Now I am the master.

24th October 2014 at 01:00
Returning to teach at the school where you studied could be considered unadventurous - and even detrimental to education. Yet it can offer attractive advantages, writes Sarah Cunnane

When I left you, I was but the learner, now I am the master."

Darth Vader may have used that phrase a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it appears that the sentiment (if not the exact wording) is still common in education. Across the globe, students are returning to their old schools to take up roles as teachers. For many, this is not just a brief stopover: in some cases, people return straight from teacher training and leave only when they retire.

Should it matter that a person is educated and then educates in the same institution? It certainly shouldn't be surprising that people go back. School days are the best of your life, we're told, so why not relive them and get paid for it? And what better champion of a school's philosophy and greater inspiration for what can be achieved than a former pupil sitting behind the teacher's desk? But what if it's not all good news? Going back to your old school raises certain issues that are in need of some exploration.

First, however, we need to look at why teachers choose to return. For some, it is not really a choice at all. Samantha Chapman lives on the Falkland Islands and when she decided to be a teacher, she didn't have much alternative as to where she would work if she wanted to stay in the South Atlantic. "We only have one infant and junior school so it was my only option if I wanted to be at home," she explains.

Yohanes Iule was less geographically tied, but he would argue that he was equally compelled. He says that although he did not plan to go back to his school in Ethiopia once he had completed his teacher training, he felt obligated to return because of the scarcity of manpower there, especially in his subject of chemistry.

"The first day was so exciting," he remembers. "I couldn't believe I was a teacher where I was once a student."

Iule's desire to give something back, to return to a place where he was given a chance at life in order to give the next generation the same opportunity, is a common theme in students-returning-as-teachers circles: they often feel as though they owe something to the school, that they want it to thrive and so return to ensure it does.

But for some the decision to teach at their old stamping ground is less to do with wanting to give something back and more a case of "Why not?". Even under the same headteacher, a school can become very different over a five-year period. Why, therefore, should you rule out an institution purely because you studied there yourself?

Helen Bell was certainly reluctant to go back to her school when she qualified as a teacher, believing that she would feel like a student again, as if she had not moved on. "I did a week's placement there after university and hated it, because I felt like a child and was really uncomfortable trying to teach classes," she says.

But with time, those insecurities lessened. "It had been six years since I left sixth form and I had grown in confidence during my time as a supply teacher. It helped that there was only one of my old teachers left in the department. The rest of the department were new staff or hadn't taught me and I didn't know them, so although many of my old teachers were still at the school, it was a new start in the actual department."

If you are going to stay in the same area you grew up in, ignoring a school simply because you went there as a child would be a bit limiting. Merryn Hutchings, emeritus professor of education at London Metropolitan University, says we should not be surprised that many people wind up teaching where they were students. "Most teachers end up within 20 miles of where they trained. Since quite a lot of students study near home, the likelihood of ending up in the same place is quite high," she says.

But Bell raises another interesting point about going back: she felt she had to serve her time in teaching so that when she did go back to her alma mater, she "deserved" it. Implicit in that statement is the suggestion that going back to your old school is an easy choice, that the old network of contacts will ensure you sail through the application process and secure employment whether you are any good or not.

Home-grown talent

Certainly, that perception exists, but employment law ensures that would never be the case. However, schools are understandably keen to hold on to former students they see as having the potential to be great teachers. Katy Atkinson's school approached her and suggested that she would make a good teacher, offering to put her through the graduate training programme (GTP).

"The weirdest thing was going into the staffroom and working alongside staff who had taught me," she says. "Most of them were very enthusiastic to have me back, although there were a couple I hadn't got on too well with."

If your school has given you an opportunity like this, it is likely you will feel obligated to stick around. Take Joe Tracy's story: he went back to his school as an IT technician, but was soon shepherded into teaching and he feels he has to repay the school's confidence in him.

"I absolutely had no intention of going into teaching but now I couldn't imagine doing anything else," he says. "While carrying out a technician role, the headteacher asked me if I would instruct in some cross-curricular Year 7 lessons. I realised how much I loved the job and that it was what I wanted to do. I did a degree at night school, and after three years I achieved a first and trained using the GTP route at the school; the rest is history. My school has supported me through my whole career and I owe it to them to continue teaching there. I don't envisage teaching anywhere else."

There is a danger, however, that underpinning all these reasons for returning to your school is a reluctance to let go of the past. You can dress it up in a number of different ways, but Thomas W Lee, Hughes M Blake endowed professor of management at the Foster School of Business, University of Washington, uses the term "stuck-ness" to describe why people may choose to return to the place where they studied.

"Imagine yourself in a spider web where the web is social forces," he explains. "All these forces connect you. Usually people are in webs that they have selected and tend to like. Severing that tie at graduation could be an emotionally gut-wrenching thing. If you really love where you are and leaving is really hard, instead of being a little bit sad about leaving, you're very sad and it enhances the fear part of moving on to the next part in life. Going back could be that sense of, `Yes, I want to go back to the womb, it's comfortable. I feel whole here, I feel connected and I want to get those things back again.' "

A lack of adventure?

