For 30 years Peter Watson pursued a grand career in finance. Last September he started over again as a trainee French teacher in a school in southeast London. His old job came with a great deal of status and even more money; his new one comes with not much money and, so we are told, even less status.
Indeed, the status of teachers is thought to be so low that the great and the good – most recently Gordon Brown – frequently and fruitlessly call for a revolution in the way we value them.
However, the expected drop in status has not materialised for Peter. Instead he reports that his friends and former colleagues think rather more of him now he’s a teacher than they used to.
“Their view seemed to be that investment banking was something anyone could do, provided they had a good grasp of basic algebra, the English language and office politics. By contrast, training to teach French to energetic teenagers in a secondary school serving a relatively deprived area was seen by some of them as much harder.”
Peter’s experience turns out to be typical of the people who have become teachers through Now Teach, the charity I co-founded to get older professionals into schools.
We have just completed a survey of the 45 people who started training in 2017 and of the 75 who started last year, two-thirds found that their social status has gone up as a result of chucking in their old jobs to become teachers. Only 6 per cent reported a fall.
Joe Nicholson, a successful software entrepreneur who is now training to be a computer science teacher, says he realised something odd was happening when he went to a dinner at a neighbour’s house.
“Someone asked me what I did for a living and I started to give my standard spiel: used to work in Financial IT, heard this thing on the radio about a shortage of computer science teachers, and through Now Teach am training to be a teacher.
After about 10 seconds, I noticed that I was the only person speaking. Rather eerie. Everyone else was listening to what I had to say. I assume that this was partly because it was interesting, partly because it was brave and partly because it was real. Finally, at the age of 55, I had status.”
This accords with my own experience. Before becoming a teacher a year and a half ago, I spent three decades as a columnist on the Financial Times. Even though I didn’t admit it at the time, the status of the job was secretly important to me – it was a security blanket that took me over three decades to cast off. But once I’d done that and become a teacher, I too found that everywhere I went people were more interested in what I was doing than they ever were before.
The reason for this is obvious. Schools are weird and interesting places. Children are real, and they are also funny. Teaching anecdotes are a lot more enjoyable than stories of office politics are ever going to be.
I found, just as Peter and Joe did, that people were not only more interested, but seemed to respect me more for what I’d done. And surely that is what status really boils down to – interest and respect.
Last week I was interviewed for the Today programme on Radio 4 to discuss the findings of our status survey. After listening for a bit, the presenter asked me: isn’t this just a luxury for older people who have already been rich and successful?
I replied that the word “luxury” could not be less apt in describing my life as an NQT. Within seconds of putting the phone down I would be on pre-school playground duty, and the day would go on, in its usual relentless yet exhilarating way until the after-school Year 11 catch-up session was over at 6pm.
So no, I don’t think that Now Teach is a luxurious status-enhancement scheme for rich people who have already enjoyed more traditional types of status. In any case not all the Now Teachers are rich. Many are struggling to make ends meet in their new career; one man on the programme has sold his house to make his sums work. Instead, I think the results of our survey show that something has changed in how we view status as we get older.
In the first couple of decades of working life, we may view it in terms of money, title, air miles and promotions. As older people who have been lucky enough to have had some of that, we rate it less. What we want is to do something useful. We have climbed to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and what we value most is meaning.
Lara Agnew, who used to make TV documentaries but now teaches English, explains that her idea of status used to be about how others saw her, but now it comes mainly comes from within.
“My own ideas about my contribution, my worth, my participation are what count as status and if that is not reflected back in the people I interact with then that is a reflection on their value system rather than my perceived value or status in society. Status is now inside out rather than outside in.”
In the survey we asked our teachers what had happened to their own feeling of self-worth since becoming a teacher. The result was as positive as before: 63 per cent said it had gone up; only about 10 per cent said it had gone down.
This was as heartening as it was surprising. Training to be a teacher is brutal. I certainly didn’t feel terribly good about myself in that first term when it all seemed so impossible.
One teacher who used to be a lawyer and who is only half way through her first year says: “My self-worth has gone up, but not because I’m doing well – actually most days I’m still struggling – but because I’m trying phenomenally hard. In my former job I was coasting by the end – and that never makes you feel very good.”
Part of the reason the Now Teachers feel better about themselves may be that they have stopped thinking about themselves much at all. The funny thing about teaching – and this marks it out from most other professions – is that the less you think about yourself and the more you think about the students, the better you will be.
Lucy Kellaway is a part-time teacher, founder of Now Teach and FT columnist