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Lessons Learned: A Personal Reflection on My Academic Journey

As part of my PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate of Education) training, I had to write an autobiographical piece of writing about my personal experiences in education. I believe the intention was for us to think about which teachers had influenced us in the past, what were the positive and negative moments which we needed to learn from, and, in my own view, to write a lovely eulogy if things went really badly!


I'm sharing this not just because I enjoyed the challenge and feel that I managed to come up with some nice turns of phrase - inspired as I am by such writers as Clive James and PJ O'Rourke - but as we hurtle to the end of 2023, it is a time for self-reflection and reassessment of priorities. The New Year brings about a melancholy feeling caused by the contrast of self-congratulatory social media posts crashing into the realisation that so many things might not have been accomplished in our own lives.


If you're looking to make a change in 2024, I have written posts about career changes, am available to discuss the subject remotely, and am available for hire to proofread, edit, or generally jazz up your CV, cover letter, or personal branding.


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My route through formal education, over 16 years, has been one of questionable decisions and bad luck, resulting in what, on paper at least, appears to be a quite surprisingly above-average list of qualifications. I have benefitted from an eclectic range of schools and experiences which have shaped who I am and the teacher I want to become.


From the age of 5, I showed somewhat limited academic promise - my first word was the monosyllabic ‘car’ and my earliest memory is of singing ‘I Can Sing A Rainbow’ with my younger sister in the back seat of my parent’s Vauxhall Viva. Our harmonies were only interspersed by the unending entertainment of warning Katy I could make her sneeze before hitting her on the nose. However, I vividly remember Mrs. Starkiss’ bubble perm, dungarees and unshakably upbeat manner from my time at Southville Infants in Feltham - I also remember having my chair kicked away from under me by the class brat and smashing my head onto the edge of the desk, which resulted in several stitches and telling off for leaning on my chair (“It wasn’t my fault, miss!”)


Having evaded the usual path of borstal, which most people associate with Feltham, the start of our hermit-like lifestyle was a move from Hounslow to Farnborough, Surrey, where I attended Guillemont Junior School. The only abiding memory was the scolding my friend Oliver and I received for just walking out of school and playing in the park for a day. Safe to say, neither of us did it again. Outside of school, when we did so legally, we shared a typically immature sense of humour, creating our own appallingly illustrated comics lavishly decorated with all manner of bodily excretions (artistically, not literally) and rode our bikes throughout the nascent housing estate, with it’s perfect, red brickwork shining year-round. I also picked up a pack of stamps from my parents’ shameful habit of buying the ‘Daily Mail’ and that hooked me into the world of philately (stamp collecting) which, although the interest waned over the years, I can proudly say I still have a healthy collection stored away.


My Dad worked for an IT outsourcing company at the time and his career took us from the south to Livingston - a small town outside of Edinburgh where the families too rough for Glasgow’s housing estates were deposited en masse and told to make a fist of their new lives. As a precocious young English boy with no particular religious affiliation, at Peel Primary I was quickly picked on as the outsider; I remember both my elaborate Easter diorama of Dracula’s castle being smashed out of my hands and my revenge weeks later when, accepted as part of the unofficial WWF wrestling reenactment society (no tap outs, concrete floor, no mercy). Despite having never watched a full bout in my life, I (‘Earthquake’) defeated my nemesis (‘Red Rooster’) in a particularly brutal affair when I uttered the damning phrase “I’ve sneezed harder than you punch”. Fortunately, we left Scotland after just a year of mental and physical abuse, permanently postponed barbecues, Jean Claude van Damme films, thanks to my one friend, Grant, and my first World Cup, Italia 90, which would shape much of my memory of that year - specifically Scotland v Costa Rica and England v Cameroon. My sole memory of the education system was a misspelling of ‘dining room’ in our daily literacy test.


