Lesley Graham

Principal of Stockton Riverside College, Darlington

Sector: Education

After being a stay-at-home mum for 10 years, Lesley Graham decided to enrol on a teaching certificate. Today, she is principal of Stockton Riverside College. 

Where do you call home? 

Born and bred in Liverpool, but now living on the outskirts of Darlington. 

Tell us about your role?  

I am the principal of Stockton Riverside College.  

How did you get to where you are today? 

I had my daughter when I had just turned 21 and then my son when I was 25. I was a stay-at-home mum for 10 years until my son started school full-time. It was then I went to my local Further Education college and enrolled on a business administration course and completed it with distinction. I didn’t know what I was going to do next so my course tutor asked me if I had ever thought of teaching. It had never crossed my mind, but she persuaded me that I would be perfect for it, so I enrolled on a teaching certificate on her recommendation.  I completed within two years, then started teaching IT and business part-time. I reverted to working full-time when my children got older. I now find myself as a college principal at Stockton Riverside College and often have to pinch myself that I’m here!  

What struggles or obstacles did you face along the way? 

The usual struggles of juggling a career with family commitments. However, my biggest struggle was dealing with imposter syndrome. I always felt that I was moving up the ladder by accident and that sooner or later I would be found out!  I felt that my peers were better qualified than me, were doing a better job. However with experience, I now know that’s not the case. I did go off and get a master’s degree and that helped improve my confidence, but qualifications aren’t everything. It’s about having self-belief and working hard. 

Describe the moment you first got a feel for success? 

The moment I felt I had really made it was when I was invited to the House of Commons to celebrate the difference further education makes to lives. Each college invite brought along one of their successful alumni – ours was Edris Elba, who had been a performing arts student at the college in East London where I was vice principal at the time.  Unfortunately, Edris couldn’t join us in person, but he messaged in from LA. I remember having champagne on the terrace of the House of Commons thinking, “this isn’t bad for a girl from a single parent family in Liverpool!” 

Do you have any advice for aspiring young females? 

You are just as good, in fact probably better, than anyone around you. If you feel unworthy in some way, channel that negative energy by working hard!  Have belief – as a female, we are more likely to look at the negatives – ie if you look at a job description and can do nine out of 10 things listed, we are less likely to apply for the job because we can’t do everything, whereas some people would apply even if they could only do five things. Be confident! 

What advice would you give to your younger self?  

Believe in yourself. Everyone feels nervous and unsure at times – these are human emotions – but if you act confidently irrespective of how you feel underneath, eventually, with practice you will start to feel confident. 

What three words inspire you and encourage a positive path?  

Never give up! My mantra is:  never give up, never give in.  There is always an answer – you just have to find it! 

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