Welcome to this podcast with special guest, Hilary Tunnicliffe. a finally retired teacher of science in Cambridge, and chief examiner for Cambridge International Exams – and living fun fact database. I met Hillary at school during my own teacher training in 2020-2021, what I’m told has been the most unbelievable year in teaching, ever. I’d overheard some of Hillary’s biology lessons and fascinating anecdotes, and knew she had to be a guest on the show. Hilary, welcome.

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Intro 0:01
Welcome to the A Level Biologist podcast, bringing you the most exciting area in the world right now, covering education and business in life science. Your host is Arian Mirzarafie Ahi, who’s on a mission to do for the body what the Internet has done for the mind. He’s a PhD dropout and the creator of The A Level Biologist – Your Hub. Please give it up for Arian and enjoy.

Arian 0:26
Hi guys, how’s it going? Did you know some snakes crawl straight into the sea to catch fish? Didn’t see that coming, did ya?

Welcome to this podcast with special guest. Hilary Tunnicliffe, a finally retired teacher of science in Cambridge, and chief examiner for Cambridge International exams, and a living fun fact database. I met Hilary at school during my own teacher training in 2020, 2021 what I’m told has been the most unbelievable year in teaching ever! I’d overheard some of Hilary’s biology lessons and fascinating anecdotes and knew she had to be a guest on the show. Hilary, welcome.

Hilary 1:17
Thank you.

Arian 1:18
Normally, I would ask guests about their education or work and I’m so thrilled to get to ask, for the first time, a slightly different question and do justice to the podcast descriptor that says the most diverse set of experiences and ask instead “How is retirement?”

Hilary 1:35
Different? It’s like a lockdown. So it’s been very difficult. I mean, I might say at this point, I’ve actually retired six times and each time I retired, there’s been a staff shortage and I’ve come back in one way shape or form. Science is great, I love it but to let you know what it’s like, I came back in January for five weeks and I left in the middle of June.

So five weeks turned into six months and I’m now finally retired. Before that I’ve metamorphosed into a DT food technology teacher, I taught English, I taught dance and that is the funniest thing. It’s been quite interesting but the majority of time that they’ve dragged me out of retirement has been for science which is great, because I’ve been teaching for forty years this year.

Arian 2:39
Well, I hadn’t realised you’ve also done DT!

Hilary 2:44
Oh, that was such good fun because, although we got inspected that week, I had a term of teaching DT food and they were so desperate, they just said, “Do what you want”. In this day and age, that is unheard of so I actually did some cooking with them.

All I had to do, which is scary, to teach DT foods was to take your food, health and safety course or a food hygiene course which I was a bit smug about because I actually wrote the handbook for the environmental health on food hygiene. So it was kind of, just a bit of revision for me and I’m delighted to say I got that 100% but I suspect you would have done as well.

Arian 3:30
Well done.

Hilary 3:31
It was not that difficult but you just have to remember the colour of boards for vegetables and meat. So that was fun and it was just a ball. It was absolutely great fun and I got the best compliment as the kids were saying “I’ve actually made something I like”.

We did all the food science behind it of course but it was just mainly practical and it was just such good fun. I got a couple of recipes off the kids, learnt to make profiteroles for the first and last time.

Arian 4:06
Sounds difficult. How do you make profiteroles?

Hilary 4:08
It’s difficult; I had two goes at it and while I was demonstrating for the class, I could see it going wrong so I did the old Blue Peter thing by whisking out my tin from last night saying “Here’s some I made earlier”. They went on from cutting fruit up for a fruit salad to making profiteroles and I’m thinking “That’s a big, big step”.

I’ve lasted for 59 years without making profiteroles and it hasn’t affected me and of course they very rarely turn out right so that’s when I actually scrapped the scheme of work they’re supposed to follow and we just did some sensible things. You go from a kid, who turned up with a grey mess which was supposed to be cheese straws, in tears so I started again; I’ve never made cheese straws so I made some cheese straws with him and they turned out beautifully.

Arian 5:00
Cheese straws as in….?

Hilary 5:02
Puff pastry with cheese on top or pastry with cheese on top; you’re supposed to make it nice and light but this grey leaden mess in the bowl was something else but he made some beautiful cheese straws and he said, “You can have one and as I’ve made them I’m taking the rest for grandad because he’s going to be so pleased”. I was quite happy with that. I could have cried.

