With record stress levels, funding cuts and uncompetitive salaries, the teaching industry’s in the throws of a recruitment and retention crisis. So you’d be crazy to sacrifice a comfortable private sector career to teach, right?
I chat to the very sane Clare Wheelwright, who did just that.
In 2011 Clare Wheelwright was head of a large department in an international publishing firm. She managed a sizeable staff and budget. She drove a new car, enjoyed a big-ticket social life and purchased a new pair of shoes a week. She seemed to be on a fast-track path to both a directorship and basically winning at life.
But, she wasn’t happy.
All these trappings couldn’t compensate for basically supressing her ‘calling’. Clare says “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was little but the problems in the teaching sector have been apparent since then. Anyone I asked, anyone I spoke to about it said “don’t do it”. They said you’d be crazy, so I didn’t”.
“I went into publishing but the longer I stayed there and the further up I got, the less connected I was to what we were doing. And I felt more and more unhappy, more and more bored”.
At a time when three quarters of teachers were considering leaving the profession (according to a NASUWT survey), Clare saved £25,000 and quit her job to become one. Her course was a year-long GTP (Graduate Teacher Programme) which paid a bursary of £15,000 to ‘career-changers’.
Of course it hasn’t been an easy ride, Clare says of her old life “I miss the money! I also miss the time off, just shutting down and going home”. She’s also realistic about the challenges of the role “lesson-wise you have the disaster ones when you think what did they actually learn? I either pitched that too hard or too easy”.
However, it’s clear from the responses of her line managers and pupils alike, that hers was the right decision. She has a particular talent for engaging challenging pupils. As a trainee she was commended for persuading two headstrong girls to reduce their make-up when more experienced teachers had failed, by promising to come in bare-faced herself.
She said “I like make-up and I like looking glamorous but I told them how pretty they looked without it and the next day I thought, right I’m going to have to do it. I walked in with no make-up on, looking, I felt pretty rough and they were absolutely chuffed to bits. They went “Ahhh, she’s done it!” They said “you did what you said you’d do””.
She talks with fondness about a pupil with a difficult home life and work avoidance tendencies “I just showered him with praise. I said “if I give you another few days to do this homework assignment, are you actually going to do it or should I just put you in detention now?” and he said “no, I’ll do it, I’ll do it” and I came back to my desk the next day and it was printed out. It was a detective story with a handwritten note at the top saying ‘I told you I would do it’. He repaid my faith in him and that was wonderful”.
Clare’s undeniably ambitious, when asked about future aspirations she answers without hesitation “I want to be a Head Teacher”.
Throughout our conversation I get the impression that her hunger and the way she approaches teaching as a vocation rather than just a job, stems from having paid her dues early on. Of young graduates she says “they get really jaded by the amount of work and perhaps don’t realise that the grass isn’t always greener in an office environment. In an office I wasn’t making a difference in any real way”.
Clare’s story suggests that career-changers might be part of the answer for the teaching industry. She says “I probably would’ve left if I’d started at 18, as I think teaching requires some life experience”. Of the need to enable older applicants she says “I never would’ve done it with no pay because I couldn’t have lived. So the government does need to think about that. They still need this paid-for route to incentivise people”.
In terms of her teaching legacy, she says students already tell her that she’s “turned them onto English”. “They say they’ve learnt more with me than they have previously. That’s always nice. Some say that they love reading or that they love learning. Learning for learning’s sake…and that we had a laugh while we were doing it, which I think my year 11’s would say. We really did have fun and they all passed and that was just amazing”.
This is the kind of teacher I wish for every British classroom.