Charlotte works now as an English teacher (among many roles) in a secondary school in Essex. She arrived at this point via her qualification for nursing and various jobs including a successful period in sales. She now travels extensively in between inspiring kids.
Early inspiration sets a course
Finding a slot for an interview in Charlotte’s 70-hour working week is no easy matter, but what emerged from our meeting was a picture of someone with extraordinary energy, intelligence and determination; someone whose self-expectation seems cruelly demanding but who still preserves a total commitment to improving the prospects of others.
Charlotte works in education (it is too reductive to say she is a teacher) and is a classic example of someone whose path in life was influenced by an inspirational teacher.
“We got a new teacher in year eight called Miss McCrory, and she was incredible. She stood out. We were doing persuasive speeches, and everyone always uses Martin Luther King, but she did a bit of Dead Poets Society. She stood up on the desk and she read it, and it was so moving, because she was in tears by the time she got halfway through it, and we didn’t understand: being 12 we were a bit baffled by this woman who had just arrived at the school and was crying in front of an entire class.
But when she explained the words, and when we understood the context and started to analyse it for ourselves, I think that was the first time I really realised the power that words can have, and the power a teacher can have. And that was when I wanted to teach. I wanted to be her. I wanted to do what she was doing, and make people feel how she made us feel.”
Charlotte is a classic example of someone whose path in life was influenced by an inspirational teacher.
I pointed out that this was pretty early to make a decision about her whole future and her answer teases out one of the themes of this website – our education leads us in many directions and not always in straight lines or to the destination that we expected: “It was, but then I changed my mind several times and then came back to it, because actually, I should have been a teacher all along.”
Charlotte starts pushing the bar higher
Charlotte lives in Colchester, Essex, a large, vigorous county spreading east from London as far as the coastline along the North Sea. Thurstable School in Tiptree (home of Tiptree Jam) was her local school and her childhood has the ring of Enid Blyton freedom: “we’d get a bus in the morning and come home in the evening, and then run around and play outdoors and try to avoid doing homework until it was dark, because that was when curfew was, was when it got dark.”
She describes her achievements with typical self-deprecation as having done “relatively well. You know, I could have been an A* student and I wasn’t. I got good grades, I got A*s and A’s and a few B’s, a D for dance.”
What happened next seems extraordinary to me and caused Charlotte to veer off into unexpected territory; her decision seems almost like self-punishment. She went to Colchester 6th Form College and took five A levels and at that time they were examined at the end of both years (the first year being AS level and the second A level). She didn’t do as well as she expected of herself in her AS levels and her response to this was to redouble her efforts, re-sit every exam and come out with A grades and the maximum university entrance points possible.
But she didn’t apply. Why not?
“Because of my first-year performance I couldn’t apply to the universities I wanted to go to and we didn’t really have much careers advice, so I didn’t understand about clearing, I didn’t understand that even if I hadn’t applied to those universities I could have got into them. So in the Easter term I was having a huge crisis of confidence, thought I definitely wasn’t going to pass anything because I hadn’t the previous year, and I was feeling the pressure of something like 25 exams I was going to have to sit.
And so I applied to do nursing, because you didn’t have to have qualifications for that, you didn’t have to have anything above a GCSE, and I’d kind of convinced myself in my teenage dramatic phase that it was going to be nothing that I got. So, I applied for nursing, got my A levels, misread them a couple of times, had a teacher sit me down and calm me down and say, “Let me explain to you what you’ve just done because it’s incredible and you’re clearly… you’re clearly a little bit excitable.” But I had set my mind, and unfortunately for me it’s a character trait that if I say I’m going to do something I do it.
Where did you do your nursing?
“I did my nursing degree at Anglia Ruskin University which used to be a polytechnic, but it’s now a university. I got to the end of the nursing qualification and in the final few months of my placements decided that it wasn’t for me! What I had really enjoyed about nursing was working with the patients a lot, and being involved in the care. As I got closer to the end I realised that actually the role of a nurse in the specific field I had chosen, was a lot of writing care plans, a lot of liaising with clinical psychologists. And so I decided that I wasn’t going to be a nurse after all!
