It's a dog's life

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Working as an education officeris a growth area for former teachers.

Especially if you love pets. Emma Burns explains

You can tell sometimes when Su Crossland has been to a school by the barking in the playground. Children yap and whine while others murmur "Good dog" as they pretend to feed them, take them for walks, play fetch or brush their glossy coats.

For Su, an education officer for the Dogs' Trust charity, the game is the clearest possible sign that what she has just said in class has had an impact.

What she hopes is that her message to the children - that dogs need loving care and how to provide it - also has a long-term effect.

"What we are trying to do is to educate the dog-owners of tomorrow to reduce the number of unwanted dogs and the number of strays that are put to sleep every year," she says. "Our aim is to ensure every dog can lead a happy life free from unnecessary destruction."

Su is one of about 46,000 people in the UK working either as education officers for charities, a role which has really taken off in the last five years, or for educational charities. Su used to teach in a middle school in Northumberland, and now earns significantly less than she would in the classroom. But she doesn't mind because she is driven by her passion for animals and for her work.

"Teaching was good and rewarding but it wasn't for me. I knew I wanted to be involved with animal welfare," she says. "I love it when the children tell me 'I'm going to tell my mum about getting our dog a microchip' or even 'I wanted a dog but my mum and dad wouldn't let me and now I understand why'.

"It's a low when they say 'We had a dog but it died because we let it out,'

or 'We got rid of our dog because it chewed the settee,' but it spurs me on to try and change those attitudes."

As the first education officer for the Dogs' Trust, she had the job of creating the post. She demonstrated so clearly that it could work that now, three years later, the charity has five education officers in the UK and Ireland.

As well as running workshops in schools and stalls at country fairs, they compile online resources in literacy and numeracy on a doggy theme which fit in with the national curriculum for the Dogs' Trust website.* Su knew she wanted to help animals, but when Aileen Thomas made the change five years ago to work as an education officer for a lifeboat charity, she found it harder because she was not powered by a particular passion.

"I found they were looking for people who had expert knowledge rather than teaching experience," she says. "It's quite bizarre because if you can teach anything from Mary Queen of Scots to geometry, you can master whatever it is the charity wants to promote."

Aileen had taught for five years before she became education officer in Scotland for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. She found that children loved getting dressed up in outsized oilskins and hats while she told them about the work of the institution. Her underlying message, though, was deadly serious: letting kids know what to do and what not to do in water, particularly the sea.

"Inland schools used to ask me along most," she says. "Perhaps coastal schools were getting the water-safety message dealt with by parents or other people."

It is easy to see how children's attention can be caught by stories about animals, the sea, or indeed the work of charities such as the Red Cross, which runs 10 humanitarian education programmes in different parts of the country.

But how do education officers working for charities with little obvious child appeal manage to make them interesting? Those, say, specialising in the built environment. If Amy Harrison, education officer for the Bristol Architecture Centre, is anything to go by, the answer seems to be by sheer creative enthusiasm. She bubbles over with ideas for getting children and adults to think about buildings, their design, ease of use and impact on the environment.

And her targeting of different age groups clearly hits the mark. Ten and 11-year-olds were given a six-week task at the end of the summer term, building ideal homes for different celebrities. They were asked to think about sustainability, so the house for Jonny Wilkinson had a rugby pitch on its roof with goals that doubled up as wind turbines.

There was the gingerbread house building workshop to celebrate national architecture week. "It was a fun and rather delicious way of introducing the principles in creativity in design - and then eating the result," says Amy.

Now she is going to work with three and four-year-olds who are getting a new nursery building. "I want to get them talking about the sorts of things they want in their outside area: what shapes, materials and plants," Amy says. "We'll take them to the site and get them to learn a little bit about the people working there." They will have digital cameras too. "We know it'll mainly be little people taking pictures of diggers," she laughs.

Then there are the underachieving Year 9 girls who are going to put together designs for the creche, reception and eating areas in their new school building.

"I'm trying to get young, sassy female professionals from the built environment to come and work with them, targeting business and design and technology students," she says. "It can really enrich what they are doing and maybe this experience will change their choice of careers - I hope it will. Females and ethnic minorities are majorly under-represented in careers in the built environment and we are trying to address that."

Listening to Amy, it no longer seems weird to expect children to be interested in buildings. It seems far more bizarre that so often they are expected not to be.

What it does show is that the ability of teachers to make their subject interesting and relevant stands them in good stead even beyond the classroom.


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