Breaking new ground

1st June 2001 at 01:00
In our series on latecomers to the profession, Su Clark finds that archaeology can provide a solid foundation for teaching

Charlotte Herxheimer's chosen profession when she graduated from Central London Polytechnic in 1985 with a degree in Chinese was archaeology. She had been on a dig during time in China and - although it coincided with a campaign against "spiritual pollution", when the Chinese were encouraged to shun all that was foreign - she had enjoyed it.

Immediately after graduating, she left again for China and, funded by a British Council scholarship, buried her head in the clay and earth of the Asian continent for a year, burrowing for hidden treasures such as broken pots and old pipes. "I was good at languages but I didn't want to do French or German. I wanted to do something exotic," she says. "At the same time my hobby was archaeology and I always spent my holidays on digs. It was a natural progression to take up archaeology in China when I graduated."

It was also natural, when she returned from China in 1986, to start a Masters in archaeology. But she had to find a job to fund her study. So for two years she worked as an archivist at the London textile design company Collier Campbell, keeping a careful watch over its 30-year-old textile collection. She divided her days between sitting in a library studying for her Masters and at work stopping the dust settling on the material.

The organisational skills she honed there have proved useful in her latest role as a teacher, but it was the boredom that she remembers. "They were beautiful materials, but the archivist role became dull. You had to be extremely well organised and clean and tidy. If you could see my house you would know how difficult that was for me," she says. "Textiles deteriorate. It's fighting a losing battle."

But she kept on and, after completing her Masters, in 1989 began her PhD. It was exciting for the first two years and she returned for prolonged periods to her beloved China. Between 1988 and 1990 she spent much of her time doing her field work on horticulture among peasants in Yunnan province. But doubts were starting to surface.

"I began to feel I was in an ivory tower and that it wasn't the real world," she says. "When people asked what I did for a living I could see their eyes glaze over. I was never sure how relevant it wasI living in the Chinese villages has influenced me hugely in the way I live my life now."

Her dissatisfaction was exacerbated when she returned to London. But even though she wasn't enjoying the PhD, the option of giving up so many years dedicated tostudy and knowledge seemed unacceptable. She then had her first taste of teaching. "I discovered I liked it when I ran seminars and lectures for undergraduates at the Institute of Archaeology at University College," she says. "But there was a conflict of interest between teaching and writing up my PhD, so I had to give up the teaching."

Meanwhile, her PhD hovered over her like a dark cloud. By this time she had a child and she faced the choice of working full-time to complete her PhD or being with her baby. But starting a family also brought an unexpected feeling of liberty. She finally recognised she had the freedom to walk away from it all.

"Having a child gave me an opportunity to sit back and look at what I was doing and the direction I was heading in," she says. "Suddenly, I realised that my PhD wasn't that important any more."

What did seem important was the role of education. Ms Herxheimer initially put her PhD on hold and then, faced with her funding drying up, ultimately rejected it, concentrating her efforts on her children and education.

Then came her second taste of education, this time as a parent-helper at a co-operative playgroup for under-threes. "We would focus on social skills and speech through activities such as singing or going to the park and talking about what we saw. There was method to it, but we didn't have goals," she explains.

By the time her second child was three and at nursery, she was ready to do a PGCE at London University's Institute of Education. Now 39, she says: "I was glad I wasn't the only parent, but I did feel old. It was strange going back to college having rejected my other student activities."

She quickly found that her skills as an archivist, an archaeologist, and archaeology lecturer had prepared her for teaching. "Being an archaeologist you have to be able to research many subjects such as biology, geology, geography, botany and history. You also have to be flexible and adaptable with that information. Teaching is the same. You need to have a broad subject knowledge."

Added to this were the skills she honed in the textile library, which were mostly organisational, ensuring things ran smoothly and developing an ability to prioritise. She is now doing her induction part-time at Tachbrook nursery in Pimlico, London. "I love teaching through stories, and the early learning goals are approachable through all kinds of imaginative and creative play," she says.

Charlotte Herxheimer has stepped out of her ivory tower into the real world, and it is one where there is little time to let the dust settle.

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