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News > Interviews with staff members (former and present) > Captain McCartney reporting for interview

Captain McCartney reporting for interview

From "geek" to PhD via Liverpool College Geography Department and Army Reservist. Find out what makes Rebecca tick.

Rebecca, let’s start at the beginning. Where were you brought up, and where did you go to school?

I was born in Moreton on the Wirral and moved to Upton when I was about nine. I grew up on a reasonably quiet council estate for most of my life. My mum was a hairdresser, and my dad was a mechanic.

I went to Woodchurch High School, an oversubscribed school in the Wirral based in one of the most deprived areas of the North–West. It was a great school, though; I enjoyed my time there and was disappointed that it did not have a Sixth Form.

Post 16, the options were Birkenhead 6th Form College, which I didn’t want to attend or find another 6th form college in the local area.

So I went to West Kirby Grammar School for their Sixth Form. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have. Going from a regular state school to a well-respected grammar school was a bit of a culture shock. It was very different.

But I finished there, went straight to university and studied Physical Geography. It was my passion and my favourite subject in school. Don’t tell the History department, but I couldn’t decide between Geography or History at undergraduate level, as History was secretly my best subject. I loved the course and found an unusual interest in Soil Science as well as the more popular volcanoes and earthquakes. My undergraduate dIssertation was entitled: “The spatial variation of soil characteristics within an urban area”. My students laugh now when I tell them that.

When I finished university, I took a year out. I had a brief break from education before going on to do a PGCE at Edge Hill University, one of the best universities for Teacher Training, back in 2013. I enjoyed it and did a placement in Weatherhead High School for four months, and I also went to St. John Plessington [Bebington] to work there for a couple of months, then started applying for jobs and got the job here at Liverpool College.

Did you apply to any other schools, or was Liverpool College your first one, and you got lucky?

I applied for a few others. I had an interview at Wade Deacon School [Widnes].

That school wasn’t for me; it was far too big. I also applied to Birkenhead School. They said I talked too much at the interview! Fine, okay. And do your students agree with that observation or not? No comment!

Liverpool College was my fourth interview, around June and late in the [academic] year. I thought the interview went well. And I got the job. I liked the school atmosphere and ethos. So here I am, eight years later.

Did you always feel that education would be your career, or did you consider any other type of career?

Growing up, there was much antisocial behaviour on the council estate where I lived. Many young people were getting into trouble, and my mum was part of the residents’ association for the estate. I somehow managed to land the role of: “Head of the Youth Board” for the estate. I’d work with young people to get funding for events and specific evening events, like rave caves. It was in the community centre, so flashing lights, all controlled community events, we did a big summer event called “It’s a knockout” where many groups came from different organisations. And from there, I became part of Wirral’s Youth Team, again searching for funding and solutions for things young people may want to do to keep them away from antisocial behaviour. It was fun and my first introduction to working with young people; I thought, you know what, I’d be pretty good at this. I continued working with Wirral council until the age of 19 when I was no longer classed as a young person.

I applied for a PGCE after one year out of education, and I’m so glad I did. I feel I'm constantly busy doing something in this role, and every day is different. I enjoy the conversations I have with students every day, and I like helping them navigate through their lives; it is gratifying. Especially when you bump into them years later and they remember your lessons! I also love the summer holidays, but I need to keep busy here; otherwise, I will start doing DIY.

And what were your passions, interests and hobbies growing up? Did you have any pets, or were you a sporty person?

I was probably a bit geeky and enjoyed gaming and computer games. Not so much these days. I read a lot too. I used to go to the library maybe two or three times a week and just read and read. I didn’t play sports. I wasn’t sporty then. I enjoy sports and physical exercise now, and I can often be found in the gym or out running. But when I think back to school, I hated PE, but I loved athletics. I was an excellent sprinter. 

What did you think of university?

I enjoyed the teaching, the course structure, and the people I met there. And I’ve returned to John Moores University to do my PhD in Education. It’s nice because one of my tutors from when I was an undergraduate is now one of my PhD supervisors; my education has almost come full circle.

Arriving at Liverpool College in 2014, you must have been one of the first new staff to join the College now that it was an academy.

I joined simultaneously with another staff member, but they left after about six months. I thought I was one of the youngest staff members, but looking back, I was the youngest member of staff, and now, although I’m not one of the oldest,, I'm one of the people who’ve been here the longest. It’s weird reflecting on how much has changed since then; I’m considered one of the “wiser” ones, or whatever you want to call it!

That must have been strange. You were aged 23, so not much older than the most senior pupils.

One of my 6th formers had resat years 12 and 13, so she would be nearly 21 when she left. That was a bit nerve-wracking. But, I’ve got two degrees compared to them, so I used to remind myself of that before I went into the lessons. There was never a problem; our sixth formers are generally very polite.

You’ve settled into the job, but what would you say has been your most embarrassing moment?

It was probably on CCF annual camp; we had to undertake the Krypton Factor Challenge. I was on a team with year 10. I seem to recall jumping over a wall, straight into a pool of water, and continually falling over in the mud; there is photo evidence of this somewhere, possibly buried deep in the archives.

