Military person in uniform

How a government-backed initiative shaped David Mather’s view of the potential of veterans as ‘Leaders of Learning’

My pathway to becoming an academic and a doctoral candidate could not have been more unconventional.

My ‘proper’ working life began as an agent in a call centre and I steadily progressed to a role as a corporate trainer. Having been told during a training session that I should “teach something good”, I began an undergraduate degree in Politics and Sociology. What followed was a PGCE in Further Education, a role as a Teacher of Sociology at a local 6th Form College and a Master’s Degree in Learning & Teaching.

Over a decade later, with experiences of teaching in all manner of contexts, I am now a Teaching Fellow in Education and the Academic Lead for the Education and Training Foundation’s Further Forces Programme: a scheme to recruit and retrain Armed Forces Service Leavers to teach technical subjects - including Science, Engineering and Technology - in the Further Education (FE) sector.

There’s (also) a similar mentality in FE to the military. It’s discipline and high expectations.

Jess Staufenberg, Journalist, FE Week

This quote (from an article published in Further Education-sector news outlet, FE Week) has been the catalyst for a lot of my reflection on the roles of serving and former military personnel with regards to civilian teaching careers. I have had the privilege of working with people who have done just that. Over one hundred current or former service personnel have set about the task of gaining a teaching qualification as part of their transition to civilian life. These colleagues (I refer to all Further Forces candidates as colleagues, as we all teach) have served as everything from Engineers, Logistical Analysts, HR consultants and almost every other type of military role that you imagine - including, of course, being deployed to war zones. 

The benefits military leavers bring to FE

In my work, I introduce military leavers to active learning strategies, modes and models of assessment, theories of learning and educational research. They study alongside working in a variety of FE settings including General FE Colleges, Specialist Education Providers and those where accredited learning takes place (such as prisons). My experience has led me to wrestle with the quote that started this piece – discipline and high expectations are part of the FE teacher’s experience, sure. But, there is much more to it than that.

My work with Further Forces has led to an academic curiosity about matters of identity, hierarchy and social status. In particular, I have become interested in how the status ascribed to those who serve changes as they begin their journey on ‘civvie street’. I’m also convinced that a pathway to civilian teaching roles is ideal for former Army, Navy and RAF personnel to continue to pay forward their knowledge, skills and experience. Colleagues anchor learning in real-world contexts, have an appreciation for team work and don’t run in the opposite direction when confronted with yet another acronym. In seriousness, relevant experiences and the ability for teachers to draw upon these aids the process of making learning stick. Furthermore, teachers know the sheer graft that goes with the job. My experience is that our veterans step up to this challenge admirably. 

Defying the sceptics

Yet, there are many who teach (in FE and otherwise) who are sceptical when they hear veterans being encouraged to seek teaching roles in colleges. I recently saw a tweet, in response to the Secretary of State for Education saying they welcomed Force’s personnel becoming teachers, that said they could not understand the government’s ‘obsession’ with encouraging service personnel into the classroom. 

I think some of the stereotypes associated with this concept haven’t helped – the idea that those who serve are useful to the education sector due to them enforcing strict standards of behaviour is one-dimensional at best. As one of my former FFP students (who sadly passed away prior to completing their course) put it, ‘the days of the Windsor Davies-type character barking orders at timid young recruits are long gone’. 

I regard the leadership qualities that our veterans offer as key to their successful transition into civilian teaching roles. My boss coined the phrase ‘Leaders of Learning’. This is something I have subsequently borrowed and used in many teacher-training contexts. In my two-decades of experience as a teacher, trainer, mentor and coach, it is my belief that it is the ability to lead a group of people (young or otherwise) in learning new skills or applying knowledge in context that is fundamental to everyone's progression and success. My upcoming educational doctorate thesis will explore Military and Civilian Teacher identities with the notion of leadership at its core. All teachers ‘lead learning’ and, as such, military and civilian teachers have much more in common than either party might initially think.


David Mather is a Teaching Fellow in Education and the Academic Lead for the ETF Further Forces Programme. He has worked as a trainer, mentor or teacher for over 20 years and has worked extensively with members of the forces community in relation to teaching and learning.

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