On the opposite side there was a nice bolognaise sauce and I always encouraged them to taste for the seasoning and there’s one kid who was tasting who said ” Mmm – about right but could do with a good glug of wine though”. The difference in experience in mixed ability classes is just awesome. Love it.

Arian 5:48
It is fantastic. Wow. Okay, I’ve got so many questions for you, Hilary. I’m going to start with the first one coming up next.

And we’re back. So Hilary, very curious; this is one of the things that most of the guests so far, would not be able to answer and this is why I’m so pleased that you’re here; How has science and the teaching of science changed over the decades?

Hilary 6:23
Right? Well, starting in 1981 everybody did a sort of combined science course in what we would now called Key Stage Three, but that hadn’t been invented. You had to do one science at GCSE, it was GCE and CSE at that time and childcare was counted as a science. Very few people had the opportunity to do all three sciences.

Arian 6:49
Was childcare a subject?

Hilary 6:51
It was a subject, yes.

Arian 6:54
Is it what it sounds like?

Hilary 6:56
Well, it’s basically learning how to care for children. So you went into elementary psychology, you went into health and hygiene, nutrition and behaviour; it was very interesting. I taught it for a couple of years and in fact, it was very proud to to have the only two boys in the whole of the UK to do childcare.

Arian 7:18
In the whole country? Wow.

Hilary 7:20
So that was quite entertaining. They did all sorts of varying things, like you gave them a budget to kit themselves and the baby out and they’d go into town to do some field work in Mothercare (other shops are available).

Basically, it was interesting because, of course, I haven’t had children; luckily, there was a woman who had a child in year 11, or the fifth year as it was them, who was heavily pregnant, who came in to show children and we had an experiment. I mean, nowadays, you can buy dolls that you can programme and act like babies, they wake up at the middle of the night; I had an idea of blowing eggs and the children had to look after this egg; they weren’t allowed to leave it alone.

One of the parents was a columnist in a national newspaper who wrote an article saying, when she refused to “egg sit”, her daughter had a complete breakdown,

Arian 8:28
“Egg sit”!! ?

Hilary 8:30
I said they couldn’t be left alone and only one out of the 16 eggs lasted the week.

Arian 8:36
Well, I mean, eggs are quite fragile, are they as fragile as babies? Is that the idea?

Hilary 8:41
The idea is that you’ve got to look after them, you can’t just chuck them on your back and do things. In fact babies are more resilient I would suggest. So they were great things to do.

Arian 8:53
So that was a science in 1981?

Hilary 8:56
That was about ’84, ’85 and then in ’86, sorry, if I’m wrong, the national curriculum was introduced and that was so different. Suddenly, all of the exam papers were put together; instead of having a CSE, which went up to maximum of grade C, you got every child doing the same exam, although in fact, in practice, there was still a foundation and the higher paper.

All the children had to do all three sciences; it was really quite a massive change because we lost quite a few, what I call, bio-geographers, the ones that will go on to be ecologists because there’s probably, and don’t shoot me anybody, but there’s more of an overlap between biology and geography than there is between biology and physics, for example.

The joke was, that as the national curriculum first turned up, they divided the science curriculum into 13 chapters. Okay? and there was supposed to be a test for every single one of them and it took up half a bookshelf. I mean, it’s just unbelievable and at the bottom of each page which had got a section of the curriculum, there were links with other subjects and the links between physics and biology within just the biggest joke. I mean, there was something about propulsion; they said, “Mention that squid use propulsion” and I thought, Is that the best you can do?

Arian 10:29
Yeah, a very tenuous link.

Hilary 10:30
Yeah and of course, that got reviewed and a few years later, it turned into four chapters, which was called “How science works or practical activities, biology, chemistry, and physics”. So we went spent a very long time making up tests for all these different things just to throw them all away and think “Ooh, we’ve got some old exam papers that could do the job just as well”.

So we went back to biology, chemistry, physics; at the school I was at, we actually allowed the children before that to do all three sciences by having what was called a jet set, which did biology for half an hour a day before school, for just two and a half terms. So the very, very brightest children did that but it was very difficult for most children to do all three sciences.

I like the idea that all children do science, but I don’t like the idea that if you’re doing combined science, you’ve got two grades because some people just excel at one of the subjects but it gets watered down by the others. I always think that’s a big shame because in some ways you’re getting yourself a good GCSE science or a sort of, okay, GCSE science; it’s sometimes more difficult for certain children.

