“Learning is not only a human right but it is essential for being human and belonging” – Claire Birkenshaw interview

On Wednesday 26th February 2020 Claire Birkenshaw (Geography, 1990) will be returning to campus to deliver an Inspired in Hull lecture, following a naming ceremony in which she will have a lecture theatre in the Larkin Building named after her. We interviewed Claire ahead of the lecture to find out how she felt about the honour, what role education should play in our lives, and her thoughts on the University of Hull.

Claire began her secondary school teaching in 1991 after graduating from the University of Hull with a degree in Geography and a Post Graduate Certificate in Education. She taught in a number of secondary schools across the city of Hull during a 26-year period culminating in the role of principal at an Alternative Provision Academy.

Claire left her principal post in June 2017 and is now a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University where she contributes to the ‘Childhood Studies’ undergraduate course. She lectures on various aspects of childhood but is particularly concerned with LGBTQ+ inclusion in education and mental health and wellbeing. Finally, Claire is an ‘Honorary Fellow’ of Bridgend College in Wales and patron of Think2Speak.

Find out more about Claire’s Inspired in Hull Lecture

What made you choose the University of Hull?

As a keen teenage geographer and geologist, I was advised by my A-Level geology teacher, Mr. Aplin, that Hull had an excellent reputation for Earth Sciences. As such, I decided to visit the campus via an Open Day and knew instantly this was the university I wanted to study at. I was also aware that Hull had a reputation for being fiercely independent, honest, defiant, proud and possibly anti-establishment. All of which had a strong magnetic appeal in the 1980s. I might add that that appeal has never wavered. 

Do you have any particularly strong memories of your time at the University – people or places that inspired you?

I don’t think my memories of Hull have faded at all. It has left a lasting impression. It’s in my DNA. I had the pleasure of learning from fabulous academics such as Professor John Pethick and Dr Derek Spooner. 

I found every aspect of the campus inspiring – it seemed to foster a strong sense of belonging. Although it shames me to say this as an educator, I probably spent too long gazing out of the library top floor window and being distracted by the brilliant view of the Humber Bridge and the Wolds rather than reading and writing. 

The student union’s Saturday night Stomp in the John McCarthy building was legendary, as was the nightclub Spiders. 

As an educator, what are your thoughts on the role that a University should play in the lives of the young people who come to study, and in the wider community?

Universities play a vital role in nurturing talent. They are vibrant communities of learning that link effortlessly the local with the global. As such, a University should be a gateway for ambition – a disseminator and collaborator of knowledge and understanding for all. 

Ensuring that students feel welcome, included and able to access all of our resources, no matter who they are or what their background, is a key part of our promise to our students. What can universities such as Hull do to deliver on that promise?

Learning is not only a human right but it is essential for being human and belonging. Surely the purpose of education is to bring humanity together? Not only should our curriculum, resources and physical space reflect that but our behaviours too. Every opportunity should be used to promote understanding, tackle prejudice and foster good relations.

How does it feel to be having a Lecture Theatre named after you?

Humbled and honoured. Worldwide,  I’m not sure how many lecture theatres there are that have been been named after trans people but I suspect there are not many. For me, this makes it really special because it’s my former University. It feels like the University is a world leader. To play a part in that and knowing the difference it will make is amazing. I still can’t believe it actually.

What words of advice would you have for someone who might be struggling to understand their sexuality or gender identity?

It has taken me a long time to realise this is who I am. It is something that I have struggled with all my life – the vast majority of it in silence. I never believed it would be possible for me to utter the words ‘I’m transgender’ out aloud and be accepted for who I am. But that has happened. Talking with others has helped. So, I would advise people to find people who they can talk openly and honestly. It could be a support service – there are lots of LGBTQ+ groups, a family member, a close friend or a colleague. Talking and being your authentic self in front of others helps your confidence to grow. It really does get it easier. Finally, remember you are not alone – there are others just like you.

What are you most looking forward to about coming back to campus and delivering an “Inspired in Hull” lecture?

It’s impossible to say what I most looking forward to because it’s absolutely everything and every moment. Hull University is in my DNA. It feels like I am coming back home to my adult learning birth place. It will be emotional. I’ll probably shed some tears. Apologies if my voice wobbles and some additional colour smudges.

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