What do I care about?

What do you care about? Education has been a life saver for me, but has proved daunting as well.

Steve Radcliffe says:

The first question to ask yourself is ‘What do you care about?’ What matters to you, what’s important to you, what your value most or what you have most passion for. You can only be a great leader for things you care about. If the answer doesn’t give you an energy boost, by tapping into your energy of passion, pride and possibility, you haven’t got to the real issue yet.

Leadership Plain and Simple (2012)

I always knew I wanted to go into teaching. From a very early age, I would play “teachers” and terrorise my younger brother by setting spelling tests and giving out detentions; my neighbours used to know when lunchtime had ended because the ‘two whistle system’ was well established.

I loved school. I loved learning. I still do. My mum always encouraged me to do my best and give 100% effort in all my studies. But when I reflect back on my experiences of school, I now appreciate how much of a journey I have been on.

As a child, my attendance at school wasn’t great and there were lots of reasons for this: I suffered with severe asthma as a youngster, which affected my chest a considerable amount of the time – particularly in the winter. This led to lots of time off. This was eventually brought under control but my attendance didn’t really improve. At the age of 7, my mum and dad separated. My mum, brother and I moved out of the family home and moved in with my grandparents, then my aunty and uncle, then to another town (meaning a change of school), then to another village, (meaning a taxi-ride followed by a bus-ride every day), then back to the first town (meaning a change of school again). This erratic and unsettled period of time spanned two-and-a-half to three years – my Key Stage 2 career.

But my patchy attendance started before this – back in Key Stage 1. It seems from old reports that I found that I would have the “odd day off here and there” for no apparent reason – the very thing that I have conversations with parents about now.

If I were in school now, I would be a “pupil premium child” – single parent family, safeguarding concerns, poor attendance. By all accounts, I would be one of those statistics lumped in the disadvantaged groups who was destined to “not amount to much”.

I remember vividly arriving to school one Monday morning having stayed at my dads for the weekend – my dad wasn’t a great support; he drank and smoked a lot and before my parents separated, this often led to the police being on our doorstep. He didn’t really value education either, which meant he didn’t really support or encourage me or my brother – and being sat in my year 6 classroom with Mr O’ Boyle (the Headteacher) and him saying: “right everyone, take out your maths homework so we can mark it together.”

My heart sank.

I’d taken my maths book home. I’d taken my maths book to my dads house. But amongst the chaos of the weekend, I had not completed it.

Mr O’Boyle wasn’t the most understanding of teachers, nor was he that compassionate so I daren’t tell him I hadn’t done it.

I was now in panic mode. What should I do? As the class moved closer to him with their maths books and pencils, I hung back and waited for them to overtake me. I sheepishly sat near the back of the room. I had a plan. I would do the homework now. I would keep a few questions ahead.

(Thinking about this now with the knowledge we have of cognitive science, I would have been in complete cognitive overload!)

The plan was working… until I was asked the answer to a question… How I managed to keep it together, I do not know. Maths was never my strongest subject!

Needless to say that wasn’t my greatest day at school.

Fortunately, I was reasonably clever and could cope with situations such as this and the more they presented themselves, the more adept I became at dealing with them.

I do wander what my outcomes would have been like if I had a stable primary education? A stable home-life?

As I started at secondary school, things did settle down somewhat. We moved to a house in a nice area and mum had a stable job. Things were looking up. They remained that way for much of my secondary school career.

My attendance was still patchy (as you can see from the slightly pointed comment from my Head of Year: “well done… perhaps attendance could improve further?”) – but this was more habitual rather than for any other reason. Habits are hard to break.

I enjoyed secondary school. I was successful at secondary school. I went through all of my secondary career in the top set for every subject and enjoyed engaging with challenging material that made me think.

I found something I was good at – performing arts – and started to participate in productions (the first one being Shakespeare’s The Tempest). This was tricky to balance though as rehearsals were after school.

I had lots of small successes throughout secondary school. This led to me becoming Deputy Head Boy in Year 11 and gaining 11 A to C grades at GCSE. And then it was onto the next thing… Sixth Form

It was in Sixth Form that my love for education blossomed. I studied English Literature, Performing Arts, Art and Design and Philosophy and Ethics. A Levels were different. Very different. The level at which we were expected to engage was higher, the demand put on us to read around a subject was more intense. I loved it. I thrived off it. My attendance improved, my relationships with teachers and peers became more established and I felt more like I was meant to be there.

It was still a bit of a balancing act. I had a part time job now to support myself a bit more as things were still tight at home. But this was fine. I had to make it work.

All in all, I did well in A Levels – three As and a B. Decent. I was proud of myself because all of that was earned. I worked exceptionally hard to achieve it, to make something of myself. Then it was onto the next thing… university.

I was the first one in my family to go to university. I knew I wanted to teach. I knew I loved performing arts to the secondary education course at the University of South Wales Institute (UWIC) in Cardiff was perfect.

My mum was reluctant at first – turns out it wasn’t because she didn’t want me to go, it was because she knew she couldn’t fund it. But that didn’t matter. I applied for the the Maintenance Grant and secured a job.

Throughout uni I balanced the demands of an undergraduate qualification, school placements and a job. I had to work to support myself. If I didn’t work, I wouldn’t have lasted. At times, it was challenging. At times, I considered giving up. But I didn’t. Ironically, my attendance at university was outstanding – I didn’t miss a day!

I thoroughly enjoyed my four years in Cardiff; I made some wonderful friends, networked with some wonderful people, graduated with a First Class honours and won Student of the Year at the same time. I was proud of myself because all of that was earned. I worked exceptionally hard to achieve it, to make something of myself.

Then it was on to the next thing… a job. I was fortunate in that I secured a job straight after graduating. A secondary school in Neath, South Wales.

When I take stock of my journey to this point there is a certain irony – my attendance at primary school was questionable – now I was going to be on the other side of the classroom, the teacher.

I can now look proudly back on a decade long teaching career (where I’m pleased to say, I have had very little time off school).

It certainly sounds cliched but I can attest to the fact that the experiences I had of early education, sixth form and university definitely shaped me. Me as a product of the education system, but more importantly, me as an educator – the kind of teacher (and now leader) I am.

So you’re probably thinking what on earth does this post have to do with the title “what do I care about?”

I care about social mobility.

I care about education being the most powerful tool for moving children out of poverty (and I use that word deliberately and I include myself in that category).

I care about education giving children options.

I care about valuing every child regardless of their background or perceived barriers.

I care about giving every child the chance to succeed.

And why do I care so much about this? Because I know first hand that it works, that education makes a difference, that education makes people.

I know because I am one of those people and I won’t stop until we have an education system that does for all children what it has done for me.


Corenna Khieu: Show Them That You Care