Why I left the FT for the classroom and set up Now Teach...

After 31 years as a top journalist, Lucy Kellaway quit to take up teaching...

I completely underestimated how much skill goes into teaching; it turns out to be far more complicated than writing a column on economics for the Financial Times.

Shortly after my 58th birthday, I quit the world’s nicest job to train as a maths teacher at an inner-London school. It’s an understatement to say that what followed was a steep learning curve.

Three years on, I am often asked if I regret it. The honest answer is no, I have never regretted it, not even during my first year, which was considerably harder than everyone told me it would be.  I completely underestimated how much skill goes into teaching; it turns out to be far more complicated than writing a column on economics for the Financial Times.

I wanted a new challenge and hoped that I could make a difference.

The shift in gear from being completely in charge of my own decision making to having to follow rules was another shock. I’d never had to follow rules.  I went from spending 31 years having the autonomy and freedom to write about whatever interested me, to teaching my lessons with the door open so that any teacher could wander in and tell me where I was going wrong.

So why did I do it?  In short answer, I hope to go on living for many more decades and it seemed mad to spend my whole life doing just one thing. I wanted a new challenge and hoped that I could make a difference.  At the same time, I co-founded a charity, Now Teach, with Katie Waldegrave, convinced that I could persuade others of my generation to come on this journey with me.

Our aim was to tune in to people in their 40s – 60s, the kind of midlifers Noon is here to help, who’ve had a career already.

We are living at the tail end of a world in which people expect – or want to – completely retire in their sixties.

Historically speaking, no one has successfully managed to recruit experienced people into teaching and this is a colossal waste; particularly given our lives are getting longer and our career patterns are shifting. We are living at the tail end of a world in which people expect – or want to – completely retire in their sixties.

At the start, I announced my plan to the readers of my FT column and was overwhelmed by positive responses from more than a thousand interesting and impressive people.  In the end, almost 50 like- minded souls started training with me.

From the beginning Now Teach was an experiment.

I was surprised by how many of us stuck it out.  One exhausted ex-banker-turned-trainee-science-teacher did call me to say he was quitting: he had weighed his options and decided he would rather spend the next couple of months on a yacht in the Indian Ocean than continue teaching Year 8 photosynthesis, and I didn’t blame him.  But he was in a minority.

Of the 47 who started at the same time as me, a mere six have quit — variously because they found the work too stressful, too relentless, too lonely — or because on closer inspection they decided they did not like teenagers much. A further handful have put their training on hold to cope with miscellaneous family crises.  More bad things in life happen to people in their 50s than in their 20s.

From the beginning Now Teach was an experiment. I was pretty sure we oldsters would make better trainees than 22-year-olds by dint of our wide experience. History is so far suggesting otherwise. Many of us made a slower start than younger trainees — the initial shock was too great — though by the end of the first term we were all catching up.

I no longer think we will be better than younger teachers, but I still think we will be different.

I no longer think we will be better than younger teachers, but I still think we will be different. To the children we bring wisdom, experience of the world, perspective and careers advice. To the system we bring knowledge of other sectors, fresh ideas and status. In time we may offer solutions to some of the more intractable problems our schools face.

“Miss, why are you so old?”

I was also wrong to think fifty-somethings would add diversity to the staffroom, where most teachers are about 25.  At my school there is no staff room, and my colleagues are too busy to care one way or another about how old I am. Possibly the kids notice more, though not always in a good way. During a week’s placement in a primary school a seven-year-old came up to me in the playground and said: “Miss, why are you so old?”

Some of my fears were unfounded: I feared we all might all miss our old status, but I don’t remotely miss getting grand invitations — I am too tired to go to anything anyway. In fact, one former top civil servant who started out with me said that her status was now higher: her friends never used to ask her about her work but now everyone she meets is agog to hear her war stories from the classroom.

I was right to think it would be wonderful to start all over again.

Yet on the three biggest things I was entirely right. I was right to think I would love working with teenagers. I was right to think it would be wonderful to start all over again. I was right that there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way.

In the past too little has been done to bring experienced people into classrooms and even less to retain them. Now Teach exists not only to recruit trainees, but to make sure they stay put

In a decade, retraining as a teacher will still be an extraordinary thing to do – and I hope it will also have become perfectly normal.

It is true that teaching is knackering, but what no one told me is that I would get as much energy back from my pupils as they would take from me.

I am more alive than I have felt in decades.

Miraculously, three years on, I feel I know what I’m doing, and can stare down a student with total confidence. It is true that teaching is knackering, but what no one told me is that I would get as much energy back from my pupils as they would take from me – they are so funny and optimistic and their views on the world are a constant surprise.

I also find I love spending time thinking about economics (which I now teach): never before had I seen such richness in elasticity of demand.  But most of all I have loved starting again; the feeling of getting constantly better at what I’m doing; the new friends I’ve made who are all half my age – and all the freshness that comes from that.  True, I quite often go to bed at 8.30pm feeling half dead, but during the waking hours I am more alive than I have felt in decades.

Click here for more information on Now Teach

Lucy Kellaway

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ready to enjoy what's to come?Get the Noon newsletter