Uni to Graduate, Participant to Instructor: Ellen Swann

At the start of the year before Covid happened one of the things I really wanted to do with my blog was write about people’s experiences. 

I’ve long believed that often we feel like our concerns and thoughts are so unique to us and as such for fear of seeming silly we hold them back and worry about them rather than discuss them.  When you realise others have the same sort of worries as you it can make things seem less scary.  When we know the things we are anxious about are shared by others it can have the effect of reducing that anxiety a little.  It literally can be a problem shared is a problem halved.  For the past couple of years I’ve written about my own experiences and thoughts for this very reason but I can only write about what I know.  My goal in sharing other people’s stories was opening up discussion on a wider range of topics.

The past few months left this a little on the back burner, we all had other things on our mind, but as the UK starts to open up to some kind of new normal I wanted to share another story.  I know a lot of people who read these posts are into fitness.  Many are already instructors or have considered becoming one, a lot of you are also students or have recently graduated.

Today’s blog is an interview with Ellen Swann.  Ellen is a group exercise instructor and recent graduate.  Her journey to instructor is tied in with her experiences at University and beyond and this will be useful to new instructors, new graduates, those due to graduate this year and people who are considering training to teach around a day job.  It’s about finding something you love and makes you happy and learning to balance your passions with responsibilities. 

I’ve kept this blog to an interview style so you can hear Ellen’s words as intended without my interpretation.  It’s of course worth noting that this discussion took place in the pre Covid world and so is based on gyms as we knew them.  We don’t know how the new procedures will change any of this when we finally get a gym reopen date or how instructor life will change (or student life for that matter),  My guess though, whilst things will be different and the landscape of classes / university may change the sentiments expressed here will probably remain true!     


H: Tell me a bit about you 

E: I’m Ellen, originally from a small town called Chesterfield but moved to Manchester in 2014 to start university and have lived here ever since! I actually work at The University of Manchester now and have since I graduated, I’ve done a variety of roles but currently I’m working in student support. I’m also a group exercise instructor, I started this in 2018 and have been teaching classes weekly for just over 1 year. I mainly teach Les Mills Body Pump, Body Combat and Body Attack but I’m also certified in Body Balance and RPM as well as Zumba and freestyle group cycle.

H: You recently graduated – what did you study and what job did you move into / do you do now? 

E: I studied Music at The University of Manchester and graduated in 2017. I honestly had no idea what I really wanted to do after university but I knew I wanted to say in Manchester so I signed up to the University’s graduate intern scheme and secured my first full-time job as an employability intern in Chemistry, where I promoted careers opportunities to chemistry students and helped students on the Industrial Experience course apply for and secure their sandwich year placements – bit of a change from music, I know! After my intern year I moved to a permanent position as an Undergraduate Admissions Assistant in Mathematics (another very different department!) where I mainly read and processed UCAS forms, making offers to applicants and inviting them in for interviews and dealing with the fallout of A-level results day and Clearing (yes I dealt with 18 year olds and their parents crying and complaining at me down the phone, it was tough!) Then in January 2020 I moved to my current post in the Student Support team in Social Sciences (more change!). I now, with my new colleagues, try to put in place support sessions and events to help students be more successful during the course of their studies and ensure they have a positive student experience and feel they can access help when they need it (not as easy as it sounds!). 

H: How did you find the transition between uni and work? 

E: I actually quite enjoyed the transition from student to (kind-of) adult. As I mentioned earlier I didn’t hugely enjoy my time as a student, I found the pressure of it all a bit much and that I was constantly worried about something or felt that I had to be working all the time and making progress or getting involved with music department/society events. Plus you know all the money that I (and my parents, mostly my parents…) were putting in to this I didn’t want to let them down and didn’t want to come out of it without that holy grail that is a 2:1 degree (I did get my 2:1 by the way, by 0.2%!) So, I found that when I started my full-time job that I did work at work 9-5 and then the rest of my time was mine! No essays to write, no books to read or pieces of music to practice, no concert rehearsals, the list goes on… I absolutely relished those first 6 months of feeling really free and just adulting! I tried cleaning hacks I found on YouTube, cooked new recipes, did some baking, bought clothes I would only wear at work, finally got round to some Netflix shows I’d been meaning to watch and I actually started reading books because I wanted to read them not because a chapter was on a reading list somewhere! 

H: What were the hardest things? 

E: For me the hardest thing was letting go of music, more specifically letting go of playing my instrument (the cello aka the big violin). I haven’t touched it since my final recital which was 4.30pm on 31st May 2017 (the date is forever ingrained in my brain). I still have my cello, I see it sat in its case every day. Every day I still feel guilty for not playing anymore, for “giving up,” for it being “such as shame” to be wasting all the time and money (my parents’ money…) that was put into it. It took me a whole year to really get over it to be honest, like a break up effectively. I cried about it several times. But the relationship I had with my cello was unhealthy, I never felt good about myself when I played, I never truly found joy through playing it was always constant effort and sacrifice and eventually unsustainable. Preparing for that final recital nearly broke me (well it kind of did along with other things but that’s a whole other story I won’t go into now) so I had to move on. I’m much better for it but it’s still hard and a lot of people don’t really understand why I don’t just play anymore – I actually feel a bit sick just thinking of having to sit with my cello again and play, it takes me right back to being a failure of a music student and not being good enough no matter what I did and that’s no way to live a life!

H: During that transition you also trained to be an instructor – why did you decide to do that? 

