I first came to the University of Bristol to study for a BSc Physics with Study in Continental Europe. I then worked for two years in intellectual property and returned to study a PGCE in science at the Graduate School of Education. I chose Bristol as it was a city and university that I was familiar with. I also had friends who had taken the course before me and so I had a good idea of what to expect.
Teaching was something that I'd wanted to do for a long time, but I didn't feel ready for it when I first graduated. I rapidly discovered that civil service office work wasn't for me and I decided to follow my instincts. At the time, I had no idea how of what lay ahead of me nor how key this decision would be in subsequent years.
When I came back to Bristol, I returned to my old hall of residence as a tutor. I didn't have much money and I wanted to gain lots of pastoral experience. I did gain valuable experience, although tragically through the rather traumatic death of a student. However, I took a lot from this and I still believe today that, despite the sadness, it made me much more understanding and compassionate when dealing with students both in the university and in schools.
Two aspects of the PGCE really stood out for me. The first was learning about the power of language and the impact that it has on both the learning response and classroom management. It encouraged me to read around the subject. The second was embedding the creative use of ICT in teaching. I was really interested in creative and quirky applications of the technology. The opportunities to experiment were becoming increasingly commonplace due to interactive whiteboards entering the classroom. Grasping the use of ICT like this was to pay-off in later years as I ended up presenting television programmes on education technology.
Professor Guy Claxton opened my eyes to creative learning strategies and developing resilient learners who can learn for themselves. These were concepts that I'd never really encountered prior to my PGCE. He only gave one lecture during my studies, but his ideas and ways of thinking were profound enough to stay with me throughout my teaching career.
Following my PGCE, I taught for five years at Chew Valley School, just south of Bristol. I threw myself at it. I got a real thrill from the work and thoroughly enjoyed helping students uncover the joys and mysteries of science. On top of my teaching, I ran a science club, was the official interpreter on ski trips and stage-managed the school productions and concerts. In a quirk of fate, I fell into the world of professional fireworks whilst developing an applied science course. What a great way of relieving any classroom stress! I progressed with this parallel career to become a qualified pyrotechnician and senior display supervisor.
Fireworks and science teaching; some would argue that it was a perfect combination.
In 2005, I met Sir John Holman who took an interest in my work. At the time, he was establishing the National Science Learning Centre and invited me to deliver a course. Since then, I've been a regular presenter of CPD sessions and lectures at the centre. A year later, I started presenting on Teachers TV and worked on several maths, science and classroom resource programmes. With a growing portfolio of freelance work, I gradually went part-time in my final two years of teaching.
I left the classroom in 2007 to work on the after school science and engineering clubs pilot (later to become the National STEM Clubs Network) as part of the Government's STEM agenda. After joining STEMNET in 2009, I managed the STEM Clubs Network and helped launch the STEM Challenges, one of London 2012's official education projects and was invited to education conferences in The Netherlands to share my expertise on STEM enrichment and engagement. The whole experience really opened my eyes to the diverse range of issues in schools across the country and, indeed, parts of Europe.
I left STEMNET at the end of 2011 and am now enjoying the freelance lifestyle as a presenter, writer and education/media consultant. It is hugely varied and I've worked with major organisations such as the European Space Agency, British Science Association, The Royal Institution, BBC and ITV. I have just as much fun working at science festivals, universities and schools too. A typical week could involve checking scripts, designing visual science stunts and demonstrations for live broadcast, recording voiceover narration, transporting explosives, presenting science shows on stage, coordinating education projects and writing education resources for the developing world.
As for something very special? Remember I mentioned accidentally getting into fireworks through my teaching? I was asked to fire the daytime fireworks from the Clifton Suspension Bridge as the Olympic Torch Relay crossed. It was the only stunt of its kind in the country and pictures of it went worldwide on news channels. It was a real privilege.
It's certainly a world apart from my civil service days, but I don't regret taking those two years out of education. In fact, it was really valuable and it's a piece of advice that I give to anyone who asks me about teaching. I think it is really important to get some experience of the non-academic working world before working in education. It allows you to build up some contextual and real-life examples that you can bring into the classroom. More importantly, I do wonder how you can really prepare a young person for the working world outside education and academia, if you've never experienced it yourself.
I'm fortunate to have worked with some really interesting people and organisations so far and there are more on the horizon. One thing is certain; my teaching background and the grounding that I got from my PGCE has been absolutely crucial; I'd go as far as saying it's been life-changing.
I just wish I could switch off my involuntary teacher stare at times!