'The most difficult thing is the total loss of control': Meet the Now Teach career switchers

A former diplomat-turned-teacher says her training in 'crisis response' comes in handy in the classroom

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This weekend, teachers across the country will be preparing to return to school after the October half term.

For many of them, stepping back into the classroom will be second nature by now.

But spare a thought for 46 very green trainees who will be doing it for the first time – no doubt with some trepidation.

This is the first cohort of Now Teach. The brainchild of former Financial Times journalist Lucy Kellaway and social entrepreneur Katie Waldegrave, the programme functions like a reverse Teach First, enabling experienced professionals who have built successful careers in other occupations to move into teaching. In September, Now Teach placed 46 trainees into challenging London secondary schools.

What makes someone want to give up a well-paid, high-status job to suffer the slings and arrows of being a teacher? And how have those on the programme fared during their first weeks in the classroom?

To find out, Tes spoke to three Now Teachers to discover what made them take the plunge, how it compares to their previous careers and what they’ve found most difficult about being a teacher.

Paths to Now Teach 

Lynda Burns, 42, is a former diplomat and the youngest person on the programme. Phong Dinh, 46, used to work as a lawyer and financial consultant and Howard Smith, 50, spent 25 years working in the City as a trader.

Just as their backgrounds differ, so do the paths which brought them to Now Teach.

Sitting in an empty classroom at Bolingbroke Academy in south London, where he’s teaching maths, Dinh says becoming a teacher was always on his agenda. “I originally planned that I was going to leave finance and go into teaching in my fifties,” he says. But this was accelerated “by a good 10 years” when he saw an article by Kellaway in the FT, urging middle-aged professionals to quit the rat race and follow her into teaching.

Dinh says he always intended to go into teaching eventually because he’d enjoyed the bits of his previous two careers which involved “gaining knowledge and then passing it on”. But his interest in education goes deeper than that.

A Vietnamese-American, his family fled to the US as refugees following the fall of Saigon in 1975. He talks about the influence of his father, who was an educator in Vietnam, but also “the scores of teachers” who supported his family when they arrived in the US and who helped put him where he is now. “I remember car-pooling with my teacher to school because we were obviously not in any position to have a car then,” he reminisces.

'Respect for teachers'

Smith, who is teaching maths at Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, says his entry into teaching was more serendipitous. “I cannot say that I’ve been thinking about teaching all my life, but it’s true that I’ve always had this respect for teachers,” he says. While he had “tremendously” enjoyed life in the City, he realised it no longer held the same attraction. Then he read Kellaway’s article. “It really felt very compelling,” he says.

Burns’ belated career move would have been even more difficult to predict. She had some prior teaching experience and harboured an ambition to be a teacher growing up, but then got her fingers burned. “I went abroad in my third year at university and taught English in Spain,” she remembers. “Until that point, I had always wanted to be a teacher.”

However, working as a 19-year-old in a prefab school in an extremely deprived part of Madrid, teaching 40-strong classes with students up the age of 20, because they’d been failed and forced to repeat, was not the best introduction to the profession. “Basically that put me off – so I ended up in diplomacy,” she says.

She loved working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But finding herself on a London rotation, feeling like a “small cog in a machine”, Burns read Kellaway’s article and wanted to have a second stab at a job where she could “make more of a difference, every day and every lesson, and with many more people”. Returning to the classroom – to teach Spanish at Oasis Academy Shirley Park in Croydon – held little fear this time around. “I’m 42 now so I don’t need to worry about being 19,” she says.

Dealing with behaviour

So what has been most challenging for the Now Teachers? “It’s definitely the behaviour of the students,” Burns replies immediately. “The teaching side is not the problem – it’s dealing with the behaviour so you can do the teaching.” She’s learned that teaching is above all about multi-tasking. “It’s a bit like driving,” she says. "You’re walking round the room, pen in hand, your other hand is pointing at people who are talking, your mouth is saying something different and you’ve got your beady eye on the one at the back who is writing on his desk.”

