A Commonwealth exchange can boost your promotion chances. Susannah Kirkman reports
Feeling stale? Looking for a challenge? A Commonwealth teacher exchange could be the answer, and the best news is that it could also significantly improve your chances of promotion when you return.
Research carried out by the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers (LECT) shows that about 50 per cent of teachers who had taken part in an exchange had received some kind of promotion within three to five years of their return.
"The experience changes them quite profoundly," explains Patricia Swain, LECT's director. "They come back with exciting new ideas and gain in confidence and maturity."
Angela Vanden Akker went from a class of 33 nine-year-olds at a Greenock primary school, Strathclyde, to a class of 20 10-year-olds in a remote community in Western Australia, two and-a-half-hour's flight from the nearest city. "It was the best year of my life. It was a culture shock at first. I was quite alarmed by the remoteness. But at the end of the year, I was devastated to leave," she says.
The biggest shock was the informality; parents were free to walk in and see teachers at any time, often in the middle of lessons. Discipline was different, with the emphasis on encouraging the positive rather than focusing on negative behaviour.
Angela believes that increased confidence has been the main benefit of her time in Australia: "The whole experience has taught me that I'm capable of far more than I thought. I am no longer daunted by new things and I can cope better with curricular changes."
Angela has now introduced a reward system into her class in Greenock, with a prize at the end of the week for good behaviour. She has also brought back a new sports programme which she is sharing with her colleagues at Oakfield School. Since her return, she has taken on the challenge of a top primary class for the first time. "I felt if I could teach older children in Australia, I could do it here," she says.
Ian Masters felt tested from the first day of his stay in Auckland, New Zealand, when he found that Maori and music were two of the subjects on his timetable. A PE specialist with 13 years' experience, he went from a thriving middle school in Northampton to a high school on the "at risk" register which was inspected during his stay.
The ethnic composition of the pupils was another change, as 80 per cent were of Maori or Pacific Island origin. "I had to be prepared to expect anything, " he says. "I had to cope with science and other things which I would never have imagined teaching."
As well as a tremendous sense of achievement, Ian believes he has gained a sense of perspective: "When I got back, I re-evaluated everything I'd done over the years. I think my teaching is now less formal and I feel less hassled. New Zealanders have a different mentality; everything is slower and family means a lot more."
One added bonus is that the project he completed on his return, comparing local management of schools in New Zealand with the UK, has proved relevant to the MBA he is now studying for.
After her year at a small rural secondary school in Queensland, Christine Powell returned to her science post at Allerton Grange High School in Leeds feeling refreshed and enthusiastic. "I was very jaded when I went but when I got back I was a lot keener," she says.
Christine found that her stay in Australia made her appreciate some aspects of English education - such as public examinations.
"I didn't realise how objective our exams were until I saw what happened in Australia, where teachers set and mark the final senior exams, the equivalent of our A-levels."
John Brettle is another science teacher who says his year in Australia has had a considerable impact on his teaching. He went from Cockermouth School in rural Cumbria to an inner-city Sydney school where many of the pupils spoke English as a second language.
The challenge of teaching poorly-motivated, lower-ability groups in Sydney gave him a lot of ideas for dealing with less able pupils at his own school. He was promoted to head of science soon after his return, but he did find there was a downside to coming back. "I felt tired and unsettled for about a term," he admits. "There were constant references to things which had happened while I was away which people still expected me to know about."
Angela Vanden Akker felt rather flat when she got back. "There seemed a lack of challenge," she says. "And although colleagues were pleased to have me back, they were obviously missing my exchange partner, who was very popular with the staff and parents."
But Angela still sees a teaching exchange as overwhelmingly positive. "Nobody comes back the same person; I feel I was unrecognisable when I returned. "
Commonwealth exchange - how it works
* You should be between 25 and 45 with at least five years' teaching experience.
* You will continue to receive your usual salary tax free (provided you stay in the foreign country for more than 365 days).
* Travel costs are paid by central government.
* Exchanges are available in about 27 countries, lasting from between three months to a year.
* LECT arranges a support network of exchange teachers in the country you visit.
* For further information write to: The League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers, Commonwealth House, 7 Lion Yard, Tremadoc Road, Clapham, London SW4 7NQ. Tel: 0171 498 1101.