(This article focuses on armed services personnel making the transition from the military to teaching in FE supported by the Education and Training Foundation’s Further Forces career programme based at the University of Portsmouth)
After completing Highers (Scotland’s A-level equivalent), I attended an art college for nearly a year, specialising in pottery. But from a young age, I always wanted to be in the military. In 1995, aged 19, I joined the British Army's Royal Corps of Signals. I left last year after more than 26 and a half years’ service.
I had the pleasure of spending more than seven years on operations overseas - whenever there was something going on, I was there! I progressed from Private to Regimental Sergeant Major, the lead non-commissioned soldier in a unit of 580 personnel across seven geographical sites. In 2017 I was selected to become a Late Entry Commissioned Officer, achieved by 2% of soldiers.
Throughout my Army career, I took army-sponsored courses, particularly within the army’s leadership development programme and Chartered Management Institute (CMI) qualifications. Both as a soldier and with my officer training at Sandhurst. I believe in lifelong learning and left with four level 7 (master's level) CMI/ILM or Army Leadership Development Programme (ALDP) qualifications, a postgraduate diploma in management and leadership and an MA in business and administration. Most were part-funded by army grants. I enrolled in the Further Forces two-year PGCE teaching programme in 2020 and hope to graduate this July.
I got my first experience teaching in 2004 as a recruit instructor at the Army’s Defence School for Communication, Information and Systems. In 2011, I returned to teach leadership and mentoring skills to senior non-commissioned officers, prior to which I was sent on courses to gain qualifications at level 3 (coaching and mentoring) and obligatory level 4 (teaching). I’ve always had a passion for teaching - as you rise higher in the military, you find some appointments move you further away from the exact soldiers/people you want to support by passing on experiences. I'm a people-orientated person and always want to help.
Finally, as a newly commissioned officer in 2017, I became a regional career manager, responsible for professional and personal development of some 1,200 soldiers across three countries. It was extremely rewarding, as I could help people daily, such as getting them on courses to earn accreditation or helping with family issues and arranging relocation if necessary). It was a well-being, professional and personal role all rolled in one.
A soldier I was interviewing about transition mentioned FF and I asked him to send me a link, as I’d not heard of it. It’s massively underrated and not publicised enough; I’m now constantly advocating it to others. Hopefully, the recent publication of the government's Veterans Strategy (2022) action plan will help generate publicity for the programme.
I experienced the true power of the programme. After our first face-to-face meeting in August 2020, my FF mentor (Lynne Taylorson) asked college contacts if they wanted a placement in my subject areas of management/ leadership and coaching/mentoring; just weeks later it led to my starting at the new Professions Academy of Sandwell College. I was the first staff member to work on a brand new course.
I’d always planned to finish my PGCE before opting to leave the army or not. Within months, I’d realised college was where I wanted to be and resigned my commission halfway through the course in 2021. I’d already undertaken 150 hours of teaching practice - well over the 100 required to qualify. I wanted class experience quickly to ensure my transition was easier and right for me and had many discussions with FF. I also lived within train distance of the college.
I believe FF is the no.1 transition programme for the military - it gives you two years to get your PGCE or Certificate of Education, combined with teaching experience; it’s paced well and its phenomenal staff are constantly in touch with you about job vacancies and a range of college networks where you can receive and offer support to fellow teachers. The FF team does not get the recognition they deserve.
Since January 2021, I've been responsible for designing and delivering the CMI Level 5 Certificate in Management Coaching and Mentoring and in October 2021, shortly after leaving the army and midway through the FF programme, I became the CMI programme director for the college.
* An ability to share different opinions and industrial experiences
* Organisational skills - as my head of academy (Bridgette Bennett) said to me this week: "Bruce, you’re a good teacher but an even better manager!” In the army, you are constantly adapting to situations or scenarios, which gives you the skillset to meet criteria and standards via work ethos
* Risk and change management - as a soldier or officer, you are always trained to think about the second and third level effects of your actions
* Offering a different viewpoint to the learners/professionals I teach. I can relate a variety of sometimes weird experiences that my students would never have thought about, and this ignites greater discussion and collaboration
In my director’s role, I am the single main point of contact for any quality assurance issues in the academy and am responsible for areas including overseeing the delivery of courses, assessment standards, accreditation levels and most importantly, maintaining the standards of the college and awarding body with staff and learners. I’m constantly communicating with all students; we are currently enrolling 140 students to start this February, and I’ve spoken to each one individually over the past month - every student gets the same standard of service. I am also the conduit between awarding bodies and the college.
I also lecture for around nine hours a week in management and leadership - either evenings or during the daytime depending on schedules. Lecturing time will increase from February until December this year depending on courses on offer.
A daily, 40-minute train commute sees me answering all student emails often sent late at night. Then, on arrival on campus, I’ll discuss any issues about current or future courses with staff; ensure the academy is set up with the right equipment, and prepare classes and evening lectures. I’ll often spend mornings in virtual tutorials of 20-30 minutes each and switch roles from lecturer to course director and back. I’m currently working hard on future strategy with others and supporting my head of academy to, for instance, set up our first ever university-style graduation for the past year’s level 5 students. We’re also working out how to deliver new industry courses to around 200 students. Organisational planning, strategic thinking, and preparation are key elements in FE. Most days more email work follows on the train home and then I’ll often run a three-hour session online.
A passion for teaching, developing people and caring for your students; an ability to be flexible as FE is fast-moving and constantly changing; and a readiness to cope with the unexpected - something you get trained to do in the services.
FF is always there to help you in teaching, getting used to the college environment guidance or seeking employment. Teacher trainees can also benefit from FF’s network - last January I was asked to design the academy’s first CMI course. I was put in touch with a former FF student who’d been in the same situation the year before. We had a very useful half-hour discussion. Alumni are in constant touch on social networks - it’s the ideal place to go if you need some guidance in a hurry!
In fact, FF offers a whole transitional package, not just to get you qualified and accredited but promote your self-development as a teacher. Once qualified, many alumni continue to connect on apps - they know FF offers a treasure trove of gold nuggets - every FF unit and session, I’ve attended has taught me something new. They don’t stop helping beyond your qualification - they openly and willingly advised me about the doctorate course I want to start this autumn - hopefully at the University of Portsmouth. They never close the door; you can always talk to them.
I was initially getting used to not being the boss anymore after filling a leadership role in the military, where structure and rank lets you complete things quickly. I have had to remember I'm in a new environment, where people need to work differently with each other to achieve their goals. The college work ethos is exactly the same as in the army, and my own transition has helped me adapt well to college life.
A successful transition to civilian life - one of my aims was to spend more time at home (previously I worked away Monday to Friday)! It’s also forging a new role that really allows me to help people - last week, for instance, I became a Chartered Companion of CMI, which gives both the college and myself a wider profile and thus more freedom to support others.
Firstly, believe in your own abilities. Assess what you actually want or need before you leave. Don't chase the financial benefits if you don't need to. I want and need to be open and honest in all matters as part of my passion to help others. Ask yourself about your potential to project manage - for instance, if covid forces a student to miss two weeks (possibly a complete course unit), don’t just take the easy option and tell them to catch up but treat them as an individual and structure things around their needs, including extra tutorials. Remember the holistic aspects. Value our military standards of courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment. Be willing to learn how to improve. And don’t be afraid to empathise; I tell my students that I’m also studying - for a doctorate possibly - and know what they are facing.
It's the opportunity to help others holistically on their learning journey and to meet their personal goals. FF and the Army have given me so much and I now have the privilege of using all my experience and knowledge to develop others.