Stress, Teaching and Life!

Teaching is a stressful job!………..Let’s get that statement out there from the beginning. Teaching is a stressful job.

Despite the media rhetoric of long holidays and short days spent drinking tea while sat at a desk, it is a strange and stressful job. It is not the only job I have had. I have had jobs that involved very tight deadlines, large amounts of money, international flights to deal with non-english speaking factories, international trade shows, magazines scrutinising every product I designed and at times very long working weeks but of all these things I have done teaching has proved to be the most unrelentingly stress ridden job I have had. Do not take this as an anti-teaching article, for I love teaching. I really do love it and I hope to do nothing else but it, but from bitter experience I have seen what stress can do to the career I love so much. In 2012 I had a nervous breakdown which changed my outlook on life and also on my profession and the stresses which it brings. Prior to the day it happened I had always had a mental image of a nervous or mental breakdown as being someone sat in a darkened room crying because life had become too much for them. I guess like many, wrongly, I had seen it as something that happens to weak people. I am not weak! If you knew me you would know that to be the case. In my life I have been very active, I have written motorcycles off in crashes, nearly drowned down a cave, been a thousand feet up a cliff with no ropes, been coughing blood after a fall climbing, had hypothermia, been hospitalised for dehydration, run cross country marathons and been involved in mountain rescues and of all the things that have happened to me, or I have inflicted upon myself rarely have any even slowed me down. I don’t mention those things to boast or big myself up and many of the people who know me will not know much of what I just mentioned but I say it here to illustrate the large void between how I thought breakdowns happened and who I was. In 2012 however I got first hand experience of a breakdown and it involved no crying and no sitting in a darkened room, it was far more physical than I could have imagined.

What happened next set me on a path, knocked me on my back and propelled me back up. It also led to research, awareness and some personal truths about teaching and stress. To read more and to see my research project and the end of the story read my new iBook for free now.

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Exam Utopia?

Like many teachers across the country today I got up, checked the A level results on the exam boards website and then went in to school to see the students pick up their results. It is a routine that many teachers share and for some it is as nerve racking as it is for the students. Did your class get the “right” results? Did the exam board moderate you down, or in most cases “how much did they moderate us down this year”? Will the students be happy with what they got? Will the school? All things teachers think but for me the only thing I thought was have results lost their meaning?

For many students their explosive joy or abject misery is based upon if their results facilitate their progression onto their desired next stage. Education as a whole is, or dare I say has, become a means to an end and little else. It has become the motorway to the future, hopefully getting you where you want to go but of little intrinsic beauty in it’s own right. We send students along that motorway pointing out a far flung land that may be reachable if they stick to the road ahead, don’t stall and don’t run out of petrol. Motorways are the easiest and quickest way to reach a destination but no-one enjoys being on them. Junctions are spaced far apart and the only sense of satisfaction one gains from reaching them is knowing another section of road is now behind you. If you take a wrong turn or get off too soon it can seem disastrous as can any “fails” along the education treadmill to a “successful future”. So are we doing it all wrong? Is their a better way?

I love learning. I struggled at school in my early years and then found secondary school boring but now I absolutely love to learn new things no matter what subject. Being a teacher is a great job as we are always pushed by our students to answer all “those questions” kids ask and it makes for a very fulfilled life, but the education system as a whole seems to focus on the future more than the now. I dislike motorways, I much prefer country lanes. On a country lane their is always something to see, the journey in itself is enjoyable and if you take a wrong turn you get the benefit of seeing even more countryside. I like to see education in this same sense, enjoyed and as much about the journey as it is the destination, which once reached simply becomes another stop off along the next journey. So how could we enhance that feeling in students and change the exam factory into a tour company?

Well at their most basic what is the point in results and grades? Ultimately it is to separate students into groups so others can judge them for their suitability for something. For companies looking to employ students straight from A level many members of the public have a very limited understanding of the exam and course structures. Also the media feeds the confusion fire by constant claiming of devaluing or lowering standards so most employers take A level results with a pinch of salt. I feel a students personality, willingness and attitude have more bearing in an interview than a letter on a piece of paper. So do we need results? Well yes we should celebrate and reward the effort shown by young people but it should be a celebration of the journey not simply a ticket to escape. So why not have less grades? We could use the boundaries universities use with 1st, 2nd and 3rd class being the only judgement placed. After all A levels are GCE qualifications which stand for General Certificate of Education not VSCAP (Very Specific Certificate of Academic Prowess) which is what they seem to now be, so why would we need more division than that? Well in a word universities. They need a way to judge very quickly the thousands of students that apply to them each year. That said universities are always commenting that A levels do not prepare students for their further studies so do A levels really help or hinder universities. What about having a university entrance exam separate from A levels? So divide the two tasks they currently do to a mediocre standard and have on one hand A Levels which celebrate education and then separately exams for those students wishing to go on to university.

