Back to School: Advice for Returning Teachers
By Rachael Southern
What is it like to return to teaching? Here are some strategies to make the transition smoother.
It feels like we’re always hearing about teacher shortages. Usually, the solutions are focused on enticing new teachers into teacher training, but what about all of the qualified teachers who have left the classroom? Figures suggest that 40% of teachers will leave the profession after five years, and there can be an assumption that these teachers are ‘gone for good’, sailing off into the sunset without even a glance over their shoulders. But I’m willing to bet that there are at least some of these teachers who are in the ‘never say never’ camp and always quietly wonder about a return.
I believe this because I was one such ‘former teacher’. I trained as an English teacher straight after university through Teach First. I loved my two years’ of teaching, but when my time on the programme came to an end I left the classroom and trained as a solicitor. Nothing had pushed me out of teaching; I enjoyed the role more than I had anticipated I would, but I felt very young to be committing to working in schools for my entire professional life, so I followed my friends to London for a corporate law job.
I started to have doubts almost immediately. There was so much I missed about teaching: being part of a school community, interacting with young people, and witnessing students grow in confidence. Above all, I missed the clear sense of purpose and the certainty of knowing that, when I went home each evening, I had done something important.
I did enjoy working in law – I worked for over six years as a solicitor, eventually specialising in charities and education, but by the time the pandemic hit, the voice in my head that had always wondered about returning to teaching was getting louder, and increasingly I found myself wanting to be back on the front line working directly with students.
Deciding to return
My realisation that I wanted to return to teaching initially launched a crisis of confidence. It had been nine years since I left the classroom. Would any school even entertain an application from someone who hadn’t taught in so long? Would I have to teach a lesson at interview? Would I remember how to do it?
At the height of my catastrophising, I spent hours on Google searching for information about returning to teaching, coming across unhelpful (and untrue) claims that no school would take you if you hadn’t taught in the last five years. I even emailed PGCE providers to ask whether it was possible to redo a PGCE (it isn’t!) as I thought it might be easier to just start from scratch.
I eventually found my way out of the panic by taking some small, manageable steps in the right direction.
- Reaching out: I contacted my mentor from my Teach First school. She was so supportive and encouraging about my chances of finding a role which really boosted my confidence.
I also used Facebook to see whether anyone else had made a similar return to teaching. I spoke to various people who had returned to teaching from careers including journalism, IT, and recruitment, which showed me that it was possible.
- Building experience: Before making the leap, I wanted to spend some time back in schools to ‘flex my teaching muscles’ and to check that I definitely wanted to go ahead with the change. I was fortunate that I worked four days a week at my law firm, so this gave me a fifth day each week that I spent volunteering at local schools. My volunteering experiences confirmed just how much I loved teaching, and gave me the confidence to start submitting teaching applications, knowing that I could include some recent experience to demonstrate my commitment.
Going for it
Eventually, there was nothing left to do but submit an application. I applied to a nearby comprehensive school, and I was pleased to be invited for an interview. I then spent a frantic weekend planning a lesson on Romeo and Juliet, which all felt very surreal, having spent the week before reviewing contracts, but the enjoyment that I felt planning the lesson and reading up on current trends in education confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing.
The interview day was daunting, but I had framed it to myself as a fact-finding mission. I simply wanted to see how it felt to be back in front of a class, and to get a sense of the questions that would come up at interview. But throughout the day, I fell for the school’s warm, supportive, yet ambitious ethos. So I was delighted when the headteacher phoned me later that day to offer me the role.
The first year back
I’m now coming to the end of my first year back, and I’m so happy that I made the leap. Coming back into teaching has been like riding a bike – except the bike is hurtling down a hill, and you have to jump on whilst it’s moving. Going straight back into a full timetable has been challenging, but I’m pleased to say that all of the positives I remembered about teaching are still there. Seeing my students applying the knowledge that I have taught them still feels magical, and I feel re-energised and enthusiastic again about my career.
Advice for potential returning teachers
Keep your hand in: Whilst working as a solicitor, I was always looking for opportunities to work with young people, such as leading my law firm’s schools outreach work. This meant that I never let my teaching skills go completely rusty, and it was helpful to have those experiences to draw on at interview.
Be positive: I delayed my return to teaching because of my own doubts. As soon as I started talking to school leaders, I realised how unnecessary that was. Schools are always looking for passionate, dedicated, and hard-working teachers, and they generally don’t let arbitrary preconceptions around time in or out of the classroom get in the way of hiring good people.
Talk to others: The biggest thing that helped me move past my doubts was hearing stories of other people who have returned. I now want to give other potential returners that same experience, and so I have founded The Returning Teachers Network (on Twitter at @ReturnTeachers) as a space for former teachers thinking about returning to ask questions and to link up with others who have followed similar paths.
Know your motivation: People will inevitably have their own opinions about whether you are doing the right thing. It’s important not to get too bogged down in their views, and instead to be clear about why you are returning. Personally, I returned for community, creativity, and purpose. Whenever I am having a wobble, I check in with myself about whether teaching is providing me with those three things, and the answer is always yes.
Get support: The first year back will be a rollercoaster, and the change in pace in your working life will likely be a shock to the system. It’s really helped me to have family and friends who understand that, and who support me when I need it most. Similarly, it’s really important to get support within school. Make sure to flag up to your school how long you’ve been away from the classroom, and advocate for the help you need to find your feet.
Advice for schools hiring returning teachers
1. Be open to returning teachers. Qualified teachers who have spent time out of the profession bring with them a range of invaluable experiences, perspectives, and soft skills. They have also made a conscious decision to return to the profession, with their eyes open to the realities of the job and a clear understanding of ‘what else is out there’, so this should make for committed and resilient teachers. At interview, acknowledge the unique journey of the candidate and ask them questions which will allow them to evidence the skills that they will be bringing back into the classroom from their other roles.
2. Provide tailored support. It’s important to recognise that a returning teacher may feel like a new teacher all over again. Have a conversation with them once they’ve accepted the job to agree a package of support. This could include having a buddy, providing cover to allow them to observe colleagues, offering lesson drop-ins and coaching conversations, or arranging subject-specific CPD.
So to any former teachers out there who are weighing up a return to the classroom, I say go for it! Find fellow returners, volunteer in schools, and put in the applications. The profession is waiting to welcome you back with open arms!