I came into education very late in life. At first, I did a Business and Management degree and went into a the world of work as a Hotel Manager. I loved every moment of it! I really thought that this was just the best career and wanted to guide the younger generation towards it. I decided to start going in to schools to talk about the industry and encourage the next generation to pursue careers in hotels and tourism.
It soon became clear that just about every school I went into, the leaders would say ‘have you ever thought about going into teaching?’ In one school, the Deputy Head offered to help me handle a ‘tricky’ group of children. I didn’t think they were tricky at all – in fact, they were lovely. At the end of the session, he said to me ‘the education system cannot survive unless you go into it!’ That really planted a seed for me, and I thought ‘ok, so maybe I want to be an educator, but how can I be sure I have the skillset?’ I needed to test myself.
With that in mind, I did a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification and went to India for a year at the age of 27. I built a slum school in Bangalore, Dream a Dream (now under the management of an Indian NGO). We started with just 15 children, and today there are thousands. I am so proud of that still.
My time in India really ignited something in me. I thought, ‘if I can build a school with no resources at all, I know I can be a good teacher!’ I needed to know that I could embark on this new career with nothing at all. I didn’t need a smart board, a laptop or any device, I could do it with nothing at all.
That was it, I went back to the UK and I did my teacher training.
I had an unconventional upbringing. I don’t know my father, but throughout my childhood I had did have some very strong extended family links and lots of people who stepped in and became part of my life. I actually feel very lucky that I had that a wide circle of people who were there to support and guide me.
These early experiences shaped me and built my character. It made me strong and I suppose the word ‘no’ has never really entered my vocabulary. My childhood has made me a solution driven person. I don’t really see problems, I just look for alternatives. I am solution focused all the way.
I also think these early experiences have built in me a need to take care of people. I have always have a desire to help anyone who isn’t succeeding in any way shape or form - I kind of scoop them up! I have become known for that everywhere I have worked.
I loved those initial classroom experiences with older children, but I eventually chose primary teaching. Mostly this was because I felt that if I was could influence children younger, then I could really be a role model. That concept of role modelling has always been important for me. At this age, they are so curious and keen to learn. I feel that if I can inspire them to pick up a book and learn every day, then I’ve done a good job.
Having had previous leadership experience, I was given lots of responsibility and leadership opportunities early on in my career. I was able to follow a non-traditional path, in fact it was a very quick journey to my first Headship - just 5 years into my teaching career and still in my early 30s.
I think my Irish granny inspired me! She made sure that at every given moment that I was thinking about the future. By that I mean – she was all about education. In her mind education was the grounding for everything. I totally agree! When I had completed my degree (and done particularly well!) she was very proud, but she never really showed it. It was like – what’s next? Where is your good job? A constant questioning. Her attitude could look unkind, but I always knew it came from a place of pure love. She was a very formidable lady.
I think in many ways we as women have to go about things differently. We need to be deliberate and challenge preconceptions. One of my previous schools in the UK was a very traditional school, in a challenging area. I realised quite early on in the recruitment process that they had always historically had a male head, and many of the interviewing panel still felt that the school needed a male role model. I knew that the only way to overcome this was to be me, to show them what I could do and what I knew I would achieve for them. Being positive is an innate element of my character. I believe if you project positivity, people will reflect it back to you.
I had to give a presentation to the interviewers and just before I started one of them said ‘you are not ready for this’. I knew I couldn’t let that impact me. I took a deep breath and went ahead and gave the best possible representation of myself. At the end that same man said to me ‘You have it! No comparing with anyone. You have it’.
Within three months I had won the trust of everyone in that school - everyone was on my side and it was no longer about being a man or a woman, just about achieving greatness wherever I could.
I am a mummy. So when I am stood talking to teachers, parents, children – I am always a mummy! That is who I am first and foremost. I love my job, but I am a mummy first. So when a parent says to me ‘I can’t get my child to read a book’ or any other issues, I can identify as a teacher or as a parent.
I think that being able to connect that way gives me an edge. I love both parts of my life.
I am not really sure that I ever have goals. I always want to be where I am and make it great. Whatever school I go in to, regardless of whatever grading it has, I want it to be GREAT. That is what spurs me on, because greatness can never be measured! In education, it is important to remember that there is always something just around the corner, something we can improve on, something the children haven’t experienced yet. It is a constant cycle of reflection and improvement.
In terms of my career, I always think - let me be good at this, the challenge in front of me. Let me achieve that. Then when I achieve it, I look around and think – what’s next, what other doors have opened now? I never went into teaching and thought ‘I want to be a Head’, I just wanted to be the best classroom teacher I could be, and then the best middle leader I could be. Achieving these things is the way I keep moving forward.
I think the younger generation of teachers have many challenges. In some ways it’s much more difficult now. I see young teachers putting themselves under immense pressure. They really want to make their mark, and the presence of social media makes it so easy to negatively compare oneself to others. It gives an unrealistic view of the achievements and lives of others. I try to teach younger teachers to be grounded and focused on their own teaching practice before anything else.
I enjoy being a mentor, and I know the attributes I look for in young teachers. A successful educator has to really be comfortable in their own skin. They need to accept everything that they are - their flaws included. I look at myself and I know what I am not great at. I surround myself with people who can do the things I can’t, so that we can all be successful as a team. It’s this kind of honesty and self –reflection that I try to instill in young teachers.
I have a wonderful husband (although please don’t print that!). He is an extremely kind-hearted man. That said, he always challenges me. Even if I have done something great, he’ll say – what’s next? I like that. I do know that he is very proud of me – I can see that from how he speaks to others about me (not that he ever lets me hear!).
Then, of course, there is my daughter. She is eight. She is a great character, I really look forward to spending time with her. As a unit of three we are a massive support for each other.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com was talking to Zara Harrington, Principal of Safa British School.
The women selected for this long term WhichSchoolAdvisor.com feature have all agreed to take part in a mentorship programme. A select group of UAE schools have been asked to nominate young and ambitious female educators to link with our Inspiring Women and we will follow their relationships and ambitions for one another over the coming months. If you would like to take part in this project or would like to nominate someone, either as an Inspiring Woman, or as part of the mentorship programme, please contact [email protected]