Over and Out

A lot has changed since I started this blog. I’ve moved out, finished uni, got engaged, become a qualified teacher, almost learned to drive, and been on a ferry for the first time – all equally important of course… Now I’ve moved on to this new phase of my life, a grown-up in the real world with a career who’s responsible for my fiancée and not just myself, I feel the time has come to move on from writing this blog too.

Some might say a blog is self-indulgent, a way of showing off and needily getting affirmation by likes. While I apologise for times that this has crept in, my main intention has been to point people towards Jesus and the amazing things He’s done for me, not to point towards myself. Other times it’s also been to let people who have wanted to listen hear what I’ve been thinking about, sometimes a way of processing and organising my thoughts about a topic, and sometimes just a way of being creative. In addition, through writing my blog I’ve realised more and more that even the most effective words are flawed and can only partly reflect God’s grace, holiness, power and love – He’s much too huge to be contained by any box, let alone a man-made construct like language!

As I looked back nostalgically at some of my older posts this morning, I thought about the main things my blog has discussed:

– God keeps his promises! (e.g. Turning Back the Clock)

– Manliness is about empathy, courage, and other similar internal qualities more than muscles or physical strength (e.g. Redefining Masculinity)

– Teaching is a great job in many ways but is incredibly tough (e.g. Noah)

– Jesus died for my sins so I could be in relationship with God, the Creator of the universe! (e.g. Who’s in Control?).

This blog won’t change the world, and it was never meant to. However, I hope it’s been enjoyable and beneficial to the little band of people who have chosen to listen to what I had to say. Thanks for reading!


There isn’t a word to describe how challenging teaching is. The workload is incredible, the pressure is intense, and the brightness of the spotlight which always stays on you is almost blinding. I was reading about Noah and the flood in the Bible this week and I felt a bit like I was drowning, submerged by the floodwaters of relentless planning and marking. But when I thought about it a bit more, there were some other things in the passage that have really encouraged me:

– Even though there are soooo many people in the world, God sees the individual and loves them so much!

– When the floodwaters rise, God protects those who are faithful to Him and doesn’t let them get submerged.

– Even during the flood, God’s promises are as true as they were before.

– God uses hardship to refine and bring about something better.

– The floodwaters will eventually go down!

Noah had to live by faith and obey for a loooong time before he saw any rain. This week has been so difficult, and I’ve had to keep going and have faith in myself and in God’s plan for my life even when I wasn’t seeing any fruit. Today was a really good day, though, and I’m thankful for that. However, I need to remember to keep positive and keep living by faith even when it’s tough; I need to remember that God loves me SO MUCH, that He is protecting me and won’t let me drown, and that His plan for my life is still the best.


Five weeks into my teacher training course, I’m exhausted. Yeah on the whole I’m having a great time, the people are really cool, and most of the sessions are helpful, but the days are so long (two days this week were 8am-7.30pm) and I’m exhausted. One of the many buzz words we’re frequently exposed to is ‘vision’ – others include leadership, resilience, values, journey, collaboration, growth mindsets, and inclusion – and while we joke about how often the word ‘vision’ is used, it really is SO important to have a driving force behind what you’re doing. If you have no deeper reason for going into teaching except for earning some money, you’ll have nothing to push you to keep going when the going gets tough. So after ‘reflecting’ (that’s another buzz word), here’s my vision…

If I had to pick one reason why I chose to go into teaching, it would be to be a positive male role model to children who don’t have one. (I’ve written about this here and here, so I won’t go into detail again…) But after hearing about Teach First’s vision, that ‘no child’s educational success should be limited by their socio-economic background’, my vision altered to include this, and a major driving force for me now is that as a teacher I will help to bridge the gap between the rich and poor in my classroom through the transformative power of education, giving children from low-income backgrounds the opportunity to have a successful and fulfilling life not held back by limitations that aren’t their fault. How will I do that? By having high expectations for all, regardless of background; allowing no excuses for my children not succeeding; setting work that stretches ALL children and moves them forward (i.e. good planning and ‘differentiation’); and promoting high aspirations in the children for their futures. Furthermore, as a Christian I also believe it’s important to give my children a chance to hear about Jesus and His amazing love for us, and the extent to which I can (and should) do this in school will probably be something I wrestle with over the two-year course and beyond. (Of course, I wanted a teaching job for selfish reasons too, to earn money to support myself and hopefully a family one day, and to feel good about myself for making a positive contribution to the world, but I like to think they’re of secondary importance to these other things!)

