If at first…
Conquering the most difficult of challenges requires dedication, determination and bravery. But as James Brown illustrates, the rewards are all the more satisfying
James Brown, Teacher of Geography, History and Religious Studies
Looking back 10 years, a younger me would have balked at the idea of teaching. My experiences in school were positive and I enjoyed the social aspects greatly. However, the workload was tough and the expectations to achieve were quite high, high enough that the pressure was almost overwhelming. Matters were made more complex by my dyslexia, which at that stage I did not understand and was, because of this, more of an obstacle than it is now.
I was identified as dyslexic at the ripe age of nine, and I remember giving more attention to the stationery in the office than to the gentleman who was testing me. I received learning support in school and extra time in exams, which was helpful at relieving some of the pressure; likewise at university, the support was very robust. On leaving university with a degree in Geography, I was encouraged by my elder brother to come and sleep on the floor of his flat in Hackney and work in a start-up estate agent’s in London.
It was whilst working there, one muggy August day in Notting Hill Gate, that I had a rare lightbulb moment – “I loved school and I love geography, I should put the two together and see what happens!”
In the following weeks, I applied for the position of games coach and graduate teaching assistant at St Mary’s School, Melrose (which is a preparatory school for the ages of 2 to 13), and later packed my bags, and headed north. Over the next two years, I supported children in the classroom, undertook a PGCE at the University of Buckingham and embarked on my career as an NQT.
If students enjoy class and you have a strong rapport with them, they will go beyond expectation
The thing I remember most about independent teaching was how nervous (and sweaty) I would become, standing in front of 20-odd children who, in all fairness, would wait quite patiently to be taught! However, I am now a very comfortable and passionate classroom practitioner, and this has been influenced by my own experiences as a dyslexic learner in school and by the help and support of Dyslexia Scotland, an organisation I became involved with as a Young Ambassador and which has opened my eyes to understanding many learning differences.
One of the key elements of my teaching is, “to teach students, as I would have wanted to be taught when I was their age.”
Firstly, the joy of teaching Geography, History and Religious studies is that I can make my lessons incredibly visual and experience based. In Geography, we can watch videos of earthquakes and discuss what would have led to such violent shaking of the earth, and how the underlying tectonics influence this. We can go and look at how the River Tweed meanders refreshingly and at times boisterously through the middle stage of its course, as it lies less than 100 meters away.
In History, I play games such as the “hot seat” and “pointless” as methods of consolidation and formative peer assessment to encourage a competitiveness and love for learning in the classroom. And there is nothing more exciting than re-enacting battles such as Bannockburn or doing a murder mystery such as the death of John “The Red” Comyn at the hands of Robert Bruce.
Secondly, I want my students to be as relaxed as possible. I rarely felt this when at school and believe that if I had done so more often, I would have excelled further. Yes, there are exams and academic pressures. However, I downplay these within reason and encourage moments of simple chat to foster a happy and open mind to classroom learning. If the students enjoy class and you have a strong rapport with them, they will go beyond expectation for you.
The third element of my approach is to ask for help and support from more experienced staff members. I make mistakes with my spelling and grammar; this is a fact emphasised, yes, by my dyslexia. I do my best to make sure mistakes are edited out of lessons, but there is no harm in asking for a second or third opinion. There is no shame in it.
We as professionals should enjoy our teaching as well, and strive to share these experiences with our students to make the job worthwhile; involve yourself with the games and classroom activities.
There is one saying that I have heard crop up from time to time and that is, “Never smile until Christmas.” However, I think teaching is about building bridges and having a rapport with the young people who look up to us; smiling is the best thing we can do. There will be trying times, of course, it is the same in any job, but if we accept the faults, limitations and flaws of not just our students but ourselves, then we will be far better practitioners for it.