How to retrain as a teacher
Are you a senior executive with decades of experience? Maybe you have a high powered, well-paid job but you want work with more social value. The FT's Emma Jacobs wants to know what it’s like to leave a successful career behind to retrain as a teacher.
Written, directed, edited and produced by Daniel Garrahan. Co-produced and presented by Emma Jacobs. Additional editing by Richard Topping. Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis. Additional filming by Daniel Garrahan.
Are you a senior executive with decades of experience? Maybe you've had a high powered, well-paid career in finance, but you want to have a job with more social value. I want to know what it's like to leave a successful career behind to retrain as a teacher.
I'm Zed Holmes. For 20 years, I've been a banker. The last 10 years of that, I was a senior executive.
After a long and successful working life, Zed didn't think there was anywhere left to go in her profession, so she quit and went travelling to give herself time to work out her next step.
And did you leave without knowing what you were doing next?
Yes, more or less. I had a vague idea, but I didn't have the time to actually figure it out.
Was that a risk?
I'm kind of the age where I don't have to worry that much about having no work for a while. I knew that I had to do something eventually. The risk of finding the right thing was worth it.
Zed has an MBA. She had an important role at a credit rating agency, but she knew she wanted to do something more meaningful and eventually decided that meant a future as a maths teacher.
The people who are in secondary school today, they're going to be in charge in, well, 20 years from now. And I'd like them to be good at maths, and I'd like them to be good at everything else. And if I can play a part in that, that would be great.
Who remembers what elimination is, the elimination method of simultaneous equations?
I did not expect it to be that hard. So I'm slowly getting to the stage where I'm competent enough so that I can get on with the teaching.
Yeah, competency is a good thing to...
Zed decided to try former FT columnist Lucy Kellaway's Now Teach programme. It helps address the teaching recruitment crisis in key subjects such as maths and science by attracting professionals with decades of experience.
If you want to teach but you don't fancy studying theory for months, it could be for you. There's clearly a need for new teachers. In 2016, 50,000 left the profession, and there's an 18 per cent shortfall in secondary school recruitment. Aspiring teachers need to enter the profession clear-eyed. Huge workloads, pressure to hit test targets, and behavioural issues in the classroom could all lead to teacher burnout.
We decided to set this up so that instead of going to university, that we would place people on existing teacher training schemes within the schools.
I knew from FT readers that there were millions of people in their 50s who were doing corporate jobs, or any sort of job, but who kind of had had enough. They had risen as far as they were going to go. And I was sure they were out there. And I set out to find them.
The great thing is you teach on day one. Some of the other routes that I heard about is university-led, they call it. So you're in university doing quite a bit of theory. I think teaching, you can't really learn it in theory. You have to practise in the classroom, and you have to see what works.
If you're going to follow in Lucy and Zed's footsteps, you're going to have to adapt to a significant salary drop. A senior executive in financial services might leave behind a six-figure salary and substantial bonus. In her second year as a newly qualified teacher in London, Zed can expect to earn around 29,000.
What's the salary adjustment like?
I would not recommend it financially if that's what you're focused on. But I would say I feel richer than ever before.
You also have to be comfortable with a drop in status, at least in some people's eyes.
There is a massive loss of status if you're worried about that sort of thing. Weirdly, I feel my status, to myself, has gone up. I didn't want to even be a head teacher. I want to actually be the person who is standing in the classroom teaching the kids. Some of us, we've had it with responsibility. We want to actually do the job.
Being junior in school is great, having no responsibility other than doing the best job you can. I have to think very hard every day. I have to figure out how to do new things. I'm learning something new every day. Every day I live with a sense of achievement.
I thought I was going to be a brilliant teacher. And so it was the most massive shock to me to get into the classroom and discover I wasn't brilliant at all. I was really quite useless. It's not for the faint-hearted, definitely not. The first year is brutal. To go from something that you're very good at to something that you will inevitably be rubbish at is very, very difficult.
Zed reflects that it might have been a good idea to volunteer in a school for a few months before throwing herself into teaching full time.
Classroom management is a skill, and a very difficult one. And you have to learn it brutally on the job. I got into the classroom on day one, and yeah, it didn't work very well.
I thought, a little naively, oh, yeah, I was good at presenting. I went on conferences. I presented to 300 people. But adults are very different in how they listen. When they don't want to listen and switch off, they switch off. They don't disrupt you. And they usually don't let you know that they don't like what you're saying.
