• Hebe Foster

"I feel really hopeful. I'm so proud of myself".

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

Telescope board member & Connect programme participant Sarah Edwards worked in probation for ten years, supporting offenders to build confidence and restart their lives. This year, she quit to start her own tutoring company, Edwards Tutoring. We chatted with her about her journey from public servant to enterprise founder, and all the lessons she has learnt along the way.

Find out more about Sarah and her tutoring business by following her on Instagram. You can also support her (and yourself) by buying her book: "Success on Probation: A Step by Step System to Reform Your Life and Release Yourself from Your Mental Jail". If you're an A-Level psychology student or know someone who is, you can find Sarah's free e-book here.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I’m Sarah. I’m from Luton, I’m 32, and I am a mum of 2 - I have a 2 year old and a 4 year old. Normally I’d say I’m a probation officer, but that’s not the case any more - my identity is actually kind of changing. So: I am a business owner, an online tutor - that’s me.

How does it feel not to say “probation officer” any more?

It feels good actually, because I feel your identity is so tied up in your job. For so long being a probation officer has been my identity, so it sort of feels like I’ve stripped one layer off. When you train so hard and for so long, and you’re in your job the majority of the day, it becomes part of your persona. So it has felt like a relief to not have to say that now. Although I am really proud of what I was doing in my job, this is a new pathway.

How long have you been thinking about it?

When I qualified as a probation officer I thought it would be five years. I’d seen what probation officers have to do before I become one, and I’d seen how it could be quite draining, almost soul-destroying. So many people go off long-term sick from probation - and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to work if I can’t give it my all.

I qualified in 2014 and worked for a few years. When I came back from maternity leave, I felt I had to prove (to myself and to work) that I still wanted a career - that motherhood didn’t define me. I even wanted to go back to London, although in the end I changed my mind on that and stayed in Luton. In the end, I worked in probation for ten years.

What made you realise a career change might be the right move?

I’d set myself a goal to “move up the ladder”, but I struggled to find roles that fitted my skillset within probation and the civil service. I did so many applications and just wasn’t getting anywhere. Even though I had great support from my coach, by the time I had my second child I was exhausted and couldn’t work out how to achieve that career goal.

When I came back from maternity leave, I felt I had to prove (to myself and to work) that I still wanted a career - that motherhood didn’t define me.

Thinking I needed to build up my CV, I took on extra training at work, but wasn’t getting paid for it. I started applying for jobs outside of the civil service, so looked into the private sector as well, sending off loads of applications.

And it completely burnt me out. I had to take time off from work to take a step back and think “what am I doing here?” I was trying to prove that I could climb the career ladder, but my kids were still only young.

I’d started tutoring in 2017 because I needed the money since I was on a part-time wage. I saw one of my friends start her own tutoring business and I thought, “I could do that”. I was essentially working two jobs and eventually had to make a decision. When I returned to work after my time off, I just took the leap and quit in November 2020.

What’s changed since you took the leap and became a business owner?

I already feel so much lighter - I find myself thinking, “is this what life is now?” It’s so nice, I’m just smiling to myself. I’m not rushing, I’m pottering around the house, it’s not manic and I don’t have loads of other stuff going on.

Even though my salary’s gone down, it’s a short-term thing. I always think long-term, and soon I’ll probably exceed my previous salary.

The main thing is that I’ve proved myself right. I took a weight off my shoulders, and it’s made me less scared of things. I was so scared before. It’s so easy to put yourself in this jail, this box where you think, “I have a good secure job, it’s flexible with my children, great annual leave, a decent salary”. But then you think “is that it for my life - living for safety?”. Now I know I can go beyond that. You have to have that self-belief that you can do it without the seemingly “safe” job and security.

Were there other things you considered doing?

I tried a lot! Before my probation job, living in Northampton, we tried vintage selling, going around a lot of antique markets in villages nearby and calling ourselves the London Teacup Company. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we liked finding stuff.

