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Meet the Former Sunderland Teacher who Left Education to Become a Northumberland Woodland Officer

Former Sunderland Teacher who Left Education to Become a Northumberland Woodland Officer
June 2023
Reading time 3 Minutes

We catch up with former teacher Kirsten Johnson, now a Woodland Officer in Northumberland, to find out more about how a potential burnout made her leave the world of education and take to the trees

It becomes clear very early on in my conversation with Kirsten Johnson that whatever career she had decided to pursue, be it for her first or second act, she would have been successful. Kirsten is well-grounded, intelligent, articulate, mindful and resilient. Read on and you'll soon see why I was quite so bowled over by this woman who could have been an actress or an academic, chose to be a teacher and has most recently become a Woodland Officer.

‘North East born and bred, I grew up in Sunderland; on the border of Sunderland and Durham in The Herringtons,’ says Kirsten. She attended her local primary school and then went to Central High (as was), in Newcastle. ‘I had this strange kind of commuting existence from the age of 11 onwards,’ she recalls, ‘and then my family moved out to the Tyne Valley, so we sort of orbited around Newcastle I suppose.’ She loved her time at Central with all its academic possibilities but decided that she wanted to pursue a career in the arts. She was all lined up with a place awaiting her at drama school when, in her own words, she had an epiphany. ‘I literally just threw open the curtains and thought, “I don’t want to audition for the rest of my life!”’

A close friend had secured a place at Cambridge, so Kirsten decided to defer her place at drama school for a year to see if she could get herself into Cambridge too. Unsure of what subject to study she opted for a subject that didn’t need a specific combination of A levels and ended up studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. She was initially somewhat in the dark as to what it would all entail. ‘I rocked up and had the most incredible time at university, doing drama, stage managing, producing stuff,’ she says. ‘It was the most frenetic time, trying to get the most out of university life as possible with no real idea where it would all lead on the other side.’

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It eventually led to moving to London and working as an acting agent’s assistant for six months, but ultimately Kirsten knew that kind of life (and in fact London) weren’t really for her. After two years working in PR for a huge law firm, she knew she didn’t have the kind of work life that was right for her. This led to a jump back into theatre, working at The Hackney Empire for a while and then PR again in a barrister’s chambers. ‘I’ve always bounced between jobs linked to communications and worked with really interesting characters,’ Kirsten explains.

It was while she was working at the chambers that she decided to leave London. Kirsten spent the next year living on a canal boat and working for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. ‘It was amazing, it was like back-to-nature stuff. I honestly went feral for a year. Even though I was doing a proper office job I was in this world where I was only really just part of society: living with the herons and watching the voles on the canal bank.’

After this she felt completely comfortable with the idea of coming back North, and  made the decision to re-qualify as a teacher, initially working for three years in Town End. ‘It’s quite a deprived area of Sunderland. I loved the school, loved the kids,’ she says, ‘but then a position at Central High came up just before the school merged with Church High, and I had this amazing decade at NHSG working under Angela Charlton who was inspirational.’

Towards the end of her time at NHSG, Kirsten could see that she was going to burn out. ‘I could see a kind of tiredness creeping in, not even a physical one, a real emotional tiredness. I was starting to live for the holidays which I knew wasn’t sustainable long term.’ So, she started to think what it was she would like to do. She knew it would involve communications, heritage, nature or the arts.

She had imagined she might end up in a role such as a Learning Officer at Beamish, but came across a job as a Great Northumberland Forest Woodland Officer, a Jos she initially assumed would require someone with very specific expertise. ‘Actually what they were looking for was someone who could do the consultation work and the community engagement work and get the story of tree planting over to communities,’ she explains. Luckily, Kirsten’s marketing, PR and education background were just what they were looking for.

Kirsten now works in a team of four, covering the whole of Northumberland, and can find herself one day talking to a parish council and the next speaking to owners of a community orchard. Her team covers a huge area, giving free advice on what support is available for those who want to put trees in the ground, from what funding is available, to advice on which trees to put where, awareness of the habitat needs of local wildlife, or organisation of volunteer days to help with planting. ‘Each job is completely different and we just do whatever it takes to get each project over the line. We certainly work at every scale. Some councils are putting 10 trees in and then there are some landowners who want to put 18,000 trees in.’

Everything is new for Kirsten, and she admits that the last six months have been quite the learning curve, but listening to her talk about the satisfaction of making a difference and being involved in a job that looks to sustain the land for future generations, you can see the positive energy it has brought into her life. Her employer is supporting her as she undertakes a forestry qualification so both body and mind are always active. It is a physically demanding job, but ‘there is no emotional turmoil as there was in teaching,’ Kirsten explains. ’You carry people’s stories with you constantly. You become hyper alert. It’s ultimately exhausting. I have felt my energy returning and within about four weeks of the job I knew I wasn’t going to miss the long holidays.’

Kirsten’s enthusiasm is infectious. As she spoke, I could visualise her getting soil under her nails, battling the cold and making a difference, giving talks to the WI, giving advice, explaining grants and driving the length and breadth of Northumberland. So what advice would she give to anyone who feels that maybe they might like to change their career? 

‘It’s a lot scarier in your head than in reality! It really is. If you are sentient, and smart, you will be able to come up with endless reasons not to do it. And in my experience, and the experience of those I have spoken to, no one has ever regretted it.’ Kirsten recommends writing and journaling to get over those initial fears. ‘If you can get all of these fears onto the page and look at them, they suddenly are no longer this reality in your brain. They are just a set of views and opinions on a page that you can analyse at a distance.’

I hope Kirsten’s words of wisdom help any among you who may presently be busy talking yourself out of a long-held dream. 

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