Careers adviser Jennifer Harris (and students) on chance, connections, climate-change protests

Careers adviser Jennifer Harris in an interview with freelance writer Brian McGee

Careers: we all have our own story to tell, including no doubt many twists and turns, directions intended and others taken that we least expected. Those embarking on working life face many challenges as they seek to develop a career that best matches their talents, interests and values.

Jennifer Harris, head of careers at Royal Russell School, joins us for the latest in a series of guest interviews, exploring the role of meaningful connections and happenstance in career paths. Students pitch in too with their views on networking, employers and climate change, as well as the challenges of working with others.

We know each other from Croydon Chamber of Commerce, and also have done some work together. Everyone has had let’s say a challenging time recently, pandemic and all. It’s been especially tough for young people, whose mental health has suffered during the COVID outbreak.

What has the impact been on Royal Russell students, and how have they been able to support each other? Might some good come out of an increased awareness that we all need meaningful social connections (especially important, of course, for the development of children and young adults)?

The pandemic has certainly affected all of us in different ways, and I agree, it’s been particularly difficult for young people. Having to close our classrooms and our beautiful campus and run a virtual school was a challenge for our whole community.

For their part, the pupils were pretty amazing. We always encourage pupils, in both Junior and Senior schools, to think about others: our school motto being ‘Non sibi sed omnibus’ – Not for oneself, but for everyone – and for many years, have actively engaged in activities and challenges to help other people. Sometimes this involves raising money for charities but often is about taking time to do something that adds to the common good.

During lockdown for example, pupils designed ‘Postcards of Kindness’ and sent these with messages to local care homes; other pupils took part in a weekly Step count challenge to focus on the benefits of staying active, and regular ‘Check-in’ days or ‘Off-screen afternoons’ were held with pupils sharing their activities and experiences with each other.

>>A previous blog: Postcards of #PortesdePenge: five ideas to combine print and online

It’s good to distinguish ‘meaningful social connections’ and understand that those are the relationships of value to us, whether purely on a social level, supporting our mental health, or as part of our broader skills (e.g communication, confidence) and knowledge development.

Benefits of networking could also be to get to know more people, and gain possible knowledge, advice and information, whether that’s related to your future career or not – Sofia E, year 12

I provide regular opportunities for pupils to speak to professionals, students and graduates. Hopefully, with this skill developed at school, these pupils will enter higher education and the workplace understanding that we need each other more than we perhaps realised.

The challenges we face don’t stop with the pandemic, and how infections may reappear in the autumn and winter, of course. Climate change, Afghanistan come to mind as just two further examples. What are the concerns and worries that you hear sixth form students (years 12 and 13) in particular voice most often? Or perhaps this question is too gloomy, and many students are generally upbeat and optimistic about the future…

Our pupils take note of what’s happening in the world and talk about it, write about it and sometimes, will demonstrate about it! (Last year, pupils in year 9 held a peaceful protest on campus to raise awareness of gender equality and in 2019, pupils attended a demonstration in London on climate change.) It’s not a surprise to me that I get to hear what’s on their minds, whether it’s something worrying them or exciting them.

The real problem are the factories and huge scale production that pollutes air and rivers and use so much water. Individual changes are not the solution to climate change, the change of the whole systems we live in is – Basia M, year 13

When I meet with pupils on a one-to-one basis, I’m often struck by their energy and positivity around their futures. As one pupil said to me recently, ‘I worry about the things that I can’t control, like racism and pandemics and climate change but I’m excited about the things that I can do.’

We haven’t been doing nearly enough to protect our planet and it is dying quicker than any of us realise. We all should be doing more and spreading awareness – Rosie R, year 13

And they do ‘do’ things – one pupil composed a song called ‘Hope’ during lockdown and another was featured in David Attenborough’s ‘A Perfect Planet’. They recognise the problems in the world but are not defeated by them, thank goodness.

Of course, that’s not to say they don’t have concerns and worries and many of these are as you would expect. Typically I hear about worries of not getting their grades, not getting to their chosen university, not being able to get the apprenticeship they want and more recently, worry that their university experience may be disrupted.

Worries are a part of life, however big or small they may be for us – and so I‘ll always acknowledge those worries and voice my own too sometimes, but tackle them with trying to plan for what we can control and having an open mind to opportunities that may arise from what we can’t control.

I’ve often heard say that so-called soft skills – teamwork, collaboration, communication, problem solving, listening– can be hard to learn. What, from your point of view, is the core skill that, for instance, a shy student in year 9 (so turning 14 that year) might benefit from developing? Or a seemingly confident final-year student, for that matter, who may not be keen on picking up the phone?

I think people might say that soft skills are hard to learn because often, the skill that we need to learn is what we find hard. I do think, though, that it depends very much on your mindset – if you acknowledge that you want to learn something and you tell yourself that you can learn it, you are much more likely to.

