May 2012, aged 21 years and 3 months. I’m standing outside a classroom, in an unfamiliar school, in an unfamiliar city, waiting for a group of twelve- and thirteen-year olds to decide my fate. I take a peek through the circular glass window and ready myself for the challenge ahead. Hearing footsteps behind me, I turn to shake the hand of my interviewer. I remember to shake firmly, like I’ve always been told. She smiles warmly, and invites me into the classroom.
“Are you actually a teacher?” One of the boys, sitting in the corner, shouts out from behind his desk. Looking at me in disbelief, he is already questioning my role here.
I’m not sure what to answer. I’m not a teacher yet, I suppose, but I hope to be. Before I get chance to reply, my interviewer, the Head of Classics, shushes him promptly.
Walking over to the teacher’s desk and giving the class a moment to settle, I take a deep breath and begin to teach. I could have been put off by that early comment - the early questioning of my authority based solely on my looks. But my nerve is not easily shaken, and I use that one boy’s question as my motivation to show the class that yes, I am “actually a teacher”, and a good one at that.
A 2016 School Workforce Census, published by the Department for Education, shows that the number of younger teachers working in schools is growing (24.9% are under 30, compared to 23% in 2010). Furthermore, when international comparisons are made, teachers in England are the fifth youngest of all countries surveyed by the OECD International Teaching and Learning International Survey in 2013 (average age = 39 years). With these results in mind, we can see that more and more British youngsters are going to be taught by people closer to their own age, as the number of older teachers (aged 50-60) dwindles. So how did I cope as a young teacher, teaching children who, in some cases, were just three years younger than me? And how did my pupils, their parents, and other teachers react to me?
I should start with a disclaimer: I was lucky enough to start my teaching career at one of the top private schools in Scotland, where my pupils were (for the most part) impeccably behaved, motivated and a pleasure to teach. There is no way that every young teacher experiences the same things as me, and experiences will, of course, differ depending on the school, whether one is teaching primary or secondary ages, and many other factors. This is my experience, to share some fun stories and give some examples of how I dealt with being a youngster teaching youngsters.
· I found that students more easily related to me as a younger teacher, and I built strong relationships with them, so that they felt they could confide in me. I had a fair number of heart-to-hearts with girls who were struggling to navigate the rocky road of teenage romance, and this brought about a stronger connection between us which had a positive effect in lessons. Pupils who felt that they could approach me with their personal problems were more likely to listen to me in class because they wanted to please me. Personally, it is also a really nice feeling to know that your pupils trust you, and want to share their deepest, darkest secrets with you! Speaking to one pupil, she said that she felt as if I understood her situation more intimately because I had perhaps been through something similar in my own teenage years. Issues with social media-related bullying, sexting and FOMO are recent developments which older teachers might never have experienced first-hand.
· I used my youth to my advantage when teaching, whether that was relating a poem to a One Direction song, or retelling a story using emojis during a revision session. Pupils found my approach refreshing, and it hopefully made the facts I was imparting to them more memorable.
· I could act as a role model, since my pupils could see that I was at the beginning of my own career journey. When I announced that I was leaving the school to take up a job in Switzerland in 2015, several of my pupils said that this had opened their eyes to the possibility of working abroad. I was not a teacher who had been in the profession for many years, but someone who was finding my feet in the working world, and my pupils responded to this. They helped me to grow as a person and as a teacher, and then could learn from the direction in which this growth took me, and use it to guide their own choices.
· I joined in with their activities as an “equal”. In my second year at the school, I was given the opportunity to help with Sixth Form sports activities. I signed up for Aerobics, but this actually turned into a Dance and Cheerleading class, under the guidance of an external dance teacher. Waving my pompoms with a group of seventeen-year olds was a great stress reliever, but also showed the pupils that I am human, and like to have fun in the same ways that they do!
· I took on board advice from older teachers, as I realised that I could benefit from their experience. I was lucky to work amongst a great group of fellow teachers, who were happy to share their wisdom with me. I found that, as a young teacher, they wanted to nurture me and help me to develop under their guidance.
· I found a happy balance between being the teacher they could banter with, and a serious classroom figure deserving of respect. In my experience, the two go hand-in-hand; the pupils knew that they could joke around with me, but they also understood that there was a boundary which should not be crossed. During my last months in Scotland, I had to give Personal, Social and Health lessons to my form class of twelve-year olds. I gave them a booklet about puberty to study from, and every morning when I went into my classroom, I would find my desk covered in booklets, opened to the pages about pubic hair or kissing. It was their way of showing that they could trust in my reaction, and that they were comfortable with me as their teacher in these potentially awkward subjects.
· I had to work harder to be taken seriously. Pupils had to know that, despite being young, friendly and approachable, I was not a “fun big sister” figure, but their teacher. Early on in my teaching career, a young male pupil tried to hug me in the corridor between lessons. This was a catalyst for me to ensure that I commanded respect both inside and outside of the classroom, so that it was made very clear that this sort of behaviour was not appropriate.
· Other teachers thought I would be a pushover, and sometimes pre-empted this in the way they told classes to behave with me. An older teacher told my class that they “would be watching” them, with the suggestion that my discipline alone would not be enough to keep them under control. I feel that this would not have been the case with someone who looked older than me, and was based purely on a judgement made due to my age.
· I felt more pressure to “dress the part”, as my clothes can have a big effect on how old I appear to be. On a school trip to Pompeii with my teenage pupils, another teacher mistook me for one of her class as I was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts! So, I made sure that, in the classroom, I always dressed formally and wore heels every day. The heels were a psychological thing mostly; they made me feel more powerful and authoritative when walking around the school amongst a crowd of growing teenagers.
· Parents at parents’ evenings nearly always commented: “You don’t look old enough to be a teacher.” Although I took it as a compliment, it also made me feel as if I had something to prove before I even opened my mouth, simply because I look so young.
It would be erroneous to suggest that being a young teacher made me a better teacher. There is no evidence that teacher age has an impact on student learning, or results for that matter. But, with more young teachers entering the workforce, and more and more stories in the news about young teachers wanting to leave the profession, it is well worth considering some of the potential pros and cons.
I’m now 27, running my own tutoring company, and still encounter situations where my teacher status is questioned. But on these occasions, I have an answer ready. In June 2018, I walked my teenage pupil to his examination hall and a woman, accompanying her daughter to the same exam, shouted to us both: “Good luck!”
“I’m not taking the exam,” I answered.
“Oh, sorry, aren’t you a student as well?” She asked.
“No…I’m a teacher.”