Our next destination was rural Lancashire; a town outside of Blackpool called Little Eccleston - although much debate was had about whether our cul-de-sac of new-build semis was actually in Great Eccleston, but that never meant a great deal to me. At Copp, a Church of England school, we had assemblies in an actual church and daily mental arithmetic thanks to Mr. Oram - a curmudgeonly old man who frequently pined for the days of corporal punishment and conscription but dealt with the pupils fairly and had a heart of gold, from distant recollection. It was here where I started to imagine my future and what it might hold - my first career choice was Archaeologist as I loved dinosaurs. Then, I decided that I wanted to be an Architect. Once I’d progressed a little further through the alphabet, it was a Police Officer then an RAF Pilot. None got further than idle imagining. I maintained my extra-curricular creativity when Alex and Cecily Sharp, mine and my sister’s school friends, made a newspaper for Red Nose Day, selling copies at our school and in entering twice and placing once in the fancy dress contest held as part of the Great Eccleston Fete - the highlight of which, aside from the procession of dated floats populated by unwilling girls dressed in satin and velvet ballgowns, was the tractor pulling contest.


I completed Junior School at Copp and moved to Garstang High, my first secondary school. There, I first started to notice girls (Claire Haynes, who had an annoying friend called Lindsay Butt, and Rachel Goldspink are names that spring to mind), make friends of my own, play sports, pick up a couple of detentions (neither of which were my fault, of course), collect another head injury through the karmic balance of teasing a Jehovah’s Witness about Christmas before a classroom window was opened out and into the top of my head. My beliefs about a higher power were momentarily put in doubt! Geography, History, English - including a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we watched ‘Merchant of Venice’ - and Home Economics were subjects I excelled in and I vaguely remember a conversation with my parents letting me down gently about not being able to join a private school to whom I had been recommended - it was all above my head so I just carried on regardless. I was hard-working, curious and quiet at times but enjoyed most of my time there. The only negatives were an early scrap in the playground over an art folder with one of the year 10s, missing out on playing for the school football team because the girl’s netball team needed our bus and, eventually, leaving what had become a home to me - the enjoyment I got from representing Saxon House at school sports day sparked an intense competitiveness in me, which led to a moderate Achilles injury which kept me out of the gruelling cross-country sessions, all of which I recall happening during a persistent drizzle!


The move to Telford, Shropshire, at the age of 14 was possibly the most affecting. Charlton was a school similar in size to Garstang and I was at an age where I was shaping what was important to me. Music became a major influence - having never skived since the one day from Guillemont, I took two days off, each coinciding with an Oasis album release - and I started to take a real interest in football and travel. In school, I never considered any of those interests could be supported and so sought out a club to play for (Ercall Colts) and gravitated to friends who shared my interests, a couple of whom are still friends today. I became a Prefect and sat my GCSEs, although Charlton were not particularly gifted in their educational provision. An entire class was taught the wrong Information Systems syllabus in year 10, when we had been encouraged to sit GCSE exams on the subject. I remember the loud gasps as my classmates read through the paper in the assembly hall followed by a couple of sobs of despair; nobody got higher than a D yet we were all required to sit our A/S Level in Information Systems the following year. I began to think I was fluent in French as I coasted towards what the classroom leaderboard suggested would be an easy A grade - until the teacher spotted that she had omitted the C grade from the axis so everybody suddenly panicked that their coursework alone would not be enough to secure the high marks expected! However, we did enjoy trips to Cadbury’s World and Roman ruins to offset that disappointment.


At 16, life was fair going - moderate academic success in English, Maths and Science, less success with dating, going out with friends, no more head injuries or seeming bad luck through the majority of year 11. As ever, life would not agree. My Dad was offered the opportunity to relocate to Wellington, New Zealand, but turned it down to allow me to sit my GCSEs but when he was asked to move to Adelaide, Australia, we all felt it would be a great opportunity.


