Cleaner to class teacher

27th June 2008 at 01:00
It takes dogged determination to get that dream job - particularly if you start with little or no qualifications, as Martin Whittaker discovers

It takes dogged determination to get that dream job - particularly if you start with little or no qualifications, as Martin Whittaker discovers

Ten years ago Clare Harris was mopping corridors and cleaning toilets at Sunfield School in Worcestershire. She had left school at 16 with a handful of GCSEs and no career prospects. "I came out with Cs and remember having to work really hard to get those," she says.

Today she is still at Sunfield, but she no longer needs a mop and bucket. With a first-class degree and a PGCE, Clare, 35, is in the classroom as a newly qualified teacher.

"There were lots of nights of tears and exhaustion along the way, but I'm really proud that I have done it," says Clare, an outstanding regional learner at the NIACE Adult Learners' Week awards.

Clare cleaned to fit in with her daughter's school day - and her only other job had been a groom in a livery yard. During her time as a cleaner, she got to know some pupils and found she liked Sunfield, a school for children with severe and complex learning needs in Stourbridge. So when a teaching assistant's post became available, she applied: "The head gave me the opportunity on the condition that I start thinking about qualifications," she says.

She studied part-time towards teaching assistant qualifications - and gained merits and distinctions. So she carried on. Three years ago she graduated with a BA in Education. Gaining a first made her want to teach. "I thought, `I don't want to waste this - I want to put it to good use'."

Clare is among a small minority of teachers who have come into the profession as adult learners and her single-minded determination has impressed Lesley Gaukroger, head of Sunfield. "Many people get the ticks in the right boxes at the right time and go into teaching easily - for somebody like Clare who has had to start from the bottom while holding down a full-time job, it's a fantastic achievement."

Lesley says that Clare's experience brings a special dimension to the classroom. "She sees it from other points of view than just the teacher's. And she works with a team of teaching assistants - the way she manages them is enhanced by her knowledge of how it feels to do that job."

Shaun L'amie, 43, is another adult learner who switched careers in his 30s. The former plasterer is now a Year 6 teacher and assistant head at Southdale Church of England Junior School in Ossett, West Yorkshire.

He specialised in restoring ornamental plasterwork in stately homes. But apart from a few GCSEs, his only qualifications were the vocational ones he took as an apprentice. "I often joke that I had a spirit-level instead of A-levels," he says.

He first thought of becoming a teacher when his children started school. "I watched the headteacher in assembly and thought he had the children in the palm of his hand. I thought that must be a fantastic thing to be able to do. That started me thinking."

Shaun heard about an access to higher education course at Park Lane College in Leeds. "I went inside and walked straight back out again," he says. "I saw all these younger people and I thought, this really isn't for me."

But he persevered and gained a place. At first, studying was difficult. "I can't believe it now, but when I look back, the first essay I did on the access course I wrote in block letters."

He progressed to a four-year BEd degree at Leeds University. After graduating pound;18,000 in debt, he is now in his fourth year of teaching. He says his experience has influenced the way he works in the classroom.

He must be doing something right - three years ago Shaun won the Outstanding New Teacher category in The Teaching Awards. "I quickly realised that if you have low self-esteem, it impacts on your attainment. So I know how important it is to build children up and make them feel good about themselves."

For a lesson in determination, you only have to speak to Susan Briggs - a 43-year-old newly qualified teacher at Discovery Primary School in Peterborough. Like Shaun, she left school at 16. She and her then partner started a family when she was 21. Now single after the breakdown of her long-term relationship, she has seven children ranging in age from 12 to 22 - and all but one still at home. One of her 15-year-old twins, Joshua, has Down syndrome.

Susan started an Open University degree in 1992 and only completed it two years ago. "There were a lot of children in between," she explains. She became a parent helper then a governor at her children's primary school. "Obviously I loved children, having seven of my own. So that part of it seemed quite natural. It was the other part - the qualifications - that was the challenge."

The turning point came in 2001 when Susan attended a teaching taster session run by Peterborough Council. "The only way I could fit it in was by getting up at 3am to study. That was the only quiet time in the house. But I have always been determined and focused. Also, I wanted to show my children that they could do things as well."

After graduating two years ago, Susan gained a place on the Graduate Teacher Programme. One son, Anton, aged 20, is now at university - she believes her studying influenced him.

What does she think of her achievement? "I think it took until my second term as an NQT to fully realise I had done it. It didn't sink in for a while that I had actually achieved what I set out to do. And I absolutely love it.

"I have been able to have a lovely family and now I have an extended family - I've got my own class."

Routes into teaching

- You can train while doing a degree, either a Bachelor of Education (BEd) or Bachelor of Arts or Science (BA or BSc) with qualified teacher status.

- If you already have a degree, you can take a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). Alternatively, you can do your training in a school under the School Centred Initial Teacher Training Programme (SCITT).

- You can train on the job under the Graduate Teacher Programme. The Registered Teacher Programme allows non- graduates with experience of higher education to finish their degree and qualify at the same time. Teach First allows high-flying graduates to work and train in challenging secondary schools in some areas.

- You can also gain qualified teacher status under assessment-based training, if you have a degree and substantial experience in a UK school as an instructor, unqualified teacher or a teacher in an independent school or in further education.

For details on these options, see

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