A bbc interview with @whatonomy

This interview is brought to you by the letter W. @whatonomy is one of EduTwitter´s mysterious figures. Here, we find out a little bit more about the person behind the name.
Please introduce yourself...

My name's Mark and I'm both a primary and secondary teacher (English in secondary), having moved between sections twice now (from primary to secondary, back to primary and then back to secondary!)
I guess one of the most interesting things about me is that I've taught in five countries: the UK, Lithuania, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Peru! I've just left Peru and am starting a new teaching position in the Czech Republic.
My main areas of interest are English language and literature and particularly the uses of drama to provide meaningful contexts for learning.

What made you become a teacher?

Back in the 90's I'd been an English Language Teacher in Lithuania and Estonia. I returned to the UK in '97 and fell into a series of sales and marketing roles (some connected to education and some much less so). My nadir came in 2006 when I found myself demonstrating a globular wireless ipod speaker to a Stuff Magazine journalist. He was really enthusiastic and I don't think he noticed my out-of-body existential crisis.

Long story short: I moved to Newcastle, trained as a primary teacher, taught for a few years in Northumberland and then moved to the Czech Republic.

Since then, I've been gallavanting whichever way the wind blows and thoroughly enjoying the meaningfulness and the fullness of being a teacher and working with children.

What is your favourite part of the job?

Generally speaking (and especially in comparison to my previous jobs) it's the cut and thrust of Socratic interaction with children - whether I'm teaching them or just willfully winding them up (which is a kind of teaching). I'm a great believer in lying to children as part of the teaching process.

That said, how do you know what I've just said is true?
Trust is important, I'll have to take your word for it. If you build trust with a class you can lie to them without causing damage.
I also love the sense of community that comes with being a teacher. I guess it's a lot like being a nurse or a soldier or a nun or something (without the silence). I've met lots of wonderful friends through teaching and continue to be impressed by their unlimited altruism and their biscuits.
Don't worry, my lies are white and come from a loving place.
Generally speaking, I prefer to answer questions with tricks. If you ask me whether a sentence needs a full stop, I'll more than likely tell you it would rather have a biscuit.
I've just returned to Prague from Lima, Peru, and am currently preoccupied with the enhanced range of biscuits. Hence my current preoccupation.
We have those little Leibnitz chocolate biscuits! I haven't seen them for five years! For that matter, I haven't seen an apple growing on a tree for five years and there're loads of those outside my apartment window! [has nosebleed and faints].
What has been best thing you have done at work this year?

My last school was quite intensive in terms of termly assessments and reporting. So, when I knew I was leaving, I began to feel quite a profound sense of a kind of living nostalgia: I was in the moment that I was leaving behind. It's strange, but because I was a little less accountable I was much, much more present and less anxious about results. I had a wonderful time discussing writing with my students and found that I had much more time to enjoy their stories and push them that little bit further.

I never want to forget that feeling and very much want to take it into my repertoire for good: to make enjoyment of communication the centre of my teaching and learning rather than atomized results.

I also had a Hobnob. Someone brought a pack back from the UK. Really savoured that, I did.

It´s the little things. I've felt a similar unleashing this year as I am moving schools in September, I felt I could be more myself with the pupils as I probably wouldn't work there again. Consequently I enjoyed teaching more.

What is the most frustrating thing about teaching at the moment?

It's quite a revelation, isn't it? That your job is essentially about connecting and that many accountability measures actually impede that connection quite dramatically. And that's the frustration: that teaching has become more to do with demonstrating the value of tax than anything else.

Perhaps not tax (although I think that is part of the current brickbatting of state education); perhaps more the oversimplistic application of systems to what is essentially a very human act. Teaching is fuzzy and systems can't accommodate the fuzz of a learning experience. Try quantifying epiphany - you can't and you shouldn't.

I love what the Flip the System peeps are doing to reprofessionalize teachers. In fact, I'm going to recommend them as your next interviewees.

I think parents want their children to enjoy learning and they want them to have a meaningful (profound, even) scholarly interaction with their teachers. They don't want a series of progressive boxes to be ticked and they don't want to see their son or daughter on some scattergraph.

What songs would be on your driving to work playlist?

Songs? 'Is This The Life?' by The Cardiacs (my most secret and guilty musical pleasure. 'Midnight City' by M83 (my running track par excellence). Finally, probably 'You Want It Darker' by Leonard Cohen, because it's always healthy to be reminded of one's mortality. Another reason to pack as many biscuits away before your time is up.

What is the funniest thing a child has ever said/written in your class?

I've had the usual (kids saying 'orgasm' when they mean 'organism') but nothing particularly stands out as laugh out loud funny. I'm struck more by students expressing something singular: it may be funny, but more often that not it stops me in my tracks. I remember one student writing in his diary that when he's stressed with exams or overloaded with music he likes to listen to Bob Dylan and just lose himself in the lyrics. I remember reading and rereading that - and then putting on some Bob Dylan. That was writing that enriched and changed me. The best writing does that.

If kids are allowed in some way to be themselves in writing (diary writing is great for this), they find their voice so much more quickly than by copying techniques.
There's a place for both types of learning to write, but there has to be a place for the diary.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Listening to prog rock and prog punk. Eating New York Cheesecake, drinking Czech beer and playing computer games.

