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From lawyer to primary school teacher

Penny Bullen qualified at Farrer & Co in the 1970’s, where she stayed for two years as an assistant until she had her first child and the family moved overseas. She returned to law eleven years later where she was able to do a number of part-time roles for a further twelve years. At 51 she re-trained as a primary school teacher and she spoke to us about what that involved and how she has found the switch.

mtl: Hi Penny, please can you tell us about your legal career?

Penny: I originally planned to study history but was put off by the fact that teaching seemed to be the only option afterwards. Instead I started a law degree in 1969, which was still fairly unusual for a woman in those days. I enrolled on a new degree at Warwick, which was then a very young university and therefore keen to prove itself by running new courses.

After university I did my articles for two years at Farrer & Co, before going to law school in Guildford as it was possible to do it that way round at the time. Once qualified, I stayed at the firm for a further two years doing probate work until my first child was born. I received some statutory maternity pay but never went back as we moved abroad as a family.

mtl: How did you find returning to law later on?

Penny: I ended up taking eleven years to go back to law as I was at home while my children were young. When I did return to work, I took on a couple of part-time roles, which were easy to come by in the late ‘80’s and brushed up with a very useful refresher course. One of the roles was lecturing at a college in Norwich on life assurance law, practice and taxation. I also worked for what was then the Solicitors Complaints Bureau as an interview panellist and at Norwich Union.

In the end I cut back to working only for Norwich Union (in the life and pensions legal department) as I really enjoyed it and my boss involved me fully in what he was working on. I stayed eight years, during which time I saw the machinations of a big company and office politics at work. In the end it became no longer possible to work part-time there, so I went full-time briefly and then left to return to private practice.

I first joined a sole practitioner in rural Norfolk where I worked part-time doing wills and probate. My clients were appreciative and I felt that I was genuinely helping them, which was rewarding. My final move within the legal sector was to a firm in Norwich. Unfortunately, I inherited a very difficult client which meant that I stayed for less than a year. As a result of that final move, at 50, I decided to change career.

mtl: Why did you decide to go into teaching?

Penny: I didn’t even consider it at first because of all the bad press, so I looked at lots of other roles – but it is hard to change career at 50 and I realised that ageism is a real issue. In the end I picked up a leaflet about teaching and thought why not give it a go, especially as the Government seemed to need and want new teachers… I researched it by doing some voluntary work at a number of schools through friends and applied for the PGCE at the University of East Anglia, where I was advised to specialise in 5-7 year olds in order to gain entry on the next course.

It was a tough, highly-rated course, with a large volume of studying, paperwork and practice to get through. I was surprised that there was no more than a passing reference to discipline during the course but time constraints and teaching all subjects mean there is an incredible amount of ground to cover. When I finished the year, it was difficult to find a permanent role in Norfolk, so I started doing supply teaching, which was good. I worked in schools at all extremes from schools in under-privileged areas to private schools in Norwich city centre.

A few months later I was given my own mixed year class at a village primary school, and stayed there for two years. I have now gone back to supply teaching in a mixture of state and independent schools, which suits me well because it offers so much flexibility. I go to schools I like and do anything from a half day to a term at a time.

mtl: What do you think of teaching compared to law?

Penny: Teaching is difficult as it is a 24/7 role. You must be fit and there is a health warning! If you are conscientious, then by the time you have taught all day, helped with after-school activities, put on shows and sports days, attended staff meetings and training courses, kept up to date with new ideas, various policy documents and their revision, done plans and paperwork, you find that you have very little time left over to yourself, for very little pay compared to law.

Unlike law, primary teaching is also dominated by women which can cause difficulties at times! And it doesn’t have the same status or respect, if you are concerned by such things. The things I miss about being a lawyer are the status, salary, intellectual challenge, the buzz of “being in the know” and helping people – I did enjoy parts of my legal career in retrospect, though it has to be said that this was mainly when I worked with nice people.

mtl: What should our readers be aware of before considering making the same jump?

Penny: I think they should research job opportunities in advance, as although the Government says it needs teachers, I think that this is more relevant in relation to secondary schools, and particularly for maths and science. Also, you may have to go in right at the bottom. I started on £19,000 - the same as 22 year olds - and my professional background and life experiences weren’t taken into account due to budget cuts.

The pay-cut was hard to stomach, so you’d have to be happy to live on a lot less. I also can’t break through to the upper pay brackets while being a supply teacher, so you can’t work flexibly and be paid well – you have to have your own class for the possibility of that. There is a lot of social work, crowd control and issues surrounding discipline to deal with before you can teach (on top of endless paperwork and meetings), which you need to be aware of.

The good sides of teaching are that there is a lot of variety, some friendly colleagues to work with and of course some interesting children that you meet along the way. I’ve also learnt a lot myself and it has kept my brain ticking, albeit not on the same intellectual level as being a lawyer. Having to cover a wide range of abilities and subjects is also challenging. And it is great not having to fill in time-sheets!

My main tips if you are considering teaching are to decide between primary and secondary/subject and then arrange to shadow a teacher in a local school first. (You may need a DBS check before you can do this and this can take months.) Be very keen to find out as much as possible by speaking to anyone who works in the field that you are interested in. Be aware of budget cuts in your area as these do not augur well for future employment. If you find law stressful, then be warned that teaching is certainly not an easy option and you are paid far less for your efforts!

mtl: Thanks for your time Penny.

Career timeline

1969 – 1972

Law degree, Warwick


1972 – 1974

Articles, Farrer & Co


1974 – 1975

Law Society Finals, Guildford College of Law


1975 – 1977

Probate assistant, Farrer & Co


1978 – 1989

Raising family and voluntary work


1989 – 1997

In-house at Norwich Union


1998 – 2001

Wills and probate assistant


2002 – 2003

PGCE, University of East Anglia


2003 – present

Primary school teacher


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