What is the real impact that a teacher has on their teenage students? Really? Susan HayesCulleton

How to visit your old school for some guaranteed time travel

Last November, I was kindly invited back to the secondary school (Coachford College - Cork) where I spent six very full, active years as a special guest to present the school's Annual Awards. I was thrilled to do it and I was overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia as I walked through the corridors, met my teachers who I still can't bring myself to call by their first name and saw pictures of myself taken in my uniform when my view of the world was so different.

However, I had an opportunity to speak to my teachers that night and I shared some thoughts with them that they hadn't heard before, simply because it isn't often that a teacher meets a student they taught over a decade ago and has a 

Secondary School Coachford College Susan HayesCulleton

discussion that goes beyond "what are you doing now?". I took to the podium that night and in my speech, I told the audience the profound effect that my teachers had on my life.

The teacher who launched my speaking career

My English teacher, Mr. Mark Lotty, coached me for years as I was captain of the debating team and I will be eternally grateful to him as he firstly, never let me learn the fear of speaking in public and secondly, gave me a skill that I use every single day. I'm fortunate to travel the world and speak to audiences globally on topics that I'm fascinated by and passionate about. He was hugely instrumental in enabling me to make this happen.

The teacher who helped me set up my business

I met my accounting teacher, Ms. Joanne O'Keeffe that night and on the stage, I turned to her and thanked her for teaching me how to run the finances of my company. Every Sunday of my secondary school years, I used to come home after Mass on a Sunday, make myself a cup of tea and settle into my accounting homework that I loved. Today, I still do! However, now, I'm totally responsible for the numbers that I put into my calculator. She, and her predecessor, Mr. Tadgh Nash, have both prevented me from making strategic mistakes and given me a competency when it comes to our P&L.

The teacher who helped me design my products

My maths teacher, Mr. Tom Hanley, instilled a love of maths and an appreciation of the plethora of ways that logical thinking can apply in everyday and business life. In fact, I went on to do a degree in this area, namely Financial Maths & Economics in NUI Galway, such was my interest in this hugely versatile subject. He always encouraged us to "strive for excellence using Mr. Hanley's excellent hardback notes". To this day, I love writing my own algorithms in my spreadsheets, working out equations using the data from Google Analytics and applying logical processes when designing eLearning projects. This stemmed from my Higher Level Leaving Cert Maths days.

The teacher who coaxed me out of my shell

Mr. Kevin Coakley was in the gallery that night who was the Transition Year Co-ordinator and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude as that year was the most influential of all of my times in school. The education system is set up to reward those who are strong academically, and as I have written before, as a swot, I could hide behind the books. However, I was quite awkward socially and would never have considered myself a team player. From the first day of Transition Year, the parameters changed to where success was measured by collaboration, by presentation, by project, by social cohesion and by lateral thinking. This gently, but forcefully, built other skills that had laid pretty dormant in my personality thus far. I was a far more rounded teenager by the end of that year and I have drawn on, developed and nurtured those skills over the years as they're vital for every situation imaginable in my life today that involves my interaction with other people.

The teacher who taught me to never give up

I met my Principal, and applied maths teacher, Mr. Pat O'Connor on that occasion, I relayed just how difficult that subject was and how I had struggled with my self-belief that I could ever manage it at all right throughout the full course.

However, if I ever learned a lesson in tenacity, it was then. It was only the very last week before the exam, that the hugely difficult subject became really clear and then in those final days, I became bullet-proof going into the exam. I hadn't realised that all the time I just kept trying, I had amassed a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding beneath me. Every time the calculator delivered a different answer to that at the back of the book, I had learned something. Every time, I tried to prove a mathematical relationship and couldn't, I gleaned something new. Every time, I looked at an exam question and wondered if it was another language completely, I was gaining familiarity. By the time I did actually sit the exam, I breezed through it enjoyably on the day and got my A1 result. In business today when I'm struggling with a project, initiative or sale, I often inwardly think "maybe I'm having an Applied Maths moment and just need to try and fail until I succeed."

The teacher who showed me how to use conversation to reach my goals

My French teacher, Ms. Margaret Fitzgerald, had spent years with me building my ability to listen, understand and respond to questions in French. However, that was not all. She taught me an invaluable skill of how to direct a conversation in a way that I wanted it to go. In my French oral, I was asked if I thought judges gave sentences that were too soft in legal cases. That would be a tough one to engage in English, never mind outside of one's mother tongue, but I deftly navigated that right back into my area of competency and in a manner of fluency that I was even impressed by as I listened to myself that day! This is a technique that I have often needed to draw on in interviews, in sales conversations and in business situations where I was in unfamiliar territory.

The teacher who encouraged me towards intellectual rigour and better productivity

My Irish teacher, Ms. Aine Maire Ní Fhaolain, invited our year to think about putting a project forward for the Young Scientist of the Year in the RDS. She sacrificed so many lunch breaks and spent countless hours in helping me put forward the best case I could that year while I benefited immensely from what I now know to be research practices, critical thinking and defending a proposition against three rigorous judges. I was in my fifth year in school at the time, so this pushed me learn a lot about prioritising and time management along the way too. Needless to say, these are crucial skills that I put into practise every single day from the moment I get up!

The teacher who coached me to earn awards

I was interested to see that the man who met me at the door as I walked in was no longer my previous Chemistry teacher Mr. Edward Williamson, but now the Vice-Principal at the school. However, I certainly wasn't surprised that he had ascended through the ranks as he was constantly innovating and going the extra mile during my time there. I remember that he created the web site for the school and suggested that I should go for the "West Cork Garda Youth Award" of which he showed me how to write an application of such an accolade. I went on to be a finalist in this competition and since then; I apply the same methodology when applying for business awards today within my own company.

School does prepare you for life

As I said on the night, I had about 60 teachers in Coachford College and I had a story about them all! I could have talked for hours and shared ways in which each and every one of them had shaped my life. I'm so glad I had an opportunity to meet with these incredible people again and express my profound appreciation to them. If you're a teacher or you work with young people, please don't underestimate the impact that you can have. My teachers thought they were helping me get an exam result, apply for a competition or pass a test. They weren't. They were giving me a solid foundation for my career, my company and my life.


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SavvyTeenAcademy is a five-day, Monday to Friday, summer camp for teenagers about to enter 5th or 6th year (or Repeating)

Teenagers can have big dreams and aspirations, but can be at a loss where to start, or think they are too shy to go after what they want. They also have to juggle expectations from parents and teachers, a demanding study schedule as well as navigating intense friendships and peer relationships.

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