Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Reflections on a Teaching Career: Goodbye Mr Silicon Chip

Conventional wisdom would expect that my leaving speech should be thirty-two minutes long: one minute for each year of my teaching career. That would be too much for anyone to sit through! A solution; a short speech and an accompanying blog post.

I had drifted into teaching with a degree in Computer Science, a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (Maths, Science and Computing) and an interest in electronics. At the time ‘mini’ computers were becoming popular in the business sector and the ‘micro’ computer was on the near horizon. I had thought that I would teach in a Further Education college, but when I was offered a teaching post for maths and science at a school that I had attended as a student, I could not resist.

I bought the cap and gown; as that was what the teachers were wearing when I had left; I assumed that I would need one. The staff room was the first challenge: where to sit without upsetting some ageing colleague; how to communicate with people, who five years earlier had been teaching me. At that time the school had four staff rooms, two for females, two for males. Although male staff were allowed to enter the female staffroom, generally it was not encouraged unless you had a reason or wanted a cup of tea during the morning break. Failure to present your weekly tea money resulted in an interview with the senior Mistress, not recommended!

The working day was broken down into eight lessons, with the pupils having fixed rooms and the teachers moving to the pupils. The school was really a split site; I did a lot of walking.

I drove to school in my Morris 1000 carrying the executive brief case that I had been given by an Aunt and Uncle for my 21st birthday; I leave teaching driving the same car, and using the same briefcase. I have replaced the blazer and trousers several times but never actually worn my cap and gown. As a Science teacher I soon got into the habit of wearing a Lab-coat. I found that they kept my clothes clean and allowed me to carry all-sorts of useful things in my pockets. Until the early 90’s I wore my Lab-coat for most of the working day and was quite pleased when I was able to claim Tax relief for washing it. During winter months I would wear a ‘Tank-Top’, very practical for a teacher who moved his arms around a lot. I recall the complaint of one Upper-sixth form student who complained that I had warn the same Tank-Top on his First Form (Year 7 in old money), as I had on his Sixth Form photograph! I did wash them, and had quite a few different ones, but global warming came along; the Lab-coats drifted into disuse, the Tank-Top into storage and the top of my Morris 1000 was cut off to create the open-top tourer that I had wanted.

As the young teacher in the Science department I acquired quite a few challenging groups that enjoyed practical work. My favourite experiments were boiling an egg in a paper pan; constructing a loudspeaker from paper, a bit wire and some magnets. Always enjoyed connecting it to the signal generator! Building an electric starter-motor go-cart was quite eventful and enjoyable. I had the same group of students for both Engineering Drawing and Science; they designed and produced the drawings in one subject and then made it in Science.

I made the first computer from a £79 kit, a Science of Cambridge MK14 in 1979. It had a hexadecimal keyboard for input; a seven-segment display for output and a few bytes of memory. The ‘computer game’ was a ‘duck shoot’, a character appearing at random in one of the seven-segment digits with the user expected to hit a key on the keyboard when - sorry forgotten when.

I my early years in the profession I also taught, after school at a local FE College and a University, on Computing night classes. This kept me busy, helped to pay my mortgage but did mean that getting back to school for evening events was often difficult. On one evening I left a night class early, raced back to school, walked into the back the school hall while the HeadTeacher was addressing the annual parents meeting. The HeadTeacher was running out of steam, must have been stuck for something to say, saw me walk in, and announced that we were going to spend £2000 on our first ‘proper’ computer, a state of the art Research Machines 380Z.

When I arrived the school was offering a CSE Mode 3 Computing course; a course ahead of its time. Teachers from across the County worked together to design the course; develop and share resources; set the examination paper, and mark and agree standards. Programming took on a postal dimension using CESIL (ICL home brewed) for Low Level and BASIC for High Level. The results, along with errors arrived back at school one week later!

My work at the local FE College brought me into contact with people who were working in Computing and meant that whenever I needed a visual aid, I only had to ask, and then turn up at their workplace with my trailer. Clearing out these visual aids has been quite difficult during the past few weeks. Who could bear to throw out a picture of Rachael Welsh printed on a 1970’s barrel printer; a deck of 2000 punched cards; reels of paper tape; a first generation circuit board …..? The attic won!

The 1980’s saw the introduction ‘O’ Level, ‘A’ Level and ‘AS’ Level Computing. All courses had coursework requirement that meant we had to chase the hardware that we needed to support the courses. Things evolved through home brewed and wired RM 380Z + BBc networks; through Archimedes RISC Os systems to the commissioning of the first PC network in the County in 1992.

As resources were acquired we needed to find accommodation for them. The computer room/rooms were born. Having aspirations on any and every piece of available space, I was not a popular chap. I did encounter the odd Luddite! Having established an Upper School Room we felt that we (a few folks at least) need a Lower School beach-head. Money was found for a staffing ‘point’ but there was no accommodation to be found. There was one really, really big classroom. Easy, myself along with two Fifth Form students, after their ‘O’ Levels built a room; inside of a room; during a holiday. Generated quite a lot of interest and comment. It even got a mention in the Minutes of a Governors meeting being described as eyesore! Well I was quite proud of it. It did help us to move forward. Health and safety would not be happy with two sixteen year old carrying eight by four sheets of half-inch plywood 10 feet up a pair of ladders. All they then had to do was hold it while I bolted it to the handy-angle frame.

