In the latest of our series about civil service leavers, we meet former diplomat Lynda Burns who is retraining as a teacher through the NowTeach scheme
Lynda Burns giving a speech in her role with the FCO.
Tell us about your career as a civil servant
I joined the Foreign Office in 1999. It was what I had always wanted to do – I love to travel, love languages and enjoy working with people and different cultures.
I had a variety of jobs over the years and worked with just about every civil service department along the way. My first overseas posting was to Athens, in the golden days when Greece joined the Euro, hosted the Olympics and won the European Football Cup. Four years later I flew to Washington one Friday and started work – an internship in the US Congress – on the Monday. Washington is a huge embassy, with many government departments working together to promote British interests.
My most recent posting was as Deputy High Commissioner in Cyprus. The Cyprus talks had restarted after a hiatus, and it was a job where I could really make a difference, using all the skills and knowledge built up over my career. Until 2017 I worked in the FCO Policy Unit, on strategic projects, which was a fascinating return to the heart of policy-making in our Whitehall headquarters.
Why did you decide to leave, and why did teaching appeal to you?
Due to family illness, the long days and commuting to London became less suitable and I took unpaid family leave from the FCO. I remember reading Lucy Kellaway’s article about Now Teach [a scheme which enables career-changers to retrain as teachers] and thinking: “Wow, what a great idea and a great opportunity for someone like me.”
Now Teach made the long and complicated entry into teacher training as simple as it could get. They supported our band of around 40 Now Teachers, and we all supported one another. Most times I was absolutely certain that I was embarking on a new role that would make a difference to a segment of society that needed it – teenagers from challenging backgrounds. On the occasion when I or others in the group wondered “What on earth are we doing?”, there was always reassurance that our colleagues – who were people just like us – were also on this difficult change of path.
Reactions from civil service colleagues, friends and family, were overwhelmingly positive. One very senior colleague told me she was so very proud of my choice, while a long-time friend laughed and said: “Nothing you do would ever surprise me!”. My family were always proud of me as a diplomat, but could never work out exactly what that involved! As a teacher, it is much easier to talk about your job to pretty much anyone.
How did your experiences as a civil servant prepared you for teaching?
My communication skills were a great help in the transition to teaching. I had no problem standing up and talking, persuading, or “winging it” when needed. However, teenagers can be a difficult audience and can take a long time to accept a new teacher. The greatest challenge for me in teaching where I am is managing student behaviour, which results from their challenging home lives, special needs and other pressures.
Winning students’ trust is a long-term process, but the rewards are precious. Sometimes your classroom is the safest emotional space for a student in the week, where they feel welcomed and valued. Your continued faith in the most difficult students can be something that prevents them going further off track, today or in the future.
My organisation skills from being a civil servant mean that I am confident and fast with the inevitable paperwork of teaching – marking, data entry and writing up training evidence. As a parent, and older teacher, I also have a lot of patience, and am able to consider the medium and longer term, and see the positive in a bad day.
What’s your advice to others thinking about moving into teaching?
My advice to anyone considering this move would be that you need to care about the students first. You may get to a stage where rapt A level students hang on your every word and discuss your subject thoughtfully, but the first few years are more likely to test your resilience. Likewise, if you want to try teaching, the change will need your full attention for a couple of years. The paperwork of the training years is a heavy load, on top of getting to grips with the classroom itself and how draining responding to 100+ students a day is. A few colleagues tried and failed to add teaching to another life change, or part-time job.
The best thing about teaching though, is that you are making a real and visible difference to your students in every moment of every lesson. Your subject (Spanish for me) is your means of doing this, but your life experience and care for them will probably last much longer.