I’ve always loved making things and just got hooked on blacksmithing during a work placement at school aged 15. There’s a lot of mystery and science behind blacksmithing; I’ve always wanted to know how things are made, and how far I can push my material to make them work. It’s great showing students the proper way of doing things.
How did you get into blacksmithing?
After GCSEs at school, I trained for five years at my current college, taking a Btec level 2 and and a level 3 extended diploma in blacksmithing and metalwork and staying on to do a BA degree in artistic blacksmithing in 2003. I ran my own business for almost 10 years, looking after ironwork in many places, and latterly focusing on conservation/restoration work. But as my own boss, I always needed to find my next client. I realised I either had to start adapting to a changing business world or, as a teacher, I could show people how to blacksmith and enjoy a more constant, reliable career as teacher. Someone recommended I apply for a vacancy at my old college. I joined in 2016 as a level 3 course tutor with no teaching qualification but soon started a part-time, two-year, level 5 foundation degree in education based on evening classes over two years. My previous level 6 degree in blacksmithing allowed me to teach higher education students.
Any challenges when moving from industry to teaching?
I didn’t realise teaching is so much more than simply showing how to do things - it also encompasses pastoral care and all the things you have to comply with to ensure students get their qualifications. Mental health in and outside college has become a key issue. Also, when you blacksmith you don’t think about how you do it, whereas teaching is all about explaining ‘how’, differentiating your teaching for students at different levels and ensuring they’re all learning and improving. I started reflecting a lot, realising I shouldn’t ever fear messing up a demo but admit when it happens and say let’s try again. The best way to learn is fail first!
What’s your main role?
I’m lead technical tutor on our degree course. I’m the link person between two colleges (my college hosts the technical side of blacksmithing, while Hereford Art College delivers the degree course and covers the art and design side). I also teach level 2 technical skills one morning each week and cover colleagues at levels 2 and 3 when needed. My degree students are very diverse, many from overseas; some at level 3 and 4 arrive with technical skills, while others have none but can draw. This year out of 55 people on the degree course we have five female students. We have 50 at level 2 and about 40 on the two-year level 3 extended diploma. We’re very oversubscribed and there’s a long waiting list.
On the degree course, I run technical exercises in time blocks. I teach the basics up to where students understand a process; then I teach them to teach themselves how to use that process to independently inform their artwork, set themselves a brief, and do their own research and design. If say, a student, cuts a piece of metal in half with a chisel and then repeats the exercise with a different tool, the outcome will be different. They have to find this out for themselves - I don’t want to make 100s of clones of me but 100s of individual artists.
Level 2 and 3 students get taught the basic forging skills of forming, cutting, joining and welding and using them in projects, such as creating a hanging basket bracket (level 3 cohort). They also study art and design, technical drawing, artistic drawing, fabrication and sheet metalwork skills. Hereford is one of just three or four UK colleges offering blacksmithing courses; we attract many overseas students.
What’s a typical day?
Covid has caused longer campus working hours to keep student bubbles separate. So the level 2s are now taught in two bubbles (one group comes in on Mondays and the other on Tuesdays), and level 3s (Thurs and Fri) though I don’t teach them unless I am covering for colleagues. Degree students (I teach them Tues through to Thurs) are on campus all week. I start degree teaching at 8.30am and often go through to 5pm with short coffee breaks and a lunch interval. Halfway through the day, I swap to another group and run on until 8.30pm. Hopefully we’ll shorten the hours when covid restrictions are lifted. If we’re doing a technical exercise, I will be demoing throughout and offer recaps if any student doesn’t understand something. On Fridays I work from home online - and help solve individual problems. We also have weekly online talks from international guest speakers and invite other colleges to log in too.
What recent tasks have you undertaken?
We’ve been discussing the end of year degree show - I’ve been organising steel deliveries and other materials to be used in the show. Level 2 students have been making toasting forks, while second year level 3s have created a relief pattern out of copper sheeting.
What do students like best in your classes?
Making things at the forge site - they all want to progress to the next thing and you have to slow them down and get them to repeat an exercise if they’ve rushed it. It’s teaching them patience to create something artistic.
What do you like teaching most?
How to create the most difficult pieces and really push our creative boundaries. I like fiddly little things that students are not so keen on yet they don’t realise how much they learn from the exercise.
Any achievements you are proud of?
Students will sometimes take a long time to learn how to use a blacksmith’s hammer so I try to ‘tune them up’. ‘Throwing’ the hammer is so fast, you can’t see the detail of what is happening so with my students’ permission I’ve started videoing them hammering in slo-mo and using their own phones so they can keep the video. We then sit round and discuss their various techniques, point out mistakes and perhaps adjust the swing of their arm. Some people used to take months to get this but now it takes a few minutes and frees them up to do more fun things. Using a hammer with the right width of handle for each individual is crucial so rather than rehandle I use gaffa tape to thicken and mould the existing handle of their hammer and suddenly it works for them. You can get aches and pains in your shoulder if you don’t grip a hammer properly.
What personal qualities and skills do you need?
Acute self-awareness of what you are doing - every time you hit a piece of hot steel with a hammer it reacts, so you have to be thinking two hammer hits ahead. You also need to be a people person and have infinite patience as there are so many characters and issues; a quick-thinker - each student will ask on average five different questions a day; and someone who can build an ability to quickly differentiate your teaching to meet students’ individual needs.
10 years of industrial experience is more important than a teaching qualification (which your college will normally sponsor you for when you start teaching). You need the equivalent of what you are going to teach in qualifications, eg a degree in blacksmithing to teach on degree courses.
Any advice for would-be lecturers?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from colleagues. If I don’t know something or a student doesn’t get what I am saying, I’ll suggest they approach another teacher or someone they know in industry, who might explain things differently.
A key interview question for would-be applicants?
How would you approach a student with mental health problems?
What gets you up in the morning?
It’s the students themselves - they’re brilliant! I treat them all the same - as people who want to learn. They have such diverse backgrounds, beliefs, nationalities and ages (16-58 this year) and we all just get on.