As the Fulbright programme celebrates its 60th year of teacher exchanges, the number of transatlantic job swappers is in serious decline. Steven Hastings finds out how a taste of stateside culture can build bridges
The chance of a year in the United States doesn't grab teachers like it used to.Two decades ago more than 100 British teachers jetted across the Atlantic; this year there will be just 30. Spending a year overseas, knowing you still have your old job to go back to, seems too good to be true. So why aren't teachers scrambling to get on the plane?
"Schools are less keen than they used to be," says Deborah Gadd of the British Council, which runs the Fulbright programme in the UK. "There's so much pressure now, with Sats and inspections. Heads don't want to lose a good teacher when the exchange partner is an unknown quantity."
The Fulbright programme has had to move with the times. Until recently there were only one-year exchanges, but now teachers can opt for a one-term swap, or even just six weeks. But shorter is not necessarily sweeter. Those who play safe often regret it and begin frantic negotiations to extend their stay. Since everyone agrees the first few weeks are the toughest, it makes little sense to be heading home when you've just got settled.
UK teachers, in particular, find that once they have their feet under the desk, they're in for a good time. "Teaching in the US is less stressful,"
says Ms Gadd. "There's little paperwork and lots of freedom about what you teach and how you teach it. When American teachers come over here, they get quite a shock."
Primary swaps are usually straightforward, and exchanges between PE staff are always a big hit, with UK pupils trying their hands at baseball, while American children get their heads around cricket. Some secondary subjects can be trickier. Geography, for example, is known as "earth science" in the US and covers quite different topics.
It's not only classroom compatibility that makes a successful swap. Pairing people of a similar age means the visiting teacher is more likely to be looked after by their exchange partner's friends. It's an approach that works well - sometimes too well. "Coming home to find your friends all talking about someone you barely know can be strange. It can put your nose out of joint," says Ms Gadd. Stranger still can be coming home to new wallpaper. Most teachers swap houses as well as jobs, which saves money but can cause friction. "You do get the odd problem. We have to warn people not to go putting up shelves."
As experienced matchmakers, the Fulbright team do all they can to help. If you teach in rural Norfolk, you're unlikely to find yourself thrust into downtown Brooklyn. "Putting people in a very different school would be too cruel. It's hard enough getting used to a world without roundabouts."
While five-lane freeways may test your nerve, at least you can read the road signs. "The shared language makes exchanges possible, but it's also a potential pitfall. It means you're less prepared for cultural differences.
Americans are always surprised by the banter you sometimes get between teachers and pupils here. In the US, you wouldn't say anything remotely negative to a pupil, even in jest."
Getting to the heart of another country, rather than relying on presumptions and stereotypes, is what an exchange is about. "It helps build bridges between the US and the UK, which is important right now," says Ms Gadd. "Children see that not all Americans are like George Bush. Exchanges bring an international dimension to the classroom and schools which swap teachers often strike up long-term partnerships"
But for all the advantages in terms of internationalism and professional development, the biggest gain is personal. "Teachers always return refreshed and bursting with enthusiasm. An exchange is a life-enriching experience."
www.britishcouncil.orglearning-fulbright.htm. The deadline for applications is November 15 for exchanges beginning the following autumn.
You should have been at your current school for at least two years and have the approval of your head and governors
High-fives in the corridor
James Bumstead, a teacher at Fernwood junior school in Woollaton, Nottingham, chose a year's exchange with Hillside elementary school, in Needham, Massachusetts.
"I'd lived in Nottingham all my life, so just wanted a new experience.
After six years' teaching in the UK, it took me out of my comfort zone.
"The school was wonderful. Class sizes were smaller, around 20, and there wasn't such a gap between pupils and teachers, so you got plenty of high-fives in the corridor. I broadened the kids' horizons - many of them didn't even know where England was.
"I swapped houses with my partner, which worked well. We also swapped other things, which was more tricky. She bumped my car, and I had an accident on her bicycle. But we'll sort it out. I went with nothing and just bought clothes out there. I didn't even open an American bank account, I just used my credit card.
"I travelled up and down the East Coast, and to Chicago, and in the winter vacation I learned to ski, up in the New England hills. It was great, and heading home was hard. But I came back with real confidence. If you can cope on another continent, you feel you can handle anything.
"My advice to anyone starting an exchange is to do some research. I hadn't realised it would be down to - 20deg in winter! And try to say 'yes' to invitations. Above all, remember that whatever happens it's just one year.
It's flown by."
It's better in the burbs
Andy Leggatt, headteacher at Longwell Green primary school, Bristol, made a six-week workshadow visit to Wood Creek elementary, near Detroit.
"In the US, schools are funded by local taxes. Our partner school was in a wealthy suburb so it had fabulous facilities, and specialist music, sports and art teachers. Yet 10 miles away in downtown Detroit, schools had high fences and guards on the door. It was two different worlds. It made me realise that in the UK, schools are actually very equal in terms of resources.
"I was impressed by Wood Creek's use of ICT and by their literacy programme. Last year, I encouraged three of my staff to visit Wood Creek as part of the Teachers' International Professional Development programme, to see first-hand what they were doing. Another benefit of my going away for six weeks was that it allowed my deputy to have a taste of running the school on their own. It was great professional development for both of us.
On a six-week workshadow you stay at the home of the principal whose school you're visiting. I found it hard to be independent, especially since there was no public transport. But that kind of inconvenience is nothing compared to the richness of the experience."