How Frances went from army colonel to newly qualified teacher in her 50s

In September 2019, 55-year-old Frances retired from her role as an army colonel to pursue a career in teaching. After serving 34 years in the army, Frances put her degree in French and Spanish to the test and began studying for her PGCE, with the end goal of becoming a language teacher. Now set to complete her teaching qualification in July 2021, Frances has opened up about some of the highs and lows of her training, and provided great insight into her experience of navigating a career change in her 50s.

Explaining her reasons for wanting to retrain as a teacher, Frances says, “I’ve worked all my life and I can’t really imagine what it’s going to be like to not work. After the army, I wasn’t ready to do nothing with my time, so I decided I’d do teaching because it felt like a worthwhile thing to do.”

Retiring from a 34-year career in the army

Frances served in the army for 34 years in various countries including the UK, Germany, Canada, Sierra, Bosnia, and Iraq. Frances’ role within the force changed every two to three years, which she explained made the job very varied and fast-paced.

With Army rules meaning members have to retire at 55, Frances left her role as a Colonel in 2018 with key strengths in management and leadership that she’s taken forward into her new role as a trainee teacher.

Turning towards teaching

With a degree in French and Spanish, Frances took the opportunity to put her knowledge to good use and follow the career path she’d first considered when she graduated from The University of Sheffield back in 1985.

She says, “I didn’t have any choice about leaving the army because you have to leave at 55, so at that point I decided I wanted to do something else. Having done a degree in Spanish and French, I thought teaching would be a good idea. I suppose it’s what I thought I might do way back when I graduated. I thought I’d join the army for a few years and then leave to be a teacher, but that never happened.”

Frances left university almost fluent in both French and Spanish, and explained she felt a bit rusty to begin with. She says, “I haven’t found it a problem at all. I think languages are a bit like learning to drive – all of the basic grammar doesn’t leave you. Visits to various countries over the years have also helped me maintain it. Plus, the difference between degree languages and the GCSE level that I’m teaching is huge.”

“The lightbulb moments where a pupil really understands something are very rewarding”

In her face-to-face role as a Newly Qualified Teacher, Frances attested to the rewarding moments where a pupil learns something new, and she can really feel she’s having an impact.

She said, “When you explain something over a few weeks and then get a piece of work due which is really brilliant you realise it’s clicked with them, that they’ve learnt something, and therefore you’ve achieved something. It helps remind you of the value that you’re doing in the role.”

Frances has also enjoyed seeing students improve and overcome challenges. She said, “Another highlight has been the amazing people that I’ve met and seeing the resilience shown by many of the young people no matter their personal circumstances or backgrounds.”

Frances had to adjust to life as a trainee after being at the top of her career in the army

Training to be a teacher hasn’t been an easy road and Frances was honest about the challenges the role has brought. Transitioning to a trainee teacher took some getting used to, as she explained: “I think probably the hardest thing about a career change is being at the top of your game in your career, only to leave and find yourself at the bottom of the pile again. You know it’s going to happen – but it’s not an easy thing to adjust to.”

The interview process brought similar challenges. Frances said, “It was certainly different for me because I’d spent a lot of time over my army career doing the interviews myself rather than being the interviewee. I just made sure I was well prepared and tried not to overthink it.”

The extent of the hard work that teachers do and the challenges they face – especially over the past year – also came as a surprise to Frances. She said, “I don’t think I was quite prepared for the hours of preparing work. Especially now, we’re handling all the GCSE stuff; collecting evidence and marking work to be able to give the students a grade for GCSE. I think a lot of people talk about teachers having super long holidays, but you usually spend the last week of the summer holidays and the last couple of days of the other holidays planning for lessons when you get back. I think there’s a lot of misconception about the teaching profession, and I really take my hat off to people who have spent their whole careers in teaching.

“The most challenging part has to be the behaviour that you have to deal with sometimes. I love my subject and I find it frustrating that other people don’t, but I knew that was going to be the case. I think the school I’m in might make it a little harder because there’s such a mix of abilities, but I wanted that challenge of teaching at a difficult school – I’m always up for a challenge! It’s just important to make sure you understand what to expect from the role – you’ve got to really want to do it. It’s not a profession that you can go into half-hearted. You’ve got to commit to it 100%.”

The surprising benefits of teaching in lockdown

Over the past year, many people have come to view online teaching as a fairly negative thing because it made many people feel isolated, and in some cases caused a disconnect between pupils, teachers, and their work. For Frances however, teaching during lockdown also came with some positives.

She said, “It was easier to control how much disruption pupils caused when teaching online, and pupils who were usually shy in the classroom came out of their shell when they were learning online. In many cases, I thought we made more progress than we usually do in the classroom, where behaviour can be a problem. I felt I was able to get the best out of all my pupils.”

Frances completed her PGCE qualification at the University of Chester and is currently working at Ormiston Horizon Academy. She has been supported throughout her career-change journey by Now Teach; a network that supports people making later life moves into teaching. She believes that online teaching has also allowed her to make the most of the Now Teach network, as she was able to connect more easily with other trainee teachers. Living in Shropshire, it had previously been hard for Frances to attend the Now Teach socials because they were held in London and Birmingham; the closest being at least an hour away.

She said: “The fact that everything moved online meant that I could join all the Now Teach events. I was able to attend webinars and seminars online, and enjoy all of the great speakers they had. Getting to the in-person socials after school hadn’t been easy, so it certainly made a big difference for me. Now Teach definitely handled the lockdown really well, and successfully maintained a strong sense of community.”

Looking towards the future

Having enjoyed the online aspect of teaching, Frances said she’d consider private tutoring or online teaching as a potential path for when she completes her qualification. She said, “As a Newly Qualified Teacher who studied Modern Foreign Languages, I have the option to just teach French, or more languages; to remain in the classroom full time or consider balancing a part-time role with some tutoring.”

After retiring earlier than she would have liked, making a career change has allowed Frances to fill her time with something worthwhile. She said, “I’m not looking to jump up the teaching ladder and go into leadership. For me, I’ve chosen this career; it’s always there for me if I need it, and I’ll continue to teach – I’m just not quite sure in what form yet.”

After an estimated five years in teaching, Frances and her husband are planning to retire in France, and live in the house they brought there three years ago. She said, “We’ve got a house in France and I’m excited to be able to go and spend some time there. My husband and I love having a project going on all the time, and renovating our house in France is our current project. Eventually, we’ll retire there together.”

 

If you’d like to hear from more Now Teachers about their experiences of changing career to teaching, check out Now Teach’s new podcast Now I’m Grown Up. Across six episodes, host Jenni Murray speaks to those that have swapped offices, newsrooms and courthouses for the classroom, to hear about their experiences of changing career to teaching. Available to listen now on Spotify and Google Podcasts, coming soon to Apple: Now I’m Grown Up podcast on Spotify.

Are you feeling inspired by Frances’ story? Or do you have your own story that you’d like to share? Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!

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