How did you embark on your journey as a communication professional? For Teela Clayton, it started with honing communication skills over 10 years in the classroom. Here, Clayton shares her unique path from teaching to becoming a leader in public relations.
5 May 2007. I’m sitting in the garden, outside my mum and dad’s house, basking in the heat of an unexpected sunny spell. Later, this Spanish summer will give way to unprecedented rain — weeks of it — and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” will become ubiquitous to this flood-ridden epoch. But for now, I sit, almost content but somewhat conflicted.
On the one hand, I am full of the kind of happiness that is serviced by a few days’ leave from work. I will be going out with friends, spending a sultry bank holiday weekend in my hometown and quaffing wine al fresco on terraces as if I’m in the Algarve. It’ll be a chance for me to get dolled up, slip on my stilettos and dance like no one’s watching. But on the other hand, my dad is dying.
And as the sun hits me smartly in the face, I can hear his ragged labored breaths escaping the open window as he sleeps in the bedroom above. In years to come, decades, I will remember this moment. It was the last time I felt that my dad was invincible. The next day, he was gone.
Up to that moment I had been treading water in a career sense. I hadn’t entered a profession, had merely moved from a student bar job to retail. I was still living in student digs, too — one room in a shared house with just a suitcase of stuff. It was time to grow up.
In the darkness that came, thick and suffocating and all consuming, the one happy place where I would transport myself in dreams was school. And thus, my grown-up life post-dad was born. I took on a job as an English teacher in a secondary school.
At first, I was happy. I got to indulge my love of words and stoke a passion in the classroom. I started a school newsletter. I created a festival to celebrate literacy. I started writing for a magazine. I taught kids how to write and forge a connection with the reader, and I created a short-stories scheme of work. I enjoyed assuming my teaching position, half perched on my desk, where I was queen of everything the light from the projector hit. I loved having a captive audience hanging on to my every word and occasionally laughing at my jokes. I was proud — as an examiner — to be an expert at the exams they would undertake. The presents at Christmas and end of year made everything worthwhile. (I’m lying. They were mostly terrible gifts from thoughtful pupils who had ignored my chocolate-based subliminal messages.)
Deep down there was a gnawing, a feeling that lived within my core. Teaching was not my dream. This had never been the plan. The word “teacher” was not written on my careers form that I’d filled in as a Y9 pupil. (DJ, presenter, journalist, in case you’re wondering.) I had intended to use my linguistics degree to travel the world, undertake language studies and eventually become a professor. Or perhaps I would visit every continent before settling in Paris, where I would write a book. Maybe I’d end up in New York, a fashion writer in some cliched dream, ripe for a Netflix romcom plot. As long as my job made me happy, I could ignore the gnawing.
Spoiler alert: it started to make me miserable.
I grew up in the profession — got married, had my babies, bought a house. I made solid foundations. Colleagues became friends and then family. In 10 years, I had changed, but so too had teaching. A headteacher with an autocratic management style had taken over, scrapping meritocracy and introducing bureaucracy. I was tired.
So much of my leaving was tied up in the emotional narrative of losing my dad, of school becoming my cocoon. Sometimes I would look out my window at the cherry blossom and pretend I was a 13-year-old again in Mr. Williams’ math class. When the bell went, my dad would be picking me up in his Vauxhall Cavalier. AUA 281X. His number plate is clearer in my mind than my own.
I knew I wanted to write but that the career options of author or journalist were not for me. I would realize much later — three days into my master’s to be precise — that PR was a perfect fit.
Now I’m working in PR, and it feels like everything in my teaching career was preparing me for a life in communication. I don’t get nervous before pitches or presentations because no one is a harsher critic than a class of Y9 bottom set. I can speak to a variety of stakeholders because I’m used to having an agenda item in a whole staff briefing, before having to teach the babies in Y7 followed by the pseudo grown-ups in Y11, rounding my day off by telling a parent their child will be entering a period of exclusion or isolation. The workload is nothing because teachers work 30-hour days. I have volunteered for every conceivable opportunity because I am used to being busy.
I always thought my home was in a classroom, but it turns out it’s the learning I love. And that can happen anywhere.
Sometimes I look around and see people my age in the top roles in PR. It’s hard not to compare and imagine where I would have been had I discovered PR straight from university. But I’ll always be a teacher. I’ve no regrets; it made me who I am.
Besides, Dad had a saying: Everything happens for a reason.