Neil Stewardson notched up 30 years on the shop floor as a highly skilled mechanical engineer but it meant constant shift and weekend /bank holiday work. He wanted a change. The idea of full-time training beckoned as he’d already spent some 20 years supervising apprentices in workshop techniques as part of his job. To find out more, he attended a first aid training session put on by a friend, liked what he saw, and checked with Leeds City College about how he could pass on his own wide-ranging experience. In 2019 he applied for a technician’s job but, given his background, the college instead offered him a full-time teaching role. The question now was: how did he get the confidence to know if he really could grab the attention of a class of teenagers?
How did you get into mechanical engineering?
I’d really enjoyed a school work experience in engineering, so after doing GCSEs I immediately signed up for a three-year precision engineer apprenticeship at Barnsley College with Dale Tool, a small engineering firm serving the coal industry. I learnt all the skills I teach now - lathe, grinding, milling, cutting and general benchwork skills plus use of measuring devices and knowledge of quality systems. Redundancy struck and I got work as a CNC (computer numerical control) machinist. Various jobs followed across all major mechanical engineering disciplines, including fabrication, welding, pipe fitting . . . you name it. I’ve been around a bit and covered most of what I teach. But I really wanted a change of scene - the shift patterns were wearing me down.
How was the move from shop floor to classroom?
The toughest part was gaining the confidence to know I could actually teach. I knew what I was talking about but could I put over the theory side? Other than that, my training background with apprentices made my transition quite a natural process: the job started in August and by September I was teaching for real. I did get a lot of help from my fellow staff members who set me up with something to teach and then it was basically: “There’s your class, go on and do it!” It was nerve-wracking at first and I quickly realised getting on with the students was crucial. The part-time, two-year teacher training certificate of education course I’ve been on since starting in September 2019 has really helped me control class behaviour and structure lessons.
Any interesting incidents in your first few weeks?
You kind of assume the students are all there to listen and learn so it’s quite a shock to realise many would much rather sit there and talk among themselves. You have to control the lesson rather than just be there. There was a lot to take in about behaviour tactics and structuring teaching sessions at first. It was often quite hard work: preparing lessons, refreshing my memory on various subjects and researching syllabus areas I was not so familiar with took up a lot of time, but I wanted to be on top of everything I might teach and could be asked questions about. The work seemed never-ending initially but it soon got easier!
What’s your main role?
I teach full-time BTec students and apprentices (who attend one or two days a week) up to level 3, covering health and safety, engineering theory, materials and practical subjects such as CNC and manual lathe skills. Classes generally comprise 10 to 20 students. Each week I take 10 classes; each lasts a minimum of two hours with some much longer. I see around 50-60 students a week, many of them doubling up for different lessons.
What’s a typical day?
I’m usually in college before 8am; I have two lessons on Monday; work at home with no planned teaching on Tuesday; four sessions on Wednesday; six on Thursday and five on Friday. Workshop sessions with apprentices often last all day. The latest classes finish at 5.45m, although they end at 3.30pm on most days and I go home around 4.50pm. I get most of my preparation work done in college time as I am also close to finishing my cert ed, which has taken up one evening a week of my own time plus additional hours spent on course assignments. I’m still learning a great deal but everyone says, if you can cope now, you can cope any time!
How have you found the challenge of covid?
Okay, though I don’t like teaching engineering online as it’s such a practical subject. So trying to get students interested in a hands-on subject by talking theory with them has been quite difficult. Probably about half my students have attended online classes, while others have completely dropped away. It’s been the same across the whole college. We have to keep ringing to check they’re still alive! Some don’t have internet access which we’d assumed they had, so they’ve struggled at home. We had a period of blended learning between September and Christmas when we got work done on the college machines. Then we caught up on practical work after returning from a third lockdown in early March - how to use certain machines safely and quite simple practical assignments involving cutting and drilling components. The syllabus tells you what they need to learn. All theory work has been done online.
My role has got much easier now as I can use loads of material already prepared from my first year; the syllabus doesn’t change. I’ve thus got time to expand my lessons more from what I’ve learnt on my cert ed course and include slides and video demonstrations in my PowerPoint presentations.
Any specific tasks you’ve undertaken recently?
We’re trying to get student assignments finished so I’ve put on extra sessions whenever I have free periods - I don’t need to use them to do any more planning this term. I’ve also joined the college’s health and safety team and next year I will be gaining my NEBOSH certificate, a recognised health and safety qualification to upskill myself - I regularly teach the subject.
The college has also called on my recent industrial experience to help decide which new, up-to-date machines to bring in to improve the CNC department and to train staff in their use.
Any achievement you are particularly proud of?
I encouraged several students to apply and gain apprenticeships including three level 2 students and possibly one level 3. It’s hard to secure apprenticeships at present and we’ve done well this year compared with other college departments.
What personal qualities/skills do you need?
Be fond of young people and show empathy with your students - I got feedback fairly early on that my students liked me and my lessons, which was a good start! You have to be able to talk to them and understand what they are going through. Being 16-18 is a big time in their life; things you might take for granted - like coming to work or being on time - are quite a big choice for them. I’m always amazed at the amount of excuses they come up with!
You need a minimum standard of qualification. I went through college, did an apprenticeship and gained an ONC and HNC, but I found my industry skills and subject knowledge gained over 30 years - particularly on health and safety, which comes up in every lesson - really got me my job. I gained a range of practical training certificates for areas such as welding and safe use of grinding wheels. I also took a level 3 award in education before I applied to Leeds City College. As soon as I joined, I was put on my part-time certificate of education course.
What part of the syllabus do you enjoy teaching most?
Workshop skills where I show my students the true basics of engineering that get them ready for the workplace.
Any teaching tips for new teachers?
Get your students immediately focused on an activity when they arrive for a lesson - even if it’s just a crossword! - to distract them from chatting to each other. It’s easier during workshop sessions; they congregate outside and all come into the workshop as a group. We get on with work straightaway after the health and safety drill and demos of tasks I’ve set them. Always be prepared and a step ahead - if you don’t know what you are talking about, students will catch you out. Realise that teaching is not just a one-way process - we want our students to ask us why. If I’m asked a question to which I don’t know the answer, I’ll say so and promise to find out for them. You can always write the query down on an online classroom page and come back to talk about it next week.
What’s a key interview question for a would-be lecturer?
How can you convince me that you can actually do the job? It’s the practical experience I’m looking for.
What spurs you on to work each day?
I absolutely love my job. I remember getting up to work 12-hour shifts on a bank holiday Monday and it just wasn’t pleasant. Now I find it so rewarding to see my students progress, especially when they pass their exams and assessments.
Does this interview with Neil, motivate you to want to get into college teaching? AoC Jobs has a wide range of lecturing jobs in engineering and college opportunities that offer teacher training to industry professionals wishing to inspire the next generation. Please also visit the Leeds City College company profile on AoC Jobs to find out more about this organisation and research the latest Leeds City College jobs.