If you lose the class of teenagers, you will know instantly that you lost them. I had to learn how to present things bit by bit, be a bit more explicit. So when you want people to listen, for example, yeah, you say listen. Well, I said listen and expected them to listen. But often, it needs a bit more, like pens down, eyes this way.
I feel instantly like I want to do that.
Switching to teaching in your 40s or 50s has pros and cons. The children might give you an easier time because you don't look like a fresh-faced trainee teacher.
I have automatically what they call classroom presence in the way that I absolutely would not have had when I was 22. It does not.. it did not help me with the technology. I was... and I'd never done a PowerPoint in my life. I had no idea how to get the slides from my computer onto the screen. I was writing on the screen with a felt pen. I was being a clown. And that undermines you so badly.
Twenty-two year-old teachers, when they find they're bad at the beginning, their very being is under attack. I felt confident enough in myself that even though I did find it very hard at first, I didn't go home thinking, oh, my goodness, I'm a complete failure. I went home thinking, right, I'm going to have to try something different tomorrow. So I was much more resilient, I think. And that was hugely helpful.
But it's exhausting. You can forget about going for a quick coffee break. And don't be fooled into thinking this is a job that will improve your work-life balance.
You're on your feet the entire lesson, and not just on your feet. You gesticulate. You try to engage. You walk up and down the classroom. You point at things on the whiteboard. And then at the same time, you have to multitask with about 5,000 things at once, so taking register, changing the slides, explaining something.
You must remember to bring the exercise books to the lesson. You must remember that there's homework to be collected.
Then people want tissues. Miss, I forgot my pen. I need paper. Can I go to the toilet?
Oh, and this child is off in a detention unit.
And then the marking, and the lesson preparation for the next day.
And so on. There are about 20 things that you must remember at any given time. And I am getting so much better at that. So I think that my reward for this is I'm terribly unlikely to get Alzheimer's.
I'm not a stranger to working really hard. When I was a banker, we had transactions that sometimes you worked 18-hour days, 20-hour days. But even in the biggest stress, I always had time to switch off for, say - I don't know - a minute, maybe. Look at your phone, look out the window, take a deep breath, have a tea. You can't switch off for even one second in the classroom. It just doesn't happen.
And there is no mercy. So the bell goes, and you just have to stand at the door. And they come in, and you have to teach. I'm not suggesting other jobs are easier, but I would say there's maybe a little bit more flexibility and time to get into it if you're having a bad day.
Did you ever think you wanted to quit?
Yes, and everyone does.
Part of what we're trying to do at Now Teach is put people off as much as encourage them. People are just simply bored with what they're doing and want to change. And they think, oh, this looks exciting. No way. That's not enough. It's not going to work if you don't like being with kids.
You have to treat them with respect. You have to show them that you like them. And only then will they be motivated to actually learn from you.
And even though this might be the most difficult job you ever do, which will leave you physically and mentally drained every day, the rewards can make it all worthwhile.
So you get minus 1 minus minus what?
Let's do it. Minus 1 minus minus y is plus y.
I just love the meaningful nature of it. It's really rewarding when the students come up to me and say, ah, I get it now, especially if it took a while.
I wanted to be useful. Writing a column, is it useful? Making people laugh, I suppose, week after week, has a purpose. But I wanted to do something tangible where you could actually say, this child now knows something that they didn't know this morning. I was really keen on the idea of that.
I'm surrounded by young people who have all their lives in front of them. They have lots of potential. Every one of them can do anything they want to. It makes me happy to be part of that.
Lots of my friends and contemporaries, as they turn 60, are feeling truly washed up. And I feel the opposite of washed up, because I'm just starting. And that is truly exciting to be at the beginning, and you're learning new things. And expectations of me are so low because I'm a newly qualified teacher. I'm not expected to be any good. So if I do give the odd lesson that I consider really is rather good, then I feel a genius.
So if you're thinking of ditching a career in banking in pursuit of something with a higher purpose like teaching, consider the following. Don't try teaching just because you're bored. You might have nowhere left to go in your current job, but this isn't an easy way to spend the final decade or two of your career.
Leave your ego at the door. You're going to have to be happy with a big drop in status and salary. Don't be fooled by the promise of long holidays. Whether it's marking or lesson prep, you'll work evenings, weekends, and holidays. You're on your feet all day, and you'll need to learn new skills on the job and fast.
Do you actually like children? If you don't enjoy their company, you might be better off trying something else.