When life gets monotonous, some people quit their grey office jobs to teach yoga on tropical beaches. Some trade in their weary spouses for younger, more fashionable models. Some jump out of planes to get the adrenaline rush of letting go and hurtling towards an unknown future. Journalist Lucy Kellaway has done it her way, seeking adventure, youth and adrenaline in something else entirely: teaching.
After 32 years at the Financial Times, Kellaway had all the trappings of middle-class success: a multi-decade marriage, a large Victorian house in Islington and a prestigious job, which came with a salary high enough that she didn’t have to think about money, and earned her admiring glances at dinner parties. In her late fifties, she traded it all in – job, house and marriage – to teach maths and then economics in one of the most deprived areas of London.
At least, that’s how Kellaway tells it in her new memoir, Re-educated. The events that set her on the course to a secondary school classroom in Hackney – namely the death of her father and the crumbling of her marriage – were almost certainly more painful than the brisk, upbeat tone of the writing suggests. But then, this book wouldn’t work were it written in anything other than the breezy and irreverent style that made Kellaway’s satirical columns on management a landmark of business journalism. The lightness of touch when dealing with the most serious and sensitive topics – from a parent’s dementia to class and race biases in the British education system – is what saves the book from becoming a treatise on existential despair.
Because what Re-educated is about, really, is ageing. In her introduction, Kellaway points out that people are living longer than they ever thought they would when they made the big decisions that defined their lives, such as where to work and who to marry. At 60, an age at which it is generally considered “too late” to make major life changes, an actuary has told her she should expect to live to 93: 33 more years.
“My point was that many people, me included, arrived in their late fifties with no plans for the rest of their lives – and I wanted to write a book for them,” she writes.
The changes Kellaway makes have been well documented in the five years since she announced in the FT she was quitting journalism to become a teacher – in columns, interviews, even a Radio 4 series. She didn’t just launch herself into teaching, she founded a whole organisation – Now Teach – to enable other corporate professionals at the tail-end of their careers to join her. At the time, the reaction was mixed; one former journalist who had retrained as a teacher and hated it accused Kellaway “of being a Pied Piper – leading innocent bankers and lawyers to their certain deaths in the classroom”. If that was the case, she’s still doing it: Now Teach had 140 recruits out of nearly a thousand applicants last year, compared to just 47 recruits in 2017 when it started out.
What I have always wondered about Now Teach is: why? As Kellaway’s FT colleague Gideon Rachman puts it when she tells him her plans: “You’d be leaving a job that is well paid, that you’re good at, that is glamourous and flexible – for something badly paid with low status that you’d probably be rubbish at.”
One of Now Teach’s early recruits took a 98 per cent pay cut to go to the classroom. Putting aside questions about how society values those who educate our children, it’s hard to understand the mindset of someone who is inspired by “the prospect of too much work for too little pay”.
[See also: The pain and shame of girlhood]
But although teaching may be dismally paid, for the financially secure Kellaway it offers something more valuable: a fresh perspective, unexpected experiences, a new lease of life. She is comically honest about how disastrous she is at the start (“I’m not being funny, Miss. But I could learn this better from watching a video,” says one unenthused pupil) but the thrill of even the tiniest progress – working the Smart Board, successfully explaining the demand curve – surpasses any joy she could find in journalism three decades in. Her attitude, energy and wardrobe start to mimic that of her much younger colleagues. She learns how to learn again, admitting of her students, “I am educating them and they are educating me.”
In effect, this is three books in one: a tongue-in-cheek account of one woman’s belated midlife crisis, a dissertation on modern education, and a call to rethink perceptions of ageing in the light of increased life expectancy. The first is engaging; the second thought-provoking, especially when Kellaway’s assumptions about the purpose of school are challenged by the reality of teaching children at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. But it is the third that raises the most interesting questions. Is 60 “old”, if people have a decade or more of still-healthy life ahead of them? Why does a society that knows we are living longer continue to view careers in such a rigid, linear way? And is it ever too late to start again?
[See also: The courage of Desmond Tutu]
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special