How to work with a former pupil or teacher

What should you do when the new face in the staffroom is an all-too-familiar one? Helen Mars explores how to navigate this professional minefield

Helen Mars

Tea and chat: talking with colleagues boosts wellbeing

At some point, if you stay in education long enough, you are going to find yourself in this scenario.

“Hi, I’d like you to meet Miss Z. She’s our newly qualified teacher.”

Your stomach lurches. You’ve met Miss Z before. You shut your mouth abruptly, not wanting to blurt out that she owes you some homework or needs to unroll the waistband of her skirt. You see, Miss Z, to you, is a fairly recent pupil rather than a member of staff. Frantically adding up the years, you realise she could, in fact, just about be the age of a teacher. And, lo and behold, you have aged 10 years in a nanosecond.

But if you think that’s bad, imagine being on the other side of this interaction.

Dressed in your smartest new suit, every inch the educational professional you now are, and secretly delighted to wear the Lanyard of Power, you stride graciously into your new staffroom, ready to change lives.

Hang on, that’s a familiar face. Can it be...?

Your stomach lurches. Have you forgotten your homework? Been caught doodling in your planner? It’s Mr Y, the Ghost of Academic Years past, and now a colleague, an equal. Lo and behold, you have just regressed 10 years in a nanosecond.

Given the age of secondary pupils, and the average age of secondary teachers – and given that many of us return to work near our home towns – it’s not impossible for this to happen. In fact, anecdotally, it happens quite a lot.

And if it happens to you, here’s what to do:

Acknowledge the situation 

A gracious and quiet acknowledgment of how you know each other is enough. I was delighted to meet an interviewee at my school last year and we both vaguely recognised each other.

Fast-forward six months, and Claire and I realised the link: she had had the misfortune to teach as a newly qualified teacher in my school when I was a sixth-former. In a bizarre twist of fate, she also discovered that one of our other colleagues had taught her in secondary school, and proudly began to refer to herself as a “teacher-granny”.

Be upfront

If the air needs clearing, take the first opportunity to do so. It’s more likely that you were scruffy or disorganised as a student rather than anything sinister, and it’s also much more likely that your former teacher will appreciate a moment of contrition before you embark on your new professional relationship.

Of course, if you are the older teacher here, you may not even remember this whippersnapper, but don’t let on: the facade of infallible wisdom is something to cling to. 

Stay in the present 

Treat them as the colleague they now are, appreciating their experience or enthusiasm (delete as applicable). If they used to be your teacher, don’t call them Mr Y or Miss Z in the staffroom; they have a real name and you need to use it, free from the fear of a detention for cheek. It will take a while but you will become accustomed to it.

Be mature

Don’t giggle uncontrollably or run away screaming. You’re a grown-up now. And don’t tell current pupils about it. It’s hard enough dealing with your own mortality without having the kids know.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Helen Mars

Latest stories

Revisions Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 26/2

Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 26/2

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the ongoing pandemic will have on their working lives.
Tes Reporter 26 Feb 2021