Smith says the biggest challenge for him has been adjusting to the relentless ringing of the bell, telling him where he has to be. In his previous career he had “tremendous control” over his working patterns, especially as someone in a very senior role. “The most difficult thing is the total loss of control,” he says. “The timing of the day is completely set out, there’s no ability to decide to come in late…and during the day, every 55 minutes basically there’s a bell ringing.”

Dinh’s greatest challenge is of a more metaphysical nature. He’s frustrated by “wanting to do more, but not yet being able, because as a teacher trainee I need to learn the skills of teaching…the mismatch between my desire to give back and my current ability to give back.”

Warm welcomes

When Now Teach was first announced last year, some asked whether those who’d climbed to the top of the ladder in one career would be comfortable descending to the bottom rung in another. Questions were also raised about the reception they’d get from colleagues who’d dedicated their entire careers to teaching.

Based on the experience of these Now Teachers, such concerns were misplaced. “My boss is 24 and she’s brilliant,” says Burns. “In the beginning, people are a bit puzzled. They say: ‘Gosh, you were a diplomat, and you’ve left that to do this? Are you kidding?!'” But all three say they’ve been warmly welcomed by colleagues and that reporting to a much younger line-manager is a “non-issue”.

While their backgrounds haven’t caused much of a stir with their colleagues, sharing this information with students is a different matter. “I was advised 'don’t tell them you’re new',” says Burns. “That’s a great help, because they assume you’ve been a teacher for 20 years.”

Smith has opted for the same approach. “I’m allowing it to appear I’m an experienced teacher by false inference,” he says wryly.

But Dinh has taken a different tack. “I let them know that, despite having two very enjoyable careers, this is a career that I’ve chosen for myself, because I want to work with them, not because I have to.”

Transferable skills

So can career switchers bring something valuable to teaching? Burns thinks there are transferable skills from her previous career. Standing up in front of a class, “is like being a diplomat”, she says. “You’re absolutely on show. If you give any sign of not knowing what you’re doing or not being in control, there’s 30 pairs of eyes on you.”

Burns also says there’s a side to working in an embassy which is relevant to school life – “crisis response”. “You get a phone call at midnight on a Sunday to say a Brit has gone missing and needs to be tracked down…That crisis response, being ready to leap into action, think on your feet and stay resilient and not panic, is really useful.” Dinh says that like teaching, working in the hardnosed corporate world requires “doggedness and determination”, and “juggling” a “million tasks” is “not entirely foreign”.

Looking to what the future holds, the three Now Teachers are in different positions. “Part of my introduction to my pupils was that this was my third and final career, says Dinh. “That is what I fully intend.”

Burns is technically on unpaid leave from the Foreign Office, so the door is open if she wants to return. She says she’s given herself at least three years of teaching, but suspects she may stay longer. “Do I have any intention of going back to the FCO anytime soon? No. I’m quite happy.”

Smith says his experience is “so far so good” and he’s enjoyed his first weeks, but he’s sanguine about the possibility of things not working out. “I’m not reliant on this job as my source of income,” he says. “I absolutely want to succeed, but I’m prepared to fail if it turns out that I am unable to make this transformation”.

Flush with success

On Monday, the Now Teachers will go back to their classrooms, returning to a very different environment to where they’ve spent most of their careers. “There’s a certain amount of glamour in an FCO career,” Burns admits. “When you’re abroad you’re drinking champagne under a chandelier for a living.” That doesn’t seem a likely prospect in the staff room.

For Smith, becoming a teacher involved another trade-off. A “serious recreational” poker player, he’s flown to Las Vegas every year for the last decade to play in the World Series of Poker. “I won’t ever be able to play again because the World Series is on in term time…also it’s probably not wise to go on a teacher’s salary,” he jokes.

Not being able to play in the World Series of Poker was a downside to joining the teaching profession, but it was not without a silver lining. Knowing summer 2017 was his last chance to play, he pulled out all the stops. He came second and won about £100,000.

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