Proverbs 22:6 (from the Bible) kind of sums up why I’m doing primary teaching. It says:
‘Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it’. Some would label this as idealistic, and I see their point; even a child with a great start in life may go off the rails later. However, setting them up in the right way makes it much more likely that they will succeed in the future. Children are so impressionable, especially when they are primary school age, and excellent teachers at this stage makes it much more likely that they will succeed later, equipping them with knowledge, skills, and qualities to have a great life and break past limitations imposed on them.

While writing this, I also thought about what values I actually want to model for my children. I want them to have resilience, empathy, selflessness, courage, self-belief, creativity, and a love for learning. I also want them to see that being a man isn’t necessarily about being physically strong or aggressive, and that instead it’s more about having these qualities listed above. Inspiring these qualities in them starts with me, though, so I need to keep developing these qualities in myself if I want my children to have them too.

So if at any point during the next two years and beyond I moan about my massive workload, my lack of sleep and/or social life, or how that one child in my class just won’t behave, pleeease point me back to this blog post. This is why I’m becoming a teacher; I want to make a difference, I want to be the change I want to see, and I want to help change lives. I can’t do it on my own though; I’ll need the support of my family, friends, and most importantly God, the One who gives me strength to succeed, but ultimately I will succeed and I will be the leader/teacher/human I’m meant to be, helping my children become who they’re meant to be in the process.

What makes a good teacher?

In just over two months, I’ll be starting the first part of my 2-year teacher training course. This part is an intense six-week summer school to help us learn how to be good teachers before we’re released into the wild (our placement schools) in September. That got me thinking – what actually makes a good teacher? When you think about it, it’s very hard to define. A teacher is so many roles rolled into one; Colin Richards suggests for a teacher to fit the government’s expectations of them, they need ‘the omni-competence of Leonardo da Vinci, the diplomatic expertise of Kofi Annan, […] the grim determination of Alex Ferguson [and] the omniscience of God’ (Learning to Teach in the Primary School, 2010). Although he admits to being over the top here, Richards raises a valid point that a successful teacher needs to have lots of different skills! He also suggests teaching can be characterised as a science, a craft, or an art (or a mixture of all three), making it even more unclear which particular skills a good teacher should have. I think it’s really hard to pinpoint what exactly makes a good teacher, but seeing one in action certainly makes it easier. Maybe you can remember a teacher from your school days who genuinely cared and went the extra mile, or was just great at explaining things! Even then, though, two teachers with very different teaching styles can be equally effective (or equally ineffective), which complicates things even more. However, I’d argue that the best example of a good teacher is a guy who lived around 2000 years ago called Jesus, for three main reasons: He modelled the good principles He wanted His ‘students’ to live by, He used Vygotsky’s theories wayyy before they’d even been invented to help Him impart knowledge effectively, and He made all the necessary sacrifices to get the job done.

Although people disagree on whether Jesus is the Son of God or not, most people would agree that the principles Jesus taught were good. He says the greatest two commandments are to ‘Love the Lord your God with [everything you have, and to] love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39). He extends this second one further, saying you should even ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44) – not a wishy-washy or romantic sort of love either; a powerful, enduring love that perseveres even when it’s difficult. What makes His words so powerful, though, is that He backed up these good principles He taught with His actions and modelled the life he wanted His ‘students’ to lead. He frequently gave up His time for them, He healed lots of them, and the very reason He came to earth was His love for them – and us! More on that later… But the point is that teachers should ‘demonstrate the positive values, attitudes and behaviour they expect from [their] children’ through their own actions (Learning to Teach in the Primary School, 2010), something Jesus does excellently.

The second reason I think Jesus is the best teacher is that He basically invented the wheel before the inventor of the wheel invented it. In other words, He used an approach proposed by a theorist called Lev Vygotsky, who has been incredibly influential on teaching practice in the last few decades. One of his theories is that of the ZPD, or Zone of Proximal Development, which is the gap between what the learner can do now independently and what they can do with assistance. In this model, the teacher’s role is to meet the learner where they’re at and help them progress to the next stage. Jesus did that all the time: when He taught people, He used the sort of language they could understand. When talking to everyday people, He used parables which involved situations they could relate to so they could get what he was trying to say. He would also have spoken in an everyday dialect too, something older translations of the Bible with thee’s and thou’s in can make us forget. However, when talking to religious leaders He would quote from the Old Testament more often, showing His ability to meet people on their level to help them learn better.

