2020

Mid-term assessment

Weeks 24-26

“Hey you were in Opettaja-lehti”, my dad writes on WhatsApp being “surprised” and sends me a link to an article in the newest Teachers’ magazine. Of course, I told him about the interview right away when Anna-Sofia Nieminen first contacted me in February this year. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty awesome to see my story printed in the magazine that I’ve seen in my family’s mailbox since I was a little kid. The article reinforced my decision to do something different and continue on my journey, despite all the doubts I had on the way.

So what did exactly happen when the COVID-19 pandemic started in February? 

I had decided to apply for the first year working holiday visa in Australia to see if it was possible to work as a classroom teacher. I had heard both good and bad about the process of getting the teaching license in Victoria: some said it was easy as long as you had all the required documents, some said it could take months to complete the application. I decided to try as I was keen to work with kids again and learn about the Australian curriculum.

As you know already, things didn’t go as planned. The first problem before the coronavirus finally forced all the schools to go online was to pass the language test with the required mark. I chose to do an ISLPR test which was similar to the better-known IELTS tests but customised to your profession and, unlike in IELTS, it was possible to retake particular parts of the test without doing the whole test all over again. ISLPR stands for International Second Language Proficiency Ratings. It had two parts: written and spoken, which included reading and listening. For the teacher registration in Victoria, they require level 4 out of 5 which is described as “vocational proficiency”.

“Able to perform very effectively in almost all situations pertinent to social and community life and everyday commerce and recreation, and generally in almost all situations pertinent to own ‘vocational’ fields.”

I took the exam twice. First, all four skills and then only writing and speaking. In the written test you have to complete two assignments in one hour and you can’t go over or under 10% of the total 400 words. The first time, I panicked in the written part and ran out of time. This has happened to me many times before in exams with strict time limits so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get a 4/5. I got a 3+/5. 

Strange enough, I got the same mark on the second try even though I didn’t run out of time nor made any spelling mistakes (rare for me when writing a foreign language by hand). This time I had 7 mistakes in total, and apparently, you are only allowed to have 2-4. The fatal mistakes that gave me a 3+ were:

  • Saying “I think that was…” (mixing tenses)
  • Using the phrasal verb “to give up” (being too informal)
  • Saying “having the honour of…” (being too formal)

Fair enough, these are quite embarrassing mistakes when you want to work as a casual relief primary school teacher. But sarcasm aside, I wanted to know more about the grading scale because I just couldn’t understand the logic. I knew I made spelling mistakes in the first one, and I didn’t even finish it so how could the assessment still be the same 3+/5? In the feedback session, they told me that this second 3+ was closer to 4 than the first one. I wonder if there are more invisible steps on this scale that can only be found out by trying again.

Even more confusing was the spoken test in which I also got 3+/5 twice. In the spoken test they interview you about your plans in Australia and your career as a teacher. I had the same tester twice and because she already knew me, she just asked how I was doing. My mistakes, or “highlights” as the testers ironically call them, were:

  • Talking too fast
  • “Finglish”, meaning that I mixed Finnish and English (when I asked for examples, they didn’t mention any specific “Finglish” words or structures because generally, it was the way I spoke that sounded Finnish)
  • Pronouncing the word “schedule” as [skɛdʒuːl] (like the Americans do)
  • Pronouncing th, for example “that”, as dh (It was funny that before she started the feedback sessions, she asked me if I were Irish because I “had the Irish th”. Wait, didn’t the Irish people also speak native English?)

I was supposed to go and do the test one more time just for the sake of all the money spent on the registration process and maybe for the sake of my dignity, just a little bit. You can still see the lack of teachers in the job market here, however, there aren’t many opportunities for casual relief teachers. So, I thought I could still apply for jobs as a teacher assistant to somehow help in this crisis. But, once again the red tape got me. Having the “wrong” degree and wrong visa didn’t get me any further with that plan either. You should have a Certificate III (a specific Teacher Aide degree) from TAFE (Technical and Further Education) to be qualified as a teacher aide. Eventually, I didn’t see the point of putting more effort into the process during these times but to focus on my own business.

Despite the obvious disappointment, I have been very happy with the experience I’ve got here in Australia so far. The challenges only made me think out of the box and come up with a plan that was even better than the original. Going through the process as far as I did, also gave me a new perspective to look at life as an immigrant again and think about the language assessment as a national institution. What do we want to achieve with language assessment in general? What means fluency and native-like skills? 

Through my own business, I still get to teach students of all ages, work in English, and even learn about the Australian education system.

You can read Anna-Sofia Nieminen and Päivi Arvonen’s article about different ways to be a teacher in Opettaja-lehti (in Finnish).

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