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A walk on the wild side

Taking off to teach in remote areas isn't just for the young, says Susannah Kirkman

Jenny Samways left a headship a couple of years ago to take on an education adviser's role in Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia. An unusual career move? Not so, according to Voluntary Service Overseas. Increasing numbers of experienced teachers in their 50s are leaving their jobs in the UK to work overseas.

"For some, it's the chance to refresh their motivation and teaching skills," says Lisa Stafford, manager of the maths, science and IT education team at VSO. "Others have a new opportunity to move into teacher training or curriculum development."

Experienced teachers have much to offer. "They are tremendously confident and have excellent inter-personal and social skills, as well as considerable insight and up-to-date knowledge which they can share. Teachers overseas find it very motivating to work with them. We can't get enough of them."

Jenny Samways, formerly head of Heathlands first and nursery school in Bournemouth, took early retirement at 50 to design an early years curriculum relevant to Mongolia's culture - which stretches from Spice Girls fans in the city to traditional nomadic herders still tending their animals on the steppe. Encouraging teachers to recognise the importance of parents to their children's education was one of the first steps; she helped local staff develop activities which parents could do with their children.

She also suggested using paper toys instead of importing plastic playthings from China. And she organised a study tour to England to show kindergarten heads how it is done in the UK. "I didn't want them to copy UK provision, but to gain ideas from it," says Ms Samways.

Surviving the harsh climate was another challenge as winter temperatures in Ulan Bator can fall to - 40C. Mongolian cuisine also took some getting used to. As an honoured guest, she was always offered the fattiest and most indigestible pieces of meat.

Judith Wheat, a primary head for 17 years in the Wirral, also found that she had to adapt to local customs when she took a job managing an educational resource project in rural Pakistan. As a single woman in a Muslim country, she was not expected to live alone, so she shared a compound with a village family.

Ms Wheat took early retirement at 51 to fulfil a long-held ambition to work in a developing country. "It wasn't a question of saving the world. It was more that I wanted others to benefit from the same sort of in-service training and support that I had always enjoyed as a teacher." She worked with 16 English-speaking schools in a remote area near the Chinese border, running in-service training showing staff how to adapt maths resources to their own culture and relate their lessons to the local environment. "You learn as much as they do; what you give, you get back," she says. "I learnt to be more patient and to appreciate that hard work doesn't always result in a flashy end-product."

One problem for older VSO recruits can be adapting to more basic living conditions. "By the time you reach your 50s, you're used to your creature comforts," says David Clow, 58, who taught English at a new university in Xinjiang, a remote area in north-west China, for two-and-a-half years.

Learning a new language can be difficult in your 50s, too. "I took lessons in Chinese but I never got beyond the stage of, 'What's your name and where do you come from?'," says Mr Clow. "Written Chinese is even more difficult because it is based on symbols, not on a phonetic alphabet."

Despite the challenges, teachers who have worked as volunteers gain enormously from the experience. Mr Clow jumped at the chance to extend his contract and is now looking for another post abroad. He particularly relished the chance to travel, and came home via Australasia and the United States.

Jenny Samways says the experience boosted her confidence. "I now realise that I can survive with my home links so far away," she says. "It was also an opportunity to meet and work with people from so many different cultures and walks of life."

Voluntary Service Overseas can be contacted on 020 8780 7500. Details of vacancies appear on its website: www.vso.org.uk

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