How to sustain a long and healthy career in teaching...
The Long Read
By: Dr Mike Whalley
Having taught for thirty years in secondary education (and I retired early!), here are some thoughts on how to sustain a long and healthy career in education.
These thoughts come about not through unparalleled continuous success throughout my career, but a combination of good and bad experiences. You take great satisfaction from the positive experiences in a career, but you also learn a great deal from the bad times and the mistakes you have made.
Many of these thoughts and ideas have already been mentioned in other articles I have written for this journal, so please accept my apologies for any repetition.
These are only a few thoughts which have helped me throughout my career. There are undoubtedly more recommendations that could be applied here flowing from other experiences.
I am sure others would love to know of your thoughts on sustaining a career in the greatest profession - use the comments below to share them!
Know you subject inside and out
You cannot teach unless you know your subject, and how it translates into lessons.
Pupils always know, and act accordingly, when a teacher does not know the subject and cannot communicate it to the class. So, be confident in teaching on the basis that you are an expert in your field, and you are going to share it with the lucky pupils.
Keep on top of any developments in your subject in terms of content, exam requirements, resources, training, syllabus changes, etc. This is a constant process and subject to change on a yearly basis. Many of the things I taught thirty years ago, disappeared, and then reappeared recently in syllabuses across exam boards. Keep up to date with your department in this respect. Find out from others their view on the subject and share thoughts and ideas. Regular department meetings should always include subject awareness as part of the agenda.
As your career progresses, you will gain the skills to maintain a fantastic working knowledge of your subject, and how it fits into the learning experience of the pupils. Failure to keep up to date with the subject will lead to stagnation and poor lessons.
In this world of advanced social media which makes information so readily available and accessible, you will need to accept and embrace the truth that what you teach will change alongside developments in an ever changing digital and technological society.
The onus is on teachers to adapt so that subject content can be delivered in such an imaginative and creative way.
Be flexible and adaptable
As above, we must adapt to change, even when we do not agree with the changes if it is for the greater good on a school.
The ability to accept change and adapt is a key skill for a long career in teaching. All my fellow colleagues will agree that education is drastically different now than it was in the 1980’s. Every facet of education is different now as it was then. An inability to go with the changes spells disaster for a teacher. Just as a teacher must embrace changes to their subject through time, they must also accept that the way it is delivered in an ever-changing educational landscape must also change.
Many of the teachers who struggled in the latter parts of their career failed to change their opinions, attitudes and methods to the shifting contexts of school life. Old teaching methods, stale lessons, a lack of adaptability, ‘the old ways were the best’ mentality all resulted in lack of discipline amongst bored students, parental complaints as the pupils failed to make progress and damaging performance reviews.
The best teachers I ever worked with who had successful careers until their retirements, were flexible, creative, very organised, adaptable and embraced change as an inevitable consequence to changes in society. They continually self-evaluated and were great critical thinkers in response to their own evaluation of lessons. Crucially, they were respectful of colleagues, leaders and pupils alike and were empathetic yet disciplined practitioners. Such teachers did this naturally, they didn’t have to be told to do so. They were superb at making the job look easy, although I am sure they worked tirelessly to achieve the success they maintained throughout their careers.
Always remember that the pupils are at the heart of everything you do
All the meetings you must attend, all the training days, departmental and personal reviews, staff meetings should all have one clear goal; to improve the education of the pupils in the school. I have been to so many meetings where it appears that the opposite is true, where no mention is made, or implied, of the actual benefit to pupils that an item on a lengthy agenda might result.
Every lesson and experience that you are involved with in school should be of benefit to the pupils. This might not always be as positive as this might suggest. When you are involved in a disciplinary process with an individual or group of pupils, the correct outcome will be of benefit to the pupil(s) concerned, or the wider school community.
Be a good colleague and team member
Good schools have a team of great staff, who work together and support each other. Poor schools have a disjointed body of staff who are unsupportive and often actually obstructionary to others progress.
Being a good team member means that you support each other and offer (and take) advice freely.
Good team members are pleased for other’s achievements and are not affected by petty jealousies of other insecurities. However, in a productive team environment, discussions are frequent and alternative views and suggestions should be welcomed. Here creative tension is valued and leads to positive decisions and progress. Alternatively, sniping, back biting, under-mining and discrediting others only leads to a great deal of mistrust and fragmentation in a department.
Being a good team member requires the flexibility to change action, behaviour and attitude. It requires the greatest skill of all, to be able to listen. It also requires great communication skills and a determination to be a key part of the collective will of the department. The same applies to being a key part of the school progress. You might not agree with some of the mission statements being issued by the management and governance of the school but go with it and help the school along. Them you will feel part of the journey rather than trying to halt the progress.