A friend recommended I get into tutoring, and I love it. I’ve always been drawn to mentoring and helping people, even when I was a probation officer. You get immediate feedback from them - you can see when they want to be there, you see them transform and understand things as you explain it. Even just talking through stuff, letting them know it’s ok to make mistakes in life, and helping them see the bigger picture. It’s both a mentoring and a tutoring role. It comes naturally to me to bond with people in that way.

They always say when you launch a business it is easy, that it doesn’t feel like work. And I certainly think that’s true to an extent. For example, I specifically chose to tutor psychology and criminology subjects rather than, say, English for little kids, because I do think there’s more of a market for psychology A-level.

Also, I love tutoring mums who are having a career change - I see a lot of people who’ve done a corporate career and are now making a change. I’m inspired by them - I remember thinking, “they’ve managed to do it, so why can’t I?”. Once you start meeting people it begins to feel normal. That’s a key lesson I’ve learnt - you have to surround yourself with people on the same journey as you.

What skills do you think you use most on a day-to-day basis?

I actually use quite similar skills now compared to when I was in probation. There’s a big piece about motivating people. Both students and probation offenders come to you with a “failure”. The important thing is getting them all to realise that everyone fails, it’s a normal part of life, and that there’s a way they can do something different next time.

Professional skills from my probation work have really helped me with business. Probation officers are very professional people - you’ve got to arrange meetings with different people, agencies, stakeholders. You’ve got to organise your time. You’ve got to work with other people. It’s the same thing when you’re running a business.

Both students and probation offenders come to you with a “failure”. The important thing is getting them all to realise that everyone fails, it’s a normal part of life, and that there’s a way they can do something different next time.

I’ve also learnt about having boundaries. That’s a big thing in probation, and in both jobs you’re relying on other people. Of course, life happens, but if someone’s constantly changing and rearranging that’s not respectful to you. I’ve now got particular procedures that I’ve put in place to try to avoid that.

Being super strict with managing time has helped me narrow down my priorities. You always want to tackle everything at once, but you’ve only got a certain number of hours in the day so being strict with priorities helps to define those hours for you.

Spoon feeding

A lot of the face-to-face work with offenders is about encouraging them to be self-sufficient and independent. You can’t tell people how to live their life or spoon-feed them. You want them to develop skills so they’re confident they can make their own decisions, because long-term those skills will benefit them later in life.

It’s the same with tutoring. A lot of the students are used to just sitting and listening in the class. You feel like you have to fill that gap with something. But with tutoring they’re there to learn in a different kind of way - and as a tutor, you’re not a teacher. This is a crucial difference - instead of being a teacher that just talks at them, you’re helping them to learn, showing them different techniques and giving them real-life examples, but you’re not expected to know everything.

Often, students expect quick change, and think they’ll be getting As with a couple of lessons. So you have to untrain them from what they’ve learned for the last 18 years! It doesn’t help in real life - unless you’re micro-managed, you have to have that independence.

Describe the good, the bad and the ugly of your job.

The good is the autonomy you have for yourself. I don’t feel obliged to anyone. When you’re at school, you’re obliged to the school system. In probation I just felt I was in another system. I really feel that relief that all my decisions are going to benefit me in the long run. I feel really hopeful. I’m so proud of myself for making that decision.

The bad is, as I mentioned, the drop in income, but that’s only temporary.

The ugly is tricky. For me it’s the side of being a mum when your kids are stressing you out to the max. I always feel like I’m running out of time, I’m stressing about it, and it’s all accompanied by the whining and crying of kids. That’s the “ugliest” part. You don’t think about it before you had kids!

I always wanted kids - I used to babysit my niece and cousins. But in those scenarios you just can be the fun person, you don’t have to set any boundaries. Once you have your own, suddenly every decision you make impacts them.

I really feel relief that all my decisions are going to benefit me in the long run. I feel really hopeful. I’m so proud of myself for making that decision.

I have to say, knowing about psychology makes this much harder. All the knowledge about attachment theory and so on - that just amplifies it and makes me feel quite crappy. The reality is you do lose your temper, you’re not always a perfect person. You just don’t enter that zone before you become a parent!

But if I didn’t have kids, I wouldn’t have made the decisions I have. They say kids change you and I suppose that’s how it’s changed me.

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