But although going back to your old school may be comfortable, some suggest it could have negative effects on both you and the children you teach. For example, it could mean that you are prevented from moving on professionally and personally, with Hutchings arguing that returning to your alma mater could have a limiting effect on what you are able to experience in life.

"It seems to me that it's not very adventurous," she says. "I can see maybe doing it for a little while, to get a different perspective on the school, but to stay? I mean, it worked in Goodbye Mr Chips, you can see it's a life, but we have so many more opportunities these days."

More widely, Hutchings says that if a lot of people remained at their old school it could have a detrimental impact on education.

"Looking at the profession as a whole, I would prefer teachers to have had other experiences," she says. "You learn from those experiences; if you just stick to the same place for ever, it's not an awfully good idea if you want to improve education. It's worrying as a phenomenon - it might work for some individuals, but not for the profession as a whole."

Those teachers who have returned do admit to facing other problems along the way. When Andrew Jackson started at Hitchin Girls' School in Hertfordshire 12 years ago, his surroundings were more familiar than most. Not only was he teaching at the female counterpart to his own alma mater, but his head of department also happened to be his father.

"All the staff knew me through my dad's stories, but I didn't know them and wasn't sure how to relate to them," Jackson recalls. "Particularly among the older students, there were also questions almost immediately along the lines of `Is Mr Jackson your dad?'. It took me a few years to get out of his shadow and establish myself in my own right."

Even without your dad there, moving away from the memory of your old self can be tough. Bell adds that seeing your former teachers as peers, rather than superiors, can also prove a challenge.

"I want to call most of my old teachers Mr or Mrs, rather than their first name, and I really struggle to use their first name during meetings. The head and deputy have changed since I was there, but there are quite a few senior members who I remember as a student, and I feel a bit childish calling them by their surnames to other teachers."

It's not just the teachers who can make adapting to the new role a struggle. Chapman says that parents remembering you from the past can come with its own baggage. Many parents will send their children to the school they themselves attended; when they are contemporaries from your own time at school, that can be an issue.

"Perhaps you are teaching the child of an ex who may still be in love with you...awkward!" Chapman says. "Things like that can be difficult."

And yet, how much of a problem do such factors represent? Although you may feel childish going back to your old school, Hutchings says that doesn't tend to transfer to your attitude as a teacher. "It may be hard to treat other teachers as colleagues, but that shouldn't affect how you are as a teacher in front of your class," she says.

She adds that going through that stage is very similar to what all teachers go through, regardless of their location. "Being able to address colleagues as peers is difficult for anyone starting out. The transition from being very junior to playing a more key role is going to be challenging for anybody, regardless of profession. Although I suppose this is exacerbated if you were a student at the school."

The teachers who have gone back believe the positives far outweigh the negatives. Lee says that the close ties can make it easier for new teachers to adapt to their surroundings. "Your family is there, your memories are there, you know how to get around and it's easy," he explains.

Family values

Having that instant support network can prove to be a boon during the stresses of the first year of teaching. When Emma McGrane started her NQT year, she did so under devastating personal circumstances. Her mother had been diagnosed with cancer while she was studying for her PGCE and died shortly before McGrane started a job at her old school.

"I had to start work in September and I was petrified," McGrane says. "It had been the toughest year of my life and I was about to start one which I was sure was going to be even tougher. The staff were amazing, they welcomed me back with open arms. They were all so understanding and caring - many of them remembered my mum from parents' evenings, coming to watch me in school shows and so on. They were 100 per cent supportive.

"I remember getting home about a week after I started working there and word had got round about my mum by then. A bunch of flowers had arrived; the card said `Thinking of you. With love, your friends and colleagues at St Augustine's.' I cried my eyes out."

The students can benefit, too, McGrane explains, as they gain a role model showing what can be achieved. "I think it's really good to be able to talk to my pupils about the fact that I went to the school," she says. "It shows them that I'm from a similar background to them and I hope it helps me to relate to them and them to me, and that they see they can go off to university and get a good career. I recently heard that one of my past pupils is off to do her teacher training and wants to teach drama. I felt so proud."

It should be said that teachers can and do thrive in their old environments. Many rise up the promotion ladder, and although this can mean they have to manage their own former teachers, they can be a real asset to the school or college.

Carys Overfield has been teaching in her old college for the past decade. She has had the experience of becoming a former teacher's superior and says that you get over the awkwardness very quickly. "It was tricky as he had taught me GCSE English some years before and later went on to teach the course to the scheme of work that I had designed," Overfield says. "We hadn't had the best relationship as teacher and student but we put that aside and had a good working relationship."

Jackson, meanwhile, became a pastoral leader as head of year and was put in charge of the school timetable. "Both roles have allowed me to tell my dad what to do," he says, but adds that there has been no negative fallout.

So although Hutchings suggests it may not necessarily be in teachers' - or education's - best interests to get too comfortable at their old stamping grounds, it is undeniable that the phenomenon of students returning to their former schools is likely to persist: as well as the lure of going back to familiar territory, it is clear that many teachers take a lot of positives from returning, as do their students. And the negatives do not appear to be insurmountable.

So the next time you stand in front of one of your classes, be sure to take a second look at them. It is just possible, to paraphrase another great Jedi knight, that one or two of them could one day become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

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