out the window at the irrigation sprinklers on the oval instead, my post-lunch drowsiness not helping the situation.
French with Mrs Castel-Harford was scheduled to complete my day. I walked into the room to be greeted with both questions and instructions in French. I had to confess that if I had been asked whether I had done my homework, I would have had to admit “not for the past 28 years”. Within that context, I was very impressed with the high standard and fast pace of the conversational French shown by the students and their teacher, which left me behind on more than a few occasions.
The lesson began with a vocabulary test for which, I consoled myself, I had not had much warning. At least, that was how I justified getting only 5 out of 10. This class was one of the most animated and fast moving I have experienced for a long while.
With questions and answers being fired around the classroom, interspersed with the class periodically standing en masse to sing songs such as Alouette, I certainly had no time for my mind to wander or think about irrigation sprinklers. By the end of the class, I was exhausted - but also found myself understanding 95% of what was being said in the class. My French had been brought up to speed with lightning rapidity!
The range of emotions I experienced in being a Year 10 student for a day was enormous. There were times when I felt anxious, such as when a surprise test was announced or, a sense of achievement in finishing a task quickly in Maths, a chill when I thought I was about to be blamed for another student’s talking, a yearning to stare out the window from time to time, thanks that my shirt was tucked in when the unexpected uniform inspection was carried out, a desire to go to the toilet when the work became boring, frustration when I could not hear the teacher because some others were talking, confusion when instructions were given in French, (I presume it was French!) and simple hunger as lunch time seemed never to come.
Overall, my experience as a Year 10 student was wonderful.
There was a great variety of content and teaching styles, which I regard as a great strength of Kristin. I could only be deeply impressed with the competence and enthusiasm of our teachers and the quality of the education we offer. Although I suspect our Year 10 students may take it for granted from time to time, I now believe that from a student’s point of view, the education which Kristin offers is second to none.