And now for something completely different

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Gap years are too good just to be taken by teenagers. More experienced teachers can benefit too, says Anna Cox

How about spending a year in a country you've longed to visit, taking time to explore it properly and soak up the culture, as well as having more time with your family and experiencing the best professional development you'll ever get?

It sounds like an improbable wish, but this is what teachers say of their experience of international exchanges when they temporarily swap their work and home life with someone else in another part of the world.

Teachers of all ages and situations try it. Some go on their own, others take partners and families. The idea of organising such a trip might seem daunting. But there are three institutions who do most of the hard work.

The League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers can arrange exchanges with any Commonwealth country, in any subject area. In practice, almost all exchanges are to Australia and Canada, with a few to New Zealand and some to South Africa and Jamaica. Participants continue to be paid their salary by their employer; therefore, exchanges are not viable with countries where wages are significantly lower.

Teacher Exchange Europe arranges exchanges only for secondary school level modern foreign language teachers to France, Spain and Germany. The UKUS Fulbright Teacher Exchange programme arranges exchanges to the US for most disciplines.

The first step is to choose a destination, find the appropriate organisation and determine its procedures. Next comes the crucial discussion with your head of department and headteacher. For most, this backing, with the support while overseas, is cited as the most important factor in a successful exchange.

There can be many benefits for the school and the wider community.

Providing students with contacts is of obvious benefit to language teachers, but it is also invaluable in raising awareness of different cultures. Added to this, participants are likely to be better teachers when they return.

In general, applying for an international exchange is similar to applying for a job. As well as the usual personal information and references, applicants need to include details of their accommodation and, if relevant, their family's needs.

The League and Fulbright do the matching by using a completed application form. Both require a minimum of three years' teaching experience. The league has 52 teachers on a year-long international exchange. Up to 100 applications are received each year. "Some people withdraw because their circumstances change and some subjects are more difficult than others to place," said the league's Christine Miller.

Costs include a programme fee of pound;350, air fares and insurance.

Travel grants are available for up to pound;1,500 but are highly sought after.

The Fulbright Teacher Exchange has 53 current exchanges, but not all are for a year. There is funding to support up to 70 teachers and it a high success rate for applicants because of demand from American teachers wanting to come to the UK. Travel costs are paid by the British Council.

Teacher Exchange Europe participants have to find their own exchange partner, but they need a minimum of two years' teaching experience, rather than three. They get between four and six applicants each year for five to 10 posts. The website provides tips on finding a partner and details of links of people looking to swap. The British Council provides funding for a preparatory visit to the exchange school, and travel to and from the exchange.

"I learnt things every day without even trying," said Stephen Moore, who spent his time in Orleans, France, in 2003-04 with his wife, Emma, and two children, then aged four and one. "I've come back refreshed, I had time with my family and time to travel."

Mark Dunning is teaching English in Valladolid in Northern Spain. "I know that when I return to the UK next September I'll have a whole new range of experiences to draw on, and that can only benefit my students," said the 53-year-old, from Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Andrea Duenschede, from Fulbright, said: "We actually see the difference in people on their return. They are refreshed and energised, with increased confidence and the belief that they can do anything."

Returning to the UK may involve a period of adjustment. "I remember feeling some frustration," says Terry Benton, who spent a year teaching English in Bay City, Michigan. "I came back full of ideas about how we could improve our system, but it felt like no one wanted to know. Nevertheless, it was an amazing experience."

A successful exchange requires good communication between and a high commitment from the two teachers, says Darren Coyle, senior programme officer at the Education and Training Group of the British Council, which administers TEXE. "Constant peer and senior management support for the exchange teacher in each school is also key to success. Adaptability, flexibility and openness to new teaching ideas are essential."

But, if a year seems too long, all the organisations offer a range of other programmes, including shorter exchanges and work shadowing.

Useful contacts

League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers: 7 Lion Yard, Tremadoc Road, London SW4 7NQ. Tel: 0870 770 2636 or 020 7819 3933; email:;

Teacher Exchange Europe: British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN.Tel: 020 7389 4447; email:; www.britishcouncil.orglearning-teach-in-a-european-school.htm

Fulbright UKUS Teacher Exchange: British Council, Norwich Union House, 7 Fountain St, Belfast BT1 5EG. Tel: 028 9024 8220 ext.226; email:; www.britishcouncil.orglearning-fulbright.htm

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