I haven’t always worked in education. My first career was in retail and the roles I had varied from working in a local pharmacy, to managing a book shop. My last role in retail was as a training manager for Tesco.
But when my career hit a wall – I wanted to become a personnel manager but certain assurances that were made weren’t kept – I decided to do something drastic. I left my job. I didn’t have another job to go to, but I was so unhappy that I decided my mental health was worth more than my salary. It was quite a big move at the time because I had a young daughter and no other income.
I had no idea what I was going to do next, but during the year that I was out of work I started volunteering in the preschool I used to visit with my daughter. The time I was able to spend with her made me realise, this is what I wanted. I wanted to do something which would enable me to spend time with her.
I managed to get a job as a Learning Support Assistant (LSA). My role involved supporting a girl called Claire who had cerebral palsy and used a frame to get around the school. She was probably in Year 4 (so in her late 20s now) at the time I worked with her.
Claire was someone who had a lot of character; I would probably go as far as to say that she was a bit on the facety side and tried to get away with a lot including doing her daily exercises. But I got to know her well and didn’t let her get away with anything and we ended up getting making a great duo.
Working as an LSA was my first experience of working in a school. It provided me with a perspective that was totally different from that gained when you’re a class teacher. Whilst the teacher was delivering a lesson I was able to see how the children interacted with their learning. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t doing it with any pedagogical knowledge of what I was looking at (it took me ages to really understand what that word meant), but I could see those children who weren’t engaged, those who spent more time messing about with peers when the teacher’s back was turned and those who digested every word the teacher spoke.
Even then, I knew how to use ‘the look’ to get children to pay attention to what was happening at the front of the class.
It was during my time as an LSA that I learnt about how lessons were developed. I remember we did a geography unit on maps, which started with the children drawing a map of their route to school and then ended up with us looking at Ordinance Survey maps. I’d never seen one before (and I was in my late twenties) so I found it absolutely fascinating.
Playtime and lunchtimes were my favourite. I’m not sure whether I was supposed to be like this (bearing in mind my age), but I used to run around and join in with the children’s games like I was a child myself. Interacting with the children in that way just seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to have fun and enjoy the moment, just like they were doing. No one ever told me I was doing the wrong thing, so I carried on doing it for the entire six months that I worked at the school.
There was one child called Emilio who had a brilliant sense of humour and I know was destined for a career on the comedy circuit. He’s one of those children who you think, I wonder what he’s doing now.
We had a day where we were celebrating something, possibly World Book Day, and we had a parade around the playground. It was great seeing all the children proudly sporting their costumes and even Claire, the girl I was working with trundled round on her frame with a cheesy grin on her face.
I loved being in that environment and my love for this new world made me realise I wanted to remain in it for as long as possible and so I started looking for routes into teaching.
The routes into teaching for me were limited as I needed to be able to continue to earn money. Fortunately, I found a part-time, distance learning PGCE that was being offered by St Martin’s College, Lancaster in partnership with the Urban Learning Foundation which was based in east London.
The course meant that in between placements I was able to continue working, so I signed myself up to a temp agency and did a few admin roles to keep the money coming in.
A year and a half later (the course ran from April 2000 – December 2001), in January 2002 I started my first role as a PPA cover teacher. The role was meant to last until the the end of the summer term as I had a job lined up for September, but the events that unfolded are a story in and of their own and one for another time.
What it did introduce me to were the challenges that are faced by temporary staff and the importance of creating a good impression during teaching placements, as you never know when you’re going to need to call in a favour. I think this is where I learnt my first lesson in education leadership.