Reflecting on … How starting an MSc inspired me as a teacher.

These blogs are not written to speak to the latest educational “debate” generating a Twitterstorm and I had already planned my theme for this week in advance of Justine Greening’s speech.  Nonetheless, it is a timely co-incidence that I had planned to write extolling the value of the MSc to teachers, just as proposals are unveiled for a non-university route into teaching.  Greg Ashman, amongst others, has already written a thoughtful contribution on this debate and I have little to add:  so I do not plan to focus on that directly.

My blog was inspired by my weekend plans: beginning (much later than I had hoped, as ever) to complete my reading and plan my tasks for the first weekend seminar of the second year of my MSc, coming up soon.  I started this course last year, not without some trepidation and after not really considering it relevant to me for some years.  I had several concerns, not least finding the time to do it justice and questions about the practical application of a university-based course, especially as I have been teaching for over 10 years.  When I started teaching these qualifications were still relatively rare and, having an MA in my subject (history) led me to feel comfortably ahead of the game on the qualifications front.  I was learning a lot ‘on the job’ and drawing on further reading when I became a mentor in my early teaching years.  Then, as I took on more responsibility, time became a factor and my teaching development undoubtedly stagnated as I juggled everything else.  I still didn’t think about taking on an extra course, even as they began to proliferate.  I didn’t feel I needed the qualification and couldn’t see how I would spare the time.

It was when I became Director of Research and Innovation in 2015 that my attention was sharply drawn to how out-of-touch I had been with some key developments in the field of education, not least the entire Edublogging and Twitter scenes.  I’m still barely competent at the latter.

The feeling that I was missing out, that there was a world of thinking that I couldn’t quite access drove me to reconsider my views on the MSc.  No longer considering it purely a qualification I began to assess it as a tool to develop my pedagogy and re-engage with educational thinking.  A colleague had recently completed one and had nothing but positive things to say about the experience and I gamely committed a significant portion of my savings and an even greater portion of my free time to the three year course.

The first year was an eye-opener for me on many levels.  I was thrown into a world of academic research and scholarship that led me to reflect on my teaching in a wholly new way.  The course I had chosen, Oxford University’s Masters in Learning and Teaching was designed with working teachers in mind and, whilst the workload is strenuous it is well-tailored to the workload of a teacher, with many opportunities to reflect on my own lessons and planning, speak to students and colleagues and conduct small-scale research in my classroom or department.  (Many thanks to willing colleauges who have supported me with this throughout the year … and whom I hope will continue to do so over the next two.)

Unlike on my PGCE, when I often felt so overwhelmed by the demands of functioning in the classroom that I struggled to see the relevance of the academic side of the course, I found the two knitted together well in this context.  Some of the reading and seminars inspired me to reflect on my practice as a teacher or a team leader, thinking about my sense of agency in the classroom or how I tried to build a professionally-engaged department.  Others challenged my preconceptions, some built over years of teaching, about, say, the experiences of looked-after children or the moral dimensions of teaching as a profession.

I had rather dreaded the seminar weekends in the first instance, and had considered looking for a course that was purely online or more heavily isolated in study.  However I was encouraged by several people that these would be a powerful learning tool and they were absolutely right.  It was fascinating to grapple with issues from the reading with people in a similar position and humbling how honestly and openly many were willing to share their reactions expecting, and receiving, a non-judgemental response.  It was quite exciting and at times a little terrifying to find some of the strongest researchers in their field giving up their Friday evenings or Saturday mornings to lecture us or lead discussion groups.  It certainly put in perspective what I’d at first perceived as my “lost” weekends.  However, although not every session fitted with my professional interests, there was not a single weekend where I didn’t leave buzzing with new ideas and excited to get back into the classroom to apply what I’d learned.

In short, the first year of the MSc achieved everything I could have hoped.  It gave me tools which helped me to reflect on my own practice and introduced me to colleagues grappling with similar issues.  It supported my understanding with a programme of reading and seminars well-designed to appeal to experienced classroom practitioners.  It opened me to new ideas and research, whilst helping me to understand both the strengths of my own practice and how I could develop as a teacher.  I have never lost my love of being in the classroom, of planning lessons and of supporting students’ learning.  But above and beyond this the MSc has re-awakened my passion for and engagement with pedagogy.

I am now a firm advocate of the value this and similar courses for experienced teachers.  I would encourage anyone who is thinking about doing a Master’s to pursue it; speak to your Head for support with funding, find the time if humanly possible and engage with the amazing opportunity it offers.  It is with great excitement that I have downloaded the resources and articles to prepare for my first seminar weekend of year 2 and I can’t wait to get going again.  I can’t wait to see how my teaching will develop this year as a result of my studies and reflections.  And I sincerely hope that Greening’s plan for a vocational route into teaching takes careful account of the value to teachers of accessing the amazing body of pedagogical thinking and academic research out there, both for practical guidance and inspiration.

Questions that helped me decide to start the MSc:

  • Am I open to new ideas that could invigorate and refresh my teaching? Are there educational issues I’d like to explore further?
  • Would I enjoy discussing pedagogical issues with a circle of engaged teachers exploring the same issues?
  • Have I ever felt like I have enough time to do anything or do I generally do better when I just ‘crack on’?
  • Do I want to know more about the underlying issues that everyone on the blogosphere seems to confident and certain about?


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