From high school delinquent to teacher – one step at a time

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
Jess Kelly has gone from self-described teenage delinquent to teacher - and she says she has the STEPS pathway program to thank for it.

Cairns mum Jess Kelly describes her high school years as “delinquent” – but more than two decades on, a chance encounter at school drop-off has put her at the front of the classroom. Now, the passionate educator is encouraging more people to take steps to a new career, thanks to a free pathway program.

STEPS is a free, Centrelink-approved course that supports people who haven’t received an ATAR, or who have been away from study long-term, to gain direct entry into a university degree – and Kelly says the opportunity changed her life.

“At 36, I had young kids, and I had my own fitness business – I was working as a swim coach – but I had a feeling I could be doing something bigger,” she says.

Another mum at school drop-off suggested CQUniversity’s Skills for Tertiary Education Preparatory Studies (STEPS) pathway program, and after “a lot of resisting!” Jess attended a CQU Open Day – and says she hasn’t looked back since.

- Advertisement -

“I met (Cairns STEPS lecturer) Virginia Kruger and had an interview to get a spot in the program – and there were lots of tears and the realisation that maybe I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing,” she says.

“The next day I quit my swim coach job and started doing STEPS full-time.”

With three student intakes a year, the popular course can be studied across CQU campuses or online, and can be completed over one term, or across up to six terms. The remaining 2024 intakes commence Wednesday 10 July, and Wednesday 6 November.

Kelly started STEPS in mid-2019. Six months later she earned a place in CQU’s Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science and graduated with distinction in 2022. In 2023, she stepped up to her Master of Teaching, and now she’s completing her final pre-service teaching placement – and passionate about getting students excited to learn.

- Advertisement -

Supported by a family cheer squad

“The Master of Teaching is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done in my life, but I’ve got through with so much support from CQU, and from my family – my kids Willow and Ned cheer me on, and help me celebrate every assignment completed, every good mark,” Kelly says.

When she thought about her career future previously, Kelly told EducationDaily “I never imagined myself getting past a trade”.

“And then when I started the STEPS course, it felt really good because I was doing really well and getting great grades because I wanted to be there. I had a young family and I wanted to change my life. I was doing it for a reason.”

When she continued to excel at her studies and achieve high distinctions, she says it just drove her even more.

“The lecturers also encouraged me to go for scholarships, and when I was successful that was just so encouraging – I’d never have thought I could do it on my own. Now I’m in the last five days of my Masters’ degree and I’m still in disbelief that I’ve actually done it.”

- Advertisement -

Proving people wrong

Feeling challenged – and determined to prove people wrong – has always been a powerful motivator in her life.

“I am self-motivated and run marathons. If someone says I can’t do something, it makes me want to show that I can.”

She admits that one of the people she worked hardest to prove something to was herself.

“I had a lot of that growing up – told I wouldn’t do anything or be anything. I think I’m just proving everyone wrong,” she told EducationDaily.

Overcoming self-doubt was an enormous hurdle.

- Advertisement -

“I never thought I’d do this. Each semester I’d get through and get great feedback and now I’ve been offered a permanent, full-time position in term four,” she says.

“I never thought I would have fallen straight into a job before I’ve even graduated. I’m patting myself on the back finally. People tell me: ‘you’ve worked hard, and you deserve this’, and I think, ‘yeah, I do’.”

Finding teaching was “her calling”

Letting go of previous ambitions – including trying five times to become a firefighter – was an important first step.

But as one of six children – and now the fourth to become a teacher – Kelly says years of being a personal trainer made her realise that giving instructions to people is something she knows she’s good at.

“And after bringing up two little people of my own, finding a pathway to become a teacher was something I could do while managing their lives – and that was really important,” Kelly says.

Having previously worked within the CQUniConnect program, which involved talking to school students about pursuing higher education, Kelly says she met “a lot of kids who reminded me of myself at their age”.

- Advertisement -

Her message for them – and the parents who often try to push children into directions that aren’t right for them – is to accept that attending university straight from secondary school is “definitely not for everyone”.

“And that’s okay,” Kelly told EducationDaily.

“I’m turning 42, I’ve got two trades behind me. And now things are changing in a completely different direction, which is fantastic because I’m ready for that different direction now. You don’t have to institutionalise yourself for 12 or 13 years straight. You can take a break and explore different things first.”

Don’t be afraid to take a different educational pathway

She says it’s vital to remember that reaching educational and career goals may mean taking steps off the traditional track – but that “there’s always steps” that lead to the same places in the end.

And when it comes to the STEPS program she accessed, Kelly says “there’s no way I’d be where I am today without that bridging program”.

- Advertisement -

Her message to anyone considering enrolling as a mature age student is to “never doubt yourself”.

“While I’ve been studying, my daughter has started high school, and our whole family has seen what it takes to achieve goals – the determination and drive you need.”

Share This Article
Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]