GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

First impressions

Emma Cooper and Ruari Harris share the challenges and opportunities they have faced in their first two years of teaching.

A rural adventure

For Emma Cooper, humour is very important. She deploys it deftly in the classroom and since working from home due to the Covid-19 lockdown she is channelling it into Quarantine Weekly, a newsletter she started writing for her colleagues to help keep up morale and ease the sense of social isolation. “It’s full of photos, tips and funny quips about eating sandwiches every day and updates about the cat’s constant napping,” explained Emma. “It has taken off and colleagues have started sending in recipes – we even have a wordsearch. I am taking a humorous approach to it and trying to make people smile.”

Emma works at Farr High School on the north coast of Scotland. “It’s such an amazing wee school and the fact that there are 87 kids on the roster blows your mind.” Contrary to some beliefs, working at a small, remote school isn’t easy and the challenges soon became apparent to Emma. She found herself alone in a department that had struggled to recruit a history teacher for some time. “Because the provision was patchy, I had to convince students that history was cool and they should take it as a subject choice. I put a lot of work in. I was overwhelmed in the beginning and had no idea if what I was doing was right.”

She overcame this by talking to fellow history teachers at conferences and online; they gave her a great amount of support and advice. “It helped to talk to people and to share how things are done. I am not sure that feeling of isolation is just a solo-department thing. Even in big departments there is a risk that you can be alone. But you can’t let yourself be like that. You need to speak to other people – a bit like how we are currently, in quarantine.”

Emma said there are fewer essays to mark in her school, but other things, like trying to organise trips is a logistical nightmare and group activities don’t always work as there are not enough pupils for them. “You have to play to the advantages; I can’t do flashy group tasks that are on Instagram, so I spend more time going over stuff with the kids.”

There are also some great opportunities. Last year, Emma taught Advanced Higher History. “I was really lucky as it’s unheard of for someone of my grade to do this in a big school. I had one Advanced Higher candidate and I knew they were going off to university, so I could do seminar-style lessons with him.”

Emma’s hard work has paid off. In a survey, her S2 class said that history was interesting and fun to learn. “For me, the most important thing is for students to look back at their time in history and think ‘Yeah, I liked that’. I hope it inspires them in later life to watch history programmes or visit museums.”

The technology timesaver

When the schools closed due to Covid-19, geography teacher Ruari Harris was asked to head up Banff Academy’s digital response team. “Most mornings were taken up responding to emails from parents and colleagues and helping them troubleshoot the technology,” explained Ruari. “The first week was pretty hectic, then it quietened down, then it got busier again – it’s pits and peaks.”

Ruari’s interest in technology started when he was at school and grew at university. A few years working in retail management really highlighted the valuable role technology plays in reducing repetitive tasks and saving time. This passion stood Ruari in good stead when it came to teaching.

He started using PowerPoint in his classes which meant he wasn’t stuck at a board and could move around the classroom to help pupils who were struggling. It was also dyslexic friendly. “Spending time learning PowerPoint’s full toolset and setting them up allows lessons to flow with minimal disruption. It also allows pupils to refer to them afterwards. Plus my handwriting has always been terrible – writing screeds of information on the board was not going to work for me!”

Even tech-savvy Ruari was challenged by the move to online teaching. “Microsoft have done a lot of research into this. It needs to be different from classroom teaching and ideally remote lessons shouldn’t be any longer than the age of the person you are teaching.”

After receiving feedback from his third-year pupils based on the first week of online teaching and armed with new knowledge from his most recent professional learning, Ruari has changed the way he is structuring his online lessons.

Instead of delivering live lessons and pupils “attending”, known as synchronised teaching, Ruari sets material and checks in with pupils later in the day, an asynchronous method of lesson planning.

“The lesson is now up to six minutes of me talking over PowerPoint, and then I set the activity. Any longer than this and the pupils will zone out. Speaking over the PowerPoint allows me to put an inflection on certain words which helps them understand the task better.”

Ruari continues to help his colleagues and parents in his digital response team role.

His advice for teachers trying to get to grips with technology is to not be disheartened if you don’t know how to do something and, when it comes to online lessons, not to compare yourself to anyone else.

“Think back to what it was like when you first started your career and how nervous and anxious you were and how long it took for you to be confident. We are working to new rules so take it slowly, start simple and keep a growth mindset.”

Ruari’s CLPL Recommendation

One of the best (and briefest) things I have read so far is the Microsoft Innovative Educator CLPL: Staying connected with remote learning through Microsoft Teams and Office 365.