Why every teacher needs a hinterland – and everyone benefits from it

Teachers’ interests outside the classroom are important nourishment for their wellbeing and a source of inspiration for their learners

Teachers’ interests outside the classroom are important nourishment for their wellbeing and a source of inspiration for their learners

13 May 2024, 5:00

Teachers are really quite an extraordinary bunch of people. Some of those I work with have joined the profession late, often after years in industry or the private sector. They bring with them a world of experience and a lifetime of learning that’s invaluable.

Then again, occasionally a teacher leaves the profession and word comes back to us of what they’re up to. High salary. Responsibility. Thriving. Sometimes there are reports suggesting ex-teachers are much in demand elsewhere, or that the soft skills teachers have will help them in other paths in life. We’re clearly a pretty impressive lot, even if many people haven’t quite cottoned on yet or think they could do a better job.

But what I find most impressive is what teachers get up to outside of the classroom and the college. When I was a trainee, I recall an experienced teacher taking me aside and advising me with all the seriousness he could muster: ‘Have a hinterland.’ And this is what I think makes teachers so impressive. 

I work with teachers who are musicians, scooting away at the end of the day to a rehearsal and coming back from a weekend recording. I have colleagues who are comedians, spending evenings on a stage making people laugh. Much as I do unwittingly in the classroom, I sometimes think. Others write. Poems, novels, stories, plays, histories.

Some have side hustles. I know church wardens, councillors, chess champions. I have teacher colleagues who have fostered dozens of children over the decades.

These people have rich and varied hinterlands. And the reason I love this is because teaching is a craft and an art that, done well, should involve your whole person. We bring all we are to all we do, and students benefit from our wider experiences.

Recently my college began a new programme where every teacher was asked to dip into their hinterland, pull something out and share it. Students signed up for these extra activities, which were properly timetabled.

Some got to go horse riding. Some learned magnificent opening gambits in chess. Some wrote poems. Some wrote songs. Some learned a few phrases in a new language. Some read great world literature and discussed it. Some painted or drew.

Teaching can consume your whole life if you let it. We mustn’t

In this way, our students gained fresh experiences and enhanced their cultural capital. They got to taste new things they would otherwise never know about. Teachers got to show off their expertise in fields far from their subject areas and the whole encounter was profoundly different from that of the normal classroom lesson.

If we are doing more than teaching to an exam but are really trying to teach the whole person, then this must be important. 

It is interesting what this exercise has revealed. First is the value of the humanities, arts and sports. The h-art-s. Or hearts. Generations of students have lived in a world where STEM was king. If you want a lucrative career, if you want to be where it’s happening, then STEM is where you need to be, they’re told.

But most of our activities, and the ones that were most popular, tended to be humanities, arts or sports based. It is these that give our lives colour and shape and meaning. It is the humanities and arts that help us to handle the big questions of existence. Surely we haven’t forgotten how much the arts kept us all sane during Covid lockdowns. 

The second thing it revealed was something sadder. On first hearing of the scheme, some teachers felt burdened by the extra demand. But the actual experience was positive.

Still, I have had conversations even recently with colleagues who have decided to go part-time in order to have more balance in their lives, especially when they have young families or are towards the end of their career.

Teaching is a profession that can consume your whole life if you let it. We mustn’t. My old mentor was right. You have to have a hinterland. It’s from there that the inspiration comes and the rivers of life flow.

Retreat there as often as you can. You will benefit. Everyone will. 

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