Even by coming to earth, though, Jesus was applying the ZPD on a huge scale. God clothed Himself in human flesh and came to earth, leaving behind a place of perfection for a place of devastation. He came to where we are in our sin and shame to take us further than we could ever go by ourselves. He died on the cross, taking the punishment we should have paid for our sin (the wrong things we do that separate us from God). And that means sin can no longer hold us back from being close to Him, allowing us the opportunity to be in a personal relationship with our heavenly Father, the same God who created the universe and holds it all in His hands. Wow. And then He came back to life, backing up His claims with irrefutable evidence of His power! Amazing.

My third point follows on from this: Jesus was willing to make whatever sacrifice was necessary to get the job done. Like any good teacher, He had such an amazing love for His children that He would do anything it takes to help them succeed. Our job as teachers might be to help shape the children we teach into good young people while imparting knowledge to them, which will take some sacrifices sometimes; late nights marking, early mornings planning lessons, etc. But as we’ve just seen, Jesus’ job was to bridge the gap between God and man, something only He could do as only He was fully God and fully man. And as the task was so difficult, the sacrifice was so much greater: it involved giving up His life. However, He chose to do it anyway because He loves us so much.

So as we’ve seen, Jesus wasn’t just a good teacher – He saved the world! And actually Jesus doesn’t leave us the option of seeing Him just as a good teacher. If He wasn’t the Son of God, yet claimed He was, He would actually be an awful teacher who is either incredibly arrogant, a liar, or a crazy man. However, He backed up His claims with His actions, showing God’s power flowing through Him by healing the sick and ultimately by coming back to life after dying on the cross. So as well as being the best teacher ever, demonstrating excellent teaching practice that any trainee teacher could learn a lot from, He is our Saviour, giving His life to set us free from sin and allow us to be close to God again. He’s done all the hard work, all we have to do is believe and accept the sacrifice that He has made! Brilliant. (Now all I need is to find someone to do all my marking and lesson plans for me…)

Duolingo: a model of an effective pedagogy?

Since receiving an offer to join a teacher training course after I graduate (woohoo!) I’ve been doing some things to prepare for it. As well as working hard at uni to get my degree, I’ve been reading up on some teaching theory and improving my subject knowledge ready for when I start teaching – and trust me, with teaching primary, there’s lots of subjects to familiarise myself with! Recently I’ve started to learn Spanish to improve my ability in languages, and to do that I’ve used a free website called duolingo.com that my housemate told me about, which is well good! [By the way, my favourite phrase so far is ‘los zapatos y los calcetines’, which means ‘the shoes and the socks’… it’s SO much fun to say!] Anyway, today I asked myself the question ‘why have I been able to learn so much so quickly?’ and when I thought about it I realised it’s because Duolingo puts into practice lots of the good teaching techniques I’ve been reading about! Let me explain…

  • When I learn something new, it situates it in its wider context. When learning about prepositions, for example (in, on, under, etc.) it gives me example sentences which contain vocab from topics like ‘colours’, ‘animals’, and ‘food’ that I’d learnt earlier on. This makes sure I don’t forget stuff I learnt a while ago, and also reminds me that it’s all part of one big picture rather than discrete topics that never interlink.
  • It provides a structure that ‘scaffolds’ my learning, showing me what I can currently do and helping me get to the next stage (hello Vygotsky!). Although it lets me choose what topic to do next, I can’t do topics x, y and z before a, b and c, which is an effective way of directing my learning while still enabling me to take ownership of it.
  • It makes me DO stuff with my new knowledge by making me answer a series of short questions. These questions help me improve my listening, speaking, reading AND writing, ensuring I’m developing all the necessary skills to be a linguist as well as receiving the raw knowledge. This ‘multimodality’ also gives me more opportunities to succeed (e.g. if I’m not so good at the writing, but I’m good at the other 3 skills, I won’t feel like a failure and I’ll stay motivated).
  • Through these short questions it continually assesses me to check my progress, so I know how well I’m doing and what I need to improve on (which also helps me take more responsibility for my own learning) and also so it knows what I know so it can ask more appropriate questions.
  • It implements effective behaviour management strategies! It makes learning fun in the first place, making it less likely for me to misbehave, and gives me a clear system of positive reinforcement, using rewards and incentives to encourage me to work hard and giving me clear goals to aim for. On the flip side, it consistently implements a ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule, making it clear that there are consequences for disobedience (well, in this case it’s for getting the wrong answer… but I think my analogy still fits!).
  • Finally, it fosters ‘metacognitive awareness’ (i.e. it makes me think about how I learn) so I can then learn more effectively.