A good friend of mine, who became a Head once told me that being part of a good school was like being on a train. He was the driver of the bus, his staff were all riding on the front of the train, the support staff ensured the train could run smoothly, and all the pupils were in the carriages behind. He needed all to be on board at the right time. He could not afford to have any staff or pupils disrupting the journey. Indeed, if any staff or pupils were making the journey difficult by making the train late, having to change direction or even by pulling the emergency stop chain, the school journey was lost or spoiled. How true.
Establish a healthy work/life balance
East to say, less so to achieve.
I was very lucky that I played regular, competitive sport well into my forties. This gave me a focus away from school. Yes, I had to prepare lessons and be committed to all the necessary aspects of school, but having this wider interest was both healthy and a necessary diversion from what can be an all-consuming school existence.
I have known lots of teachers who had a similar experience to me and who had a range of interests and experiences outside school. It doesn’t matter what their interests involve (if they are legal!) but the key is the fact that it takes your mind of teaching for periods of time.
Time away for me meant that I was a better teacher in my return.
It is also important, and it is easy for me to say this, but perhaps harder to achieve, to have a wider range of friends and acquaintances outside school that are not teachers. If this is the case, joint interests, conversations and social events will not be dominated by chat about school or education in general. The opportunity to immerse oneself in discourse away from education is highly recommended. I have known teachers who only know teachers in the professional and private life. Whilst it works for some, I doubt it works for all. Talking shop is not always healthy.
Plan your career moves carefully
It is inevitable that you will want to make progress throughout your career.
There are lots of avenues to career progression ranging from becoming a Head of Department or Faculty, Deputy or Assistant Head, Head of Year, Head of Sector etc. These promotions are often accompanied by higher wages and more responsibility. However, whilst some of these career progressions might be the perfect way for many ambitious teachers to move up the ladder, for others the move might signal a worrying diversion from their true strengths and hinder the more positive contributions that they could make to a school.
For example, to become a Head of Year in a Secondary School is a great career move for some staff. It promises a different type of contact and relationship with pupils, colleagues and parents. It is a positive step forward, or sideways into a more pastoral pathway perhaps leading to further promotion, possibly as an Assistant Head (Pastoral). However, this role involves a huge physical, emotional and psychological commitment and adjustment. The teacher may be given additional time for such a role, but it will not be enough. This role will be in addition to a probable full teaching commitment. In this impossible situation, something must give. It could be that in order to fulfil the requirements of the new role, teachers will have to side-line some of the activities and contribution to school life, both in and out of lessons, that made them such a special teacher in the first place. I have known lots of teachers who have gone through this process. They have chased promotion, abandoned their core skills, and ultimately regretted their decision to move away from what drew them to the profession, and what made them a special teacher in the first place.
So, my advice is to think carefully before you decide to change the emphasis in your career.
Ask yourself where will this promotion take me and what will it mean for me in terms of my contribution to the education process? I had plenty of opportunities to move into management positions in schools I taught, but I simply could not see myself in those roles. I may regret that decision financially when I see friends and colleagues in senior management roles, but I do not envy them when I see what they do, often in political and bureaucratic roles more suited to the corporate world far removed from the actual process of teaching, with the pupils at the heart of everything.
Finally, try and maintain a good sense of humour
Schools, classrooms, playgrounds and even staff rooms are much better places when there are smiles and laughter. Schools are natural comedy theatres and events that occur, often at the worst possible times can be hilarious, and children are brilliant comics.
Don’t be afraid of laughing alongside pupils when the situation warrants it. Pupils love seeing your emotions, it proves you are human. Yes, it can go too far when a funny situation is taken too far but seeing the funny side of life is an important part of teaching.
There are more than enough times to be serious in school, so take the opportunity to join the children in seeing the world as they do. It is also important to share humorous stories with colleagues to sometimes lighten the day. Sometimes sharing a story, often tinged with some darker humour can make a depressing situation seem a little more palatable.
By: Dr Mike Whalley
The New PGCE…now with added iQTS
As you've no doubt read, the UK Government is piloting a new PGCE iQTS programme, recognised by the Department for Education as equivalent to English qualified teacher status (QTS).
The University of Warwick is delighted to be one of a select few providers offering this exciting new programme for August 2022.
As you’d expect, the course is rigorous and robust. For an overview of the requirements, there is an outline (and individual eligibility checker) HERE.
The introduction of PGCE iQTS also means a few changes for Warwick's highly successful PGCEi programme. The admissions and placement criteria have been simplified; head HERE for further information.
A useful comparison of the PGCE iQTS and PGCEi courses can be downloaded HERE.
If you have staff interested in either programme, please feel free to share EDDi.
Or, alternatively, questions can be e-mailed to: email@example.com