'I get a buzz being in the classroom'

Pupils at a Slough comprehensive this week began part-time education in the teeth of a national teacher shortage, said to be the worst for 20 years. But for all the recruitment crisis, it is easy to forget that some people are still inspired to be teachers. They are not put off by the pay or the paperwork or the pupils. Here two student teachers in the first days of their training explain what drew them in. For Fenella Pantling, it was the children who stealthily captivated her. For Stephen McCormack, a seasoned BBC correspondent, it was the chance to contribute something more worthwhile to society. Meanwhile, Andrew Cunningham says we should recruit more mid-career switchers and train them on the job
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Teaching? Who in their right mind would consider a career in teaching these days? Lousy money, indifferent, even violent children in the classroom, numbing cynicism in the staff room, National Curriculum overload, and lack of funding. It must be said that the teaching profession is not an enticing one for graduates, but in spite of all this, I have just begun my Post Graduate Certificate of Education (Key Stage 1). I am a 36-year-old mother-of-one, who graduated last year. Clutching my shiny new degree - what on earth would tempt me into the classroom?

Teaching? Who in their right mind would consider a career in teaching these days? Lousy money, indifferent, even violent children in the classroom, numbing cynicism in the staff room, National Curriculum overload, and lack of funding. It must be said that the teaching profession is not an enticing one for graduates, but in spite of all this, I have just begun my Post Graduate Certificate of Education (Key Stage 1). I am a 36-year-old mother-of-one, who graduated last year. Clutching my shiny new degree - what on earth would tempt me into the classroom?

Well, my mother was a primary school teacher for 20-odd years. It was apparent to everyone who knew her that my mother loved teaching, loved her kids and on top of all this fundamental satisfaction, it appeared to keep her in endless pairs of expensive Italian leather shoes.

My twenties were spent travelling abroad and doing boring jobs to pay for it. At 30 I found myself pregnant and on my own, with no real means to be able to support my child and myself. I embarked upon a part-time degree in psychology, certain that inspiration would hit me and I would be irrevocably drawn towards my true vocation. Yeah, right. Four years later, degree completed, a lot wiser and more self-assured, but still no idea of what I was going to do.

My final-year dissertation in drug education had involved interviewing children in Years 6 and 7. The thought of talking to these young people about their ideas and knowledge of drugs was a daunting one. Would I be able to control them? Would they take me seriously? Would they just sit and chat among themselves? No, none of the above. It proved to be a fascinating session and I enjoyed myself tremendously. Furthermore, on meeting and interviewing teachers at these schools, I began to suspect that I might enjoy teaching. I even caught myself thinking that I wanted to "make a difference". Eurggh! I began to think seriously about teaching, after all it would fit in with my child-care needs and I thought I could enjoy it. Not exactly the candidate the profession was crying out for. Moreover, I had very little experience of children, having made every effort to avoid them until I was presented with my own offspring.

Time moves on and my son started school in the following autumn term. I was excited for him and wanted to be a part of it. I volunteered my services as a parent helper one afternoon a week with the lure of free tea and coffee and the assurance that it would be fun. After the initial discomfort of being stared at and scrutinised by a class full of all-knowing five-year-olds had diminished (about two sessions), I found myself looking forward to my helping afternoons. My continued appearance each week transformed clinical scrutiny into beaming faces and friendly waves. I was accepted. What a lovely feeling.

Sometimes I went in two times a week, and I began to get a real buzz from being in the classroom, helping out at the maths table, sharpening pencils, whatever. I loved the visible progress made week by week as children grappled with, and slowly grasped the Three Rs.

During this autumn term I applied for and was accepted on to a PGCE course. I was pleased, but pangs of guilt flowed through me. I wasn't doing it for the right reasons, I didn't have a true vocation. I joked about the holidays and childcare, but it is a huge bonus for working parents. I felt a horrible fraud.

After Christmas I spent a two-week block in a KS2 class as an opportunity to experience a different age group from the one I had applied to teach. The prospect of these older children unnerved me and I didn't want to go in that first morning; Oh God I'd made the wrong decision in applying to teach - surely these older, cheekier kids would make funny comments about my childbearing hips and funny nose. But no, once more I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I just loved being in school more and more. I even developed a "look", never having been so grateful for my innately stern features.

In March I was offered a part-time job at the school helping a Year 3 child with a statement. Daunting and challenging indeed, and I learnt a lot very quickly. There was no stopping me now - I listened and learned in the staff room, I had so many questions to ask. Excitement ran through me at the thought of having my own class. For me, personally, teaching young children begins with a trusting relationship; so many factors outside the classroom leave their mark inside it. We know more than ever about child development and the manner in which socio-cultural factors chisel away at the learning process. In this technology-driven age where machines encroach on every aspect of our lives, teaching is still such a hands-on affair. I cannot wait to get started.

I suspect teaching will never attract new recruits on the strength of its soaring salary scales, glamorous working conditions and generous pension schemes. So be it. For me it will always be about the challenge of connecting with other human beings and the pleasure of hearing those classic words, "Ohhh, I get it now, Miss". And then of course there are all those holidays, finishing work at 3.30pm, presents at the end of term...

One way to ease the current teacher shortages would be to offer significant incentives - using the money currently being squandered on supply teachers - to attract more mature entrants into the profession. Rather than concentrating on golden handshakes for graduates, as at present, thirty- and fortysomethings looking for a midlife career switch should be targeted instead.

There are many advantages in attracting mature teachers with wider work experience. One is that they are more likely to have families of their own, and some natural understanding of children. Another is the more confident, settled outlook they could bring to the classroom.

