The Elvis-loving head teacher who's in tune with students

Emma Lambden grew up in a family where she was encouraged to pursue everything from big dreams to her love of high heels - and told girls could do anything they wanted. The head teacher of Thirsk School and Sixth Form College looks back on her time at RGS and talks about the passions which drive her

What did you go on to do immediately after leaving RGS?

I studied biology, chemistry and mathematics at A-level in 1991 and I went straight to Newcastle University to study dentistry, but, by the end of the first year had transferred to study mathematics, where I instantly felt at home. 

I was so excited about university but that first year was a real challenge because I knew early on that I was on the wrong course. While that period of self-doubt was clearly challenging and scary at times, making the change onto the right course boosted my confidence and I learned an important lesson - mistakes are not permanent, it is what you do in the aftermath that counts.

What inspired you to go into teaching?

Having changed courses at university I had no idea what I wanted to do and considered travelling, but instead, was accepted onto the secondary post-graduate certificate in education (PGCE) course at Durham University for mathematics and music. I have been a teacher ever since!

I feel fortunate that although I ‘fell’ into teaching, from the moment I started my training I knew this was the right job for me. I have taught in various schools in the North of England, culminating in my appointment to headship of an 11-18 secondary school in 2018. Prior to this, I also worked with other schools supporting them with behaviour and pastoral care.

Looking back over my 25-plus years at the ’chalk face’, I could not have imagined as a rookie mathematics teacher that I would become a school leader and have the opportunity to share my expertise with other schools during my career. There are a wealth of opportunities within education in terms of roles that you never imagine when you are on the other side of the desk as a student.

Can you outline a typical day?

The wonderful thing about education is that no two days are ever the same! However, a typical day would involve arriving at school for 8am and checking emails, then, during the last hour of the day walking around school and speaking to any students who have received detentions that day. The start and the end of most days stay the same. In the middle, however, all sorts can happen.

A typical day will involve meetings with staff, students, parents and, potentially, external agencies or visitors. While most meetings with staff are about the day-to-day running of the school (it can be easy to forget we are in fact a business), meetings with visitors can vary from children’s social care services to local councillors or architects - the list is endless.

After school there are meetings two or three times a week, but I think every school in the land tries hard not to put them on a Friday!

What have been the highlights of your career to date?

The times when I hear about a young person I’ve taught who has overcome adversity, or achieved a lifelong dream. Those pieces of news genuinely warm your heart and should not be underestimated.

I think most teachers go into the profession to ‘make a difference’, and there are days when you wonder if you ever will. But you do.

When you are a student at school you can’t wait to leave and there are teachers you like and those you don’t like. It’s not until you are older you realise the impact those adults had on you, and how much your school days shape you. And, as a teacher, you want to help the leaders of tomorrow become the very best version of themselves.

What’s the best bit about your job?

Without a shadow of doubt, the people - students and staff. Working with young people is exciting because they are the future. They keep your thinking fresh and as a teacher the learning is a two-way street – we learn as much from our students as they do from us.

Teamwork is vital in a school and my staff body are an amazing team. A school is rather like a large, slightly dysfunctional family, where every member has a part to play and the key is not only being able to play your part, but just like in a family, being able to step up and support others when needed.

It’s that sense of family and community which makes the job great.

And the worst?

I love my job - I genuinely cannot think of anything! I do get nervous the day before A-Level and GCSE results days… does that count?

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Professionally, without a doubt, the pandemic. There was no road map or book of advice to guide us. But we were all in it together as a world united, which was a positive flip-side to it all.

Personally, the biggest challenge I’ve faced has been living with endometriosis and the impact that has had on my life and fertility. However, I am proud of how I have managed my condition and throughout have still managed to achieve my professional goals.

I am heartened to see how women’s health is in the spotlight currently and feel that it is essential we open up the conversation about this for future generations. Schools can play a key part in this in terms of education. I would love to see a world where endometriosis is a thing of the past, but in the meantime, girls need to feel it is safe for them to talk about periods openly and know where to access help and support without embarrassment.

What was the most important thing you learnt at RGS?

The importance of grammar and the written word - useful in so many areas of life, from job applications to speeches and handwritten letters.

What extracurricular activities were you involved in while at RGS?

Music, music, music! I played piano and violin out of school from the age of about seven years old, as well as dabbling with guitar. At school I was a member of the choir and school orchestra from first year, eventually leading the orchestra when I was in sixth form. Some of my happiest memories are playing in the orchestra for school productions, a particular favourite being Oliver.

What do you wish you’d known back then?

