Working with kids, being passionate about a subject, making a difference: what makes people switch careers to teaching?
Teacher shortages around Australia mean there is an ongoing debate about how to attract, retain and educate more teachers.
One part of the push to increase teacher numbers is encouraging people to swap their current career for a teaching role.
Mid-career or “career change” students are increasingly common in teacher education programs. The most recent Australian data shows as of 2017, one-third of new applicants were 25 or older.
We also know there are plenty of people interested. A 2022 survey by the federal government’s Behavioural Economics Team found one in three mid-career individuals was open to the idea of teaching.
Last August, the Albanese government set up an expert panel on teacher education, in part due to concerns about teacher shortages. Led by Sydney University vice-chancellor Mark Scott (who also chairs The Conversation’s board), the panel is due to submit a report next month. One of the key items it is looking at is how to “improve” teaching degrees to attract mid-career entrants.
What does the research tell us about the people who go into teaching mid-career? And what lessons does it hold for policymakers wanting them to stay in their new job?
Our new research reviewed studies on career-change teachers from the past two decades.
It examined 29 studies on career-change teachers, to identify who chooses to enter teaching, why they make the switch, and the barriers that can stop them changing careers. This international review explored the experiences of career-change teachers worldwide, including Australian, US, UK and New Zealand studies.
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Who enters teaching?
Career-change teachers come from many different backgrounds. We identified more than 140 prior careers.
There were former tradespeople, lawyers and scientists. Others had hospitality, administration or retail experience.
We also found people often chose teaching after experience in teacher-like roles.
Many previously worked in childcare, tutoring, volunteering in classrooms, coaching sports, or working with children in community organisations. Some mentioned work leadership roles such as staff training or mentoring.
These experiences helped career changers see they were suited to teaching. Many realised having skills such as effective communication, organisation, resilience, and being able to build relationships were useful for teaching.
Others chose teaching because they liked working with children or wanted to share expertise in a field they were passionate about, such as science. Several were inspired by role model teachers or had family who were teachers.
Some mid-career teachers switch becasue they have liked working with children in other jobs.
What makes someone switch to teaching?
Many had thought about becoming a teacher for a long time, calling it a longstanding interest or “someday” career. This desire often predated their first career choice, but life circumstances played a big role in choosing when to make the switch.
Some had become dissatisfied in their job because of boredom, long hours or poor conditions, or because they wanted a career that felt more meaningful.
Having children made teaching a more attractive option for many. Career changers felt the shorter working days, hours that aligned with children’s school, and regular holidays would allow them to better manage family responsibilities.
We also found global circumstances influenced the choice to teach. Some career changers chose this pathway when their jobs became unstable during industry declines, offshore outsourcing, or due to events such as the global financial crisis.
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What does and does not support career changers?
Our research also found career changers often faced challenges when choosing to teach.
Career-change teachers reported friends and family usually supported the idea of choosing teaching. However, in some cases when individuals were switching from high-status careers (as scientists or doctors), people questioned the change, seeing teaching as a drop.
Mature entrants sometimes struggled in teacher education programs, because of study costs and lack of financial support, especially during lengthy unpaid professional placements.
Others felt teacher education programs often lacked flexibility or didn’t recognise the unique needs, skills and experiences of mid-career students.
Supports such as scholarships, flexible timetables and mentoring helped them balance teaching studies with their existing life responsibilities.
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Expectations vs reality
Once mid-career teachers made it into a job, their ideas about teaching did not always match reality.
Some were shocked by the high workloads, excessive administration demands, continual government-driven changes and lack of professional autonomy.
Indeed, many career-change teachers end up leaving the profession early. An estimated 30-50% of all new Australian teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and for career-change teachers, this figure is estimated to be 25% higher
Mid-career teachers report being surprised by administrative work when they begin teaching.
What can we do differently?
To encourage more mid-career entrants to join the teaching profession, we need to better appreciate the unique strengths and experiences they bring from their previous lives. Mid-career entrants come to schools with new ideas and enthusiasm to make a difference and share their real-world and industry experiences.
One option is to formally recognise extensive industry experiences or advanced subject area qualifications (such as a PhD in chemistry) these career changers bring to schools. This could be done with expedited career progression or specialist roles within schools.
Schools could also offer increasingly flexible employment pathways (such as jobshare arrangements or innovative timetabling) for career changers who want to maintain industry connections.
This could allow for school-industry partnerships that benefit students, and let these teachers use their professional experiences to make a difference. In doing so, this crucial teaching workforce may feel they are making a positive contribution to their students and be more likely to stay.
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