Yet our current system of training teachers - through the closed shop of the over-ideological training colleges - makes it difficult to attract older candidates who have worked in other professions. Few family people can afford to give up salaries in exchange for student finances for a full year, and current recruitment policy takes no account of their wider work experience. Time spent dealing with difficult individuals in an office could be worth as much as a qualification which rarely guarantees that its bearer will be any good in class.

In teaching, more than any other profession, the place to learn is doing the job, tackling the unique problems and pleasures presented by each class. Nothing learned in the lecture room prepares for the shock of being on your own with a potentially hostile audience, occupying your classroom out of compulsion, not choice.

To be comfortable in the job, you need to have seen off a few of the many surprises real classrooms can bring. Why not let mature candidates learn the right techniques through trial and error?

By not making special allowances for career-switching candidates with wider work experience, the state sector is missing out on a reservoir of potential teaching prowess. In the independent sector, it is common for career-changing thirtysomethings to be recruited without the formalities of teacher training. I've known many such teachers at the three independent schools I've worked at: ex-lawyers, accountants, soldiers - even stockbrokers. Each one of them has brought an extra something to the classroom: a quiet confidence; an ability to laugh at themselves; a steady sense of purpose and direction. All proved highly successful teachers.

Why should independent schools benefit from this wealth of experience while the hard-pressed state sector is denied it? Before I started teaching, I did various stints in marketing, advertising and tutoring. Such varied communication experience gave me confidence and helped me settle. Yet the lack of a formal training qualification means, even today, I am unable to work in the state sector, yet I think I'm a decent enough teacher.

Critics will be quick to say that head teachers in both sectors are increasingly reluctant to employ older, more expensive recruits, who may be set in their ways and less "enthusiastic" than the young. Yet there are few schools that would not benefit from the solidity and substance more mature teachers would bring to the staff room. Pity the school that is staffed solely with under-thirties and supply teachers: it is sure to lack stability and see major disciplinary problems.

The public money spent on expensive supply teachers seems a short-term policy that makes little financial or educational sense. These funds should be focused into providing attractive salaries for permanent older staff. As anyone approaching middle age can testify, one of the by-products of our shifting society is that more and more people are considering mid-career changes. We need to ensure that as many of these people as possible are attracted into the most vocational career of all, teaching.

Our present system, which puts paper qualifications before genuine work experience, seems short-sighted and expensive. Schools are supposed to be preparing kids for life. It is a tragic waste - that more mature would-be teachers, who have learned some of life's lessons, are not being put to good use in our classrooms.

By Andrew Cunningham

"Don't worry about the shortage of maths teachers! i've got a degree in maths and i'm going to go and teach it in schools."

If only there were thousands more saying just that. But there aren't. And unless the statistics and the anecdotal evidence are both wrong, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Selfishly, of course, it's no bad thing for my job prospects. When, hopefully, I finish my PGCE next summer and start looking for a job, I'll be a relatively rare thing: maths graduates who are qualified teachers are in as short supply as teenagers who think Big Brother was something in a George Orwell book.

I'll also be well into my forties, but I don't see that as a problem. If I can give 15 to 20 years and pass on my life experience from the previous 20 years, I reckon I'll have done a service.

And looking long-term, I'm convinced that we'll only get the quantity and quality of teachers we need in our schools if career-changers like me are tempted into the profession just as keenly as recent graduates.

But before I go overboard with the pontificating, I've got to get my head down and learn. In short, I've got to become a student again, 21 years after skipping out of the red brick and Red Barrel surroundings of Liverpool University, clutching a 2.2 in Pure Maths and German and with my eyes firmly set on a career in journalism.

Within a couple of months, I was developing the thick skin required to survive on the Worthing Gazette and Herald, where the sub-editors would routinely use my copy to fill up the waste-paper baskets rather than the newspaper's pages. Local radio followed, a few years sitting in the press gallery of a pre-television House of Commons and then a decade of reporting for the BBC from such varied locations as a warship in the Gulf War, the Barcelona Olympics, Grozny under fire from Russian artillery and, earlier this month, a quiet Oxfordshire copse, where some nasty individual had buried a cache of booby-trap bombs. So, what's lured me from this outwardly stimulating and satisfying way of earning a living?

Well, I want to be a schoolteacher. I want to do my bit to help a society with too many flaws, and where too many children become teenagers filling up the waiting room for adulthood with woefully inadequate resources to make a go of their lives, for their own sakes and for the wider community.

So it's a year at training college brushing up my maths, learning how to teach and, most importantly, standing at the front of a secondary school class to see whether I can do it.

For years, I've felt deeply that education is the most important function of a society, and developed views about how teachers should teach and how schools should be run. But it would be arrogant to pretend that, without the first-hand experience of what's going on in schools, I could put any of these forward with conviction or credibility.

So I want to find out how teachers are taught, and get into staff rooms and classrooms, playgrounds and sports fields. I've read about Ofsted, the national curriculum, Fresh Start and "grade inflation" and have a gut feel for what's right in all these areas. But perhaps my views will change once I walk through the school gates - assuming the security guards let me in!

The reactions of my peers and friends to my career change have been interesting. Most people inside journalism have been understanding, supportive and even envious, probably because they both share my view of the importance of, and potential job-satisfaction offered by, school teaching and sympathise with my declining enthusiasm for broadcast journalism.

Elsewhere, there have been some gasps of incredulity. "You must be mad, Steve, wanting to go into the zoos that are today's schools." Underpaid, under-valued, over-worked and over-stressed is how many people see a teacher's lot. Maybe, but I'm hoping my burning desire to do something worthwhile will outweigh any obstacles.

By Stephen McCormack