Talent Conversations: Four Interesting Cases of Careers in Education

Talent Conversations: Four Interesting Cases of Careers in Education

When I was an undergrad at the University of Edinburgh, my awareness of the other people making up the University, was pretty limited to my fellow students.

Walking into my first politics lecture, I was amazed by how many of us there were. My knowledge of the community of professionals behind my education was virtually nil, beyond the Registry and my director of studies. Turns out it takes over 3000 people to make a University run well.

When we think of careers in education, we mostly think about teachers and perhaps the Bursar of a college, university or school. Yet the scope and range of educational roles are so much wider than this. So, today’s career conversation is with four people with very interesting roles in the world of learning.

Sam Rhodes – Head of Careers Service, University of Brighton

Ndidi Okezie – Executive Director of Teach First

Joanna Ball – Associate Director, University of Sussex Library

Nikki Kelly – Head of Product Development and Accreditation, APMG-International

Sam Rhodes “The Career Crusader”

When I was in my mid-twenties I went to see a careers adviser. I took one of those tests, Gradscope, I think it was called… and teacher, social worker, and careers adviser were the three recommendations. We had a good chuckle about it and then my careers adviser shared all the benefits of his job, the variety, the opportunity to work with schools, colleges, and employers and bring them together. I took a year’s Diploma course in careers guidance. It gave me a lot of in interpersonal skills, presentations and 121. It was worthwhile – a sum of all sorts of soft skills I didn’t have that was so essential – I never knew how important they were.

My first role was in a local authority careers service.

We went on to become a social enterprise in the mid-1990s and were able to bid for contracts and privately funded work. We became attached to the Connexions agenda in the early 2000’s and the work to identify and support disadvantaged young people in their careers was very rewarding. Then I got the job at Brighton as Head of Careers and I have been here ever since.

There have been huge changes in the education sector at that time and my role has evolved. In 2008 the employability agenda became much more of a priority within university careers services. Until then, most careers series were still dominated by careers guidance – the giving of general advice on employment and applying for jobs. I’d done quite a bit of talking to employers and talking to representatives from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (now the Institute of Student Employers) and spotted that transferable skills were starting to be emphasised and employability was going to become a bigger thing.

We have since been working hand in hand with the academic teams to make sure that employability skills combine with a great academic experience. So, careers services have evolved into more hands-on education that sits alongside the great work of our faculty – things like volunteering, placements, mentoring and soft skills workshops alongside that all important 121 guidance.

There’s been a big shift towards more targets and monitoring of performance in Higher Education.

This has really driven a deeper student focus and set out some interesting questions, like how you support diverse student groups through specialized and targeted services while also meeting the needs of the greater cohort of students as a whole- with fewer resources!

League tables and targets associated with the Teaching Excellence Framework have focused our strategy. The emphasis of our work is now about supporting wider university strategies such as widening participation, social mobility all of which are reflected in the TEF targets.
The problem with league tables is there is a huge difference between the top 5 Universities and bottom 5 but there may be not much more than a cigarette paper between the ones in the middle, so although students are coming to rely on these tables to decide on their universities, if you are in the middle ground, the ranking isn’t all that helpful.

I’m very proud of our accessibility work. Our Momentum Mentoring programme enables 100 students from diverse backgrounds to receive 121 mentoring for the year from employers and university professionals. We also provide funding to students on unpaid placements who come from homes earning less than £25000 per year.

At the heart of careers services is a commitment to social mobility.

A university education does make a difference and we want our students to get a professional role that can transform their social outcomes.

My own careers advice is to get yourself a specialist area of skill. There are lots of roles where generalist transferable skills are useful and necessary – like communication or teamworking but if you have a specialist qualification and become exceptional in that area… and you enjoy it… then you are going to get to interview and really stand out from the competition.

Ndidi Okeze “The School Revolutionary”

The one thread from my childhood was that I was always drawn to kids. I was in the church crèche when I was still a child and I’ve always gravitated towards finding a way to work with young people. As an adolescent, I grew up in what I know to be a traditional African home, where lawyer, doctor or accountant were the only jobs my mum was interested in me having.

So, I looked for a way to bring the child-focused ‘slant’ to any job I explored, like a family lawyer or pediatrician. I wanted to study English at University, but after an agonising year of Computer Science, I compromised on Psychology – for my Mum, who honestly just wanted me to have that BSc! – And I was excited about being a child clinical psychologist.

I remember when I was in my final year, I was looking into how to qualify as a clinical psychologist but was devastated to discover that I needed to complete two years of teaching experience first.

At the time, this was the worst news ever, I hated the idea enough to totally change course and move on to my other dream industry; Media and Publishing. I joined Hearts Magazines. Which owned titles like Cosmo, Company, Good Housekeeping etc. At first, I thought I had hit the jackpot, but it didn’t take me long to realize that selling advertising space (which is where graduates start) just wasn’t for me.

