What do you actually do!? Episode 14: Sarah Dagnell, Professional Development Leader

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on grad schemes. We interviewed Sarah Dagnell, a professional development leader for STEM Learning Centre.

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About Sarah

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For more information on working for STEM and non-teaching education roles see:


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Welcome to this episode of what do you actually do? My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about working in education roles outside the traditional school sector. And we’re joined by Sarah Dagnall who works at the STEM learning center as a professional development leader. So Sarah, what do you actually do?

You know, everybody asks me that question. Well, I was a primary school teacher up until very, very recently, actually. But then I started working at the STEM learning centre, the STEM learning centre deals with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, that sort of STEM stands for I’m one of the professional development leaders, which basically means that I do CPD, continuous professional development for teachers who are in the primary sector, particularly in science, but I do do the other STEM areas as well. I also have some other responsibilities. So I’ll go out to other schools as well at times and help them to improve their science that’s going on there, which is an interesting role coming from a primary school.

So you’ve mentioned it’s a combination of training staff, and presumably, do they come to the STEM learning centre for training? Or do you go out to them?

The majority of the time they come over. At STEM learning, we’ve got a couple of ways that will will sort training for teachers, the way that we do it at the centre is that the teachers come to us for a residential period, so they’ll come for at least two days. But often, they’ll come for longer than that, maybe two or three days. And then they might have a period when they go back to school, and then come back to us for another three days, so it can be dependent on the course. But I can also go out to schools and do little bits of training there as well. I’m working with those schools, and I also do some online training now as well, which has been a big change for me to actually do something like that, that was a bit of a, a push for me to be put on camera to do that sort of thing. But I quite enjoy doing it in the end. So people can actually access the training on an online version.

Cool. Where did your interest in STEM come from? Because you mentioned you you worked in primary schools for a long time. And I think you had a particular specialism in science when you were primary school teacher, was that something that you always official, or you were just interested in science? And then you heard about it? How did it kind of happen?

It’s a bit of a weird one, really. I guess as a teacher, I’d always had an interest in science. But actually my background, when I very first started teaching, they were pushing me into the art sector, because I had an A level in Art. My degree was actually in psychology, which doesn’t fit into the primary curriculum, which is why they went to A levels in the end. But when it actually came to falling into a primary school, primary schools don’t work like that when they’re giving you a subject to lead. It’s where is there an area? And do you have the interest to fill it? So at first, when I first started leading a subject in primary school, I was a literacy coordinator. So I’d actually be helping with the writing and the reading and the speaking and listening, but always had that interest in science, always have had since I was a child. And when I moved to a new school, they pushed me into doing the science coordination, which I absolutely loved. And I did loads with it, we went from a school that was – it was very much pushing the knowledge of the children, the children weren’t getting very active with the science, they weren’t doing much inquiry based stuff like getting hands on working like a scientist. And so a lot of my work was actually doing that with the children. And then I really enjoyed that. Yeah, I really enjoyed that side. And I started doing more and more of it. So my job role changed slightly for a few years. So as well as being in the classroom with my children, I would also go and work with other classes in the afternoons, just science, which was nice. And then after a while, the school – science had become much and improved and went into the classroom teaching. But I was still supporting the science on the side as well.

So how did you make that transition then? From really leading on science in your own school, turning things around, instilling that passion within the schoolchildren, science, to then training teachers, you know, not working with children at all really working with training adults who are professionals? How did you make that transition?

Well, it was a strange one at first, because training teachers – training adults – is very different from training children, I’ve always wanted to be a primary school teacher. The idea of teaching children has never bothered me, I love it. But the idea of teaching adults who could question you, and they can look back at you and they you’ve got to have that knowledge, that was a bit scary. But as a coordinator, you find that you have to do some training in school with your staff, if you’ve been out on a course, you’ll have to be asked to give that information over to the staff during a staff meeting for me, my head teacher, I’d seen an opportunity that was actually run by STEM learning where I’m working now, which was to run a partnership project. So that was me and it was for the schools that were in my local area that I started working with. And we had funding to help support the science in those schools through training the staff. And that training could be external going out or the places or it could be that we took on the training ourselves. And I did a lot of that to cut down costs so we could afford to do more stuff. I started doing a lot of the training for a lot of the staff, a lot of the new qualified teachers, I would help with, I’d also be taking some of the subjects that the leaders from certain year group to work with them on the science they should be doing there. And I found that I really enjoyed it. I seemed to find a niche that I didn’t know that I had, I quite enjoyed that interaction with the adults around the children. And when I started to think about career development, I thought this is an area that I’d actually quite enjoy going into. So it’s something I push myself further with. When I started thinking about where I wanted to go with teaching, I still wasn’t sure but I saw an opportunity to do a course that would lead me to become a better professional development leader that would help me to do better training, be able to advise schools on how they could improve their science. And so I took the advantage of that, my school was supportive of me doing that course, which then led to the job that I’m doing now.

So it sounds like it’s a combination of you seizing the opportunity as of when they arose, but also creating opportunities for yourself and kind of being quite conscious about what you enjoy doing and how you can do more of it. What other kind of personal qualities or skills or strengths would you say someone needs to have to be really sort of good at being a professional development leader?

