I’m especially keen to address newly- or recently-qualified teachers, though what I have to say may equally interest experienced teachers with many years of service under their belts.
Whether it’s the volume of marking, the excessive number of pupils in your class, the sheer diversity of their learning needs, the unrealistic expectations of senior management or the absence of a satisfying work/life balance that is driving you to consider a way out, I want to share my “exit” story with you and, whilst it’s written from the perspective of a U.K. national’s experience of teaching in the U.K. state system, I hope that it will resonate in some way with teachers everywhere and perhaps offer a way out for you should you be seeking one.
I will not just speak about what I ‘escaped’ to. I want to reflect on the process of leaving also, because it doesn’t just happen. There is, of course, no right way to leave a place of work, particularly in a vocational setting such as a school where deep bonds and attachments form, but it is both interesting and helpful to consider how the departure can be negotiated and managed.
Let’s go back a few years.
I was a class teacher with several curriculum responsibilities and so paid on the Upper Pay Scale (U.P.S.), though I always refused to pursue middle- and senior-management roles and towards the end didn't even bother to apply for progression on the U.P.S., such was the package of artificial ‘evidence’ I had to compile to even be considered worthy of that extra £80 a month.
I enjoyed teaching and learning – I always had been captivated by the dynamics that drive the two – but the workload was crazy (so much pointless, ineffective marking!) and the various and competing demands from the numerous audiences I was expected to satisfy (children, parents, senior management, governors, the Local Authority, Ofsted, etc.) was proving too much. For many months, I noted, as did my family and friends, that the job was making me feel stressed and deeply unhappy.
I couldn't at the time even conceive that there could be opportunities out there for me to continue to teach and enjoy all of the unquestionable positives of the job and also largely rid myself of the negatives that had driven me to such despair.
“How can I escape?” I asked myself, many times, without reply. I mean, what else can teachers do, apart from teaching, in order to make a living? Where does a teacher go, career-wise, when there’s even just a modest lifestyle to maintain and bills to pay? There are, in reality, perhaps many possibilities, but I’d argue that few are obvious or easy and certainly none presented themselves immediately to me. I understood that any career change - I quite fancied subtitling and captioning for television, as it happens – would likely involve the need to retrain and a period of not earning (“No. Can’t do it. I’ve no savings and I’ve got a mortgage to pay, not to mention loans and credit card debts.”). I also recognised that leaving the profession could well mean a lower salary (“Where else am I gonna earn £36k a year?”). Moreover, any new career would almost certainly offer substantially fewer holidays (“I can’t be without those lovely long breaks every six to eight weeks!”). For many, there’s just enough in a teacher’s pay and conditions to keep her/him in the classroom, no matter the desire or desperation to walk away, and that was the case for me too for too long.
In my favour, I was single, without children, so I had no relationship or family of my own to consider in any decision-making and this gave me some mobility but all I knew was teaching and learning. The aforementioned obstacles haunted me for many months and compelled me to stick with my miserable life as a teacher. I see now, however, that these were only perceived obstacles.
During the Christmas period of 2013, I met an old school friend of mine who was having a great time teaching privately in Moscow. He was working for a wealthy family for just a few hours a day (late afternoon to early evening – after the children had returned home from school), five days a week. His salary was much higher than that of a class teacher in the UK. The family rented an apartment for him to live in. There was also some exciting international travel involved. His social life in Moscow was fantastic. Crucially, from my point-of-view, it was “easy”, “no stress” teaching - something I could and wanted to do.
My friend was enormously encouraging when I expressed an interest. These jobs were out there: “Governor” (I’d never heard of one of those before!) or “Private Tutor” needed. He highlighted the fact that I was a qualified teacher with substantial teaching experience as a great advantage because many people who did (and still do) these jobs don’t have these highly-valued qualifications and the time served on their C.V..
“You’ll get a job,” he said. “Easily, mate.”
I subsequently took some time to weigh up the pros, cons and feasibility of going for it. I reviewed the obstacles and ties that I had thought could make such a move complicated but, with such great possibilities on the other side, I eventually concluded that there was probably nothing to stop me: I could easily rent my house (and even make some money in so doing); I could borrow a little money from my family as a kind of bridging loan to ensure all of my bills would be paid back home whilst I set myself up in another country; I could use my school holidays as a time to make myself available for interviews with potential new employers; I could always return to teaching in the U.K. if things didn’t work out abroad (there are always vacancies!). Crucially, these conclusions came about because I spoke openly about the hurdles to family, friends and even my employer. I’m a great believer that the more you speak about your problems, the more likely it is that solutions will present themselves or be presented to you.
