As a former captain of the South African women’s national hockey team, Susan Wessels knows a thing or two about hard work and perseverance.
The senior deputy head at Framlingham College in Suffolk spent a decade of her life on the international sporting stage, experiencing the knock-backs and glories of a top-flight career which took her to two Olympics and three Commonwealth Games.
And it is these experiences, she tells ISMP, that have stood her in such good stead for working with young people in schools, which she has been doing since she took her first job at King’s School Canterbury in 2004.
“In sport, you have to be really determined and have an absolute desire to want to make it,” she says.
“Things that I learnt from that period transfer naturally into my day-to-day life and more importantly they are things that I can share with children.
“When I was 17, I had to balance playing in the top women’s hockey team and my final year at school.”
This, she says, makes her able to relate to pupils in her school who are striving for their goals — both sporting and non — and helps her understand the emotional side of what they are going through.
“I decided that I wasn’t going to listen and worked harder than I had ever worked before.”
“I had a massive disappointment, I was left out of the team at a key moment and I had worked my whole life for it, having gone through that taught me lots of wonderful things that I can share and translate.
“I could have just given up at that point because I was basically told I should give up because I wasn’t going to be good enough.
“I decided that I wasn’t going to listen and worked harder than I had ever worked before. I changed the way I did things and I was selected again and I did play again for another five years.”
No doubt Wessels’ pupils benefit from her insights and experience, whatever they are aiming at, but she never originally had a big plan to go into teaching.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do after my hockey career,” she says, and took her first job as a sports coach after being asked to give it a go.
“I should be tired and stale and bored but I’ve never been more excited about working in a school.”
She says: “I absolutely loved it, I think I was born to be a teacher, I love the relationship side of it.”
She first taught PE, became head of girls’ games and was then given a girls’ boarding house to run.
“I was in charge of 55 girls full-time, which was an amazing experience, really special, probably one of my best jobs, most rewarding jobs definitely,” she says.
Ten years ago, she applied for her current job at Framlingham College and got it, after falling in love with the beautiful setting of the school, overlooking Framlingham Castle.
“I’m just coming to the end of my tenth year so I should be tired and stale and bored but I’ve never been more excited about working in a school,” she says.
“I think we’ve got a really clear vision of where we want to be and we want to be a school that is turning out children who are ready for the global world that they’re about to be going into.”
“The school used to have a reputation for being ‘for farmers’ children’ and not for those who were particularly academic.”
A new emphasis is being put on entrepreneurialism, business, sustainability and encouraging the children to have a global outlook
Predictably for such a team player, Wessels refuses to claim any personal credit for the school’s success over the past decade, but she is proud of how the school has become more “dynamic and forward-looking” and spread that message to prospective pupils and parents.
The school used to have a reputation for being “for farmers’ children” and not for those who were particularly academic, she says.
“We’ve worked hard in the last 10 years to allay that, we have children go off to Oxford and Cambridge every year and children go off to the most amazing apprenticeships where 3,000 people have applied for only 10 positions.”
She adds: “What I’ve been proudest to be a part of is that real sense of this is genuinely a school which is forward looking despite the fact that we are stuck in rural Suffolk.
“Our children are flexible and able to cope in an ever-changing world…dynamic and confident in their own skin.
“In a roundabout way, the last ten years is about being clear on who we are and what we are.”
“There is now a real sense of momentum behind the school as it emerges from Covid.”
And again, Wessels stresses how her sporting experience, alongside her Master’s degree in educational leadership and management, has helped her perform her latest role.
“The skills that we learn working in teams, those are the skills that I want every single one of our children to have, that sense of turning up, having a responsibility for your team, it’s a commitment to, and a passion for what you do.”
“If you transfer that into a school environment, all I’m doing is turning my school into my team.”
She says there is now a “real sense of momentum” behind the school as it emerges from Covid.
She says: “At independent schools we’ve got a real opportunity to do something quite brave and exciting, and I feel like we are just starting to light the flame.”