Act I: Fulbright End-Cap Meeting
Last weekend all the U.S. Fulbright teachers in the U.K. were invited to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for an End-Cap meeting. Along with the 23 other teachers were department heads of Fulbright from the U.S., as well as personnel from the British Council, who help both us over here and the UK teachers in the U.S.
I traveled to Belfast with my family and we arranged to stay four nights. Our Fulbright meetings were conducted over two days. The meetings were good on many levels, especially being able to see my teaching peers and to share stories from our year. Now some of the teachers I am in regular touch with, but others not so much, so all of us together made it especially exciting.
One of our requirements was to create a presentation outlining our year teaching. There were specific points that Fulbright wanted us to cover/discuss, yet room for sharing personal stories and adventures. I was amazed at how many of us had the same ups and downs, the same discoveries and the same challenges. Some teachers had a rough time teaching, whilst others had really smooth times. Just being able to share and discuss how we have grown as teachers was incredibly helpful and invigorating. We all feel that as professionals we have crossed a rubicon of sorts, as we agreed that few of us will return to the U.S. the same kind of teacher as we were before we left. I myself am grateful that I will be changing grade levels next year, moving from 4th to 3rd, as it allows me to continue to change and adapt. I think that if I was to return to the same thing I would fall into old habits and not continue to push myself.
We also discussed our re-entry to our lives back home. Now, when I was in Washington D.C. a year ago and they were telling me about culture shock I had my head in the clouds, (considering what to wear if I had tea with the Queen, for example). I wish I had paid more attention back then! This time I really listened, because it is not just me returning but my family as well. Apparently reverse culture shock is indeed a factor to contend with, so much so that we all got a book on how to deal with it! We have changed as people and as professionals, no doubt about it. Mind you we have changed for the better (we think), but again we have changed. Dealing with that change will be a challenging factor back in Portland. Anxiety, depression, and confusion are all things we were told to expect at various levels, but that we will pull out of it once it has run its course.
Being in Belfast meant being at the 54th parallel latitude. Portland, OR, is at the 45th parallel. This meant really, really long days when it comes to the time around Midsummer’s Night (what we in the US call the summer solstice). The sun set around 10pm, with dusk hovering for a good hour after that. We were thankful for the blackout curtains in our hotel room, because kids do not want to go to sleep when it is still light out.
Us teachers also had the opportunity to visit different schools around Belfast. I visited what would be called an Infant School, years P1-P3 (K-2). The school was absolutely amazing to be in. The high quality of the student work, which was displayed everywhere, was impressive. The Headteacher gave us a tour and allowed us to spend time in each grade level.
After two days together it was time to say goodbye. Some stayed on for the weekend, whilst others had plans, such as going to the Ascot horse race, or catching a match at Wimbledon. We all agreed that staying in touch, somehow and someway, was an achievable goal.
But a dark cloud was fully revealed during our meetings. The teacher exchange part of the Fulbright program has been severely cut by the U.S. government. Cut so much that there will be no exchange next year with the U.K.! The only countries signed on to participate for 2013-2014 are France, Mexico, Czech Republic, and Hungary. And after next year, the program is very much in jeopardy. Many of us are very disappointed that our government chose this program to cut. Through conversations I learned that there are U.S. Senators who feel the program benefits far too few to be continued, despite the fact that each one of us affect the lives of hundreds of children throughout the course of our careers. The message now is to let our Senators know that we are not happy with this and do what we can to try and save the program. If you are reading this and feel the same way, do contact your state representatives and let your voice be heard.
It is hard for us to fathom that we, for the foreseeable future, are the end of the line…
Act II: Belfast proper
Upon first exploring Europe as a temporary citizen I found myself amazed at almost every turn. But after so many months, things like castles, sheep, endless farmlands, and British accents are just part of the norm. Going to Belfast whipped my intrigue back into shape as it was a city that, upon leaving, left me with more questions than answers.
Now I do not want to go on with a history of the city’s conflicts, as anyone can find that information on the internet or in a good book. But I was unprepared to see and learn what I did right up front. There has been 18 years of peace between the Catholics and the Protestants (the Republicans and the Unionists). But when touring the city the story of the conflict between the two is written, literally, on the walls. I have never seen such a proliferation of murals telling stories, striking messages, or honouring the dead. Additionally, I have never visited a place where walls stand that divide people. I thought I had seen a lot but this was jaw-dropping in so many ways.
I have included some of the many, many photos we took just to give you a feel for what we saw. Most of it must be seen to be believed.
Like I said, I left Belfast with more questions than answers.
Belfast is famous for housing the H & W shipbuilding company. They are the ones who built the Titanic. Rebecca’s grandfather, whom she never met, worked at these shipyards building the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, back at the turn of the century.
Belfast has a new Titanic Museum that only opened about a year ago. I highly recommend it. The kids loved it, we loved it, and tourists love it. Very informative with both interactive and guided learning activities.
Act III: The North
On our last full day we rented a car and drove all the way to the Northern coast of Ireland. We visited a rope bridge, a fishing village, and witnessed a UNESCO sight called the Giant’s Causeway. Intermittent rain squalls fell, but I stayed determined to wear shorts on the first official day of summer.
We are now back in the East Midlands with only 2.5 weeks of school left! Both my children’s school and my school are knee-deep in our summer performances. They are performing Oliver, and we are performing The Pied Piper of Hamelin. I am in uncharted waters teaching in late June/early July, but it is still a 190 day school year, much like at home. With sports days, Leavers ceremonies, and end of the year celebrations I suspect this time will fly by. Then we have to say goodbye, which will not be easy.
Belfast, and Northern Ireland, was our last big trip until July 15th, when we REALLY take a big leap into the unknown. Stay posted!