Rachel Bown was crowned the FE lecturer of the year at the 2023 Pearson National Teaching awards for the inspirational PE teaching she does at her small specialist college, Fairfield Farm in Wiltshire.
But Bown is inspiring not just for her teaching.
After a brain tumour left her blind in one eye and at one point fighting for survival, she went on to win an international medal as a triathlete and broke a Guinness World Record as a marathon runner – while dressed as a happy hippo.
Bown also makes ends meet as a part-time celebrant, which involves writing funeral eulogies celebrating the lifetime achievements of others.
In the photographs of Bown winning the European triathlon championships for her age (40 to 44) in 2012, which she won “by a second”, she wears a look of fierce determination.
These days, it feels “weird” for her to see those pictures knowing there was a “big fat tumour” sat in her head that she had no idea about. She had been having problems with her vision and headaches, but doctors put that down to her strict training schedule. A year later, at the age of 44, she was diagnosed with three brain tumours.
That same fierce determination which brought her to the winning podium has been needed in spades since.
Teaching in a dinner hall
When Bown was announced the winner of the Pearson national teaching award in November, she was proud of having won for her “little college in a village” where she teaches “in a dinner hall”.
She was also “a bit shy” about the accolade.
“I didn’t want other people to think that I thought it made me better than them, because I don’t think that,” she says. When she looks around her staff room, she knows “everybody here works really, really hard”. But her job is “slightly different” to theirs, so she has been able to “make it my own”.
“I don’t just teach PE – I do a lot of other things. That’s what made it a winning application.”
But Bown says she doesn’t teach sport, but “what you can learn through sport”.
For example, she teaches counting and tallying skills by recording step-ups.
She has also personalised PE experiences for pupils by setting up individual goals, and customising life skill sessions.
Since Bown introduced PE to the college in 2016, it has “progressed year on year” and now boasts a leadership in sport pathway, two annual county mass participation events, a multi-sports day, and football matches.
Football was Bown’s first love. She would spend hours on end playing “keepie uppy” with her boy mates as a kid. Her parents “never had a sporty bone in their bodies”, and she puts her sporting drive down to her grandfather. He was “very sporty” and even aged five, “never let me win”. When she did eventually beat him at games, he would never let her play with him again.
“It made me highly competitive. I always strived to win, however many times I’d lose.”
Bown went on to play football for her Cardiff University team while studying for a human movement degree, then later for both the Somerset and Wiltshire county teams and the Southwest Regional team.
She therefore feels incensed when she hears it said that women’s football in England is a relatively recent phenomenon. “There was a different generation truly pushing football forward for girls, to allow the Lionesses to be who they are.”
When she hit 40 in 2010, Bown retired from football to concentrate on triathlon, and “to see how good I could be”. But more on that later.
Very early in her career she realised that she was naturally attracted to working with disaffected kids and they with her as she listened to them.
She realised in her next role, in a Bristol city school, that she was “naturally attracted to working with disaffected kids”, and they with her, “because I listened to them”.
Bown would often provide cover at the school’s internal exclusion centre, where she found the same years 10 and 11 girls were always being sent.
After sparking their curiosity about football, Bown offered to set up a football lunch club for them – on the condition they turned up to lessons on time. The deal worked, and Bown even arranged for a local club to play a match against them on Saturdays.
“Lots of members of staff said, you’ll never get those girls here on a Saturday morning. They all turned up and got thrashed. They didn’t care because someone had taken care of them and shown them they could be something more than just the trouble that they were seen as.
“That’s where mainstream schools get it wrong. It’s all about competitive sport, which is why so many kids switch off to PE.”
Her next job, at a school for boys with emotional difficulties, became “the key” to her career. She was “spat at, kicked, and called all the names possible”, but “also felt the loyalty” of those boys.
“I loved unlocking them … once you’d really found out about them, they’d do anything for you.”
Bown became a senior leader at a similar school and was on the pipeline for headship, but realised she preferred “being with the kids on the ground and seeing them achieve”.
She has spent the last seven years at Fairfield College, where her salary as a qualified FE teacher is “two-thirds” what she used to make in schools.
