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Melanie Coker

Founder and Director of AHeadStart


Parental assistance, learning styles and a love of learning

Although I enjoyed learning, as a primary school student I started to get into trouble - not listening and being disruptive in class. That changed when in Standard 3 (Year 5) I had to write a project about Australia, but I didn't know how to start. My parents helped by finding lots of colourful travel brochures for me to cut up and inspire my imagination. My visual learning style was unleashed. From then on I got stuck into exciting school projects and would often spend hours into the evenings painting detailed illustrations to complement my work.

Secondary school scholarship

At the end of intermediate my family was living just out of zone for Christchurch Girls' High School. I sat the Trixie Cox Entrance Scholarship, hoping to get a place in the school. I distinctly remember sitting the exam and its three different sections. English and Maths were easy for me, but the general knowledge – locating New Zealand cities and towns - was a real challenge, as I hadn't been to most of them! However, somehow I won the scholarship and started high school at CGHS.

Learning the importance of study

In the first year of high school I experienced possibly the most significant turning point in my education. Our principal, Dame Dawn Lamb, taught all the third form (Year 9) students during Social Studies for a few weeks about New Zealand Law. We sat a test at the end of the topic and I'll never forget my failing mark of 17/35. Though not dismal, I felt terrible - especially as the entrance scholarship winner. Though this I learnt about the importance of study and vowed to myself to start putting in as much effort as I could. By the end of the year I was top in my Social Studies class.

The start of tutoring

Over my schooling I won many awards for Maths, English and Science and was always a top student at a very competitive school. This high point was getting 99% for School Certificate Maths. I would often help other students in class, especially close friends in Calculus. This is very much the same story as most of our AHeadStart tutors. One fellow student took to regularly phoning me after school to ask me questions from our Science classes. I enjoyed explaining concepts to her and being of help.  She since became a medical doctor, and I've now realised this was the start of my tutoring career.

The commitment of saving for university

During the last two years of high school I had a part time job at the local supermarket, like many students still do. This was due again to the encouragement of my other who believed a university education was essential, but couldn't afford to help fund it. I didn't spend a single cent I earned for those first years, which meant I could pay my first year university fees by cheque. I continued working right through my science studies at the University of Canterbury and never needed a loan, including when I finally went flatting in my fourth year.

Perseverance pays off

The last year at Canterbury doing Honours was tough. Not only was I working around 20 hours per week at the supermarket, and studying four papers and doing a small research project, but I had trouble with my project. In May that year, after six months of work, I learnt I needed to start a new project due to a law change around the use of genetic material of New Zealand native species. For weeks I couldn't face going into the lab, but finally in July I had the energy to start another project.

I was given a time extension, but when I finally started to write up my project report, my supervisor went on holiday and out of communication. I was left to complete the project myself. I nearly gave up, stressed, tired and no longer caring. Lucky for me my mother was on the end of the phone to encourage me to finish.

I handed the report in with less than an hour to spare on the day the university closed for the year on 22nd December, 2000. I was relieved to have finished it and proved to myself that I should never give up no matter how hard it gets. The result of an A- was pretty good considering the circumstances.

Becoming a science researcher

After university I moved to Dunedin to work at the University of Otago in the Cancer Genetics Laboratory on an exciting project to discover the genetic cause of a family with thrombocytopaenia (poor blood clotting). Within a year we narrowed down the region of the genome at a time when the entire human genome had not yet been sequenced. This research was eventually published in the Cancer Genetics journal, of which I was one of more than twenty authors.

I then moved back to Christchurch and joined the Free Radical Research Group based in the Christchurch School of Medicine, a distance campus of the University of Otago. The biochemical science was a challenge to begin with, but it was a great place to work with very enthusiastic scientists, including Tony Kettle and Christine Winterbourn. These two eventually became my PhD supervisors.

The start of tutoring

In 2004, before I started working on my PhD, an old school friend asked if I might like to tutor secondary school students after work. Unable to resist, I became an NCEA tutor of mathematics, science and chemistry at Brainmasters. Recalling the high school material, as well as learning the structure of the new NCEA system was exciting. I realised how much I enjoyed teaching, especially helping students who lacked confidence to achieve their best.

The founding of AHeadStart

Although Brainmasters closed down, and I started my PhD studying white blood cells called neutrophils in 2005, I continued to tutor. By 2009 I had 25 students each week and fitting them in was becoming tough. Realising I needed more tutors to help me, I established AHeadStart in July 2009 and took on our first four tutors. Juggling the business with study was yet another challenge, but I handed in my PhD thesis in 2010 and graduated the following year. 

AHeadStart has continued to grow ever since due to the growing need for personalised tutoring, rather than the group tutoring offered at major tutoring companies. I never intended to start a business, but I firmly believe in the power of education to create a successful path for students in their life journey.

The empowerment of tuition

One student I especially recall really struggled with his Maths and Science subjects at school, though he had an excellent attitude and work ethic. He carried on the university to complete a BSc in Geology and has now even completed his Masters degree! He would never have thought this possible back in Year 10 and I will always be extremely proud of him.

Students look to private tuition to assist them for many different reasons. Some students struggle at school - possibly because they are not getting the help they need from their teachers, which leaves them behind their peers and so they become disillusioned with the education system. Some students may have given up on themselves because a teacher or authority figure has told them they are no good, and they may not have enough confidence to push through when learning or when assessments get tough. Some students have clear goals, such as becoming a pilot, doctor, teacher or engineer, but they might need help to understand the foundations or intricacies of the prerequisite subjects. 

Starting from five tutors, AHeadStart now has around 50 tutors just in Christchurch. Over 2,000 students have so far benefitted from our tuition. So many have gone on to achieve degrees they would never have believed possible while at school. Tuition with AHeadStart has opened their minds to the possibilities, altered their dreams for the better and ultimately changed their lives.

Never give up on yourself. Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.