(John is a former RAF serviceman who is now working and training as a further education lecturer. He is supported by the Further Forces FE career programme based at the University of Portsmouth, which is backed by the Education and Training Foundation)
After 12 years’ service in the Royal Air Force Police, John Stancliffe almost immediately joined City of Liverpool College in October 2019 as a ‘casual bank’ lecturer in functional skills and GCSE maths, before being taken on full-time last August. Here he talks about his training in the Further Forces (FF) programme, his first 18 months’ full-time teaching and how his RAF training and love of maths (as a hobby) has helped him successfully switch careers.
How did you get into maths teaching and the Further Forces scheme?
After maths and science A-levels, I attended my current college for two years as a student, first on a vehicle engineering course and then music production - I fancied a change - before joining the RAF in 2007. I left in September 2019 and joined my old college as a maths teacher. I’d always wanted to work in education, partly inspired by my dad, who was an FE lecturer himself. While in the RAF I was planning to join its recruit training squadron before a longstanding injury cut short my service and made me consider using service learning credits to help finance a degree and then train as a secondary school teacher. But during resettlement training a colleague mentioned the Further Forces FE teacher training scheme. I researched how teaching in college differed from school and something just clicked. I called FF and enrolled four days later. I found out FE lecturers don’t need a degree to teach but just a qualification one level higher than the one you are teaching at and then you train on the job. I had maths A-level so could teach at GCSE and foundation level.
How have you found moving from policing to teaching?
I’ve always been a self-confessed science nerd - I see maths as the language of science and I’ve had an interest in maths from a young age. In the RAF I’d regularly read up on science, particularly breakthroughs in physics, and did maths here and there as a hobby. Then I got the chance to teach maths, which I’m really enjoying - it’s like passing on a hobby to my students.
A key challenge was getting used to a non-military environment. There’s a certain type of humour in the RAF plus extensive use of military slang and acronyms for everything, so I had to roll back on that! I also had to get used to a very different routine. In the forces you do everything to a timetable and are even told what to wear - but in college you have to create your own routine and I even had to ask what “smart casual” meant. Again in the RAF, everyone would help out with IT problems but as a lecturer you are on your own in class and often must rely on your own resources - if something goes wrong, say, and the students are staring at you . . .
How’s the training going?
I’m just finishing the second of four modules and am halfway through the part-time, two-year FF course, supported all the way by my college and FF. Live teaching and lesson preparation/marking, speaking to parents and chasing up attendance registers are time-consuming, but my work schedule allows me time to complete most of my course studies on Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons when I don’t hold classes, though I do some work in my free time.
What skills do you bring from the armed forces?
I did a lot of public speaking and delivering airport and other security briefs in the UK and on overseas tours. I also dealt with many sorts of people, particularly suspects and victims during investigations. Communications are a large part of my skillset, along with a disciplined approach to work gained from years in the services. It’s not about barking out orders on the parade ground but being able to speak to people in a particular way, getting them to listen to you and then following up with checks that they’ve understood you.
Maths teaching is far more than knowing your subject and my interviewers must have appreciated my particular skillset. FF understands the great range of skills and disciplines ex-military personnel can bring to FE and helped me trumpet them at interview. I hadn’t used maths that much for the past 12 years so I was asked questions like how I’d engage students when introducing a new maths topic in class and how I’d cope with a room/screenful of students using my core RAF skills.
What are your main responsibilities?
The curriculum is pretty set - we all teach the same topics at the same time but individual lesson content is down to each teacher. A key task is planning actual lessons and ensuring they are differentiated enough to cater for students of all abilities. There’s also the pastoral side where we look out for our students - we are currently handling a number of safeguarding issues - plus admin, keeping attendance records up to date, monitoring progress and feeding back to students.
I go back to absolute basics in functional maths and tell students to forget everything that’s gone before and that we will build on a new foundation. I cover the four main operations - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division - and then introduce topics such as knowing how to use money. We’ve recently looked at navigating with a compass, learning about directions and reading scales of measurement such as temperatures and weights.
As a teacher, you need a positive attitude and humour - when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan we often found ourselves in tough situations and it was camaraderie and humour that got us through. I do the same in my maths lessons. I build on my students’ state of mind. There’s much more ‘I can’t do maths’ negativity than I’d thought, so I try to get my students to believe in themselves - something you constantly have to do in the forces although there it’s done in your own time.
How have you managed teaching online?
It was better this time round - last year was tough and we all had to learn new IT systems like Microsoft Teams videoconferencing and Maths Watch. But our English and maths department is very supportive and close-knit - everyone constantly shares ideas - and that made a massive difference in the first lockdown. Now we understand online systems and are better prepared, although there are still ongoing issues such as student access to technology - the college has so far loaned out around 400 laptops plus some 150 internet dongles this academic year.
What’s a typical day?
Pre-covid, I’d get in at 8am, open up the classroom, get lessons up on screen, check the kit is working, prepare any materials needed for classes that day and then whip through emails before classes started at 9am. I’d take two morning lessons and two in the afternoon up until 4.30pm. I’d then chase up absent students, speak to parents and do admin. During covid restrictions I try to keep to an 8am start to ensure our technology and the internet are working.
How have Further Forces helped you so far?
The whole team has been brilliant. At first I had some personal problems and was struggling with deadlines. Immediately, my FF tutor set up a ‘zoom’ meeting to offer help. FF was particularly helpful in securing me a work placement in my current college. I have to get in a certain number of teaching hours from placements but there were no opportunities where I lived for public services teaching slots - my initial choice of subject to teach. Then FF searched around in my local Liverpool area and found an opening in maths in my former college that matched my qualifications.
In my fortnightly online seminars during covid, FF constantly contribute good ideas to help me relate teaching theory to classroom practice. Their staff understand the military banter and this makes them so approachable when I need to talk about any issue. They have tweaked the course so that we can give required 10-minute voice presentations online rather than travel down to Portsmouth.
What qualifications/background do candidates need to do your job?
I didn’t bring any formal qualifications other than maths and science A-levels, but I had often worked as a training mentor for junior personnel. Time constraints meant I was unable to study for a mentoring qualification. I may study at HE level to be able to teach on our level 3 teaching diploma course but at present I’m quite happy with functional skills and GCSE resits where you can make most subjects relate more to your learners. A-level, with its calculus, integration and differentiation, is a lot more theoretical.
What do you like most about teaching?
‘Aha’ moments! Seeing students’ confused faces light up when you explain something another way and they get it.
Last year - my first - I had students pass their maths GCSEs based on teacher assessment after years of struggling. Several more passed in November. It’s fantastic when they come up to you saying they can’t believe they have passed. Student feedback suggests they think I’m ‘a big kid and a maths nerd, who helps them understand maths and enjoy learning!’
When do students respond best to your teaching?
I teach a bit, get them working, then repeat that to break up the lesson and inject some pace. They respond best to interactive slides - online I’ll post up questions on a whiteboard via Microsoft Teams and get them to post answers. It keeps them involved and not just listening to me. We sometimes play an adapted form of online Blockbusters - it gets really competitive and is great fun.
What should would-be candidates consider before applying to FF?
Are you enthusiastic about teaching? It’s hard work but comes with great rewards. And can you show your students that you are investing in them and are a leader they can follow (like my flight sergeants in the RAF)?
What spurs you on to work each day?
The chance to pass on my knowledge and then see students progress, plus being part of a dedicated group of colleagues who are there for each other.