Avoid burn-out on re-entry

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Will a career break inject new life into your teaching? Heads report that returners' years outside school definitely boost their classroom performance, writes Janet Murray

Come on, admit it. You've dreamt of doing a well-paid, high-status job that doesn't include evenings and weekends, haven't you? If this is more than an occasional fantasy, you are probably thinking about changing careers. But what happens if you make the break and find that the grass isn't greener on the other side, after all?

Lucy Tucker completed a PGCE in 1998 and took a job in a Hertfordshire comprehensive. But after two years of teaching French, she found herself tired and disillusioned.

"I was often working 15 or 16-hour days - it was ridiculous," she says. "I wanted to do the job well, but no matter how hard I tried, there was always a backlog of work. I knew I needed time out."

So Ms Tucker resigned and spent an unforgettable year backpacking around Australia and Asia. When she returned, she got an office job in a university and told herself that her teaching days were over.

"It appeared to be the perfect job," she says. "No work to take home, no hassle with students but I was still involved in education.

"But after a while, I felt bored. Working in an office is so different - the pace is slower and there isn't that buzz you get from working with children. My time out travelling and working in a different context gave me the space to reflect.

"I was fresh out of college when I started teacher training, so my experience of life was limited. I realised that I'd pushed myself too hard in my first teaching post and I was often too proud to ask for help."

Ms Tucker is now considering a return to teaching, but is concerned that headteachers will be put off by the two-year gap in her career.

But Geoff Wybar, head of Gravesend grammar school in Kent, thinks a career break can be positive.

"Schools are not just in the business of academic education - we're also educating children for life. So it's great to have teachers from a variety of backgrounds. And a career break can refresh and revive, and provide teachers with a fresh perspective."

He does, though, admit to looking carefully at applications from teachers with breaks in their career.

"I'd have no qualms about calling someone for interview who'd had a break from teaching," he says. "But I'd want to know why they wanted to return and see evidence that they missed working with young people before I offered them a post."

With some 380,000 qualified teachers not teaching, the Teacher Training Agency is keen to attract returners. And for those considering such a move, the agency offers returners' courses, bursaries, and help with childcare costs.

"In the past few years, more former teachers have been returning to the profession," says Mary Doherty, its director of recruitment and supply.

"Returners make in important contribution to the workforce. Heads, pupils and parents benefit from their experience."

A career break helped Nicola Green, a music teacher, to decide whether teaching was really the right job for her - and it eventually secured her a promotion. "The life of a music teacher is incredibly hectic," she says.

"As well as marking and planning, there are countless rehearsals and concerts to organise.

"After three years of teaching, I wondered if I'd made the right decision.

I loved working with children, but I'd always wondered whether I could make it as a professional violinist. But the demands of a teaching job meant I rarely had time to practise."

Ms Green took a year out to concentrate on playing, taking a part-time job in events management and a lodger to cover her mortgage. But within a few months she was was feeling restless: "It was great to spend more time playing, but my job was dull and didn't challenge me at all. I missed working with children and the camaraderie of the staffroom."

When a post as head of music came up at a local school, a former colleague persuaded her to apply, but Ms Green worried that the head might be put off by her career break.

"In my interview, I stressed that my year off had confirmed my belief that teaching was a rewarding career in which I could exploit my talents to the full."

Her candour paid off: she got the job and is now enjoying the challenge of leading a department:

"After the interview, the head told me he was impressed that I had the courage to take time out to decide if teaching was right for me. He also felt the skills I'd acquired would help me in running a department."

Geoff Wybar at Gravesend grammar school believes that returners to the profession have other advantages, too.

"It's great to have teachers with experience of different types of work," he says. "But one of the problems of recruiting from industry is that people tend to think teaching will be an easy option - but those who've already done it know it's not."

He advises returners to play up the skills they've gained while out of the classroom and to give examples of how this adds to their teaching skills.

If you've worked in employment, for example, you would certainly have developed skills in organisation and planning, and perhaps in leadership, teamwork and problem-solving. A round-the-world trip might have boosted your confidence, resilience and your independence. And returning after bringing up a family could hardly fail to increase your understanding of how children develop and learn. So obvious, but it needs stating.

Nicola Green says: "Don't be apologetic about it. Teaching is much more than a nine-to-five job - it's a way of life, and you don't enter into it lightly. If nothing else, a career break gives you a chance to think about what you want from a job and to make informed choices. And headteachers should recognise that."

For more details, call the Teacher Training Agency, 0845 6000 991 or see: www.useyourheadteach.gov.uk;www.tta.gov.uk; www.canteach.gov.uk

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