Higher learning curves: The skills that teachers require are in demand both in and out of the classroom

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The Independent Online

In terms of the entry and exit routes available, teaching is an unusually generous and open-minded profession. There are currently more than 30 different ways of becoming a qualified teacher, including the traditional Bachelor of Education path, the postgraduate PGCE route or one of many employment-based training schemes, each of which reflect the individual’s starting point.

As long as you have a degree, as well as a positive attitude to learning, your age and professional background shouldn’t be a hurdle, says Liz Francis, director of workforce strategy at the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA).

But what if, after several years at the chalk face, the rigours of the classroom become too much? For those qualified teachers looking for a way out of the staffroom rather than a way in, then once again, teaching is a sound choice.

“As many as one-third of teachers are career-changers, and we are a profession that benefits from the diverse backgrounds of many practitioners,” says Francis.

“In the same way, the training that a modern teacher receives is immensely transferable to just about any other career you can name – be it business or broadcasting, sales or psychology. The skills demonstrated by teachers are in huge demand,” she adds.

Educational psychology is an obvious career path for teachers and it is one taken by Kairen Cullen, who worked as a primary school teacher for 10 years before “falling into psychology via a period in learning support”.

Now a chartered educational psychologist running her own practice, Cullen’s clients range from pre-schoolers to teenagers, students and adults.

“Teaching was a very satisfying career for many years,” she says. “But I now see that psychology is the root of a whole range of problems that teachers face every day.”

For graduates looking to make a difference, the Teach First programme, established in 2003 as a way of helping high flyers tackle educational disadvantage, is unique.

Though competition for places is intense – last year, there were 1,760 applicants for 373 openings – the scheme has already placed more than 1,400 graduates in challenging schools in London, the North-west and the Midlands, and it now plans to step up the numbers. While many participants have gone on to take up very different careers – perhaps in the City or business – more than half have opted to stay in teaching beyond the two-year course, many of them in challenging schools.

To Teach First’s director of graduate recruitment James Darley, the mixture of academic strength, strength of purpose and leadership skills displayed by those chosen to fly the Teach First flag has already had a marked impact.

“We know from Ofsted, from heads and from teachers that sending highly able and committed young people into schools with poor results can make a huge difference in terms of pupil motivation and expectation,” he says, adding that the scheme continues to challenge the perception that the current generation is “self-obsessed and ego-driven”.

Although the 2:1 degree and the 300 Ucas points required of a Teach First graduate makes the programme challenging academically, the core competencies of humility, resilience and self-evaluation can be far harder for applicants to wrestle with.

“For those willing to respect pupils and other teachers and display real leadership skill, Teach First can be a vital stepping stone to careers in education and elsewhere,” adds Darley.

If the Teach First programme recognises the contribution that can be made by raw recruits, the Advanced Skills Teaching (AST) programme – for so-called super teachers – emphasises the importance of experience. Working both in their own and partner schools, ASTs have received praise from Ofsted for their contribution in raising standards.

“We recognise that it is important to give teachers a number of different professional pathways after some years in teaching,” says Francis.

“We are delighted that some 6,000 teachers have been accepted for AST status and will remain at the heart of the classroom where they can make a significant impact.”

‘My chief contribution was being a role model’

Emily Miller, 25, a social anthropology graduate from Manchester University joined the Teach First programme in 2006; teaching citizenship, RE and music at a Manchester girls’ secondary school. She is currently helping develop a school citizenship programme at the Institute of Philanthropy and is a Teach First ambassador.

“When you’re selected for a Teach First place, the message is that you are exceptional and unusually able. While it’s great to be built up like this, it’s also vital that you are sensitive to the needs of the children and to the feelings of the other teachers – who may feel that you are muscling in.

My chief contribution was being a role model for a group of girls who didn’t necessarily appreciate the range of opportunities available to them and whose expectations were fairly low. But despite being in a challenging school, and perhaps having problems at home, some of the girls were still motivated to do better, and I saw it as my job to keep reminding them that with some hard work, they could fulfil their potential.

By the end of my time there, many of the pupils on my GCSE citizenship course had outperformed all expectations and some were keen on applying to university. I still mentor one of the girls to this day.”

‘You have to be patient and good humoured’

Paul Keogh, a French language and literature graduate from the University of Liverpool, became an Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) in 2001 and was named Secondary School Teacher of the Year in 2003. Now 45, he is head of languages at King James’s Grammar School in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire.

“I don’t like the term ‘super teacher’ because it upsets other members of staff, but having been faced with the choice, mid-way through my career, of either moving further into management or staying in the classroom, becoming an AST was an obvious choice for me.

Although my mind is fully focused on the children I teach at King James’s and their different abilities in languages, an important part of my role as an AST is to support teachers in other schools by observing and coaching them.

Talking to other teachers in different settings about how to make languages more fun for the children, or showing good practice to student teachers in my own school, is a role I love; despite all the joshing I receive from my own colleagues.

You have to be patient and good humoured when you teach a foreign language and whatever title you end up with, you need to keep on learning. The day I stop doing that is the day I stop teaching.”