From Ridings 'hell' to the American dream

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
How a Yorkshire school cleaner rose to become a principal in the US

Wendy Harrison started her career inauspiciously, cleaning cupboards at England's most notorious "failing" school.

But after moving from Halifax in West Yorkshire to the Sunshine State, she is now "living the American dream" and in charge of her own school. Mrs Harrison, 49, who left school with a handful of CSEs and an O-level in art, has been made head of Muller Elementary School in Tampa, Florida.

Her "journey" began in 1983 when, after training as a hairdresser, the birth of her daughter obliged her to take a cleaning job at Ovenden School, later named the Ridings but dubbed "Grange Hell" after staff refused to teach its unruly pupils.

After recovering from cervical cancer at the age of 22, Mrs Harrison decided to "seize the day" and got a job as a resource technician in the school's art, woodwork and home economics departments. She went to night school, studying to become a librarian before deciding to take a teaching degree.

In 1994, she was accepted at Bradford University, qualifying as a primary teacher four years later. She did supply teaching for a year, but a bout of ill health in 1998 prompted her to leave for the United States with her husband and daughter, drawn by the warm weather and career opportunities.

Before long, she was teaching and it took her just 11 years to reach the position of principal.

"Staff development in Florida is just amazing," she said. "They want you to do well. I enjoy the way of life, waking up to sunshine every morning, the people are so friendly. It's a go-get-it country.

"I also like that there is no class system as such. I will always be a working-class Yorkshire girl, but no one here cares about that."

Mrs Harrison, who still speaks with a broad Yorkshire accent, hopes her career path will inspire other underpaid, under-appreciated staff to push themselves forward.

"I know how the cleaner feels, I know how the assistants feel - I can relate to them," she says.

When she returns to the UK, Mrs Harrison says she finds British teacher friends "demoralised". "In America, we work just as hard, but we have got a really good support system, and a system of paid overtime and bonuses which helps you feel appreciated," she said.

Mrs Harrison said she enjoys the meritocracy of a career in the US.

"If you want to achieve, you're in with a chance," she said. "I realised early in life if I wanted something, no one was going to do it for me."

Through her new headship, she says she hopes to help children to become "the best they can be".

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