She can only continue in the role because of the extra money she earns as a celebrant. She questions why she and other special needs teachers in FE should not be fairly rewarded.
“I want to stay at the college – I love the students, I’ve got a lot of autonomy and feel valued.” But that means she must work “really hard” in two jobs, including through the Christmas holidays.
When the world changed
Bown can remember “very vividly” the day the doctor called after she had her brain scans. She was about to go for a run. He asked her if she was on her own, and Bown said yes.
A phone call wasn’t ideal, but the doctor needed to stop Bown from driving and exercising straight away. She had three brain tumours, including one behind her eye which needed operating on as a priority.
“The world spun, I just remember being in a trance. It’s as if you’re looking in on yourself, it’s a very strange feeling. My world had changed but nothing had changed for anybody else.”
Telling her parents was the worst moment. “I remember not sleeping, not wanting to eat, and just being a mess.” At her ex-partner’s house, she recalls excusing herself to use the toilet and waking up four hours later in a bed upstairs. “I was just exhausted.”
Whereas many people with multiple brain tumours must wait a while before surgeons will operate, Bown believes that her operation was prioritised because her specialist “knew I’d make the most of my health”.
She was “excited” before her 12-and-a-half-hour-long operation began because it signalled “the start of getting well”. She discussed with her specialist the “deficit” she was prepared to live with, and “how far to go to take out as much [tumour] as he could”.
Bown was left feeling “wobbly” with a “lot of things to relearn” afterwards. She was let out of the hospital on Christmas Eve but on New Year’s Day started feeling ill with an infection. Ten days later she was rushed back for an emergency operation and things were “touch and go”.
“I said to the doctors if they couldn’t cure me, to withdraw treatment. I wasn’t going to just lay in a bed for the next however many years being looked after, mainly because I felt dreadful.”
Bown endured another round of surgery in 2015 followed by 30 rounds of radiotherapy two years later.
She had always thought of herself as “optimistic” and “resilient” before her diagnosis. Her tumour gave her the chance to find out what she was really made of.
“I asked myself, ‘all my life have I been a fraud?’ I’m pleased to say that I am that person I thought I was.”
She still struggles with depth perception and balance and often bumps into things.
This has added an extra 30 seconds to her triathlon races because she can no longer run alongside her bicycle, jump on, and keep pedalling.
But her visual impairment has also made it easier for her to identify with her special needs students. Rachel is passionate about being their voice, because sometimes they lack the confidence and ability to speak for themselves.
“Sometimes they lack the ability or confidence to stand up and say, ‘I don’t want to do that’.”
In 2016, she picked up a Guinness World Record by becoming the fastest female athlete to complete the London Marathon as a charity mascot.
She wore a “happy hippo” for Brain Tumour Support, but inside the costume, she was far from happy.
Bown felt like her “muscles were being ripped off” her legs, it was “horrifically hot” and she struggled to remove her hippo head after the race. “I couldn’t lift my arms up to take it off. If anybody has beaten that record, I don’t care. They can keep it!”
Six years later in Poland, she achieved the dream she had set when she embarked on her recovery journey, of winning an international medal, by scooping bronze in the European triathlon championship. She burst into tears afterwards for having “proved I am good enough again”.
“What I do is about being the best I can be with the tumour, because I can’t be cured. I battle demons every day. But I’m doing all these things with a brain tumour that no one else has.”
Bown has written two books about her life, The Butterfly Within and 101 Dalmatian Memories, and is currently writing ‘Special to me – a different kind of education’ about her teaching career.
She will “probably” not publish it until she retires, because the last chapter “will be me making that difficult decision to retire”.
She has “thought a lot” about whether she would choose not to have had brain tumours. Despite all the pain she has endured, she would not change that.
Without the tumours Bown would not have been a celebrant or world record holder, and “that special moment in Poland wouldn’t have been quite as special had I not known where I started that dream from – in a wheelchair.”
“I’ve never had children, or been married. I’d never known what my purpose on this earth was. What was my legacy? Now I know. To talk to people about making the most of their lives now.”
Entries for the 2024 Pearson National Teaching Awards will be open until 1 March, and college staff are encouraged to nominate their peers. Submissions can be made at teachingawards.com