A step into the unknown

18th April 2008 at 01:00
What happens when you leave the comfort of your classroom to tackle subjects and age groups you were never trained for? Kate Townshend finds out

Are you prepared to step out of your comfort zone? Supply teachers do it every day, but how about taking on long-term responsibility for a class you're not trained to teach? Most teachers find an age group they are happy with, and stick with it. Indeed, the need to specialise in a particular age group during training is a response to the fact that different ages have different needs.

But sometimes teachers do take a leap into the unknown to teach an age group entirely different from the one they started out with. And when they do, the rewards and challenges can be great.

Toddlers to teenagers

Cathie Smith, 51, knows all about such things. After qualifying as an early years teacher and spending five mostly happy years teaching key stage 1 in London primary schools, she found herself on stress leave and ready to quit.

Luckily, she was referred to a sympathetic local authority adviser who suggested she try teaching special needs pupils as an alternative. "The adviser was reassuring, but what she didn't mention was that I was going to teach at the new Bexley Business Academy, Erith, Kent, which had replaced the secondary school with the worst reputation in the local area. I was quaking in my boots but accepted a three-week trial."

Despite Cathie's fears, she quickly found her feet in her new role as literacy learning manager. "To my surprise, from day one I absolutely loved it," she says. "My self-esteem had been shaken so much by going on stress leave that I was able to empathise with these struggling pupils. Immediately when I started working with them, they became people; not the mythical teenage thugs that I had imagined."

Cathie was struck by the similarities between the children she taught. "Teenagers are surprisingly similar to KS1 children. They cry, moan and smell, they sometimes call you "Mum" and then get embarrassed, and they like playing games."

These days, she is back in the primary sector, as a special needs co- ordinator at Summerbank Primary in Stoke-on-Trent, but she hopes to return to teaching older children at some point. "I don't think I would want to work in FE or with adults, but if the opportunity arose, maybe I would."

Coat of many colours

For primary teachers, who are used to having one class for a set amount of time, even a movement between key stages can require a vast change of tone, style and content.

Jenny Hames, 48, has been teaching since the early 1990s. Nowadays, providing cover at a Liverpool primary, she moves between different age groups, sometimes going from foundation stage to the top of KS2 in a single day. Like Cathie, her first experiences were with younger children. "I loathed teaching KS2 initially. I felt out of my depth and unsure that I was teaching properly. I worried that I might seem like an infant teacher in the wrong place."

Now she has adjusted and appreciates the positive effects that have sprung from her new experiences. "I have a good understanding of child development and learning styles, and can use different philosophies of child development in different classes," she says. "I'm also willing to try out new ideas, and will dip my toe into any activities that will promote learning."

Running the gauntlet of such a variety of ages with such speed can lead to some surreal moments. "Everything is a contrast," Jenny says. "I can be role-playing "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" in the morning, and in the afternoon calculating the drop in temperature as a mountain goat climbs up a mountain. We can be singing "The Farmer's in his Den" in nursery, and then with Year 6 looking at the effects on farming of fertilizers and pesticides."

If it is sometimes challenging to move up through the year groups, it can be equally challenging to move down, as Kim Davis, 27, a secondary maths teacher in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, is well aware.

Having taught at a single-sex independent school with a junior school attached for the past four years, she found herself asked to take on Year 5 classes several times a week. Kim recalls, "At first the juniors seemed very young. They were used to certain routines and struggled with change."

However, this has given her a greater awareness of some of the problems children can encounter. "It has made me more sympathetic towards Year 7 as I realise how hard it must be when they first come to senior school. Our expectations are very high."

Kim says she has enjoyed teaching primary children. "I love the energy and excitement of my younger classes. And I have got better at pretending I am being patient."

The move to a different age group is often driven by circumstances, but even when a teacher is able to make an active choice, there can still be a strong sense of entering uncharted territory. Laura Holman, 25, a fast- track teacher at primary level in Hurstpierpoint in Kent, is leaving behind her KS2 class to become a Year 1 teacher at St Lawrence Primary School this month, a prospect about which she is both "thrilled and petrified".

As part of her interview for the new job, Laura was asked to take a lesson with her new age group, and she swiftly recognised the need for changes in her teaching style. "I became aware of the instructions that I was giving to the children, and noticed their need for smaller steps."

Although Laura will miss the banter with older pupils, she relishes the prospect of her new job and can already imagine steps for future challenges.

"I like to think I'm open-minded. I would be interested in experiencing the education system within a different culture, perhaps through school or as a part of my own research. Or perhaps I will just take one step at a time."

Through the ages

If you are thinking of a change of age groups in your teaching career, particularly from primary to secondary or vice versa, then it pays to be prepared.

As long as you hold Qualified Teacher Status, you are theoretically qualified to teach in any age group. For this reason, there are no courses specifically designed for teachers switching key stages, but you could take a short returning-to-teaching course for the appropriate phase, or spend some time as a volunteer with your chosen age range as a first step.

Siobhan Hamilton-Philips, a career psychologist, says: "It is important to think about why you are changing jobs at this time in your professional life. Know the strengths you can bring to a new situation and talk to others who have made a similar move."

Siobhan says we are psychologically driven towards change and new challenges to allow us to develop. She suggests that as adults we are often labelled by our job title, so pushing ourselves professionally can prevent us from becoming stuck in a rut.

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