On Saturday, Lucy Kellaway revealed how, aged 57, she gave up her marriage, home and six-figure salary to teach maths in an inner-city comprehensive. In today’s extract, she describes how her initiative to persuade others to follow her — a charity called Now Teach — inspired hundreds of people to change career…
On an overcast evening in June 2016, less than a fortnight after my father’s funeral and a year before I finally left my job as a columnist for the Financial Times, I went to the Chelsea Physic Garden’s annual drinks party. The beauty of this event is that you don’t have to talk to anyone; you can wander around inspecting plants.
I thought the evening might be a brief respite from grief. I didn’t expect it to change my life and set me on a rickety path towards the giddiest excitement that work has ever brought me.
There were only two things we all had in common: we wanted to be useful and we wanted to do something new
I’d been hiding in the medicinal plants section and had ventured out to get a refill when I was collared by a woman who looked familiar. She was Caroline Waldegrave, the cook, whom I’d interviewed many years earlier and liked so much I’d forgotten to ask any penetrating questions. We started talking.
I told her my father had just died and that I was tired of writing and interviewing people and was planning to become a maths teacher.
She nodded encouragingly, so I expanded on the theme. I said that although there was no age limit to becoming a teacher, the process of applying was off-putting to people my age, which made no sense, given the shortage of teachers.
Caroline told me her daughter Katie had been a teacher with Teach First and had then launched First Story, a charity that gets writers into schools. She was at home having just had twins and would be happy to talk to me.
I don’t think I would have followed it up — I’d had at least four glasses of prosecco and was mainly just holding forth. But the next day I got a message from Katie, so I left the office early and went to see her.
The woman who opened the door of the house in Shepherd’s Bush seemed unusually perky for someone with ten-week-old babies. She handed me one infant and as she started to feed the other, I told her about my half-baked idea.
How many people was I looking for, she asked? Which subjects would they teach? How would I train them? To each question I said: I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it. All I know is that I want to be a teacher. I’m sure there are people out there of roughly my age who want to do it too.
We talked for three hours, at the end of which I ran across the green to the Tube — not because I was in a hurry but because I was propelled by a strange elation.
Out of the blue, here was an unlooked-for chance of starting something from scratch and I found myself thinking: yes, why not? I didn’t have a clue how to go about it, but that was part of the draw. What did I have to lose?
We decided to focus on finding trainees in maths, science and languages, where the shortage of teachers is most acute. We also decided to work only in schools with high levels of deprivation.
Then we started canvassing views — and met with opposition.
We sat in the office of a West London academy’s head teacher, who looked barely 40, while he nodded politely and said it was an interesting idea but teacher training was exhausting for people in their 20s and frankly he couldn’t see how people in their 50s would be able to manage it.
Next, we approached Teach First, who said they didn’t think enough older people would want to teach.
And ‘Teach Last’ might have ended there, had it not been for one of my oldest friends, Lucy Heller, who happened to run the ARK chain of academy schools.
It felt a bit weird to be facing your best friend formally across her boardroom table, but she listened to our plans seriously, then said our teachers could be trained by ARK and teach in ARK schools, all of which are in deprived areas.
By September 2016, Katie had drawn up a business plan. On the strength of it we went, cap in hand, to the Department for Education and sat in a room with a taciturn civil servant. The woman was not impressed, committing the public purse to not a single sausage.
I then emailed every rich person I had ever met — all the bankers and hedge-fund people I had come across in 30 years on the FT. There was just one offer of funds, from a hedge-fund manager I’d bonded with two years earlier over a shared loathing of business bulls***.
I marvelled at what a difference a few contacts seemed to be making — without the people Katie and I knew between us, I doubt if we would have managed to get our idea off the ground.
We still had no name. Katie had never liked Teach Last, as she said it made it sound as if the crematorium was the next stop, but I was wedded to it. We finally settled for the workaday name of Now Teach. I don’t love it but I don’t hate it either: it is perfectly inoffensive.
On our launch date, November 21, 2016, my final column went live on the FT website and I gave an interview to John Humphrys on the Today programme. The response was immediate — and our website crashed. Christ!
At least the scale of the publicity had an effect on the Government. Soon after the launch, we were summoned to see Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for School Standards. ‘Find these people some money,’ he instructed his minions. They nodded, though I fancy their teeth were gritted.
The schools minister may have been on board but many weren’t. In the week after our launch, I got an email from a woman who had left journalism in her early 50s to retrain as a teacher and found the whole experience so harrowing she quit after a term.
