When the student becomes the teacher

By Charlotte Oliver, August 14, 2014
Sam Walters (centre) with his former tutor-turned-colleague Louise Davis (third from left), acting deputy head of King Solomon High, with their year 13 ICT class

Sam Walters (centre) with his former tutor-turned-colleague Louise Davis (third from left), acting deputy head of King Solomon High, with their year 13 ICT class

The school bell rings on Monday morning and Ezra Dulberg hurries to class - the fear of lunchtime detention quickening his pace.

Fear that quickly subsides, that is, as soon as Dulberg remembers he is no longer a student at Yavneh College in Borehamwood. Instead, the 22-year-old has returned to his alma mater as a teacher and, from now on, lunchtime detentions are a weapon, not a worry.

"The adjustment is definitely daunting," says the Birmingham University graduate from Hendon, who will officially begin teaching maths at Yavneh on September 1. "It is like going backstage for the very first time. I still cannot bring myself to call my deputy head by her first name."

Dulberg's transition from classroom to staffroom is not a rare one. With more Jewish faith schools cropping up across the country than ever before, and a 2011 JLC survey report revealing that more than 60 per cent of Jewish schoolchildren will be taught in a faith school for some part of their student lives, education within the community is at an all-time high.

Couple this with the fact that teaching is an increasingly attractive option for recent graduates - offering them the chance to hold down a long and dynamic career without being tied to a desk job - and it is little wonder that Jewish education is something of a self-sufficient enterprise. They spend 18 years learning and then they give back.

"Most of my friends are also going into teaching," says Dulberg, who moved to Yavneh College from Hasmonean High School for his A-levels. "Some are working for Bnei Akiva, a few at Hasmonean, and others are doing the Teach First course. It's part of our culture."

No doubt there are benefits to pupils returning to the fold: they have been there, got the uniform. They have seen what does and does not work and offer a flip-side perspective. What is more, most Jewish schools will employ them under a Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) or Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP) scheme - meaning they attend university one day a week and qualify on the job, rather than taking a year out after completing their first degree. No intensive, or expensive, PGCE courses necessary.

But what are the drawbacks? Is it hard to assert authority and discipline in an environment where they were once subordinate?

"It certainly felt strange having to tell a few children to stop talking the first time - I felt like I was going to get into trouble," Dulberg admits.

To my surprise, there were no dartboards with students' faces on them

"I myself was in the list of top 10 worst behaving boys from years seven to nine and had my usual seat in detention every Tuesday night; that is something I want to learn from. It totally depends on the teacher, not the subject, to keep the student in line."

Thought must also be paid to older staff members who remember the new recruits from their younger years. Can they really accept their former students as colleagues?

Sara Shapiro, 23, says her return to Rosh Pinah Primary School, Edgware last year - 12 years after first leaving - cast a few initial shadows on some familiar faces.

"I was waiting for my interview when one of my teachers walked by," the Jewish Studies teacher from Edgware says. "He got a bit of a shock and tentatively asked what I was doing there.

"It must have been strange for him - especially since my face apparently had not changed since I was eight-years-old. I think I made a lot of my old teachers feel very old, but we have now formed new relationships."

According to Shapiro, being back at school - at the opposite end of the same classroom she sat in aged four - has taught her a lot about her own education.

"Rosh Pinah is a very warm and supportive place," she says. "I don't think I realised it as much as a pupil, but I see it now in the extra lessons we offer and the nurture we provide. I appreciate that more, now seeing it from the other side."

For 26-year-old Sam Walters, an Information Communication and Technology (ICT) and business teacher from Redbridge, going back to King Solomon High School hinged on one pivotal moment: finally seeing what lurked behind the walls of the staffroom.

"It was very weird going in there, although, to my surprise, there were no dartboards with students' faces on them, just a water dispenser and a bit of gossip." he says. "To this day, I still question whether I was one of the pupils they gossiped about."

Walters, who studied at King Solomon in Essex until he was 18, has worked there for the last three years. For him, the fact that he studied in the same place as his students "provides an extra layer" to his teaching.

"I have been in their shoes and I have seen it through their eyes," he says. "Above and beyond subject knowledge, the relationship I develop with each student and my understanding of his or her thought process is the most important thing."

He recognises the irony of his new role at the school: head of behaviour, discipline and pastoral welfare. "It is quite funny coming back as an old student and then being a disciplinarian.

"It's just fortunate that I was reasonably well-behaved at the time, seeing as my now head of department taught me," he says. "Sure, I was thrown out of a few lessons in my time - but that gave me a few tips on how best to discipline, and what exactly it felt like.

"Sometimes I use that line on my students," he adds. "I've been where you are."

"Completing the circle," it seems, is an increasingly common choice for graduates. They enjoy the familiarity it brings, and at the same time are able to "give something back". But Walters admits there are times when nostalgia leaves behind a slightly sour taste.

"It's best not to mention the school dinners," he says. "Let's just say that some things don't change."

Last updated: 4:31pm, August 28 2014