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Time to consider a ‘career in education’, rather than a ‘teacher career’?

Maxine Watkins, Research Fellow at University of Birmingham

Although seminal teacher career models (Day, Sammons, Stobart, Kington, & Gu, 2007; Fessler & Christensen, 1992; Huberman, 1993; Sikes, Measor, & Woods, 1985) have established predetermined stages/phases of professional development across a teaching career, the last 20 years have seen a shift in focus from career stages to teacher professional identity (Beauchamp & Thomas, 2009; Beijaard, Meijer, & Verloop, 2004). 

For my PhD I conducted 20 life history interviews (Goodson, 2008; Goodson & Sikes, 2017) with teachers in early, mid and late career, in order to understand each participant’s personal journey into teaching. During a professional timeline interview each teacher drew a line on a chart indicating fluctuations in their professional identity over time. Based on earlier teacher career models, the chart began in the year when participants entered the classroom as newly qualified teachers.

Four of the early-career teachers in my study had previously worked as support staff in school and felt that their own teaching career had started much earlier than on the chart. Cat* trained to teach through a salaried school-based route and finished her training in the same class where she had previously been a teaching assistant.

‘I’d already worked at this school for a long time … I had planned lessons before, I’d got established routines, you know, I was already doing it all really, but without the piece of paper.’

Some teachers in their mid-career phase expressed a desire to move into a role outside of the classroom where they could support the next generation of teachers.

‘I have a friend who works with [University name], and she goes out to see [students] on placements and things like that … I have always enjoyed having teacher training students in, and I do have a bit of an interest in that.’ (Julia*)

After 26 years in teaching, Janet* was embarking on a new role, working in a university, supporting students and schools on the initial teacher education programme.

‘I felt that I would be in a position to inspire, hopefully, trainees [and] nurture schools … so that really was my rationale for coming here. Because I felt that there was an impact that the university could have.’

Reflecting on the discussions I had with teachers in all phases, it can be argued that the existing models of teacher careers should be reconceptualised. With Teach First offering a fast-track training programme for talented support staff to become qualified teachers (Teach First, 2020), and the National Foundation for Educational Research reporting that ‘a large proportion of teachers who leave the state sector in England remain in the wider education sector’ (Bamford & Worth, 2017, p. 3), maybe it’s time to recognise a ‘career in education’ rather than a ‘teacher career’. This reframing would recognise the roles of support staff, teacher and teacher educator as different jobs within a lifelong career.

Note: * Each participant in this article has been given a pseudonym.


Bamford, S., & Worth, J. (2017). Teacher retention and turnover research. Research update 3: Is the grass greener beyond teaching? Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research. Retrieved from

Beauchamp, C., & Thomas, L. (2009). Understanding teacher identity: An overview of issues in the literature and implications for teacher education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 39(2),175–189.

Beijaard, D., Meijer, P. C., & Verloop, N. (2004). Reconsidering research on teachers’ professional identity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20(2), 107–128.

Day, C., Sammons, P., Stobart, G., Kington, A., & Gu, Q. (2007). Teachers matter: Connecting work, lives, and effectiveness. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Fessler, R., & Christensen, J. (1992). The teacher career cycle: Understanding and guiding the professional development of teachers. Needham Heights/Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Goodson, I. F. (2008). Investigating the teacher’s life and work. Rotterdam: Sense.

Goodson, I. F., & Sikes, P. (2017). Techniques for doing life history. In I. Goodson, A. Antikainen, P. Sikes, & M. Andrews (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook on narrative and life history (pp. 72–88). New York: Routledge.

Huberman, M. (1993). The lives of teachers. London, New York: Cassell and Teachers College Press.

Sikes, P., Measor, L., & Woods, P. (1985). Teachers careers: Crisis and continuities. London/Philadelphia: Falmer.

Teach First. (2020). Teaching assistant fast track. Retrieved from