Obviously I am not suggesting each university holds its own entrance exams but instead national exams are held, similar to now but not tied up with A levels. We could even have them at a different time so a student wanting to do Medicine for example would sit a medical exam with elements of biology, english, chemistry, maths and whatever else was seen as needed for a course of that type. Design technology could have elements of maths, physics, problem solving, engineering, business and english whereas the the maths entrance exam might be more specifically biased to maths. The entrance exams would be tailored to the type of career they want and would be marked nationally. Then universities could publish what pass mark they require to join their course rather than the complex UCAS Points system we have now. Gaining that pass mark would then allow you to apply for that course and then interviews and the such would then take place. If you did these exams in year 12 it would give students time to organise, apply and be accepted to their chosen course before leaving school. This would mean school staff could help them with their choices rather than these frantic meetings we have with students on results day when time is of the essence and emotions cloud decisions. It would also do away with clearing and as the exams are on a variety of subject matters no one teacher or subject could teach to the exam so the results would be a much clearer assessments of students ability. Then by the time results day arrives those wishing to go on to university would have already decided upon their future choices and the certificates would be a pure celebration of their journey.

Could an exam utopia ever exist? Where education and learning in it’s own right is held with as much value as an envelope containing a piece of paper. Who knows but for now try to promote that journey and lead your students down a few country lanes once in a while.

Energy Matters

In January 1889 one of the worlds first modern power stations, as we would recognise it today, opened in Newcastle upon Tyne. The Forth Banks Power Station heralded the birth of the modern era of power generation, building on principles first used in the early days of steam in the seventeenth century, but allied with modern, almost experimental technologies.

The basic principles of the process used remain the same in the majority of power stations today. Something is burnt to produce heat, in this case coal, this heats water, producing high pressured steam which in turn spins turbines. These turbines are connected to huge turbo-alternators, which are essentially banks of magnets spinning within large coils of wire. The movement of the magnetic fields within the coils produces electricity, which in itself is the basis of nearly all power production today bar photovoltaic solar panels. The opening of this power station, although a leap of faith to some extent, must have been quite an occasion with dignitaries coming from far and wide. Although not too far as air travel had another 14 years before the Wright Brothers would take their first 12 second flight into history, and with 19 year until the first Ford Model T rolled off the production line it is unlikely that any came by car. The event would also only receive printed press coverage being another 33 years before BBC would make their first radio broadcast. A lot has changed since then, our thirst for energy has grown exponentially and our life styles changed beyond recognition but 125 years on our reliance on burning fossil fuels for power has not dwindled. Today 63.8% of the UK’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, with another 19.8% from Nuclear and finally 14.8% from renewables such as wind, hydro and solar. These figures also do not include our personal use of gas, which most households have relied upon since the 1920’s for cooking and later heating. So is our present and future energy production stuck firmly in the past? Well, no. I don’t think so.

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Being a Design and Technology teacher I take a keen interest in energy, it is after all what a large proportion of my subject is built around and I am lucky to live in a time when energy production has never been so diverse or interesting. Within the UK we have schemes harnessing almost every imaginable renewable energy source such as wave and tidal power, hydroelectricity and wind turbines are becoming more and more commonplace. Scotland has gone for these in a big way, as anyone who has driven the M74 recently will know. They have invested large areas of land in remote mountain and lowland areas to these monoliths. Teaching in Milton Keynes I am lucky enough to have a wind farm only 15 miles away just off junction 15 of the M1. Finally but far from least we have solar energy or Photovoltaic (PV) cells to give them their proper name, which are becoming more cost effective and more popular for domestic and commercial production. Again close by to MK is a solar farm hidden away in the countryside no more obtrusive, or noticeable for that matter, than fields of rapeseed or corn. All of these technologies utilised within the UK are a great resource for me teaching my subject. I am lucky that the national curriculum asks for the study of new and emerging technologies and their social and environmental impacts, while at GCSE all exam boards ask an understanding of the social, moral, ethical and environmental impacts designers have. So for me I get the chance to look at and discuss with students the various choices for energy production and we learn that although not simple decisions to make they are important environmental and crucially economical decisions which must be made now and in the future.

Educating our students about the wide and complex issues surrounding our energy needs is important but I often wonder if we as an education system could be doing more to lead by example. I used to work on an industrial estate and often wondered why the government didn’t effectively rent our roof space to install solar panels. They would gain green low cost energy and we could be given a small reduction in energy tariff as rent so we could both gain from the joint venture. Mine like many schools is heavily energy dependant, with computers, projectors, interactive whiteboards and God only knows how many lights and like many is a building utilised by the local community. We rent out large areas of the school to local groups on evenings and weekends and thus it is open and being used nearly 24/7. Even at nine or even ten in the evening the 500m long building is still fully lit and heated and I often wonder if the government and we as a school are not missing something. Why doesn’t every public building have solar panels on it? Ignoring the environmental benefits to this, energy prices are increasing year on year. As supply (of fossil fuels) gradually reduces and demand steadily increases prices will continue to rise and the amount of our taxes being used to heat and light public buildings like prisons, schools, council offices etc. is set to continue to rise. Surely it makes financial sense for the government to push for a much larger roll out of solar panels across Britain’s roofs. They could go one stage further by making it a planning condition that all new builds would have to have a given percentage of roof space dedicated to solar paneling. With this guaranteed demand the government could fund UK businesses to design, manufacture and install these panels bringing in jobs and taxes to the UK and higher demand would lower costs making them more affordable for the domestic user. So is this going to happen, well in a word no, but the government have published their “Roadmap to a Brighter Future” and their plans could go someway to starting that process and schools should definitely show interest in their scheme.

