‘Why I left the law to teach – and became headteacher in just six years’

After landing his dream role as a solicitor, Mouhssin Ismail decided to change tack. Find out how he rose to the top in his teaching career, and why it’s the best thing he’s ever done

As a youngster, Mouhssin Ismail’s one and only career ambition was to become a lawyer. Inspired by TV shows like LA Law and Rumpole of the Bailey – and with strong encouragement from his parents – he completed a law degree before joining leading City law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. But just four years in, he gave up the high-flying world of banking and finance law for a career in teaching.

Stepping up: Mr Ismail became a headteacher just six years after completing his teacher training

Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Explaining his dramatic career change, he says: “I loved everything about being a lawyer but I soon realised, even though my A Levels and degree were strong, there were certain things my schooling hadn’t prepared me for. Born and educated in Newham, I simply didn’t have the social and cultural capital and the connections that the large majority of people in City law firms could boast.

“It was clear that you were more privileged in that respect if you were born into a particular family – and that stirred something up in me about social justice and social mobility.”

One night in 2007, while Mr Ismail was up working until 2am drafting a £50-million banking document, he also drafted his letter of resignation – which he handed in the next day.

Although he had nothing immediately lined up, Mr Ismail had already given serious thought to teaching. “I asked myself whether I was really making a contribution to society. I decided that teaching was the way to go, if I were to find a career that allowed me to do that.”

Getting down to business

He successfully completed his teacher training before joining Seven Kings High School in London, initially as a business studies teacher. He became head of the economics and business department and eventually director of Key Stage 5.

“I’d left the legal profession with the goal of running a school, so I could provide an education that gave students like me better access to the profession,” he says. “I did everything I could to expedite my teaching career, asking for head of department positions early on and applying for vacancies I spotted – in my view, it was worth my while to travel anywhere in London, and forego a pay rise, if it meant I could get that next step up.”

[Students] recognise that I genuinely want to make a difference to their lives

Just six years after completing his teacher training, Mr Ismail returned to his hometown to become headteacher at Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre. Throughout that journey he has credited his professional legal experience for adding real value to his role as a teacher.

“From the start I was organising work placements in the legal sector for students, using my network of contacts, and focusing on the extra skills they needed, such as etiquette, meeting people for the first time, and writing emails.”

Career change: Mr Ismail wanted a job that allowed him to make a contribution to society

Louise Haywood-Schiefer

That experience also paid dividends as he moved into leadership roles. “Heads and deputy heads all have to deal with employment issues, finance issues and legal issues,” he says. “With the skills and knowledge I developed as a lawyer, this part of the job does not faze me at all.”

His status as a qualified lawyer has also earned him respect from the students. “They also recognise that I genuinely want to make a difference to their lives, and have given up a successful law career to do that!”

Nurturing talent

The most rewarding aspect of his role as headteacher is still the interaction he has with young people. “It is a great feeling to see them succeed and achieve, but equally, during those moments where they are suffering a crisis of confidence, I can be the adult who is instilling a sense of belief in them, telling them that they can do it.”

And they have. Last year, 95 per cent of his students gained a Russell Group university place, and the school saw its first student win a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In recognition of these achievements, Mr Ismail has been nominated for the TES Award for FE Leader of the Year, a milestone which he credits to the college’s team of talented staff.

He says: “My dream has come to fruition, and watching these kids do all the things I knew they could – with the right support – has been fantastic. It’s all about believing that your goals are possible.”

For more information about a career in teaching visit the Get Into Teaching website

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