Four big lessons for getting the most out of a career change

Lucy Kellaway
From ‘pampered columnist’ to ‘increasingly confident teacher’: Lucy Kellaway left the FT to retrain as a teacher © Charlie Bibby/FT

Most salaried workers share two things: a dislike for their jobs and a reluctance to leave them. Breaking through the inertia takes something big. For some people, lockdown provided that push — the experience of being incarcerated at home, with their nearest and dearest on Zoom, made many take action.

But, for me, the spur arrived five years earlier when my father died. I remember returning to work days after his death, looking around the office where I’d worked for over three decades and thinking: “enough”.

Ten years earlier still, when my mum died suddenly, I’d also flirted with leaving. I felt tired of journalism and wanted to do what she’d done and teach in a secondary school.

But weeks passed and I did nothing. I decided I was too old (I was 47). I was frightened of the drop in income and the loss of status and so I buried the idea and went back to doing what I’d always done.

Ten years on, and I found I had less to lose. My children had mainly left home and by then I had had it with journalism. And as for any perceived loss in status — I simply didn’t care.

 

"In return for a 75 per cent pay cut, I got the delight of learning everything all over again. The results were sometimes terrifying"

 

So I quit and now, five years later, I find myself no longer a pampered columnist but an increasingly confident teacher. Over the same period, I’ve watched more than 500 other people of a similar age retrain through the charity I co-founded, Now Teach. All gave up a career they were good at and all started again in the classroom, at the bottom.

From my own experience, and from watching the others, I’ve learnt four lessons about change and about how to get the most from it.

The first is that you need to get the timing right: staying does not necessarily mean a lack of imagination or courage — it may be the right choice, for now. I don’t wish I’d shifted careers ten years earlier. Jobs need to fit around lives, and I had a newly bereaved aged father to care for. Delaying does not matter — which leads to my second lesson.

It is never too late to change career (unless, perhaps, you are over 60 and considering becoming a professional footballer). As long as one’s health holds out, there is much more time than people tell us. I trained as a teacher when I was 58 and thought then it was my last chance. I now suspect I could have done it 10 years later and made a decent fist of it.

The third lesson is that, if you are planning on change, be radical about it. Since leaving journalism, I’ve done “big change” — swapping the newsroom for the classroom — and “small change” — when I moved from one school to another.

Merely tweaking one’s career by moving employer in the same field strikes me as both risky and probably not worth it. In a school, you might like the staff and the students more than the old ones, or you might not. Either way, you have to work out different IT systems and different cultures for uncertain gain.

By contrast, big radical change offers untold benefits. In return for a 75 per cent pay cut, I got the delight of learning everything all over again. The results were sometimes terrifying — being unable to take an electronic register without losing control of your slides is not funny when watched by 30 hostile 13-year-olds. But the shock of the new has jolted me out of all my old malaise and made the world seem shinier and newer.

Which leads to my final point: if you wait until the stakes are fairly low (ie, you really need to get out of your old job and can afford a pay cut), and if you do something radical, it really doesn’t matter if you hate it. It will still be worth it. I know this less from my own experience — I like teaching at least as much as I thought I would — and more from other Now Teachers.

Some simply didn’t take to teaching. They never really learnt how to control the class or discovered they did not like teenagers very much. A few missed their old lines of work.

But I have not met a single one who wished they had not done it at all. Everyone learnt something — about children, about education, and about themselves. They not only briefly had a new career, but a whole new take on life. At the very least, it is a great way of having a late midlife crisis — and means that you can move on to the next thing refreshed and revived.

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