That your life will take many unexpected twists and turns, so don’t over plan. Sometimes the unexpected, like the road less travelled, will be the best adventure of all.

What was your dream job when you were at school?

To be a fashion designer or guitarist in a rock band. I couldn’t take the options I wanted to at A-level, which were mathematics, art, music and Latin, because they didn’t fit with the timetable. At the time, this felt disastrous, and I definitely wasn’t as passionate about my second choices (apologies to biology and chemistry) but, in reality, even if I had been able to study art, music and Latin with mathematics, I firmly believe I would always have ended up teaching. And I have taught both my favourite subjects anyway!

What is the one piece of advice you’d give students interested in following a similar career path?

Remember that for all the pedagogy and educational theory, both of which are important, you are in a job that deals with human beings every day - teenage ones, whose emotions will be like a rollercoaster a lot of the time.

Therefore, the key factors for being a good teacher are the ability to bring yourself, your heart, your passion for your subject and humanity into the classroom every single day, because no matter how knowledgeable you are in terms of your subject, if you can’t engage and hook those 30 young people in front of you for one hour, it will never work.

Quite often it’s the singer, not the song that actually engages any learner.

Who was your favourite teacher and why?

Mr Rowland, who taught me Latin. On the surface he appeared extremely fierce, but, once you got to know him, he was one of the kindest and most interesting teachers you could wish for.

When I started teaching, I worked near to where he lived and every so often I would pop in on my way home from work for tea, cake and advice about teaching – I never imagined I’d be doing that when I sat in his GCSE class in 1989!

But, in 1989, when I discovered he was soon to retire and that I probably wouldn’t be able to do the A-level options I wanted, I started to feel a little lost in terms of goals and decided to ask his advice. He said the following: "It doesn’t matter what you do Emma, whether you leave school now, work in a shop, become a plumber, or go to university and become a doctor. The key is to try and be the best you can be at whatever you do and choose something that makes you happy."

I still pass that advice onto my students to this day – wise words.

Who or what inspired you when you were at school?

I’ve always been inspired by music and art, and therefore, musicians and artists. But that has been more about my emotions and personal reflection as opposed to really inspiring me in terms of action. This, however, is no bad thing. We talk about mindfulness and wellbeing a lot these days and the act of gaining joy from a piece of music or art is simple, yet effective, in terms of this.

Looking at the person I have turned out to be, I would have to say that throughout my life my family have inspired me. The women of the family are renowned for being strong and independent, so I was lucky to have amazing female role models, who always wanted more for me and encouraged me to think big (in my dreams and in the height of my heels!). However, the men of the family were equally, if not more, inspiring because they NEVER limited my thinking. My dad and both my grandads told me daily that I could do and be anything I wanted to, and there was no such thing as ‘only boys do that’. I grew up in an environment where sexism didn’t exist, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to do something because of my gender. My family brought me up to be myself and to never worry about the opinions of others.

When you embrace that ethos, it is both truly liberating and inspirational.

What would you say has been your greatest success?

In truth I haven’t done anything particularly profound in my life. I haven’t climbed a mountain or swum across an ocean. I haven’t got married and I’m unable to have children due to my endometriosis.

In terms of my career, I have tried my best and worked hard like very many people do every single day, so again it isn’t that ground-breaking. 

I worry about the word ‘success’, what it means and what it’s meant to look like. If I could give the next generation a piece of advice about success it would be this: success is NOT how many likes or followers you have on social media, it is NOT how much money you earn or the car you drive and the competition we all accidentally fall into in life at times, is, in truth, only with yourself. 

So, my greatest successes?

  1. Getting up every morning trying to be a better person than the day before.
  2. Not allowing my endometriosis to define who I am, whilst trying to accept the impact and consequences it has had on my life.
  3. Managing to run 10K in my forties, after surgery, when anyone who knew me at school will tell you that PE wasn’t exactly my strong suit!

And biggest disaster?

Having a perm when I was at university. I know they’re back in fashion gentlemen but please… don’t do it! Think of the condition of your hair, not to mention whether indeed it is ‘a look’?!

What are your hopes for the future?

For the world to tackle the global climate and biodiversity issues collectively for generations to come, so that we protect our planet and learn to value the living world more. For this country to put more funding into children’s social care and associated services such as mental health support so that young people get the help and support they deserve when they need it most.

And, finally, for me personally, to learn to speak Italian and French, to cook and bake more, to get back into playing guitar and drums (which is truly the best therapy ever if you’ve had a bad day) and to go to Las Vegas and Graceland because I am a big Elvis fan!