What I had really enjoyed about nursing was working with the patients a lot, and being involved in the care.
Another change in direction, success, money and travel
So, having successfully completed a three-year degree in nursing, Charlotte ignored the clear pathway ahead of her. I didn’t want to interrupt her flow, but looking at her I couldn’t help reflecting on her courage and her determination – she had decided that it wasn’t hands-on enough so she wouldn’t be doing as much caring as she felt needed doing so she wasn’t going to do it.
And that was that. At one point in our interview she described her tendency to change direction as her being ‘flighty’. Given her independence of spirit and the situation she found herself in, her next step didn’t surprise me at all.
“I needed a job because I had a house that I was sharing with a couple of friends, so I went to an insurance company and applied to work there. Leaving the interview, I was outside on their steps when they rang and said, “Yes, we’d like to give you the job”, so I then went into town and celebrated with my friends. I started work there the following Monday – full time and that worked out, actually, because it was a sales job, and I talk a lot, as you can tell!
I was actually really good at it, so I earned a lot of bonus and that enabled me to travel. When you’re on a nursing bursary, you haven’t got spare money, it’s just pay the bills and get to college and that’s as much as you can afford. So I enjoyed having disposable income, and I travelled to America a couple of times, I went to Prague and started to go around Europe.”
For the first time in our discussion, I sensed Charlotte in a period of stability – it sounded a pretty good life, why change it? But clearly, her need for something more fulfilling was not going to be satisfied by selling insurance, however much travel it facilitated. So what came next didn’t surprise me.
Back on track: Charlotte heads to uni
“And then there was an announcement on the news that they were going to increase tuition fees from £3000 a year to £9000 unless you started your degree in 2012. I immediately applied to universities: Liverpool University, all the red brick, and got into every single one of them unconditionally because I had all my grades already.
I applied to Essex because I have my family in Colchester and a boyfriend and a house that we were renting and things like that. My application to Essex was just a back-up, and then I went there and spoke to people in the department, and a friend of mine was just completing her degree there and loved it.”
That was the English department? “Well, it was the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies (LiFTS) in the Faculty of Humanities. I had liked what I had seen and heard of Essex University, so I decided to stay at home so I could keep my life as it was. During my degree, I worked full time. 37 ½ hours a week for the first two years.”
I applied to Essex – a friend of mine was just completing her degree there and loved it.
Really? Wasn’t that a bit tough when you were also studying a degree? “Because the school centre was open from eight until eight, if I had a morning lecture I would go to uni, then I would go to work. I wasn’t driving at the time, so it was a lot of buses and waiting in the rain, which was a bit boring, although I do love the rain. Pluviophile, one of my favourite words; lover of rain.”
Did they call you in for an interview, or did you request an interview? “No, I just went in. When I’d done the application process I asked if I could come and have a look around, and they said yes, the campus is open so you can just come whenever you want. I went and saw the department, and talked to a few people, and thought actually, as much as it is a practical decision so I can keep my job and I can keep my life pretty steady, there was just something about it.
There’s a huge lake out by the library that in the winter is iced over and you see the ducks skating over it, and in the summer there are people lying around when they should be reading books, or with books, and that sort of thing. Yeah, I thought actually it was the best option for me.”
Although Charlotte clearly relished her time at Essex Uni, I couldn’t help wondering if she had ever had a twinge of regret at not going to one of the older unis she had previously planned to attend?
“No, no. And I think actually, in some ways, I’m really glad I didn’t because I worked really hard at Essex and I wasn’t distracted by the glamour of being somewhere new. I think my favourite thing about travelling is really immersing myself in wherever I’m going, and I think had I gone to somewhere metropolitan like Liverpool or somewhere storied like Durham, I think I would have got caught up in the life a lot more.
Whereas for me, because Colchester is my home, I was very grounded, very determined to focus on my studies when I was at university, and to work and to maintain all of the life aspects that I had, and I think had I gone elsewhere actually I probably wouldn’t have been as dedicated because Essex is part of me, I’m born and bred in the area, so I felt like it was a pride thing for me to have gone to Essex, and to have gone to my local university and achieved fantastic results, and you know, the Russell Group universities are fantastic, if I do a masters I’d really like to get that on my CV, but that’s what it’s about, I think, a lot of times for people, it’s kind of having that prestige of having gone to one, whereas you know yourself, it doesn’t matter where your degree is from, it’s what you’re interested in and your passion for it that drives how successful you are.”
