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Don't be caged, see life from another angle

Taking time out to experience someone else's working life can have benefits on both a personal and a professional level, writes Karen Shead

When you start the morning stacking shelves for two hours before breakfast, you know it is no ordinary teaching day.

This time last year, Pam Mackay, a principal teacher with the City of Edinburgh English as an Additional Language Service, spent a week working at Ikea, not because she fancied a career change but as part of a work placement programme.

"They were three full, very long days," she says. "It was the hardest work I have ever done because I was in for 8am and unpacking and stocking shelves before breakfast.

"Then I had meetings with different people about staff training, interviewing, management strategies, and I spent time walking the floor.

"I was given the staff uniform right away and made to feel part of the team. I was shared around and asked to do things, which was good because I didn't want to be just a fly on the wall.

"I enjoyed it and it was beneficial on a personal level as well as a professional one."

Mrs McKay was taking part in the Excellence in Education through Business Links programme organised by Careers Scotland, which offers teachers short placements in a local business or industry as part of their continuing professional development. The programme, which has been running since July 2001 after being set up as a pilot in 1988 in Glasgow, aims to help teaching staff develop a greater awareness and understanding of work and enterprise. It is now highly flexible and includes placements for those studying for the Scottish Qualification for Headship.

Mrs McKay had just been appointed to a principal teacher post and wanted to find out about managing teams. "The structure of education had changed and we had principal teacher posts where they didn't exist before. I knew Ikea had a different approach in valuing teams and I was told their management structure was different, so I put them as my first choice," she says.

"Two things I learned were: you must communicate with your team on a regular basis, and you must value your team members.

"I can't recommend the programme highly enough. As teachers, we live in a very rarefied environment; it's good to get outside once in a while."

Placements last a minimum of two days and a maximum of a week and can take place during term-time or through the holidays. A teacher can do more than one placement but not within the same school year.

"The placement can be all things to all people," says Jan McLardy, the Excellence in Education through Business Links co-ordinator for Edinburgh, the Lothians, Borders and Forth Valley. "It can be any topic and any area of interest that a teacher wants to develop.

"Placements are really a unit in themselves, especially where they are curriculum related. They result in materials being produced for the classroom or new activities being set up."

Kerry Hall, a teacher of history, English and drama at Forrester High in Edinburgh, helped to produce an education pack as part of her placement with the Edinburgh Dungeon. Rather than applying to be matched up with a particular company, she had opted for a themed placement, where the impetus comes from the organisation rather than the teacher. The opportunities are advertised to schools.

"I didn't known about the placement programme but an e-mail message went round saying the Edinburgh Dungeon was looking for people to take part and it sounded like good fun," she says.

"There was a group of us: two primary teachers, a secondary art teacher and myself. We talked about how we could use the Dungeon in an educational context.

"From an art point of view, you could look at the design. Although you could use it for history at primary level, there is not an awful lot you could use it for at secondary level. For drama, it was educational in terms of atmosphere. It's difficult to explain to pupils how to create atmosphere. It was also good for make-up. I have been keen to show the kids how to do stage make-up properly but it's not easy to get people in to show them how to do it.

"Being able to produce a pack which any drama teacher, or art or history teacher, can pick up and use, gave me a great sense of satisfaction," Ms Hall says.

"I also got to see what it was like from the other side of the fence; it opens up ideas as to what goes on in the workplace. It gave me ideas for pupil placements and allowed me to make some contacts. Pupils have been in touch with staff there, who have answered questions for them."

Scott Williamson of the Edinburgh Dungeon says they were interested in offering a placement, because they wanted to develop an educational pack for school visitors. "We thought it would be great to have a pack made by teachers as they have the expertise to make it relevant to the curriculum," he says.

"It was also successful to have these teachers on site for various other reasons, for example, gaining marketing ideas and finding out how best to contact teachers."

"A lot of the companies that have been involved in placements have done so because they are looking for some expertise from teachers," says Mrs McLardy.

"They may want a teacher to comment on materials they already use. They want to make sure what they are offering is what the schools want.

"The best possible placements are when there are benefits to both parties."

By taking part in the programme, employers can learn about current educational developments, outline to teachers the skills, knowledge and attributes that they look for in young people as new and future employees, and undertake reciprocal placements in education.

Hilary Robb, the community co-ordinator at Ikea, believes Mrs McKay's placement was of mutual benefit. "For Pam it was a chance to see a very different way of working, but for us there was a trade-off. We got an insight into her way of working." she says.

"It's very interesting to see a different managerial structure, where people are still dealing with a large number of people but in a different way. Because Ikea is a Swedish company, we have a different approach to management. We got a fresh view on things and Pam's feedback was beneficial to us."

Alison Miller, a teacher at Gylemuir Primary in Edinburgh, has gained a lot from the two placements she has done, the first with the National Galleries of Scotland, to support art work in the school curriculum, and then one with a special needs charity.

"My role in the school changed," she explains. "Although I still have the responsibility for art, I am also the learning support teacher. This was a new post to me. We have a growing number of autistic children coming into the school, particularly in early years and nursery, and this was something we didn't know a lot about. We didn't know the best way to teach them."

Ms Miller's second placement was split between the Edinburgh-based charity Snip (Special Needs Information Point), which provides advice and information on services available to children with special needs and their carers, and a speech and occupational therapist who was running a group for autistic children.

"When I was with Snip, I did a lot of web-based research and reading and updated their files," she explains. "We did a lot of chatting on the parents' perspective, and this was something I went back to school with; how you deal with the parents of children with special needs.

"In the afternoons, I worked with a group of pre-school autistic children.

I learned about the visual timetable, the need for a strict routine, a repetitive pattern. It was really good to observe the kind of activities they carried out with the children. I came back to school with lots of ideas and more idea of what to expect.

"The placements had a big impact on my teaching. I felt a lot more comfortable and confident dealing with the children with autism and with their parents."

The three Edinburgh teachers have been keen to share their experiences with colleagues. More broadly, Ms Miller advises: "When you are on placement you really have to make sure that you get what you want out of it. The placements are good, particularly for people who have been in education for a while. You are educating children to go out into the workplace and you have to have an idea of what the workplace is like."

"The feedback we get," says Mrs McLardy, "from companies, teachers and schools, is extremely positive. They all agree there is a lot of value in doing a placement."

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