Case study

Maths teacher — James Neophytou

James studied for a BA in accounting and finance and had over 30 years experience in management consulting before deciding on a career change. He now teaches maths at a secondary school

Why did you decide on a career change?

I fancied an Act two. Act one was all about education, career, travel, family, kids.

I had a wonderful management consulting career over 30 years and what I most enjoyed was making change happen and the training delivery - whether it was a new process, a new way of working or a new system being implemented for a client.

I worked at PwC and IBM in Africa, the Middle East, the USA, India and Europe. I just wanted a new challenge and to go outside my comfort zone. I felt I had a lot of stories and life experiences to share.

I felt that teaching would give me that connection, and also give something to the next generation. I knew there was a shortage of STEM teachers and it was something I was energised to do.

How did you get your job?

I was interviewed by Now Teach, who support experienced corporate professionals to transition into the classroom. Then I applied to a number of schools via the School Direct route, which means you are employed by a school and learn on the job. I also connected with a coach at the Department of Education, who was a really helpful guide on next steps and options.

My first interview went well, and then I did a couple of tests (maths and English) and had to give a presentation. Within a couple of days, I had a job offer. I have not looked back.

Teaching is a typically female-dominated industry. Why did you decide on this career?

I didn't really think about that, but now I see that by leaving the corporate world and joining teaching, I managed to inadvertently improve the gender diversity in both places. At IBM I see young women making it to the executive partner role, that I vacated.

I'm also doing my bit for age diversity too. I did A-level maths 35 years ago - before most teachers in my school were even born.

What's a typical day like as a maths teacher?

I work at St Thomas More Catholic School in Wood Green. I start for around 07:30am. I'll plan and finalise the day's lessons, maybe practice some aspects - the questions, the timings, the hand-outs or finding extra work for the more able students.

Lessons start at 09:10 and then it's a relentless, fast and furious pace all day. I teach maths for years 7, 9 and 10, and I also have a sixth form class. Free periods are precious for recovery, refuelling and planning.

I finish around 3:10pm, or if there's a revision class 4:10pm. I stick around to prepare the next day's work or document an observation lesson and update my training portfolio. I tend to do my marking at school and try not to take anything home. I might then meet my subject mentor, or my training mentor. I'll leave at 5pm or 6pm usually.

On Fridays, we have a day at our teacher-training provider, Canterbury Christ Church University. We learn about pedagogy and learning and teaching techniques, as well as brushing up our core subject knowledge. I'm also doing a PGCE, which means three long essays over the year.

Describe your job in five words.

  • fast-paced
  • satisfying
  • energising
  • exhausting
  • exhilarating.

What part of your job gives you the most satisfaction?

When a student suddenly or finally gets something, and it clicks in their head. That moment is just unmatched. Unsurpassable.

What are the challenges?

Poor behaviour, backchat and disrespect and when you're unable to get a class to be quiet or productive. I just want them to try and not get distracted with petty and irrelevant things.

Also, every hour in the classroom needs about two hours of planning. That's mentally and physically challenging.

Before becoming a teacher you already had an established career. In what way is your previous work experience useful?

I feel I have some insights into what's important and what isn't. What works and what doesn't. I've seen success and failure in the real world. I can hone that lived experience and tell my students that:

  • no-one has ever succeeded by complaining
  • listening is more important than speaking - to your peers, not just the teacher
  • the only recipe is a positive attitude and a growth mindset
  • persistence and perseverance really work
  • hard work and developing productive habits will give you resilience and depth of resolve to overcome any obstacle - whether that's an algebra problem or sacrificing an immediate gratification for a more valuable reward in future.

How did you get involved with the Now Teach and how did they support you?

I went to a couple of their evening seminars in the City, and I became hooked. It took me a couple of years to decide to make the jump. They've been massively helpful in training. Great webinars on subject knowledge, new techniques, behaviour, and peer-to-peer discussions. Also, in building my network. They're a great collaborative organisation.

What are your career ambitions?

I just want to work at the coalface, be a classroom teacher, and inspire kids to grow as human beings and learn and listen and respect each other.

I was an Executive Partner at IBM, responsible for 95 people and a multi-million-dollar global business division. I loved it but I am not interested in bureaucracy, administration, politics or budgets any more. I don't want to be Head of Department, Ive had my time.  Others can achieve these leadership positions and I'll support them.

Tell us about three issues facing the teaching sector today.

  • Attracting and retaining high quality talent is key. New teachers need to be teachable and humble. It's the best job in the world. A wonderful, marvellous profession. Many teachers leave the profession as it's tough and it's sink or swim. So, we need resilient folks.
  • Learning from High Performing Jurisdictions - like Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Israel and Finland. When I was designing and implementing global systems for clients, people in some countries would say, 'but we're different here'. What I learned over 30 years is that that is just not true. We are deep down, all fundamentally the same, we are more alike than we are unalike, and we can learn from each other. 
  • Rewards for teachers. Teachers should be paid at the same level as bankers in my view. In the Scandinavian countries they actually are. They generate equal value, or more value, actually.

What advice would you give to other aspiring teachers?

You will not look back. The ride is phenomenal. Most jobs that our students will eventually do have not even been invented yet, so we need to worry less about relevance, and focus on building character, resolve, work ethic, good habits, respect, focus, humour and fun.

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