Secret Teacher: nearly 50 and going back to school – is it the right choice?

This week’s Secret Teacher explains what it’s like to plunge into teaching with fellow PGCE students almost half your age – and offers careers advice to others considering the leap. This is from the Guardian

I jumped. Just a few years shy of 50, I decided to become one of those career changers you see in teaching agency posters, beaming from tie to bald spot with newly found job satisfaction as they get a rewarding answer from year 8.

In truth, the decision was overdue. I was made redundant from my job in publishing a few years ago, then freelanced until that became untenable and the work increasingly valueless. This didn’t make the decision any easier; I was scared witless about the lack of income while training (there’s a mortgage to feed) and the sheer vocational responsibility – good teachers don’t leave the job at work. But I decided to put my elbow-patched jacket where my heart is, and here I am, three weeks into a full-time secondary PGCE course. I chose a full-time PGCE rather than School Direct or similar because I felt this would be the best way to rejuvenate my rusty subject knowledge and gain the skills I’ll need.

To compound the difference and double the anxiety, I’m going to become a dad for the first time some time early in my second school placement. My wife runs her own small business, so there’s no maternity leave or pay to cushion the concern. Apparently this has never happened on the course before. I already can’t work much past 11pm without my eyes going; whether I can cope with the extra exhaustion remains to be seen.

The course is intense for everyone, but my age brings marked differences to the experience – some odd, some useful. First, there’s the bizarre, unsettling sensation of being a student again, akin to waking up in one of those “I’m back at school and I haven’t done my geography homework and I’ve got no trousers on” anxiety dreams. (I do have my trousers on, but I definitely haven’t done my homework yet.)

Then there’s the obvious fact that I’m twice the age of most of my fellow students. I keep being reminded of the gap; in a tutorial, a DVD of good primary practice (introduced as “old, from the 80s, but useful”) featured one of my student contemporaries teaching brilliantly in the garish hues of a VHS recording. (On the plus side, friends who went straight into teaching while I faffed about with bands and books for 30 years are now headmasters and consultants – great sources of advice and guidance.)

Socially, I felt isolated at first; my cultural references, humour and so on aren’t quite shared. Many things I’ve said in conversation (“Oh yes, when I used to ring John Peel …” or “Ah, Berlin before the wall came down…”) get that look of uninterested tolerance that the young give the boring old. This compounded my sense of “What the hell have I done?” at first. But that’s just my ego, and as any teacher will tell you, that needs to be put to one side.

Keeping opinions to yourself – essential to being professional – doesn’t come easily to an opinionated, middle-aged man either. There have been numerous foot-in-mouth moments; in team-building exercises, it turns out that it’s best not to admit that your pet hates include Coldplay and team-building exercises. Fortunately, my kind, clever peers are an easy-going, supportive and considerate bunch; I need their help and ideas, and both have already been invaluable.

But while they have time – to make mistakes and go to the bar – mine is running out. This is the last career change I can make with any future in it realistically, so I’m constantly anxious about being fully engaged and focused. As a result, I keep catching myself talking to some of them as if they were my pupils – steering them back to the purpose of group discussions when they meander into likes and dislikes. (It must be irritating. I sincerely, anonymously, apologise.)

Subject knowledge is another worry. My peers’ degrees are fresh in their minds, but mine is a distant, dusty A4 memory, taken in truth so that I could leave home and be in bands, in those halcyon days when (whisper it) students were given grants. On the subject of minds, theirs seem organised, IT-ready and far more adept with complex technology than mine. “Did you used to have a PA?” one observed drily, as I raged at a password-encoded library photocopier.

But the biggest problem I’m aware of every day is that at my age you’re set in your ways; you have your own disorganised ways of getting by and sticking to what you know. Embracing teaching means being mentally flexible, learning something new every day and not just shuffling on as the old duffer you are. (And not running away when a tutor says, “Now we’re going to do some improvised drama.”) After initial growing pains, this feels good; I can feel the plaque cracking off my grey matter as it swells with subject knowledge, pedagogical theory and techniques. (A bit of Piaget’s disequilibrium to accommodation in action, perhaps? Sorry. I’ll get my folder.)

The real test will begin when I’m on my first placement…

More (including some tips from the Secret teacher) at:  Secret Teacher: nearly 50 and going back to school – is it the right choice?

What do you think of someone taking up teaching as they near 50? With retirement ages going back, people staying healthy longer and a drain from the profession of long term teachers, does it perhaps make good sense to encourage in more people like this who have already had careers elsewhere? Please share in the comments or on twitter… 


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Categories: Teaching.


  1. artmadnana

    SchoolsImprove Not sure. Having recently retired I know I was at my best in my late 30s / 40s. 50/60 year olds out of touch!

  2. PeterHutchinso5

    SchoolsImprove I applaud this secret teacher, but hope he/she doesn’t underestimate the physical challenges of teaching beyond 50. 1/2

  3. PeterHutchinso5

    SchoolsImprove It’s like fielding all day in cricket! Sit down occasionally and don’t feel you must “perform” all the time. Good luck!

  4. shallett_susan

    Got my degree at 49. Still teaching quite a few years later and love every minute. Embrace technology, share your students’ energy. You have a lot to offer, the teaching world needs you.

  5. LearnWLesley

    SchoolsImprove jobs 4 life pensions at the end r a thing of the past . Good luck to him. If he really wants it that’s what’s important

  6. inwte

    LearnWLesley SchoolsImprove Pity though that this government frowns upon career teachers #vilified for wanting a lifelong career by #gove

  7. inwte

    LearnWLesley SchoolsImprove Pity though that this government frowns upon career teachers #vilified by #gove for wanting a lifelong career

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