She accused me of being a Pied Piper — leading innocent bankers and lawyers to their certain deaths in the classroom. Acts of hubris don’t come much bigger than what I was doing, yet I refused to consider whether she might be right.
By the end of the first day, Now Teach had a few hundred potential applicants. In the end we agreed on 45 candidates. There was someone who used to make arts programmes for the BBC, a former Nasa physicist and the ex-head of a hospital trust. There were plenty of lawyers and bankers. The oldest was 71. The youngest was 42.
One man who had worked in the City let slip that he was taking a 98 per cent pay cut to be a teacher — but for others money was more of a problem. One candidate borrowed money from his aged father and another took out a second mortgage on his house.
There were only two things we all had in common: we wanted to be useful and we wanted to do something new.
In August 2017, just two weeks before our first brush with the classroom, I invited all 45 Now Teachers to a celebratory supper at my house. I told them that this was the proudest moment of my professional life, then reminded them quitting wasn’t an option.
For the sake of our pupils, I said, we had a moral duty to stick it out at least until the end of the year, no matter how hard the going got.
In September 2017, all 45 trainees had their first brush with the classroom. The first to throw in the towel was Matthew, a 60-year-old ex-banker; after barely a month of teaching, his doctor had signed him off for stress.
The next week Alan, an engineer who had spent a successful career at a big construction company, quit his job as a science teacher. He said he’d spent his life working in teams with other grown-ups and felt isolated with only teenagers to talk to.
Then came Sebastian, who used to be a management consultant but had opted to teach geography. He told me that he was done — teaching struck him as simply too little fun and too much work for too little money.
Two more followed, so that just two months in, we were already five down. This was going to be a catastrophe. It seemed I was the Pied Piper, after all — the rats had followed me to the banks of the river and now they were all going to drown.
School is essential. It is there not only to teach but to babysit, to socialise and to provide structure
Only they didn’t. Just before Christmas, the rats who were still swimming gathered in ARK’s reception area for cold takeaway pizza and warm prosecco. I looked around the room and noted that almost everyone looked half a stone lighter and, bizarrely, younger — and not one was talking of quitting.
They felt roughly as I did: teaching was brutal and brilliant in equal measure. Before teaching we had all been, one way or another, a bit stuck, but now we were all high on adrenaline and, in a masochistic kind of way, were loving it.
The final tally of quitters was 12 out of 45. What was remarkable was that the drop-out rate was slightly lower than among trainees 30 years younger than many of us.
Each year since that hair-raising first one, we have hired more people and a higher percentage of them have survived.
Most of us had to unlearn the most difficult thing of all: self-importance.
In our old lives, our opinions had been sought out by others, while in our new life we had to get used to the idea that, as know-nothing trainees, our views didn’t count.
Once we had all figured out how to do things and how to comport ourselves — which for most of us took the best part of a year — I fancy that an odd switch happened. Instead of struggling more with our work than our younger colleagues, it seemed that Now Teachers were struggling less.
Our motivation was different. Most of us weren’t struggling to pay mortgages. We didn’t need to prove ourselves in the same way a young teacher does and had no desire to advance above the bottom rung of the ladder. This removes a great deal of anxiety.
And there is another big difference. I work three days a week and younger teachers work five. About 60 per cent of Now Teachers teach part-time, which means we are not tired or overwhelmed and can actively enjoy what we do. At the end of term, when my colleagues are on their knees, I’m fairly perky. Sometimes I have to pretend to be exhausted so as not to be too annoying.
Recently, Now Teach got a boost from an unexpected quarter: Covid-19. Lockdown taught all of us — teachers, parents and students — something I hope we don’t forget for a very long time.
School is essential. It is there not only to teach but to babysit, to socialise and to provide structure.
In the Covid year, Now Teach ended up recruiting 150 people, its highest number ever. They were no longer exclusively the elite City types of the first year but a broader bunch, teaching all subjects.
Every cloud has a silver lining and all that. The pandemic has been a terrible ordeal for millions, but it proved a more effective Pied Piper in luring ageing professionals to the classroom than I’d ever been.
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Re-educated: How I Changed My Job, My Home, My Husband And My Hair, by Lucy Kellaway, published by Ebury on July 1 at £16.99. © Lucy Kellaway 2021. To order a copy for £15.12 (offer valid to 26.6.21; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.
A day in the life on the frontline
6.25am The alarm goes off but I’m not asleep. I am three years into teaching and on this November morning, as on most others, I wake early, braced for the day to come.
6.53am The walk from my house to school takes exactly 21 minutes at a brisk pace. It is raining and still dark.
