How can governors support neurodivergent children to thrive? How can schools prepare children for an increasingly digitised employment landscape? What are some of the most rewarding aspects of becoming a governor? In this fascinating and wide-ranging interview, we chatted to Felicia Johnston, Assistant Project Manager at Haringey Council, to discuss her unique governance experiences.
What inspired you to become a governor?
“Funnily enough, I discovered school governance after changing direction from a career in politics! I had landed a dream job working for an MP and lost it within months after an unexpected election defeat. Tired and disillusioned, I was keen to find an alternative (and less unpredictable) way to make a difference in my community.
“My own experiences with the education system also spurred me to get involved with governance. I was seen as a troublemaker in school and had a strained relationship with many of my teachers. Unbeknownst to them, I was struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD. My teachers chronically misunderstood me and reductively put my behaviour down to me being a looked-after child. Ultimately, I had difficulty fulfilling my potential and left school with low self-esteem.
“As a governor, I am determined to improve support services for neurodivergent children, especially those with intersecting marginalised identities (e.g. Black and disadvantaged pupils). We must protect young people from experiencing the same traumas as I did. With better provisions and diagnostic testing, neurodivergent children can thrive in education and become confident adults. Early intervention is paramount!”
Do you have any advice for new and prospective governors?
“When I first got into governance, I suffered from imposter syndrome. Few people looked like me, and I was under the impression that good governors required specialist skills in fields such as finance or human resources. I worried I wouldn’t be able to bring anything to the table.
“However, my reservations soon disappeared when I realised how valuable it was to see things from a different perspective. Governance also allowed me to utilise and develop my critical and lateral thinking skills. Within a year, I had assumed a leadership position as Chair of the Performance and Standards Committee.
“So, my advice to people on the fence about getting involved with governance is to take the plunge! Strong governing boards benefit from diverse experiences. As long as you’re enthusiastic and committed to making a difference in young people’s lives, you’ll have something valuable to offer!
“Many fabulous external networks, such as your local authority governance association and the National Governance Association (NGA), are also available to support your governance journey. My favourites are the NGA’s Young Governors’ Network and Black Governors Network.
“Governance is much more than fixing issues using your current knowledge and skills. It’s about working, learning, and improvising alongside others to improve outcomes for young people.”
How do you feel that being a governor has impacted your life personally and professionally?
“The most significant difference is the extent to which my confidence has grown. I am dyslexic and was also recently diagnosed with ADHD, a condition poorly understood and highly stigmatised by society. Dyslexia and ADHD can cause challenges with executive function, the CEO of your brain that helps you get things done.
“For years I struggled to overcome these issues and defined myself by them. Unsurprisingly, this massively dented my sense of worth and clouded my ability to recognise my strengths (such as strategic thinking and being able to see the bigger picture).
“Becoming a governor has enabled me to identify where my natural talents lie and apply them to further a good cause. I have also made better career choices by avoiding jobs that would neglect my talents and seeking environments more suitable for my brain’s unique wiring.
“Additionally, governance has helped me hone many new skills, such as negotiating and conflict resolution. These have made me more effective in both my personal and professional life.
“If you’re hoping to boost your confidence and soft skills, don’t hesitate to give governance a go!”
On the subject of soft skills, what do you think about teaching soft skills in schools?
“Teaching soft skills is hugely important. Thanks to automation and globalisation, we’re finding ourselves in an increasingly digitalised world. As such, organisations will soon require workers with different skills and capabilities. Schools are responsible for preparing children for this new reality, including nurturing soft skills like creativity and emotional intelligence. Even more important than helping them enter the workforce, this will help them appreciate their value to society.
“Showing pupils their value is particularly vital for neurodivergent children. Neurodivergence is not something that needs to be “fixed”. We should spend less time teaching neurodivergent children to replicate neurotypical behaviour and more time teaching them the soft skills they need to thrive. Skills such as self-advocacy can help neurodivergent children get their needs met and feel more confident about their strengths. It’s not about encouraging young people to “mask” their differences but empowering them to pursue their dreams!”
What can governors do to help schools enrich educational provisions?
“The most important thing is to help set a strong vision for the school. At my current school, our vision is to provide ‘outstanding learning, within a glittering curriculum where everyone matters’. I love it as it perfectly encapsulates our commitment to an enriching and inclusive learning environment. When reflecting on your school’s vision, consider how well it embodies your values and aspirations for pupils beyond academic success.
“A vision is most impactful when fully embedded across the school, so it takes an entire community to bring it to life! I would strongly encourage governors to seek regular feedback from pupils, parents, and staff. I believe in giving pupils agency over their learning, strengthening the parents’ voice, and hearing staff’s support needs first-hand. Without effective two-way communication, we cannot galvanise the support we need to create long-lasting change.”
Are you ready to start your governor journey?
If you’re keen to follow in Felicia’s footsteps and try your hand at governing, please register your interest with Governors for Schools today. You’ll be linked up with a friendly Partnerships Manager who will guide you through the process of becoming a governor.