I think the most embarrassing things happen on school trips, too, when you least expect it. For example, I remember my first skiing trip. It was to Lake Tahoe in California. I was coming down a hill and couldn’t stop and crashed into a group of 6th formers. What was worse, I still kept going, but now one of the kids was also attached to me, and we nearly ended up going over the top of a black run. We laughed about it later!

You Rog. You’re laughing as I tell this, and I can tell you’re laughing at me. Looking back, it was very funny.

You take an active part in the CCF and are Officer Commanding of the Army Section. What rank are you?

I’m a Captain. And just over two years ago, I joined the regular Army as a Reservist. Who knows what the future holds, given all the present world difficulties, including the Russia and Ukraine conflict? I’m officially a soldier now, having completed my basic training, so I could get called up any moment if we go to war! I doubt that will happen, though.

I think the CCF is a fantastic opportunity for the kids. How many young people can say they’ve fired live rounds on a range? Of course, some are nervous, especially if they think the rifle will recoil into their shoulder. But it is great to see them fire the rifle and then proudly take home their paper targets. Some might do it on holiday, but who can say they do it regularly on a Thursday afternoon in a school in inner-city Liverpool?

You know Liverpool College’s CCF was one of the founding cadet forces in the country. Did you also know that it is perhaps the biggest in the country today? Most school CCFs are compulsory, including ours until about two years ago, but our CCF is now optional. And we’ve not lost any significant numbers since making it voluntary, it shows you how much the students enjoy it.

Outside teaching, what matters to you?

I’m a big lover of going to the gym and staying healthy. Unfortunately, I’ve had a few deaths in my family recently, making me reflect and look at my health. Keeping a healthy body and mind is vital to me as I grow older.

I try to get involved in sports, so I enjoy rock climbing and love being outdoors, being up in the mountains, and on walking trips. I’ve got a lowland leader qualification and hope to do my mountain leader qualification later this year.

I love walking my dog, a labrador called Ruby. She was three in May.

And then I still do quite a lot of reading. I’m completing my PhD at the moment. Most of the reading centres around climate change, climate change education, the philosophies of education, philosophies of climate change and social norms and why people behave the way they do. Also, how they do or don’t respond to climate change, That sort of thing. So busy, very busy.

Do you get involved with the pupils' sports?

As a Geography teacher, I don’t get involved with school sports; I leave that to the professionals in the PE department. But, I do get involved with DofE and will be on most of those trips through the year, leading and, most times, motivating students to get moving.

Tell me more about some of the school trips you’ve done.

This year we have just come back from Iceland, after a two-year delay due to COVID. That is the third time we have run that trip, with great success. It’s an expensive trip; Iceland’s one of the most expensive places in the world, but the kids love it, and it just isn’t like any other place in the world. As I mentioned, we took a party skiing in California, and we run ski trips to Italy yearly. I’ve also been on some of the history trips; they’ve been to Ypres and The Somme. I’ve also been on sports trips to Portugal and Arnhem.

How do the kids finance trips? Do parents pay the going rate for these trips?

Yeah. And some parents can apply for funding. I think there’s a hardship fund, and students can apply for bursaries. There’s a 6th form bursary as well. It’s also possible for kids to make trips through the CCF at reduced rates, for example, skiing. The military will pay 50% of the cost of most trips.

What are you most proud of in yourself?

I am proud of how far I’ve come and proud that I’m doing a PhD. That was always something I wanted to do, even when I was teacher training. I asked my mentor at the time, “How do I study for a PhD?” They replied, “No, you can’t because you’re a teacher and there is no time” So I did some research and found that I could do one. I’m happy that I’m constantly pushing myself. I always try to challenge myself, and that’s why I joined the Army also because I’m probably not going to be in the CCF forever. And may not be at Liverpool College forever, but I enjoy that side of it. So I’m always trying to push and challenge my identity and challenge my knowledge development.

Name somebody whom you have always wanted to meet and why.

I love Brian Cox. He seems like an average person but is so knowledgeable about the universe. And if I were a little bit better at maths, astronomy would have been a path I’d maybe go down or quantum physics or something like that. However, I love the stars and space and listening to him talk because he can explain things so simply. And that’s essentially what makes a good teacher. If you understand something so well, you can break it down into its primary forms for someone else to understand. I could sit and listen to him talk all day long.

That’s an excellent answer. The best and worst advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice you can get as a teacher is not to take yourself too seriously. And not take anything personally. You know, children will act like children and make comments or say things, but it is never personal. You never know what somebody else is going through in life; therefore, nothing should ever be taken personally. Another bit of good advice is to have a good sense of humour that will get you through the most challenging days. Worst advice? I can’t think of any examples of poor advice at the moment; I do not doubt there have been some, usually because of someone else’s agenda. It is sad when the personal agenda of others have a negative impact on the staff and students around them.

Tell us something that nobody else knows about you.

