Inspiring Women in Education, Fiona Cottam

We continue our series looking at the lives of Inspiring Women in Education by talking to the Fiona Cottam of Hartland International School. Positive, feisty and funny, Fiona has had a fascinating career so far and plans a future providing education that combines happiness and academics in equal measure.
This article is part of an editorial series on Inspiring Women in Education
Inspiring Women in Education
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Inspiring Women in Education
This article is part of an editorial series on Inspiring Women in Education

Who or what inspired you to become an educator?

I’m from a place called Arklow in County Wicklow, Ireland.  I went to a wonderful school and was inspired to get into music by a very special teacher, Sister Agnes – she was just an amazing, incredible woman! 

Sister Agnes had been a prolific musician in her youth and came from a wealthy family and privileged background.  She walked away from all of that to become a Nun and a teacher.  What an enormous decision to make!  It meant we as music students were very lucky – we had all her expertise plus her family donated two beautiful grand pianos that we were able to use – in fact, I spent most of my secondary school days sat at one of those two grand pianos!

See also:
Inspiring Women in Education - Rebecca Annand
Inspiring Women in Education - Zara Harrington
Inspiring Women in Education - Aparna Verma

After leaving school I went to University College Dublin and did a joint degree in Classical Music and English Literature, and like many, then went on to become a teacher.   I wanted to spend my life involved in music and education was a natural place to do that.  I can still play well enough to accompany the very talented children here at Hartland, but I am probably not the pianist I was back then!

Can you describe your career so far?

After graduating, I moved to the UK.  Music was a shortage subject at the time, so I was able to go straight into Head of Music job – it was an exciting and challenging time, being away from home but still pursuing my passion for music.  My career started by working in very tough boys schools in Kent, South East England.   The schools were tough, the boys were often tougher! But without doubt it was an incredible place to learn your craft as a teacher. 

I quite quickly progressed to my first headship - Wilmington Grammar School for Boys in Kent.  That was an interesting experience!  I was the first woman on the leadership team – never mind as the Head Teacher.  I remember talking to the governors afterwards about why they chose me and indeed, why they chose a woman – they said they knew they needed change and a move away from the archetypal person who had done the job for years.  They took a risk on me, I think – asking a woman to join a very traditional male environment in her first Headship.  But I am so very grateful that they did.

At the start, it was a steep learning curve, but I was fortunate to have a fantastic network of local Head teachers, some of whom became my mentors by default – the people I could call and ask the most ridiculous questions of!  I relied on this network for support a lot in those early months and I truly believe that mentorship is very important for educators.

When I look back at my career to date, and, for anyone considering a career as a teacher, I would say…teaching is the best gig in the world (pardon the music pun!).  There can’t be a better job.  There just can’t be!  It is the one job where you have positive power to shape and change and influence.  Who else gets to do that day in day out?  I always remind people - behind every great man and every great woman – there has been a great school teacher who inspired them.

Fiona joins a Year 7 French group

What are the challenges of being a woman in education?

Well – in any industry, part of the problem is that the top CEO’s and leaders – they are still predominately men.  Often women just don’t see the female role models in those top jobs.

I think there are two reasons for that, both of which are generalisations but also personal beliefs of mine – one, I think women, well we just aren’t as confident in negotiating for our own benefit as men are.  For salary, pay and conditions and sometimes for roles – we almost feel embarrassed to have those negotiations.  We know our own worth, but we feel it’s ‘rude’ to ask for what we deserve and are worthy of.

I think the second reason is women don’t shout about themselves in the most positive of ways!  We don’t stand on a platform and speak about ourselves in the same way that some men have the confidence to.  Certainly, having been surrounded by so many male leaders for so long, I do think that we just don’t push ourselves forward in the same way.  Perhaps it is a modesty or a worry about appearing boastful or arrogant – we need to shift that mindset and talk about ourselves in a way that removes the premise from arrogance to confidence and from boastfulness to pride.  We need to be unafraid to speak of our worth and our impact.

What are the benefits of being a woman in education? 

I think as a woman I have an increased, and deliberate, focus on empathy in leadership.  This doesn't mean that my male counterparts are not empathetic, it is just intrinsic to me and it's one of my personal priorities in my relationships with staff, parents and my children.  That is undoubtedly a conscious thing.  Schools are built on relationships first and foremost and empathy is one of the most vital components to that.  Maybe women use this slightly differently?  We realise that we have to really, fundamentally understand the people you work with.

Was there a moment or event that changed your career, life or outlook?

It may sound strange but, while great leadership is wonderful – I have been more inspired to lead in the way that I do by the bad leadership I have seen.  To make sure that I am not like that!  I try to reflect on myself and my own performance all the time.  I still make mistakes, but I keep on trying to improve.  Always.  I think as long as you keep in the back of your mind, how badly you have seen people treated, and how badly people have been led before – to learn from that is crucial, as is modelling yourself on the great leadership you have seen. 

I have been in education a long time now, and the absolute lowest points in my career had been when a child in my school community has passed away.  These sad times are absolutely defining, career changing moments.  As a teacher, as a Head, it changes who you are and how you feel about your role.  Because, in a very real way – when a child enters my school or my classroom, I always feel they become mine and a part of me.   Their loss is heartbreaking.

