Chris Forsyth reflects on his move to the classroom with Now Teach

My metamorphosis from a grizzled, senior business lawyer to teaching history at a South London academy was something I reflected upon recently when I attended the first conference held by Now Teach – the charity set up to recruit and support experienced career-changers. I led a session looking at how we could best be of use to the system in the context of the retention crisis.

As an ex-lawyer, I will start with a disclaimer: I am totally convinced of the validity and value of the Now Teach initiative. Importing an older generation of “seasoned” careerists to bolster our teaching resources and redress the age imbalance highlighted by the recent OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) report can benefit our schools hugely.

For me, re-engaging with my degree subject (history), learning a new skill set, theory and practice, from scratch, and testing myself every day in front of classes of sharp, sceptical, often resistant students, was energising and rewarding. Every day brought little victories … and little challenges.

One challenge at the front of my ‘reflection queue’ was the feeling that I hadn’t utilised my wider skills and experience as much as I’d hoped; a missed opportunity for me, the students and the school. At the time, it felt like there was a resistance to my participation and contribution but looking back, I wondered if I’d assimilated into my teacher group as well as I’d hoped.

We teachers from Now Teach lie outside the UK’s general teaching staff profile. At 57, I was at least a quarter of a century older than almost every other teacher in my school. Many of us are parents, with children mostly at university and beyond.

We were culturally different too. I can still feel the prickly silence in the staffroom when I suggested that Love Island, with its glorification of ignorance, lewdness, and self-obsession, was exactly the kind of freak show that devalued education and undermined young people’s self-esteem.   

For the younger teachers, it must have felt like their most cantankerous and out-of-touch uncle had come to stay.

Every day brought little victories, and little challenges

So, what did I say to my Now Teach conference audience, many of whom are just about to start their initial teacher training year?

Be aware that as an older new teacher you will seem alien to the other teachers and trainees you work with. I was so full of “wisdom” when I started – ideas, opinions, and challenges based on my previous career. To my new colleagues, I must have seemed like THE Alien – not a great first impression if your aim is to assimilate. I could (and should) have been gentler, more compliant, less outspoken.

There can be flex from the school side too. The decision career changers make to move to teaching is no less valid, nor should they be considered less committed, than career starters.

Observations and suggestions made from the perspectives of their past careers need not be arrogant or threatening. On the contrary, the absorption of applicable best practice ideas from other people-driven service professions, can and will benefit schools.

Examples of areas where I felt practices could be improved at my school were team-working and professional training. In my legal roles, these functions were considered essential in optimising service quality and staff motivation/retention.

I hadn’t appreciated how isolating a teacher’s job is. You spend most of your time alone in a class either teaching, preparing to teach, or dealing with the output of teaching. Co-operation and knowledge/practice sharing within and between departments is squeezed out and professional training can sometimes feel perfunctory and superficial.

Some training sessions were delivered like student lessons, more about compliance than substantial professional development. As a result, teachers, new or not, saw them as unwelcome distractions from lesson prep or marking.

In my previous career, sophisticated, high-quality team management and professional development are key in maintaining performance and motivation. The TALIS study identifies them as major factors in generating self-efficacy and satisfaction in staff, driving better staff retention.   

When considering a knotty problem, one of the cleverest (and nicest) lawyers I ever worked with would muse, “I don’t know where we are … but there we are.”

It’s OK to acknowledge when we don’t know something. My experience convinces me that there are big advances to be made if our schools and school chains can import ideas and practice from other professions.

Older career change teachers can make significant contributions, provided that they can assimilate into their school environments, and that their host schools can appreciate the benefits and value that non-education sector approaches and experience could bring.