In the second of my Paths To Success blog series, I’ve been talking to Donna Lister who showed me that it wasn’t just me who took a right angle career turn!
This year, I’ve been particularly interested in the paths that people take after education, especially following the increase across the UK in encouraging schools and colleges to embed employability into their lessons. The first time I tried this with students, I was met almost audible rolling of eyes – kids have genuine skills in detecting something that’s been “embedded”, much like a careers version of hiding vegetables in their spaghetti. They know.
So instead, with exam results fast approaching I decided to buck the trend of the many posts telling students that “results don’t matter” (they do, you worked hard), or “I didn’t need GCSEs” (no, but you had something else) and create a positive set of real careers stories to help motivate both my students and other teachers. I’ve been talking to an array of interesting people about how education shaped their own employability skills and their often irregular paths to success.
Donna Lister fully qualified female electrician. I have been running my own electrical business in London for over 12 years, but she hasn’t always been an electrician. Often we talk about STEM jobs being the areas where women are under-represented, so it was great to chat to a female electrician and entrepreneur.
Hi Donna, could you tell me a little bit about your experience at school.
I found school rules really annoying and always tried to break them! However, I did quite well at school academically.
Now that sounds familiar! In fact I think my rebellious streak has stayed with me into adulthood. Have you found the same?
Oh, I hope so! A few people told me I’d never make it as an electrician, so of course that made me more determined than ever! When I was younger and broke, I changed parts on my car despite being told by the ‘man’ at the garage that there was no way I’d figure it out. I remember driving past the garage in my car after I fixed it and tooting my horn at him!!
With it being the end of the school year, I have to ask: do you have a particular teacher that you remember?
I guess my maths teacher, Mr Lewis inspired me. He taught me A level applied maths at St Cyres Comprehensive in Penarth, South Wales. I remember him being quite funny but also strict – he would sometimes throw the board rubber (essentially a wooden block!) at you if you weren’t paying attention. This was in the days when it was OK to do this, of course!
Lots of my students are in the process of applying to college or university right now. Could you tell me a little bit about your experience at college / university
After leaving Uni I realized the career I had chosen wasn’t for me, so I took another post grad course. I think I must get bored really easily as I have swapped careers lots! However, all my past experience make me what I am, so I never view it as ‘wasted’.
I had a mid life crisis and gave up my job as a charity director to retain as an electrician – most people thought I was bonkers, but that just spurred me on! Best thing I ever did – being self employed has given me the freedom to do other things – travel, learn new skills outside of work and now I’m setting up another business (completely non related to electrics)
Wow! So what made you choose electrician as your new career? Has it been different going into that field as a woman?
I’d always been interested in DIY and enjoyed maths too. I didn’t fancy plumbing because of the ‘yuck’ element, so electrics seemed to be the logical choice – it can be quite lucrative if you are prepared to work hard. Some years, I certainly earned more than I made at the charity. I honestly think that being a women has helped me, I know that some of my customers choose me because they prefer to have a female working in thier home. However, you still need to be good at your job and super organised.
After being a successful electrician for 12 years, you’re setting up a new business – can we have a sneak peek at what it is?
I’m at an age now where I need reading glasses. But while wearing them I can’t put my makeup on as they get in the way! GRRR! So a friend (who has the same problem) and I decided to develop a solution – after 2 years of product design, protoyping and testing – FlipZees magnifying makeup glasses were born! Of course we’re now having to learn a whole new set of skills around beauty marketing, website development, social media and sales. You can take a look here www.flipzeesglasses.com
Is there any advice you would want to give to students receiving exam results this year?
When I look back to where I started to where I am now, I am quite amazed at how on earth I got here! There was no plan! So don’t worry too much about making the ‘right’ choices now – you are on the start of a long journey and you can always take a different path! In fact, that’s the fun bit!
Thank you so much to Donna for giving up her time to show my students that the path to success isn’t always as we planned and that twists and turns in life really are just part of the journey!
Donna can be found at www.atb-electrical.co.uk where you can find out more about the qualifications needed to become an electrician. Or you can watch her interview with Two-Fifty Volts here:
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It’s something that I’ve been asked to do across the academic year and each time I write a reference for a student I realise that these is a real art to it. So as we hurtle rapidly into the time of year where we are writing references for college or UCAS, here’s how to write great references without sacrificing your need for sleep.
Use a Writing Frame
I’m not suggesting that you use a template to write your references and just fill in the names. Therein lies a truly dreadful reference. Instead, consider the aspects of the reference that you want to write about for each student and adjust accordingly. The example below is one that I use regularly for my subject UCAS references:
- How have they engaged with the subject?
- Have they indicated that this is their chosen subject? If not, how will it help?
- What extra curricular activities / volunteering have they undertaken?
- What have their exam/test results been compared to their target?
- Have they started their coursework? What is the topic?
- End on a return to their chosen subject
Using this, we could write the reference:
“A methodical and dedicated learner, David has studied Computer Science with me for the past year arriving in year 12 having not studied the subject at GCSE. Despite being behind his peers at the start of the year he has made tremendous efforts to catch up, attending numerous Computing Clubs and extending his knowledge outside of the curriculum in our robotics club which led to his interest to study AI.
It is clear that his targeted grade of a B was initially a challenge, however based on the clear upwards progress within our class tests and mock exams I have little doubt that his choice to take the subject further at University is the correct path for him.
David has commenced his A Level NEA project making AI the basis of his investigation and has already begun to complete a complex project linking the Twitter API to a machine learning algorithm. This, along with his strong exam results to date indicates both enthusiasm and aptitude to study Computer Science further.”
Keep To The Point!
Usually, a UCAS subject reference is no more than three paragraphs, so I group the six questions into two per paragraph, and for some students they won’t be relevant so I omit them entirely. For longer references for US universities or apprenticeship applications, having all six questions as a writing frame helps me to focus on the student as an individual rather than just stating what they have completed as facts.
Imagine that you were the admissions officer, or employer reading the reference – a statement of fact is tantamount to a bad reference. You know your students; you are the person best placed to get across their ability to be an ambassador for the subject that you love.
We know report and reference writing is a tedious process and eats into our evenings when the sun is shining, but those few lines of personal praise can be the difference between a foot in the door to their chosen career and a line of applications elsewhere.
You are their first step up; They have to climb the stairs.
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