Old school, new rules

15th January 2010 at 00:00
NQTs may be tempted by the prospect of a job at their alma mater. Tony Wilkinson weighs up the pros and cons of going back

Should NQTs return to their alma maters, the so-called "nourishing mothers" that supported them either as pupils or as trainees? Going back to your old school as an NQT can bring out the worst in some of your colleagues, especially those who remember you as a spotty kid or as an ineffective PGCE student. On the other hand, first-hand knowledge of a school can be a big advantage, especially if you like a school's ethos and think you will get on well with the other members of staff.

The scene: a West Country tertiary college. Enter a newly qualified languages teacher, who, for the sake of discretion, we will call Natalie. A few years before, she had been an A-level student at the college and she thinks it will be an ideal place to start her career. Things start well; she likes the other members of staff - especially the head of her department, Tom Greene*, who was one of her teachers.

But Mr Greene is also a practical joker who likes to keep newbies on their toes. He types up one of Natalie's old A-level essays (kept as an example of good practice), changes the name at the top and hands it to her to mark together with a pile of essays from her class. Naively, Natalie fails to recognise it as her own and, to make matters worse, gives the essay a lower grade than its original mark. When the story leaks out, it becomes a source of great amusement in the staffroom.

"Luckily," says Mr Greene, "she had a great sense of humour." Lucky indeed. Natalie survived the trial and went on to become a valued colleague.

Others may not be so lucky. Returning to the school where you were either a pupil or a trainee teacher can be a mistake, especially if your colleagues think you have taken the "easy option", choosing the school you know rather than the one that might suit you better. Anna Elmes* found herself in this position through no fault of her own. Her father died and she had to leave the south-east London boys' school where she had been an NQT, to support her recently widowed mother. She took a temporary job at the Midlands comprehensive where she had been a pupil only a few years before. It had a grammar-school ethos - students were known as "pupils" and had to call male teachers "Sir" and female teachers "Ma'am". Sharing a staffroom with some of her old teachers proved daunting.

"Some had terrified me," she says. "They walked round in gowns and mortar boards ... old school stuff. They made small-talk with me but I couldn't help feeling like a sixth form pupil. All were civil and some were more welcoming than others, but I can't say the pupilteacher barrier ever came down. I kept up a confident front and perhaps I grew old (professionally) before my time."

By contrast, Bethan McDonald's* return to the Scottish high school where she was once a pupil has been a boost to her career. Under the Scottish teacher induction scheme, she was guaranteed a one-year training placement in one of her five preferred local authority areas. By chance, she was offered a post at her childhood place of learning. She took it, despite her apprehensions.

"I felt like the pupil just because it was the same staff members who had taught me. It took me till Christmas to call them by their first names."

Luckily, she had worked in a different industry for a few years before training as a teacher and the school had moved into a new building. "It would have been harder to stand and teach in what I thought of as Mrs Whoever's room." She says the other staff members were very supportive and she now has a permanent post.

Robert Peters* chose to return to the English secondary school where he had been a pupil, in part because he wanted to save for a deposit on a house. "The school wasn't my first choice of places to work," he says. "I had planned to stay in the city where I did my degree and PGCE, but the job came up, I applied and nine years later, I'm still there." Mr Peters lived with his parents for 18 months while he saved his deposit. He said the experience was a "nightmare". It took two years for some staff to regard him as a colleague, though some accepted him straight away. He says the school had a strong support system for PGCE students and bullying of NQTs was never an issue.

Ed Grant* thinks that one of the biggest advantages of returning to a school where you have taught as a trainee is the first-hand knowledge you have of its ethos and its levels of support to NQTs. "It is very difficult when looking around prospective schools to know whether it fits with your own philosophies. If you have experienced a school and know the staff will support you, why would you go elsewhere?"

Mr Grant chose the school where he had taken his final placement on a four-year BEd degree. "I did not return purely for the familiarity. But knowing the school already means you can jump straight in with your class and not spend a lot of time learning the policies and behaviour management."

Oliver Moses remembered the ethos of his Surrey primary school so well that he returned there 15 years later - a decision he has no reason to regret. At the age of 32, he is now deputy head. As a pupil, he attended Reigate Priory junior school when it pioneered a progressive form of "outdoor education" that involved field trips such as climbing, camping and exploring, an approach Mr Moses describes as "creative, exciting and risk-taking".

After leaving university, he spent four years working for the US Environmental Protection Agency in the Everglades National Park in Florida, teaching children about conservation. The ethos of Reigate Priory attracts an unusual proportion of male teachers - there are now 15 of them, around half the total staff. This was also influential in Oliver's decision to return. "It was nice to have role models," he says.

The final word goes to Jemima P* who, as a mature student, did a teaching practice at a primary school in the south-west and was delighted to be offered a job there when she graduated. After four years she was on the senior management team alongside the teacher who had been her mentor. Then her ambition led her to apply for a "better" job at another, very different school. Her CV did not emphasise her lack of wider experience and she got the job. But she regretted it almost immediately.

"I don't think anywhere will ever measure up to my first school," she says.

*Names changed


- If you want to get a job at a school where you have a placement, pull out all the stops when you're there.

- When you go back for interview, do not assume that you stand a better chance than anyone else - you will need to show why you are the best candidate for the job.

- Accept that as a teacher at the school you will be treated differently than you were as a student - people will not make as many allowances and will expect you to stand on your own two feet and pull your weight.

- Don't get too big for your boots too soon - the school may seem very familiar but you are still an NQT.

- Use your knowledge of how the school works to make an early good impression, for example by volunteering for unpopular duties.

- Offer to run the club that the children want but no one there has time for.

- Acknowledge that because you have done a placement there and now also teach there your experience of different schools is more limited.

- Take every opportunity to visitfind out about other schools. It will make you more rounded.

- Stand up for yourself if any of your colleagues attempt to bully or humiliate you.

- If your family is well-known in your home town, do not use the family name to pull rank.

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