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Wednesday, 5 February, 2003, 13:32 GMT
Under fire in Florida
Miami
Gary Bicker failed to find paradise teaching in Miami
Geography teacher Gary Bicker gave up his job in Hertfordshire for the sunnier climes of Florida. But it turned out to be a lot tougher than he expected.

In January 2001 I was in my sixth year of teaching geography at Dame Alice Owen's School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire.

I had moved into teaching from a career in chartered accountancy and thoroughly enjoyed it.

TEACHING IN NEW YORK
I suppose when I saw the words 'more challenging schools', I should have run a mile

Fiona Addie

Dame Alice Owen's has a range of pupils of all abilities, but it is mostly skewed towards the academic ones. The school consistently appears as one of the top 10 comprehensives for its GCSE results.

Despite my happiness at the school, I was looking for a new challenge. One day, while browsing the Times Education Supplement, I noticed an advertisement for teachers in Florida.

Having spent the previous half-term there, I thought it would be a great idea to apply.

Fascinated by US

I had always been fascinated by American culture, and relished the challenge of working there.

Applying was a long, drawn-out affair, which turned out to be very expensive and disorganised.

I had to pay an initial 130 just for the privilege of an interview, and then several thousand pounds to have my visa processed by the agency.

I have since discovered that I could have applied for the visa myself for a mere 90.

Anyway, we were told by the agency that it had inspected all the schools for which it was recruiting for and that they were all very well run, with good children who wanted to learn.

Frustrated

Although I had been frustrated by the visa processing, I was looking forward to getting out there and teaching.

Unfortunately, we were not given any assistance with costs, or with finding accommodation.

Gary Bicker
Gary was assaulted twice in his first year

I actually found an apartment in Hollywood, Florida, on the internet and sent a deposit by post.

I just had to trust the details and photographs on the site.

I arrived in August 2001 and was very pleased with my new place. It was the first time I had had my own apartment and it was literally a stone's throw from the beach.

I could never have afforded something like this on a teacher's salary in London.

I couldn't start work straight away, as my visa had been delayed. My first day at work turned out to be September 10, 2001.

September 11

As one can imagine, my second day was quite strange, and I did wonder what I had let myself in for.

As the week progressed, I realised that this was going to be an almighty challenge.

It turned out that this was a reform school for children from some of the toughest neighbourhoods of Miami.

The principal told us 80% of the children had been expelled from their local high schools and 40% of them had fathers in jail.

Full-scale riot

These factors soon became apparent with the daily fights that broke out in classrooms, and even a full-scale riot in the first few weeks.

On two occasions during the year, I personally had to extinguish fires in the classroom adjacent to mine, and was assaulted twice.

One child who assaulted me was simply moved to another class, and not disciplined. I even received a death threat from a pupil who was on probation and a known gang member, just because I had attempted to confiscate his mobile phone.

It really was a total contrast to teaching in the UK.

Apart from these problems, the structure of teaching is very different. There are no half-term breaks, and the Christmas and Easter holidays are shorter.

However, this is compensated by a summer break of 10 weeks.

The days are also different, in that teachers usually only work with one year group, and one teaches the same five classes every day.

Tedious

This can be tedious, depending on what you have been used to in the UK.

Anyone interested in teaching in the US really needs to do their research on the schools before they commit themselves.

You will be working here on an H1-B visa, which only allows you to work for the employer stamped on your work visa.

If you find it too tough and want to leave, you have to return to the UK, or you will be living illegally in the US.

Having spent so much money getting to the US, and turning down a promotion to head of department at my previous school, I wasn't ready just to give up.

Happy now

Although I dreaded every day, I persevered and found myself a position at a better school the following academic year.

I am now very happy living and working here in the US, but it was tough at the beginning.

The culture shock is something you have to prepare for. Many of our stereotypes of Americans ring true, particularly their ignorance of world issues.

If you can overcome the initial problems of working away from home, the benefits start to kick in.

The salaries are a lot higher than in the UK, with the added bonus of lower taxation.

The cost of living is also significantly lower, so you have increased purchasing power.

Better paid

This is particularly important if you are a teacher living in London or south-east England, where living costs are so high.

The weather, of course, is fantastic, and who can complain about the beach?

The climate seems to be good for one's health too as, despite being around hundreds of kids every day, I haven't had a cold since I arrived.

So, if you do your research thoroughly, and are prepared to stick at it when the going gets tough, I would recommend giving it a go.

Even if I give up and go back in a few years, I can at least say to myself that I tried.

See also:

05 Nov 02 | Education
05 Jan 03 | Scotland
10 Aug 02 | Americas
07 Aug 02 | Education
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