Sadly, out of nearly 1,000,000 teachers in France, as many as hundreds of thousands would probably prefer to be somewhere else and do something else. And that could be the single most important reason why there is less talent in education than there should be (that and the fact that it doesn’t pay at all). A lot of teachers feel ‘stuck’ or are ‘stuck’ because teaching is generally viewed as a selfless ‘calling’ — something that isn’t really work. I can think of few jobs that are as impactful and gratifying as teaching. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a job. It is a job and it requires skills and some of these skills are transferable. Like all workers, teachers should have the opportunity to switch careers when they want to.

Do you recognize the teacher on the photo? (Hint #1: he was a US president ; hint #2: the photo was taken in Texas)

In France, there is very little mobility among teachers — only between 1,000 and 1,500 people leave every year — , but some geographic mobility (when you accumulate ‘points’ you obtain the ‘right’ to move from an unattractive location to a more attractive one — and this has nothing whatsoever to do with how you work, who you are and what you want to achieve). Professional mobility is virtually non-existant. When you’re a teacher you’re a teacher for LIFE. Because it’s supposed to be a ‘calling’, nobody will even consider the idea of a teacher doing something else.

Mother Teresa really did have a selfless calling for life.

It’s as if it was something separate, some non-work activity that had nothing to do with the world, that was absolutely disconnected from everything, as if the skills required to be a teacher were skills that had no value outside of school. It’s very strange how people who aren’t teachers immediately lose interest when someone they don’t know tells them they are a teacher. Few will ask further questions like “what are you currently working on?”, “What projects do you have?”, “What’s the organization like?” ,“What have you experimented on?”,“What’s the most challenging part of your job?”, “What’s the group like?”. They just assume they know what it’s all about because they were students themselves. They just assume teachers are a special isolated category of the population, and often a very lazy one too. And the worst is that teachers themselves tend to think that what they do has nothing to do with the rest of the world.

In France, they all depend on a gigantic centralized administration, theEducation Nationale, that “manages” (or rather doesn’t manage) a million people, in a way that completely disregards individuals. It’s a bit like the army: you send cannon fodder to the battlefield without consideration for individuals. It makes a lot of sense in the army because there is no such thing as ‘individuals’ when it comes to waging war. There can’t be. But should education be organised like war? Really?

Teachers are numbers, they’re often asked to juggle between schools or do very long commutes… The civil service systematically punishes the young in favour of the old: like in the army (again), civil servants are ranked. The older they get, the more they are paid (regardless of how they perform). So the longer they stay, the harder it becomes for them to even just imagine leaving, even (especially?) when they perform poorly or are terribly unhappy. For a few years now, the last generations have not been promoted as fast as the older generations had been. So the generational wage gap has increased dramatically. (Paradoxically that could make the young slightly more mobile, basically because they have a lot less to lose.) There is no HR at the Education Nationale and there is no training either (no there isn’t, the few programs called ‘training’ are a joke) —and there is no connection with the outside world (as if it constituted a form of ‘pollution’). So the system tells teachers there is no way out. And they believe it.

Therefore the public, the system and the teachers themselves make professional mobility impossible or very unlikely. Recruiters would not consider hiring former teachers (with a few exceptions) because these are not valued on the market. Teachers would not even apply because they don’t think they can. And the department will not provide any help in any form to train or accompany teachers in their career change. And that’s really a French problem, because there’s much more teacher mobility in the UK, for example.

But let me illustrate how short-sighted this view really is:

  • Teachers could make excellent managers. Some are inspiring leaders, very good at sharing a vision. Good teachers have excellent ‘people skills’ and know how to help other people give their very best.
  • Teachers could make excellent sales people: when you’ve long ‘sold’ your lessons to people who are forced to sit there —they are a ‘captive’ audience, but not on their own volition—, you know about sales and people’s motivations. Empathy is often cited as an important criterion to make a good salesperson. So is the ability to “flex between introverted and extroverted behavior”. Both qualities are essential traits among talented teachers. See The importance of empathy in our services-centric people-oriented economy.
Great teachers don’t just teach; they make students believe that they can do it. They make it fun and make it matter. Ever try selling polynomials to a group of 13-year-old boys? Like great sales and marketing, the magic of great teaching is part substance, part entertainment — delivered live, every day, in 45-minute chunks. (“Why Teachers Make the Best Entrepreneurs”)
  • Teachers could make excellent HR executives: they know how to listen, how to select, how to spot the best, how to train them and help them improve.
  • Teachers could make excellent event organizers: they know how to organise events on a regular basis, often with very limited budgets, lots of complex centralised processes, handle lots of red tape and administrative challenges and be responsible — they can be sued if anything goes wrong. They have to constantly watch for accidents / drugs / and all sorts of dangers you can’t even imagine. A student doing drugs behind their backs is their responsibility.
  • Teachers could be coaches. Well, many ARE coaches already. So they could do it with different crowds.
  • Teachers often love to read and write. Many write well and could write absolutely anything: be copywriters, work in advertising, work in PR, internal communication etc. Many teachers actually do write on the side. But few know it could be a job.
  • Teachers can also be entrepreneurs. Now of course, few people have what it takes to be an entrepreneur, but I’m convinced there should bemore teachers among those who do have what it takes. I’ve witnessed talented teachers with loads of determination and creativity whose energy and focus I envied.
I’ve come to see that teaching is a lot more like being a start-up CEO than our teacher-degrading, CEO-fetishizing society wishes to know. (Aaron Schildkrout)

Bad teachers cause much damage to their students and the future of the economy as a whole —the long term economic costs of a bad teacher are extremely high. The feeling of entrapment that frustrates so many of them (of course, not all of them!) can not possibly be conducive to enthusiasm, talent and innovation. Only teachers who CHOOSE to teach but could have other options can be good teachers. If you recruit people who are trapped from the start, don’t expect them to perform miracles.

As it is, our education system is killing innovation and motivation. Having people (mostly women) choose education essentially for the comfort of long holidays cannot possibly be an adequate foundation for the education of future generations. Because French teachers are among the least paid in OECD countries, they indeed see the holidays as their one and only comfort. When it comes to educating the young (and the less young), it shouldn’t be about going on holiday.

For more on the education of the future, there are few texts that are more inspiring than Seth Godin’s beautiful “Stop Stealing Dreams”.

A can-do ‘switch’ mindset is critical. If you’re unhappy where you are, you should be able to switch to something else and if you do like what you do, it shouldn’t be because you can’t do anything else (or want holidays). If you are good and happy, then everyone should want to recruit you!!! And that’s sadly a form of reward that talented teachers NEVER get in France. Nobody has ever thought of headhunting talented teachers for other positions.

After a short early career in business I switched to teaching because I truly wanted to. I did my job with passion and enthusiasm for ten years. I’m still thankful for all the gratifications I got from it. What I gave and what I received what not just information or knowledge, but empathy and affection. Maybe I approached the job in a way I shouldn’t have (too much feeling), but that was the only way I knew. Anyway, after ten years I knew that I could do it all my life (perhaps I am one of those people for whom it IS a bit of a calling), but I also wanted to see and experience the rest of the world, leave the ‘bubble’, try the unknown, and have ‘adventures’ of my own.

I admit I also suffered from the general lack of recognition and lack of interest associated to the job. Also, the cyclical life of teachers has a very strange effect on how we perceive time. Paradoxically, because of repetitive rituals and routine, time flies faster. Your students are always the same age, but you age by one year every year, until one day you’re old enough to be their parent, and then their grandparent. There are few jobs that have that effect: when you’re a nurse or a doctor, your patients are not all the same age.

So I switched again. Maybe it was easier for me because becoming a teacher had already been a switch in the first place. But it wasn’t easy. Now I know I may be a kind of serial switcher, one of those people who will ask themselves every five years, “what will you do when you grow up?”. I don’t think I really want to grow up though. It turns out I very much like the young! I will certainly teach again, in different places, with different crowds. For me the paradigmatic change was the understanding that I could have several projects and adventures, not just the one.

Laetitia Vitaud with Switch Collective

Follow me on Twitter: @Vitolae