Introducing academic coach, Helen Chaplain

Read this shortened version of the conversation I had with Helen Chaplain to introduce her as an academic coach.

You can find conversations with all the academic coaches at Life More Extraordinary and find out more about academic coaching here.

The official stuff

Helen Chaplain is both a fully qualified teacher and a solicitor (non-practising). She holds an MA in English Literature & English Language from Magdalen College, University of Oxford and has ten years' teaching experience in independent schools rated as “excellent”.

Helen left her role as Head of More Able and Talented and Oxbridge Co-ordinator at a leading North West school in July 2020 to join the Extraordinaries’ Club. She brings her significant experience in coaching students to work effectively, to develop their self-awareness and study skills and to increase their motivation. She has been heavily involved with helping students prepare their UCAS applications across the curriculum since 2010 as well as mentoring students on their EPQ.

Can you tell us about your history and what brought you to academic coaching?

Helen: School years

Yes, it's been an interesting journey from being at a comprehensive school for my GCSEs and A-Levels. When I was choosing my university, the school and my parents were keen for me to apply to Oxford. I was a ‘good student' in the traditional way that's understood.

Looking back on it now, the decision exposes two things about my thought processes at the time. First of all, I realised that my identity was very much bound up with doing well academically, and this was a really big gamble in terms of publicly putting myself forward for something. And, I think now, with the benefit of hindsight, that was partly my thinking, ‘I don't want to do this, I don't want to take the chance. What if it doesn't work out?' And, secondly, I kind of convinced myself there were other courses and universities and they would have been very good options for me.

But, ultimately, I went along with what I was being advised to do by the school when they said, “Have a go.”

At that point, with the entrance requirements, there was a choice: you could sit exams or you could have a longer, more demanding interview. I went for what my headteacher called the “sudden death” method of exams.

By the time I got through the exam, I had been up to Oxford a couple of times and visited the colleges and I was emotionally invested in it. And I was fortunate enough to get through which, had I stopped and thought and taken on board what people said to me afterwards about it, “Oh, you know, you're from the North; you're from this background, you're from that background,” it might've put me off.

Time at Oxford

I had a fantastic three years reading English at Oxford. From there, I thought about maybe going into teaching. I had a couple of friends and family members who were teachers who said, “Think really hard about this,” and I explored other options and looked at law. So I then looked at doing the conversion course.

Life as a lawyer

I worked as a commercial litigator for 10 years with a large national firm which was fantastic. And it ticked all the boxes in terms of being intellectually demanding. It was a well-paid job, a professional job. One of the things that I realise now was happening was I was kind of supplementing it with bits of teaching in that role because I was working with vacation placement students and I was mentoring trainees as I became more senior.

If you recall, in 2008, 2009, litigators got busier as the economy was struggling and the teaching and mentoring side of things fell away. I realised how much I missed it. I was able to look back and reassess and really think about what was providing the most rewarding parts of my career. And it turned out to be the teaching side of it, the relationships with the training students in terms of mentoring them, talking to them, helping them and guiding them.

Transitioning to teaching

I thought, “I'm at a crossroads now, can I do the teaching thing? Do I stay in law?”

I thought I could always go back to law, but I really wanted to try teaching. And, that's where I've been for the past 10 years or so.

The academic coaching side of things comes naturally from that, because once you've got those relationships with students in your classroom, then all of them are individuals with their own sets of kind of issues and concerns and worries. And it really is incredibly important to be able to kind of sit down with them and say, “Right, well, what's going on?” You know, “What are your driving forces? What are the things that are holding you back? If you say you can't do this, why can't you, let's try and unpack that.” So moving increasingly into that side of things has been where I've ended up.

What's been your biggest struggle in your own education and how did you overcome it?

Helen: My biggest struggle

I had a very good English teacher for GCSE who was very challenging. He asked lots of questions. He really made you think. And then I found the A level course was taught slightly more didactically, more, “Here's what you need to know.” It was just two different teaching styles.

When I started thinking about Oxford I was doing S level English sessions to try and get me asking questions and thinking flexibly.

I had this first session where I sat down with my English teacher and he started asking questions. He was asking questions that not only could I not answer, but I was experiencing all of these emotions of, “Why don't I know the answer to this? Why can't I just regurgitate something? Why can't I come up with something kind of clever? Where is the metaphorical pat on the head that I've been trained to respond to at this point?”

He was looking at me as if he was thinking, “You're not quite doing what I was expecting you to do here.”

I left that session thinking, firstly, “That was horrible and that is never happening to me again.” And, secondly, I'd got myself into a position where I was taking my validation from people telling me that I was a good student and then being in that situation where all of a sudden I couldn't deliver. I asked myself, “Why would I, why would I put myself there?”

So, I thought I'd retreat back into my little bubble of knowing the answers and giving the answers when I'm asked.

That was a real moment when I had to go away and get over myself, thinking that the ultimate aim is that I want to apply to this university where they value flexibility of thinking and being able to consider, stop and develop ideas and not just spit out what you've been told.

After that, there were several sessions where it felt like I walked in with a sense of trepidation. I realised I had to increase the strength of the voice in my head that was saying, “That's interesting. We can run with this. I can consider this and this and this.”

That voice had to be louder than the one going, “Help! I sound stupid. I look stupid. I don't like this.”

It's something I know I say a lot to students if they're applying for competitive universities, that there's that sense of vulnerability that comes with acknowledging that you need to develop as a mind, as a learner and say, “I can't always know the answers.” It can be quite distressing for some students. And, as much as I start off with my account of, “I've been where you're sitting,” it really is an individual struggle.

Can you tell us about the experience you have as a teacher and how this informs your work as an academic coach?


As a teacher, you keep up with the science of learning, understanding what works in a classroom and what works when you're delivering to a group of people. Part of the job then becomes dealing with the individual student and providing them with reassurance and the guidance that they need within your subject area. You've very much a kind of subject specialist at that point, recommending the way you'd approach a text.

As an academic coach, you can extrapolate that out and see that kind of full range of approaches across the curriculum. You are giving out skills that can be applied across the curriculum.

It's actually, “If you give this framework to your learning, if you stop for a moment and think about how you tend to approach things that are difficult in general, or how you tend to work most successfully, how can you change that and apply it to different areas?” It's a much more kind of metacognitive skillset. It's knowing how you work rather than knowing how the subject you're trying to attack at that particular point works.

The other thing you can add in from teaching experience is the idea of being able to reassure a student who you're coaching academically, that they're not alone because lots of the time young people do think they're alone in their struggles and they're wondering, “What's wrong with me? Why can't I? Everybody else seems to be able to do this.”

They're not aware that they're looking at everybody else's outsides and comparing it with their insides.

Having somebody who's in a position of some experience saying, “Well, it's OK. You know, that's a known thing and we can work around that by…” is really useful.

Quickfire questions to end

Which book has had the biggest impact on your life?

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne-Jones

Your favourite teacher and why?

It has to be the English teacher who I referenced earlier in the call, mainly because he, like so many English teachers, have had an English teacher who inspired them. I now credit him with that kind of absolute love of English and language and the nuances of language.

Favourite holiday destination?

Italy and Ottawa, Canada.

Favourite takeaway or food?

Proper pizza from a wood-fired oven.

Most used app on your phone?

Instagram – it's a very benign place where I go to look at Labradors.

Would you like Helen 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.

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