The most challenging part of working with other students in group settings is coming to an agreement when there are opposing opinions. I think this is because while I would like my own way, compromises have to be made sometimes — Iris N, year 11

If I had a magic wand and could gift a skill to everyone, I would chose self-belief. When people believe in themselves, the development of every other skill feeds off this. Confidence gives us positive energy to ask a difficult question; to risk failing or being wrong; to get out of our comfort zone; to seize an opportunity and to relish in standing out as different. These are the steps I want our pupils to take as they go through their school journey.

Image of a mobile phone in a careers interview

Returning to your examples, a shy year-9 pupil needs encouragement to identify what’s important to them: it’s OK to be shy as long as it doesn’t stop you from doing the things you enjoy or means you avoid certain situations.

>>An earlier interview in this series: Filmmaker & academic Elisabeth Brun on motivation, recrafting work habits

Developing adaptability skills (being flexible and able to change) would be particularly useful for a shy person as this will mean other soft skills (ability to learn, curiosity etc) to be developed as a by-product. The confident but phone-phobic student (I’m assuming for formal conversations) probably needs to develop their organisational skills more: if they know what they want from the conversation they will be more confident within it.

What do students at the start of year 11 (who turn 16 that school year) say about networking, for instance having an idea of what LinkedIn and other networks such as Facebook groups might offer them, in time?

Building a network and being skilled at networking are so important that we introduce the concept well before pupils reach year 11, and provide opportunities for year 9 (who turn 14 that school year) and upwards to practise networking by hosting Careers Breakfasts.

These breakfasts focus on a specific sector, for example law or creative arts, and run like a speed networking event where pupils meet with professionals working in different roles within that sector. By the time our pupils reach year 11, many of them will have had multiple encounters with professionals and have completed physical or virtual work experience too.

Image of group work in an interview about careers

Our pupils benefit from our alumni network too, with as much emphasis on our recent leavers as well as those established in their careers, and they often ask me to connect them to a former pupil who can help them understand more about a course or a role. 

That’s when they find out I’m a big fan of LinkedIn. It is such a great resource for career exploration as well as networking (when used properly and safely) and I encourage pupils aged 16 and up to create an account and use it.

>>From the archive – LinkedIn: five tips to start improving your profile

They will often connect with professionals they’ve spoken with at a Career Breakfast and if this progresses to an offer of work experience, it’s incredibly satisfying for me to see the learning that has taken place for those pupils.

Facebook is a complete no-no for teenagers apparently. The adults have taken to it so well that it’s no longer a platform of choice for young people.

>>I saw this tabloid front page back in August and it made me laugh. If you are offended by the term “old fart”, please avert your eyes… (Credit:

You’ve kindly agreed to do an interview and no questions so far have been about you… How do you feel about the challenges and opportunities ahead this year? What new developments are there in the world of careers advice that particularly intrigue you at the moment? And while it’s banal to say that out of crisis can come opportunity… could so much uncertainty somehow be a force for good as the young people you guide and mentor start on their careers?

I am so lucky – I love my job and I’m very well supported in my role by colleagues and our wider community. I’m relatively new to the profession, having embarked on this role in 2018 and achieving my professional qualification in 2019. I still have a lot to learn and whilst there are so many challenges, they are of course most often linked to opportunities, which is how I prefer to look at them.

The over-riding challenge is to provide the best kinds of events and learning appropriate for a post-pandemic world: the opportunity is that I have access to a global network, thanks to all organisations having to embrace the digital world.

The rate at which you achieve your goals is always going to be a combination of volume, probability, timing, luck, and resilience – Harvard Business Review via LinkedIn

This is a great time to be involved in careers education: employers are keen to work with schools on preparing pupils for the workplace; different skills that support a strong mental toolkit are in demand and new resources and opportunities are rife; jobs and roles across all sectors are beginning (finally) to adapt to the challenges of climate change and there’s a greater awareness and willingness to address workplace inequalities.

These meaty challenges motivate me to keep my careers programme fresh and current – and I love that!

A favourite career development theory is one called Planned Happenstance (Krumboltz, 1999), which suggests that whilst planning for your career is sensible, good things can happen from unplanned events, and we should look for the opportunities that arise from those. That flexible approach seems highly relevant today.

(Image credits: JoshuaWoroniecki, dmncwndrlch, Pexels, StartupStockPhotos on Pixabay)

*What’s the best (or worst) piece of careers advice you ever got?
What advice would you offer a young person starting out
on their working life? Perhaps you would abstain… if so why?
Please add a comment below, I’ll be sure to reply.*

Royal Russell logo in an interview about careers

2 comments on “Careers adviser Jennifer Harris (and students) on chance, connections, climate-change protests

  1. Raj Sidhu on

    This is a very thoughtful and useful interview, thank you! I loved hearing about the pupils’ sense of self-efficacy, as well as the wider points regarding skills and soft-skills. I too would gift self-belief if I could! Great stuff.

    • Brian McGee on

      Many thanks for your comment, Raj, also for your request to connect on LinkedIn and a comment there too. Living proof of networking!


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