I covered those 50 miles from my address in Oxfordshire in good time, relaxed and bubbling with anticipation for new knowledge, new experience and to finally meet some of the Team English luminaries. The fact that this was happening on a Saturday, during term time and that I was one of perhaps 300 others who thought it worthwhile giving up their free time, is testament to the high regard in which these events are held by teachers around the UK and other parts of the globe.
Organised by Sam Strickland, the principal of The Duston School, and his band of – as he sweetly referred to them – CIA agents, this acted as a coming together of expert front line teachers and educators with the distinctive aim of showing what evidence-based research and experience looks like in the classroom. It was, indeed, a day to be in awe of other people’s minds and the free exchange of ideas : concrete, brightly-coloured, sensible and workable ideas.
On a personal level, the £30 I forked out to attend is possibly the most efficient use of my funds since I last had a hip hop CD splurge on Amazon. I also felt so incredibly fortunate and blessed to be amongst other humans who care so deeply about education and its immediate future. When I was a lawyer, before my almost Damascene conversion to teaching, I had to rack up 18 hours a calendar year in order to justify my practising certificate. Most of the courses, except for the last few years, involved sitting at a desk absorbing huge amounts of information about new cases and statutes and depressing statistics about lack of funding in the legal aid system. After those courses, which cost the firms I worked for about £250 a pop for 6 hours CPD, I would line the notes up neatly on a shelf and, generally, not look at them again.
Now, events like this are an opportunity, a breath of very fresh air, a place for my mind to expand and be surrounded by fellow enthusiasts eager to update and stretch our wings a little further still. All the sessions gave me a boost, some felt like rocket fuel, all made me question myself yet also realise that I am doing something right, day by day, lesson by lesson, starter by starter, greeting by the door every lesson. Most of all, though, I found myself smiling a lot, and broadly ; and, in one session, I wanted to pinch myself and found my eyes welling up with a feeling of release and pure, unalloyed HAPPINESS. Yes, happiness at the possibilities that abound for my teaching and the teaching of others by being willing to take a risk, delve deeper, rearrange methods a little and look at things from a fresh perspective.
Today reinforced my belief that teachers can change the world and make a difference because they actually bloody care about the students they teach and it’s not just about a pay cheque – although the holidays are very welcome, genuinely – it’s about stretching and trying to improve and being passionate about your subject and the reasons you are doing this fantastic, exhilarating and crazy job that is WAY more than just a job.
So, here’s a swift recap on my experience in each session:
- Matt Burnage presented effusively on Knowledge in the curriculum, citing Hirsch and proposed the three futures of education, the third of which appealed most to my fevered brow – knowledge as REAL, not static and set by academic discipline and a distinct quest for the truth, as exemplified by Michael Young. He expounded upon Subject communities and taking the opportunity to argue, discuss and debate what YOU want to teach your students.
- Kat Howard occupied the 6th Form Hub with serious aplomb, offering practical advice on how to improve her modelling of examples, yet being humble and honest enough to realise the mistakes she had made, which we ALL do, as we think we are imparting the all important knowledge to our students in the best way possible. It was beyond refreshing to hear someone speak with such candour about how she was grappling with the issues and making the whole process more accessible for students at all levels.
- Doug Wise spoke about his failures as a teacher from his NQT year to becoming Assistant Principal at The Duston School, where he currently teaches. His honesty, like Kat’s, had me nodding furiously in agreement. Mixing humour and humility, he provided clear evidence linking to his methods and how he has strived to improve year on year, whilst joking about his ‘mediocrity’ as a teacher : a cursory glance at his website or any of the resources he so selflessly shares via Dropbox and Litdrive will remind you that the thundering opposite is the case. Key quote – ‘Anxiety and discomfort are all vital for growth’ : he doth speak TRUTH!!
- Mark Quinn provided a fascinating insight into Improving outcomes for disadvantaged students through TAR [Teacher Action Research] where he worked with 8 teachers to discover the impact of research-based strategies on outcomes. It comes down to finding the ‘sweet spot’ through examining the sufficiency, validity and reliability of the findings. His research provided a clear exposition upon the power of research and made me contemplate how this methodology could be used more often in schools.
- Caroline Spalding is a whirlwind of focused and shining energy. Explaining the impact of motivation, cognition and metacognition on breaking down barriers to learning and creating EFFECTIVE learners, she introduced the ‘habit loop’ and seduced all those in rapt attendance with statistics about her Period 6 revision sessions attended by close to 90% of year 11s before the end of September – BOOM x10! She assaulted us with pithy bits of essential research and sparkling ideas that made so much bloody sense. She swore a bit as well and we loved it. We love the fact that we were being spoken to and amongst other teachers. It felt like a movement towards greatness. I could go on but it is getting late…either way, Mrs Spalding is a miracle of enthusiasm for actual, credible change that can truly IMPACT upon the lives of students and make them BELIEVE that they can ACHIEVE. Yes, that. And more.
- I have no notes on the last session because I was standing up and walking around the room for the vast majority of the time. Why? Leigh Wolmarans – who won’t read this, as he doesn’t do Twitter – is a force of nature, a drama teacher who clearly explained that everything we do and say is DRAMA. He was chatting with me about The Hulk and Star Wars outside before the session even started and he carried that ridiculous enthusiasm into his session. By the end, we were reading Shakspeare in different ways – loud, whispering, changing multiple directions due to punctuation and then going deeper and deeper into the essence of the WORDS without actually feeling like it was teaching. ‘All you need is a space’. I felt so inspired, so bloody lucky to be in that room, that the tears almost started to flow – tears of JOY and disbelief that I could be doing this now, here, considering how hard and almost insurmountable I found the whole PGCE and NQT process. I left with so much new found confidence.
To cap the day off, Christine Counsell delivered an astonishing, fairly jaw-dropping keynote address on the BREADTH of curriculum and why it matters SO MUCH. Her examples were focused and salient, her delivery breathtaking, entirely without notes, like an actual worthwhile politician in full flow. Focusing on schema, reading as an essential for life improvement and not allowing ANY student to be deprived of ANY opportunity. By the closing syllables, I sat in my seat, in quiet contemplation, abuzz with newness and hope.
Yes, I know I become a bit hyperbolic when recounting events but this stuff is crucial to everyone, every student, every molecule of thought. If we take this and run with it, give it a really good go and maybe fail some along the way, that is fine. At least we know we are trying ; and that is more than half the battle. Onwards to victory!