Don't burn your boats

31st March 2006 at 01:00
A rush to teach overseas can make it harder coming back

Close your eyes and you're already there... in paradise. You can feel the sun on your cheeks and taste the rum on your lips. In paradise, there's no more school for the day, no preparation for the next, and an empty beach waiting for you.

Thirty-eight years old and single, David Wareham is dreaming of such a new life on the other side of the planet. At the moment he's in the middle of teaching practice at a comprehensive in Harrow. "I've been treading water doing Tefl (teaching English as a foreign language) in Oxford. Now I want to travel again, but to do it properly this time, rather than as a glorified backpacker like last time."

David wants better wages and job security the next time he teaches abroad than the Tefl package can give him. A job at a school in Asia run on the lines of Harrow or Dulwich would be his dream. That's why he's almost at the end of his first term of his English with drama PGCE at the Institute of Education in London. He wants to get going - after all, there is a lot of the world to see. So David has been thinking of leaving without doing his NQT year.

Naturally, he's not thinking about returning to the UK before he's even left.

"I haven't thought about what I'll do when I get back. Anyway, I'm not interested in climbing the greasy pole or even teaching for the rest of my life."

So will David be seen as a safe bet or a risky option when he returns to the UK in a few years' time? In a recent independent survey for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), an estimated 40 to 60 per cent don't teach here again after working abroad, compared with 73 per cent of teachers who have done such placements.

According to a VSO spokesperson, teachers who have done placements for them are seen as bringing commitment and expertise back to the UK, as well as new skills. So it shouldn't be a surprise that expat teachers who don't have such a brand behind them may be seen as a risk.

For some heads, overseas experience on an application form may raise the issue of whether expat teachers still know what an English classroom is like and whether they can cope with one. For others there may be a question mark as to the real reason they turned their back on the UK, whatever it may say on the application form. This can result in expats being seen as a bit of a risk by schools compared with the safe bets of newly qualified teachers and all the others who've stayed within the system. Not only that, if those years abroad have to count, schools may perceive them as expensive risky options.

So what can teachers do now for when they return from their adventures? Forget the beach for a second. If you're thinking of going overseas to teach you need to think about why you're going, and then match this up with where you're going and the type of school you're going to.

Simon Dweck knew why he wanted to teach overseas, and where. He'd completed his PGCE in history just as the subject was taken out of the core curriculum. His target was Japan. "If I couldn't teach here, I'd teach in Japan. I naively thought that teaching was teaching."

Simon went with the JET (Japanese Exchange Teaching) programme to Nagasaki.

He realised he might have a problem when he saw that he was the only one with a PGCE - all the placements were for language assistants. By then he was halfway around the world.

"After a couple of years I decided to come back. I thought it wouldn't be difficult for me to find a job as a teacher as I had such a huge range of experiences. I hadn't realised that in the state sector that you were seen as a risk if you hadn't done your NQT year, even though I'd been teaching for the whole of that time."

"It's essentially a perception problem," says Albert Hudspeth of the Council of British Independent Schools in the European Communities. "Many people in the UK are not aware of how much is going on outside the UK. But attitudes are changing. All the Australian, New Zealand and Caribbean teachers coming here are seeing to that."

It's no wonder then that so many VSO teachers return to the classroom when they come home. Schools trust the brand because they only recruit qualified and experienced professionals, and their placements aren't easy options.

Their recent decision to stop recruiting newly qualified teachers clearly shows this.

Not only that, the professional development supported by the NASUWT during and after their placements gives their volunteers the edge over many other expat teachers. A VSO spokesperson says it helps them explore their roles and goals, progress and areas of strength and potential growth.

David Wareham is looking forward to the end of his PGCE and the start of his travels.

Stay on top of things

* Don't leave without doing your NQT year.l Keep paying into the Teachers'

Pension Fund.l Don't sell your house, rent it.l Think about your reasons for going.l Research your options.l Talk to heads for their views the experience.l Take every advantage for professional development when overseas.l Keep up-to-date via the internet.l Think about what to do next before you return.l Register with a UK agency.

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