Why high flyers are swapping the boardroom for the classroom

From journalists to investment bankers, more professionals at the top of their game are turning to teaching. What does the trend mean for schools?

After a long and successful career as a research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, Corinne Kay could have been forgiven for resting on her laurels. But at 50, prompted partly by the enjoyment she experienced helping her daughters and their friends revise for GCSEs, she decided to become a teacher.

Kay was a member of the Roche team that discovered Saquinavir (one of the first HIV drugs) and later completed a PhD at Cambridge University in four years – while working full-time at GSK and bringing up two small children. For the last three years, she has been working in supply roles in schools and is now taking her PGCE.

Her situation is by no means unique. Last year, Lucy Kellaway, the 57-year-old Financial Times journalist, caused a stir when she announced that she intended to retrain as a teacher, while setting up an organisation called Now Teach, designed to encourage other high flyers to do the same. It’s a trend that has been growing in recent years: in 2016, more than 6,200 people aged 30 or over started initial teacher training, according to the National College for Teaching and Leadership, which is the highest level since 2012-13. The government offers a variety of routes into the profession, often accompanied by bursaries in shortage subjects, while help is available from organisations such as Careershifters, which support people to find more fulfilling work.

Culture shock

But how difficult is it to make the transition from high flyer to newly qualified teacher? And what’s it like, as a headteacher, to manage someone with years of professional experience who may even be older than you?

At first, Kay experienced an element of culture shock: “I was used to being well-known in the pharmaceutical industry and giving talks at conferences. I was used to just saying my name and people shaking my hand and wanting to talk to me. Suddenly you are in a school and you have a group of mouthy young people who don’t want you there.”

Fergal Moane, another career changer, initially found the switch from investment banking to teaching “disorientating”, not least because of the 92% pay cut. Now an assistant headteacher at Sandringham School in St Albans, he says that a willingness to learn is key to making the transition: “Successful career changers accept the fact that a 25-year-old who has been teaching three years is a better teacher than you, and as long as you accept the feedback and advice then it will go well.”

Headteachers, on the other hand, have to rise to the challenge of managing an experienced high flyer alongside newly qualified 22-year-olds. But Mark Mortimer, head of Warminster School, began his own working life as an army officer and relishes the opportunity. Too often, he says, the profession has prioritised “qualifications and time served rather than skills, potential and attributes”. The career switchers he has appointed have brought with them an enthusiasm and dedication that have enriched school life.

So what other qualities do they bring? Heads say they often have a resilience that first-timers might lack; a commitment to doing a good job; greater experience of children, particularly if they are parents; and a set of skills and contacts garnered in their previous job. Career changers, says Andy Bocchi, headteacher of Sybourn Primary School in London, “draw on their life experiences a lot more through their practice”.

One of Bocchi’s staff members, Catriona Hoult, was formerly a national newspaper journalist. As well as bringing expert knowledge to the part of the curriculum that deals with journalistic writing, she now runs a newspaper club at the school. She also enjoys arranging speakers and trips.

“Probably I’m a bit more confident about things like looking around for an outside speaker,” Hoult says. “Having been a journalist it doesn’t bother me ringing people up finding out what you can get.”

Priceless advice

Another great advantage career changers bring is career advice. Richard Langton, head of school at Queen Mary’s grammar school in Walsall, has a former chemical engineer on staff who is now head of chemistry and able to offer expert career advice to sixth formers applying for science degrees. “To have someone like him is priceless,” he says.

Moane agrees – most of Sandringham’s computer science and business teachers come from industry backgrounds, and are able to explain topics such as the algorithms used in share dealing: “Students can understand a bit more about how the skills they’re learning in lessons translate into real-world careers.”

That’s not to say that teaching is an easy choice, however. Moane acknowledges that some of his former colleagues are put off from teaching by fear of dealing with badly behaved students – although, he adds, new teachers are given a lot of support to learn behaviour management skills.

Lucy Frame, principal of Ark All Saints academy, has found that in practice, most rise to the challenge: “The career changers I’ve met have been up for that task. Many have come from pressurised careers anyway, so what they’re facing is a different type of pressure. The children respond to them really well. There’s a certain amount of respect they have for somebody who’s older.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that people who have had senior roles in other walks of life seem to rise quickly through the teaching ranks: Mortimer was head of department within a year, while Moane says that it was the ability to apply his experience of managing people that helped him reach assistant head within four years.

Kay, meanwhile, is full of enthusiasm for her new career. She has found that her own experience in research provides a route to engaging students, explaining to them, for example, how a particular experiment has been used to make important medical discoveries. At one school, a management decision to give extra encouragement to difficult students saw her completely transform the attitude of two students, who now attend lunchtime science sessions and have been entered for a science competition.

So, is it worth it? “If you don’t like the challenge of having bored, belligerent teenagers in front of you for a day, it’s not the career for you,” says Kay. “But what you can’t describe to anybody is the absolute joy of watching a child who was shy and quiet suddenly come out of their shell.”

She has no regrets: “Sometimes I go to bed and I just can’t sleep for the excitement of what I can do.”

This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

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