It’s often the case that families that employ governors/governesses and private tutors advertise their posts through agencies just a month or so before the desired start date which makes serving a full term’s notice in a U.K. school very difficult. I decided that I would simply be as honest, earnest and fair with my school as possible in pursuing any new opportunities, and hope that my twelve years of loyalty and hard work would give me some credit in the bank. I found it helpful to initially share my interest in this potential new venture by simply discussing what my friend had told me about his life in Moscow (“I met with a friend of mine over Christmas and he mentioned… It was really interesting.”) in an informal lunchtime chat. I asked members of the senior management team for their thoughts in other conversations in the staffroom – again very informal. Subsequent conversations made it clear I was seriously thinking about it, emphasising the many rewards whilst also acknowledging (giving advanced notice of) the potential complications. These conversations also emphasised the differences between these new opportunities and classroom teaching anywhere in the U.K.. I was not comparing my existing state school employer to the potential new private one and highlighting the former’s deficiencies. This was completely different. I was comparing apples to oranges, to minimise any offence. As a result, when the time came for me to say, “Here’s a specific post, and I want to go for it”, there was empathy, understanding and support even. Above all, there was no shock.
As the ‘laying-the-groundwork’ staffroom conversations continued, I registered with the agency that found my friend his post in Moscow and, sure enough, roles came up and it put me forward for them. Indeed, I secured the first post that I applied for – a private teaching job in India. I was able to negotiate two days’ unpaid leave in order to fly over to Mumbai for interview just a few weeks into a new academic year. On being offered the post, the employing family made it clear they wanted me to start immediately. Fortunately, my headteacher was supportive, recognised the uniqueness of the opportunity (this truth had already been established in those earlier conversations) and allowed me to leave without requiring me to work any notice period.
The terms and conditions in Mumbai were as good, if not better, than those my friend was enjoying in Moscow: working with one family (a boy, 11) for just a few hours a day, five days per week; my own apartment provided; all travel expenses covered; a massive salary increase compared to my U.K. teaching job; during the boy’s school holidays, I could travel with the family or I could do as I wished. I had found my way out of classroom life and went on to enjoy four fantastic years in India, enjoying all that is good about being a teacher and shedding pretty much all of the negatives. It was the happiest and highest of times from which I took great memories and made wonderful friends.
About a year ago, I moved to Moscow, to fill a new private teaching post. I’m working a few more hours per week than I was in Mumbai – around 6-7 hours per day, five days per week – but a salary increase reflects the fact. The rest of the terms and conditions are broadly the same and I’m living in another vibrant, exciting city and tasting a whole other culture again. The stresses and strains of the last few years of my time in the U.K. are a thing of the past. I’m infinitely happier.
After just a couple of years of teaching experience in the U.K., I could have moved to another country and enjoyed a private teaching job in a largely stress-free environment. I could have saved substantial sums of money to perhaps later invest in a house in the U.K. or wherever I may have wanted to make my home further down the line, without the need for a mortgage at all. I could have seen even more of the world and made many more friends from all over the world. The classroom jobs would still be available to me if I felt the need or desire to return to the world of education in the U.K. and I’d be a better teacher because of my time served in other countries and cultures.
It’s that tinge of personal regret that compels me to appeal to you, the reader, especially if you are a newly- or recently-qualified teacher now, and currently feeling the same levels of unhappiness in your work as I was five years ago. I would definitely recommend exploring the very real option of becoming a governess/governor or private tutor abroad or even in the U.K.; the opportunities are out there. I’m reluctant to say that you have nothing to lose because, of course, I don’t know your personal circumstances, but I would hazard a guess that few if any of those personal circumstances are big enough obstacles to prevent you from making the move. I would add that there is so much to gain but that’s for another blog post, perhaps.
Start making lists of pros and cons against such a move. Speak to your family and friends and see what they think. Use this website and look at the jobs available. Speak to the agencies advertising them and get a feel for what’s involved (exchange some emails or call them up – it doesn't matter). The more you talk to people about the idea, the more feasible and exciting it becomes. Then you look at the perceived obstacles, if there are any, and look at ways to overcome them.
I can’t stress enough, either, the desire to fill these roles with qualified teachers from the U.K. with a young, energetic disposition. Please don’t think, “Who’d be interested in me?”. If you’re a good, passionate teacher, there’s maybe a better place for you.