Friday, 18 September 2015

NEC learner stories: the inspiring educational journey of a remarkable woman

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Sue Deans first studied with NEC in the 1960s. An A grade student in English Literature A level, she went on to a career as an English teacher. Forty years on, Sue has come back to NEC. In her own words, here’s the story of her educational journey, from leaving school at 16 to studying for an A level in Critical Thinking through online learning in her 60s.

I grew up on an East London council estate, with an older sister, a dad who worked as a hardware warehouseman and an ‘invalid’ mother (we would now call disabled). Surviving TB in the early 1940 had left her with only half a functioning lung. Dad did the shopping and housework; mum cooked and I pushed her wheelchair on shopping trips or forays into nearby Epping Forest. No lightweight, motorised chairs in those days; I built up some strong arm and leg muscles!

My sister was awarded a scholarship to London University and spent the next two years studying in our tiny shared bedroom, freezing cold in winter, while I became adept at sleeping with the light on.

I relate this part of my history because I believe it shaped my own educational story. Having passed the 11+ I became one of only two pupils from my primary school to attend the prestigious girls’ school Woodford County High. In spite of feeling somewhat out of place among a majority of middle-cIass pupils, I loved most of my subjects, especially English and Latin, and gained 7 O Levels. But, at the age of 16, I decided to leave school, get a job and contribute to the family finances. This was not an altogether altruistic act - my best friend was also leaving school and I too longed for the freedom of ‘adult’ life.

For the next nine years I worked in a public library, happily surrounded by books. It was during this time that I took up an English Literature A Level course with the NEC. The little pink booklets arrived and I relished the fact that the course included an opportunity to submit our own creative pieces. I had written poetry and stories from a young age; I wrote several Christmas plays for the children’s library. All my assignments came back with A grades and praise from my ‘distance’ tutor.

However, love stepped in, I got engaged and couldn’t keep up my studies. In 1969 I married and moved to Kent, where two years later my first child, Toby, was born. Two more children, both girls, followed and it was while I was helping out at Toby’s playgroup (and struggling to cope with his two small sisters) that I met a woman who literally changed my life.

This lady ran the playgroup and when I collected Toby, I would often linger to help clear up and read stories to the children. One day she suggested that I take a play-leader’s course, which I did, and this led to my opening and running a playgroup near my home. While the mums cleared up at the end of each session, I would take the whole group of ‘rising-fives’ into another room and tell them stories, often getting them to act out parts of them; in fact, we put on a very ambitious performance of Jack and the Beanstalk one year, with a hand-made beanstalk that touched the ceiling.

My mentor then asked me why didn’t I train to be a teacher (like my older sister). It seemed there was a way that ‘mature’ students could study at the training college attached to Kent University. Without A Levels, I didn’t think I had a chance, but they took me – on the strength of a lengthy essay and an interview where they sat me in a small room with a pile of poems and asked me to “write about one of them”. I remember I chose Blake’s ‘London’.

Four years later, I graduated with a First class BEd (Hons) – the only woman in our college to do so that year. I worked in various secondary schools, adding Drama and Media to my curriculum portfolio. Ten years later, I achieved my Master’s degree, researching my own teaching style and practices and writing my dissertation under the direction of a tutor from my old college – another form of distance learning, in fact.

I now live in South-East London, working part-time as a private English tutor. My students have ranged from ages10 to 36. Much as I enjoy tutoring, there has always been this question: I have had success teaching A Level English (Literature and Language) but could I pass an A Level myself?

And that is why I have enrolled again with the NEC, this time to study A Level Critical Thinking. The resources are much more sophisticated, the technology is cutting edge and the NEC is still there, guiding me through my studies.

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