Saturday, 29 September 2012


Three weeks into my PGCE and this is my first blog in bloody ages. If only someone had warned me that this course would be so time consuming! I'm already into my second placement (the first was seven days in a primary school - eek!) and have spent hours and hours reading and annotating educational theorists' theories and Ofsted reports. I've observed good, bad and indifferent lessons, met some inspiring practitioners, spent half my bursary on printer ink and have now, thankfully, managed to overcome my shyness and forge some fledgling friendships with fellow students.

The course itself seems excellent. A varied programme of guests, tasks, workshops and lectures has rarely been anything other than illuminating - and has often been thoroughly good fun. My personal tutors (a job-sharing combo of avuncular idealist and maternal pragmatist) are utterly wonderful and, other than the token loud-mouthed irritant, the other student teachers are a decent bunch. I'm the eldest by a good few years, and although there are a couple more 'mature' students, the vast majority are fresh from university. I've yet to succumb to the temptation of going out on one of their regular post-lecture boozing sessions.

The workload has been enormous, with reams of reading to be done, auditing of our own subject knowledge to be completed, spelling and grammar tests, refelective journals, literature reviews and various other tasks to be completed. I'm keeping up admirably, but it's soon time for our first major essay and my first foray into masters-level academic writing. I'm shitting my pants at the prospect - it's a long time since my dissertation on how Napster would change the way we consumed music* - and i've done nothing similar in scope or scale since. I'll need plenty of help with it.

* Reading it again, my dissertation could have been written by Nostradamus. It predicted the rise of mySpace, Spotify, artists giving music away for free, online-only albums and various other digital music innovations. I'd like to have it retrospectively re-marked so that it got the grade it clearly deserved rather than the 2:1 it was awarded.

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Spelling Test

A tiny post this, but one that might interest amateur psychiatrists/psychologists (what is the difference? Is there one? Does anyone care?).

When I was fourteen I did a spelling test. I got 49 correct answers from 50 questions. The word I got wrong was 'restaurant', which I spelt 'restaraunt'. I was fucking furious with myself, despite getting the best score in the class.

This incident was almost twenty years ago. But I remember it vividly and, for some strange reason, recalling that spelling test and my (understandable) error actually embarrasses me. To this very day. Recalling it makes my face flush and burn.

How strange that such a seemingly insignificant memory can provoke such a strong reaction.

My Bestest Teacher Eva

Outside of my amazing parents (foster carers/adopters of troubled children/selfless angels), the most influential person in my life was my drama teacher. To preserve his modesty and my identity, I'll not name him here. Instead, I'll use the pseudonym 'Mr Garbutt' - an in-joke which i'm sure he'd recognise were he ever to read this piece.

Mr Garbutt was everything I'd like to be as a teacher - and lots of things I'd not be allowed to be in the modern profession. As well as being my drama teacher throughout school, he went on to be my Theatre Studies teacher at A-Level. I loved both subjects and achieved an A grade in both - thanks in no small part to his excellent teaching.

Far more important than his skill in the drama studio, though, was the influence he exerted on me outside of class. It's not mere speculation to suggest that he saw something of himself in me - I was a bright kid from a largely uneducated, working class family, just like him. For all their love and affection, my parents could only nurture my intellect to a certain degree. Mr Garbutt recognised this and immediately began the process of stretching me and filling me with a love of books, language and culture which has burned in me ever since.

He furnished me with novels, albums, videos and dog-eared copies of plays. He introduced me to Themroc, Kurt Vonnegut and Harold Pinter, ignited my love of Shakespeare (and The Tempest in particular) and gave me my first taste of Lou Reed. He encouraged me to read a play every week, told me that Antony Sher's The Year of the King was the greatest book about acting ever written (it is - and was discussed with relish with my PGCE interviewer) and it was Mr Garbutt who put me in front of audience for the first time.

From the age of eleven, I was in every school production until I left at eighteen. I was Ariel, Reverend Hale, a cavalcade of colourful characters in Mr Garbutt's original productions and many more. I performed at the National Student Drama Festival, helped run his theatre workshop for younger kids and even returned for a guest appearance in their play after I'd left school.

Further than our 'working' relationship, we had a personal one, too. Post-production parties would be held at his house so the (largely sixth-form) casts of his plays could gather for drinks and food. As I got older, the pair of us actually went out for a meal together a couple of times - probably the first time I'd ever been to a restaurant or eaten Chinese food. I once met him for a chat one evening (he was rightly concerned about some of my extra-curricular activities) and ended up back at his house having a Southern Comfort and watching a documentary about the Manic Street Preachers.

