Tag Archives: change

Saying goodbye…how one student changed me as a teacher

imageI’ll be honest, I’m writing this with tears in my eyes and often falling. I’m torn between feeling the need to write, and wondering if it is somehow inappropriate. I hope you’ll bear with me.

This morning a former student of mine named Elliott died from cancer. He was just 19. I taught him for four years and first met him when he was in Year 8 and I was starting my NQT year. He was in the bottom set. All boys. A sink group some say. They were difficult. Obviously I was new so would say that anyway, but there were some real characters known across the school. Elliott wasn’t one of those. He wasn’t a ‘naughty boy’. He faced massive challenges. His mum had suddenly died the year before. No dad either. He suffered from Neurofibromatosis and as a result was only partially sighted, had difficulties with writing and comprehension, and wasn’t always too steady on his feet. But…he always had a go. I don’t believe I ever heard him complain. He took life as it was, and just got on. Didn’t ask for special treatment or expect it.

Elliott changed me as a teacher, and probably didn’t ever realise quite how much. It was November of my NQT year and I was really struggling with this class. One day I remember blurting out something like ‘why won’t you all just give me a chance, I’m trying to help’ and his response will stay with me forever: ‘what’s the point of us getting to know you Miss, you’ll only leave us like everyone else does’. It cut me to the core. The sense of abandonment that a lot of the kids had. Either physical abandonment of people leaving (including a high turnover of staff I guess!) or perhaps apathetic abandonment – of teachers assuming these kids would never amount to anything anyway and so not pushing them or trying their best. It changed me. Made me realise I wanted to work where I was really needed. Wanted to give kids a chance. Wanted to not give up on them.

By February I had the class onside. They realised I wasn’t going anywhere. We had fun. We shared. I learned lots about their experiences too. We had good discussions. They weren’t angels but we made progress and they did well. They respected me and we had each other’s backs – they knew I would support them, and equally they supported me. I remember one time when a new lad joined the class who was quite violent. We got off to a bad start when he took offence at me asking him to not damage another child’s book and when he stormed out of the room he pushed me into the filing cabinets. The reaction of the rest of the boys was protectiveness of me, and Elliott stood there saying ‘you better apologise to Miss, she’s our Miss, and you’ll have to answer to us otherwise’! This from a lad with tumours growing in his fragile body bless him! (Obviously I did talk to them about threatening language but you get what I mean!)

One lad changed my attitude to teaching and my way of dealing with situations. I look for reasons more, try to find solutions (not excuses), I don’t give up straight away on what looks hopeless. He wasn’t a naughty lad, but he had an influence on them. The toughest kids respected him. And seeing the comments on the news and Facebook in memory of him today shows that he made a difference to a lot of people. One comment really tugged at me where Elliott had said he wished he had had a talent. Heartbreaking. He did. His talent was being Elliott, a brave young man who didn’t complain and just had a go despite everything. Can’t ask for a better talent than that. Thank you.

“The greatest battle is not physical but psychological. The demons telling us to give up when we push ourselves to the limit can never be silenced for good. They must always be answered by the quiet, the steady dignity that simply refuses to give in. Courage. We all suffer. Keep going.” (Graeme Fife)

Message to my younger self…or what I wish I’d known

Jo_Darren_youngAnother part of the #28daysofwriting Staffrm challenge.

I’m sure we all have plenty of things we wish we had known when we are younger. And how much of the time do we then try and force (not always helpfully) that information on the students in our care? “You’ll regret this…. when you’re older”, or “when I was your age….”, or “I wish someone had said this to me when I was your age….”, etc. After all, what is the perk of getting older if it means we can’t pass on such wisdom as ‘don’t run with pointy objects’ to the next generation?!


The first image was from a family climbing trip when I ‘earned’ my first climbing boots, and the second image from a friends’ teenage trip to Cornwall. Such innocent times. All that mattered was being outdoors, friends and family, pets, and food. So maybe things haven’t changed that much… 😉

So, what would I have told myself in my youth? 