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Within this “Roadmap” the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) set out a few plans, which should be of interest. Firstly they plan to work with private companies as well as community projects to implement as many solar photovoltaic (PV) installations as possible, as they put it “opening up the solar market for the UK’s estimated 250,000 hectares of south facing commercial rooftops”. Another element of the strategy sees the Cabinet Office leading on implementing solar panels on much of the governments estate, while the Department for Education is working on ways to improve efficiency and reduce their annual £500 million energy bill. Importantly for schools they will encourage the deployment of solar panels on schools as well as promoting energy efficiency. The Rt. Hon. Michael Gove said “Solar panels are a sensible choice for schools, particularly in terms of the financial benefits they can bring. It is also a great way for pupils to engage with environmental issues and think about where energy comes from.” This is an encouraging step for the education system going “green” and DECC have already supported 300 schools in securing finance for PV schemes. DECC have produced a document called “Power to the Pupils” which lays down the benefits and options for schools converting to renewable sources of energy and is well worth a read for all schools.

So why are the government pushing solar panels on our roofs? Well there are a number of reasons. As our energy production diversifies from a few huge power stations into a larger number of smaller, variable input plants this puts strain on the National Grid. The grid is not a battery, it does not have capacity for storage, it simply moves energy from one place to another so supply and demand must always be in equilibrium. Ever wondered why in high winds some wind turbines are not spinning? Well this is because when the wind farm is making too much energy due to limits, grid capacity or simply a lack of demand they use brakes to stop the turbines turning. We throw away energy because we cannot balance it out against demand, but at the adverse we can not rely on wind turbines completely because at that peak demand when we all get up in the morning and turn on the kettle there may be no wind. So the grid has to rely on fossil fuel power stations, which produce a steady output but are not quick to react to fluctuations. For this hydro is great as the electricity can be turned on in the time it takes water to fall down a pipe but it is reliant on rain. Nuclear however is always on, always producing a given amount, day and night regardless of demand, so 4 hydroelectric plants in the UK use surplus Nuclear energy to turn the turbines on in reverse over night and pump water back up to the reservoirs ready for peak demand the next day. Inefficiencies are born within the system where conversion and transportation occurs. Every step of the way from digging up the fuel to transporting the finished electricity along a network of wires dissecting our countryside, energy is lost. The advantage of solar power is it can produce electricity where it is needed, at our houses and places of work. No transportation is needed, no moving parts, no noise, no by-product, no waste, less demand on the grid and no fuel. Just clean, green, free energy from the sun and with panel and installation costs reducing dramatically over the last few years it would seem to make economic, environmental and educational sense. The Department of Energy and Climate Changes “Power to the Pupils” pamphlet says a main benefit of going solar is “Education and engagement: being able to communicate to pupils the benefits of sustainability through a working example of renewable technology in their own school will provide more direct engagement, particularly in the subjects of geography, science, design and technology and IT. This can also help to inspire the wider community to take action to address climate change. Taking these benefits into consideration, the business, moral and educational case for installing PV in schools is very compelling”. So read the pamphlet, show it to your head, discuss it with your colleagues and lets move our schools away from nineteenth century technology and towards smart economic, environmental and educational twenty first century choices.

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Find your Peace and Quiet!

I am a lover of the outdoors. Hills, mountains, moors and woods, I always feel more at home when outdoors than I feel anywhere else, so recently I jumped at the chance of a few days walking in North Wales. I went with a few friends and we travelled up in one of their cars, a Scandinavian model of safety on wheels. It was a new car and packed to the rafters with features to keep even the most inattentive of drivers safe. It bleeped to let you know your seatbelt was undone, to let you know if you went too fast, if you got too close to a white line, if you got too close to the car in front, if the car in front broke, it flashed a light to tell you you were being overtaken and the sat nav even points out which direction around roundabouts you should travel. It struck me on the journey that we are bombarded by stimuli in modern life and like the owner of the car we get used to it to the point of excepting it as normality. I am as bad as the next man, I have watches with GPS, phones that talk to me, camera’s with wifi and even my outdoor equipment is full of gadgets and modern materials. I would never suggest technology is a bad thing as I am a huge fan and believe it is only as good or bad as those who design it’s use but I do believe we have walked blind folded into this modern world. It is rare now for us to be out of communication for more than a few hours at most and many are slaves to checking emails, messages, social networks and the like but none of that brings peace. That evening laid in my tent far from phone signal I remembered why I love tents so much. You know you are outside, you know you are in the wilds and only a thin layer of fabric keeps it at bay but you also know no matter the weather or time of year inside that canvas cocoon you can find peace and quiet. No matter where you find it, get out and experience it whether it is found in windy woodlands or on cornfield brushed finger tips make sure you leave some space in your modern 24 hour lifestyle for peace. A good book, a friends embrace, a child’s smile or a tent away from it all, never forget how precious peace and quiet is!

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