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If you've been out of teaching for a while and want to return, a little commitment and the right support can put your career back on course. Jill Parkin reports on what it takes to be a comeback kid

Tony Cook wants to put former teachers back on the career path. Many may have walked out of the classroom years ago to take other jobs, or raise children. The trouble is, too many think the return journey is going to be a stroll.

"Some teachers think, 'Oh, yes, I'll do a course and that'll be it'. It's not like that," says Mr Cook, who has seen 400 returners during his 10 years with Education Management Direct, a teacher recruitment and training agency.

Much has changed over the past decade - the use of computers, behaviour management, the curriculum and professional development are just a few of the areas in which ex-teachers' knowledge may need an update.

But, says Mr Cook, a good course can help. Others can help restore confidence and make you realise that you have as much to offer as ever, plus a wealth of life experience.

"The main thing is to be sure of your commitment," he says. "Be sure you can manage it. There are many personal considerations - chiefly time. You need to think how you are going to find time for the course, associated study and school placement time. Then, when it comes to working, how are you going to manage your home life?

"Many returners don't realise that a course only lays the foundations for their return. They need to continue their professional development with further appropriate courses that increase subject knowledge and enhance their skills. They need time when teaching to reflect on their practice.

And, most importantly, they need support by the school to make the transition into the classroom as smooth as possible.

"If you are coming back to teaching, you also need to consider how much work you want to do - and stick to that decision. If you're doing supply through an agency, make sure the agency does not put you into a difficult school. Ask if the agency provides some support. As a provider, we do not want to see returners placed in difficult schools to have all their new-found confidence destroyed in an instant."

Whitehall figures show that in England alone, around 379,600 qualified teachers are not teaching. During the past two years, 17,500 of them have undertaken returners' courses and 13,000 have made it back to the classroom. Courses last from six to 12 weeks and include at least two weeks on a supported school placement. Those on the courses receive a training bursary of up to pound;150 a week for a maximum of 10 weeks. They can also claim childcare support - pound;150 a week for every child under five and pound;70 a week for those between five and 14.

Kay Brown, head of Earlsdon primary school in Coventry, came back to the classroom herself in the early 1990s, and says there is now good support for teachers wanting to return. After five years out bringing up her children, her first job was as a nursery teacher. After that she did supply teaching, followed by two acting deputy head jobs, a permanent deputy post and finally, in 1995, the headship of Earlsdon.

"It can be a daunting prospect to come back into the classroom after a career break," she says. "But the LEA's support in bringing teachers up to speed with the national curriculum and helping them back into the workplace should encourage more people to take the same step I did."

Ruth Bunt, who runs Kitcat (Keeping in Touch with Teaching for Croydon Authority Teachers), says most of those on her courses are women coming back after raising children. She stresses that the years out of teaching can give you valuable skills you can use in the classroom.

"Bringing up children makes the teacher much more aware of physical, linguistic and social development. Of course things have changed. Some of the returners left the classroom before 1988 so did not deliver the national curriculum. Others left after this but before the literacy and numeracy strategies.

"When Croydon introduced the returning courses in 1992, the knowledge in the area of technology was scant. Teachers in the ICT session gingerly touched the keyboard, and the mouse ran away from their hands. Today, many teachers have computers at home."

Courses sponsored by the Teacher Training Agency, and listed on its website, cover such topics as the national curriculum, the national strategies and tests, assessment of pupils' performance, IT skills, and behaviour management. Others cover work-life balance and career planning.

So returning teachers should not see themselves as prodigal sons and daughters creeping back, but as welcome adventurers coming home with a cargo of extra goodies.

Useful sources of information: (for advice on courses and childcare grants); (for information on jobsharing and flexible working);

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