Help! I feel threatened by retirement

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Teachers tend to define themselves by their job, which makes it hard to leave. Adi Bloom reports

Teachers tend to define themselves by their job, which makes it hard to leave. Adi Bloom reports

For thousands of teachers, the end of this summer term will be more than a start of the holiday: it will be the start of their retirement. While many will welcome the freedom it provides, others struggle to work out who they are once the school gates have closed behind them.

Meg Maguire, professor of sociology of education at King's College in London, has been studying the way in which staff cope with retirement, interviewing heads and teachers who have recently left work.

Many teachers, she says, choose the profession out of a sense of vocation. This, combined with the rigid structure of the school year, mean that they begin to define themselves by their jobs. As a result, many find it difficult to create an identity outside the classroom, having lost an all- consuming part of their lives.

Professor Maguire cites a secondary head of science who said: "Teaching has always been really important in my life . When I stopped I felt really strange . when schools went back and I didn't have to."

Others were left without their usual source of conversation. A primary head said: "I think it took over my life, really . I was one of those terrible teachers who couldn't stop talking about it."

Professor Maguire found that primary teachers tended to find it most difficult to detach themselves from working with pupils. Many felt their nurturing, caring side was integral to their personality. Meanwhile, secondary teachers tended to feel greater attachment to their subject and missed being paid to pursue their academic passion.

Others struggled to cope without a profession to give them status and credibility. A primary head said that she found herself mentioning her former job to strangers in order to ensure they viewed her in the same way she viewed herself.

But while the struggle to redefine themselves preoccupied many retired teachers, for most it was preferable to the struggle to find their place in the modern teaching world.

All of Professor Maguire's interviewees had been teaching since the 1970s and no longer recognised the profession they had first joined. They spoke about oppressive amounts of paperwork and the loss of work-life balance. A secondary head of geography said: "When I started teaching, teachers were held in high esteem. I don't think they are any more."

Many felt the profession had been "special" when they joined, but that it was now irreparably damaged. Not one of them would recommend teaching as a career to children or relatives. As a result, several had taken early retirement or resigned. They found retirement hardest.

Professor Maguire said: "The most troubled . were those teachers who were no longer able to reconcile their identities with the job in any sense."

One primary head who took early retirement said: "I would've liked to have gone on a high . I thought, you know, I've done this for 36 years." But she managed to turn a rushed exit into a celebration of her career by holding a big leaving party.

Nonetheless, Professor Maguire insists that identity is fluid, and constantly being formed and reformed. After retirement, teachers eventually adjust, learning to define themselves as former teachers. "Their projects of self are still in flux," she said. "They are still being actively negotiated and constructed."

- `End of term: teacher identities in a post-work context' by Meg Maguire

Going out at the top, page 25


Jill, a former primary head, with 36 years' experience:

"Sometimes it's quite useful to let people know you used to be a headteacher . I mean, if I don't feel I'm getting the sort of treatment I need. I think it's something to do with status really."

Patrick, a former head of geography in a secondary school, whose career spanned 27 years:

"My identity wasn't linked with being a teacher. It was just a job I did which I happened to enjoy. I wasn't a teacher. I was me - a human being."

Diane, a former primary head, who taught for 29 years:

"I say I'm retired - that's my present occupation. We used to avoid talking about education `cause everybody who had a child would collar you."

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