What makes Mike stand out is his willingness to get his hands dirty while teaching. Ask for help and he will show you and go that extra mile. He’s got me involved in WorldSkills training activities even though I'm not taking part in the competition, and it’s really helped improve my own skills. Our aim at the college to get an apprenticeship. So when Mike sees you are working hard, he'll ensure your name is put forward for an apprenticeship. I've had a decent chat with a local firm that runs them and they’re keen for me to work for them. Mike keeps me updated and ensures I'm looked after well. I've always been a practical, hands-on learner but for the first time I’ve started to enjoy the theory because of how Mike put it across. When I first came to college, I’d never laid a brick in my life. But Mike gives you the impression he really wants you to be be able to make money from it in the real world and that spurs you on. He set us an exercise where each brick we laid within a time limit ‘earned’ us 60p - that really makes you work harder!
Michael likes to take a step back. He lets you try to work out things out for yourself and learn from your mistakes. When I was at college, he used a lot of videos in lessons to explain things so it didn't get boring. He’d introduce his work with WorldSkills and ask us to help him mark the WorldSkills competition models he had to judge; he’d even give us sample models to practice marking ourselves - that's how I got into it really. He always liked to relate things back to WorldSkills and showed us his collection of different trowels from various countries and the different working methods they were used in. Mike is very dedicated and has given up much of his time to train me for the finals on two evenings a week. He’s also taken me to Australia to take part in the Global Skills challenge, an opportunity open to WorldSkills competitors. I came second out of nine countries but I still have to keep working hard. He never gets angry if you do something wrong and is always very supportive - he’ll point out your mistakes but also what you are doing well.
Chance led Michael Burdett to take up teaching construction and bricklaying skills at York College (where he had also trained as an apprentice bricklayer). He’s been at York ever since and somehow, since 2006, has managed to fit in a second job: that of training manager/bricklaying expert for World Skills UK, the British part of the international vocational skills competition in which he has enjoyed a remarkably successful track record (he was asked to take on the role after some of his students did well in earlier WorldSkills competitions). He will shortly attend his seventh WorldSkills finals - this year held from August 22-27 in Kazan, Russia, in which teams from 67 countries will compete in 56 skills. During Michael’s tenure so far, two British entrants have won the WorldSkills bricklaying gold medal - in 2011 and 2013.
I just love competition - and not just at international level where the UK is represented by just one student. It’s about being involved with many students entering the earlier regional and then national competitions as well. At York, introducing bricklaying competition scenarios as part of the curriculum helps inspire all students, let alone those capable of progressing in WorldSkills, to drive up their standards - and that has to be a good thing.
As a bricklayer whatever you build you are leaving a legacy - it will probably outlive you so you need to build something you are proud of. So motivation to achieve that standard has to be the best you can muster.
It’s okay to make mistakes
Every year competition standards get better - international competition allows you to see how others approach projects. I myself have introduced some of the new techniques I’ve seen into my own teaching practices. It’s a great way of raising your students’ quality of work.
What do I find gets the best out of my students? First, I tell them it’s okay to make mistakes! That’s where I feel the best learning takes place: separate out the emotional feeling of making a mistake and reflect on it - it’s an important part of learning. Ask yourself what did you do that you can improve on next time? What should you do differently? I try to get my own students to give me feedback before I even start to mark or assess their work. I get an understanding of how they feel their work has gone and see how they reflect on it.
I put lots of time aside to listen to my students
Then I spend a lot to time listening to what they are actually saying, particularly when they arrive at class a bit down … in the heat of the moment and the pace of a working day it’s all too easy to give them a solution or tell them what they need to do and why. So it’s about putting time aside to listen and let them know you care - sometimes it’s almost like putting an arm round their shoulders but at other times I need to use other strategies. You have to respect everyone as an individual so you have to get them to focus on positives of the now, not negatives of the past (when problems have generally grown well out of proportion). In competitions, if something has gone wrong we park that straight away.
It's about motivating students to be the best they can be
My students always enjoy the practical aspect of their courses. I try to relate back to the industry what I teach and share my own and others’ professional experiences. The more I do that, the more they see the relevance of what they are learning in college to their paid work as apprentices in the workplace. It’s about motivating them to be the best they possibly can be. I encourage them to take pride in the work they do in our college workshops and to enjoy what they are doing, all of which helps promote their own individual standards. I make sure there is a lot of positivity flying around.
Making students believe they have the talent we see in them
I’m currently tutoring Lewis Greenwood, 21, the UK’s chosen 2019 WorldSkills bricklaying finalist for Kazan and the first finalist to have completed his apprenticeship studies at my college.
Lewis seemed to have a natural flair for laying bricks almost as soon as he arrived as a full-time student - I like to think I’ve helped make him believe he has this talent and become confident enough to explore different techniques, stretching himself to achieve the best-looking and most accurate work possible.
I recommended him for selection as the UK finalist because technically he was the strongest out of the top national candidates and very hot on accuracy. He has a strong work ethic, is very determined and has an ability to work through, understand and visualise drawings and test projects.
The trick is to remain flexible
The biggest task is constantly trying to stretch and challenge Lewis to take him out of his comfort zone and make him think independently so he can function without me. For instance, the WorldSkills final is 22 hours long so I will sometimes give him just 21 hours to complete a training project, making him get used to working at a faster pace. Other times I leave out bits of information on project briefs so he has to try to think his way around problems. Or insert technical mistakes in building drawings so he has to work out how to build something from incomplete designs. I have also involved him when I am marking his work so he can see at the end of a process where he is losing marks and where his strengths and weaknesses lie. There are many different strategies for stretching and challenging Lewis - the trick is to remain flexible.
Bricklayers are in strong demand
There is a strong demand for bricklayers as they are in short supply - the recession deterred many companies from training up sufficient numbers of new apprentices so there are gaps in the market; now, however, more apprenticeships are being offered once again. There are opportunities in new build, restoration work and conservation as well as alteration projects requiring all sorts of different bricklaying techniques.
For anyone considering teaching bricklaying in FE you will need the relevant ‘craft’ qualifications - ideally colleges prefer teaching staff to have a degree plus a teaching qualification and experience of managing classrooms and students’ learning. I’ve picked up these qualifications since working at York College. I took a City and Guilds level 4 qualification as an introduction to teaching when teaching part-time. When I went full-time my college quickly installed me on a course to gain a certificate of education. I also took assessment qualifications.
Every day poses something new
When I was bricklaying I used to enjoy the fact you went from job to job and you never got bored - but I’ve been at the college now for some 20 years and every day poses something new. I love the challenge that brings - seeing the results of your work with young people makes the job so worthwhile.
Interviews by Richard Doughty