The ‘big moment’ in my own education was starting my apprenticeship and attending college. My tutors were personable, I’d chosen a subject I was interested in, and I realised that learning could be fun. That was a big change after school, which hadn’t motivated me.
Learning painting and decorating was a turning point. I’d been trained to do something and was good at it. It led to a job with the local authority. With their sponsorship, I progressed to a BTEC and then HNC in building studies. I won an award for tendering and estimating, which impressed the director of works sufficiently that he offered me a job.
Later, I got the opportunity to teach a half day each week at the college where I’d trained. I’d always wanted to do that, to share my experience. A year later, I applied successfully for a full-time vacancy. I was one of the youngest lecturers and they knew – as did I – that they were taking a gamble.
That might have set me on a lifelong career in FE, but after a few years I stepped away, becoming a youth worker. I’d done part-time youth work since my teenage years and that opportunity got something out of my system and readied me to return to FE. My family’s willingness to move around the country allowed me to work in different places and I moved from teaching craft into teaching BTEC and then HNCs.
I’d been away from construction environments and realised I needed to work on developing my industry knowledge and skills. Doing so gave me the confidence to return to the classroom and deliver up-to-date content. But it wasn’t until a professional learning opportunity of a different kind that I learned the true value of nurturing both sides of my dual professionalism – for me, my students and my colleagues.
Offered the opportunity to undertake Advanced Teacher Status (ATS), I leapt at the chance. Action research – based on practical working rather than purely theory – appealed to me. I focused on student-centered and project-based learning.
I started with a pilot with level 2 maintenance operative learners with a brief to design an educational game to make something easier to learn. I learned lots about the motivational effect of responsibility and saw passive learners become active, leading ones.
The second project was sustainability focused, with student businesses producing and selling kindling from waste timber from the carpentry department. Seeing learners connect work to results and effort to tangible income was exciting and motivating, and adjusting my delivery to ‘allow’ learners to learn by doing was challenging for my own development.
The much larger scale third project saw students acting as the contractor for the refurbishment of a dementia support day centre. Student feedback was excellent, highlighting the opportunity to put the skills they had learned into practice, the satisfaction of repairing an old building, and the opportunity to develop real-world skills.
At the beginning, direct instructional delivery worked well for many learners, but didn’t suit them all. That was an interesting thing to realise, and doing so through action research was transformative. I’d developed more in a single year of ATS than in the previous four.
I’d achieved a kind of unconscious competence, but almost wasn’t challenging myself to improve. At the start of my career in the sector I was happy to survive the first year – and with hindsight it’s easy to see how important that first whole-year cycle is to understanding the journey staff and learners are on – but that changes with experience.
Realising the benefits of ATS not just for me but also for my colleagues has changed the way I seek to support them. We’ve developed our own personalised CPD which, instead of being compliance based, builds on the principles of action research and gives colleagues the opportunity to undertake small-scale, personalised projects themselves.
That’s a revelation with the potential to ensure that we are offering the highest quality delivery to all the learners we have the privilege of serving, including those who – like me many years ago – found their calling thanks to our sector.