When the going gets tough, pack your bags

11th February 2005 at 00:00

For teachers consumed by wanderlust or those considering whether the grass really is greener on the other side of the school fence, a career break can be the answer. Taking time out to see the world or gain experience of other working environments not only helps recharge the batteries, it can also be a great opportunity to develop confidence and learn new skills.

After teaching geography in a Manchester secondary school for three years, James Wilkinson had reached burnout. "The kids were challenging and I'd also taken on the post of assistant head of year, which took up a lot of my time," he says. "Then my head of department became ill. As the most experienced teacher in the department, I was expected to take over, something I didn't feel experienced enough to do.

"As the workload got bigger, my personal life began to suffer. I broke up with my fiancee, which had a lot to do with the hours I was putting in. I had no time for her. I gave in my notice, with no job to go to. When a friend said he was going travelling and did I want to join him, I jumped at the chance."

When Mr Wilkinson returned from his round-the-world trip, uncertain whether he wanted to return to teaching, he decided to temp. "After several months, I began to realise I missed teaching," he says.

"Temping in an office was a real eye-opener. I began to miss the buzz of the school environment, and above all, working with children. I saw how blinkered many of my colleagues were, unwilling to embrace change or new ideas. It brought home to me what open and forward-thinking places schools were. I knew that was where I wanted to be."

Nevertheless, he was hesitant about applying for another teaching job. "I kept thinking, 'Will headteachers be suspicious of me, wondering why I took time out? Will they think my heart's not in it?'"

According to Ian Bauckham, headteacher at Bennett Memorial diocesan school, an 11-18 comprehensive in Kent, he needn't have worried. "I'd actually be very interested in an applicant who'd had a gap year," he says. "Taking time out to see the world or other working practices can only be a good thing.

"Working in a completely different setting or profession can help teachers decide whether teaching is the job for them, which is great from a headteacher's point of view. It's particularly good when people have taught in other countries, as it's so valuable to have an insight into other education systems, which can be shared with colleagues and students.

"I wouldn't regard backpacking as any less useful, as that can be a great confidence builder. There's personal and professional enrichment to be gained from experiencing other cultures."

He speaks from personal experience; five years into his own teaching career he took a break to "decide whether teaching was the career for me". "It was 1989 and the Berlin wall had just come down. I had this idea that I wanted to get into East Germany and see what it was like, so I took a job in a school there. It was an amazing experience, to see this country still entrenched in Stalinism," he says.

"After that, I travelled round India for a while and taught English in Spain. When I returned to England, I felt sure teaching was the career for me and had all these amazing experiences to bring to my work. In fact, I'm so convinced of the value of gap years, I've just released one of my history teachers for an eight-month sabbatical abroad."

Hazel Pulley, the head at Caldecote community primary school in Leicestershire, is equally as positive about gap years, which she feels can help "broaden visions and horizons". She does, however, admit to looking more carefully at applications from teachers returning from career breaks.

"If I get an application like this, I'm interested in finding out why the teacher felt the need to take a career break. I don't mind honesty," she says. "If an applicant said they took a break because teaching didn't live up to their expectations, I'd be interested to know why, but wouldn't rule them out on that account. I'd want to hear what they enjoyed about the job, what they didn't and why they wanted to return. If it was an issue of workload, I wouldn't be surprised - this is an issue for many teachers. I'd be interested in how they could make life easier for themselves this time round and how I could help them."

For this reason, says Ian Bauckham, it is a good idea for returning teachers to include reference in their application to what they feel they gained from their career break and how this could enhance their teaching skills. "Try to anticipate the questions you think your interviewers will have about your career break and prepare some answers," he says. "This should demonstrate your commitment to a return to teaching and help prevent any awkward moments."

This strategy worked for Mr Wilkinson, who had no difficulty securing another teaching job: "I don't regret taking time out. Teaching can be all-consuming and this break helped to clear my head. I've got things into perspective now. I manage my time better and don't take myself so seriously."

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