Once a teacher: Deborah Mills

Former Executive Vice President at Saatchi & Saatchi, Deborah Mills, swapped her career in marketing to teach teenagers English – and is now CEO at Now Teach. So what’s the story behind our double-career changing CEO? 

5 mins

3/3/2023 4:02:58 PM
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The inciting incident of my career change was simple.  

One morning, I woke up to hear Lucy Kellaway on Radio 4 about how she had given up her brilliant journalistic career to teach. I felt a gear shift. If people like her – successful, funny and (sorry Lucy) OLD, could do this, perhaps I (less successful and funny but just as old) could too?   

Now I am not a brave person. Big jumps into the abyss are not my style. Like a cat stuck up a tree, I need someone on a ladder to help me down. Now Teach were my fire brigade. 

But the awareness of being stuck up a tree had begun some time before.  

“I enjoyed my lifestyle. But like Bill Murray’s character in ‘Groundhog Day’, I felt the work presented the same old issues and challenges every day.” 

Eat, pray, teach 

Naturally, I was in an ashram in a far backwater of India, when it dawned on me that something in my life had to change. 

I wasn’t there for spiritual enlightenment but for pure curiosity. I thought it might be rich in anecdote; a story to dine out on but, when I caught sight of the dingy buildings and the mattresses on the floor, the humour of the situation evaporated.  

Three days of rising at 3am and sitting very still on cold marble, with cross old ladies slapping me with a stick if my ankles showed, had me mostly meditating on why on earth I had thought this was a good idea.  

Against my best intentions, some kind of enlightenment did creep up on me. The chasm created by life without phones, meetings, conversation, wine - all my usual distractions - slowly filled with an increasing sense that I needed a gear shift. 

At the time I was a 50-something senior advertising agency executive. I had great colleagues. I travelled the world. I enjoyed my lifestyle. But like Bill Murray’s character in ‘Groundhog Day’, I felt the work presented the same old issues and challenges every day. 

I was exhausted by the effort of trying to summon up the creativity and enthusiasm to tackle them one more time. I was deeply, all-encompassingly, utterly bored. I knew something had to change but I didn’t have the courage or imagination to find something more inspiring.  


Career paths and their discontents 

Biologists will tell you that change is not just part of life, it’s a necessary condition: one of its vital signs. And change inevitably came. 

I was ‘restructured’ out of my salaried job to become a consultant. Surely that was the solution I craved? I felt not a jot better. 

I had taken a tiny step but what I needed was a mighty leap. 

I’ve spoken to many people who have switched careers into teaching through Now Teach and a surprising number of them first hopped onto the nearest stepping stone, nice and close to their base, before realising that they needed to vault further afield. 

Back then, as I wrestled with my unreasonable discontent, at the back of my mind lurked a half-formed ambition. For years, I had often claimed that, if my life had taken a different turn, I would have become an English teacher. 

So when I heard Lucy on the radio, what could else I do? 

Reader, I applied to them.  

"Now Teach made what would have seemed an impenetrable process, smooth and straightforward."

A career changer’s progress 

Within the year I was a trainee teacher. 

While the decision to train as a teacher was indeed a giant leap, in practice the process was broken down into several small simple steps by the team at Now Teach.   

Now Teach made what would have seemed an impenetrable process, smooth and straightforward. 

Before I knew it, I had been guided through a Subject Knowledge Enhancement course (stuffing me full of the curriculum I would be teaching); the requisite DBS process; literacy and numeracy tests; a UCAS application; finding a teacher training provider; and ultimately a school to teach in. 

With a speed that took me aback, I found myself in a school in Hackney, trying to impress thirty-three students about the gothic qualities of the opening of ‘Rebecca’, to persuade the head teacher to take me on. 

In any decent drama, the rest of this story would be a Hackney-based remake of Dead Poets Society with me carried shoulder-high through ranks of cheering children. 

But it wasn’t quite like that. 


The pride of Miss Deborah Mills 

It turned out there was more to teaching than my first few attempts at lessons. I spent hours on them. But now it’s clear (though I blush to admit it) that they were far more about showing how clever I was, than increasing the learning of the class.  

"Changing career to teaching, I became the least capable member of the staffroom."

Nor was the change as immediately gratifying as I had hoped. An old advertising boss of mine used to have a saying, ‘always check the bathwater for babies’. It turned out I’d missed quite a few babies when I pulled the plug on my long soak in advertising. 

I was used to being important with a job I could do effortlessly. Changing career to teaching, I became the lowest and least capable member of the staffroom. It took me half a term to get a class of children into their lesson, put up a PowerPoint, and take a register on my own. 

I was galled by the gap between my Jean Brodie fantasy and the reality of my competence. The second term was particularly hard. 

I started working extra-long hours. I gave up on friends, social life, fun. I had a manager who seemed to think that this was my hobby job and was particularly hard on me. There were some dark moments, when I was grateful for the support of Now Teach and my other Now Teachers. 

But, truth to tell, even when things seemed bleak, I was never, ever bored. 


An odyssey  

My staffroom pals were kind, clever, funny, generous and very patient. They made me feel like I was doing something truly worthwhile (a novelty after years in advertising).  

What’s more, they were encouraging: if I was not that hot as a teacher yet, they clearly believed one day I would be. 

"The students were fantastic - surprising and challenging in all the right ways."

They liked the fact that I had experience beyond education. Sometimes the advice travelled in the other direction as they asked me about how to handle situations from bank loans to promotions on our ‘walking w(h)ines’, on the way home, via the pub. 

The students, too, were fantastic - surprising and challenging in all the right ways. I now know that whatever school you are in, they usually are. 

Most of all, I reconnected with a deep, deep love of my subject and the skills that it teaches. Young people need critical thinking as they try to negotiate a world where there are too many stories and narratives that can’t be relied upon.  


A change for all seasons 

Apart from its narrative cliché, I don’t regret the ashram. I don’t regret any of the stepping stones that got me here today to lead Now Teach. It is a privilege to help other people discover the rejuvenation that a new direction and a sense of purpose brings. 

"I am now, and will always be, an English teacher."

Career changers, with their broader skills and life experiences, have a powerful, positive impact on students, staff, schools and, ultimately, society. I have seen it myself, first-hand as a career-switching Now Teacher.  

The whole mission for Now Teach is to spearhead a movement where the skills and perspectives that career changers bring, regardless of age, are recognised as enhancements to what children can achieve in our education system. 

So I hope my own small story of late-career ennui will inspire other people to make a change and consider becoming teachers.  

But thanks to Now Teach,  I am now, and will always be, an English teacher. I don’t know when but one day I will, most likely, be back in a classroom, with a new Year 10 set, confidently taking the register, cracking open my copy of ‘Macbeth’ and looking forward to their reactions. 


Interested in hearing more from our career changers? Attend one of our events and ask them your burning questions.

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