1) Relax. I went to an all girls’ grammar school. I was fortunate and had teachers I (mostly) liked but we were always under pressure to achieve and exceed. It was frowned upon to say that your ambition was to have a family, and you were schooled from day one to be career minded and ambitious. I didn’t really want that, I wanted simple things. We weren’t encouraged to spend time learning useful things like cooking as it was considered ‘sooooo anti-feminist’. You were seen as failing if you dropped a mark at any point, and guilt tripped for letting the team down. I didn’t learn to relax, and didn’t feel I had time to do other pursuits.

2) Learn a musical instrument. I always fancied the clarinet but we couldn’t really afford it and I wasn’t disciplined enough to teach myself. I did learn to play the piano, ish, but struggled with reading music as left it too late really. It’s a shame as I love music, and love singing, and my whole family are so musical.

3) Don’t fall so hard and fast. Don’t marry the first guy that asks 😉 Mum always said ‘more hast, less speed’ and she’s always right grrr.

4) Maintain a foreign language. I loved learning French and Spanish, but they fade so quick. Why is it that random Latin verbs still stick in my head but useful phrases in languages that still exist do not?!

5) Grow a thicker skin sooner. Risks are fun and exciting. You don’t have to laugh and pretend it’s all ok, admitting weaknesses is not itself a sign of weakness. People who admit they need help aren’t necessarily helpless.

One thing I do know. My teenage self would have laughed hysterically to find I’m a teacher. Who’s laughing now eh?! 😉

‘Manglish’ – or putting the Maths & English in

This was written as part of the Staffrm #28daysofwriting and since I’ve been spending time writing posts on there every day it seems to make sense to add over them here! So here it is.

BeBo getting his reading on
BeBo getting his reading on

I remember at a previous school a few years ago when summer GCSE results dropped to floor level…and all eyes turned to the poor Maths department. Suddenly it was ‘them vs us’, they were the ones who had ‘let the school down’. Spotlight scrutiny was placed on them whilst others wandered round feeling slightly smug or perhaps a little self-righteous that ‘it wasn’t me’. My best friends were in that department, and I knew just how hard they were slogging to get kids to make progress. There were many contributing factors but largely they simply didn’t have the support needed: they needed the rest of the school to be a team. The following year results went up, but now others moaned about losing their curriculum time in order to increase Maths lessons. Then the next year it was English’s turn to have a drop. Different circumstances in some ways, but similar responses. The general vibe was still ‘how could they let this happen’ – as if the rest of us could have done better.

Schools still act in silos. Islands of separate identities with internalised strengths and weaknesses that keep themselves worlds apart. It’s all well and good having whole school numeracy and literacy policies, but until it becomes the everyday language of every teacher and until every one of us accepts responsibility for English and Maths results then really we are still just paying lip service. I say this as someone who has a love of literacy, and who is Numeracy coordinator (don’t ask how that happened, I have no idea). Teachers in my current school do have a good team ethos, and at last INSET we chose various training sessions to develop our own literacy or numeracy as it is important to keep ourselves up to speed not just in our own subject areas. But the key thing is consistency. Consistently using the right language (ideally same as in ‘official’ Maths and English classes), consistently making explicit to learners that ‘now we’re developing your literacy skills’, consistently using the same techniques (as a geographer it’s frustrating finding that Maths and Science use different methods for the same graph!), and consistently embedding Maths and English exercises within our curriculum – whatever subject.

I bought Lisa Jane Ashes ‘Manglish’ book today (admittedly when I first saw the title I thought it was a translation dictionary of ‘man English’ but let’s be honest, could such a thing really exist 😉 ?). I’ve only flicked through briefly so far but it’s the simple statement she asks us to ask ourselves that resonated: asking ‘where is the Maths (or English) in that?’ for any activity. We should do this every lesson! I’ve been observing my team this week and seen some great literacy and numeracy activities, but each time it needed to be made explicit to learners that ‘here comes the maths part’. Why are we shy about saying we are doing something normally found in another subject? Are we afraid children will accuse us of poaching lessons?! Isn’t it about time we showed learners that we, as professionals, can teach ANYTHING and EVERYTHING in our lessons? Time to raise the bar, to accept responsibility. At the end of the day: Manglish matters.

