I went on to college mainly because you were supposed to. I didn’t do mechanics like I always thought I would, primarily due to not having the correct grades. I instead went into hair dressing. Total turn around I know, but it seemed like a good fit at the time.
I hated it. I really hated it.
The issues I had with school followed me to college. I felt trapped in the classroom. I couldn’t get on with my tutor when not doing practical lessons. I felt halted, held back and unable to go at the pace that I knew I could work at. So, I left, dropped out and found another way.
I started working in small, local salon. I was happier to be earning and I finished my qualification within a year. But the salon was losing business. I was told one Saturday while collecting my pay that, as I was last in, I was to be let go. My job ended that day and I had no idea what to do next.
I spent some time doing office work and then agency temping in various offices. This meant I had to figure things out for myself – when you cover someone there isn’t always much training, so you learn quickly or fail.
I knew I should get some qualifications to back up my knowledge so I did the ECDL qualification (European Computer Driving License). When I passed easily it made me think that maybe I wasn’t as dense as my school days had me believe.
While doing a maternity cover admin post at the union Usdaw, my manager spoke to me about learning opportunities. I actually wasn’t a member of a union at the time but I was told that I could access funding through the Wales Union Learning Fund (WULF) and they would help finding a course regardless of my membership status.
Although I’d always been interested in learning BSL (British Sign Language), the idea of being in school again terrified me. So, I put it off.
When I started working for Wales TUC my manager was so supportive of my interest in learning BSL. I was stunned, amazed and totally scared when she told me that the TUC would fund my course. So, with a churning stomach I went to the enrolment appointment.
I spoke with the tutor, Sarah, with the assistance of her interpreter and explained my fears.
Sarah was amazing. She put me at ease, made jokes, encouraged mistakes to learn from and above all included every pupil equally regardless of speed, ability or understanding. I was happy. I enjoyed my course more than I ever thought I would. Until we were told we would have a 3-part exam. Then the fear returned.
You see I hated exams almost more than school itself. I would sweat. I would shiver, and I would want to bolt. I think Sarah saw that a few of us felt like that. So she prepped us, practised with us and made us laugh. She took my stress away.
On the day of the multiple-choice paper I thought I was going to be sick. I dragged my feet and shuffled into the class. Weirdly, I looked round the room and for the first time I saw 15 other faces all looking like I felt. I wasn’t alone, we all dreaded this. So, taking a deep breath I sat the exam.
For the practical exam I had prepared a 3-minute presentation entirely in sign, based on a holiday I had taken. It went so well I couldn’t believe it; I happily answered a few questions again in sign, suddenly forgetting that the whole time I was being filmed for the assessors.
3 months later I was presented with my certificate in level 1 BSL and I was so happy I cried. I also felt a sense of pride I don’t think I had ever felt before.
Since learning BSL I’ve amazed myself further by starting to learn Welsh.
I had never gotten a handle on learning Welsh in school. It was one of the things that I always regretted as, although I was born over the bridge, my father is Welsh, I’ve lived here since I was 4 years old and have established my own Welsh identity. When I had the opportunity to attend a summer school at Cardiff University I jumped at the chance.
But me, in Uni?
It was a full-on classroom. I wasn’t comfortable. I had, however, made the choice so decided to stick it out. I did a full 6 weeks and, having combined that knowledge with the Say Something in Welsh app, I suddenly found that I was speaking Welsh and using it frequently, at least in small amounts.
A few months ago our union rep invited people to stand for the position of office ULR (union learning rep). This made me realise that I had a bug or an itch I had never had before – to learn, to promote learning. To develop my own skills but more importantly than that, to help my colleagues do the same for themselves. I applied, won a ballot and became the new ULR for the Wales TUC.
While the ballot was being held, we ran our annual Wales ULRs conference. I started to tear up when one learner called Mark Church talked about how learning through his union had affected every aspect of his life in a positive way. I also realised the true value of Union Learning Reps. Their goal is to help people find opportunities to learn, to promote the benefits of learning to employees and employers, and to create a happier workplace.
And what’s great about a ULR is that they can help everyone they work with, not just union members.
So here I am, the anti-education, school hater turned promoter of learning. I’m training to be the best ULR I can be. The Welsh exam I wanted to do was cancelled due to Covid-19 but I will sit it as soon as they can host them again.
Who would have thought I would be sitting any form of exam by choice just to get a bit of paper that says I can do what I know I can do?
I see now that it’s not too late to change my own skill set or develop my own qualification list. And it’s not too late for you either.
Find a course (take a look at these free online courses), find a ULR, ask for something. Find something that interests you whether that’s learning Welsh (which I highly recommend), identifying birds, upgrading your GCSEs or decorating cakes. Just look, think and pick something.