Dear Ted

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
After years working as an actress I want to become a secondary teacher, like my husband. I graduated in history and did a bit of supply work 30 years ago. But at 55, am I too old?

Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

Ted says

The nice thing about the human race is that you are only too old to learn when they finally screw the lid down on you. You are not too old to learn how to teach. As an actress you will already know a great deal about communication, though you will have to learn how to make the switch from "performing" to a script, to listening and responding spontaneously, as well as improvising and inventing. I know of someone your age who has been accepted into a medical school for a much longer training course.

The critical question is whether you have the right personality to succeed.

You will have to be open-minded, adaptable and willing to learn, sometimes from colleagues half your age. As your husband will tell you, teaching can be immensely rewarding, but also frustrating. You will need tolerance of adolescents, for some of whom a raised eyebrow may be the maximum expression of effort in the day.

Another major issue is the likelihood of getting a job. Many mature entrants have been disappointed to discover that finding a job is not always easy when schools are hard up, as they are more expensive to employ than younger newly qualified teachers.

On the positive side, you have a great deal to offer. Many schools, particularly those specialising in the performing arts, would be delighted to have a professional actress on staff. You bring a depth of experience few rookies can match, so emphasise these strengths when you apply. In your interview you can always try a moving performance of Portia's soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice: "The quality of mercy is not strainedI " That should clinch it.

You say

Consider alternatives

Your acting experience and background in history means you obviously have a lot to offer children. But I am not sure the traditional route of training would suit you at your age. Have you thought of teaching drama in a stage school, or entertaining in costume at a historical venue - castle, stately home and so on? Work in these contexts might satisfy your love of drama and give equal scope for your creativity. Alternatively, many small companies offer a variety of workshops to schools, such as performance poetry, story-telling, historical days or puppets. Many of these are aimed at primary children, but secondary students have an equal love of being entertained while they learn. You could set up something similar, using your talents in a teaching situation without going down the route of lengthy and formal qualifications.

Angela Pollard, Rugby

Do you have the stamina?

I would love to be able to say: "Go on - do it!" As an actress, you would have many of the qualities required (to be Genghis Khan or Jesus Christ, sometimes at the same time). I started secondary teaching at 44, when I was still fit and active enough to keep a step ahead of the class, as well as to have a few years ahead to enjoy myself. However, you have to face the exhaustion of the job and have the stamina to work up to 13 hours a day.

You would have to train, and, before you had got into your stride, it would be time to retire. Have you thought of teaching adults? It has all the rewards and none of the drawbacks of teaching the young.

Carole Reeves, Durham

Set the scene

Why the sudden change of heart? If you're a super trouper then go ahead and train. After all, all the world's a stage and some of the very best farces are performed in our secondary schools. Remember, too: the performance arts have often been a springboard to higher things. Think of Betty Boothroyd, Ronald Reagan and Grace Kelly.

Gill Tweed, south London

Coming up: Income ideas required

I teach modern languages in a school with poor ICT facilities. We want to organise a departmental fundraising activity to buy an interactive whiteboard. Any advice on the best way to raise the money?

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