Unintentional Teachers: Looking beyond vocation to attract people into the teaching profession

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I didn’t intend to become a teacher.  I knew I wanted a career which was, to my youthful judgement, ‘socially responsible’.  I knew I liked people, although I wasn’t 100% sure about young children.  For personal reasons I needed to stay living in my university town.  I also knew I LOVED my subject and would like to continue thinking about it.  Teaching therefore presented itself as the natural answer to post-university next steps but, as I started my Initial Teacher Education course, I did not intend education to become a life-long career.  If I’m completely honest, I viewed it as a stop gap.  A way to gain a useful qualification which would provide me with a secure job that I could always fall back on if needs be. 

And I’m not alone.  In ITE interviews I hear earnest assurances from candidates that they have dreamt of becoming a teacher since childhood; they love working with children, and they cannot imagine doing any other job in the world.  However, I know from speaking to my tutees that many prospective teachers are actually more like my 21-year-old self than they are prepared to admit to an admissions tutor.  I also know that many of them, almost despite themselves, end up like me  – beguiled by teaching and keen to make a really first-rate go of it as a career. 

As we currently face a crisis in recruitment and retention into the profession, I think society needs to admit that a sense of vocation is not enough to staff our classrooms.  Unintentional teachers are a significant element in the teaching population, and this means it is worth reflecting on what draws these prospective teachers into the profession.

A positive experience of school themselves

Unintentional teachers generally had positive experiences of school themselves.  They therefore view the opportunity to return to the classroom, even briefly, as an experience to be welcomed. Often the classroom has been a place of stimulation and intrigue for them.  At interview prospective teachers will talk about their own teachers with fondness and enthusiasm. There is an element of wanting to pay forward that positive experience.  I think one question we need to ask ourselves is whether our young people, now coming of age, see their own school experiences in the same light?

Teachers enthusing about the job

Teachers who ooze enthusiasm for learning new subject knowledge and opening up intellectual worlds for young people present an intoxicating package, and are probably the best marketing tool for encouraging people to enter the profession.  Meeting a teacher who finds meaning and purpose in supporting children and young people to understand themselves, is a similarly compelling experience.  Are our serving teachers enthusing about what they do?  If not, what impact is that having upon the unintentional teacher for whom teaching is not a vocation?

Being treated as a professional

Another key draw for graduates considering teaching is the idea that it is a profession where they will be able to exercise professional autonomy.  Very few beginning teachers I’ve met have joined the profession because they want, first and foremost, to manage behaviour while delivering other people’s lessons and inputting data.  Instead, the draw of the job lies in the interesting bits of the role – the intellectual endeavour behind curriculum design and lesson planning, the opportunity to be creative, to continue engaging with their subject, to inspire curiosity.  Take that away and you lose a key aspect of what makes the job attractive.  Is teaching offering graduates the professional challenge they are seeking?   

Training which is free at the point of access, and provides a stipend

This unintentional teacher would not have entered the profession, nor clocked up 10 years in the classroom and a further 10 in ITE, if becoming a teacher had involved incurring fees with no income to cover travel and other associated costs.  It would just have been too big a financial risk to take given my personal circumstances.  I would undoubtedly have looked to gain employment elsewhere and become embroiled in a different career path.  The modest training salary (yes, this is how we referred to the stipend payments) made it possible to entertain postgraduate study. 

Every year since the bursary for history ITE was removed, the course I run has lost a handful of high quality graduates who, having accepted their offer of a place on the course, crunch the numbers and realise they just cannot make the finances work.  Last year this was all the more acute with the cost-of-living crisis and rising fuel costs.   Training to be a teacher is unlike other postgraduate study – it is a full time job.  Holding down a part time job to pay for the privilege of ‘working’ full time, whilst undertaking a qualification, certainly isn’t desirable and for most it just isn’t possible.

This matters, not just because of numbers for recruitment but also because of who is being excluded from the profession.  We know that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to access higher education.  There is also plenty of evidence that people from more ethnically diverse communities, those with disabilities, single-parents etc. often share a higher burden of economic disadvantage.  Putting up financial barriers at the point of access has significant implications for the diversity – depth and breadth – of our workforce. It also has an implication for students who benefit from experiencing diverse and inclusive school communities.  

There is increasing evidence to suggest that ever increasing tax-free bursaries for shortage subjects isn’t solving the recruitment problem, nor does it help retention when the ECT salary they are paid comes in at less than their training bursary.  Constantly shifting the terms of training bursaries, or removing them altogether, also has an additional impact in perpetuating inequity and making some prospective teachers delay applying for training, just in case the terms become more favourable. Can we risk losing these people to other forms of employment?

Viability of a long term career and job security

Public services do not command the salaries of the private sector, but they have, at various points in the past, offered a competitive graduate salary, with a clear salary progression that respects and recognises the value of having more experienced colleagues in the classroom.  In the past, other aspects of a teaching career that have appealed to potential applicants have been the promise of job security, school holiday availability for working parents, and good retirement benefits. However, as society shifts away from the notion of jobs for life to the expectation of a portfolio career, and flexible working reduces the lure of term-time only teaching contracts, teaching needs to rethink how it positions itself as a good option for those graduates who do not necessarily have a sense of vocation.  Professional salaries, legitimate and respected progression pathways for those not wanting to enter senior leadership, a degree of flexibility, and more realistic workload (for example minimum 20% PPA) must surely play into the attractiveness of the career?

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

Helping ‘unintentional’ teachers to find their vocation

Our children and young people deserve the very best teachers who are committed to their development and enjoy teaching them.  Ideally, we would have a legion of people beating down the door wanting to train to be teachers.  But not everyone is born with teaching as their vocation.  Some of us stumble into it and, upon finding ourselves in the classroom discover its wonder, and the joy of young people discovering something new about themselves and the world in which they live.

We need to think seriously about whether we are creating the conditions in which unintentional teachers can be drawn into the profession. We need support to enable these conditions to be created and developed.


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