What’s it like to retrain as a secondary school teacher at 53?

In September 2019, the time came for 53-year-old Barry Holden to step outside of his comfort zone and into a new career as a trainee English Literature Teacher. After 25 years as a music industry executive, Barry recognised that he was settling for a comfortable career in a role that no longer excited him. So he took the plunge and adopted a fresh challenge, where there was nowhere to hide…

Londoner, Barry, spent his youth listening to classical music and building up a body of knowledge that he was later able to turn into a 25-year career. But even working in his “dream” career, the day came when he realised that he’d achieved everything that he’d set out to do. He says, “At that point I had to ask myself what was to come next. My passion for my role was less than it had been, and I was becoming increasingly aware of my relative privilege in society. I started to wonder what my own contribution back might be and how I would want to be remembered one day.”

Feeling inspired

It was around this time that Barry became inspired by a TED talk given by former journalist and broadcaster, Lucy Kellaway. Lucy swapped a 30 year career in financial journalism for a career in teaching, and finding the process somewhat tricky, she later co-founded Now Teach – a programme which supports later life career changers who are looking for a route into teaching.

Barry explains, “I studied English and Modern Languages at university back in the late 1980s. I also taught English as a foreign language without any training whatsoever and I said to myself at the time that I might want to come back to teaching later in life. So when I came across Lucy’s TED talk on teaching, I felt inspired – first by her own career change and second, by the fact that she’d set up an organisation to persuade other 50-something career changers to have the courage to follow in her footsteps. A lot of things dovetailed together quite quickly and I submitted my application to Now Teach to train to become an Secondary School Teacher of English Literature. From there, the process was quite swift – I passed through a rigorous set of interviews and was given a September start date with a local school!”

“If I can bring even just a few people an advantage and help them think ‘today something good happened’, then this career change is a risk worth taking”

The dad-of-four spent the summer ahead of his start date brushing up on his English Literature knowledge, before being catapulted into the whirlwind of teacher training. He’d occasionally spoken in front of 200-300 people at music conferences in the past, but he admits that nothing could have prepared him for standing up in front of a class of 25 year eight or nine students!

Laughing he says, “You’ve got to get up there in front of 20-25 children and bring a lesson to life that you’ve planned, that you’ve discussed with other people and that has a pedagogical sense – and then quite often, watch it fail in front of you! There’s a lot of adrenaline and it can feel like you’re on a rollercoaster because you never know if you’re going to get it right – especially when you’re working with a group of kids who often have other things on their mind. With teaching, if you do get it right, then you might just inspire a classroom of teenagers and help them move towards success in English, which I would venture is one of the most powerful gifts that you can give anyone in this society.

“There are days when you go home feeling like you just haven’t been able to conquer it and then other days where you do – like when I asked my group of year nine students if they were perhaps enjoying the first play that most of them had ever read and I was met by the chorus of a resounding “yes!” Or days like last week when I got to take them to see A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic theatre and watch their eyes light up. If I can bring even just a few people an advantage and help them think ‘today something good happened’, then this career change is a risk worth taking.”

Dealing with challenges

For Barry, it’s lightbulb moments like these that outweigh the more difficult aspects of the role, and help him continue working towards becoming the most effective classroom teacher that he can be. Although he was aware of some of the difficulties that he would encounter along the way – like behavioural issues in the classroom and a heavy workload – he has also been met with new and unexpected challenges along the way:

“Within the classroom, even if all goes well, you have to deal with very different levels of prior attainment within your pupils. By way of example, out of a class of 22 year nine pupils that I currently teach, 12 of them don’t speak English as their mother tongue at home and two of them are actually new to English altogether. So you have to be able to adapt and reframe your teaching to work with a wider variety of attainment levels than I expected. And that’s before you take into account any speech and language issues and/or any social, emotional or mental health issues that might come your way.”

However, Barry says that the structure of the Now Teach programme has been very effective at helping him to balance the theoretical and practical elements of his training, so that he can cope better with some of these challenges. His teaching hours rise slowly each term, allowing him space and time to study and get used to the idea of “performing” in front of the class. He also feels that he has the full support of the other teaching staff and says that one of the highlights of his journey so far has been getting to know new colleagues.

He says, “I’ve never once felt out of place. On the contrary I would say that my colleagues are particularly gracious, kind and interesting. Obviously you have to be comfortable with the idea that your Head of Department or curriculum-based trainer might be half your age – as mine are. But to be truthful, the minute that I watch my curriculum-based trainer teach a lesson, all thoughts of age difference disappear, because she is fundamentally a better teaching practitioner than I can hope to be. I don’t think about her age, I think about how I can be as good as she is.”

“I’ve also taken on the role of a choir master and organist in a church in South West London and I’ve loved being able to do that”

Although life as a trainee teacher is keeping him busy, he is still finding more time than he did in his previous career to spend time with his family and explore other interests:

“I’ve got four children, so the one major upside is that my holidays now coincide with theirs. I’ve also taken on the role of a choir master and organist in a church in South West London and I’ve loved being able to do that. So far, teaching does give me more space than my career in the music industry did – mainly because I don’t have to do corporate travel and because my work is now a five minute cycle ride from my house.”

Barry is so far enjoying his transition into teaching and says that it is something that he would recommend to other career changers. It’s given him a new lease of life and a desire to progress into middle or senior level roles in schools over the next few years. He admits that internally, he still doesn’t feel much different to how he did in his 20s, so he cannot conceive of a period of his life when he would cease work altogether and will continue working for as long as he possibly can. But, as with any big change, Barry is keen to stress that it is something that should be considered carefully and viewed objectively – rather than with rose-tinted glasses.

Barry says, “Undertaking a job like this in your 50s – there is going to be some stress involved. Nobody should try to romanticise that side of things. The truth is, you have to be prepared to learn from scratch and it can be hard work. Go in there with humility and be prepared to learn from other people’s good practice – there’s a lot out there and people are usually very willing to help you learn. Teaching is a profession where people want you to succeed and not all professions are like that.

“I would urge anyone who is no longer inspired by their work to consider why you should settle for moving towards boredom in your career? Taking on new challenges keeps you young and fresh, and isn’t staying alert and mentally challenged the most important thing as we get older?”

Interested in finding out more about Now Teach?

Or, are you interested in exploring a career change but teaching isn’t for you?

Are you inspired by Barry’s story? Or do you have a story of your own that you would like to share? Email us at [email protected] or post on the community forum. We’d love to hear from you.

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