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The road less travelled

In precarious economic times, asking your employer for six months off may seem little short of professional suicide. But as Friederike Heine reports, sabbaticals can enhance your professional development - and save your school precious funds

In precarious economic times, asking your employer for six months off may seem little short of professional suicide. But as Friederike Heine reports, sabbaticals can enhance your professional development - and save your school precious funds

Teaching jobs may be safer than some in the current economic climate, but many in the profession have decided that the wisest course of action is to hunker down and try to stay out of the line of fire. Concerns about work - is it fulfilling, is it meaningful? - can seem frivolous.

So the idea of asking to leave your job for a month, let alone six or more, to take up a voluntary posting could seem ludicrous. But the sabbatical is not dead. Most schools still allow them - although this depends on the local authority - and being guaranteed a job after three or six months away from school can offer much-needed flexibility for stressed teachers.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but now could even be a good time to take time out, as schools may be more willing to respond positively to your request. "Savvy employers understand the business case for sabbaticals - recruitment, retention of staff, professional development, innovation and results," says Elizabeth Pagano, co-founder of Your Sabbatical, a company that helps employers develop sabbaticals.

"Plus, when senior staffers take their sabbaticals, other teachers have the opportunity to step up. In these tough economic times, schools may not be able to spare more money, but time is the new currency."

In early 2008, primary teacher Louise Hutchinson experienced this first- hand. When she learnt that her school in Colwyn Bay, northwest Wales, was planning redundancies, she saw her opportunity. The school was going through some financial difficulties after a "blip" in the birth rate caused falling rolls. Its grants had been reduced and several full-time teachers had been put on redundancy notice.

"Our authority is in the middle of a primary schools' modernisation project which is likely to lead to the merging and closing of schools. This could be a `crossroad' moment for people to make the most of a challenging situation," she says.

Miss Hutchinson decided she was not going to wait for the axe to fall. Instead, she offered to go on unpaid sabbatical. "I had considered volunteering for several years, but circumstances were never right. When I was given this opportunity it was a `now or never' decision," she says. "It was not easy to swap the cool air and comfort of my classroom at Pendorlan for the dust and heat of northern Ghana, but in retrospect, it is the best thing I've ever done."

Most education volunteers are either involved in teacher training or education management, depending on their skills and experience, says Jo Rhodes-Jiao, international placement manager at VSO, a charity that places professionals in developing countries in order to pass on skills in areas such as health and education.

"Teachers with some management experience, whether it be heads of department, heads or deputy heads, are involved in working with headteachers on school planning, curriculum development, teacher-training programmes, school inspection, financial management and teacher development," she says. "Most education volunteers work with `clusters' or groups of schools rather than being based in just one school."

It wasn't a process to be taken lightly. After a lengthy application process at VSO, Miss Hutchinson had to take part in a "preparing to volunteer" weekend, undertake several weeks of assessment, attend a further skills course and even do motorbike training. And this was before she found out she was being placed in northern Ghana. Despite this extensive training and preparation, nothing could prepare her for the reality of the rural life. "It took a while to get used to a slower pace of life," she says. "I also had to adjust to the very public life Ghanaians lead."

Miss Hutchinson worked on a development project in an infant school, which included training teachers from all over the region. "There isn't a culture of learning through play in the early years," she says. "The classrooms are dull and do not have proper floors, roofs or furniture. Many teachers are not paid regularly, so it's hard for them to remain motivated about doing the best for the children in their care. Many of the lessons in some infant schools are almost Victorian - sticks are used as a form of control, although it is officially condemned."

But she soon noticed she was making a difference. "I was training kindergarten teachers and placed an emphasis on child-centred activities. The teachers were really motivated - they needed lots of support to make changes in their own schools. The fact that someone had come in from abroad to improve the education system made people think differently about the teaching profession."

Ghanaian attitudes to the profession were nothing like the perceptions at home. "I heard accusations that teachers' pay would depend on which party they supported," she adds.

On her return, Miss Hutchinson was greeted with open arms by colleagues. "In my absence, they had managed to raise pound;500 for the project I was working on," she says. But although she soon fell back into her routine at Pendorlan, nothing was the same. "If I had the means to go back for another year, I wouldn't think twice about it," she says.

Deciding to take some time out from teaching is a brave move, especially given the potential costs involved. However, VSO provides its volunteers with flights, accommodation and an allowance to cover basic costs. UK public sector professionals, including teachers, volunteering for between seven months and two years are entitled to claim pension contributions providing they return to the public sector for a minimum of six months when they come back, Miss Rhodes-Jiao adds.

A survey by VSO and e-teach in October 2009 found that neither concerns about the value of sabbaticals nor economic issues were standing in the way of teacher applications for sabbaticals. Their key worry was the impact that the time away would have on their current role. So what makes a head more likely to say yes to a teacher's request? James Hooke, head of the Harrodian, a co-educational independent in Barnes, west London, says: "If I was approached by a long-serving member of staff who had devised a well-considered plan, I would be more inclined to accept it."

Consider the following: what will you do during your time away that will help you become a better teacher? Whether you learn a new language, study ancient Greek life or climb Mount Everest, how will you bring these experiences back to work and create a more engaging classroom?

"I would advise teachers to be proactive. Think about problems that might arise because of your absence and come up with solutions," Mr Hooke says. "You should also address your personal finances, how you will document your sabbatical, and a re-entry plan."

If you have designed a meaningful leave that enables you to bring something back to your teaching practice, it's a mutually beneficial arrangement. "Companies have used sabbaticals since the 1960s as a long- term strategy to attract, retain, and develop top talent, and as a temporary way, through voluntary leaves, of cutting salary costs in tough times. Schools can do the same," says Your Sabbatical's Ms Pagano. "Depending on the school's financial situation, teachers might be doing their employers a favour."

Ms Pagano has dealt with a number of volunteers who had been thinking of leaving the profession, tiring of the routine and pressures of the UK sector. But their experience made them stay longer on their return because it reinvigorated them and reminded them why they wanted to teach in the first place. So while it might seem like the worst possible time to take a career break, a well-considered sabbatical could be the best career move you make.

Sabbatical sensibilities

  • Map out your finances to see whether volunteering is financially viable.
  • Keep a record of the knowledge you have acquired to ensure your sabbatical is viewed as part of your continuing professional development.
  • Devise a re-entry plan.
  • Think about what you could do with your time off that will help you be a better teacher.
  • How will you bring your experiences back to work and create a richer classroom?
  • Be proactive - devise an action plan with problems that might arise and suggest solutions to these problems.
  • Research organisations which offer fellowships and grants to current and prospective volunteer teachers.
    • Your rights to a sabbatical

      • Although most schools support sabbaticals, it's at the discretion of your employer as to whether you can take leave of absence.
      • The final decision on whether you will be allowed a leave of absence with your job secured on return will rest with the governors.
      • Teachers requiring assistance in raising this matter with the headteacher should contact their union representative.
      • If you need to refresh your skills before returning to a school, the Training and Development Agency sponsors a number of returner courses.

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