Local family returns home after year-long teaching exchange in Australia

Joan LeBlanc
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PORT ELGIN, NB – After a year of living and working in a country on the other side of the world, for one local family the memories of good times and good friends made will remain with them for years to come.

One year ago, in late December, 2012, Christoph Becker, vice-principal at Port Elgin Regional School, his wife Pam, a school intervention worker at Tantramar Regional High School and their two teenage boys Jeshua and Josiah, embarked on the experience of a lifetime, travelling to a small island off the southern coast of Australia where they spent the past year.

As part of an exchange program in conjunction with the Canadian Education Exchange Foundation, Christoph exchanged teaching positions with Australian teacher Kylie Carlson, who, with her husband Nick, a state policeman, and their two daughters, came to live in the Port Elgin area, where they lived in the Beckers’ home. After a very pleasant year in this area, the family are now back in their own home on Phillip Island, Australia.

The Beckers’ talked recently about their stay ‘down under’.

“After being back home for a couple weeks, back to our old routine, it feels like we’d never been in Australia. But the whole experience was amazing and we’re glad that we took the initiative to do it; it was a wonderful experience as a family,” Christoph said.

A Grade 4 teacher in Port Elgin, he admitted that going into a classroom in a foreign country was challenging; the first few months were tough while he adjusted to new curriculums and sought to acquire the resources he needed to teach a large grades 3 - 4 split class in a school with some 500 students.

“It was hard at first; they – the staff and the students -were all very nice and very supportive, but it was really tough for the first about four months; but after that things more or less fell into place. Because Cowes Primary School has a lot more students than Port Elgin Regional, they have teams of teachers who teach each grade level, so you have a lot of support from each other as far as planning goes. They also have what they call ‘integrated studies’, where they teach other different courses for a portion of the year…I really learned a lot there,” he said.

And while Cowes Primary School was just minutes from the Carlson home, where the Beckers lived during their stay there, the public high school which Jeshua and Josiah attended was an hour’s drive by school bus each morning and afternoon.

“It was a long drive – that was hard,” Jeshua admitted.

But both boys were happy to wear the school uniforms which are mandatory in Australia.

“It makes things a lot easier; they wore polo shirts with the school crest, and shorts. And it had to be black sneakers with white socks; and any sweaters or other shirts had to have the school crest on it. But it was easy for them, they wore what everyone else did,” Pam added.

Another new experience was the addition of surfing to their school curriculum.

“Surfing is really a big part of the culture there; but for us, as a family we didn’t actually surf using surf boards, we did body surfing and the boys had boards. But they went almost every day and it’s something they miss doing now that we’re back home,” Christoph said.

The whole family admitted to the challenges of getting used to another way of life in a totally different climate.

“It was  about 30 degrees Celsius when we got there, sometimes it was up to 40 degrees; but it’s a whole different feeling, it’s not so humid as we have here in the summer,” Christoph said.

Pam noted that during the winter season Australians don’t heat their buildings.

“We’d be sitting in a gym all huddled up with our hands over our ears watching the boys play basketball because there was no heat in the building,” she said.

And while the family lives on a sprawling rural property here, in Australia they got used to living in a much smaller, one-storey house with very little backyard.

“It was a lot easier mowing the lawn there,” Christoph admitted with a grin.

Getting used to a higher cost of living was also a challenge, including higher costs for food and also for water and utilities.

“Before Christmas I went looking for a turkey and there was this little one, (about seven – eight pounds) and it was $75; so we had chicken instead,” Pam laughed.

The family spent a lot of their free time travelling throughout Australia and flew to New Zealand for a two-week visit during summer vacation.

“We rented a small van to travel around Australia – that was fun, but another challenge getting four tall people into one small van. But we all had a great time and saw a lot of wonderful things,” Pam recalled.

Of course driving on the left side of the road did take some getting used to; and getting used to the reverse back at home as well.

The family enjoyed trying some different foods while in Australia, including a few delectable sweet treats that are Aussie favourites, although they all agreed that the wildly popular Australian food item Vegemite - a dark brown food paste made from leftover brewers' yeast extract with various vegetables and spices added - won’t be missed.

The Becker’s admitted it was hard leaving the friends they had come to know, at times wondering if they would ever see them again. While happy to be back home with their family and old friends in Canada, the whole family keeps in touch with new friends via social media.

And with the experience now just a pleasant memory, the Beckers are not ruling out another work exchange in the years to come.

“It’s such a wonderful program. In fact, right now there are 36 families in Australia waiting to come to Canada for an education exchange. I really encourage teachers and their families to check out this program; there are so many benefits to being part of it,” Christoph said.

The Beckers say they were lucky to have had such a wonderful experience during their time in Australia.

“I have to say that now I enjoy teaching even more; it gave me much more perspective on things,” he said.

Organizations: Port Elgin Regional School, Tantramar Regional High School, Canadian Education Exchange Foundation Cowes Primary School

Geographic location: Australia, PORT ELGIN, Phillip Island Canada New Zealand

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