Five go back to school

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Carolyn O'Grady meets a group of optimistic new recruits who all gave up high powered jobs to become teachers.

At a time when morale is low, stress high and teachers hard to recruit in some areas, this is a happy story. It is about five teachers who have left high-powered jobs and, in some cases, much higher salaries in industry and research to come into teaching.

In September, seven newly qualified teachers were taken on at Egerton Park Community High School in Denton, Manchester. Five of them came into teaching from other jobs. "We didn't deliberately go out and look for them," says the Egerton Park's head, John Hart. The school had 500 applicants for the seven jobs, so the reason they were chosen wasn't out of a lack of choice. "But they can add something," he says.

Why the five chose teaching may be puzzling to some. But the reason they chose this particular school is not hard to see. Egerton Park High is a school that is going places. In 1989 the comprehensive, an old secondary modern in competition with two grant-maintained schools, was threatened with closure. But since Mr Hart's arrival in 1990 its fortunes have changed markedly.

The school is now over-subscribed; work has begun on a Pounds 1.5m rebuilding and refurbishment programme, which will provide a new expressive arts block and two new science laboratories.

Technology facilities are being modernised and the comprehensive is investing Pounds 65,000 in new information technology equipment. Recently, a bid for Pounds 1m was submitted to the National Lottery which, if successful, will go towards arts provision in the school.

"The school has a great future, it didn't have to sell itself," says Dr Ian Gilbert, one of the new teachers. He trained as a geologist following a PhD at Liverpool University, and has investigated live volcanoes in New Zealand and Italy and worked with the British Antarctic Survey.

But why did he leave such an adventurous job? And why teaching?

Dr Gilbert, 28, says getting married and becoming a father had a lot to do with it. Being a geologist, he discovered was "a single person's domain", involving long periods away from home and not many career opportunities. He was not put off by teaching's bad press. "I went round local schools before I started to have a look. It was by no means as horrendous as people said. The media jumps on the bad things."

Career progression was also a major factor in 30-year-old Darren Andrew's change of direction. An internal auditor for a catering company for five years, and an accountant before that, he had audited businesses all over the United Kingdom. Now married, he also wanted to be more settled. "It was a massive risk. I could have been unemployed," he says.

Newspaper articles did discourage him. "I asked myself: am I going to get attacked?" But he had put them in perspective and now wonders what all the fuss was about.

Job satisfaction is another reason given for choosing teaching. Sally Mills, 26, was a ratings analyst in the City of London, assessing businesses to see if they were worth lending money to. "It was a really good job, with a good salary and the potential to earn a great deal more, but it wasn't for me. I wanted something satisfying which I wasn't doing just for money."

A wish to "see the fruits of his labour" was what attracted 30-year-old Spencer Davenport to teaching. "I like that fact that it's up to me. My performance is reflected in the performance of the pupils." He had worked as a manager in Sainsbury's, but found that the job became frustrating as staff numbers were cut. He took a reduction in salary of Pounds 6,000 to achieve what he hopes will be a more satisfying lifestyle, teaching geography and history.

Originally from Sierra Leone, Yvette King did a higher diploma in Nigeria and a degree at Manchester Metropolitan in food manufacturing management. As part of her degree, she worked a year as a laboratory analyst in industry and has also taught in Sierra Leone.

Not one of the new teachers has any regrets about having worked first in industry. It gave them confidence, they say, and has enabled them to bring a lot of experience and knowledge to teaching.

"I sold myself to the school as bringing experience," says Ian Gilbert, who uses his past work to illustrate his science lessons and provide contexts. "I've worked as a scientist in the real world and I'm published. It gives me confidence in the classroom. Pupils can't tell me I don't know what I'm talking about."

Yvette King talks enthusiastically of her experience of large-scale food production and how she tries to give pupils "a wider view". "I also learned team-working in industry, which has helped me fit into the team here." As a teacher of food technology, textiles and science, she has to work closely with graphics, business studies and expressive arts teachers.

Sally Mills' previous experience, she says, has made her appreciate the job and realise how rewarding it is.

"You've got to be a good communicator as a manager in industry," says Spencer Davenport. "You've got to be able to take criticism. It's more brutal in industry, but it gives you a lot of confidence."

In fact, confidence is what these five appear to have in abundance. They radiate the kind of self-assurance which comes with having held their own in the jungle which industry can be. It is a kind of confidence, one suspects, which would go down well with pupils.

All are unashamedly ambitious and are not afraid to promote themselves. "I want to get on as fast as possible," says Spencer Davenport. "I've not missed anything of my old job yet, but if I don't succeed in climbing up the ladder I might think differently," says Darren Andrews.

Confident they may be, but that doesn't mean that they necessarily find teaching easy. On the contrary: "I don't sleep at night because I'm thinking all the time," says Yvette King. "I'm exhausted. In industry, stress peaked more slowly. Here the stress comes and goes faster." She copes by being very organised.

"Keeping on top of the job is difficult and it is frustrating not having enough time to devote to individual children," says Ian Gilbert.

"It's more mentally demanding," says Spencer Davenport. "It's a relatively short day, but there always something to do. In industry there were long hours, but at the end of the day you could go home and forget it."

Sally Mills agrees: "There's never a point when I can say I'm finished. There always something to do. I find it extremely hard work and very physically tiring."

Both Ian Gilbert and Darren Andrews, however, find it less exhausting than their previous jobs. Darren travelled a lot, which made for very long days and his job involved a lot of pressure. Ian Gilbert was in no doubt that it was less hard work than his previous jobs. He admits to having little patience with teachers who complain that it is hopelessly hard work.

All were enjoying themselves and none regret their decision. "I didn't think I would like working with kids so much," says Sally Mills. "I'm never, never bored and I never don't want to go in." "This is more worthwhile than making someone else a lot of money," says Spencer Davenport.

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