‘I switched to teaching so I could make a difference’

19th May 2017 at 00:00
A new scheme urges City high-flyers to make a career swap into teaching. But how would they cope in the classroom? And what’s in it for them?

This autumn will bring the launch of a unique experiment. A simple question will be asked: do high-flyers from other careers make good teachers?

A new programme, Now Teach, will parachute high performers from the corporate world into challenging London schools.

Co-founded by Lucy Kellaway, a Financial Times journalist, its goal is to make a dent in the teacher recruitment crisis by redeploying senior professionals who have grown disillusioned with the rat-race.

Will City grandees be able to cut it in the classroom, and does the solution to the recruitment crisis lie in encouraging people from other walks of life into teaching?

To find out, Tes spoke to two school leaders who decided to quit lucrative corporate jobs and start again as teachers.

Alex Crossman is now headteacher of The Charter School East Dulwich, in south-east London, but he used to be the managing director of a major investment bank. At the age of 38, he decided to leave after experiencing what he calls “the shattering realisation that my career had very little scope for actually helping anyone, other than myself and my family”.

He chose to become a teacher because he thought it was the career with the most potential to make an impact on society.

“I wasn’t going to retrain to become a surgeon at my age,” Crossman says, “but I could reasonably be engaged in the education system.”

Giving something back

It was a similar story for Matt Butler, a former head who is now a regional director for Oasis Community Learning.

After university, Butler joined British Airways’ finance graduate scheme and worked his way up to running the airline’s cargo operations across south-east Asia and Australasia.

He enjoyed a “very nice lifestyle” working for BA overseas, but realised something wasn’t right when he was delivering a speech about the need to cut costs and boost profits.

“I was thinking, ‘But why? I’m not sure I really care whether we make more profit this year,’” he recalls. “It just didn’t speak to me and I found myself thinking, ‘What am I doing? Is this really what I’m going to do for the rest of my life?’”

Like Crossman, he alighted upon teaching because it was “an opportunity to really make a difference”.

Teaching obviously has things going for it in terms of attracting career-shifters – it is seen as a vocation where individuals can give something back.

 

However, for those who have spent their entire careers in a corporate environment, entering the unpredictable territory of the classroom can come as a shock.

Butler admits he had a hard time in his first teaching job – at an inner-city London school with non-existent behaviour management.

“I was like a lamb to the slaughter – it was at times utterly unbearable,” he says ruefully.

“All of my skills that I had developed in business were by and large redundant in the classroom because the skills of dealing with other adults – the rules that we follow in our society – children, quite frankly, will happily choose not to follow any of those rules if they can sense that there’s an opportunity.”

It was an environment in which teachers were left to fend for themselves and had no systems to back them up. Things got so bad that he recalls “fighting back waves of feeling sick” on his daily commute, and “having to actually talk myself through the door” when he got to his classroom.

“I got to the point where I just thought, ‘I can’t do this,’” Butler says. “I got as low as one can get probably and still carry on getting up and going into school.”

Formative experiences

Butler and his colleagues ended up referring to the staffroom as “MASH – because everyone came back in to get patched up at breaktime”.

“You just ended up pretty much hugging someone who was crying and trying to tell them that it will be OK,” he says.

The silver lining was that the experience was formative for the rest of Butler’s career. “I made a commitment to myself then and I’ve lived to it to this day that I will not run a school where we don’t have strong behaviour systems,” he says firmly.

Crossman didn’t have quite such a bruising ordeal, though he admits that some of his early lessons were “disastrous…horrible”.

Butler and Crossman both had sufficiently thick skins to stick at it, but the hurly burly of school life is certainly not for everyone – and this is not the only barrier that career-changers can face.

Another big one is money. Switching from a high-paying corporate career – particularly in the City – will usually involve a significant drop in salary.

Crossman says he was “incredibly lucky” because the money he’d made as a banker gave him a “financial cushion” to help him through the early stages of his career change.

“[Without] that cushion it would have been very, very hard,” he admits.

Butler made the move before he had a mortgage and family responsibilities. It wasn’t a problem to “go back to living on friend’s floors for a while”.

“I couldn’t do it now,” he says. “Now I have a young family and it’s just not realistic to put them through that. Not fair, probably.”

While Crossman and Butler both moved into teaching in their thirties, Now Teach is targeting people reaching the end of their careers, when the pay gulf is at its biggest.

However, Crossman thinks that these people might actually be better placed to switch than those at an earlier stage of their careers, because they have a shorter “glide path” to retirement.

But, aside from financial considerations, status could also be an issue for some people.

“There is still an extent to which assertiveness – ego, if you will – is seen as an asset in commercial life,” reflects Crossman.

“If you’re, say, a senior investment banker, you pretty much think that you’re more important than anybody else in the world.

“It’s not true, of course, but that’s how you feel, and that’s how you’re encouraged to feel. But school culture is, thankfully, quite the opposite.”

Some people who have climbed to the upper heights of one profession might find it difficult starting out again on the lower rungs of the teaching ladder – particularly if it means reporting to someone much younger than themselves.

Butler advises switchers to “swallow a bit of pride” and not to “expect any favours” from their previous career. “If you come in and lord it, then you’re in trouble – correctly so,” he says.

However, he believes that people who are making the move from corporate life can bring a huge amount to schools, particularly if they eventually move into leadership positions.

The financial knowledge that he acquired at BA has been “really valuable”, and as training for systems leadership goes, “managing people in eight different countries across five different time zones” is hard to beat.

Reaping the rewards

Crossman agrees, although he thinks that schools still have some way to go in terms of being receptive to ideas that originate outside of education.

“The teaching profession does not always itself feel valued. But equally, it sometimes finds it difficult to value other types of experience,” he says diplomatically.

The good news is that both Crossman and Butler believe there is a pool of workers, disillusioned with corporate life, who with the right support could follow their lead into the teaching profession.

“There are people out there,” Butler says confidently, “and I think they would add a lot of value.”

And if career-changers can survive the slings and arrows of the classroom, resolve the money issue, and approach teaching with humility, Butler says that the rewards can be enormous.

“When you get a young person who has achieved something, and they’ve done well because you know that you’ve been involved in their life…I challenge anyone to say they have had an experience in their career that is as profound.”


@whazell

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