Tom first joined Capel Manor College as an under-gardener in 2009 after an environmental conservation degree, several years in industry and a BTec in horticulture. He then started part-time lecturing in horticulture at the college before going full-time in 2014 and now three days a week because of childcare duties at home.
How did you get into horticulture?
After A-levels in 2000, I studied environmental conservation at Sheffield Hallam University, fell in love with gardening in my first job at a garden maintenance firm before moving to London to do a level 3 BTec at Capel Manor College. Work as a nursery manager and at Gardening Which? magazine followed until I returned to the college in under-gardener and then senior gardening roles. I was also asked to teach part-time and then went full-time in 2014 as a lecturer and assessor.
What’s your main role?
I currently teach City & Guilds (C&G) courses three days a week. I manage the level 2 C&G technical certificate in horticulture course and lecture on the level 3 C&G technical diploma in horticulture. Both courses emphasise health and safety, with level 2 including an all-important business unit. This is key for our 16-19 age cohort who aim to work in horticulture; some may not have GCSEs so get a chance to build on their life skills, including maths and English, within a practical environment.
L2 students finish able to operate and service a wide range of horticultural machinery and have built up in-depth knowledge of plant science, structure and identification - despite a shock to the system, they get to know and love all the Latin names! Some level 2 students progress to level 3, which attracts more mature applicants.
What’s a typical day?
My hours are roughly 8am-5pm - plus marking and admin, though not excessive. We generally study theory in the mornings with practicals after lunch. Much of our work is seasonal, so for instance we’ll do the plant and soil science unit largely indoors in the winter. Across the year we’ll split our time inside and out roughly half and half for both levels 2 and 3. The maximum number per course is 15.
Students learn how to use hedge-cutters, lawnmowers, strimmers and rotavators, and sometimes see chainsaws and other equipment demonstrated by students on other courses during joint outside projects.
Afternoons see students putting into practice individual skills they have learned such as maintenance gardening and individual tasks such as pruning, planting and propagation. We have a new teaching greenhouse and three polytunnels, with a walled garden and display greenhouses open to the public. The college gardeners say what garden maintenance tasks need doing, such as sowing seeds, taking cuttings and planting out, and the students do them to order just as they would for real clients.
Name two specific activities undertaken recently?
Over the past three weeks, we have supported up to 20 ‘vulnerable’ students during the COVID lockdown, directing them to do general gardening tasks such as deadheading, planting and weeding, while other students have come in finish off assessments.
In a normal year, we’d plant out seasonal bedding twice a year. So one student group would clear last year’s plants, prepare the ground for planting and then do scaled drawings of specific areas, mark out geometric shapes for plant designs on the ground and plant accordingly. The plants would then stay in their beds for five months before another student cohort would repeat the exercise.
We’d take annual trips to nurseries, which helps build industry contacts and visit public and National Trust properties such as Hatfield House gardens, Royal Horticultural Society venues and Kew. In fact, Kew is one of our apprentices' employers and so we’ll have ex-students, now full-time at Kew, giving our current students really informative back-of-house tours.
What particular challenges does the job bring?
Sometimes it can be about engaging the students - a challenge all teachers face on occasion - or working to a smooth timetable suddenly messed up by two weeks’ unexpected snow or excessive heat. You have to be flexible in your approach to students and amending timetables. In the end, as long as we are all safe we can work outside - everyone just has to be properly dressed or in the shade. Give me a cold day over a baking hot day any time!
What inspires your students most?
They like being outside, doing physical, practical work and they love ‘weird and wow ’ stories on, say, the life cycle of an aphid, any type of creepy crawly, or how carnivorous plants are the result of natural adaptation, - anything with interesting, amusing facts!
Any teaching tricks of the trade?
Individual coaching and one-to-one sessions even within a class are key for younger students who may not have had such a great time at school. I aim for good differentiation between learners, and when posing questions to students I get them to research the answers themselves. I am always praising good work and giving them instant feedback.
Any achievements you are proud of?
Each year we take part in one of the major horticultural shows like the Chelsea Flower Show, where we have won gold and silver medals, or the Ideal Home Show. , where students met Prince Charles. Last year all our students spent two months in the summer designing, building, landscaping and planting the country’s largest ever show garden (one acre) at Hatfield House’s Game Show. It was amazing seeing all the skills they had learned come to fruition. A great bookend to the year.
How have you coped with lockdown?
All cohorts have had remote teaching. I’m in regular contact with my students and often use videos via the Microsoft videoconferencing program, Teams. I oversee research projects and students’ presentations; staff have produced a range of distant learning resources for use via our virtual learning environment, Moodle; and as digital natives, our students have not been fazed at all!
What personal qualities and skills do you need?
Lecturers should aim to teach many subjects but show a real passion for their own specialism; it then rubs off on the students. You need to be organised and have IT skills, particularly now with online learning. IT makes admin and comms so much quicker and improves work/life balance.
A horticultural qualification, lots of industrial experience and professional accreditations in areas like use of chainsaws, pesticides and many others. Plus CPD - it keeps you up to date and you can see other people training and teaching. You don’t need a degree but you do need a higher level of knowledge than your students. Industrial experience is just as important, if not more so than an academic qualification.
A key interview question to candidates seeking your type of role?
What’s your favourite garden? It allows candidates to show their passion for horticulture and puts them at ease, as they are talking about something that grabs them.
What spurs you on to work each day?
A passion for my subject and a desire to see my students progress.
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