Published On: September 30, 2021|1559 words|7.8 min read|
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Sean O'Dell

Sean’s story of progression and development dovetails with the growth of Progress Schools. His journey is one of discovery. It involves hard work and maximising his own varied skillset to the benefit of himself, his colleagues and students.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your current background

I joined Progress Schools about four-and-a-half years ago. I’d originally come on board as a teacher and then progressed into a Head of School role at our Thrapston site. I then became the Head of Outcomes for the south and formed part of the Curriculum team. Now I’m the Systems, Staff Training & Development manager.

My current position draws upon the experience and qualifications I’ve gained while being with Progress Schools. And it touches upon lots of different angles, from creating online tutorial videos to supporting staff with their own career development.

It also involves managing and maintaining the systems we use, including online development websites, student courses that utilise Moodle, and staff systems such as School Pod, Blue Sky, BKSB, and anything else we use internally.

It’s a home-based role – I live in the Northamptonshire area – but I’m not there very often! I like to be out and about. I used to support schools in the South of England but now I support all schools nationwide.

How did you find out about working for PS?

I was living in Leicester where I cut my teeth so to speak with a post-16 education provider called Juniper Training. They work with students who have similar backgrounds to those at Progress Schools, except they’re older. They’re NEET students (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and I’d usually spend four-six months upskilling them in English, Maths and ICT, while they also worked towards an employment qualification.

I eventually looked to relocate and started to job hunt on LinkedIn. It was there that I came across someone working in Business Development at Progress Schools. I messaged them and booked in an interview with James Madine (Managing Director).

How have things changed since you started with Progress Schools?

When I started, the focus was very much on pastoral support. That remains. However, we’ve got a much more developed curriculum now. We also have much bigger ambitions and outcomes have increased significantly.

Everything has changed. There were eight schools when I joined, now there are 13, soon to be 15.

The organisational structure has also expanded and adapted to a changing educational landscape. This has benefitted me and kept me motivated and challenged.

Finally, the brand recognition we now enjoy with local authorities and referral partners is overwhelmingly positive.

What are you most proud of?

From a personal perspective, I would say I’m most proud of developing a suite of tutorial videos that will save teachers and Heads countless hours in upskilling new staff. Also, the role I’ve played in developing the curriculum and the drive on standards I’ve been able to have an influence upon.

Owing to my background in Desktop Support, I’ve been able to develop and support the growth of our systems and teaching infrastructure. I had a varied background before education and that’s meant I’ve been able to utilise a varied skillset. I have a lot to be grateful for.

What’s next for you?

I’ve only been in my current role for the past five months, so I have no plans at the moment! During this time we’ve had the summer break and I’ve also become a father. I’m very happy with what I’m doing and look forward to seeing the impact of my role in the next couple of years.

Is there a particular moment when you knew you made the right decision to join PS?

There’s a backstory to the moment I realised Alternative Education was the right place for me.

I was working as a ski chalet resort host in 2011-12. We had a group of blind and partially blind skiers, and it was very inspirational. They were able to ski down mountains most others couldn’t! They had able-sighted guides with walkie-talkies to assist them and specially designed backpacks with speakers that allowed them to follow cones of sound.

I value my sight, I’m a visual learner, so it was incredible to watch.

When I arrived back home it made me question what I wanted to do with my life. I’d worked in various roles, but none for more than four years. I’ve now been working in Alternative Education for over 10 years!

Upon returning to England I started delivering confidence workshops and functional skills to post-16 learners. That led to Juniper where I spent most of my time teaching. Then came the return to Northamptonshire and the opportunity with Progress Schools.

Working at Progress has given me so much and enabled me to settle down, purchase my own house and start a family. The company has given me a lot and therefore I’ll continue to give a lot back. I like the values, the mission and the drive. We’re always trying to improve and that’s why I’m still here.

What advice would you give to new starters/those considering joining?

Stick it out. You’ll have hurdles to overcome in the initial three/six/nine months and you’ll sometimes question whether you’ve made the right decision. But that’s only because you won’t yet have been able to celebrate the successes that come.

Teaching can be a thankless task at times. But after a long enough timeline you’ll find that incredibly challenging student return to shake your hand and thank you for helping them to get a qualification, a job, or a place at college. That’s what makes the difference.

You’ll have concrete evidence you’ve made an impact and that’s what’ll make you stick around and be proud of the work you do.

If you’re not resilient then you’ll find it difficult. My advice is not to take things too personally. Find ways to develop relationships with the students and don’t take what they say or do to heart.

A lot of our students will be full of negative experiences of education and life and that can take months or years to break down. It helps if you have a determined mentality to begin with. But it can be developed over time. Once you’ve been through some tough experiences you grow and become stronger.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face at PS?

Probably understanding the experiences and behaviours I’ve encountered while working with our students. Prior to Progress Schools, I was in a post-16 environment. The students were less engaged but older and perhaps more mature.

Whereas Progress Schools students are aged 12-16, but much more emotionally immature and the behaviours can be harder to manage.

That said, the key is to find a balance in emotionally detaching yourself from those experiences, and instead of remaining focussed on the goal in mind. That way you can help as many students as possible achieve great things.

A lot of the behaviour we deal with is learned behaviour so you do have to manage parental expectations and behaviours as well. It’s ingrained. But these students have come to us because mainstream education wasn’t suitable for them and it’s a long but rewarding journey.

The personal stuff

Who would play you in a film about your life?

Brad Pitt. I quite like him, he’s a great actor! Or Edward Norton. And not just because of the looks. They’re both articulate, good characters.

What’s your secret talent that not many people know about?

I’m like to DJ and play a variety of styles such as House, Trance and Techno in my spare time. Not as much as I used to but not many people will know that DJing is one of my passions.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I knew what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to follow the same path as my dad, who was stuck in one job for years, working 6am-6pm in an office. I never wanted that or one particular career.

I was a little bit wild and free. So, I travelled a lot, worked in IT, sales, customer service, ran my own photography business…until that one inspiring week at the ski resort where I found my passion and route into Alternative Education.

My thinking was to try as many things as possible. That’s why I suit Alternative Education and not mainstream because I’ve had these varied experiences that I can call upon and use to pass my knowledge onto others.

What makes you happy?

My baby! Also, sunshine and travelling, although I can’t do that so much right now. I’d say pretty much-experiencing life and trying new things. I always say try what you can and don’t be scared of anything.

What are you watching on Netflix?

Anything gritty as I like a good drama. The OA, Ozark and Sex Education are all recommendations. And back in the day, Breaking Bad was a favourite show of mine

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