Oh, and noodling on the guitar.

And blogging.

And garibaldis.

I´m getting a biscuit theme here...

If you weren´t a teacher, what would you be and why?

I'd be a politician. For the simple reason that I see too many people become politicians for the wrong reasons. I wouldn't want to be a politician, but I'd do it. And I'd do it for the right reasons.

Teachers are patient. They see many sides of each situation and they are adept listeners. I think more of them should be politicians.

Mind, I could be a cobbler too like that Daniel Day Lewis fellow - and Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was a primary teacher who became a philosopher and then jacked it all in to become a cobbler. Bit of a cop-out if you ask me, but appealing all the same.

I´d vote for you. But I think teachers and politicians are like cobblers, at least they talk a load of ....

I think I like the idea of being a cobbler more than I do the reality of actually making shoes. It probably smells quite a bit of leather and dubbing.

Mind you, teaching smells of gym shoes and farts. I should probably drink fewer gassy drinks. I bet parliament smells.

Mind, if you judge any profession in an olfactory way, you'd never work anywhere, would you? In summary, if I wasn't a teacher, I would work in a perfumery. Apparently, the designer of a perfume is called its 'nose'. So you can ask 'who is the nose of this?' of a particular scent. I may try that, the next time I'm buying perfume.

What are you passionate about (teaching-related or not)? Apart from becoming a bodypart.

I love the idea that the more articulate we become, the able we are to get to the heart of matters. I love seeing people make sense. To say I have a passion, I don't know. But I really love eye contact and I love the secure knowledge that, by and large, we share a common understanding and that we can surprise one another with sudden bas relief interpretations of lived experience. I love reading novels and coming away with a deepened understanding of how others think. I also really, really love seeing children watch me read their writing through the periphery of my vision as I read. They are watching the power of their words. They are watching a spell unfurl and work its magic. I love that. More, even, than biscuits.

I´m with you there. That moment when their writing only has one person in the audience.

If you had to pick one subject/topic to teach on a loop forever, what would it be?

Literature. It is infinite and encompasses everything.

What is the most effective resource/technology/app you use in the classroom?

I have a Tibetan singing bowl for getting attention and a remote for switching pages on my Smartboard. I've dallied with most apps: Class Dojo, Education City, etc... but ultimately get most from the likes of the Literacy Shed (videos sorted for educational use, mostly to inspire writing).

I use to play with everything newfangled that came out for teachers. Now I'm much more of a minimalist. Less noise and clutter in my teaching and more precision, silence and intent.

Minimalism gives me the mental space to think of more creative ways to tell kids they can't go to the toilet.

A fundamental part of teaching.

What is the most effective routine/method/system you use in the classroom?

Backward planning (sometimes called 'Understanding by Design'). Basically, planning based on evidenced understanding, working back from what would convince me that a child can understand and do something with relative autonomy. That's been useful and stopped me from falling into teach/test traps.

Sounds interesting, can you give an example?

In grand terms, in my subject (English), the big idea may be that communication is full of intent and that effective communication (in terms of, for example, persuasive writing) achieves a desired result. For me to be satisfied that a student understands that big idea, they would need (over a substantial period of time) to demonstrate that they can either appreciate the intent of a series of texts or that they can produce their own. I think we all do this anyway as teachers, but in the flurry of standards-based assessment, I've found this to be a useful way to ground my teaching in something grander than simply meeting the next objective. Effectively, it helps me to interpret curriculum.

A good basic introduction to Backward Planning would be 'Understanding by Design' by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.

If you had to pick 4 people (Twitter or otherwise) to invite to a dinner party who
would it be and why?

Sarah Ledger, Gwenelope, Tom Bennett and Martin Robinson. The right balance of profundity and profanity - with me to ever tip the balance into the mire.

And we'd all be on Twitter to let the rest of those lovelies in.

What is the best and worst advice you have been given as a teacher?

Worst advice: 'Don't smile until Christmas.'

The whole 'don't smile' thing oversimplifies a more nuanced message: you need to be in control of the environment, which to an extent means remaining a little glacial and aware of how your interactions might facilitate distraction. But to not smile?! That's an awful abstraction.

Best advice: 'Wear a t-shirt under your shirt and get the kids to do as much as possible.'

Care to explain the t-shirt?

And if I don't wear a t-shirt, I end up looking like I've just emerged from the Poseidon Adventure (covered in sweat). As for getting the kids to do everything, that's the whole thing of teaching (mostly, admittedly, in Primary). You can't spend your professional life dancing around in front of kids. They've got to dance, too. They sometimes want to. They usually want to.

Final Question: What drives you as a teacher?

Teaching, done well, is a good thing to do (like being a chef and watching someone get pleasure from a meal you've cooked). But, more than that, there's the in loco parentis thing: you've been somewhere for a child to help them to get elsewhere. And then they look back at you - and they smile (and you fill up). I've done other things, and nothing makes my life more than being a father, a husband... and a teacher.

If you could choose one person who you´d love to have the bbc interview treatment, who would it be and why?

I would choose @dutaut because I love him and he's doing something really interesting and exciting with the reprofessionalisation of teaching that I think we all need to know more about.

I should add that he is doing these exciting things along with @honeypisquared - who is extremely dapper.


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