(This article follows a serving army Warrant Officer in training to become a further education lecturer supported by the Further Forces career programme based at the University of Portsmouth and supported by the Education and Training Foundation)
After 32 years’ service in the Army’s staff and personnel support branch of the AGC (Adjutant General’s Corps), Paul Brenton is shortly leaving to take up full-time FE teaching. Here he talks about his training, his current voluntary teaching placement and the skills picked up in the military that help many ex-services personnel become such successful teachers
How did you get into business and public services?
I left school at with GCSEs at 16 and joined the Royal Army Pay Corps (renamed AGC). I’ve worked at army HQs around the world, getting attached to specific units wherever they’ve been based and taking on a wide range of a leadership and instructional posts to help run the Army as a business. In 2013 I reached the top rank (Warrant Officer class 1) as a soldier in my sector. For the past four years, I have worked in the appraisal and assurance role for the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.
How did you find out about Further Forces?
With business admin and human resources my stock-in-trade in the army, I was at a resettlement briefing at the army’s education centre when I saw a poster from Further Forces (FF) asking: ‘Do you wish to take something you already know and teach that to someone in the adult world?’ (I’d noted during a skills audit for army leavers that my best times in the military were working as a trainer - when I became a mentor for other trainers, I realised I really missed training students). I immediately called FF to confirm I was suitable and then signed up for a two-year part-time PGCE teacher training course finishing early next year and run by FF. I leave the Army on May 1 and hope to gain a full-time lecturing post starting next term.
How have Further Forces helped you move into FE teaching?
In so many ways! Further Forces found me a placement to do 100 hours of evidence teaching practice as part of the PGCE course - they ask where you want to teach and then they will give you massive support in finding a placement with with the local providers (in my case New College, Swindon). You only have to attend an interview - everything else is sorted by FF and the colleges HR department. It’s brilliant having a university approach local providers (FF are part of the University of Portsmouth) saying they’d like to offer the provider a student on an unpaid voluntary placement who will bring bags of experience and be an asset to any team.
FF helped generate my CV and job applications which I sent them to review. They also stepped in to extend my time on the course to enable me to get in my 100 teaching hours (without which I would have had to leave the course). Throughout the course, they have been my tutor in academic matters and my mentor regarding employment.
FF contact me at least once a week to check on my wellbeing and mental health, and provide support in sourcing videos, books and the teaching methodologies I should research. They guided me in identifying a business mentor (my college head of department) with whom they constantly liaised. FF continually hold you accountable, tracking your journey when you deliver your teaching week by week, and not leaving critique till right at the end of the course when there is no real time for questions.
What’s your placement role at college?
I teach on the level 3 BTec advanced diploma in Business course that comprises some 12 different units. Because of my HR/business experience and the FF course I’m on, I’ve so far been asked to deliver employment law (similar to my work on contracts in the military), business finance (calculating business costs, profit and loss) which I had to learn up about; and managing an event (students have to put on a virtual event) - a real gift because the longer you are in the military, the more event planning you do!
I’m responsible for ensuring all course material is relevant to current business news and amending it where needed. I really like the level of trust and responsibility the college has given me. I also maintain an attendance register and record student achievements and absences. And just as we do in the military, I try to get my students to achieve as high a standard they can.
Why is teaching often seen as a natural fit for ex-services staff?
You don’t realise just how effective all the transferable skills you have developed in the Army prove to be until they are highlighted one you leave and enter another arena like a classroom. I think this lack of awareness may be stopping more people applying to FF. A college principal told me tutors could easily teach us the course framework but not the experience we have gained in the army.
What’s a typical placement day?
Every Wednesday I arrive ‘virtually’ at 8.30 to ensure my lesson is as good as it can be, check out my laptop and any other kit I’ll need. From 9-11am (in lockdown) I deliver an online business lesson. I then update attendance records and do other admin tasks from 11-12pm before lunch, after which I report over to the public services department where I assist, deliver and mentor, finishing around 4.30-5pm.
What specific skills do ex-services staff bring to teaching?
1. An ability to communicate your intentions.
2. Confidence when speaking to and mentoring people (some military personnel wrongly believe they will not feel confident teaching in FE but when they get outside the fish bowl of army life they prove they are!)
3. Adaptability - a few people may struggle to adapt to the fast-paced change to online virtual learning and fight against it. But in the military, adapting is a daily business and you build up the mental ability not to get stressed. When, say, a senior officer comes up to you and says: ‘Right, how do we attack this problem?’, you are adapting and ‘teaching’ without necessarily realising.
What qualifications do you need?
The great thing about the FF programme is that you don’t need a degree to take the course - just maths and English GCSE or literacy and numeracy at level 2 plus a solid services background (those without a degree get taught at level 5) - and you don’t undertake as much academic research. In fact, 70% of FF trainees have no degree although, if you want to teach at higher education level, you do need one.
What if you face a work problem at college?
Any time you feel you lack proper support from college, don’t do as you would in the military and just crack on but do raise your hand. If you are not listened at your college, speak to the FF team and ask them to reframe your situation by simply getting them to ask for clarification on the problem you face. You can rely on them to fix it.
What do your students like best about your teaching?
They seem to appreciate my efforts to reframe how I deliver information so it’s relevant to them in their world.
What do you like teaching most?
Managing events - we do this all time in the military. I’m given a framework and I add examples from my own experience.
What advice would you give would-be students?
Go with a blank canvas as you don’t know what’s going on in a student’s world. Leave any preconceptions at the door and look past the student’s behaviour to ask why they are behaving in a certain way - they are unlikely to be intentionally disruptive. You may then discover they face a difficult home learning environment or are struggling with a certain aspect of their course and are afraid to mention it. A robust line with compassion wins them over rather than being a stereotypical, authoritative military figure shouting at them - and then losing them!
Don’t be afraid of failure - it gives you feedback and helps you improve your teaching. Put your hand up if one of your virtual sessions confuses your students. Then, if you follow up with a clarifying video, your students will be happy as they can see you are investing time in them.
Why should ex-services staff become teachers?
In the military I believe you can accrue at least 60% of the skills needed to be an effective teacher. So if you enjoy mentoring others and seeing them succeed, there’s no greater reward than mentoring the next generation of people to make a difference in the world.