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Borrowed Brit has lots to teach Tigard first-graders

This English teacher traded places (and homes) with Deer Creek's Nicole Smith
by: Jaime Valdez Kelly Sykes, who teaches first grade at Deer Creek Elementary School, is an exchange teacher from England.

It is not uncommon for students to study abroad for a year, but first-grade teacher Kelly Sykes is taking it one step further.

Sykes, who hails from the north of England, has swapped places with a first-grade teacher at Deer Creek Elementary School in King City, trading her life and job for the chance to teach in America.

'I'd taught for nine years at home and fancied something a little bit different,' Sykes said, laughing in a thick Yorkshire accent. 'And what's more different than another country?'

Normally, the 32-year-old teaches in an elementary school in Rastrick, a village about 200 miles from London, but today Sykes has traded jobs for the year with Deer Creek teacher Nicole Smith, as part of the Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange program.

But the exchange doesn't stop at simply switching classrooms.

'We swapped lives,' said Sykes, who lives in Smith's Northeast Portland home and spends time with her friends and family, while Smith does the same in Sykes' home in England.

'I had one child who kept asking me quesions trying to get her head around the fact that Miss Sykes was living in my house and working in my classroom and I was here doing the same,' Smith said. 'Her biggest concern was where my family was living since I am here. Another child assumed I lived with Mickey Mouse and wanted to know if he was a nice fellow.'

Smith said her experience in England has been wonderful and challenging.

'I chose to go abroad for the challenge of doing something outside of my box,' she said. 'Even on the hard days, I am so thankful to be here because I know this is what I need to be doing professionally and personally.'

The two swapped lives in August, and both said that the hardest part about the swap has been the cultural differences.

'Everything is so different here, even the way that the school is organized,' Sykes said,

Classes in England are different than in Tigard. Back home, Sykes works with a full-time assistant in the classroom, and is responsible for teaching music, computers and PE as well as the regular classroom work.

'Nicole over (in England) is probably having a bit of a shock for all the new things she is having to do,' Sykes said. 'For me, it's very nice to just concentrate on the classroom.'

Sykes said as much as she is teaching the students, the students are helping her learn about America as well.

'The kids are fantastic,' she said. 'They get to the point where they realize I have mis-said some things. They'll say 'Miss Sykes, we don't say it that way over here.' The kids are fantastic, and I am definitely learning as I go along, but I'm loving it.'

Sykes and Smith said that they want to help her students expand their knowledge of the world.

'Some of the discussions we have are quite interesting,' Sykes said. 'The kids ask 'So, do you have cars over there?' and I say, 'Yes, we do.' They have all these great questions.'

Students have written letters to each others' classs Sykes said she hopes to create a pen pal program that the two groups of schools will be able to continue in the future.

'That way (the students) can learn firsthand from each other,' Sykes said. 'They want to learn from each other. What I would like is not to just do it this year but for years to come. I think it would be fantastic for the schools.'

The pen pal relationship could also turn into live video chats, Sykes said.

'There are so many differences (between the two cultures) and as we have been talking about it more questions come,' she said. 'They have so many, but it would be so much more rewarding to get the answers from the children themselves. Fingers crossed, I think that this could be good for years to come.'

At Deer Creek, first-grade student Kalen Jackson said that along with reading and writing there was one thing he wanted Sykes to teach him.

'I want to have an English accent at the end of the year,' he said.

Sykes laughed. 'Well, we will have to work on that one, Kaleb.'