Things I Wish I Had Known About Higher Education as a Teacher – Advice to my Past Self

12th April 2019

Gemma is from Wakefield and was the first person in her family to attend university, studying History at The University of Sheffield. Before joining the team as Head of Hepp, Gemma was a History teacher and Assistant Head Teacher at a local secondary school in the Sheffield City Region and taught for thirteen years.

Easter 2019 marked two years since I left teaching to pursue my career in widening participation. Teaching and helping to lead a school gave me a number of transferable skills which I draw on daily in my role leading Hepp. Leaving teaching has also allowed me to reflect on my role as a teacher, specifically with reference to advice concerning higher education. I firmly believe that everyone enters teaching with a desire to ensure that all the young people we work with become the best that they can be and yet, as we know, teachers are often called upon to give advice and make decisions in areas where at best they are out of their comfort zones, and at worst they are dangerously misinformed.

For example, rewind to my classroom in March 2017, as I prepared to take up a new position. As a keen and eager student, you can ask me a question about 17th century Whigs and Tories, whether the popish plot was an early example of ‘Fake News’ or whether James II’s offspring was really smuggled into the queen’s bedchamber in a bedpan, and I’m your woman. I am unhealthily obsessed with the 17th century, an external A-level examiner on the subject and confident in my knowledge here. Ask me, however, whether home study or moving away to university is best for you, or what the current student loan repayment threshold is, or how the application process works, and I become an extremely unhelpful influencer.

I am unhelpful because I will answer your questions. I will speak with authority, because I am your teacher. You need advice and I feel compelled to give it.  But I will be relying on knowledge from my own experience, because I have nothing else. I chose to live at home for university because I was terrified of ‘debt’, as were my incredibly well-meaning but woefully misinformed parents, and therefore I will passionately advocate the need to leave home in order to fully embrace the experience, because I do not want you to miss out as I feel I did. However, this may not be right for you. I will wax lyrical about things I’ve heard in the media about student finance. and how I think UCAS works. but again based on assumption and experience, not fact. I have discussed this issue with a number of teaching colleagues and all have experienced the same situations. Young people deserve up-to-date and accurate advice, and teachers deserve not to feel left alone to give it. Here at Hepp we recognise the complex landscape and want to help.

Outside of teaching, I recently attended a doctor’s appointment, forgetting to remove my work name badge for my consultation, leading to a conversation with my GP about the work of Hepp. During the conversation I realised that my GP, who herself had attended university for many years, was genuinely of the belief that university fees were paid upfront each year. She reflected on anecdotal conversations with other patients where, armed with this misconception, she could have influenced their perceptions of higher education .

Returning to the present, I am determined to ensure that teachers, advisers and other infuencers are empowered to do two things. Firstly, to have the confidence to say ‘I don’t know but I know where to find out’ because here at the Hepp partnership, it is our job to know and to help students navigate the landscape. We have worked hard to create engagements and resources that you can use with students to find the answers together. Secondly, we want teachers and advisers to have the right to access up-to-date information and CPD about the higher education landscape and are working behind the scenes to create programmes to do just that.

The young people of the Sheffield City Region deserve up-to-date and accurate advice to help them make the right decisions for them, and their influencers deserve access to resources which will enable them to give it.

Categories: Hepp Leadership Team.

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