I had a shaky start to my education. I hated school and was bullied and miserable in the early years until Literature, Art and Drama saved the day. I ended up with 11 good GCSEs, modest A levels and three years in Cambridge studying English under Rick Rylance’s forward-thinking English Faculty at Anglia Polytechnic (now known as Ruskin).
I chose to study for a PGCE in English at Bristol because the course offered solid academic frameworks – carefully structured learning sessions and creative, challenging and surprising approaches to pedagogic study. I also lived in Bristol at the time.
I came to the course as a career-changer in the tail end of my thirties. I had worked in various industries, including media, museums and picture agencies and, in short, got bored of sitting behind a computer or in a dusty archive. I had done a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course immediately after university and decided to return to the variety, pace and satisfaction of teaching.
I felt like a fish out of water. I came to interview with a head full of socialist ideals and was promptly sent to Bristol Grammar School for my first placement. This was interesting and a real eye-opener. To be sent to a fee-paying, selective public school was a shock. Here, I learned very quickly that in-depth subject knowledge is vital. I remember taking a group of sixth formers to stand under the Severn Bridge in order to read Philip Larkin’s poem Here.
I was then sent to what became known as the John Williams Oasis Academy, just to offer a little balance to the mix. My time at Oasis Academy was the polar opposite of working at Bristol Grammar School. Here, behaviour management suddenly became the priority and engaging over 30 disaffected students the reality. I remember being in the staff room when it was announced that the headmaster had died whilst on a skiing trip. Everyone was devastated. The school, already on its knees, felt as though it wouldn’t recover. It did, of course…
Stepping into a secondary school for the first time in 23 years and realising that I liked kids, that I could actually teach and that, at last, I’d found something I really wanted to do is a memory that stands out for me. Apart from all the children in the schools I taught at and all my fellow PGCE students, I would have to say that I was most influenced by Dr Reed, who taught that integrity to one’s beliefs and nurturing a work ethic is key.
I have been teaching at The Sir John Colfox School in Bridport, Dorset, for the past four years. I have been Head of Department for one of those years. Being Head of Department is the most demanding role I have ever taken on, with pressure coming from pupils, parents, Speech and Language Therapists and, most importantly, colleagues. It’s difficult to keep one’s eye on the long-term goal when the goalposts are constantly shifting.
My life before teaching has helped enormously, bringing a frame of reference that can only be gained outside of education. I know that the grass isn’t greener. I can give students real advice about different industries and expectations. I spent many years writing captions and working on magazines – invaluable experience for the teaching of English and Media Studies. I know that in the ‘real’ world, writing is often commissioned, proofed and checked. This is a powerful process when transferred to the classroom, particularly if students are given ‘roles’ of editor, sub-editor, journalist, caption writer, researcher, etc. My proudest achievement since leaving Bristol has been helping Harry Conroy get his ‘C’ in English. My next plan is to help Harry’s sister get a ‘C’ in English so she can go to university.
Studying at Bristol has helped my career enormously. I read more than ever. I am reflective. I question the status-quo and nurture bonds of respect and admiration between staff and pupils. Bristol University taught me how to think, properly. It challenged and stretched at every turn, and yet was supportive. I continuously think back to my training and am amazed at just how well prepared the course left me to start my career in teaching.
My advice to others would be know thyself. Make sure you are doing the job for the right reasons. Be honest, reliable and very, very hard working.