Essex is part of me, I’m born and bred in the area, so I felt like it was a pride thing for me to have gone to Essex, and to have gone to my local university and achieved fantastic results.
Yes, and the people you meet and the lecturers you have, the subjects you study. “Absolutely. Derek Walcott is one of the lecturers at Essex. He would come and talk to us. We had a few lectures about creole writings and things like that, and modernising different texts. To have somebody of that level linked to the university is fantastic.”
Charlotte’s enthusiasm for her experience at Essex Uni was evident and it was clearly the right decision to go there. She had a lot to say about her life there which made fascinating listening.
Fulfiling the dream: Charlotte arrives at the destination she predicted for herself aged 12
After graduating, Charlotte joined the graduate teaching programme, following her usual tough route of working as a teacher while she studied for her post-graduate teaching qualification. What type of school did she land in?
“I worked in Clacton and the school that I worked in was just about the opposite of the tiny independent school that I work in now. I think there’s on role something like 1600 children and between 50 and 55% of them are what we call pupil premium – children who are recognised as living in deprivation. And, had I not started my career there, I don’t think that I would be the teacher that I am now, because those children were incredible.
There were some amazing teachers who had been there for 15 or 20 years, totally committed to the school, totally committed to the community of the school, and I think that that really taught me a lot about actually how to interact with anybody, and how to get on a level, because I think a lot of people want to teach, but you have to really like kids in order to do it, and I know that sounds really reductive and really obvious, but I think the reason that I get so much out of my children, and I always refer to them as ‘my children’ and people get very confused, but that’s how I see them, is because I genuinely like every single one of them. I genuinely want the best for all of them as though they were my own.”
A lot of people want to teach, but you have to really like kids in order to do it. I genuinely want the best for all of them as though they were my own.
Teachers need to move around to progress, but if I wasn’t going to be in a completely different situation, I wouldn’t have left, so when I decided to leave Clacton I moved to Gosfield School, which is tiny in comparison; it’s a different experience altogether.
I’ve just taken over responsibility for children who are gifted and more able, promoting the academic excellence of those children, inspiring them, creating competitions for them and opportunities for them so that they can develop and grow into the best children that they can be and preparing them for the world; we don’t know what it looks like yet, either, which is quite difficult.
I know that English is always a skill they’re going to need: to be able to write well, and to communicate effectively, to be able to understand people, and that is so much of what literature is about; it’s about character and about understanding how people’s stories shape them.”
I know that English is always a skill they’re going to need: to be able to write well and to communicate effectively.
When Charlotte talks about ‘her’ children, about education and English literature, she sits forward, her blue eyes sparkle and her pedagogic instincts infuse her conversation with passion and drive. I can’t help comparing it with the dead-eyed aspect of so many teachers I experienced as a pupil and reflecting on how lucky anyone was to have this woman as their guide and inspiration. I wondered how long it would be before her children lost a bit of Charlotte as promotion and senior management subjugated her teaching energy beneath bureaucratic demands, but her next comments put me at ease.
“Moving forward in my career, I would love to do a master’s, and I think there are lots of master’s in education that you can do, but my passion is still English, so I would really love to do something that combines English and Education. I would also really love to go on to lead a department. Senior leadership for me is probably not where I’m going, at least yet, because I love the teaching side too much.
I teach six hours a day sometimes with the children, and I’m not ready to give that up. That is the best part of my day, even if we’ve got other demands on our time, and it creates another six hours of marking after school. I love it, and I don’t want to give up that side, because a lot of senior leaders, out of necessity rather than out of choice I’m sure, haven’t got that time. They haven’t got that luxury and the privilege that I have of being in that classroom.”
This seemed a fitting end to our interview. When Charlotte left it felt like some energy had gone from the room but I know it will be transferred to the people around her and, especially, to her children. How lucky they are.
When Charlotte left it felt like some energy had gone from the room.
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