In 2017, fresh faced and aged 21, I began my PGCE at Durham University. The University I had just graduated from 3 months earlier. I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to get into a classroom, and I couldn’t wait to ‘make a difference’ to students. I had taken a pretty direct route into teaching. GCSEs, followed by A levels, followed by an undergraduate degree, then my PGCE and straight into an NQT year. I had no gap years or breaks. Within 4 years of being sat in the classroom as a student, I was ready to go back in as a teacher. In some cases, there were barely 3 years in age difference between us.
We are so lucky that we work in a diverse profession in terms of age and experience. Many people will have taken a similar route to me. Others may have experienced a full, first career beforehand. This is amazing and something that can really benefit our students. However, one thing that all of us can agree on is that whoever you are, the early years of teaching can be a struggle. Lots of fantastic books have been written about this, and provide invaluable advice for coping with the issues faced by early career teachers. However, I would argue that embarking in a career in teaching can sometimes present different challenges depending on your personal circumstances- age potentially being one of them.
Under 25s have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic. This means our students, especially those who face the most disadvantage. Additionally though, a large proportion of our recently qualified, trainee and yet to train teachers. With graduate prospects now more limited than ever, many of them may turn to teaching. With (in some cases) generous bursaries, and the promise of a ‘stable and safe’ career, those who hadn’t considered teaching before may decide to give it a try.
Whether this is a good thing, or whether these graduates are ‘teaching for the right reasons’ is another conversation. However, this is the reality and could present opportunities for the profession. In recent years, with schemes such as ‘Teach First’ the government has focused on attracting high quality graduates to teaching. The fairy tale scenario would be these graduates teaching in the most challenging schools and finding great reward from it. In conjunction with more experienced colleagues, they could give our pupils experiences they deserve. Indeed, our youngest teachers can provide great benefit to a department. For example, our newer colleagues can provide enthusiasm and fresh perspectives. Additionally, younger teachers, especially those from diverse backgrounds, can provide an attainable and relatable role model to students.
I believe our younger teachers can be a force for good in our schools. But it’s clear that at the moment, the fairy-tale scenario isn’t the real one. Recent government data has stated that out of teachers who qualified in 2014, only 67.5% were still in service five years later. Whilst we can’t assume the proportion of these who were young graduates, it suggests we are still struggling to retain teachers in the early stages of their career. I believe that taking steps to increase retention, such as the early career framework could be a step in the right direction. However, from my own experience I also believe a more targeted approach to teacher wellbeing could help.
At my next birthday, I will turn 25 years old. Until this time, it’s actually unlikely that my cortical development is truly complete. Anyone interested in the development of the teenage brain will tell you that teenagers are less likely to use their pre-frontal cortex, the area primarily responsible for rational development. This is partially the reason why your year 9s may say things that make absolutely no sense to a rational adult. As a young adult, it failed to occur to me that actually, whilst trying to be the cool, calm, collected teacher I wanted to be, I was still going through these same changes. Hardly surprising, looking at my credit card statement, escapades at the pub. More seriously, I also experienced, at times, pretty severe bouts of depression during my first couple of years as a teacher. This is line with statistics, mental health problems are thought to peak at around the ages of 18-24, with young women aged 16-24 experiencing the highest rate of mental disorders.
So what is so difficult about being a young teacher? Take myself for example. I was so desperate to prove myself, and be the best I could possibly be. I worked in a school with often challenging behaviour, and a high level of deprivation. After bad lessons, I remember re-thinking and dissecting every possible detail feeling, like I had failed my students. Really, my thought processes were just faulty. For example, I had a particularly difficult lesson behaviour wise with a year 7 class. Instead of concentrating on the positives, I questioned by ability as a teacher, and felt like if I couldn’t control a group of 11 year olds, it just wasn’t worth it. I took on as much work as I possibly could, to show I was willing. I worked myself into the ground. I lost weight, and became ill frequently. I was often tearful, and experienced overwhelming feelings of helplessness. All of this, on top of experiencing life changes such as moving to a new city, living with my boyfriend for the first time and working my first full time job. Whilst of course it’s unlikely that every teacher under the age of 25 has the same experiences, I’ve spoken to many who can relate to the strong feelings of personalisation, the often debilitating need to prove themselves, and overwhelming feelings of responsibility.
Coming into my third year of teaching, and after months of lockdown, I don’t feel like the same person as I was back then. I’m well rested, and discovered pleasure in many non-teaching activities. I feel content and confident in myself. This has for sure, made me the better teacher my pupils deserve. I’ve been able to transform my teaching through CPD, successfully interview for a TLR post and assist my department in setting remote work. I feel in control and optimistic. But would it have been possible for me to always feeling this way? Could there have been a way for me to take my first steps in teaching but also learn and develop myself in a healthy way? In contrast, what stopped me from being pushed over the edge and leaving teaching completely?
I am not denying that teachers of all ages face challenges, with some of them likely to be similar. For instance, I also believe it is probably likely that teachers who are entering the profession as a second career may also need a more personalised approach. I am advocating that an awareness to the particular difficulties faced at different life stages as the upmost importance, if we want to improve retention. Whilst it is likely more thought and research would need to happen for this to be approached successfully. However, examples could be: offering young teachers the opportunities to be coached by a colleague in another department, making sure they have a confidential and non-judgemental space to talk about problems they may face in teaching, but also their personal lives, and making sure they have the time and encouragement to pursue personal interests. We must also be aware of the vulnerability of this particular group of teachers to mental health problems, and handle this sensitively. Through this, our youngest colleagues will shine bright, and be able to provide the best education possible for all students.