Dear Ted

I'm teaching secondary PE abroad but am thinking of returning to the UK. I'd also like to transfer to primary. What are the pitfalls of these big changes

Ted says

What you describe is generally known as "re-entry" and it applies to many teachers. Some return from abroad - like you - others after raising a family. Often they seek the sort of job they once held, but find it has changed dramatically, while in certain cases they switch to a quite different subject, age group or type of school.

Your re-entry involves a break in time and an age group switch, so you will have to manage it carefully. In my experience, teachers in international schools, including those long abroad, are usually clued up about the national curriculum, but uncertain how it is being applied today.

Even if you land a job as a semi-specialist primary teacher majoring in PE, you will still need to be familiar with the curriculum, textbooks and teaching strategies in all the other subjects you may be required to teach, and with the conventions of the literacy and numeracy hours, which dominate each day.

The biggest difficulty, especially for those trying a different field, is not just subject knowledge, but also unscrambling previous patterns of teaching. Teachers can engage in a thousand exchanges in a single day (that is, a million every five years), asking hundreds of questions, with favourite ways of explaining, organising and assessing. Such deeply ingrained habits are difficult to shift or modify unless you have an open mind, and are unpriggish and willing to learn from others.

Despite these pitfalls, children are still children, as amusing, tantalising, infuriating and cheering as ever, and most teachers are good supporters of their colleagues, with a Dunkirk sense of humour. The Teacher Training Agency offers advice about courses, childcare and financial support for returning teachers on its website: www.canteach.gov.ukteachingreturnindex.htm.

You say

Make careful and calculated choices

The biggest problem facing returners seems to be discipline and control. For some reason many children in the UK don't have the same respect for teachers as children overseas. If you're to survive, choose the school and area carefully, as a term in an inner-city area may put you off forever. I worked with two teachers who had taught abroad - both ended up leaving the UK again as they found it so difficult to adjust.

As for switching to primary. The main problem you'll face is having to simplify instructions - I've seen former secondary teachers trying to explain things to a seven-year-old in language that even I struggled to understand. And you'll have to be prepared to teach every subject (including the literacy and numeracy strategies) with only limited support from colleagues (as they will all be teaching their own classes), no non-contact time, and children who rely on their teacher totally for organisation, and so on.

If you can cope with all that, you'll love the excitement of being in a primary school!

Primary teacher, north-east England

Be aware of possible favouritism

I taught abroad for five years - with a BEd degree - and gained valuable and versatile experience. The contracts were long-term (six months or a year), and although I was trained at middle school level, it involved university and grammar school teaching. I came back to Britain anticipating no problems. But my local education authority put me back on a basic scale and has never wished to validate experience gained abroad. It charged me for circulating my details to local middle schools for supply work, but when I contacted some of them, they had never seen my name on the list. I felt that the experience I gained had been all in vain. I hope you will have better luck. But find out how you stand salary-wise if you don't want to get the "cold shower" effect, with the experience you've gained going unrecognised. I had the strong impression when I came back that the LEA favoured those who had been "staying" instead of "straying".

Martine Bradshaw, Dorset

Put a proper campaign together

Teaching abroad is magic as long as you have a viable exit strategy for when you want to come home. And even in the current recruitment crisis, some may view your application with suspicion. The likelihood of your applying to a school with a head who has worked abroad is slim. For some heads overseas experience is reason enough to shortlist, for others it is, at best, evidence of a misspent youth. So unless you are returning to a school or authority in which you are known and loved, your first job is to persuade the school that it must see you. How do you do it? Put together a proper campaign. A lean yet informative application pack should include key info about your current job, including an open reference - preferably from a UK head. If you're in Service Children's Education, refer to your Ofsted inspections or HMI review; if not, quote from consultant visits, commentary on your lesson observation or school internal review. Paying for your flight home is an investment. When you get your first interview, set up visits to other local schools. If you're up for it, offer to teach a class. Make it difficult for them to close the door on you. Once you're inside, it is down to you. Advice? Get back first! And for those of you about to go abroad. Do it. You'll love it - but choose a school that will help you get back.

Secondary head, via email

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, Friday magazine, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX.Or email: dear.ted@tes.co.uk

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