“I had thought that there was a teacher in me and it turned out there was”

Michael Ewart-Smith, Teacher of Economics and Business & Master i/c Sailing, Sherborne School

Aged 52 I took the plunge and started my fourth career, this time as a Graduate Assistant Teacher in Economics. I had thought that there was a teacher in me and it turned out there was.

A degree in engineering from Exeter University, followed by a foray into civil engineering consultancy in London and the United Arab Emirates, ended after three years following my seduction by the seeming glamour and riches of finance after an MBA at the London Business School and the University of California at Berkeley.

I was never terribly comfortable or indeed talented in the corporate finance and private equity roles I had, not least because I never felt we added nearly enough value to justify the fees/salaries. So, aged 36 and still unmarried, with few ties, I thought I must leave before I get too financially comfortable. Luckily a great friend had asked me to go and be the base camp manager for some polar expeditions in the High Arctic, so I had an excuse to abandon my second career.

Back from the frozen waste of the Canadian High Arctic I set about doing what I had set my heart on during my time in finance, which was to take a risk and find a smallish business to put my time and money into, with the hope of playing a part in building a business and then eventually making a capital gain. Fortunately this is exactly what happened. The business was a nitty gritty distributor of office supplies (think warehouses and lots of van and mans) serving large corporate customers. In a very competitive industry, we ran a good business providing lots of opportunities for staff to grow with the company which we both grew organically and via acquisitions. We eventually sold to a very large corporate competitor for a mixture of cash and shares. I then became the finance director of the enlarged business and just before the financial crash we sold that business to a financial buyer for what turned out in hindsight to the buyer far too much. We got lucky. After another four years of working for the new buyer, which is always a recipe for dissatisfaction, and against a torrid economic environment leading to the gruesome task of playing a part in downsizing from 1,400 employees at the peak to 900, I decided it was time to yet again resign and take stock. So in 2013 that is what I did.

By this stage I had children at prep school in Hampshire and my wife and I were looking at the next schools for them. In walking around a few schools my hunch that there was a teacher in me was reinforced, I just felt this energy coming out from the pupils and reckoned that I could feed off and add to it. Five years on this remains the key for me, the moment I do not find the pupils giving me energy, that I can then reflect back at them, is the time to stop. When inevitably the reverse happens, provided one can dig oneself out of that and flip it back the other way, then teaching to my mind is a very rewarding career. It is definitely one in which the more you put in the more you get out.

So how did I manage to get a job? I thought that with my background I could teach any of Physics, D&T, Economics or Business so I set about applying for jobs as a teacher but got nowhere. After one such rejection from Sherborne School, I got a call from the Head of Department saying that they were about to advertise for a Graduate Assistant which would normally go to a 22 year old – “Was I interested?” Initially I thought “No” and then I just thought – “Why not? Take a risk”, which has always been a mantra of mine. So in September 2014, aged 52 off I went. I taught half a timetable of Economics and Business to the Lower Sixth and was put through the “part time / on the job” iPGCE of Buckingham University, which comprised writing lesson plans for every lesson and being observed once per week. In hindsight, going straight into a full time teaching role untrained would have been very difficult. The valuable thing about that year as a Graduate Assistant was having time to think and plan and to reflect with the help of the lesson observations. To be honest I could have done without the residential iPGCE courses over the half terms but maybe I learnt more from them than I credit. I do remember that during one lecture, which was failing to keep me interested, scribbling down “45 minutes is a long time”. Conscious that some of my pupils are on their eighth 45 minute lesson of the day this thought remains to the fore daily.

A year or so after I started, the Now Teach initiative got off the ground with many, much publicised tales coming out from those on that programme. In truth the two experiences are I suspect worlds apart, I am in the softer environment of a private boarding school in rural “tweedy” Dorset with pupils, by dint of their background, pose on average less challenges to their teachers. On top of that teachers at Sherborne in general teach fewer hours but spend commensurately more hours on the co-curricular activities seven days a week and indeed supervising boarding in the evenings. Life in term time is relentlessly busy but such a role in a school such as Sherborne does give teachers variety, and importantly, as a teacher you get to see and share different experiences with the pupils out of the classroom and vice versa, which then hopefully gives a much stronger bond and understanding of each other to help boost collaboration in the classroom. Knowing that a frustratingly un-academic pupil is more talented than you in multiple non-classroom roles is a great motivator. My particular bent is competitive sailing and I was incredibly lucky that the head of sailing, to whom I initially acted as support, retired two years into my joining, leaving me the freedom to build from a very strong base.

What do I like about the job?

In general, I do not view it as a job. I view it as something I want to do and have to do to the best of my ability for the benefit of the pupils. Even when I was part owner of a business rather than an employee I used to resent it when I found myself working at weekends. I rarely find experiencing that resentment in teaching. Granted if the long holidays were taken away then maybe life would be different.

I feel that in teaching I am permanently performing and being kept on my toes thinking “Are the class with me and if not what must I change?” I like this feeling.

There is freedom in teaching to do it your own way. It is creative. I do not think that technically I am a very good teacher, my strength I believe is being relatively successful in getting the pupils on side. Other teachers get similar or better outcomes by teaching in other ways.

The heartfelt letters and emails from pupils and parents expressing genuine appreciation.

Do I have career aspirations?

Put bluntly: “No” – I did that in my last career and anyway from where I sit the point of a job in education is all about contact with the pupils and if you move away from the pupils then your contact becomes less and likely to be skewed towards the negative interactions with pupils. As long as I keep trying to put some “more in” then I will get some “more out” and hopefully that will be “win, win” for pupils, the School and me.

Do I recommend teaching as a career?

Yes, of course. I at one extreme, as a post 50 years old entrant, can enjoy simply being a teacher with no necessity to climb any ladder and can add immense value to the pupils via non-educational career experience and indeed contacts. That said, one of the most memorable moments of the last year was watching a highly respected 40-year Sherborne veteran retire, aged 70 with the simple words to the whole school cohort of “If you have a career half as satisfying as mine you will be truly blessed”. The ensuing loud applause was testament to our belief in his sincerity and of course to him.


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