I joined part way through their year 11, due to the seasonal differences of the school year, and would finish year 12 to gain South Australian Certificates of Education (known as HSCs across the country), which was the final year of schooling before progressing to University. Scotch College was a private college with a facade of Scottish pageantry, a deep divide between the day pupils and boarders, who were mostly male, farmers’ sons who could drive a Ute before they could ride a bike. The experience of wearing a blazer was a new one, as was attending a school which had a swimming pool, an Australian Rules football oval, cricket nets and an island. The initial experience was one I imagined was felt by newly born chicks as they plummet earthward from the nest for the first time; I went from As and Bs in top-set Maths to failing bottom grade, I had to wear braces resulting in an already shaky sense of self-esteem taking a further battering and found much of the faux archaic quirks unsettling (‘house masters’, ‘tuck shop’, ‘matriculation’, ‘Blue & Gold ball’, ‘yearbooks’). However, I thrived in the ‘soccer’ team, enjoyed Mr. Rosevear’s approachable style in teaching Australian Studies - a blend of regional History and Geography which barely brushed on the beliefs and plight of the aboriginal population - and was given responsibility as Fraser House Captain, chiefly because nobody else wanted it… The main duty I recall was to give the occasional speech and represent the House single-handedly as my contemporaries preferred to smoke cigarettes and ogle the girls rather than run the 200m, 400m, 110m hurdles, throw javelin, discus, etcetera. The compulsory trip to Goose Island was a harrowing experience, salvaged by my absolute refusal to go anywhere near the sea and preference for crossword books. However, my resistance was broken in my Physical Education lessons when it was announced we would all be doing both bushwalking and kayaking, alongside volleyball and badminton, which, faced without any real choice, I accepted my punishment. My mind was opened and I loved both adventures and those experiences helped give me a confidence and open-mindedness that I wish I had enjoyed at a younger age. I also began writing for Y Magazine, a free newspaper that was distributed to all senior schools in the state, learned to drive and worked several jobs, especially during my break between the end of year 12 and the start of University.


I had set my mind on returning to England but was hamstrung by the baffling decision of the vice-principal not to provide me with predicted grades. That meant that none of my choices of University would consider me and I had to settle for my fifth choice, Wolverhampton, which I had only included because a couple of Charlton alumni were also going there. I had got a taste for journalism and decided that I would become a Journalist, without any true concept of what that meant. Rather than the traditional route of English or working as a junior reporter, I thought that Media & Cultural Studies with a minor in Politics would be the route I should take. An error in hindsight alone, simply due to a lack of research.


Academically, Wolverhampton frequently mentioned how highly rated they were in the subjects of Philosophy and Russian but, sadly for me, their offering when it came to other Humanities subjects was held in less regard. Sitting in a lecture hall to watch an episode of ‘The Royle Family’ was the last straw and I decided then and there that I just needed to gain the degree and move on as quickly as possible. At the time, I was extremely active socially and began my habit of taking on more than I could handle - I was elected at Editor of Cry Wolf, the student newspaper, which was a role that involved significant political involvement with the Students’ Union, was working in the campus bar, volunteering for RAG, playing football and subsequently started my own team, to say nothing of additional jobs, Residential Assistant and marathon gaming sessions with friends. I had no idea how to study independently, read far too little and was educationally adrift; I did manage to thoroughly enjoy a lot of the Marketing and Advertising topics but found a great deal of the rest of the degree overly analytical, impractical and theoretical.


Since then, during a 15-year period in which I worked in the media industry in sales teams of varying size and aptitude, I have learned a great deal. I have learned not to make life decision purely based on income, I have learned to be patient and empathetic. I have learned that you cannot fake passion or enthusiasm. In that time, I have lost a parent, found the love of my life, bought my own house, formed and folded businesses, travelled to over 30 countries, reformed the first FA Cup-winning football team, and enjoyed a wealth of incredible experiences. My experiences have got me to a position where I am now able to make a career change into an industry for which I have a great deal of respect and where I know I can enjoy what I do for other people.


With that in mind, my ambition as a teacher is to bring together all of the main traits I have learned. I will demonstrate enthusiasm for my subject (like Mrs. Starkiss); I believe that a mastery of language is the bedrock of all great people and understanding and being understood are vital skills in the Information Age (like my mother). Additionally, I am aiming to combat inequalities, especially as pupil often have no choice in their circumstances, through the actions I take. From the pupils’ perspective, I want to be known as harsh but fair (like Mr. Oram) and earn the trust and respect of pupils (like Mr. Rosevear) by being consistent, patient and honest with them (like my father). The challenge that unites these characteristics are that I cannot simply say ‘I am enthusiastic’ or ‘I am trustworthy’; these are plaudits that only others can award to you.


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