I first trained to teach on the Teach First programme in 2009, just three months after graduating from university. I was so excited by the opportunity to make a difference in a high-challenge school where many pupils were facing socio-economic disadvantages.
As any teacher will tell you, that first year was exciting, emotionally draining, uplifting, exhausting and incredibly humbling. I made plenty of mistakes, a few breakthroughs, a thousand PowerPoint lesson resources and some great friends. I never thought that I would leave the profession.
And yet, I did leave. After completing an internship with one of the “big four” consultancy firms, I was offered a permanent job on their graduate scheme. The opportunity to work with strategic consultants, to develop leadership skills (and, in all honesty, the chance to instantly up my salary by £10k at the age of 24) was very attractive. I arrived at its London office bright-eyed, with a shiny new briefcase full of ambition, ready to make a different kind of difference.
In reality, my experience of London business confirmed that my expectations of the slick corporate lifestyle were both right and wrong. There were, indeed, sophisticated drinks receptions with clients, five-star hotels and plenty of travel. Colleagues at the firm were exceptionally professional, committed and very intelligent. It was a genuine privilege to learn from them.
Yet, there were also 5am get-ups, two meals per day eaten on train station platforms and long weeks away from home. The hours were just as long and the work was no less demanding. It was as I crossed the country on one particularly rickety train journey, hunched over a laptop, feeling nauseous as I frantically tried to add value to a spreadsheet, that I suddenly thought: “Who the hell is all of this for?”
While there were so many positive challenges in the corporate world, the work didn’t really resonate with me. Yes, I did succeed during my time there, but I didn’t want to be in an environment where performance management essentially meant “prove you’re better than the next guy”.
I did my best for my clients, but I never saw the impact of my work on real people. I didn’t want my legacy on Earth when I kicked the bucket to be, “Ooh, she made really good governance documents.” And I realised with shame that I worked for promotion purely to feed my own pride and ambition; I didn’t intrinsically believe that I would make a difference in that industry.
So, I returned to teaching as a lead practitioner, in a role where I could support both pupils and colleagues in their development. Today, I lead a science, ICT and computer science faculty; I work collaboratively and relentlessly to improve pupils’ progress and experience. I am (pretty much permanently) exhausted, constantly challenged by the need to drive improvements and I am always learning from regional and national leaders in education alike. And I absolutely love it.
Because the truth is that you cannot lead, inspire, drive change or deliver impact in a sector that you don’t really care about passionately. We all know that teaching is a vocation. If you have the passion to contribute to education, it cannot be extinguished. If the desire to serve young people and to be part of the team that closes the attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils sits in your gut, it cannot be removed.
I have chosen a career where I can be fulfilled every single day. It isn’t the right career for everyone, but I can say that it is – without doubt – the right one for me.
Emma Prior is leader of the science, ICT and computer science faculty at The Clarendon Academy, Wiltshire