Life swap

1st October 2004 at 01:00
It may sound like the plot of the latest TV reality show, but British teachers are jumping at the chance to exchange jobs with their counterparts in the United States. Wendy Wallace reports

Want a change but don't fancy leaving your job? Scores of British teachers have found a little-known route into what many describe as a life-changing experience - even if many of the colleagues they have left behind look on it as an extended holiday.

The Fulbright teacher exchange scheme, in which teachers in the UK and the United States swap jobs for up to a year, has been running for 80 years; once restricted to women teachers, and on a timetable designed to encompass crossing the Atlantic by ship, the programme has evolved into a life swap that can be undertaken by teachers at all stages of their careers.

Photography teacher Fiona Henderson, 32, from Tameside FE college in Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester, applied for a Fulbright in 2001. She put "anywhere, US" in the location box on the application form, but was taken aback when she was offered a post at a community college in Key West, at the tip of the Florida Keys. "My reaction was, 'I'm used to having art galleries and theatres. What on earth am I going to do on a tropical island for a year?'" Despite the heat, Ms Henderson quickly got used to Paul Adams's studio flat -with pool - in the centre of Ernest Hemingway's home town. Her swap partner had more difficulty settling in over here. "Ashton is very wet," Ms Henderson admits. "My little flat is quite dark, and that got Paul down a bit."

Once term started, Ms Henderson found teaching in the US "fabulous"; the first thing she noticed was the lighter workload. "I had 12 hours' contact time, compared with 24 here. When I wasn't teaching, I was in my office or the studio; you were encouraged to do your own work. In the whole year, I didn't take any work home with me. It was heaven with the door shut."

Ms Henderson made the most of her time at the Florida college, fundraising to take 30 students on a week-long trip to Cuba, exhibiting and selling her work, and encouraging students to put on shows - not a common sight in many US colleges.

Despite high student numbers - she taught classes of up to 75 - teaching was easier than she'd been used to. "They don't have a lot of the bureaucracy we have, and it meant I really taught. I wasn't constantly thinking, 'Ofsted's coming, we've got an internal audit'. I got my hands dirty again."

US students - who in the junior college system pay around $600 (pound;335) a term - are used to a more passive style of learning than their UK counterparts. "They expected more traditional teaching, being sat in a classroom and told what to think. When I said, 'What do you think?' some of them thought I wasn't teaching properly." But colleagues assured her the students were thoroughly enjoying "whatever it is you do in your classes".

Since returning to Ashton, Ms Henderson has made repeated trips across the pond to see a man she met at one of her student's exhibitions, and to whom she is now engaged. "At some point we'll be in the same place," she says.

"Wherever that is."

The Fulbright exchanges, little-known here, are prestigious in the US. Over the years around 9,000 teachers from 30 countries have taken part in the scheme, designed initially to promote mutual international understanding but also seen as a valuable means of professional development.

The British participants - there are 56 places each year, most for a year but some for only six weeks - are given thorough briefings before departure by the British Council, which administers the scheme. Council staff emphasise the need to keep expectations low and to be flexible; they also brief the US participants on what to expect when they live and work here.

"Some will be surprised that they have to motivate the children to like a subject," says Mary McGeown, programme manager and head of education at the British Council in Belfast. "A lot want to come to English schools and teach Shakespeare. Some think we're still in the era of Mr Chips."

Having no equivalent to the national curriculum, US teachers invariably find the British system prescriptive. "For some, that is a life-raft. For others, it is restricting," says Ms McGeown, herself a former teacher.

British teachers find US schools formal, with restricted access to headteachers, but much greater parental access to teachers. "Parents can ring teachers in the classroom," she says. "What might be seen as interference here is understood as involvement."

British teachers also find they are relatively free to teach, with different staff taking care of children's other needs. "It is the absolute, inebriating freedom of being a teacher and not doing all the extra things you have to do here. That is what you hear when they come back," says Ms McGeown.

The organisers try to match applicants with partners in similar schools, as well as subject areas. Anyone with at least three years' teaching experience can apply for a Fulbright exchange. It is particularly popular with 40-pluses, who want a break, a release from prescriptive teaching, or to give their careers a fillip. The British Council tries to weed out those applying for what Ms McGeown describes as "the wrong reasons". And they are? "Escaping something -coming out of a relationship, difficulties in school, ailing parents. We try to keep people focused on the professional aspects."

Stephen Evans is a maths teacher at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple school in Bristol. He applied for an exchange for the 2002-2003 academic year because, after nine years' teaching, he wanted to see the world without having to leave his job, "and to find out what made Americans tick". His wife, Clare, on a career break to look after two children then aged four and one, was equally keen, and his school was supportive. "My head of department, headteacher and governors at every stage said it was fine. They could see the potential benefits for teachers and students and understood it as a good professional development opportunity."

Mr Evans was posted from his academic but non-selective, voluntary-aided school in Bristol to a private school for boys aged 13-18, based in the grounds of Washington National Cathedral, in DC. "It was like being an NQT again," he says. "The maths is pretty much the same but the systems were very different. You had more power to influence students because they have to pass the year, and every homework grade counts towards that. I had to be very tight in the way I graded tests because it could affect their entrance to college. I felt well supported, and that I was doing a good job of teaching students."

With two young children - one of whom missed the reception year at her English school - the Evanses had to be well organised. They spent a year planning the trip, taking out a bank loan to enable them to travel (to Niagara Falls, New York and Florida) while they were there, and to buy a car. In thew States, they got involved in residents' activities in the suburb of Potomac where they were staying, hosting cream teas - "clotted cream is difficult to get hold of there, and they didn't want to put much on their scones" - and cooking roast dinners for bemused new friends. "The Fulbright is designed to break down stereotypes, which it has definitely done for me," says Mr Evans. "On television, you see aggression and war in their foreign policy. But the American people are very welcoming."

It took the Evans family another year to get used to being back in England after their American odyssey. "There, you have the celebrity status of being the foreign teacher and the Fulbright teacher," says Mr Evans.

"People want to know all about you and about England. Any problems you have are only temporary. When you come back to your regular life, it is good to see everybody, but a week or two later it is almost as if you have never been away, as far as they are concerned. Life goes on for other people and they are not necessarily 100 per cent interested in all the wonderful things you've seen and done."

Applications for next year's Fulbright exchanges close in mid-November. For more details, visit: www.britishcouncil.orglearning-teachers.htm, or email:


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