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Making the leap from Education to Illustration

Having spent the last 20 years studying and climbing the career ladder within education, Cate was pushed into re-thinking her choices when her mental health started to suffer. She told The Alternative her career change story and how she has become more resilient…and happier!

What were you doing five years ago and how does your life differ now?

I was working as a Head of Keystage, SENCo and Early Years English Specialist Teacher (phew!) in a school and there is no way in which my life doesn’t really differ! As much as I loved my students and watching them grow, I’ve rediscovered ‘me’ and my passions.

My life before was all about facilitating and supporting others which although this is just part of my make-up, I needed to save a little bit for myself and being a teacher just doesn’t have room for that. Even on the rare occasion you’re not working, you’re constantly thinking about it and neglecting yourself. I don’t even mean thinking about it in an ‘Oh my god, I can’t wait to do XYZ’ but relentlessly worrying about not doing enough. Teaching is never finished.

What initiated the change?

A breakdown to be honest. I couldn’t think, eat or function! There was simply no way I could be responsible for the future of young people when I needed to get my own life back on track. Management were less than supportive and had been told a number of times that my breaking point was approaching and although they were very kind, little actually happened to ease the load.

How did you start the process?

I had a long period away from work as my doctor had declared me unfit. There were the usual meetings in order to ease my way back to school but ultimately my trust in the establishment and very sadly, the whole system, had been lost. Eventually I handed my notice and walked away from the years of experience and training but it had to be done.

How would you describe the journey that has brought you to where you are now?

On the whole, exciting. Finance was a big concern, especially pensions and mortgages but my friends and family have been great and so supportive. Naturally they were worried about the career I was throwing away but also recognised it would be the death of me. I really had to evaluate what made me happy and begin learning about a whole new industry. I’ve also had to embrace being self-employed which took some getting used to after years of steady employment and a regular salary. You have to become a jack of all trades - but that’s what makes it exciting. I’m always learning and open to giving anything a go. What’s the worst that can happen? I think I’ve already been through that and I’m still here and smiling, so just give it a try.

What support did you have?

I was the main wage earner and now my husband has supports me financially and he and our children have had to get used to not having the luxuries but he prefers to ‘have his wife back’ than expensive holidays. My wider support network have been amazing too and helped spread the word about my new ventures and I’ve had several projects offered to me as a result. I’m lucky that I live in a buzzy, artistic city where everyone wants to see you succeed. People have been so generous with their time; for example a local very successful illustrator taught me to use Photoshop and wished for nothing in return other than for my success. Norwich is very special that way but you have to put yourself out there, it won’t come to you.

How do you feel about the life that you have created?

Still excited! Instead of lying in bed wishing I didn’t have to go to work or worrying about something I didn’t have time to do, I lie there bursting with ideas. Too many to even count! Of course I have days when I think people may not like my work but I’m working on accepting that if they don’t like my style then I probably wouldn’t enjoy working on their project. Ultimately, as I only answer to myself, I can walk away from a job I’m not enjoying - its very liberating.

If you could do anything differently, would you?

Quit sooner - I stayed way too long. I knew it wasn’t right but the eternal optimist in me hoped things would change with a new school year, new head teacher, new government. It didn’t. I also felt incredibly responsible for my students. It's hard to leave when they tell you you’re the only reason they’ve stayed in school but realistically there's a million other people out there who could do the job just as well or probably better than me. Sticking it out made me ill and I wish I’d been more courageous and made a choice before it got to that point. Had the move not been forced, I could have begun to build up a portfolio and attend courses before being thrown in the deep end. That said, I probably would have been too knackered to do them haha!

What motivates and or inspires you?

The pleasure from seeing someone else enjoy something I've made. And a little bit of education - the teacher thing will always be with me but I'm happy for this to take many guises. If children learn to love reading from my illustrations or enjoy a loving moment sharing a book with mum, dad, grandparents etc then brilliant! If my interior design advice can help a house become a home then that's great too. Home is a place of safety and a small budget shouldn't prevent us from making the most of it. Also, as a daughter of an engineer, I've grown up with a 'can do' attitude. DIY is a dying skill and there's no reason why, with a little guidance, people cannot maintain their own homes. Let's face it houses are expensive and the potential saving and the sense of achievement from fixing it yourself can only be a good thing. In short, I guess my motivation is seeing others succeed and be happy through my creativity. Kindness is perhaps the most basic act, but arguably the most important.

What is the best part of your day or week?

All of it! Although I can easily work seven days a week, it doesn’t really feel like work. It's a choice I’ve made and a lifestyle I want to continue with. My family are happier, I’ve met some amazing people along the way and I don’t dread Monday morning. I’ve become braver too, I lost a well respected career and am building myself back up. If you lose everything once, you’re not frightened of it happening again - you know you’ll survive and probably become a better person for it. At the risk of irritating everyone, it’s the best choice I’ve ever made.

Cate x

Find out more about Cate and her work at: Cate Wicks Illustration


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