The people around me had a real passion for all aspects of the work, but I was just not fulfilled or motivated by the work. Eventually, I went looking online and I remember doing a random google search for something like “careers with children, innovation business, impact” and one of the results that came up was Teach First. I clicked, started reading and suddenly it all made sense. They were talking about me, it was my childhood experiences – they were explaining that our education system was fragmented, unfair and that the life chances for children in the U.K weren’t equal. I was suddenly confronted with an explanation for why I had felt out of place at “the top universities” and what the impact was of having a Mum who didn’t have the networks to advise me on careers or Universities or work experiences. I was hooked by what I was reading and really drawn to the call to action of this innovative disruptive charity. And then I saw it…. “Come and teach for two years!!”

But for some reason, this was different, I realized immediately that this was something that I had to do. It was a week to the application deadline. I applied and three weeks later I was living in Canterbury as one of the 186 graduates on the first ever Teach First cohort. It was 2003.

I was adamant I would only be teaching for the mandatory 2 years but I ended up falling in love with working with young people in this way and ended up teaching for a decade.

I knew I had found a purpose and trajectory for my life that I could never walk away from. My career accelerated quickly, and I was in senior leadership after just four years of teaching. This was actually one of the many things that kept me in teaching – every time I thought it would be time to leave, I had leaders that would give me a new challenge or a new goal or a new problem to solve – I discovered that I love to be challenged and placed out of my comfort zone so the work always felt fresh.

After a decade I started to become curious about how I could have more of an impact on the system as a whole. A random chat with the founder (and then CEO) of Teach First, Brett Wigdotz, led me to join the charity part time to help them with Youth engagement and then another conversation led me to apply for an Executive leadership role at the charity. I’ve been there for the past six years.

There are a range of challenges in the educational system and at the top is quality teacher retention.

It’s a challenge that splinters into issues around workload, accountability, opportunities, bureaucracy and pay. We also have a growing “brand” challenge, as the incredible, joyfully rewarding aspects of teaching are often drowned out by the fractured debate around the challenges. These one-sided conversations are ones that I don’t see happening quite so acutely with other professions.

I personally don’t think the system can ever truly thrive if it’s being shuttled about by government after government, minister after minister.

It would be powerful to see a cross party 10-15-year plan for education that creates much needed stability and time to embed and scale solutions.

Career wise, if you are considering a move, there couldn’t be a better time for people who feel like ‘outsiders’ to enter the school system.

They have never been more sought after. Here at Teach First we are really focused on career changers and we are providing a tailored programme specifically for people looking to enter teaching (the most fulfilling of professions!) with solid experience from other careers.

Schools also have a real desire to engage with people working in business, finance, people management etc, and so I encourage people to join their local schools as Governors and volunteers. I think people would be surprised how much their engagement is both needed and welcomed. They can go to the National Governance Association for more information.

We are no longer in a world where family and community look like one single thing.

There are many social gaps across society and schools are having to step in and find solutions for those social gaps. It’s too much weight to put on one part of the circle. We need everyone to recognize that children and young people don’t just belong to the school, they belong to all of us and we need to understand that the inequality gaps, that can make a difference to your whole life trajectory start well before a child even enters the school system. So, a real solution to inequality, will need everyone; families, communities, schools and businesses, to work together in sustained, strategic partnerships.

I truly believe we can have a system that provides a fair education experience for all children in the U.K. I think we can all ask ourselves what role we can play in supporting that social justice goal and we can start to take action today.

Joanna Ball, “The Digital Disruptor”

Librarianship is a career I fell into rather than chose.

My fascination with the ancient world from a young age led me to study Latin and Egyptology at University. I was interested in working in museums, and my university careers adviser suggested I look at libraries as a way in. At that time, the career path for academic librarians was pretty established: a one-year traineeship for graduates in preparation for a one-year (funded) Masters in Library and Information Studies. On finishing my postgraduate qualification I took up my first post in a departmental library at the University of Cambridge, and have never looked back since.

Ask people to think of a library and for most that will conjure up a picture of a  building full of books, but that’s only one element of what an academic library is all about.  These days our print collections are only a tiny proportion of what we provide access to – we all have vast (and expensive) online journal, ebook and other digital collections – and my role is to ensure that we’re getting maximum value for money for my institution, either negotiating directly with publishers, or working collaboratively with other Higher Education libraries across the UK as a consortium.

And as well as this content, we support our institutions’ teaching and research in many other ways – for example, by providing students with valuable information skills (in this era of fake news, the ability to critically evaluate information is more important than ever), collaborating with researchers to share the results of their research more openly, or providing our expertise in metadata to ensure that the institution preserves its digital collections.

Libraries also have an important role to play in shaping the culture of their institutions, partnering with other units across campus to share our infrastructure, expertise and spaces.

We have a reputation as a trusted profession, service and campus partner, which can allow us the freedom to innovate. Leadership roles within libraries require strategic thinking, the ability to lead change and an innovative approach to service development and delivery, as well as business acumen and the ability to build mutually beneficial relationships with others.

Higher Education has changed considerably since I joined the profession over 20 years ago: student numbers have risen sharply, and changes in funding mean that students are now leaving university with large debts.

The pace of technological change is transforming teaching and research, for example through immersive tech and Artificial Intelligence.

