Early last year, Joanne Crossley hung up her wig and joined Teach First at 46. It was a shock to the system, but not a bad one
It was a dog that finally pushed me over the edge. A family that cares more about its pets than its kids doesn’t deserve my help – no matter how much they’re paying me. This is how I flounced away from the bar to become an English teacher in Bradford. How hard can it be, I arrogantly wondered as I swapped my wig and gown for an A-line skirt and a cardigan.
It’s harder than anything else I’ve ever done in my life, that’s how hard. And then a bit harder than that, with more hard on top. I’m not sure I could have written this article during my first half term as a teacher – I didn’t stop crying for long enough. I emailed my tutor, asking “how is it possible to be this bad”. Now, starting my second year in the classroom (my NQT year), I can finally say that this is the best decision I’ve ever made.
In April 2016, aged 46, I found out that I had been accepted onto the Teach First programme. I had applied only a matter of weeks beforehand, having decided that it was now or never. I had always wanted to be a teacher and from time to time the dream resurfaced, although in later years it seemed much more like a fantasy.
There are more similarities between courtroom and classroom than you might imagine
When I left Oxford, my mum (then a primary school deputy head in Widnes) simply wouldn’t hear of teacher training. She decided that I was destined for greater things, so wanting nothing more than to outdo my older cousin, a solicitor, I decided to become a barrister. She was happy with that choice.
There are more similarities between courtroom and classroom than you might imagine: talking, persuading, showing off, mastering the brief. Getting to grips with paediatric neuro-radiology over the course of a weekend in order to cross-examine an expert on Monday has prepared me well for grappling with the byzantine nuances of a new-spec English curriculum in time for a hastily convened department moderation meeting. And no-one wants to work on Friday afternoons, from that restless year 7 to a snippy crown court judge. Both worlds also share a demoralised public sector outlook; the publicly funded bar feels every bit as dejected, underfunded and beleaguered as the teaching profession.
The differences, too, are illuminating. Whatever their reputation, no court of appeal judge has ever thrown highlighters at me, or rejected my submissions by shouting “You’re shit, miss”. Unlike their pedagogical counterparts, barristers are quite relaxed about who uses which cup in the staff room. I will admit that it’s been quite a stretch to get on top of all of the IT and data requirements: most days at the bar it was me, my notebook, my files and a pen. No data captures, no assessment windows, no spreadsheets, no projector failures. I felt very avant garde just being on Twitter.
The difference that has surprised me most has been school politics, especially line management, and the general lack of understanding of experience outside of the classroom. The modern bar is a well-managed, commercial operation. As part of the finance team in my chambers, I managed a successful multimillion-pound business. As head of department at a mid-tier law firm, I managed a large team of people. I also have decades of experience of dealing with families in the most difficult circumstances. This counts for nothing in school.
I’m not sure it should, really. I accept that to have any credibility in education, you have to be able to cut it in the classroom. I do wonder, though, whether schools could do more to exploit the experience that career-changers bring with them to build better connections with the world outside the classroom.
My husband complains that my new career means that it’s like living with a breakfast TV presenter, up at 5.30 to do my morning show. At least now I jump out of bed, as each day brings challenge and joy in equal measure. I like to think that my mum would be proud of me.
Joanne Crossley is a teacher and former barrister