I went straight into a history degree at Hull University after school to follow a family tradition – though I’ve always preferred English! Then I became a gigging guitarist and studied jazz guitar. I played solo or in groups in restaurants and pubs and even taught jazz guitar on occasion, but it never paid enough so I also took on a market research and other part-time employment.
In 2004, with plans for a family, I wanted a change. My partner suggested teaching and as I didn’t fancy a class full of challenging adolescents, she said why not teach adults?
I applied to my local City of Bristol College and began volunteering once a week in a basic skills English class. The college offered me a permanent part-time role and a place on a two-year, part-time PGCE teaching course. I’ve never looked back.
For my first few years, I taught people with learning difficulties, six or seven to a group, and tackled the basic skills of spelling, grammar, punctuation and communication skills. Then I moved to functional skills, involving more reading, writing, speaking and listening. Four years ago my manager asked if I’d like to teach GCSE. After at least 10 years’ teaching the same thing I needed a new opportunity – it was a gift!
I now teach four groups for GCSE and one for functional skills each week. I work three days a week and share childcare with my partner who also teaches part-time. My approach is to keep things fairly light-hearted and go into class with a sense of humour and a smile, which is always a good starting point.
Many learners have failed GCSEs at one point so they come in a bit fearful. Plus they may have other issues as well. So I aim to take away the mystery of the exam – it is after all designed for students to pass rather than faiI. If you can understand how the questions on the exam paper work, you have a good chance of success.
What I like about GCSEs is doing all the reading, debating, discussing and interpreting what writers are really saying and how you know this.
Ever since I first met Kevin, he has been a model student in so many ways. His attendance has been key to his success – he’s just passed his English and maths GCSEs at grade 5. He was on time at every single lesson barring one when he was a few minutes late.
Kevin has also always been really focused and keen to learn – in every lesson it seemed he had a ‘Eureka’ moment: “Wow! I didn't know that!” he would exclaim. He was fortunate that his class of 10 was much smaller than the norm of 18 where there is less time to give individual feedback. He’ll make a great paramedic; he’s good with people and a real communicator, constantly discussing new books and film, along with myriad health issues and global problems. He’s a bright guy.
I spend lots time doing marking work with ticks and comments, which is fine, but all the research shows that the best feedback for students is verbal and immediate. In a typical three-hour class we can get through lots of material, working as individuals or in groups, and have plenty of discussion – a big part of GCSE English. I tell them they will not just learn from me but also from talking to other students on their table.
I have to differentiate my teaching far more in functional skills lessons. Lower level classes are more challenging, as they are larger, students’ entry levels of understanding are more mixed, and more have mental health issues.
However, although I can teach level 1 functional skills in a year, I can get some students through both level 1 and 2 in 12 months, depending on their entry level. I have 9-10 students who did that this year – all of them good attenders with a good entry level of understanding and who applied themselves well.
At GCSE level, one third of my GCSE candidates have English as a second language – and so sometimes we advise them to go away and do ESOL classes for a year or so before coming back for GCSE (which is designed for English speakers).
Tricks of the trade? I can set homework with the words: “Come back next week and hear more of my bad jokes!” or some equivalent quip. I’m a great believer in making the classroom as fun a place as possible in our once-a week, three-hour sessions – with a coffee break in the middle, of course.
Three hours can be a long time so we tend to do at least five or six different activities – maybe working in small groups, quizzes, games, collaboration exercises, and sometimes kinaesthetic activities to get the students moving – I like sending students down the corridor to have a look at texts on the walls.
I try to get to know my learners’ interests and background. I find they sometimes think that when they learn something from a lesson they will automatically retain it, but that’s sadly not true. So I get them to relearn things in different ways through project work, group work, games, competitions, anything to consolidate their learning.
For instance, students tend to struggle with apostrophes – I’ve seen this while marking papers for an exam board. You can give them lots of worksheets beforehand but in an exam they can sometimes forget to include them. That’s why I keep hammering home that attendance is so important.
I tell them: “Yes, this piece of work is great but do remember to do this and that. If you don’t come to lessons, it won’t happen for you in the exams!”
Interview by Richard Doughty