Many institutions are also facing financial challenges due to changes in the funding model. Not having a lot of money fosters innovation, creativity and collaboration to enable us to find solutions and respond to external challenges and opportunities.

Academic libraries, and the wider professional services within universities, welcome career changers and acknowledge the fresh perspective and insight that someone from outside the sector can bring. To thrive in the future, we know we need strategic-level digital, financial and innovation skills blended with our ‘traditional’ library skills.

My definition of success has changed throughout my career – what really satisfies me now is very different from twenty years ago. Early on I was very ambitious and keen to move up the career ladder, more likely to be attracted by the prestige and reputation of the organisation. Over time I’ve learned that working in an atmosphere and environment which plays to my strengths and interests is far more important. I really love problem solving, making things happen and innovating, rather than working to preserve the status quo.

I’ve been given lots of snippets of careers advice over the years (not all of which I’ve been particularly good at taking!) but something I have taken on board is to treat everything as a learning opportunity.

This has helped me through some of the lower points in my career, which when I now look back on have been really valuable experiences: helping me learn more about how I tick, and providing a chance to reflect on how I might do things differently if I was facing a similar challenge again.

The best advice I give to anyone considering moving into the sector is to not be fooled by the stereotypical ivory tower untouched by the pressure of the private sector. Moving into Higher Education is not easy, but it is tremendously rewarding to be part or an organisation which is contributing to new knowledge, ideas and solutions whether that’s tackling Dementia or challenging inequalities, and committed to providing a transformative education to its students.

Nikki Kelly “The Qualification Queen”

Where I’ve ended up is a combination of luck, hard work and being in the right place at the right time. When I first started at APMG, it was quite a young company at the start of a huge growth trajectory and that gave me plenty of opportunities to try out different roles. Moving around developed my skills and enabled me to grow as well as discover where I fitted in.

I am working in a company that accredits organisations to deliver training courses and consultancy services.

We cover a huge range of products and have over 50 in our portfolio across projects, business and IT management, cybersecurity and public-private partnerships. We also develop exams. It can take up to a year to produce a new exam and demand is growing.

We have exams for all sorts of subjects such as service management, business analysis, Agile methodologies and even for Yoga teachers. I think of what we do as giving people not only qualifications but also credibility in their career.

The commercial training sector (our main audience) is being challenged by technology development and massive open online courses (MOOCs). One of our challenges is to harness this current technology being used for education outside the traditional classroom format.

Another challenge we face is working with products that don’t lend themselves easily to examination. People can be trained in them but taking an exam is something else. We developed a product in “project sponsorship” for Senior managers. The courses were great, but the attendees were not going to subject themselves to an exam.

Working in education is underestimated and misunderstood as a sector.

A lot of people think it’s about either being a teacher or an examiner. There is little understanding of how much support there is for candidates, or knowledge about what it takes to design and accredit a curriculum. And you are being scrutinized by a different group of people every week, a hard skin is often needed.

It is not the fastest moving sector so being patient is useful, as is being able to spot trends. Once a new trend has been identified you need to know how to move the sector forward. It may involve a completely new subject and new tech, so it can be very challenging and rewarding. The ability to understand what the candidate needs, to think through the ramifications of a small change in a syllabus and then to apply that to see a bigger picture on the ecosystem are all necessary skills. It’s quite complex.

The world of work is changing rapidly, some jobs are disappearing and new ones appearing.

We really need to understand this to equip people for new jobs. For example, cyber security is a massive growth area, and people need help and qualifications to meet the education gap. The whole concept of how we are educated for a job is becoming fluid.

Deciding not to go to University was pivotal to me. I was offered the opportunity to get a degree while working at APMG. But it isn’t for everyone and has in no way been a barrier for me. I keep getting interesting roles and finding my niche.

People still think going to university is the only way but there are many different types of higher education with so much more choice today.

New apprenticeship standards are developed by employer groups known as ‘trailblazers’. These offer so many opportunities.

The best advice I had was from my mum – you spend so much time at work don’t be somewhere where you are unhappy – if you spend your days doing something you do not enjoy you are going to have a really unhappy life. Every now and again you have a magical moment, recently someone took one of our exams in a war zone (Idlib), the exam was disrupted due to bombing, so they had to re-sit the exam. It makes you realize you are helping people change their live.

Much more job flexibility is not going to go away, and people changing careers more frequently is the new norm.

In the future there will be areas of work we don’t even know about now, and I am excited to be in a role where I can respond quickly to give people the support and education needed. I don’t even know what these useful subjects are going to be. Technology really has changed the ways in which people want to get trained and education is accessible in a way that it has never been before. It’s recognized by the United Nations as a development goal, and I’m proud to work in a field that makes a difference to people’s lives in that way.

What have you learned from this article?

For more advice on teachers retention strategies or if you are considering a career in education and don’t know exactly where to start, you can contact my team here. And please join our Career matters community by subscribing to our weekly newsletter on www.ericasosna.com.

With thanks to Sam, Ndidi, Joanna and Nikky for sharing their stories with us.

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