During the early/mid 80’s, before Local Management of schools, money was tight, furniture etc was provided by the Local Authority. We became experts at remodelling and repurposing; classroom would be moved at the drop of a hat; sponsored desk sanding would give desks another life. Our student labour force was second to none, moving, shifting and sanding nearly made it onto the curriculum. We became competent furniture and resources scroungers; as schools closed we would chase after the resources; as black and white TVs gave way to colour, my Morris 1000 carried at least six 26 inch school TVs and stands into school. We established and wired out rooms with two big TVs daisy-chained together to enable whole classes to watch videos. I spent many years throwing wires through ceiling spaces that really I should not have been in.

At the same time that I was trying to bring Computing into the school I took on a responsibility to mange school resources including stationery and Audio Visual. Five staff rooms meant five Spirit Duplicators and a lot of entertainment. The introduction of the photo copier sent cost through the roof. Previously all paper, exercise books, chalk etc was provided ‘free’ to staff and departments. Changing this to a system where departments were delegated budgets from which they had to purchase and control their own stock resulted in my being removed from many Christmas card lists! – but the benefits of the technology; a machine that could remove the colour from a map so that the pupils could colour it in must be good!

I managed to further reduce my Christmas card in-box when I tried to introduce an internal communication system; the pigeon holes. I sited the pigeon hole ‘furniture’ in the Upper School Masters staffroom only to find that an hour later, colleagues had evicted it!

Charging departments for copying, although not popular but it did allow us to dramatically improve the resources available to staff and the printed resources that were being used with learners. This led into the TVEI years when I was heavily involved with many initiatives designed to support a move towards personalised learning. A period of rapid development, that was funded, that let us re-model a multimedia Resource Centre; investigate creative timetabling and staff deployment options and increase the support available to both learners and staff.

We had committed a lot of time and money developing a Multimedia Resources Area only to find that our students did not have information skills that they needed to use it. We also discovered that nowhere in their curriculum, were learners being taught how to use the new Resource Area; they did not have the required Information or Research Skills that they needed. We went on to identify and define the skills and set about integrating them into the curriculum. We made the front page of the TES as the first school to have a newspaper archive, stored on CD-Rom available to pupils to help them with their research. I recall, with our Librarian, setting up a regional group for school librarians interested in developing and supporting Multimedia Resources centres. The discussions on the date of the next meeting always returned to the day/date of market days!

By this time we had quite a large Support Services Faculty that was supporting learning across the school. We extended our support to embrace the local community and contributed to a local community based Open Learning project.

In 1988 removed taught Computing classes from the timetable so that we could release the Computer Rooms for other Departments to use and release the ICT staff to support other teachers in the classroom as they came to terms with ICT.

Parallel curriculum developments, and a change in regulations, led us to franchise a Btec First Award in Engineering from a local college – an arrangement where the school delivered the Core Skills (Maths, English and ICT) while the college delivered the vocational elements. My experience of acting as Course Tutor helped as we prepared for the GNVQ years – the D32, D33 and D34 days, compiling evidence with no recognition of APL! Having been involved with the initial negotiations to franchise a Travel and Tourism course from a local college I became heavily involved with Core Skills and then Key Skills support for our GNVQ students.

And then we ran out of money! Doom and gloom – Support Services Faculty disbanded with many of the team moving on. Every teacher left in the school was in front of a class. I ended up teaching Maths and Technology. Interesting and demanding years; on reflection perhaps I should have moved on at that stage, but I made the decision to stay and ‘take my medicine’ – the common perception was that it had been my vision that had cause a lot of the problem, but it was ‘my’ school.

Things move on; we re-introduced taught ICT courses at all Key Stages and I got involved with Key Skills pilot work. We managed to attract external funding to support curriculum development work. Early work led to the development of the Year 12 careers interviews to satisfy a Level 3 Communications requirement; the end of Year 12 Review meeting to assess IOLP; the school approach to investigations; a school standards manual covering letter writing etc. As many of the process resulting from this development work were integrated into the Year12-13 PSHE programme, I was moved into the Year 12/13 Tutor Team.

For many very enjoyable years I battled with Year 12/13 groups trying to convince them that Action Planning was good; that they needed Employability Skills; that they needed an ePortfolio. During my time with sixth form I was inspired by Angel of the North to get students to design and make a work of art; to make a Phoenix. As part of an activity during a Bridging week students were each given a block of polystyrene and asked to sculpt a head for a Phoenix. It was a competition; 40 students carving polystyrene; mess everywhere, but the ‘winning’ head was cast in aluminium by local foundry. The body was designed and the neck rings were hand beaten by students. The product was too big, heavy and dangerous to kept anywhere on the school site! It saw its days out in my back garden.

This post is becoming too long! – I had better save something for my best seller.

Wrapping up, I must mention the school Pantomimes that I got involved with for the first 10 years of my career. I worked with a team that recognised the relationship between cast size and ticket sales; a team that once they discovered dry ice, thunder flashes and stroboscopic lights, integrated them into every performance. A team that to reduce performing rights costs, wrote their own script and music! Not always perfect, but enjoyable for all.

I have enjoyed many opportunities and many challenges. I have had my share of disappointments. I been very fortunate in that, throughout my career, I have worked with, and enjoyed the support of teams of committed professionals who have always employed their skills and enthusiasm to support learning. I leave my school and my students in their care.

To the thousands of learners that I have worked with, thank you. I have enjoyed watching you grow, learn and develop