Andi is originally from the south-west of England, he is a class teacher at Ranches Primary School (RPS), based in the new community of Arabian Ranches 2, Dubai. He has nearly 20 years of teaching experience, evenly split between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United Kingdom (UK). His story is a bit unusual, as he has relinquished his school leadership roles and returned full-time to being a classroom teacher.
I paid a visit to Andi’s classroom and immediately felt at home. It was not only because he and his students were friendly and welcoming, but the classroom environment was one that promoted students’ independence, productivity and comfort. There were students working in groups on a sofa, others were huddled in a corner working collaboratively, some were on laptops and tablets, completing work, while others were working with robots on the floor etc. The space was set up so that students were free to work in the way that best suited them. The room was a hive of activity and all students were actively engaged in learning with Andi taking on the role of a facilitator. I was fascinated by how seamlessly everything flowed. As a former classroom teacher, I am well aware that this is not easily achieved, but luckily for us, Andi understands the power of collaboration and sharing good practice, so in this feature, he lets us in on some of his secrets to success in the classroom.
Tell us a bit about your career to date
I was very driven at an early age to become a teacher, I think from as early as age 10. From the beginning of my career, as with most enthusiastic teachers, I was eager to get into leadership, I was promoted quickly up through middle leadership and then into senior leadership. Before leaving England, I became a Deputy Head Teacher/Acting Headteacher and enrolled on The National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) programme. After completing the programme, I relocated to the UAE and became Head of Primary at a large established school in Dubai, where I spent 7 years.
My recent decision to return to the classroom as a full-time teacher was not one that I took lightly. I went into leadership because I had the desire to influence and guide at a whole school level. After being in post, I realised that it was not as fulfilling as interacting with the students at the classroom level. I also realised that you can lead and influence from the classroom. You don’t need a title to make a difference.
What do you enjoy most about being an educator?
I love seeing how modern technology can enhance learning across the curriculum. The ability to use technology every day with my students was one of the major pull factors for me returning to the classroom fulltime. I wanted to live the pedagogy I was advocating to my staff. I believe that it’s a very exciting time to be a teacher. We are preparing our students for the unknown challenges that lie ahead in this fast-changing world. As educators, we must be adaptable and be prepared to change our practice quickly. I greatly enjoy learning from other practitioners, whether in my own school, locally or even on the other side of the globe through different forms of media.
What challenges do you face in your role as an educator and how do you overcome them?
Time-consuming evidence gathering. Although I feel very trusted at RPS, and we are constantly evaluating our processes of self-evaluation, I know from my experience in leadership that there are certain hoops that must be jumped through in the current era of accountability surrounding education. Instead of rooting through copious amounts of exercise books at moderation intervals, I overcome this by sharing evidence of progress through pupil interactions to my digital feedback. Recently, I have gone one step further and highlighted when parents have joined in, what I call the ‘digital learning community’ within the RPS classroom. This is when parents have become involved via their personal devices and asked further probing questions in response to a child’s work which was posted online. I have found this type of parental involvement to be a real game-changer, it has increased the pupils’ engagement. This deeper questioning on the part of the parents has also significantly boosted interaction.
The second challenge I have had to overcome was ensuring that I stay hydrated throughout the day. This may not seem important to many in the grand scheme of things, but if you have been a teacher for any amount of time, you know how difficult it is to ensure that you are drinking enough water throughout the teaching day. I have overcome this by making it a resolution and purchasing a water bottle that has the timings of the day printed on the side. Very important for the climate we live in.
What are your two favourite EdTech tools and why?
The Apple iPad – so multifunctional and incredibly reliable. I saw an infographic shared on Twitter recently where it listed previous educational fads, such as APP grids, Brain Gym etc. they also included what they thought this infographic would look like in 5 years’ time. They had included ‘iPads in the classroom’. Personally, I think tablets are here to stay. The teaching fraternity should embrace these marvellous pieces of technology. We need to invest in training staff as much as we invest in the hardware so that they are confident and proficient. We have only just scratched the surface of how technology can advance, support and focus learning.
Secondly, a green screen area. We have painted two previously unused walls green in the school. This allows our pupils to record and place backdrops behind their videos. The uses are endless and so simple to implement in any school. Just the cost of a can of paint!
How do you help fellow educators to share good practice with each other?
At RPS we are encouraged to experiment with our practice and are given the freedom to take risks. For example, flexible seating. Our Principal challenged all of us to remove one piece of ‘traditional’ classroom furniture at the start of the school year. After a year of embedding, you won’t find a “traditional” classroom in the entire school. The pupils love their learning environment and have really thrived due to this approach. In my opinion, the best way to share good practice is firstly through Twitter. Twitter allows you to find out quite quickly, whether your research is helpful or interesting to colleagues around the world. Our Principal also encourages us to share our research and findings at various conferences around the region. And if we are really brave, we can publish our research and share articles in Teach Middle East Magazine!
What do you do for fun or to unwind after a long day at school?
Train hard! In the last few years, I have become a triathlete, from being a keen runner I have bought myself a bike and learnt to swim again. My next big challenge is a full Ironman distance triathlon in Germany in July 2019. You might say this is a true mid-life crisis!
What is the one thing about you that would surprise your colleagues?
My colleagues would probably be surprised to find out that I am a triathlete and I beat the Head of PE regularly!
What is the best professional advice that you have received and how has this helped you?
The best advice I received came from my mentor when I was a trainee teacher in Cornwall, the very south of the UK. She once said to me with a very thick accent “no matter what rank, position or title a colleague has, treat them all with the same respect”. Wise words indeed!
By: Leisa Grace Wilson