Of faxes, filling in forms and foreign fields

5th May 1995 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh finds that the lure of a sun-soaked job overseas may mean difficulties when trying to return to this country. Going off to teach abroad for a while can be a life-enhancing move. But it may give you a career development problem, especially if you are already several rungs up the job ladder.

In 1991, Stuart Barker and his wife rented out their house, sold their car and gave up well-paid and secure posts to work in a small international school in Athens. They did two years out there. Now, almost two years after their return, although his wife has a permanent job, Stuart Barker is still looking. At the time he left, Stuart was head of physics in a comprehensive school, and his wife was a senior teacher of English. Both had 13 years' experience.

They had an interesting couple of years abroad - he particularly liked "being able to spend time on teaching - there were no committees or anything. We just got on with the job."

Eventually, though, the time came to return. But Stuart, particularly, had great difficulty in finding a job at all, let alone anything in line with what he was previously doing. To begin with, the couple tried applying for jobs from Greece. "The TES usually got out there by the following Tuesday, so that was our first port of call. Obviously, the big problem was getting details out there and then sending things back."

The fax machine made this easier, but even so schools varied in their willingness to use it for long documents. "You'd get schools that weren't willing to send out details unless you sent a stamped addressed envelope. " Neither was it always easy to phone. "Most quite deliberately didn't put their phone number on the advertisement." And while some schools, mindful of the time problem, would accept a CV and letter, there were others that continued to insist on a properly filled-in form. One way round all of this, Stuart Barker suggests, is to have a friend at home keeping in touch and faxing out bits of The TES on the day of issue. He has done this recently for a colleague who, after 200 applications for a chemistry post, was eventually appointed to one, having flown to England for his only interview. "They had spent a lot of time on the phone talking to him, and they were fairly certain he was the person they wanted." (Perhaps significantly, this was an independent school).

Stuart Barker had no interviews back at home while he was in Greece. Schools do not want to put candidates to unnecessary expense, he believes. Overseas candidates' expense claims are usually only met from a British airport.

Back in England, the job hunt started. Although his wife was successful fairly quickly, Stuart Barker continued to be frustrated by the apparent lack of interest - to the point where an application to a re-advertised standard scale post evoked no response at all. "It seems very wasteful that I'm a well-qualified physics teacher and yet I don't have a job." Part of the problem, he feels, is that potential employers do not readily understand why he went abroad in the first place.

"Youth is an advantage. If you're in your twenties, any experience is seen as good. But in our case, people couldn't quite understand why we wanted to leave the career ladder." He thinks, too, that some heads may be worried about having a former head of department coming into the team. "They might think I would be dissatisfied."

The picture is gradually improving. A teacher who, as it were, re-appears after a break from the conventional career path first seems to have to make a local impact through whatever supply and temporary work is available. This then provides a springboard for further progress. Stuart Barker says: "Teaching has always been like that - heads like to appoint someone who has been recommended by another head in their own area."

The returning teacher therefore, unless he or she strikes lucky, may have to be resigned to this. The pity is that that it demonstrates nothing so much as lack of vision - some heads at interview worry about detailed knowledge of the national curriculum, for example, when this is surely far from being one of the most important attributes of an excellent teacher. Neither do they give credit either for the rigorous nature of the selection procedure for most jobs abroad, or for the mind-broadening nature of the jobs themselves. Stuart Baker himself, though, hardly mentioned any of this to me.

"I've never felt resentful. I knew when I went that it would be a risk. Nobody owes me a job. What I will say is that neither of us has any regrets. If we'd ignored our feelings and not gone, we might have become embittered. We've got something out of our system and educationally it was beneficial for both of us."

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