End of an era, dawn of something new

August 31st marks the official end of an era for @priorygeography as our once illustrious leader David Rogers has headed off to Patcham High for new adventures and I take over from him. Big shoes to fill, big footprints left to either follow or forget.

I started at Priory as a naive, ‘pink and fluffy’, fairly clueless NQT in 2008. Now, 5 years later, I have just seen my first tutor group successfully complete their GCSEs and leave the nest…and I am sure others’ will testify that I am still fairly clueless, generally pink and fluffy, but maybe a little less naive! It’s been an absolute privilege working with David and the team he has carved out over the years. It’s been a mission as well, but such an amazing learning curve. Two months into my NQT I thought I would be out of there as soon as I passed, that I wasn’t good enough or up to the challenge of what the kids needed. But I’ve never regretted the decision to join, nor the decision to stay so long. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that as soon as a teacher hits the three year marker they should be a head of department. When I attended conferences/CPD, especially being in the shadow of Mr R, I would get questions about why I wasn’t stepping out on my own, as if it was a sign of weakness or inability. Truth is, I just enjoyed being where I was. I loved the team I was in and that is something that is hard to find. We had adventures, played pranks, challenged ourselves, did crazy stuff like chalk graffiti over the school walls, and we were on a mission to improve the department and give learners a better experience. Why move when you can be part of something special?

It’s been a hard but epic few years, and with happy endings. I’m proud of the department and of whatever small part I played in helping to build it, and hope that we can continue to build on this and go from strength to strength while I am at the reins. Luckily I have the immense foundation of Sam Atkins to work with in the next year – though I know it won’t be long before he’s looking to lead his own department.

2013_14 is going to be an interesting challenge. We have a new member of the department fresh over from Canada who will keep us youthful and on our toes I’m sure. GCSE and KS3 changes to consider. There are the usual stresses of improving achievement and results, especially while the whole school goes through turbulent times. I was happy to see our Geography results improve nicely again this summer, with some notable success stories, and we need to build on this. We hope to reacquire the GA SGQM this year, and have been asked to take part in the Global Learning Programme as a leading department. We are also working on the Prince’s Teaching Institute quality mark and I’ve been asked to be a subject leader for this inspiring programme which is exciting. There is the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference at Berkhamsted to look forward to (will figure out something to talk about one day hopefully!) in March – see #tlab14 and lanyrd for more info. I’m hoping to get more involved in the Geography Collective and we will be continuing to work with other schools and local teachmeets as well, starting with #tmpompey on 17th September. Sign up here!

I’ll be honest. I’m dead nervous about the next year. It’s a scary thing to keep the momentum on a department that has been so much in the headlights and on such an improving curve. Stepping into those footsteps is a little overwhelming, but I am reminded that those shoes are just shoes, that path just one way of many. I don’t want to be the leader that sees the department I love and helped build slip into decline, but I’m confident we’ll battle through. I’m sad to see the team change, but excited for the new beginnings. I’d better say official congratulations and good luck to the old boss as well 😉

In case you fancy something cheesy, here’s our goodbye video celebrating five years of fun. Thanks for the journey, it’s been intense! Now let’s find the next path.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” (Semisonic, ‘Closing Time’)

Prince’s Teaching Institute Day 3 lectures

Jonathan Darling : population & migration

I wasn’t always the keenest on ‘human geography’ but there are so many interesting topics that are relevant for our students. We teach migration in KS3 as well as for GCSE and it can lead to great discussions and debates on politics, population control, democracy, human rights, geopolitical boundaries, quality of life – and to challenging misconceptions and potential racism / discrimination.

Darling commented on the rising number of international migrants – approx 3.1% of world population is migrant – but that the dispersal is uneven throughout the globe. Immigration accounts for 40% of population growth in OECD countries during 2001-2011, but the impact on their GDP was negligible therefore going against those who argue migrants can have negative impact on economy. Migrants are disproportionately affected by financial crisis / recession so there is a geography here. He stated most refugees remain within their region of origin, that only 17% of refugees will make asylum requests outside of origin (due to lack of resources etc,) so those who do make it further are likely to be better educated / better resource. In fact refugees to the UK tend to be disproportionately better skilled relative to the wider UK population (23% skilled vs 12% of pre-existing residents).

He stated that migration is likely to continue to rise due to continued global inequalities, political disturbances, unpredictable conflict, resource depletion and climate change, and that as the global south develops it provides resources to enable those populations to then be more mobile and migrate – therefore relocating.

Interestingly there are future climate refugees in Alaska. Many settlements in Alaska are built near rivers and coastlines to enable access to resources, but these areas are at risk of climate change and therefore future is uncertain. So while migration units often focus on LEDCs as examples, why not focus on modern day and alternative refugee situations? Decision making scenarios?

There is apparently an increasing death toll annually for Mexican to USA migrants as the routes have become increasingly more dangerous ; the natural geography of the area has been exploited as a geopolitical tool, ie. officials can police key areas which then forces migrants to attempt other routes which are geographically more difficult (mountainous, rivers, etc,.) What I found fascinating is that there is an emergence of resistance groups, e.g. Humane Borders, No More Deaths, Brinco trainers, etc,. The Brinco trainers is a great potential resource for migration decision making exercises / debates / the role of social enterprise action as they can be bought as ‘charity’ to be given out to migrants and they include a map of the area, compass, etc,.! Love it. See here for details.


Klaus Dodds : polar scrambles

A great topic for looking at resource management, environmental responsibility, conflict, etc,. contesting the sovereignty and governance of Arctic and Antarctic regions and all the geopolitical issues involved with this.

Dodds noted how the Arctic had been seen as a ‘last frontier’ but it is increasingly accessible and is also a resource treasure chest. This has therefore led to geopolitical scrambles to claim territory / rights to resources and governance. With rapid environmental change in Arctic regions, particularly the decline of Greenland ice sheet and Northern Europe glaciers, and the impact of increasing freshwater, this is a cross-theme topic. There are concerns about resource exploitation & tourism: potential for becoming the ‘Polar Mediterranean’ with all the potential knock-on consequences. There are also implications that other nations (eg. UK, China, etc.) will be able to stake a claim to these Arctic areas if it becomes a thoroughfare; with increasing accessibility and increasing awareness of this ‘global commons’ there is a debate about whether the area ‘belongs’ to the Arctic states or who owns the ocean (and its resources) etc,. So this leads to an interesting sociopolitical discourse on the rights of indigenous populations. There is also the issue of contesting sovereignty in coastal states : that sovereignty doesn’t end at the beach, there are claims for resources and access to oceans off-coast which go beyond the traditional political boundaries. There are also disputes over access to transport routes such as North West Passage and Northern Trade Route; with Russia becoming increasingly concerned about security if increasing shipping through these routes.

Dodds commented on the considerable potential resources still to be realised in these areas (e.g. Gas and oil deposits off shore in Greenland, etc). These resources are essential to Greenland’s aim to become independent. Again a political-environmental topic. Furthermore there is conflict between Greenpeace and Arctic communities. To many, the Arctic is a global space because of its intrinsic links to global issues (such as freshwater, sea level change, climate change, resource potential, etc,.) but Arctic communities such as in Greenland do not like outside agencies / NGOs coming in and saying what should or should not happen in their backyard.

The issues are similar for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean regions managed by the Antarctic Treaty, i.e. concerns about environmental change, particularly uncertainty on scale and rate of ice melt, and resource exploitation, the regulation of Antarctic tourism in response to increasing accessibility & mobility, resource use and rights, etc,.
There is potential for activities regarding Greenpeace involvement on whaling, protecting the ‘park’ status of the wilderness, illegal fishing, arguments over fishing rights, e.g. ‘Illegal’ whaling by Japan vs Australia , and over mineral rights.

Dodds conclusions:

– Polar regions remain an ironic hotbed of geopolitical scrambles for knowledge, access, governance, and resources
– the contesting and confusing issue of sovereignty, security and stewardship is likely to increase