Jesse Clark and Jack Ackrigg, first-year level 3 BTec games design
Jesse: I was very nervous starting college as the only female student on the course, so it was such a relief when I found Saskia was one of my main teachers. Since then she’s been such a good person to fall back on if you are confused about work or worried about college. She’ll be there for you in an instant and she’s so approachable not only with work but any other problems you might have. She gets to know you on a personal level so she can help you individually, especially with work - at the start of the year I didn’t know much about the Illustrator program we use to draw on computers and she sat down with me and explained everything bit by bit, particularly how to convert drawing ideas on paper into digital format. Since then I’m actually really confident on Illustrator. She also addresses the class as friends which really helps, though she can be serious when necessary. She’ll go back through an entire lesson if we haven’t understood it. We have a group chat on social media where we all talk about college and how helpful Saskia is and stuff - someone said how they’d got quite stressed out with a problem with Illustrator recently but Saskia had calmed them down, explained it all again and they are now quite confident. All the class agree she’s a role model for all of us - she’s very approachable, really funny and a lovely person. There’s nothing bad I can say about her!
Jack: She’s a very nice person and so easy to talk to. I have struggled on work a bit and recently had an assignment on 2D animation. Even though Saskia was not my teacher for this, I asked if she would check my work over and she gave me feedback on whether I was doing it right. I also had a podcast assignment last term in which I was in a group of five and we did pretty badly. After talking to Saskia and another teacher, I worked just with Jesse [above] on a podcast and my mark went up from just a pass to distinction! I couldn’t ask for a better teacher.
To fill a first-year BTec class with students 20 minutes before lessons are due to begin each day takes some doing. To see this repeated before the afternoon session takes some beating – particularly as the lecturer in charge has only just finished her second year in FE.
The secret, says Saskia Munden, a level 3 programme leader in games design at Newcastle College, is simply chatting with students about anything, listening and simply getting to know them.
“I’m not talking at the students or teaching them something. It’s just me asking about them, what are they learning at the moment, what do they think of the teaching, the course, how are they are doing, what would they like included in next week’s lessons?
“Pre-lesson student chats improve my teaching’
“It improves me as a teacher. And the students end up coming into college quite excited, wondering if I have been able to include any of their suggestions in today’s lesson. I even have students coming in on their day off, wanting to sit in on lessons to see what’s going on!
“The students really engage with me. Just today I’ve had three 16-year-old student reps wanting to come in early for 15 minutes to tell me about a talk they had just attended.”
The chat times started when Saskia was preparing her classroom before teaching began. Rather than have students sitting awkwardly outside the room waiting, she invited them in. She started off with two or three students, numbers slowly increased and she soon had the whole class coming in regularly before lessons. Through chatting, she even managed to help her students build friendships with each other. “They love talking if you give them a chance!”
Knowing a student’s favourite music opens doors
Saskia thinks the idea probably originated from the time her colleagues poked fun at her because she used to write huge pen profiles of her students. “We wrote them up to highlight target grades, any particular issues, whether they were a high-flyer learner and so on. So why, I was asked, did my fellow teachers also need to know about, say, a student’s favourite music?” Her response was that knowing students’ background enabled her to ask the sort of informed questions that created some great rapport.
“The two other lecturers I work to adopt the same approach. We really try to encourage our students to be curious and super-interdependent, so the more conversations they have with people, the better – and it means we don’t get behaviour issues.”
Saskia will sometimes email students after a big conversation to answer and/or ask further questions. “It all makes me a better teacher and puts me more in the loop about what makes my students tick.”
What’s my inspiration in teaching?
Saskia’s journey into FE has been quite rapid. A computing degree and a PGCE teaching qualification from the University of Sunderland was followed by year-long stints as a cover supervisor at a teacher supply agency, as an NQT (newly qualified teacher) at a secondary school and then, taking a break from education, as a web developer during which she completed a part-time MA in photography.
In 2018 she landed a computer science lecturing post at Newcastle College; six months later she moved up to programme leader. Last year she was nominated for and won the FE teacher of the year award across the six colleges in the Newcastle College group.
What inspires her teaching? “I really enjoy working with the 16-18 age range. I did a lot of teaching in US summer camps during my university summer vacations and liked being responsible for others. This age group is at a very mouldable stage when they are first given the freedom to make their own choices."
US teaching style acts as a beacon for colleges
Saskia has also watched numerous TED talks on teaching, including one from the American educator, Rita Pierson, entitled ‘Every kid needs a champion’. “The Americans have a different view of teaching to us. They like to be very inspiring … UK colleges also have the scope to do that because of their greater flexibility in how they teach course curriculums; this allows teachers to change their assignments and think outside the box. That’s what inspired me … the change to be super-creative. Such creativity is backed up by a string of inspirational guest speakers who suggest what our students could become.”d
In BTec courses some units are not always games- related – it could be outside general IT-related areas – and you have to keep them interested. Here again, conversations come in handy – I’ll say I’m doing this topic with then in two weeks’ time, what do they think is the best way of teaching it – should we do a video? What would work with that? I ask, they say, I do it!”
Saskia says she and her two close colleagues are all millennials and are used to using technology, including group work on mobiles and instant showcasing of work by the students – if they wish – direct onto the whiteboard from their phones. “All the time students are fully engaged with technology and lessons can be really fluid.”
‘I just wanted to see their sketches . . .’
Every student has a phone, with the college supplying up to around 10 iPad Minis if the phones are ever not compatible. Class sizes are a maximum of 20 students so they can share in pairs if necessary.
What else really works for Saskia in class? “Encouraging learners not to say bad things about their own work!” She teaches games design rather than programming and in such a creative subject she found when students were asked to simply show her their sketched-out designs on paper, they often denigrated them.
“I told them I just wanted to see the sketches, not hear their self-criticism!,” she said. The students had to defend and be confident about their creative work – just as they would have to be if they went for a job interview. “They really struggled at first but now I’ve got them to say this is my work and I’m really proud of it.”
Flipping lessons and switching teachers
Saskia and her team quite happily ‘flip’ lessons to keep the students interested and try new approaches to learning. “We started a new unit in concept art this term and for a change I made them go outside and draw with their eyes closed so they could only hear what they think they could see, be really creative and have a bit of a laugh at the same time.
“Sometimes we also switch teachers mid-lesson with me doing the first half and a colleague taking the second.” It’s different styles of teaching but with the same attitude to the students.
What if the students have a bad day? “The early morning conversations always help. On rare occasions when a student is down, I’ll find out why by having a quiet chat and asking them how I can make the class more interesting for them. How can I help them? Sometimes they’ll go outside for a few minutes of fresh air and then return. You respect them and it pays off as they will graft for you.”
‘If you miss class, how will you make up the time?’
High discipline standards also help. “We don’t tolerate lateness, not completing homework, not attending without notice or not catching up with work outside class. It’s a case of ‘If you’ve not attended today, you owe me so many hours. When are you going to make them up?’
The department aims to have an employee-client relationship. “Like a manager, I have early morning conversations before work starts, so that when our students start out in the workplace they will not feel so out of place and will know what standards are expected. In school, you’d get detention when you missed something, but here you get given real responsibility for fixing it!”