Dear Ted

After working in a prison education department, I want to teach in a school. I might as well have a criminal record as I can't get a job, only supply work.

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

Ted says

You face problems on two fronts. First you have trained for further education and now want to teach in a school; second, your experience is in an unusual and distinctive part of the FE sector. You will need to focus your efforts on persuading people in your application and in interview that you have a portfolio of expertise that is attractive enough for them to offer you a permanent post.

Why not tackle the issue from the beginning by preparing a written statement that you can insert into your application which argues strongly, rather than defensively, for the positive assets you would bring to the job? Omit the obvious joke about being used to dealing with criminals (let one of the interviewers make that remark instead, then beam graciously as if you've never heard it before - that should be worth one vote at least). Stress whatever you have learned through working with offenders: dealing with low levels of literacy and people who are seen as failures or who have a poor self-image and those who cannot contain their anti-social aggression.

Supply teaching is an excellent means of improving your ability to work in a school and increasing your credibility as you acquire more experience. Again, bring out in your application and in interview, if you get the opportunity, the ideas you have tried out, what seems to have been successful, and give examples of where you have worked hard to plug the gaps in your experience of teaching in a school.

Best of all, show you are the sort of person willing to go the extra mile: volunteer for out-of-school activities, citizenship teaching, careers advice, help with special needs. You will then be able to enthuse about what you can offer, which is much better than appearing to cringe about what you can't.

You say

Consider retraining

In your letter you imply that you are tainted through having worked in prisons. I don't think that is the case. The causes of your problem are more likely to be supply, demand and value for money. If you are offering a shortage subject in a geographical area where the teaching shortage is acute, you may well obtain a permanent post (especially if you are building up a good reputation through your supply work). But if those factors do not apply and you are having to compete with several other applicants for each post, your background is not helping; your training and your experience have equipped you for the post-16 age range. A headteacher is likely to consider that someone whose initial training, Inset and experience are with the relevant school age students is a better prospect. What's more, a newly qualified teacher, who should be up to date on recent initiatives, will be considerably cheaper.

So what can you do? If you are determined to teach in schools, consider retraining so you're properly equipped to teach the age you're interested in. Or you could look for a post in which your particular training andor experience would be an asset - for example, in a sixth-form or further education college - before transferring into a secondary school. Your experience could well be valued in an EBD unit; this would also give you the experience you need with younger students.

Do you have a friend (or friend of a friend) who is a head of the type of school that you are hoping to work in and who could give you a realistic appraisal of your chances of getting employment in a school in your area?

Ensure that your CV, letter of application and references are as good as they possibly can be. A professional CVapplication letter writer might well be able to achieve a result for you at considerably less cost than it would take to retrain.

Susan Murren, email

Long-term supply a good start

I might have reservations about how you would relate to the students, given that you have taught prisoners for so long. I also wonder if you have taught both sexes in the prison setting. A long-term supply placement in a school, with a good reference, would be a positive influence. Good luck.

John Chadwick, email

Does your temperament suit the work?

What matters most is how far your training, experience, aptitude and attitude are suited to the job. In terms of methods and content, a PGCE in FE does not prepare you to teach in schools where challenging behaviour is a major issue. But dynamic individuals prepared and able to adjust accordingly should be given a chance - but only as a last resort, and after they have been carefully checked and examined against the task at hand. Some of the pupils may be offenders within and outside school (theft of laptop computers, causing serious bodily injury to other pupils, using racist or abusive language against pupils and staff, and so on), and schools may be uncomfortable to hire a teacher who has worked in prison in case he or she is tempted to treat children as "criminals".

Fred Mudhai, Nottingham

If at first

You are not alone in going through several applications without success. Keep trying. Perseverance is an essential quality in teaching, and you will get there in the end.

Steven Boreham, email

Coming up: Career change unrewarded

"I am one of the Government's much publicised career-change NQTs, with a primary PGCE. My school won't pay me more than point 2 on the scale, despite my experience. I'm afraid of being seen as a troublemaker, but this is casting a shadow over my working life." What do readers think? Let us know at dear.ted@tes.co.uk. We pay pound;30 for every answer published

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