'Why I'm so relieved that I didn't quit teaching'

A decade ago Catriona Gill was 'miserable' in her new profession and on the verge of quitting teaching. So what turned her career around?

Catriona Gill

'Why I'm so relieved that I didn't quit teaching'

At the turn of the new year, social media was filled with comparison selfies from 2010 and 2020. These made me look at my own journey in that time, from a new teacher to where I am now.

I feel highly fulfilled in all aspects of my professional life. As well as my role as a nursery head, I teach at the University of Edinburgh, lead training, speak at conferences, represent City of Edinburgh Council on the South East Regional Improvement Collaborative Board, and work with a wide range of professionals.

However, 10 years ago, I was in my first full year of teaching – and I was miserable and seriously considering giving up.

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So, what happened in those 10 years? What were the turning points? How did I get from the brink of giving up, to a place of fulfilment?

Find your passion

A key turning point was being placed in a nursery. My headteacher was reluctant and tried to prevent it, but I have never looked back. Early years is my passion: it fascinates me, excites me, fills me with joy. I love working in a team and, as someone with a background in psychology, I have a particular interest in early childhood development. When I first started looking for promotion, I had five interviews where the advice was to "get back into the school" and wait for the perfect job. But early years is what I am good at, and as the educator and author Peter Drucker wrote: "It is only when we operate from our strengths that we can achieve excellence."

Find an environment that nurtures you

During a 2010 review, my headteacher told me that I had come to the school with glowing reports but had not lived up to expectations; it was not exactly a nurturing environment. However, encouragement came from an unlikely place. During a school inspection the following year, a few kind words from the inspector – and a supportive and positive professional conversation – was all it took. I started to believe in myself again. I found my spark and began to feel confident that I was on the right path and could become a good teacher. This was a key experience which informed my own leadership: an essential part of the values-led culture I am creating in my school includes nurturing and valuing my staff.

Deepen your knowledge and skills

Career-long professional learning is an essential part of being a teacher, but not all courses are created equal. However, occasionally a course has the potential to be transformational. In 2012-13 I attended the Froebel in early childhood practice course at the University of Edinburgh.

It changed my life. Not only was I able to deepen my fundamental understanding of early childhood practice , but I discovered a core set of principles which resonated with my beliefs and values and continue to guide my practice, my teaching and my life – and I now have the privilege of teaching on the same course and sharing my passion with others.

And last year I took part in the Columba 1400 leadership academy for headteachers, which has had a similar, profound impact – it enabled me to be a better leader, teacher, parent and friend.

Find your 'why'

Simon Sinek talks about finding your purpose in life by starting with your "why". Before I trained as a teacher, I was an auxiliary nurse, a theatre director, a person-centred counsellor, a wedding-cake designer and a mother. It may seem hard to know what the "why" is that connects these things, but for me it is clear, I want to make a difference, and this underpins all that I do.  While taking part in Columba 1400, another quote from Peter Drucker particularly struck me: "Work where we can make the greatest contribution."

Develop a network of support and challenge

Teaching is hard and it’s extra hard when you feel isolated or on your own. I am extremely lucky to be part of the Edinburgh Froebel Network, a group of current and retired nursery heads who are also passionate about Early Years and Froebelian practice. We support and challenge each other. We listen to each other’s successes and frustrations and we raise each other up.

When I posted my own 10-year selfies on 1 January, I wrote that, after seriously considering giving up a decade ago,  I was now "loving my job and my life".

I carved a path, seized opportunities, didn’t give up and learned a lot along the way – and I’m now looking forward to what the next decade brings.

Catriona Gill is headteacher at Greengables Nursery School in Edinburgh and represents the city on the South East Regional Improvement Collaborative Board. She is also associate tutor for the University of Edinburgh on its Froebel in early childhood practice courses and has written a chapter on writing in P1 through a play-based approach, for a book to be published this year.

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