It is a cliché of modern times that awful education policies are followed by a plethora of so-called “open letters” in which sad teachers announce they are flouncing from the profession.
“I cannot cope in this terrible job any longer,” they sign-off, pointing fingers as they go. In return, social media goes wild.
On Sunday, however, a 57-year-old journalist who has worked at the same newspaper for 31 years, caused her own social media storm with her open letter about teaching.
Only she was flouncing into the profession.
In a Financial Times column titled “I’m leaving and I want you to join me”, Lucy Kellaway – a beloved writer at the paper – told her readers that from September next year she will be teaching maths in a London comprehensive via a new programme called Now Teach, a programme she has co-founded with Katie Waldegrave.
“Nobody can go on doing the same thing forever,” she wrote. “In most jobs two decades is plenty. I’ve stuck at mine for 31 years because my job is the nicest in the world. But even so, it has been long enough. With jobs, as with parties, it is best to leave when you are still having a good time.”
By the time she leaves the newsroom she will be 58.
With jobs, as with parties, it is best to leave when you are still having a good time
There are many other things she could go to. So why teach? Why now?
We speak over the phone on Tuesday afternoon, in the sort of interview that Kellaway has done countless times herself with chief executives. She is enthusiastic about the reaction to her column.
“Social networks and the media are so strange. I have been cooking up this idea for a long time, and suddenly it is very real and it is all so everywhere! The reaction is miles, miles better than I had expected in my wildest dreams.”
More than 150 people have already applied to follow her lead. For its pilot year, the Now Teach programme will place career-changers into London secondary schools, to train on-the-job, in shortage subjects – particularly maths and science. If all goes well the programme will quickly expand beyond the capital.
“We’ve just tapped into a real nerve of people who are wondering what to do with the rest of their lives and have this sort of yearning to do something more useful. They thought that teaching might be what they like, but they thought they would be too old.
“I expected that we would have lots of people approaching us to say can we find out more, but that we would have 150 people in the first couple of days is amazing!”
Kellaway is known for her forthright journalism, slapping down chief executives who make wild claims. Earlier this year she berated Meg Whitman, the head of Hewlett Packard, for venturing the idea that “you can always go faster than you think you can”. Kellaway’s response: “It’s nonsense. Often in business you can’t go nearly as fast as you fondly think you can. When you try, you fall on your face — and Ms Whitman, of all people, should know that.”
Hence, in characteristic style, she points out the application numbers may not be indicative of quality. “When we actually interview some, it may all fall to pieces and there won’t be quite so many. But for the time being, it is great!”
Kellaway is not so cautious about her enthusiasm for the classroom, however. She is rapt.
“My daughter is a Teach Firster and it’s amazing what she’s done. She joined four years ago and watching her learn was very stimulating. She started off, like all these Teach Firsters, without the first clue – which is how I will start off next September – and she learned very quickly. It was extraordinary. I had forgotten what it was like to learn as quickly as that.
When I am teaching, I will need to be there whether I like it or not. It is something I am just going to have to learn to deal with
“Then, when she got the hang of it, she had the satisfaction – huuuuge satisfaction – of getting kids to do things that they didn’t think they were capable of. Nothing is more satisfying than that.”
Kellaway concluded that the disillusioned workers in their forties and fifties that she so often writes about would benefit from such an injection of enthusiasm. Likewise, schools regularly losing older teachers could also benefit from a more diverse staffroom.
“I know Lucy Heller [chief executive at Ark] very well and I was going on and on at her saying we needed something like a ‘Teach Last’ and she said, ‘well, why don’t you come and do it with us?’”
This is not unusual for Ark: the group has incubated and spun out a number of projects, such as Frontline (a social work equivalent of Teach First) and Teaching Leaders for department leads.
Kellaway is also aware that Teach First takes on career-changers, but she feels their pitch tends to be towards “the younger end of the market. Something similar, but for older people – that seemed to me like a great idea. A few days in it feels as if we were right!”
For the first year, trainees will be placed in Ark schools only, but the aim is to become “provider-neutral”, with any willing school able to take on Now Teach trainees. Funding comes via the bursaries and salaried schemes available via Schools Direct.
Some teachers have told her that she is “mad”, but Kellaway is uninhibited by concerns about behaviour or learning to lesson plan.
Her bigger concern is the dentist, and coffee. “A lot of people like me are used to working very hard … when it suits us. But if I fancy going off and having lunch with a friend, or if I need to go the dentist, or if I need to do anything at all, I just do it.
“When I am teaching, I will need to be there whether I like it or not. It is something I am just going to have to learn to deal with.”
In recognition of the fact that career-changers may have time commitments that cannot be dropped, Now Teach will operate over a four-day week, unique among teacher training programmes.
Kellaway is also sad to be leaving colleagues – “dear friends” – at the Financial Times. “But then, if they’re really good mates, I can still see them outside – if I’ve any time! My daughter has prepared me about that… and it will be even worse as I am going to be helping with the Now Teach recruitment.”
Another open letter, written in a year’s time about her first term, might just be the best way to do that.
Applications are now open at www.nowteach.org.uk for career-changers looking to teach in a London secondary school from September 2017 in a shortage subject.