Why not set your eyes on a distant horizon? Maureen McTaggart talks to three adventurers who swapped their resource-rich schools for the good life in Jamaica
Get him a rum punch and make it snappy!" As a marauding alligator gate-crashed his Caribbean waterside cocktail party, Jeff Gayle searched for his sense of humour. A week later, he had to search again when a Jamaican fisherman arrived at his lodgings with an order of fresh alligator, mistakenly placed during a beachside conversation in convoluted English and patois.
The island of Jamaica is never boring as Jeff and colleague Carole Newby and their families discovered during a year's teaching there. They were taking part in a teacher exchange scheme run on a regular basis by the League of Exchange for Commonwealth Teachers (LECT).
Every year LECT arranges 400 teacher exchanges across the 54 Commonwealth nations. The scheme allows you to try living abroad for a year knowing you will have a home and job to come back to - one of the conditions is that teachers have to agree to return and work for at least a year at their own UK school.
Christine Miller, deputy director of LECT, says: "The desire to escape from the UK system is not enough. Applicants must have five years' teaching experience; a commitment to development; be able to adapt to different cultures, climate and system, and be good ambassadors for their country. "
And, luckily for Jeff and Carole, UK teachers exchanging with colleagues from developing countries are paid their normal salary. Jamaican teachers enjoy a high status, but salaries are low by British standards, about Pounds 360 a month. High living costs force many to supplement their income with second jobs-ranging from office cleaning to private tutoring.
Secure in the knowledge that he wouldn't be financially worse off and fired with a desire to visit his father's home Jeff, 35, who taught maths for six years in a Bristol secondary, exchanged with a teacher from Black River High School in rural St Elizabeth, on the south of the island. Meanwhile, Carole, 36 and head of geography at John Mason School, Abingdon, exchanged rural Oxfordshire for Kingston College - a 2,000-pupil boys' school in the heart of Jamaica's turbulent capital. Carole went with her husband David, who was offered a job at Kingston College teaching A-level physics.
In Jamaica, the education system is roughly equivalent to the old split between grammars and secondary moderns in the UK, with secondary and high schools. All charge tuition and exam fees - about Pounds 12 a term, a week's salary for some islanders. It is common for students to leave their homes at five in the morning, walk four miles and, if they are lucky, get a lift the rest of the distance to reach school for at 8am at Black River and 7am at Kingston College.
Black River High School bears little resemblance in appearance or approach to the stereotype grammar school. With more than 1,500 pupils on role, 40-pupil classes are the norm. There are no computers and pupils have to share textbooks which they pay a fee for at the beginning of the year. And sometimes, for class read corridor or the shade of a cotton tree.
Kingston College is considered one of the four best high schools in the capital. Yet Carole and David Newby were struck by the disrepair of its buildings. Classrooms contained the most rudimentary of wooden desks, lined up on bare concrete. Windows were not shuttered; there was no overhead projector or other gadgetry - just a blackboard. Like Black River High, the day of the personal computer is a long way off from Kingston College. But it still turns out well-qualified students.
Jeff Gayle, coming from a school with two computers and a printer in each class, says: "These conditions would horrify British schoolchildren, but the Black River students took it all in their stride. Most of them were pretty dedicated because they see education as the one very likely tool they could use to make it in life. They are self-motivated, accepting that to succeed they have to work hard and take on more for themselves."
Neither Jeff nor Carole encountered any discipline problems.
"Barring a tropical storm, pupils are always on time and well turned out, " adds Jeff, "and there was no shortage of takers for additional lessons after school."
School generally ends at 2.30pm in Jamaica, but there is a culture of attending supplementary classes, particularly around exam time. In addition, both Jeff and Carole found that less red tape allowed more time to concentrate on the curriculum.
Jeff's two primary-age sons shared the Jamaican school experience, which still advocates corporal punishment. Jeff was seen as a soft touch by his Year 10 pupils, but they were keen to help him improve. "You've got to be more strict" they told him.
"When we told our friends we were going to Jamaica there were lots of comments about rushing down to the beach and having cocktails under a palm tree, " says Carole Newby. "They couldn't have been further from the truth - it was not a year-long holiday. Many things we take for granted here are not available in Jamaica. But the children were very appreciative of whatever you did for them. We got the impression that there was a regime of strong discipline in the home and the students exuded a sense of self control."
Both Jeff and Carole bear witness to a hard core of really dedicated teachers, but others exhibited what would be considered bad practice here. Classes were sometimes left unattended for long periods which in the UK would probably have resulted in chaos.
It can be harder to teach in Jamaica if you are trained to teach here. For instance, children are not taught to draw so they had problems representing shapes in Jeff's maths lessons. Initially, he did find it difficult to teach effectively without his accustomed resources.
A national shortage of geography teachers meant that Carole was seen as an expert. She found the syllabus old fashioned and content-heavy, assuming access to textbooks which were scarce in the school. There was one video-recorder between two sites, but no videos (an order was hastily despatched to England for some), and only one television.
David concluded that it is teaching that matters, not the fabric of the place. "There is no starvation in Jamaica, and it is easy to make a hand-to-mouth living. But the average person finds living very hard, so poverty determines the choices people have to make and that tends to make a difference to the value people put on things."
Both the Newbys say it was the best and most satisfying teaching they had experienced, because of the encounter with children who really wanted to learn. Says Carole, "The children's motivation was superb, but sometimes a good number of them were absent for various reasons. Bad weather and transport, or lack of it, played a large part in determining whether they could attend school. But, with 40 to a class, if all the children could get to school every day there wouldn't be enough space for them.
"We went to Jamaica because we wanted to go somewhere different, but we didn't realise it would change our lives. It makes you able to cope with very few resources. A good teacher can still teach well with just a blackboard and chalk," says Carole. No one mentions assaults on teachers, vandalism or classroom rebellion, now seemingly an ineradicable part of the English school life.
During her non-teaching time Carole collaborated with staff at the University of the West Indies to produce a geography study guide, which was distributed to schools island-wide using funds donated by the British High Commision.
Back home, both Carole and Jeff found it difficult to settle. "It felt like going backwards. My head was full of all the Jamaican experiences and in the UK everything was as I had left it," says Jeff, who is now teaching ICT at Hatcham Wood school in south-west London. For their part, Carole and David are about to set off to Singapore on another teaching adventure.
Prospective exchange teachers are advised to do some extensive research before taking up a post. Public transport is cheap but disorganised, so it is advisable to get a car. Where your exchange partner lives may be an important factor - either because the quality of housing is not the same standard as your own, or the fact that there is a high crime rate in some areas. "Never underestimate the potential of danger," says Carole.
She also warns that getting anything done takes time in Jamaica, "and queuing is endemic. You have got to be flexible, patient and adaptable. Do not go expecting life to be the same as back home - fit in with their system."
Although these exchange teachers discovered that life in Jamaica is not just sun, sea and sand, they still had a rich, rewarding experience they will never forget - and a few delicious moments at the beach or poolside to remind them that they were truly in paradise, with alligators.
League for Exchange for Commonwealth Teachers, Commonwealth House, 7 Lion Yard, Tremadoc Road, London SW4 7NQ. Tel: 0171 498 1101