When FT columnist Lucy Kellaway announced she would retrain as a teacher, she called on others to join her. This is an edited version of the article she wrote in the week before the start of training.
At about 7am on Monday, 46 middle-aged bankers, lawyers and other miscellaneous professionals will turn up at the school gates for the first day of their new working lives.
In their old jobs they variously had status, power or money. Now they are starting again at the bottom, training to be teachers in what are politely known as “challenging” London secondary schools.
They will be earning less than £25,000, have mentors who may be less than half their age, and be so shattered at the end of each day that they will have to crawl home to lie down.
Chris Forsyth, who used to be a partner at Freshfields working in intellectual property law, is viewing Monday with terror. “My son says, ‘You’ll be useless. The kids will walk all over you.’ ”
But he’s not as anxious as I am. I’m worried about my own transformation from pampered columnist to maths teacher — how will I remember 200 names when I can’t remember my own children’s? — but also worried about the other 45 trainees.
Giving it a go
It all started last autumn when Katie Waldegrave, a social entrepreneur, and I set up Now Teach. We were sure there were lots of fiftysomethings who wanted to teach, but no one was seeking them out. Of the 35,000 who started teacher training in the UK last year, almost none of them — a mere 100 — were over 55.
Given that teachers, on average, last barely five years in the profession, and given that many driven 50-year-olds will work into their seventies, this makes no sense at all. What is madder still is that the subjects where the teacher shortage is worst — maths, science and languages — are things many of these people are good at.
We raised some money and decided to give it a go. We hoped to find at least eight guinea pigs of a certain age to train in London in the first year, with a view to making Now Teach national in about five years’ time.
As I write this, I am looking at the group photo of the first cohort. There are more of them than we thought possible — and between them they fought off 1,000 others for a place. They aren’t all in their fifties — the youngest is 42 and the oldest 67 — and they aren’t all bankers and lawyers.
Looking at their faces, staring at the camera with the steady assurance that comes to middle-aged professionals, I wonder why on earth are they doing this. And will they be any good at it?
Looking for a change
Within a couple of hours of publishing an article in the FT announcing that I was retraining as a maths teacher, and urging bored bankers to come with me, 100 applications had poured in.
They all wanted a change from what they were doing.
Most of the cohort had something that drew them to teaching. For some, it was in the blood. They had (like me) a parent, or (again like me) a child who was a teacher. Some had been shocked into it by a bereavement, others had had their own lives changed by education.
For a few, the decision was more political than personal. Richard Silverstein was so despairing of the way Britain was going post-Brexit that he decided that the only way of making anything better was through education.
The person who came closest to how I felt was Lara Agnew, a documentary film-maker. “I’ve spent my life commenting on the fabric of society,” she said. “I want to be in the fabric of society, not outside looking on.”
The drive to teach
It was clear from the start — even to my partial eye — that many of the 1,000 applicants were going to be catastrophes in the classroom. One chief executive of a consultancy firm applied, claiming that he had a strong urge to teach.
The following day he sent an email withdrawing his application. He had told his wife over supper what he was planning to do. She pointed out the flaw in his scheme: he didn’t like children very much — not even his own.
Many of the applicants had not set foot in a school since they attended one themselves 30 or 40 years earlier, and so were sent off for a week’s immersion. One man was told to leave after his first day — he had sat at the back of class checking his emails and then proceeded to go to sleep.
But for many others, time in school had the reverse effect. Richard Lewis, a 64-year-old consultant, emailed exultantly: “This is the best fun I have had since I bought my new motorbike . . . and I’ve only been here for four lessons. I want to do this all the time!”
Those who survived the week were put through the same assessment as any 22-year-old entering the profession. A senior partner of a magic circle law firm was asked to think of a time when he had received negative feedback and explain how it had made him feel. This floored him.
“Gosh”, he replied. “That’s a hard one. I haven’t received any feedback at all in living memory. It’s me who gives it to others . . . ” He didn’t make it. Lots of others didn’t make it, either — they came over as too arrogant, too inflexible or entirely out of touch.
If getting through the assessment centre was hard, it was easy compared with what generally happened next: a lesson in front of a real class. “I have no problem giving a presentation to 1,000 people, but 30 11-year-olds is another matter,” one candidate told me before proceeding to give a car-crash of a lesson.
Tough job, tough people
In the end, all of us are ready to go. Privately, I have my hunches about which of us will be best at this. But these are almost certain to be wrong — even experienced headteachers are at a loss when faced with Now Teachers.
Rebecca Curtis, principal at Ark Elvin in Wembley, says: “I’ve never interviewed anyone like this before. They are all articulate, and give interesting responses to questions. But put them in the classroom and they find everything surprising. It is so long since they were at school themselves.”
While most heads have, at least in theory, been keen on the idea of having elderly trainees in their schools, some have been more doubtful. One headteacher explained: “Teaching is exhausting. It’s a young person’s game. I’m afraid people in their fifties won’t be able to hack it.”
This strikes me as not only feeble, but ageist and probably illegal. No one questioned Theresa May’s ability to become prime minister on the grounds that she was 59 — and her days must be even more knackering than those of a trainee teacher. My guess is my generation will be proved to be pretty tough.
What we give up
Last month I visited the Ark teacher training summer school, where most of the group is being trained — alongside much younger trainees. I watched the first session in which everyone had to play an ice-breaking game called backpack bingo.
I looked around the room to see the Now Teach trainees obediently shouting “bingo!” along with the younger ones. They were getting on with it. And so must I.
Watching them, I realised what I am giving up to train to be a teacher, as well as income, time and autonomy: a life-long tendency towards cynicism. This has served me well for 32 years as a journalist, but now I fear that it is going to get in the way.
I am still nervous about Monday. I’m sad to be giving up most of my role at Now Teach to become just another trainee. But after a summer putting myself through the new maths GCSE course and trying to do 38 times 27 in my head, one feeling has replaced all the others.
I’ve spent long enough talking and writing about becoming a teacher at 58. I want to get started.
Read the original FT article here: https://www.ft.com/content/e6633cfe-899e-11e7-8bb1-5ba57d47eff7
"Now they are starting again at the bottom, training to be teachers in what are politely known as “challenging” London secondary schools. They will be earning less than £25,000, have mentors who may be less than half their age, and be so shattered at the end of each day that they will have to crawl home to lie down."