Arian 11:55
Yeah. It’s interesting how different science has been organised. When I first did science at the secondary school in Romania, the way we did it was introducing one of the subjects each year. So one of the years we would start doing biology and the next year, we start doing chemistry and the next year, we’d start doing physics.

They were always separate, they were never combined and they were not a core subject. They were just another subject; I think geography and history were more core than science and I’m really curious as to what extent do you think science should be a compulsory subject for everyone? And up to what level, and up to what age?

Hilary 12:36
I think science is pretty fundamental but it’s one of those subjects that children always come up with “Well, I’m never going to use it again, ever”. Biology, I think it’s very important that you’ve got an idea of what’s going on inside you and what’s going on in the world, and especially as we’re heading towards some fairly grim times with pandemics and changes in climate, I do think it ought to be compulsory up to 14. In fact, part of me thinks it ought to be compulsory up to 16 but there’s another part of me, for the reasons I’ve just said, to say, yes, do a science.

Make sure that children can do all three sciences, but allow a little bit more flexibility because I see some very turned off children who perceive science as difficult and irrelevant which they also sometimes think about maths, because they’re saying, “Well, when am I going to use Pythagoras theorem ever again?” It’s one of those things to justify but you see, my argument is that we’ve got so far so quickly this century and last century and the reason is that before that you learned most of your stuff from your parents.

It was highly likely you went into the family business, when I say business, you did the same job as your dad and your mum would be at home and your limits would be the limit of their education. As I say, to several classes “Actually you’ve got a whole staff of parents who are expert and probably know a bit more than your parents do about a particular subject.

So what we’re doing is really giving you experiences that you might not have otherwise have and yes, you might not use your science, but I know that I’ve actually got some scientists who won prizes, and I’ve got PhDs that I don’t even understand because of what I taught them”. I’ve inspired some people to become biologists or doctors or anything else like that and it’s priceless for me because they’ve taken their science beyond where you are. That’s why we should be trying every single subject, because one person might get inspired by a particular subject, and could change the world.

Arian 15:11
Wow, that’s amazing. I hope I get to a point where I also get to look back on that and say, “Oh, I’ve done this to that person”; that will be amazing.

Hilary 15:21
It is awesome. It is absolutely awesome. One person is doing research into how to get viruses into cells, and how to get medicines into cells, which is where they’re using the lipid bubble, which is of course what they do for some of the Coronavirus vaccines.

I’ve got a lengthy explanation from him about how it works, because I just didn’t know; so when you get to that and think “That’s awesome, that is absolutely awesome and you are changing the world”. There’s another research scientist who is working on a spider’s web fibre as wound dressings, because it’s extraordinarily strong for its size with stuff that you know, it’s just mind blowing.

Arian 16:11
Fascinating. That’s amazing. Right We’ll be right back.

So Hilary, what are your thoughts, as a previous chief examiner, but also just in general on exams being cancelled two years in a row.

Hilary 17:26
I think it was inevitable last year. It didn’t necessarily have to be inevitable this year and the way it was handled is frankly what the Americans call a boondoggle. It was a complete failure because having seen the exam system from the inside and seeing what the exam boards provided for us this year, I would have been extraordinarily embarrassed because it’s left the schools with substandard material.

Some teachers chose not to look at the exam so that they couldn’t have any bias in their revision work only to find out from the children that the exam work was online and I don’t know, to this day, I didn’t look it up, I don’t know whether the exam boards also provided the mark scheme but that makes a joke of it anyway. Also, the work that they sent through, we were asked to mark it in two ways; one, just to mark it to get a numerical figure but no grade boundaries and the other was to mark it according to level descriptors and it was patently obvious that the assessment that they’d given us didn’t cover all the level descriptors.

So it’s given a lot of teachers an insight on how to make a perfect exam paper, which is where you start off with the level descriptors and you make sure that there is access to those in the exams that you provide. Now, I know that that should have happened. I’ve also, in my time as an examiner, been a moderator, a paper moderator where I go through the paper and I make sure that every single full stop is where it’s supposed to be, the number of lines available for the answer suits the question and the number of questions awarded and it’s a fairly formulaic thing that they failed to do this year.

