When you reach a particular point in your career as a teacher, you start to look at some options. Not because you’re fed up of teaching, perhaps, but just because you want a bit of a change, a bit of an alternative, to change your focus a little. So you explore the choices – what can I do now, what can I become? What choices do I have in terms of progression from the status of being just a teacher?
In FE, you’ve got three basic choices, and even then two of them basically only lead into the third. The first option is teacher training. It’s quite a fun option, although in many ways it takes the most confidence to pull off properly: after all, you, a mere teacher, suddenly telling people what they should be doing? And judging their ability to do it? As a teacher trainer, remember, there’s no formal seniority saying that you’re superior in some way. You’re just another teacher, albeit one who teaches teachers. But it is great fun, and keeping that sense of humility around your own abilities is a real asset in a trainer – trainees respond well because you, like them, are a teacher. Nobody, as they say, likes a smartass.
Related to this is option 2: the advanced practitioner. These jobs (and the job titles) vary from place to place, but usually involve a bit of time off teaching and, if you’re lucky, a bit of extra money. It’s not that dissimilar to the teacher training role, in that you are responsible for training and supporting staff, but has the added drawback that such jobs are very few and far between. You also have to be a little more subservient to the systems – being an advanced practitioner type usually means a degree of compliance – as a teacher trainer you are free, indeed absolutely should be questioning and challenging the latest diktat from government or senior leaders, but less so for the advanced practitioner role. If you’re lucky the role can include some element of challenging and questioning whatever “best practice” you are supposed to be sharing that week, but there is still an official line to be toed.
The third, and final option is, of course, management. Just to make one thing abundantly clear here: I have no beef with management as a concept, or indeed with managers as a species. After all, cats need herding and being a damn good cat-herder is a vocation and a passion in and of itself. But it isn’t for everyone; in fact it isn’t for a lot of people, including some people who become managers. And the reason deeply unsuitable people become managers is that for the most part, that’s all you’ve got to move into beyond being a teacher. Management pays better, as a rule, and you get to go to meetings and have important sounding job titles, and do weird mystical things with Excel which even the people at Microsoft have yet to think of. But also you inevitably start to move away from students as individuals, and the art/skill/craft/whatever of teaching; indeed, once you reach a particular level, the majority of students exist in your life as data to be sorted, sliced and drilled down into. Again, the best managers strike a balance there, but to be good at it, you’ve got to want to do it.
So what do you do? For one, you look sideways. After all, you’re not in it for the money, so accept your financial lot, and look at things beyond the four walls of your institution. Explore possibilities beyond just teaching: writing, workshops at conferences, supporting professional organisations, activism, all those things and more. You may not get the financial recognition, nor the recognition from your employer, but you know what, who cares? You position yourself as a professional outside of the confines of your workplace. There is a huge community of teachers and other professionals out there in the big wide world so find them and talk to them. Blog, tweet, make connections, talk to people. Do some research (like the Practitioner Research programme from the ETF) and use this to enable you to meet and share ideas with people – one of the best formative experiences of my professional life, in fact. What the hell, do something on the side which is completely different – become a masseuse, a choir singer, a part time pilot or volunteer part time at a homeless shelter. It might not be teaching, but who knows what possibilities might present themselves off the back of it. And yes, these things will eat into your private time, but from what I’ve seen of managers, so does that. So why not give up a little of that time doing something you enjoy rather than have a job you are merely tolerating because there are no other options out there.
The other big alternative is simply this: stick with the teaching. There is no shame in just being a teacher, no matter what career progression junkies might tell you (as in “Well, of course, I realised after my first six months that just being a teacher wasn’t enough of a challenge” – feel free to punch that sort of individual). Enjoy it and explore your own path within that role. Mix it up a little, try new things out. Teach different student groups, dabble in other subjects, if you can. You’re bored of doing it that way? Do it differently, try a different method, something completely off the wall and see what happens. Doing this teaching stuff can be the best fun you can get in a professional life. And it’s infinitely more fun than spreadsheets.