Rebecca Matthews always knew that she wanted to work in further education. After having her son at 18, she returned to education and eventually, after taking several jobs to keep her income stable, she achieved her dream and is now an assistant principal.
Where do you call home?
Tell us about your role?
Assistant principal at Stockton Riverside College.
How did you get to where you are today?
Since being in secondary school, I knew I wanted to work in further education, although for me the path wasn’t very straightforward as I also wanted to become a mum at a very young age. I went to college after leaving school but decided I wanted a child before pursuing my career, so I did, and on my 18th birthday I gave birth to my wonderful son and then returned to education.
I completed an access to higher education course in 1998 and went on to complete a degree in English. Whilst completing my degree I managed to pick up some hourly paid work at a local further education college, which motivated me even more to work in the sector. However, my personal circumstances required a regular income – after all I had a young child to raise. For most the foot in the door is through hourly paid work, but unfortunately I had to say goodbye to FE.
I secured a graduate position at McDonalds, which at the time felt like I was giving up on hope of teaching. The role provided me with a strong understanding of running a business and all that entails, as well as effective people management among a plethora of other skills.
In September 2007, I returned to teaching, securing a full-time post teaching English in a local further education college. I loved every minute. Alongside this I completed my PGCE and within 18 months I was promoted to cross college co-ordinator for English and maths (something which without my previous side step into business I wouldn’t have been skilled enough to do).
During this time, my learning never stopped and I completed an MA in education alongside my full-time job. In 2013, I started work at Stockton Riverside College, in the role of English and maths manager, where I had previously studied as a student myself. It felt like a return to my roots. Since then, I have been promoted to head of department and more recently, in 2021, I was promoted to assistant principle.
What struggles or obstacles did you face along the way?
Time – raising a young child, while balancing work and studies, was tremendously difficult. Fortunately, I had the support of my family who looked after my son while I worked every weekend. During this time, I was a single parent and had to rely on friends and family for support and there were times where I did have low points. I recall once ringing my mum and crying because I didn’t have time to tidy up – the house was a mess, and I had a deadline to hit – it’s the little things that get to you when you’re balancing so much.
Money – probably a big factor for most. I have always been very independent and struggle to seek help. However, during this time I did have to access the various support avenues out there and with the help of hardship grants (when my washing machine broke) and other support from the university, along with holding down two jobs, I was able to survive.
Describe the moment you first got a feel for success?
Achieving my degree was amazing and made me realise that I can do it. I was the first in my family to go to university, own a car and go on to own my own home. I am very passionate about education and the power it has to change lives – my own background means that statistically, everything was against me. So, every day I am proud of what I have achieved but more importantly that I am in a position that can support others to do the same.
Do you have any advice to aspiring young females?
Use the support available and believe in yourself. I often made my own life harder than it needed to be by thinking it made me weak asking for support, even though people genuinely wanted to help me succeed. Over the years, I have also come to realise that I suffer with imposter syndrome – something I have to regularly keep in check. Often when people fail, it isn’t anything to do with ability, it’s more about confidence and self-belief.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be so hard on yourself. It is very easy to be overly critical of yourself and forget everything you have already done – take time out to reflect on what you have achieved (I still have to have this conversation with myself now). Also, make time for those you love – time is the most precious thing we have, and it passes by too quickly. It is very easy to allow your career to take over every aspect of your life and make excuses for doing so…I must get this done etc. rather than thinking can it wait or prioritising. I have always had time allocated where work is not allowed to intrude because this is time I would never get back with my loved ones, doing what I enjoy the most.
What three words inspire you and encourage a positive path?
Don’t give up!
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