‘With her help, I realised what I could ACHIEVE’
As a teenager, Toyin Ayedun-alase was often excluded from lessons. The support of Cynthia John helped put her on the right track, and now Toyin is helping other young women to find their way
TOYIN, 29, SAYS: ‘I’ve always loved studying, but I had a difficult time at school because I struggled to manage my emotions. At the end of my first year at Cardinal Pole Catholic School in east London, I was moved down from the top set to a class of mixed ability because of my behaviour.
Not only did that mean my education suffered, but my confidence took a knock, making me more defensive than ever. I found it increasingly difficult to manage my behaviour and faced multiple exclusions. My poor school reports also didn’t help the already difficult relationship I had with my mum. Looking back, I’m so glad that I started having sessions with Ms John, the school’s pastoral care mentor, because that’s when things finally started to change.
If you had to go and see Ms John, it meant you were a troublemaker, so I went into her sessions with my guard up. But the first thing Ms John said to me was: “I can sit here and tell you what everyone’s saying about you, or you can tell me about yourself. Either way, I’ll come to a conclusion, but I’d rather it be from you.”
She would never stigmatise me just because a teacher had said something negative about me. That way she instantly created a safe space. Before Ms John, I didn’t realise how much I was holding in – I started articulating feelings I didn’t even know I had, on issues I wasn’t aware were bothering me, like not having my dad in my life.
Ms John never made me believe everything was easy, and she’d tell me if I was in the wrong. But she helped me realise what I could achieve. I’d always enjoyed drama, so she worked with my drama teacher to find theatre companies that I could get involved in. The deal was if I stayed out of trouble, I could take part in workshops. It gave me something to fight for. I discovered, with her encouragement, what I was passionate about and started to see what I could do when I wasn’t so angry all the time.
Ms John went above and beyond to support me. She’d go out of her way to update Mum on the positive progress I was making, so that she wasn’t inundated with negative profiles of me. It was really good to have that person in my corner. Ms John was also involved in nominating me for an award for young people in Hackney who’d excelled.
I valued the time Ms John invested in me and I worked harder than ever because I didn’t want to disappoint her. When I got my GCSE results, she was with me, celebrating before I’d even opened the envelope.
After school and university, I dedicated myself to acting and theatre and decided to set up Women After Greatness, a social enterprise that mentors young girls. Ms John nurtured all the right skills in me, and now I try to do the same for others.’ CYNTHIA, 49, SAYS: ‘When you work with young people, they almost become yours. All you want for them is the absolute best, and that’s what I felt for Toyin. She’s a very passionate person, but when she was young, this passion tended to be communicated by anger and frustration. But she was also very determined to achieve. It was just about unlocking that potential.
It’s been an honour to see her grow up into an amazing young woman. I am so very proud that she’s taken the tools we explored during our sessions and ran with them.’
I started articulating feelings I didn’t know I had – TOYIN