Great! So if Duolingo’s so good, maybe we don’t need teachers! Oh, umm, actually that’s not true. There are some really important teachery things that Duolingo can’t do:

  • It can’t model the positive characteristics it wants its ‘pupils’ to have. It is only able to impart subject knowledge and can’t help the people it teaches to develop positive values, attitudes, or behaviour, which is an integral part of teaching.
  • It can’t provide cross-curricular links to situate the subject in a broader frame of knowledge.
  • It gives you the option to ‘quit’…
  • It can’t really manage my behaviour! If I don’t want to learn Spanish on a particular day, there’s absolutely nothing Duolingo can do to stop me.
  • While it provides the opportunity for collaborative learning, it doesn’t enforce it, meaning I might never learn good team-working and communication skills or develop the ability to relate well with people from diverse backgrounds.
  • Also, if there’s a slight technical hitch Duolingo can’t improvise like a real teacher can; it’s game over, and no learning at all can take place!

So while Duolingo does model some really good teaching strategies, it would need to drastically improve elements of its practice to achieve Qualified Teacher Status 😉

Mr Smith goes to London: Chapter One

“Marley was dead: to begin with,” Mr Smith said. Was that convincing enough? He decided to say it again.

“Marley was DEAD… to begin with.” That was much better! His tone of voice was much more interesting, almost shouting “dead” which contrasted well with the quieter, intriguing “to begin with”. The way he calmly moved his hands while he spoke kept his listeners focused on him, stopping them being easily distracted. He thought the way he moved his eyebrows added something too. Good.

“That’s the opening to a book by a guy called Charles Dickens. He was a really famous author who made lots of money! Now today, I’m really interested to find out why. Why did he make so much money?” He began to speak faster here, conveying his urgency. “Why did his readers read the whole of his book, right to the end, instead of [throws book across classroom] throwing it away after they’d read the first line? Now, I’m going to say that first sentence again.” Dramatic pause. “Marley was dead. To begin with. Joe: why is that such a good opening to his story?” There was no-one called Joe in the room. There was only Mr Smith and his reflection in the mirror. But in his imagination he was talking to the two assessors he would be delivering his lesson to in only a week’s time. He was incredibly excited for his assessment day! He really wanted to be a teacher: he had a passion for helping to shape young lives into the people they were created to be. It would be his first ever time going to London too. His friends couldn’t believe that he had never been to the capital city and had told him of all the exciting places he should visit there, and now was finally his chance to see them! It would also be an excuse to wear a suit, something he hadn’t done for ages. He felt very official in a suit, very teachery and grown-up, and he liked that.

Did Charles Dickens really make lots of money? Or was he one of those authors who was successful but was actually poor? He would have to look that up on the internet later. In the meantime, Joe had probably had enough time to reply, so Mr Smith responded. “Yeah that’s good Joe, well done. It’s very important to introduce the main characters in the opening to a book. Do you think Marley is a main character?” Silence. “Yeah maybe he is! But we aren’t sure, are we? And that’s one thing that makes this opening so effective, right? The fact that we don’t know all the information. Jessie,” he said, directing his gaze to the right hand side of his mirror rather than the left, “does that make you want to keep reading?” Silence. “Exactly! So let’s write that on my mind-map on the whiteboard.”

There was no whiteboard. There was no mind-map. There was no Jessie. If any of his housemates came in to his bedroom now, they would think he was being silly, talking to himself in the mirror. But if actors can spend hours diligently practicing their lines, why can’t a teacher practice the start to their lesson? Well, a trainee teacher. Well, he wasn’t even that yet, but he wanted to be, and if this lesson went well, he might be. He sighed as he remembered the reality of his situation. He urgently had to write an essay on William Shakespeare’s play King Lear, and he needed to get good marks in his university assessments if he was to have any hope of teaching real people in the future.

