It’s a big step from the senior buyer for Orange, the former mobile phone giant, to winner of the 2019 TES FE Teacher of the Year award. “I fell into FE,” says Sam. “I did my first degree at Lincoln University in literature and history and went into sales.” Three jobs and six years later she had had enough and opted for a full-time MA in archaeology, teaching marketing evening classes alongside to fund herself. One radical step led to another, she fell in love with teaching, abandoned her MA halfway through and just kept on teaching.
“I just fell into it! I then got the City Guilds equivalent of a level 3 award in education and training at Oaklands College in Hertfordshire so I could get into the classroom.
“At the same time the college was seeking a part-time business studies teacher, one of my lecturers mentioned my background and literally days later I found myself standing in front of an A-level business class teaching marketing!” She had some pedigree, having earlier taken an intensive, level 7 equivalent Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply qualification while at Orange.
She went on to gain a PGCE and hasn’t looked back since. She moved to Bedford College as an advanced practitioner in business studies in 2005. There she later took an MSc in learning and teaching, which opened up another key strand to her career - research - and her founding of the #FEResearchmeet movement in 2017-18. “The meets are a free and democratic model for building and supporting engagement with research in further education, led by practitioners, for practitioners.
“My job is a post that really holds my interest. It’s constantly changing, whether it’s the syllabus, the environment around you or the students. It’s radically changed my understanding of teaching and learning from where I started to where I am now.”
Sam teaches adult PGCE students in their mid-20s through to 60 and focuses particularly on teacher development, scholarship and research elements. “I’m always excited by the expectation of changing people’s perceptions, their practice and their lives,” she says.
“Many students on our teacher training courses are often there because they have had quite a rough time educationally themselves and want to make a difference to others or they have a passion for their subject that they want to teach and pass on. Teaching people like that is like a dream - they tend to be motivated and relatively easy to engage.”
So what are the challenges? “They are the ups and downs in the daily lives of adults students - such as caring for poorly children or elderly parents etc. The challenge is how you support people, particularly part-time students who work pretty much full-time alongside their PGCE or Certificate in Education courses for those from trades and without first degrees. They can all have times when their professional life becomes overwhelming for one reason or another. “
Sam, who last year took on the role of research and scholarship lead at Bedford College Group, tends to teach action research and leads on much of the research that both teachers and students undertake.
“Same of the challenges include people feeling disloyal to their college or team if their research throws up concerns or issues or they start seeing things differently. Sometimes that can feel quite scary to staff members - they don’t know how to deal with that information. They don’t want to appear to present it as if they are whinging and moaning but, equally, they would like to make changes. It is about how to empower them to go off and make those changes.
What does Sam like most about her role? “Most action research and curriculum work may initially seem rather theoretical but in fact it’s incredibly practical. I love it when students who start out not really looking forward to it come back at the end of the year and say it was so good! It’s a unit where they completely control its direction as I allow them to research pretty much anything they want about their practice and environment. It really motivates staff to have that autonomy to explore their own practice and to direct their own professional development.
“I really enjoy turning what seems really dry into something very challenging and practical, so it’s great to hear teachers talking about what they want to change next year and how they are going to bring in new ideas into their curriculum.
What do students pick up on particularly in research tutorials? “In action research the ones who really enjoy it value that autonomy and the freedom to choose something they want to work on and change about their practice.
“Some of our students get really confident - this year one student showed how he would ‘vocationalise’ maths and English and embed them in a vocational classroom. He went to an Education and Training Foundation (ETF) seminar, spoke about his work and was asked to share his research on an ETF blog.”
One of Sam’s key priorities as research lead is normalising research so that Bedford’s management team can use research from within and outside the college to inform its decision-making in the same way as it now uses market research.
“We have a huge bank of market research in the college and we lead the way in that respect. So we are now looking to create our own repository of teaching and learning research done in college that can be accessed by anyone within the college. So if you had to make a decision about teaching or use of resources on a course you could refer to the research and not rely on nothing more than a hunch.”
Bedford is also seeking models from other sectors such as local councils using this kind of approach. Just recently it has launched a scheme where people can bid for grants between £500-£2000 to fund college improvement research projects that would directly influence the college.
“One of our latest initiatives has been defining what a quality piece of research should contain,” says Sam. “We’ve sent it out to university colleagues and got positive feedback. One university colleague has even offered to be our external consultant!”
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