Why the best teachers are over 50

The Telegraph, 23.07.15, if you're thinking about moving jobs then consider teaching - it's crying out for mature professionals looking for a new challenge, says Eleanor Doughty. HMC member Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter's School, York is quoted and HMC member schools Felsted, Sedbergh and Wellington College feature. 

They say that if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life. But what if your first career isn’t the one that your heart really desires?

For those looking for a new challenge, a change of direction – in retirement or before it – can provide a welcome new perspective on the working world. For many people, teaching is this gleaming opportunity.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan recently stuck her head above the grey parapet to speak to the over 50s, urging them to return to the classroom to help solve supply shortages. But it was reported last week that more than 10,000 teachers in their fifties have left the classroom over the last four years, amid fears over high workloads and unsupportive young heads.

Figures from the Workforce Census show that the number of teachers aged between 50 and 59 plunged from 87,397 in 2011 to 75,5000 last year, a drop of three per cent of the workforce. Strikingly, it is the only age group in which the numbers have dropped, and teachers aged over 60s even enjoyed a minute increase from 10,839 to 10,900.

If you are considering making a move to another profession, or have retired and are looking for a new challenge, teaching can be extremely fulfilling. While the figures don’t sell it well, TeachFirst, the celebrated training scheme and subject of last year’s BBC programme Tough Young Teachers, does. Last year, 20 per cent of its cohort were career changers.

Their brilliant two-year Leadership Development Programme welcomes older applicants, and ambitiously combines the classroom training of the usual TeachFirst programme with mentoring, personal and business skills to boost leadership skills and professional development. In the first year, participants work towards gaining a PGCE and in the second, there’s the opportunity to study for a Masters.

TeachFirst isn’t the only route, though. Tom Bennett, the Department for Education’s new behaviour ‘Tsar’, moved from working as a nightclub manager in London to being a teacher aged 30.

“Running night clubs was fun but not fulfilling,” he explains, “I saw the adverts for teaching and a light just went off in my head. As soon as I started looking into it, the decision was made – I realised that this is what I had been missing out on for years.”

The link between running London nightlife and teaching is obvious enough too – it’s all about people management, and Bennett compares managing a classroom to the running of a ‘room’ in a nightclub.

He went back to university, after a decade of working full time, and returned to student halls in London at the Institute of Education. “I couldn’t wait to get into schools,” he says. And now, 13 years on, he’s still teaching, and working in a school in Dagenham.

It is more common than you might think, to find second-profession teachers working in schools. They are spread right across the academic sphere, too.

Jason Gallian, former England cricketer, is now a geography teacher and head of cricket at Felsted School in Essex, where he has spearheaded the girls’ cricket programme. Inspired by years of playing international cricket, he retired in 2009 and took up his position at the 450 year old school the next year.

He is not alone. Rob Murphy, housemaster and politics and international relations at Wellington College in Berkshire spent a decade working in Whitehall, particularly in foreign affairs, before he came to teaching. “I loved working for the Foreign Office,” he explains, “but knew that – unlike teaching – it wasn’t something you can come back to easily in your thirties.”

Aged 34, Murphy started at Wellington. “I had always wanted to teach but had wanted to do other jobs in my career first,” he says. “ The variety of teaching attracted me, and the potential to keep doing the things that I am passionate about.”

A couple of hundred miles north, Lotte Wright, the 30 year old assistant headmistress and housemistress at Sedbergh School in Cumbria, also came late to teaching. The former luxury tour operator had grown up in a family of teachers and always knew she’d find her way in, but progress was initially derailed.

“I accidentally got caught in the glamour of the travel industry – what started out as a money earner in London for a few months turned into three years! As much as I enjoyed the worldwide travel, my heart was never in it and I desperately wanted to move into school life.”

For older members of staff, the road to promotion can be swift. “Within one year I was a fully-fledged teacher, within three years I was a housemistress looking after a boarding house of 65 girls and within six years I was the assistant headmistress,” she says. “One lucky break to get me into the school has afforded me a world of opportunities,” she says. “I’m still young and hopefully have a long teaching and school management career ahead of me."

Moving into teaching doesn’t even have to be a full time thing, either. 30 year old Saj Devshi has been a probation worker for eight years, and started working at a local charity, Alpha Tutorials in his space time, helping students to improve their education.

He realised that the skills he had picked up working with offenders, challenging their thinking and their belief systems, would be really helpful for a classroom environment.

“If you can handle and challenge highly dangerous groups of offenders in a positive way then you can deal with student questions and queries easily. I consider myself quite lucky in this respect as my day job working with challenging offenders has really made handling more ‘pro-social’ people who actually want to learn far easier."

Those teachers that come to the profession a little later are of huge benefit to both the schools and their pupils, says Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter’s School in York. “School teachers are sometimes accused of ‘not living in the real world’, and those who come late to teaching bring with them valuable ‘real world experience’ which is of benefit to the children and also to their colleagues. Teachers who are able to draw on other life experiences are likely to bring new colours and textures to the life of a school.”

“In my experience they tend to be passionate about learning the craft of teaching; often they can connect with, and motivate, the pupils who are harder to reach.”

At St Peter’s, they’re taking this approach right on, having recently appointed a teacher of Business Studies whose 20 years’ experience “provides a treasure trove of real life examples” and three existing members of staff whose first careers were in the legal profession.

“Second career teachers can inject a different energy and stop the staff room from being parochial or set in its ways,” Winkley says. “From my point of view, it’s a win-win: benefit to the pupils; benefit to the staff.”

As a politics and international relations teachers, having worked abroad really helps to bring the subject to life, Murphy says. “I was in Pakistan when Osama Bin Laden was captured and wrote the first telegrams back to London reporting his death. [The outside world] broadens your judgement, and teaching is all about the small judgements that can have a massive impact, and your horizons. The most important thing I try to do is help pupils become aware of the enormous potential, opportunities and complexities of the world beyond the school bubble.”

“Teaching is a career which needs people who are genuinely passionate about their subject and about enthusing young people,” Wright adds. “Those with experience in other industries have so much else they can offer in and out of the classroom, but passion and ability to deliver must come as the priority.”

And for that, there's absolutely no age limit.

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