When he was younger, he never understood why people would want to be teachers. It must be so boring, he thought, to wear a shirt and tie every day, to be at school when nobody was forcing them to be there. They must be so miserable too – why else would they shout so often? But now he understood. They want to make a difference. They’re at school because they want to help the children who are forced to be there. And they only shout because they care. Without discipline in the classroom, how are children supposed to learn? It would be chaos!

As John sat at his computer typing his essay, he wondered whether this would be a good story opening. The first chapter in his career as a teacher might be about to begin! Then again, it might not. The unanswered questions made him excited, nervous, apprehensive, and lots of other adventurous words. If he was reading this in a book, he would certainly want to read chapter 2.

Teaching: one of the hardest jobs in the world

There isn’t a Lego ‘Primary School Teacher’ man. So I invented one :]

So my month or so of full-time voluntary work at my old primary school has come to an end. I’ll be glad to have some well-deserved rest now cos I’m absolutely shattered, but I’m reaaally gonna miss it! It’s been a fantastic experience for me personally – I’ve learned so much and it’s been so enjoyable! – and I like to think I’ve made a bit of a difference too, judging by the way the kids have really taken to me (one little girl even gave me a little present on the last day – aww!) and some of the great conversations I’ve had with them. I’ve seen both the positives and negatives of teaching as a career, and even though it’s quite daunting imagining myself teaching a class of 30 kids every day, I’m sure I’ll be fine when the time comes. Teaching is a real talent that you have to develop; you need to have certain basic skills to begin with, such as a real love for the children, good communication skills, and bags of patience, but the rest I guess you learn over time, and I know God will give me all the strength, wisdom and (extra) patience I need when the time comes.

A hand-crafted necklace from a little boy in Reception – aww!

And I’ll need it, because teaching is difficult: much more so than many people realise. From 9 til 3 when you’re in the classroom, you’re responsible for engaging and retaining the attention of potentially 30 restless, fidgety, boisterous individuals long enough to teach them loads of stuff; not just the entire curriculum, but actual skills that they need for life as well. When they step out of line, you have to quickly intervene with authority. But if you’re too strict they’ll decide they don’t like you and be little rebels; you’re constantly striving to get the balance between being someone who they get on with and can have a laugh with and someone who they really respect and listen to. And different children respond differently to certain things, so you have to find the best way of enabling each individual to learn the best way they can, whether that means making sure Johnny and Freddy are sat at opposite ends of the classroom, remembering that it often takes multiple attempts to persuade Sally to follow your instructions, making allowances for Suzie’s toilet troubles, or frequently giving Bob the positive affirmation that he needs to boost his painfully low self-confidence. Not only that, but after such an exhausting day, you’re expected to go home and spend most of your evening extensively planning the rest of the week’s lessons, marking piles and piles of your children’s work, evaluating whether each child is reaching their full potential (and if not, why not?) and ascertain whether you’re meeting all your targets. And that’s on top of trying to have some sort of social life and, quite often, being a parent and juggling other responsibilities at home too. How on earth do they find enough hours in the day for all this?!

But even though it’s hard, in many ways it’s so rewarding and enjoyable! Yes there’ll be days when you come home deflated, frustrated, and absolutely drained, but the fact that you have the opportunity to make a tangible difference in so many people’s lives is amazing! Society’s crying out for good role models – especially good male role models like I’ve said before – and while it’s a big responsibility, it’s great that you can be such a strong positive influence on the children you’re teaching and help to shape the people they become. And some of the children are just brilliant! Here are some more of the amazing things they’ve said to me recently:

My attempt at a ‘Mister G’-style drawing (check out mistergkids.com if you don’t know what I mean)

– ‘Mr Birchenough, your shoes are quite sophisticated!’

– ‘You don’t need to wash; you smell beautiful just as you are!’

– ‘You’re very high!’

– ‘Can I tell you something really funny? I wish you were my brother!’

– ‘I don’t like tomatoes, that’s why I call them tom-AY-toes.’

– ‘You’re my best teacher-friend!’

And one boy in Year 3, after drawing me a picture, wrote on the back:

– ‘You are my friend James. You are good at fun.’ Ahhh amazing!

So while 18 year-old me isn’t ready to be an actual teacher, I’m confident 20 or 30 year-old me could do it. It’d be challenging and unpredictable, but that’d keep it exciting! And it’d be such hard work, but it’d be soooo worth it. Even though teaching has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world, then, it’s gotta be one of the best!

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