That is a huge responsibility and those tragic moments stay with me and have made me so grateful for that trust that parents give me each day.  It’s not a cliché to say my job is a real privilege.

Are your goals now the same as when you started your career?

I never set out to be a Head Teacher.  Actually when I was at school, I wanted to be a lawyer.  I always thought that was the path I would take, but then my music took off and I followed that trajectory.  It’s probably too late now for me to be a lawyer – but I still think it would have made a fascinating career! 

Maybe it was my subconscious interest in law took me to leave teaching for four years – in my mid-twenties.  I joined the UK police force on the Accelerated Promotion Scheme for Graduates.  I was one of only two women on the scheme in the whole of the UK at that time.  The privilege of that scheme meant that I had the opportunity to try a range of roles: CID, drug squad, corporate work, strategic development and planning.  To say I learnt a lot would be an understatement!

Predominantly though, I was out on the street, in a patrol car or walking the beat - again in Kent.  I had so many incredible experiences, but I also encountered many issues and problems that were beyond my power to change.  I eventually made the decision to go back into teaching, were I felt I could use my energy and influence in a positive way.

I went straight back into a Head of Music job, in another school of 1800 boys, many from challenging or troubled backgrounds. Perhaps having been in the police gave me a different kind of confidence and a different perspective, especially when working with those challenging boys.  All the staff found it tough that at school, but perhaps women more so, and I think being in the police had given me a thicker type of skin. 

It also gave me a bit of kudos with the boys – they all knew I had been a police officer and some I had even crossed paths with before!   

Stepping out of teaching for a while turned out to be the best thing I could have done.  Some people do it in business, some people enter teaching late.  For me stepping out of it for four years and then coming back – well it absolutely made a huge difference!

Fiona and Hartland's young scientists

What keeps you moving forward and how do you set your goals?

Education is a journey.  The danger in education is always complacency – to think we are a finished product, that we know all there is to know because we have reached the role of Head Teacher – that isn’t helpful.  For Hartland, I want this school to be significant.  Not simply outstanding, but significant.  To make a real difference to the children, to their lives, and their families, to our teachers and staff: through this we can have a broader impact on our community.  That keeps me thinking about the future. 

Hartland School is a happy school and I believe it is a happy place to work.  As leaders, we need to create an environment where people are genuinely happy and can be successful.  I want to make sure we always have a great community spirit.  Social development and well-being is vital to academic success and here, staff friendships are as vital as student friendships.  It’s something I try to encourage with lots of social events -  even if the leadership team only came second in our recent staff quiz night!

For the children, I always set my ambition around happiness and academic success combined.  I like to make sure we focus on the academics, the sport, the arts and the societal questions that will complement traditional core subjects. 

Do you feel that the next generation of female educators have specific challenges? If yes, how would you advise them to overcome these challenges?

I think all teachers need to ensure we professionalise the profession.  Men and women alike. 

When it comes to young female teachers this comes back to that issue of speaking out with confidence about ourselves and our achievements! 

At Hartland, when we have special ceremonies and prize giving events -   I am asking the leadership team, and any teachers who can, to wear their graduation gowns.  I do this because we all have degrees and we should be proud of what that means.  

People might think the corporate professional is more powerful than a teacher, or even better educated.  I want to demonstrate that we are equal professionals, just in different roles. 

I think sometimes parents forget – all those teachers who walk the corridors here have studied hard to become highly qualified and then, in the case of many of them fought off 100 applicants just to get the job!  They may have chosen a career where they will never be millionaires, but you have to remember that yes, teaching is a vocation. That shouldn't take away from the fact that they are highly qualified people. 

As a profession, we have to take control of that thinking. 

Who supports you and how?

I could never have done the things that I have done in my career had my husband, John, not been prepared to make his own personal sacrifices.  Our son is 16 and when he was born, John was a Head of Year and in fact had been promoted to Assistant Head to cover my maternity leave!  We felt we had to make a call – that we both can’t keep going on this trajectory of hectic careers and long working hours – something had to give somewhere.

John went back to the role of class teacher (he quickly rose again to Head of Sixth form - but by that point we were better able to balance our lives).  When we moved to Dubai in 2009, he took a decision not to work for a while so as to settle us as a family – that lasted all of six weeks!  In the small world in which we live he was recommended to Dubai College as a Mathematics Teacher and he has been there ever since.  Even when opportunities for him to think about leadership again have come around, we as a family have decided that the balance we have now works well.

I think it is fair to say John is not just my support network, he has probably made the greater sacrifices in order for me to be successful.  He does everything – the grocery shopping, the packed lunches – everything!  In the very literal sense that is the only reason that I am able to do what I do.  That said, he loves his job, loves his subject and loves being in a classroom.  I guess you could say that the three of us make a great family team. was talking to Fiona Cottam, Head of Hartland International School.  Fiona will be joining the other women in our Inspiring Women series (Rebecca Annand, Aparna Verma and Zara Harrington) and participating in the Women in Education mentorship scheme.  If you would like to know more about this scheme, please contact [email protected].


See also:
Inspiring Women in Education - Rebecca Annand
Inspiring Women in Education - Zara Harrington
Inspiring Women in Education - Aparna Verma

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