“I'd had enough of being in the corporate world.”

Image of Abby Sawney
From Retail Buyer to Teacher

Abby Sawney felt like she'd hit a ceiling in her career. Prompted by structural changes at her workplace, she set her sights on shifting into a new, more meaningful profession. This is her story.

What work were you doing previously?

Previously I had a very long career as a buyer, which I started straight out of university. 

I spent many years working my way up from the bottom, all within what I’d call 'general merchandise' (not fashion or food). I did that for quite a long time until I had my kids.

Buying roles and kids don't really mix, so I moved more into the training world, where I trained people to be buyers.

This was all for well-known retailers, the most recent being for Argos and Sainsbury's.

What are you doing now?

I'm a secondary school business teacher.

I predominantly teach GCSE business (age 13 - 16). So I'm using all my previous career experience to help students understand the world of business.

How did you feel in your work before you decided to make the change?

I loved my job as a buyer, meeting with suppliers and doing the product stuff.

But I'd got to a point where I was fairly senior with teams of people working for me and managing teams of buyers. 

I felt like I’d hit a ceiling. It didn't feel right. The more senior management roles can be very politically driven and that's just not for me. 

Why did you change?    

Really, I left because I'd had enough of being in the corporate world.

As a buyer, ultimately all you're doing is making sure that the company makes a profit and makes sure that the shareholders can be paid dividends.

Also, I was traveling an hour and a quarter to get to work, I had young primary school age children, and I wanted a job that I could do closer to home (this was pre-Covid, before more flexible work styles were more common).

At the time retail head offices were in certain places, so you either had to live close to them or commute. 

And lastly, having worked in the sector for years and years it felt time to do something different. I wanted to see how I could use my buying career in a positive way and add some value back to society.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?    

The desire to change was a gradual thing, but I also saw a potential redundancy as an opportunity to help make my shift.

As I worked for Argos and we moved to Sainsbury's, I knew at some point Sainsbury's would probably offer me redundancy because there were lots of contractual things going on in the background as part of the move.

I saw a potential redundancy as a stepping stone, as I knew I'd need to take some time off to retrain if I was going to go into teaching. 

At the same time that I was thinking about doing something different, I was really fortunate that Sainsbury's offered me redundancy, as that helped me make the career change.

How did you choose your new career?

I started by looking at my skill set.

I’d been training adults and buyers, including graduates who were coming into the business.

I looked at those skills and wondered how I could use them elsewhere in a way that could be useful.  

I also thought about roles that had a bit more flexibility, especially in terms of where you could work. 

I wanted a career that perhaps has a bit more security in the future. As a teacher, there's lots of jobs out there (the teacher shortage is always talked about). If you're a good teacher, you'll probably always have a job, and that was important to me, as I have a young family. 

Once I had the idea of teaching, I did loads and loads of research. I visited six local schools and went to see leaders there. 

I spoke to some friends who are teachers. Interestingly, friends who have known me since secondary school had said 'you should always have been a teacher'.

So my skill set, talking with friends, visiting schools all came together to help confirm that I should become a teacher.

Are you happy with the change?

I am, most of the time!

You can come across some very tricky students. You're dealing with teenagers who aren't always happy smiling kids.

And on a day to day basis it can be hard to see the progress of your students, because it's tiny little steps. But it's when you get to the exam results or when you get a thank you card from a student, you can see that you have made a difference. But these things can take time.

How did you go about making the shift?

Being given the opportunity of redundancy helped me make the decision to change.

For teaching my subject you need to apply for September, so I knew I needed to leave my role at some point to get ready for the September teacher training intake.

My plan was to leave my role in the December, take a nine month career break, then start teacher training the following September. But the pandemic changed these plans, so I spent most of those nine months teaching my own children.

In practical terms it was just a question of getting my application in. There's a lot of support available for this, the government offers support to people training to be teachers.

You can get a personal advisor to help talk you through the process. They also hold a fair for people who want to get into teaching, which I attended.

I also spent about a total of six days in schools.

How did you develop (or transfer) the skills you needed for your new role?    

I've been told that I keep a very professional classroom. 

Because I've had a lot of experience training adults, I know how to hold a room, and have that confidence to stand up in front of a room. That can be quite a big thing as some people can find that quite challenging.

Knowing how to structure a training session as part of my old work was transferable to lesson planning.

One thing I found very useful was my ability to deal with other adults.

My experience and skills in relationship management are useful, especially with other teachers and members of the team, and communication with parents. I'm quite happy speaking to parents and having difficult conversations, that maybe fresh graduate teachers aren't so comfortable with doing. 

I think there are a lot of softer skills, these communication skills, managing people and relationships, that can be transferable from many different sectors into teaching

Also being able to manage my workload. As a teacher you have to be super organised, there's so much to do. If you can't manage your own workload and your time, you will struggle, so that's another transferable skill from my previous career.

There are lots of things that are just really useful.

What didn't go well? What wrong turns did you take?

When you train you have a mentor, but mine wasn't a good fit for me.

I spent a lot of time building relationships with other teachers in my placement school to get that support. 

I think choosing your school is really important. Schools have values and cultures just like businesses do, and you need to find yourself a school where you feel you fit. You don't always get that right the first time.

After my training year I moved to a different school with a better fit. 

How did you handle your finances to make your shift possible?

I had my redundancy pay, and we made some lifestyle adjustments.

I had to pay for my training alongside my living costs, and took a salary drop.

The training year was hard, but once you get through that year, you can go up the pay scale each year during your first six years of teaching. If you are interested in becoming a teacher, the salary ranges are available on line so you can work out what you're going to earn.

For some subjects there are bursaries for teacher training, it depends on the government and what subjects they have a shortage of teachers for.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?    

I've never regretted moving into teaching, but I've had some tough moments. 

Going from someone who's really experienced in what they’re doing to someone who doesn't really know what they're doing at all, is quite a change – having to accept that I'm not the expert anymore. 

What help did you get?  

My biggest support was my other half. 

Teacher training is tough, and if you've got children you need someone at home who can pick up and drop off the kids. In that training year, you need a supportive network around you, especially if you have kids. 

I picked the brains of friends, and friends of friends who are teachers.

And I also developed a support network of peers with the other trainees, so that when something goes wrong, I’ve got someone I can run things past.

What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

If you want to go into teaching, definitely spend time in schools and talk to other teachers, to really understand what’s involved and what hard work it is. 

Don't just take the first training placement you're offered – think about the schools you're going to and their ethos or culture.

In terms of career change more generally, I’d say do something you enjoy, as it’s much easier to get up and go to work if you're doing something you enjoy.

You need to do something that's fulfilling and interesting if you're going to stick with it long term. 

Plus, if you know someone who's made a successful shift into work they love, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at [email protected]. and you could win a £25 / $35 voucher in our monthly draw.