Friday 23 February 2018

I gave up a €150k IT job to be a primary teacher

Lynn Meagher was earning a fortune 10 years ago in Sydney – but hated every minute of it. This is her warning to people tempted by the job vacancies even if they're bored rigid by the subject

Lynn Meagher gave up a well paid IT position to become a teacher.
Lynn Meagher gave up a well paid IT position to become a teacher.

Lynn Meagher

There are 4,500 information technology job vacancies in Ireland right now. These latest figures from a study by training promotion agency Fastrack to IT (FIT) are at stark odds with the country's unemployment epidemic.

FIT argues that these positions are not being filled because of "the severely limited supply of suitably skilled applicants". Education minister Ruairí Quinn has just announced an initiative to fill this gap by training secondary teachers and students in computer science and coding skills.

Many will naturally be tempted into this burgeoning sector by the near guarantee of jobs and promise of a lucrative pay packet, but I would urge a cautious approach to those uncertain of their passion.

So, before you jump headlong into an IT career, you might want to consider my bitter experience in the industry I grew to hate.

To the innocent observer, I had it made. A high-powered IT job with its six-figure salary and executive-model car, a beautiful rented Victorian house in Sydney's cool suburb of Newtown, a bevy of lovely friends with whom to drink cocktails and laze away weekends on one of Sydney's many glorious beaches.

In short, I was living the dream in one of the world's great cities. Except that I wasn't. I hated every second of my miserable job.

At school, I had loved all subjects bar two: maths and computers. I just switched off in these classes as I found them unspeakably dull.

Fast-forward a decade and I'm in the most unsuitable career imaginable, surrounded by numbers and computers, feigning enthusiasm for software development 60-hours-a-week. Staring longingly out the window at the great Australian sun while some bore drones on about his software programming ideas using the most ostentatiously technical language he can muster.

When I arrived in Sydney on a working holiday visa that stipulated a change of employer every three months, I chose IT contracting as an alternative to waitressing, something I had done every summer through four years of university.

In the manner of Barbra Streisand's "I didn't know I couldn't" roller-skating in Funny Girl, I somehow bluffed my way into the career. My cause was helped by the fact that a widespread fear of the Y2K bug meant companies were desperate for software testers.

I nodded sagely when confronted with techno-speak I didn't understand and spent many a night studying books such as Beginning Programming For Dummies.

While these tactics served me well at the start, there was a steep learning curve on the job and, hellishly, I eventually went on to write a 30,000-word thesis in IT to gain accreditation from the Australian Computer Society.

Despite this, I still felt like a fake. Even when I became quite competent in the job, my hatred of it was such that it was a heavy, guilty secret just waiting to burst forth. By this time, I was on a business visa, which effectively tied me to IT work. I was living a lie, selling my soul and all just to stay in the city I loved.

The worst job I did was as IT Project Manager for a transport company. Not only was I the only female in the IT department, but I had to walk though the neanderthalic programmers' pit to reach my office.

Every morning I was greeted by the backs of 20 pallid men, pasty from their all-night online-gaming and all-day coding. Most of them embodied the cliché of the anti-social-still-living-in-the-parental-home computer programmer. My morning greetings were most often met with unintelligible grunts.

Within a year, this job became so intolerable that once my citizenship was granted and I was finally free to work in other fields, I practically broke the door down in my haste to leave.

I gladly took a pay cut, handed back the car and spent my last two years in Sydney working in a position that was about as far from IT as you could get – The Salvation Army.

Having accepted a whopping 80pc drop in income, I started effectively living on what had formerly been my shoe and handbag budget. I moved to the suburbs and got a flatmate. Despite my now-frugal lifestyle I was happy. No more Sunday-night blues. No more uncommunicative drones. No more soul-deadening code.

Over the years, I had spent many a highly paid hour day-dreaming about different careers. As an outgoing people-person, staring at a screen all day was anathema to me. I was built for interaction with humans, not machines.

I was increasingly drawn to the idea of teaching. I had taught at secondary level in England and the Middle East for a year and really enjoyed it. I started plotting my escape and researching all the higher diploma (H.Dip) in education courses both in Australia and Ireland.

At this point, I had been living away from Ireland for 12 years. The pull home was just too strong. So, inspired by the knowledge that job satisfaction is worth more than money, I decided to make a teaching career happen on my return.

My plan was to do a H.Dip in secondary education but I also needed to work. At the time, there was a shortage of substitute teachers in primary schools; so an honours degree, teaching experience, a strong classroom presence and a little luck was often enough for short-term work. Working in primary schools was just going to be a stop-gap until I could save for the course.

Then something unexpected happened: I fell in love with primary teaching. Five minutes into class on my very first day teaching fifth class, I had the sudden realisation that I had found my vocation.

I was hooked on the wide-eyed wonder of primary-aged children; their eager participation and the satisfaction of valuable, meaningful human interaction. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to influence young, open minds and to help them get even a little closer to their potential. It all felt amazing.

Having lived in sunny Australia for a decade, my first winter home teaching was a revelation. The dark cold mornings didn't affect me as I jumped out of bed eager to see my class and guide them through another day's learning. To have found job satisfaction after so many years in offices typing gobbledegook all day . . . euphoria!

With some sacrifice, I went back to full-time study and proudly graduated with my higher diploma in primary education in 2011.

At the height of my IT 'career', I earned the equivalent of €150,000, more than five times what I earn as a primary teacher. Furthermore, with no thanks to the INTO, as a newly qualified teacher, my pay and working conditions will never come close to those of my predecessors.

Thankfully, I'm more motivated by the right job than the pay, but I still wonder why our economy disproportionately rewards jobs like IT over the teaching of our precious children? What does that say about our values as a society? Why was I paid so much more to design software for private industry than I am to educate the next generation? How is this work worth less?

I'm currently taking some time out to raise my baby daughter but look forward to teaching again in September. In this economy, permanent teaching jobs are like the Lost Ark, but I'm optimistic I'll find subbing work.

The only remnants of my former lucrative IT career is a wardrobe of designer dresses that I can barely fit into and some repressed memories of that nightmarish programmers' pit.

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