Get to know academic coach Carolyn Johannesen
Read this shortened version of the conversation I had with Carolyn Johannesen to introduce her as an academic coach, or listen to the full conversation above.
You can find conversations with all the academic coaches at Life More Extraordinary and find out more about academic coaching here.
The official stuff
Carolyn Johannesen joined The Extraordinaries Club as a mum and loved my approach so much that she wanted to become an academic coach herself. Carolyn is a primary-trained teacher with a French specialism. She has recently joined a middle school setting and teaches French in years 5, 6, 7 and 8.
At home, she has supported both her sons through GCSEs, becoming aware of a variety of subject requirements and the kind of study and revision techniques needed to succeed. She’s also seen her older son through A-Level, university and a masters’ degree, so has a deep appreciation of the academic journey young people can find themselves on, the challenges they face today and the parents' perspective.
Can you tell us about your history and what brought you to academic coaching?
I always loved school and anything to do with school. I went to a very ordinary comprehensive school in the north of England and on to a sixth form college, then university. As a young child, I'd always intended to go into teaching, but whilst I was at university I had the opportunity to work as a journalist and reporter on campus radio. I decided that journalism sounded a much more exciting opportunity than teaching.
I qualified as a journalist then got into marketing, which was one of my subjects at university. I just got into my career, bought a house so had a mortgage and the years went by. It's very difficult to step off that kind of treadmill.
Eventually, we came down south in the '90s and I changed to a public sector role, supporting schools in marketing themselves. That was when the little seeds started to grow again as I found myself in education.
As luck would have it, there was a major restructure going on in the council and I decided to jump off and just take some time to think about how I could get into teaching.
I started volunteering at my son's school and found myself in a science lab, listening to children read and doing some French conversation work. A teacher said to me, “You know what, Carolyn, you need to be in the classroom.” She said to go and visit the university up the road in Southampton – and within a couple of weeks of me starting to volunteer in the classroom I was on the primary PGCE learning to teach with a specialism in French.
In terms of academic coaching, it was through my son, who is now 17, when he was doing his GCSEs. He didn't have the confidence in the way he was learning and his ability to answer questions. I can't remember how I found your website but we enrolled in The Extraordinaries Club.
It was probably me that was doing the course and adapting it for him and being the middleman because he wasn't receptive to doing it himself. But, he is receptive to the ideas that have come out of The Extraordinaries Club.
Then, I saw you advertise for people to join your team and I said to myself, “Gosh, if I'm doing that already with Dan, why not approach Lucy and see whether I can join her team?”
So, I did. It's quite a different route, but it's one of the best things that has happened in my career to find out about the coaching with you. It feels like the place I'm meant to be, like I can really make a difference to young people out there who are genuinely struggling and help them unlock some of those struggles and find ways forward.
What's been your biggest struggle in your own education and how did you overcome it?
I went to a comprehensive school, which was a former grammar school so was steeped in that tradition. My dad was Head of Modern Foreign Languages at the school but it led to bullying and accusations that I was only getting good marks because he was my dad. I also felt massive expectation, both from myself and from the staff – partly because my dad was head of languages.
I had to dig deep and work hard, and didn't put a foot wrong throughout the whole five years. Everything was as good as it could have been. But, thinking about the actual pinnacle of being there, my O-Levels, I didn't reach the potential I should have or could have and it's always a source of regret to me. It probably happened because I didn't have the support in place because there was this expectation that I was OK, that I was working hard and it would be fine.
I still remember the day I got my O-Level results, walking in, and in those days they were pinned to the wall. There wasn't a single A there. I was so distraught and so disappointed. It was a real challenge to just pick myself up from that and then enroll at sixth form and go on to my A-Levels.
It didn't affect my future, I still went on to university, but it taints my five years at secondary school because I wanted to do so well.
Another struggle I'd like to share is a much more positive experience when I was at university.
I enrolled at Lancaster University on a four-year course, it was French with marketing. In the third year, I had a year abroad. I'm not naturally a garrulous type of loud, overconfident person by any stretch of the imagination and I was holding this idea of having the year abroad as quite a challenge. I was excited about it, but equally concerned about it.
So, I thought to myself, “How do I want things to be when I come back from France? Let's start with that point.”
I knew I wanted to be completely fluent. I wanted to have a really fantastic year, gaining confidence and meeting new people and come back to university ready to just finish my degree in a very positive way.
When we were organising our years abroad many of my friends were wanting to go to places together; lots of them ended up in Paris or Lille. I thought to myself, “I hadn't intended this to be Lancaster removed to France. Let's look for something a bit different.”
I put the lecturer under quite some pressure and said, “I want to go somewhere on my own, I want to be as far away from my compatriots as possible and I really want to soak myself into the community.”
All the time it was churning in my head, “Is this really you saying this, are you really saying this?”
I was offered the most amazing opportunity to go and live down on the French / Swiss border. I got the job and I was working as a translator/interpreter and export assistant. I earned money and there was a little studio flat with the job. It was just incredible, and I manufactured that situation for myself.
It was a massive challenge but it was successful because I reinvented myself as a competent, fluent, cosmopolitan outward facing person. I had the most amazing year and all my friends were terribly envious.
Can you tell us about the experience you have as a parent and teacher and how this informs your work as an academic coach?
As a parent, I have empathy with the parents of the person being coached, which I think can be as important as dealing with the person themselves. As a teacher, I also know what's in the curriculum, and if I don't know something I can find it.
My boys are 17 and 23 now so they've been through all those formative stages of education, the exam years. They've also been through things like bullying, mental health struggles and the intensity of it all – meltdowns and things. They've also shown these boy-type traits such as being lazy or disorganised and unfocused. This helps me develop lines of communication and empathy with mums in similar situations.
The thing I love about academic coaching is those light bulb moments, those feelings that you're making a difference and that the conversations you're having with that young person are moving them forward and helping them unlock that potential. For me, that's what it's all about.
It's been a delight to work with a couple of very motivated and passionate girls on very specific areas. With the boys, it's mainly about getting them organised and through a school day in terms of deadlines, time management and revision planning.
One boy I worked with sounded like he hadn't had an awful lot of positive comments about his time at school ever. He wasn't getting anything at all from home or from school that was positive. It felt like he had just withdrawn from the process, as if it was a process that was being done to him and he wasn't involved in his schooling, his education, at all. I worked with him over several months, chipping away at this until we got to the point where he had a really good report for the first time ever. He was also getting verbal praise, in the moment, when he'd done something right. That made such a difference to his outlook at school and his ability to stay focused and to keep going with this revision.
Quickfire questions to end
Which book has had the biggest impact on your life?
Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Aint-Exupery (French)
The Little Prince by Antoine de Aint-Exupery (English)
Your favourite teacher and why?
Mrs Campbell at primary school. She was a strong disciplinarian who helped me develop a work ethic towards my schoolwork. Secondly, my sixth form English teacher who did spell-binding, mesmeric lessons and introduced me to the poems of Seamus Heaney, which I still love.
Favourite holiday destination?
Oslo in Norway – I love city breaks.
Favourite takeaway or food?
Most used app on your phone?
Facebook, WhatsApp and Manchester United.
Would you like Carolyn to be your academic coach?
If so, check out the information about how you can work with us here and book a call to talk through why you're looking for help so we can assess if we're a good fit for you.