At just 33, Thahmina Begum heads up an outstanding secondary, Forest Gate community school. She explains why interacting with students is the highlight of her day
My alarm goes off early but I press the snooze button quite a few times before getting up at 5:30am. I check my emails while eating breakfast and then drive the 20 minutes to school.
My typical day looks quite different since lockdown has been announced. The majority of students are at home, but I still prefer to come into school every day. I benefit from the routine and the separation between home and work. Under more normal circumstances, I’d be out in the playground to greet the students as they start to arrive, and I’m really loo king forward to being able to do that again.
I always wanted to be a teacher. School was a lot of fun for me – I got involved with the debate and press teams, was a prefect, and had a good group of friends. My family has always believed that education is a great leveller and I was brought up with a strong work ethic. For me, becoming a teacher felt like a natural next step – my elder brother and sister are teachers too.
I’m known for popping into as many lessons as I can – being present as a senior leader is an important part of the culture of our school, and I try to interact with the students as much as possible. Right now, that means logging into virtual classrooms via Google Meets to support colleagues and reiterate the importance of online attendance to our students. It’s an opportunity to celebrate great practice, or identify where more training or support might be needed.
That kind of conversation is commonplace at Forest Gate – we’re really focused on continually improving the way that we deliver our lessons. On Fridays we have an informal coffee morning, where teachers of every level pop by and share strategies they’ve tried. I think all conversations at school should come back to our craft in the classroom. If we can perfect that, it’s of huge benefit to the kids. We’re not neglecting that while we’re teaching remotely – staff are enjoying trying out new strategies, sharing and celebrating each other’s successes and we’re continuing to learn a lot from that.
I started my career as an English teach er, but I actually studied psychology at university. I needed classroom experience to apply for a doctorate in educational psychology, so I began working as an academic tutor at Sir John Cass secondary school (recently renamed Stepney All Saints school) in Tower Hamlets, east London. I grew up in the area, and being able to serve a community that was so close to my heart felt very special. The children were amazing and I worked alongside brilliant teachers who I wanted to be like, so I decided to pursue teacher training.
It was while at Sir John Cass that I met Sham Uddin, my first mentor, greatest champion and friend. She was a head of year and really took me under her wing. She never viewed teaching as work, and I’ve always wanted to emulate the energy and care that she showed in her classroom.
Sham joined Forest Gate as head of English shortly after I became second in charge of English here, and her impact on the school is still palpable. Sadly, she died in 2017, but knowing her was a real privilege. She changed my life. After Sham became ill, I was asked to cover her as assistant headteacher in charge of English, before becoming deputy head in charge of teaching and learning in 2018.
If it wasn’t for Sham, I don’t think I would have had the guts to apply to be second in charge. That was right after my year as a newly qualified teacher (NQT) and it seemed like a big leap to go for a position with responsibility straight away.
I took on the headship in September 2019. Looking back, that definitely wasn’t something I was aiming for, I just wanted to be a really good teacher. There are many other young women like me who would be great in senior positions, but not everyone is lucky enough to have someone pushing them forward. That’s been a real strength of our school’s Trust – there’s an ongoing commitment to spot talent and provide quality mentoring and instructional coaching.
On a normal school day, I make sure I’m in the canteen or in the playground during the lunch break, spending time chatting to the students. That’s a really enjoyable part of the day for me. I have my own lunch either before or afterwards and usually bring something simple from home.
I still teach one class a week, which I absolutely love. Nothing beats the relationships you develop with your students as a teacher – it’s why we enter the profession. It also helps me appreciate the challenges teachers face, which can be difficult for leaders who haven’t taught for a long time.
After school, I sometimes run an English GCSE study group for my year 11 class, or meet with staff. I’ve recently started weight training twice a week and I’m really proud that I can now deadlift just over my own body weight. Work can be busy but it’s important that we look after ourselves too.
My days may be full – on, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m just spinning a load of very lovely plates. I always mean to go home at 5.30pm, but inevitably end up chatting to colleagues, and get kicked out by the caretaker at 6.30pm.
By the time I get home, I’m starv ing. I’ll eat dinner, spend some time with my family and do a bit more work before heading to bed around 11pm. If I have any emails to send, I’ll make sure I schedule them for the following morning. I should go to bed earlier really, I’m working on that.
I might have achieved a lot at a relatively young age but I don’t think I’m anything special. I’m just a young woman who’s tried really hard and has been fortunate to have supportive people around her. Somewhere along the line, I started to believe in myself too.
It’s been a challenging start to 2021 but I can’t wait to get back to the school gate, saying good morning as the kids arrive, chatting to them in the corridors, and focusing on leading the school in the best way I can.
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