Can you tell me a bit about your career so far?
I came into teaching quite late; I was invited by the headteacher of the local community school to teach English and science in post-war Liberia where I was living at the time. I thought ‘No, I can’t teach’, but I was asked to do this as a favour, as there weren’t any teachers available to teach science in English. I loved the buzz of the classroom, so I taught English and science for a couple of years. The most challenging part was the lack of resources. We only had reading books and basic stationery that had been left over from before the civil war. I had to hand-write all my worksheets. There was one photocopier, which was pointless as electricity supply was scarce. Even when we used it, the print would fade from the sheets. I used layers of paper and carbon copy to prepare sheets for my classes. I taught a class of 45 students (aged 5-6 years). The behaviour of the pupils was exemplary. I remember taking in boxes of objects I could find to teach them about materials and properties.
I returned to the UK and worked in a primary school as a librarian and classroom assistant. I set up coaching sessions to support the most able students working at level 6 in maths and science. The school entered students for level 6 SATS exams in both subjects for the first time. I applied to teach science at secondary level at the age of 40. To date there isn’t a single day when I have thought ‘why am I doing this?’. There isn’t another job I’d rather do, I love doing what I do. Currently I am teaching in a secondary school in north-west London, starting my 17th year, and I love it. There is a lot of poor publicity about the challenges of teaching teenagers, particularly in comprehensive schools. I have found this to be exaggerated. Both my teaching placements during my PGCE training were in challenging schools. I learnt quickly that if mutual respect is established and a teacher makes lessons relevant to the pupils’ lives, then the challenges become minimal. I have learnt to ignore some of the labels that are pinned on youngsters and always set out to inject enthusiasm and enjoyment in their learning and my teaching. Working with young people is the best thing ever. Not a single day of teaching is boring.
Why did you want to become a teacher?
I applied when there was a lot of publicity about the shortage of science teachers. I went to a conference, and one of the initial teacher-training co-ordinators suggested that I should teach chemistry, so I took the decision to apply. I had explored the option of teaching in a primary school but that would not have offered me enough science teaching and I am useless in design-technology and the humanities!
What do you enjoy most about your job? Are there any particular highlights or moments that stand out from your experiences so far?
I would say that every day is a highlight; I just love working with young people. I love the fact that I am learning and they are learning at the same time, I love the relationships I form with different personalities, I love the mix of personalities. To date I haven’t gone into work and not found something to laugh about. Young people are fascinating; I see it as a privilege that I am being given a chance to be part of their future.
Defining moments… when a child gets into a university of their choice, when they get a result, that is a highlight. Another highlight was being part of the engine that increased the number of students at our school taking triple sciences; we doubled the number and then we tripled it, we were way above the national average for a state school. More and more of my students are opting to study one of the chemical sciences at university.
What are some of the challenges of your work and how do you deal with these?
A lot of my workload is made up of dealing with data – data that has no bearing on the progress of my students or myself. From the point of view of my students, there is a better use of my time. The paperwork is the biggest challenge because it is an increase in workload, which stifles my creativity and there is a constant battle for my time so I can be at the top of my game. I work in a school that trusts what I do so I am fortunate.
Why did you become a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry? What does it mean to you to be a member?
I went to the Salters Festival of Chemistry and I met the head of chemistry of a nearby school (Irfan Latif) and he invited me to some lectures he was hosting for the RSC. I was then encouraged to field a team for the Top of the Bench competition. The organiser, Steven Robinson, invited me to join the education sub-committee for the Cheltenham and Middlesex area. I have always been interested in education policy and always wanted to make a contribution, so I decided to join in order to be a member of a committee of like-minded people who strive for the advancement of the chemical sciences. I wanted that sense of belonging to a body that has the same beliefs and ethos. My career plan has always been to stay in the classroom, so the committee work takes the place of climbing the career ladder. I am a learner first and foremost and I like to keep abreast of what’s going on. The RSC offers me the opportunity of keeping current and being valued for my contributions; that’s a big part of it. I must add that none of these would have been possible without the support and encouragement I have had from Claremont. The headteachers (both past and present) have encouraged and valued my engagement with the RSC.
How does membership help you both professionally and personally? What do you get out of your membership?
I get a lot of opportunities for personal development. It gives me avenues to engage with changes in policy that affect my work, it allows me to contribute my own skills and use my own strengths with things I am good at, it allows me to represent state school teachers – I see myself as a voice for this sector. I am interested in education and policy and there are plenty of opportunities to have a voice with the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Why did you decide to work towards CChem? How did you find out about it?
CChem is something that I always wanted to be but I thought I wasn’t qualified; I thought it was for people with PhDs. When I saw an e-mail saying I was qualified to apply, I looked at the 12 attributes and thought that it was achievable. One of my regrets is that I never did an MSc or PhD, so channelling this ambition through my teaching and becoming CChem was beneficial to me. It allowed me to reflect on the things I do and why I do them; the process of putting my portfolio together was a good reflective journey. I was really proud to achieve CChem, it gives me the recognition for the passion I have for my subject, it gives me recognition of the fact that I am not just a teacher, I am part of the community that works hard to continue to advance the chemical sciences and promote it. I wanted to promote it and I wanted a platform to do that.
How did you find the process? What support did you have? What sorts of things did you have to do to achieve it?
I enjoyed the process, it was taking stock of what I had and it gave me the opportunity to think of my own skills and what I have to offer, and what I do offer, in a different way. In teaching we are always mapping attributes and behaviours to standards, so the CChem portfolio was an extension of that. Mapping on my CPD was quite easy because my school has offered me a wide range of opportunities to continue my professional development. The biggest support I had was from parents. One parent wrote me the nicest testimonial and support. I also had testimonials from current and past students, which was nice. Producing the portfolio brought to light all the things I do that others do not know I do, so it gave them the opportunity to read what I do. My head teacher was supportive and the guidance I got was very useful.
How did you feel when you became chartered? What does being chartered mean to you and how has it helped you in your career?
A great sense of pride – I was very proud to achieve this. It’s not just a label, it gives me recognition of my expertise in what I do, it gives me power to speak up and it gives me a voice and respect for what I do and a belief that I am an authority on the things I do. It’s a nice compass for me to abide by the 12 attributes. It’s not like a degree – it’s about professional practice.