Boltholes for square pegs

21st March 2003 at 00:00
How do you arrange a dignified exit for those who can't hack it in the classroom? Or for those who feel burnt out? Adi Bloom reports

For teachers in trouble in the classroom - or further up the school hierarchy - there is usually no obvious escape route into a more suitable job. Other professions offer advice and support for employees whose career has stalled, those who never got to grips with the job, or people who feel they can't carry on until 60. But Sue Campion, a former headteacher, says there is far less help available for heads and teachers.

"People in the City are offered careers advice and support," she says. "But people in education have no support services. What do they do? Where do they go next?

"It's as though the education sector - which believes so fully in the perfectability of mankind and gives everything for each child - doesn't care about the outcome of individual teachers."

In January, the Government announced its intention to root out underperforming staff. Research shows that heads have concerns about more than 1 per cent - Jabout 5,000 teachers across England. Such staff, David Miliband, the schools minister, was anxious to emphasise should be helped to leave with dignity. Underperformance would be tackled rigorously but sensitively.

It was in order to help such teachers find other jobs that Mrs Campion established Next Chapter. A former head at a comprehensive and an independent school, she teamed up with Anne Lee, previously head of Malvern girls' independent school. They wanted to provide a guidance and support service for teachers seeking other career options.

"Teachers and heads are often so devoted to their pupils' development that they can be particularly susceptible to depression and shock when they're told to move on. So it seemed to us important to do a little teacher reclamation," says Dr Lee.

Next Chapter is called in by schools seeking to make certain staff redundant, or by individuals struggling to give focus to their own careers.

Either way, they insist, they always work for the individual teacher: they have no duty to report back to schools or employers.

Teachers spend a day with both Mrs Campion and Dr Lee: the two-to-one ratio, they say, provides greater objectivity. They start with a biographical interview and detailed questionnaire. The two advisers seek to identify skills and interests.

From the information gathered, they compile a range of recommendations for the teacher. They discuss these options, explaining why they believe them appropriate. They then help the teacher to tailor his or her CV to a chosen career direction, highlighting particular skills and achievements.

Teachers are also advised how to write a covering letter, and how best to present themselves in an interview.

"Because I'd been in the school milieu for so long, I lacked the confidence to move out into the world," says Janet, a 50-year-old former secondary schoolteacher. After 25 years in the classroom, she had decided that she needed a change, and so sought the advice of Next Chapter. She has since found a job in office administration.

"I was concerned it might be difficult, at my age, to find a new job. But they said: 'Yes, you can.' They see the wider picture: they hold your hand while you make a start."

But it is not just those seeking to leave the classroom who turn to Next Chapter for help. A large number of their clients want to advance their school careers, but are uncertain where to begin.

"I'd had a lot of interviews for headships, but had never been successful," says Peter Williams, who attended a session with Next Chapter earlier this year. "There's a knack, a technique to interviews. Sue and Anne assessed where I stood and what I had to offer, so that I could capitalise on that."

Mr Williams had been working for 12 years as director of music at a west London school. But a personality clash with senior management meant he was unable to develop his role in the way that he wanted. Eventually, it was agreed that he should resign. His union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, recommended that he talk to Next Chapter.

"I was feeling somewhat disheartened and rejected from my previous school," he says. "Your morale takes a knocking sometimes. And if you're nervous in an interview, the panel can feel it. But if you're confident, and know your subject, they can also feel it.

"You can do yourself a complete disservice with one sentence: one phrase or answer. Sue and Anne presented what they consider to be useful answers for an interview situation. It's good to have someone there who's a professional friend."

This is how Next Chapter likes to see itself. The two advisers are not, Dr Lee insists, angels of death, swooping in to deliver the final, fatal blows to a teaching career. Rather, they help to bolster teachers' self-esteem and focus on future possibilities rather than past errors.

In fact, the majority of Next Chapter clients move on to new jobs within education. In many cases, says Mrs Campion, a teacher's problems will stem from personality clashes with governors or senior management. They can be resolved by finding a working environment better suited to the teacher's needs.

"It maddens me that people should see fit to write off other people," she says. "People are not good for nothing. But a lot of them go into teaching for the wrong reasons, and that can be disastrous for them and for their pupils.

"We remind them of the things they wanted to do in the past, and that they can still do now. We allow them to revisit the choices they've made previously and, by doing that, help them to make new choices."

Next Chapter Tel 01483 225495

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