Last year 12 sixth-form teachers applied to TEAM (The European-Atlantic Movement) to take part in a sponsored study trip to America to deepen and broaden their knowledge of US politics, government and culture. One of them shares his experience

I came across The European Atlantic Movement (TEAM) when searching the internet and found the details of a visit to America. It was open to any sixth-form teachers of government and politics, history, economics, citizenship and geography or any other subject where teaching would be enhanced by a deeper knowledge and understanding of the United States, its politics, system of government, law and the cultural and other links with the UK.

The visit was sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as part of their International Visitor Leadership Program. All of the teachers received a bursary from TEAM, which is supported by the Financial Times, but they still had to make a small contribution themselves (I suppose this would be to ensure that those who apply are committed to the study tour). However, most of the group seem to have received the balance from their own school or college. As I was eligible as a sixth-form teacher of geography and had never travelled to the Americas, I leapt at the opportunity to go.

The European Atlantic Movement (TEAM)

The 50-year-old European-Atlantic Movement is a charity run by volunteers, mainly former teachers, to promote understanding of world affairs and of the institutions of international cooperation. Its target audience is young people and teachers. Besides offering schools/teachers a speaker service on European and world affairs and arranging conferences for sixth-formers on a subject chosen by the school/college, the charity also organises study tours for teachers to Europe and America.

Teaching American history The hectic programme began with two days in Virginia to investigate American history and how it is presented. We explored the earliest English colony at Jamestown, lunched in the preserved ‘colonial’ quarter of Williamsburg and ended with a visit to Yorktown, celebrated as the location where, in the war of 1776-83, the English were defeated and independence was won. Although some of our party thought the living history format somewhat artificial, I enjoyed it. It was a brilliant teaching aid and after immersion in the 17th-century colony and its attitudes, I am sure that my teaching about the history of the era would never be the same again. These sites extended our knowledge on many different levels. We appreciated better the lives and attitudes of the early colonists; we understood the role this plays in the American psyche and we appreciated the legal and cultural links between Britain the young USA.

Economics and world affairs
We began the formal visit with a tour of the Naval Station at Norfolk, Virginia. The base occupies a massive site, and we saw some of the world’s largest aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and amphibious assault ships lined up on the James River estuary. It also contains one of the busiest airfields in the country. All of this was shown and explained to us by one of the naval personnel, who impressed us with statistics and history. The USA has the largest military budget in the world and a large part of its economy it based on arms, ship and aircraft building and defence. I would never need to teach this in wholly abstract terms again.

This fact-finding trip was then followed by a visit to the nearby US headquarters of Nato, where Colonel Iron of the UK army gave the group an insight into the work of the organisation and its changing role in world conflicts. This visit, like all of the others throughout the tour, was enlivened by Q&A sessions which enabled each of us to construct our own ‘knowledge folders’ – all information that has since directly benefited us in the classroom.

Washington DC
Then we moved on to Washington DC, beginning with a tour some of the city’s sights, including the White House, the Pentagon, the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Vietnam War Memorial and some of the Smithsonian museums. Amid the classical elegance of so many of these buildings, the futuristic FBI, World Bank and International Monetary Fund premises rather jarred.

Lectures and visits
The next three days were devoted to meeting people with influence and insights into American government and world affairs. We met people that, in other situations, we could never have met. Dr Jeremy Mayer of George Mason University lectured on the workings of American federalism, making sense of some of the twists and turns in the selection and appointment of presidents. At the Department of State our path didn’t cross that of Condoleezza Rice, who had set off for the G8 summit in Europe, but we did get to enter the ‘nerve centre’ where world news media (including Reuters, CNN and BBC) are constantly monitored for events and developments, and staff must decide what is significant enough to convey to Dr Rice.

The elderly avocado-coloured telephone through which space shuttle personnel are contacted was a particular point of interest, surrounded by all manner of hi-tech facilities. Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, explained how he and his colleagues provide information and advice for those Americans who wish to ‘petition the government for redress of grievances’.

Lobbyists and the media
The following morning, Reginald Dale, a British journalist who has worked for the Financial Times and International Herald Tribune, gave us his analysis of why Europeans ‘do news’ better than the Americans, and why many US citizens are ill-informed about the wider world. He shared with us his despair over the American addiction to Fox television news, which provides an American amalgam of the Sun, Daily Mirror and News of the World when compared with the broader vision of BBC’s coverage.

We were also taken to the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, where we were treated to a conservative view of world events. I helped myself to a copy of their publication The Insider to study the lead article on how humans aren’t responsible for global warming. President Bush is now possibly viewed as a rampant environmentalist in the eyes of the Heritage Foundation.

Our next port of call was the office of Politico, a newspaper founded in January 2007, which seeks to provide coverage of the politics of Capitol Hill, the presidential campaign, and the business of Washington lobbying ‘with enterprise, style, and impact’. The day culminated in a visit to the offices of the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program whose officers explained the benefits of participating in the scheme.

Legislation and the law
No visit to Washington could be even remotely complete without a visit to the Capitol. Here we toured the building and then in the House of Representatives were addressed by a staffer on the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We were able to probe the complex relations between the House and the Senate and the powerful role of the lobby institutions. Often lobby groups will prepare draft legislation which is then simply adopted in the House. The power of the National Rifle Association, the Jewish/Israeli lobby and the oil companies is immense. No teacher of US government and politics should miss the opportunity which such a tour gives. Our final visit that day was to the Supreme Court, where after a tour of the building we were ushered into a seminar room and addressed by a fellow of the Supreme Court. Addressed is the wrong word. The whole session was conducted as a Q&A session with the highly knowledgeable fellow fielding every ball with an amazing sure-footedness. I had never expected to understand and appreciate the power and importance of the US Supreme Court as I understood it that day.

A US senior school

The final day’s programme was even more crowded with activity. We arrived early at the Woodrow Wilson Senior High, the largest comprehensive public (ie maintained) school in Washington DC, passing a sign as we entered stating ‘Peaceable School Zone: Help keep our students safe and drug free’ and stringent security measures at the entrance. We spent a lesson with some 16-year-olds and their geography teacher, then a 17-year-olds’ history lesson. This group was studying the cold war, and we joined them in singing Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire which catalogues 120 historical references in the 40 years up to 1989. I’ve played this repeatedly in my car ever since. The final session gave each of the British teachers a chance to talk with his/her own group of students learning about hopes, aspirations, attitudes and knowledge to compare and contrast with our own teaching. This session provided an inspiration to create links between our schools and US schools to share and develop the insights we had gained.

A visitor in Washington

But it wasn’t all work. The geographer in me insisted that I spend every spare minute exploring Washington. Each morning I managed a couple of miles’ walking around the city streets before breakfast at a French-style bakery. After the formalities of the day I took advantage of the new metro system to see as many of the sights on the tourist itinerary as I could and to explore the shopping malls, street markets, and ‘edge city’: this is the amorphous sprawl of outer suburbs that now characterises American cities. The final Saturday was ours to spend as we wished, and I continued my travels, still in the tropical temperatures and slaking my thirst with iced tea – which, after Diet Coke, appears to be the favourite beverage on offer these days. Having almost exhausted myself, I joined the others on our coach to the airport. The week was excellent. It provided insights into the history and governance of America, and its role as the world’s most powerful nation. But there were also opportunities to meet American young people, to relax with a family, to go to a baseball match, to visit the Smithsonian and to catch a glimpse of life in Washington DC. It also substantially increased my geographical knowledge of one small corner of the United States.

Alan Young is a sixth-form teacher from Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Blackburn