Few people know I’m in the Army. I’ve not told any of my students; I like to keep my personal life away from the students and keep that part of my life separate from school. The leadership team knows because you have to tell them, and only a few staff know. Also, not many people know I’m doing a PhD. I tend not to talk much about myself, and I do not brag. Maybe that’s a problem, perhaps a bad thing. If you want to move up the career ladder, you should talk more about yourself, but you don’t want to be someone who never stops talking about themselves, either! Yeah, so actually, those two things not too many people know.

The schools got strong Christian roots; the first principals were all ordained ministers. And it’s written into the charter and M&AA of the school. How do your faith and beliefs fit in with the school’s ethos?

I’m not religious by any means. No, but I’ll support what the school wants me to do there. I think geography is an excellent subject to examine people’s beliefs and how they affect their responses to things. For example, we teach about volcanoes, earthquakes, and tropical storms at one level. And one thing we look at is how people’s perceptions affect how they respond to it. So, the idea is that there’s nothing you can do about the natural hazard that will happen, anyway. "God’s Will", if you like, or fatalism, as we could call it. We talk about it even in the younger years as well, how it can affect beliefs and even about population growth and things like that and how beliefs affect populations. However, you know, I’m a form tutor as well, so we go to chapel once a week, sit in the chapel and reflect, and even through the CCF, we have the chapel services on Remembrance Sunday. We can get involved with them. We do the readings and partake in the cathedral. But it is there in the curriculum, and we discuss it, and I’m respectful of it all. Who knows what’s out there? How can anyone possibly know?

What have you been doing during lockdown?

My garden looks great because I did hours of gardening and decorating. Obviously, I did teach online. I think lockdown made you look at your life, didn’t it and appreciate what you have around you. And maybe it gives you time to slow down. I’m always going 100 miles per hour. And I’m always doing things, but perhaps you must stop and reflect. Review your life and appreciate your successes to date. Look at what you have done, be proud of those things and stop constantly striving. Better yourself, maybe? Slow, slow down. And that was a key thing I took from lockdown. Slow down and appreciate everything that you’ve got. Yeah, a lot of reading, a lot of gardening. And tons of decorating. I still have more to do as well.

And you kept fit during lockdown?

Yes. That’s when I started running. I was already a gym member but couldn’t get to the gym because it was closed. So I began to run, walked more in my local area, and discovered some new places. For example, in Oxton, there’s a place called Bidston Gardens. I'd never been there. But it’s got these lovely gardens. So I appreciated the local environment more.

Were you excited to get back to school?

Yeah, nothing can replicate the experience you have in a classroom. You can’t interact with somebody via a screen. You just can’t; you can just about teach people on screen, but I know from some of my university lectures on the computer how difficult it is. I think back to them, and I couldn’t remember what half of them were about. Body language is so important; you don’t know what pupils are writing; you can’t interact with them. You can’t possibly understand how they’re getting on behind a computer screen; it’s terrific to get back into the classroom and see actual people face to face and have real conversations.

We continued wearing masks for about a month, but they went at the end of January. It was tough trying to hear what pupils were saying, especially if they were sitting at the back. You couldn’t see their faces. You could sometimes see their masks moving: “Are you chewing gum? Bin it. Now!”

Are phones supposed to be switched off during lessons?

Yes, they should be, but they are a constant bugbear for most school staff. They seem to be everywhere. Sometimes you might get the odd one that goes off. We might get the occasional child look at the phone, and we tell them to put it away., It’s like an extension of their arm these days. They can’t not have their phone. It’s normal for them, and so many social media platforms exist. They use them all the time.

Well, Rebecca, that sort of wraps it up? Is there anything else you think we should know?

I could talk about geography. I love my job!

I teach Physical Geography, and Nik Griffith teaches Human Geography, which works as we are well balanced. The physical is what I love the most. I think it’s so exciting, and geography links so well to every other subject; it’s an excellent subject that people at universities like because it is so holistic.

We’re rewriting the schemes of work at the moment. So we’re looking at where geography should go because some content is outdated. Um, there’s a lot more exciting stuff out there that we should teach. A good one is the geography of crime. But not necessarily crime in the United Kingdom; it looks at crime in different places worldwide. And you could even look at things like blood diamonds and all that kind of stuff. It just makes it more interesting, applied and relevant.

Powerful geography is the new thing coming out at the moment. And what is the powerful knowledge that you want students to know? So it’s all about increasing that depth of knowledge so that when they get to A-Level, it’s easy to pull information from various places to help them answer.

Do you keep in touch with any of your old pupils?

A couple. Mainly those who were geographers or have studied Geography at university. It’s nice to see what they’re doing and how much progress they’re making.

Can you, without being sued, talk about any former staff characters instead of those who still are teaching?

Yeah, the most prominent character for me and whom you’ve already interviewed is Stephen Brady.[Stephen's interview to be published shortly. - Ed] He had a fantastic presence. I think school misses that; you would hear him a mile down the corridor. The sixth formers would hear him coming and fall in line when he shouted at them. “Why is your uniform like that?” “Get off your phone.” He had that aura around him at all times.

Rebecca, thank you for being so indiscreet. I hope we can develop some ideas and ways of mutually helping you and the kids and for the kids to get something from The Lerpoolians as the months roll by.

Rog, thanks for taking the time to come and listen to me.

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