Cat Orton, Freelance Acting and Musical Theatre Tutor plus Assessment Associate

Cat Orton left teaching to create her ideal working life, balancing work that she loves with her family…we find her story so inspiring and we are sure you will too…

Three years ago I was working full-time as a lecturer in an FE college, a job I had held since 2004. In those 12 years I had gone from sessional tutor, to permanent tutor, to programme area leader. Iʼd survived 4 Ofsteds, had had two periods of maternity leave and worked under three different managers (not to mention countless structural changes!).

I never made a conscious decision to follow a career in teaching. I trained as a performer but I got offered a few freelance jobs leading workshops and one thing led to another. So I think itʼs more accurate to say that I fell in to teaching.

At the beginning of my career I loved my job. I worked with a great team, a great manager and whilst the students I taught were often challenging, the reward was in making a difference in their lives. I felt valued, I felt like I had a voice and I felt like I mattered.

I canʼt pinpoint exactly when that changed but Iʼm certain changes in national educational policy were mainly to blame. Add to that a change of hierarchy – going from being part of a team being trusted to work autonomously to being spoon-fed information by a management infrastructure who favoured the “knowledge is power” mantra – and I gradually found myself becoming more and more disheartened in my work.

As a creative person I felt that as a result my teaching became stifled. No longer could I teach Performing Arts – instead I had a tick list comprised of English, Maths, British Values, Prevent, Distance Travelled, Equality and Diversity to get through – so an Acting session often felt like anything but!

I was certainly not alone in my feelings – the office became a breeding ground for negativity and low motivation – no one was happy!

The crunch point came for me when this unhappiness started to impact on my family life! I was aware that I was more and more becoming “grumpy Mum” – coming home late, rushing tea time, bath time and bed time just so that I could get my planning for the next day done in order to have any chance of a decent nightʼs sleep! I knew that my childrenʼs early years were passing me by and something had to change.

I accessed Women to Work through Emma, who is a personal friend. Due to this, I had coaching with Jenny who I honestly cannot speak more highly of. I went to Jenny with one key request: “please get me out of teaching, I just canʼt do it anymore?”

I could go on for pages and pages about all of the invaluable discussions Jenny and I had during our sessions but she expertly helped me to identify what I needed to do in order to make the change to my work-life balance I so urgently required.

The first step for me was to realise that I didnʼt have to be scared, that it was possible to “get out” and Jenny helped me to find the courage to take my first steps towards gaining control of how I wanted my life to look like!

With my head firmly focused on finding my first move towards change, I discovered a job vacancy at the college I was working at and successfully applied to take over the running of the in-house commercial theatre. With a background in performing arts and a working knowledge of the college this was the perfect opportunity for me to expand my CV away from teaching. But, it came at a cost. A £12,000 per year cost!

However, what it allowed me was far more valuable. Fewer hours that were flexible and fell mainly between school hours, meaning that for the first time in 4 years I could take my daughter to school. I was at home when my children came home from school and when I left work for the day, I left it behind til the next. That year I was the most excited parent ever at every assembly, sports day and nativity – I was making up for lost time!

I enjoyed my new role. Honestly, it was a glorified admin role and I was massively overqualified for it. But, I decided to use my zest for this new focus to really try to build the theatre as a business and did so successfully.

I stayed in that role for a year and a half before I got to a point where I needed more. Iʼd overcome every single challenge and found I was spending a lot of time twiddling my thumbs. Whilst I did not want to go back to my old routine, I needed to be working in a role that allowed me to be more creative and offered me more.

Not long after I took on the theatre role, I was offered a couple of hours freelance tutoring at a local performing arts school! The school had a phenomenal reputation and I was blown away by the level of the students I had (still have) the privilege to teach. With an alumni full of students now studying at some of the top UK drama schools, these young performers were filled with a passion and determination to succeed. The thing I loved most about my teaching was not only did I inspire them but they inspired me! The school is run by a wonderful lady called Katie Funk, herself a performer, and her passion and drive for success has massively motivated me to keep striving to find the right path for me!

I gradually took on more and more hours tutoring and alongside this managed to secure work as an examiner and assessment associate for an examining body.

In taking on this new work, I found myself creating more and more networking opportunities and now teach at a number of private performing arts schools alongside my examining which also continues to grow as a role.

I work weird hours – some days I work at home until 3pm and then teach until 9.30! Other days, Iʼm up at 6 to travel halfway across the East Midlands to teach 6 hours back to back! Sometimes Iʼm up until 2am examining and other times I meet a friend for coffee or have my nails done! I work hard and I still have pressures and stresses but they are on my terms and I am in control.

In addition, the extra time Iʼve gained has allowed me to turn a lifelong hobby in to a small side earner by starting my own cake business! Itʼs never going to make me a millionaire but itʼs a great way for me to use my creative skills in a different but equally rewarding way.

I canʼt lie and say that taking the plunge in to self-employment and walking away from a secure job is easy! My husband is also self employed and the first year we both were was the most financially stressful of our lives. There was a period of a few months where I woke up every morning worrying about bills that needed paying, invoices that I had yet to be paid and how I was going to keep us all afloat. I feel that I carried a lot of guilt – I had taken the risk to be happier and so it was my fault we could no longer afford the things we used to.

But, would I go back? Absolutely, categorically 100% no! Not ever!

They say the things that donʼt kill you make you stronger and Iʼm certain thatʼs whatʼs happened to me! Iʼve had to struggle and Iʼve had to push and Iʼve had to spend hours and hours trying to keep our bank account afloat. But Iʼve done it. And now, Iʼm starting to reap the rewards. I have a great relationship with my husband and my children. We all work hard and of course we have busy periods but we also now have quality family time without work having an impact. I have grown my business and my reputation as a freelancer and Iʼm incredibly proud of what I have achieved.

Mostly, I have work that I love. It recently occurred to me that when I first accessed Women to Work I was desperate to leave teaching! And now, teaching makes up at least 50% of the work I do! But itʼs a very different kind of teaching and Iʼve realised I actually love it. I just didnʼt love not being able to teach what I was passionate about because I was stifled by procedure and protocol.

I honestly, truthfully owe so much to Emma and Jenny. They allowed me to find the confidence to take a risk, to take control of how I wanted my life to look and to not just settle for “ok”. I speak to so many teachers who feel like I felt and if you are one of us too then I will tell you what I tell them! Donʼt be apathetic. Donʼt be scared. Donʼt sit there and complain and then do nothing about it. Take responsibility for your own future. Donʼt be afraid to take risks. Be confident to realise your own potential and take the first step to making a change. You wonʼt regret it, I promise.