Communication is big one, because you’re obviously having to speak to other people, you have to be very confident in what you’re saying to them, and you have to make sure this put across in the right way so that they will be able to use that information back in their school with their staff. A lot of the time, they’re actually taken on board what you’ve done and almost copying you back at their school, so you need to do a really good job at setting all of that up for them. Other things need to be really good at is being very self motivated. Because although I do have bosses over there, I have to manage my time in terms of creating the courses, managing that alongside all of the responsibilities I have to help these other schools that are wanting to develop their science, and lots of other roles that have over there. I have to manage that time carefully, otherwise, it could be that I’m there for every hour of every day, which I don’t want to be. So good time management is a great one to have as well. I mentioned communication. But I also need to be good at my presentation skills. Being a teacher has obviously led me straight into that, but it’s not just about talking to people, it is about the way that you put that across and thinking about how you act with people, which the training course that I did help me into the professional development area really helps with because there was things that I hadn’t thought about before. With children, you’ll just do things automatically. So if I was working with a group of children, I would get a chair and sit down with them, or I need to kneel down by the table, because it’s just thought that you’d be at that level with them. When you’ve got adults that you’re working with, you don’t necessarily think that because they’re old enough to manage themselves, they’re old enough to be getting on, butt you do need to be in there with them at their level, and working with them like that. And that’s something that took a bit of thinking about to start off with.

So really adapting your practice to suit a really different audience group, even though obviously, a lot of teaching skills are going to be useful, as you say, in that different content is quite different. What do you really love about the job, it sounds like there’s loads of things, you really enjoy, but what’s the best bit of the job for you?

I love teaching. I’ve always loved teaching, that’s why I became a teacher in the first place. But the actual teaching of the adults is my very favorite thing to do at the job. I guess I love it slightly more than teaching primary children at the moment because I have the time to really develop what I’m doing, and I’m putting together a whole course for these teachers to come along to. It’s almost like writing a story for them in a way. And I really, really enjoy that, and the interactions I have with the teachers the stories that are here and the good practice that I hear from them. I’ve also been lucky enough to have some really good experiences with where I am now. So for example, I got to go and do some teaching over in Naples in the summer, which is something that I would never ever get to do when I was a teacher. And I also got to go and work with a group of primary teachers who were invited out to CERN over in Switzerland, which was an absolutely amazing experience that I didn’t ever imagined that I would be able to be inside and see exactly how it works.

And from what you’ve mentioned in the past, it’s slightly different in terms of the practicalities, like you’re not bound by the school term system, you can take annual leave when you want to, the hours of different, so it’s kind of more like a regular nine to five job than teaching.

I wouldn’t say nine to five job, I would love to be able to say that. When I’m teaching, then my day changes completely, which is different from a primary school teacher, because you you are I mean, a teacher will tell you, they never work nine till three-thirty ever. However, they’re the hours that you’re teaching. When I’m teaching over at STEM Learning, I’ll be starting at nine in the morning and finishing at seven in the evening, so they are much longer days. And then the days that I’m actually planning the courses would be more of a nine to five kind of day. But I like that flexibility. And the holidays, taking a little while to get my head around this, but yeah, I don’t have the set term time holidays anymore. I entered the real world and have to build my holidays now, which is an interesting one.

What’s the worst bit of the job, then?

The worst bit of the job, it’s for me, I think it will be something that does improve actually. But for me, I found that as a teacher, I was so full on busy when I was in primary school teaching that I didn’t have any downtime in my work, I was always looking through my list of things to do, and I never had to teach you, you never get that ticked off, you’re always working on the next one and thinking about what you can put off until the next day. Where I am now it comes in fits and starts, and because you don’t have that term time to work to, I find that there are some periods that are quite quiet. And it’s those that I need to work on at the moment, and think about the best ways I can fill that time in a way. However, there’s lots of stuff that I need to do with this job, such as keeping in touch with everything that’s happening: education, being in touch with all of the new publications and things like that, so these are things that I could do in that in that time.

So kind of on that note, really, from your research and sort of what you know, with colleagues, etc. what do you think this whole key challenges might be for the sector moving forward? So for any students thinking “oh, I might want to break into this in the future”, what should they try to anticipate and be aware of?

One of the biggest things that’s hitting us at the moment is the fact that there is a serious STEM shortage in terms of people that are going into those careers. And in terms of education, it’s the children that are taking them up as GCSE and A Level beyond subjects. So it’s something that is getting a big push by the government right now. If anybody was thinking about getting into what I do, and particularly working with those STEM areas, then I think they need to be thinking about making sure that what they’re doing, their jobs, the training that they’re doing right now, is applicable for that area, the more training that you have in those areas is going to make you more appropriate for those positions. I think that’s probably the biggest, and that’s gonna be hitting it at the moment.

So it sounds like it’s just having that awareness of – is an area that it’s a shortage if it does sound appealing, try and get the work experience and build up the profile, like you did just take opportunities to volunteer and do extra bits.

Absolutely. When it comes to volunteering, actually, through STEM learning, there are things like STEM ambassadors, you can get into through that university. So for university colleagues will be a STEM ambassador, it can be within businesses, that’s a great way to volunteer and actually get involved with that. It can also get you through the door of education as well. So you could be getting into schools, talking to children at different ages. You could be talking beyond that, you could be working with small community groups, but this is all going to get your foot in the door in the right direction.

We’ll put some details of that on our website. But thank you very much for talking to us. This is really interesting.

Thank you very much.

Thanks for joining us this week on what do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself Kate Morris and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips follow University of York careers and placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode description. This has been produced at the University of York careers and placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers