For Ruth

Some time towards the end of last year I received a lovely message from someone who had been on the same science PGCE course as me. This was at Homerton, way back in (gulp) 1999. She wondered how I had managed to stay so enthusiastic about teaching over the last 15 years. I promised to provide a burbicular reply and, as it’s currently half term with no lesson ideas to describe, here goes…

I think it’s important to admit that I’ve been very lucky. Lucky with the students I’ve taught, the schools I’ve taught at and the departments I’ve worked in. I’ve had some absolutely wonderful and inspiring colleagues who have shared the sense of fun and creative adventure that come with the job. My line managers have also been very generous and supportive in giving me the freedom to do pretty much whatever I like – a sense of autonomy is key to job satisfaction.

Self-confidence is important. I’ve never been too bothered by public exam results – I strongly believe that students who are interested and excited by your subject will want to do well, will work very hard in order to do well, and end up, surprise surprise, doing well. Endless past paper questions supported by endless past mark schemes seems to me the surest way to kill enthusiasm, both for student and teacher. I don’t have many rules in my lessons, but absolutely no-one gets to ask, “do I need to know this for the exam?” “What?!?!? You’re asking whether you NEED to know about how motor proteins literally walk their transport vesicles along your cells’ cytoskeleton super-highways? Sorry, why are you studying Biology?” In truth, the situation hardly ever arises.

But there are two absolutely vital ingredients. First, I love, absolutely love, Biology. Having done a first degree in English Literature, I’ve had to teach myself Biology as I go along. That made for a hairy first year, where I was seldom more than half a page ahead of the class, and where the precocious Year 9 student who asked my about the precise function of ribosomes had me almost in despair (I hadn’t got to ribosomes in the textbook at that point). So I’ve had all the exhilaration of learning a subject for the very first time (lordy lordy, how Biology has changed since I did it for A-level!) a process that continues to this day (what an unfair advantage Biology has, with new discoveries and innovations appearing every day in the news – right now, I’m goggling with amazement at the extraordinary T-cell trials on cancer patients). My enthusiasm for Biology, my amazement that a)this stuff actually happens and b)we’ve figured it out, is entirely genuine. It’s something I tell my students as they emerge, blinking with wonder at the intricacies of Chemisosmosis, breast milk antibody production, or DNA replication – think how wonderfully lucky we are to be alive at a time and place in history where we actually understand How It Works.

But enthusiasm alone butters no parsnips in the classroom. The second reason that I continue to love teaching is the creative bit, the process whereby you convert your own love of a subject into a format that makes it interesting, accessible, enjoyable, stimulating, memorable for the students. I continually ask myself – would I enjoy this lesson? Do I find this interesting? Would I tell my parents about this? Last week, I managed to get my Year 8s to work out the speed of light based on the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter. Relax – it’s not on any specification – but I was fascinated by this. First, the historical context, how Ole Romer first realised that light must have a speed in the first place. And then the ingenious, pain staking observations and measurements that produced an answer astonishingly close to the actual figure. I wanted my students to know about this, but I also wanted them to do it for themselves. How do you do that? How do you structure a lesson in such a way that enables students to replicate the work of a 17th century genius? I thought about role play – students revolving round each other and eclipsing each other – but eventually I came up with a model involving a candle, a tennis ball, a nitrogen molymod and a hydrogen molymod. They had to set this up as a mini-solar system and to imagine themselves on the blue ball, looking out into space. What would they see? What could they measure? What would change as the Earth circled the Sun? Could they put it all together?

And it worked. Actually, one very useful thing about the model was that I could immediately see if a group was stuck, as they would start playing with the candle or throwing the tennis ball around. That was the cue for rapid intervention! But they did it, triumphantly demonstrating their deduction of 220,000 km/s and feeling justifiably pleased with themselves. When a lesson like that works, it can make your week.

Over the years, I’ve got better and better at this. I’ve grown to understand what works and what does not work in a classroom. And I’ve never wanted to stop trying new things. I dread the thought of getting into a rut. I dread the possibility that I might become dull or predictable or cynical. So I work very hard to try and stop this happening. I like the knowledge that I’m good at my job and I derive huge satisfaction from seeing the positive effect it can have on my students.

Ruth – has that answered your question?

 

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