E: Once I’d started my first full-time job, I decided I needed to do some exercise. Anyone who has ever been a student will know that taking care of your body isn’t really the number one priority so now I had some time to do something about it. I joined the nearest gym to my work so I could go there first before heading home and decided that I should do a class to get me started as someone would tell me what I needed to do. I decided to go for Body Pump as lifting weights would be fine right?! It was the best and hardest 45 minutes ever but I loved it and haven’t looked back since. I fell in love with Les Mills classes and in August 2018 signed up for my ETM, Body Pump and Body Combat modules and in October 2018 I was fully certified and covering multiple classes every week and in December 2018 went on my Body Attack module! Actually writing that down has made me laugh, it sounds ridiculous to have crammed so much into 4 months (all whilst working full time) but I just found my passion, it made me feel amazing – that’s the reason why I committed to the classes in the first place, they lifted me out of my weird student haze and made everything seem clear and normal and I just couldn’t wait to get to my next class to get that feeling of pure joy (something I still have and hope to never lose). I was actually good at teaching classes, was quick at picking up choreography and putting it to music and felt confident at the front, an absolute revelation to me after 3 years of being the worst as a student. Of course, I had help along the way from the instructor who first suggested I sign up for the courses and I’m really grateful to the instructors who let me team teach and gave me technique and coaching tips during those early days.

H: How was it learning a new job and training to teach at the same time? 

E: Really hard lol! I had to adjust again to not having all my time as my own and figuring out how to prioritise what needed to get done when. I just cared about becoming an instructor so much and passing my assessments and teaching really good classes. I put so much more work into my Level 2 Exercise To Music in those 6 weeks than I ever did over the course of my 3 year degree and cried many tears over the tiny boxes in my assessment booklet and making sure my routine was the best it could be by doing grapevines and step curls at any given opportunity! 

H: What did you do to help you get through doing both at the same time? 

E: Made sure I was still doing things for myself that I enjoyed such as making sure I saw my PT for training sessions regularly, treating myself to a shopping day, having chilled weekends so my body could recover from the hectic weekdays and generally not sweating the small stuff so I could focus on getting all the work done and teaching as much as possible so I was ready to film for my certification videos.

H: What struggles did it bring about? 

E: I’m sure my colleagues at the time noticed I wasn’t giving as much to my day job as I could. I’d usually have a headphone in listening to Body Pump (again and again and again…) and was tapping out my ETM choreography under my desk to make sure I knew it all off by heart! It did also make things a bit stressful with my flat mate who essentially went through all of the emotions of becoming an instructor with me and consoled me when I was still filling in my assessment booklet the night before my exam!

H: How did you overcome them? 

E: I just approached everything as best as I could. I did my work very quickly and tried to keep on top of things in the morning during my day job so I could spend the afternoon looking at fitness stuff. With my flatmate, he saw how happy all the fitness classes made me so knew it would be ok in the end which I am forever grateful for, we support each other which is super important. Find the people who will pick you up even when you are lower than low – people need support from other people, period.

H: How do you find balancing a full-time job and teaching? 

E: Hahahahahaha! Don’t think I can ever say I have a balance! I definitely have a favourite and prioritise that over everything else. I’m not ashamed to say that I listen to my music (through headphones!) and read the choreography notes at my desk, make playlists on the app (yes I use it to teach, come at me…), plan my training and complete coursework at work. I just have to ensure it doesn’t impact on anyone I work with so if work emails need answering or spreadsheets need updating etc. that has to get done in a timely manner. Some weeks it’s really hard especially around new release time, trying to fit in learning new tracks, mixing old ones, attending workshops and still doing my normal life but it keeps me busy and keeps me excited about teaching because I love the challenge of doing it all.

H: Best tips and hacks for keeping a balance with two jobs and still having a life? 

E: Talk to people. Face to face, on the phone, on social media, whatever method you use make sure you do it every day. Just sharing your little stresses with others is really helpful and makes you feel less alone as it can be quite lonely when you are doing 14 hour days (train in the morning 7-8, work 9-5 then teach in the evening 5-8) and only coming home to eat, shower, unpack and repack your bag for the next day and sleep. Also planning in advance and being really strict with yourself about it, sometimes I end up with back to back weekends where I am away for various things so I make sure I have one weekend where I am home, scheduling rest and downtime is actually more important and difficult than doing the 14 hour days during the week!

H: Plans for the future? 

E: I am currently working towards my Level 3 Personal Trainer qualification and have big (scary!) plans to establish my fitness business and offer personal training. I’m nervous to put myself out there as it’s literally my name and face on everything but I feel really passionate about this and want to make a difference by helping people to feel good like I do when I exercise or move to music. If people even feel a shred of what I do then I’ve done something right and that’s all I want.

H: If there is one thing you could tell other people looking to train to teach / just graduating?

E: I just want to reassure any students out there reading this who may not be having “the time of their life”, are experiencing uncertainty over their future and questioning whether this whole university thing was worth it. Life may not look anything like what your teachers, parents etc promised or how you imagined it would be at this point but you’ve gained so much valuable experience that you don’t even realise you have yet and you can use it to do whatever it is you feel passionate about. So what if you don’t get on that grad scheme or earn the big money straight after graduation, there are no grade boundaries now or marking criteria to work against – no one is going to grade your life progress so just do whatever feels right for you and if you enjoy the process the results will come, promise!

If you want to hear more about Ellen’s experiences as a Group Exercise Instructor specifically you can listen to this podcast, taken from a series which also looks at instructor experiences with the notion that looking at one person’s experiences can help others too: Ricky Long Podcast: Ellen Swann

You can also listen to my podcast from the same series: Ricky Long Podcast: Heather Sherwood

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