Remote call of the classroom

6th August 2004 at 01:00
World travel seemed the best way to find a new vocation, but Louisa Leaman was in for a surprise

A wise man once said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. A few years ago, I decided teaching had become too tough. So I got going - on a very extended holiday. Ten months, in fact.

I pawed through a pile of tatty exercise books one last time and smiled inwardly, picturing myself on a tropical beach, flower in my hair, drinking from coconuts. The next day, I would leap sideways out of education and into the world with a backpack and a boyfriend. Waterfalls and canyons, mountains and lakes, remote rainforest villages in distant places, and not a single classroom door in sight.

My cautious mother was worried. "It's not exactly a career move, is it darling?" she said. But I assured her that this wouldn't be like the time I was retrieved from Heathrow after six weeks in Mexico: shaven head, a tattoo, family-sized hammock and alcohol poisoning. This would be different. This would be the start of my new life, doing ... whatever, as long as it didn't involve children.

Canada, first stop, offered dramatic mountain-scapes, the occasional bear, and a few unstructured conversations with toothless lumberjacks. Hawaii provided paradise beaches, painful coral cuts, and the most expensive hostel bed ever. But it was New Zealand that caught my attention.

A country of contrasts: remote but familiar, beautiful but rugged, cosy but awe-inspiring. My partner and I spent two carefree months exploring every inch of the North and South Islands, snow-covered beaches and tempestuous glaciers. I was seduced by the wholesome, outdoor approach to life: I would, I declared, become an organic farmer and surround myself with angora rabbits.

Then came adventure sports. Having bungeed, sky-dived, rafted and pot-holed my way through the natural beauty, farming was too tame. Stunt-double was the new me. But, alas, a nervous disposition for heights thwarted my plans, and with funds running low it was time to hop over to Australia and make use of my working visa (no teaching).

We settled in Melbourne, found a lovely flat in St Kilda and set about job hunting. Three weeks in, jobless - and soon to be penniless - we were resigned to take any work we could. My partner, an events organiser, reinvented himself as a "dish-pig" (Australian for washer upper). And I found myself changing nappies in a day nursery. Our dreams were beginning to rot, and no amount of sunny yellow paint could hide the fact that the "busy" house next door was a brothel. What we needed, we both agreed, was a holiday.

So we drained our bank accounts and took a two-week package to Queensland.

Sun and tropics renewed my enthusiasm (as well as my sun-tan), and inspired me to become a diving instructor - got the time, got the skills, all you need is hundreds of pounds. Ah. Slight problem.

With cheapness a priority, we fled to Thailand to get as much indulgence for our money as we could - the end of our trip in view. We battled with tuc-tucs (motorised rickshaws) in Bangkok, ate noodles on the banks of the Kwai, and kayaked between Krabi's dramatic rock formations.

After two weeks of lazing on a remote beach, I threw away my watch. I was at one with nature. I could tell the time by the sun. But something was haunting me. The return journey loomed, and that amazing life change still hadn't happened. Was I to re-emerge in London and slip quietly back into teaching? Face doing a job that I was good at, but hated? Did I hate it - or had I just lost my resolve?

The answers to these questions came at an unlikely moment, in a village in the hill-tribe region of Thailand's Golden Triangle. It was an unexpected reminder of where I truly belong. During our trek, we visited a simple wooden hut - the only school for children from across the rainforest.

With no running water, no electricity or roads connecting the scattered villages, this seemed like an ambitious affair - but it was vibrant and oddly recognisable. Children skipped barefoot around their sparse, one-cell building, amused by my blonde hair and sun-blocked nose. Our guide introduced me to their teacher as ... a fellow teacher.

I was asked to present myself to the class. I wrote my name on the blackboard, chalking my unfamiliar Western lettering. My "pupils" were enthralled and wanted more. They love to learn, explained the genial teacher in broken English.

In this raw environment, far from Western civilisation, the real motive for schooling emerged.

I came home and taught.

Louisa Leaman is a behaviour support teacher in east London NEXT WEEK: LIFE AFTER HEADSHIP

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