Just as I was set to become the first person in my family to go to university, the whole system of student finance changed: grants abolished, fees introduced and huge loans. I had one of my many crises of confidence: my parents couldn't afford to support me so I couldn't go. What was Mr Garbutt's reaction to this? First coffee. Then counselling. And when that failed, he made me pack a bag, stuck me in his car and drove me to Edinburgh to see an ex-student of his. We stayed in his digs, got a guided tour of the campus, drank in the student union - and I came away invigorated, determined and desperate to escape my tiny town and sample the big city.

I haven't done justice here to the lasting influence Mr Garbutt has had on me. He shaped my life in a way which was above and beyond what ordinary teachers do for their students. Of course, our relationship would be deemed wholly inappropriate now and he'd probably be investigated, castigated or worse. But without him, I wouldn't be who I am today. And although we're still friends over twenty years since we first met, I have never really thanked him.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A Fish Out Of Water

Having laid out my clothes and packed my lunch last night, my first real decision today seemed to be a simple one: left or right. It's a fifty/fifty choice at worst. I chose badly.

Arriving absurdly early, i located the correct building and poked my head inside. There were two waiting areas, one on either side of the doorway. The area to the right was populated by small groups of PGCE students chatting amiably to one another. The one on the left was entirely empty. My choice was thus:
  • Triumph over my sense of social awkwardness, disrupt an existing conversation and ingratiate myself.
  • Sit shyly on my own and hope that a newcomer would come and talk to me.
I opted for the latter and watched the room fill up. But not a single soul came over to my side. Everyone congregated together. I was caught in a Larry Davidesque situation: swallow my pride, get up and go over to everyone else or stubbornly ride it out. Like Larry would've, i chose the latter.

It didn't get much better. I didn't speak to anyone for the whole day unless i was forced to. I'm now worried that i seem aloof or uninterested. I'm not. I'm just fucking dreadful at meeting new people. But given that i'm not shy in a classroom/lecture theatre, i'm aware that i look pretty ignorant elsewhere - it's hard to believe that someone so confident in one sphere can be so utterly useless in another. The sooner my cohort is divided into smaller, more manageable groups, the better.

I also managed to get lost, eat my lunch before 12pm and mislay my favourite (and very expensive) fountain pen. Worse of all, i'm now absolutely shitting my pants about the academic side of the course. The essays, assignments and literature reviews are something i haven't done in more than ten years - and which i did badly then. I'm aware that i'll need extra help with this stuff. But whilst i'm nervous about this, i guess others are more so when it comes to the teaching side of things. What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.

On the positive side, the course leaders and tutors were charismatic, dynamic and inspiring, the freebies from the unions were cracking and the course sounds absolutely brilliant. I'm sure i'll soon get into the swing of university life and my first placement (in a primary school around the corner from my house) begins tomorrow. There's a lot to be done - and a lot to look forward to.

That's it for now - i've got shitloads of papers and handouts to file!

Monday, 3 September 2012


As i'm sure many teachers do, i spend inordinate amounts of looking around for inspirational lesson ideas and wondering how i can transform everyday instances from my life into whizz-bang lessons which link learning with experience in a truly memorable form. Today, i watched a film which did that around 25 times in 100 minutes.

That film was Samsara, an extraordinarily visual documentary crammed with evocative images, eery sequences and arresting ideas. It's a documentary with no dialogue whatsoever. Instead, music links individual scenes from around the world which show everything from religous worship to factory assembly lines to massed martial arts demonstrations. Shot on 70mm film over a period of five years, it's a striking and thought-provoking piece which could have dozens of applications for educationalists.

Often the film's focus is on juxtaposing growth/decay, wonder/disgust, life/death, etc. That's a lesson in itself, illustrating perfectly why juxtaposition works and setting the wheels in motion for some original writing. There are also some wonderful characters whose stories could be explored, amazing landscapes and vistas to inspire writing on setting and some excellent sequences to inspire debate on issues such as vegetarianism and/or animal cruelty.

There's plenty here for teachers of other subjects too: Geography, RE and Citizenship could all draw heavily on passages and scenes of natural phemonena, the nature of devotion and numerous moral issues. Each scene is only a few minutes long too - there's no need to lose half a lesson to showing a clip.

Of course, it'll be a while before Shantaram appears on DVD, but the moment it does i'll be buying a copy. The value of the moving image is huge and it's rarely been captured so beautifully or powerfully. And it beats jerkily buffered YouTube clips any day.

Blogger won't let me embed the trailer here for some reason, so click HERE to go somewhere else and watch it instead!