7.14am I need to print the classwork for the first two periods, but the printer is jammed —again. Cursing, I go down to the library and wait while a geography teacher prints out what seems to be an entire atlas.
When I started teaching, I marvelled at the way teachers could look at an exercise book and spot a mistake before their eyes had even had time to focus. Now, miraculously and inexplicably, I can do this too
8am In the auditorium, we get a five-minute blast from an RE teacher whose title is ‘Excellent Teacher’ (the implication being that the rest of us are Rubbish Teachers) on how to break down our explanations to make them easier to understand.
8.13am My colleagues are moving up and down the lines of students in the playground, checking uniforms. ‘Hands out of pockets,’ I say to a 12-year-old boy.
This is not my favourite part of the job but the head teacher is glaring at me, so I make a perfunctory effort. My own hands are in my pockets and I briefly take them out, then find the air so cold I put them back in again.
8.20am Thirty 12-year-olds file in and stand silently behind their desks. ‘Good morning, Year 8,’ I say. ‘Good morning, Miss Kellaway,’ they reply in perfect unison. At the beginning I found this scarily robotic but now I’m soothed by the routine. School life is intrinsically so chaotic that this sort of certainty has something to be said for it.
8.56am In my Year 10 economics class, I walk around, looking over shoulders and chivvying. When I started teaching, I marvelled at the way teachers could look at an exercise book and spot a mistake before their eyes had even had time to focus. Now, miraculously and inexplicably, I can do this too.
10.50am I now have a double free period, the first of which is partly taken up with a weekly meeting with my HoLA (Head of Learning Area). I feel a bit sorry for him having to manage me. I am a tricky mixture of inexperience and overconfidence — and have started querying policies that I don’t agree with.
11.15am Back at my desk, I turn to the pile of purple exercise books from my Year 11 class. The task I set them was: evaluate the effect of a rise in the value of the pound on UK consumers. ‘God,’ I groan after opening two exercise books. ‘They don’t bloody understand it! I spent the entire sodding lesson explaining this!’
11.45am I hastily scrabble around for material for this afternoon’s lessons and put together a slapdash PowerPoint.
12.28pm I must eat now, as I’m on duty. I put my Tupperware lunchbox in the microwave but the machine is so old and slow that I give up after a minute and return to my desk with a plastic box of cold lentils that are warmish around the edges.
12.40pm I watch the students stand around in the damp, talking and laughing in groups. A boy approaches, his eyes shining, and says: ‘Miss, I saw an article you wrote.’
Me: Quite possible. I used to be a journalist. Are you interested in journalism?
1.35pm I ask Year 9 to consider two items: petrol and Mars Bars. Imagine the price of each doubled. We know that demand would fall, but by how much?
Most get the idea that demand for petrol doesn’t fall much when the price doubles. But most think that demand for Mars wouldn’t change much either.
Me: Look. If Mars Bars in the local sweet shop are £1.60 instead of 80p, most people will buy Snickers instead.
Abdul: I won’t — I don’t like Snickers!
Benjamin: Snickers is WAY better than Mars.
Emmanuel: No way!!!
This has the makings of a riot, so I shut it down firmly.
2.30pm I repeat the same lesson with a different class, but it is the last period of the day and students invariably become about five years less mature than they were an hour earlier. At the end I feel like a failure.
3.25pm I have not sat down since 12.40pm. I am hoarse. I start marking 50 Year 9 books.
3.42pm One of my students is asking for me. It is Beccy, a sweet Year 11 girl to whom economics is a scary land of alien ideas, none of which she understands. I take her to an empty classroom and try to explain exchange rates to her really slowly.
4.18pm I’ve still got 40 books left to mark. I time myself: two minutes per book.
5.40pm I do the same walk as this morning, again in the dark. I’m exhausted but not especially stressed. This is something odd about my new life: even though it is far more tiring than my old one, it doesn’t stress me out in quite the same way. I think this is because it’s not actually about me. It’s about the students.
6.03pm Back home, I take the cork out of last night’s red wine and pour myself a large glass. I open a packet of Kettle Chips and eat and drink standing up.
6.45pm My daughter gets in.
Rose: How was your day?
Me: Not bad, but I had a slightly difficult conversation with the mother of one of my worst Year 11 students —
Rose (interrupting): Mum, let’s not talk about school stuff?
She has spent ten hours at the coalface in a much tougher school than mine. And now she wants some life. I, on the other hand, am still new enough to teaching and still so in thrall to the whole thing, I don’t want any other life at all.
I hold my peace, and we have supper and watch something on Netflix instead.
9.05pm I take my clothes off, dropping them on the floor, and get into a hot bath.