Now, we still don’t know really what they’re going to do next year, apart from tell the children what they’re doing, which is what the specification does anyway. I know that the school we teach in has pretty well caught up with the year tens going into elevens so we we could do an exam but the way it was done this time was just, as an examiner, embarrassing. Plus having seen the amount of extra work generated, by the exam boards, for the teachers, and the stress that they went under, it was criminal.

So pandemic or not, it was handled very badly and when you find out that a couple of exam boards are only going to refund 25% of the 1000s and 1000s of pounds that we pay for the public exams is just immoral.

Arian 20:39
Well, that’s quite disappointing.

Hilary 20:45
Your experience has been a very odd one this year. Ironically, I understand that some examiners were put on furlough, so they were being paid for doing nothing but they’re the same people who then had to do the work unpaid at school.

It’s mugs like me and you that had to do the extra work without any furlough money at all and I can’t come to terms with that at all because we always think exams just happen, we don’t actually ever see the costs behind them and it is vast, it’s the biggest outlay that the schools have, apart from teacher salaries, it is literally 1000s and 1000s of pounds.

Arian 21:35
What about the students? How would that impact them in terms of not having the exams and having the alternatives?

Well, several of the children felt cheated because they worked really hard and in fact, if you looked at the mock results from which we luckily had done before Christmas, some of them had got clear nines and we knew they had because it was a full set of papers and they had grade boundaries that had been given to the year before.

So we know that under exam conditions with external invigilators, they did their very best and some of them did considerably better on the mock than they did on the assessment papers. What we’ve had to do, is to look at the level descriptors for the mocks to make sure that if there’s a big discrepancy, we’re as fair as we possibly could be to the students and we think we’ve done a pretty good job in the circumstances.

I know some, especially A level students, who are children of colleagues and ex students, who really did feel completely cheated, they couldn’t show what they could do. Again, it’s a gender thing, quite often boys tend to do far more revision for the real thing than they do for mocks. This is from years of experience, they sort of disappear from the social scene at Easter and come back having done a lot of work because they are competitive, and they do really a lot better; some of the boys just sat there going “I’m not going to bother now” and some of the girls just said, “I’m not going to bother now, it’s not worth it as I’m going to be labelled as the pandemic year anyway.”

Those who really prepared well were very disappointed because they wanted to do their very best; I think the word cheated comes to mind; we’ve tried to do our best to say we recognise their potential, we don’t want to slam any doors shut because of the grades but then we’ve also had the pandemic absentees, who suddenly disappeared and never reappeared.

We didn’t have a massive number at school but enough to know that they haven’t provided enough work for us to be able to give them a grade and so effectively they’ve lost that year. If they try and go on to do anything, they’ll have to do English and Maths somewhere else. We mustn’t forget those hidden children who just didn’t reappear; we tried to keep in contact with them, we’ve made home visits, we’ve tried to do everything we can could for them but they were so deeply affected psychologically by lockdown that they have effectively wiped out their GCSE programme, which is awful.

What we’ve got to ensure, I’m talking about the country here, is that we don’t do the same thing again and I’ve already said to the year tens I taught this year, “take every single test and exam seriously because it’s evidence of your abilities, and we can store it so that if this happens again, we’ve got hard evidence that what you’re capabilities are”. It’s going to be the same throughout the years, I think.

I’ve kept some of the year seven assessments and I think I’ve been the only one to keep them. One of the students said “The other year sevens got theirs back” and I thought, “I’m keeping them just in case”.

Hilary 25:17
I agree. I did the same thing in all the year ten tests and I actually asked the year tens to do assessments that were optional and end of unit assessments because I said “I want to know where you’re at and I want to have some evidence”. And so there’s at least two or three end of unit assessments that I’ve given to that department just to store in cabinets just in case

Arian 25:41
Yeah; the link between mental health and the grades and obviously, the new grades levels, the nine levels. I mean, I didn’t have the levels. I don’t know what you had probably something before then as well,

Hilary 25:54
It’s interesting. My school always did their O levels in November and then had two terms of doing interesting things before you chose A levels; I got bronchitis in November which is another good reason not to have exams in November but then the grades were 1 to 9 but 1 was the top and 9 was the bottom so a one was A star star, and a nine was you shouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed really. So half of my O levels were graded one to nine and the other half were A to E as they changed to that in 1975

Arian 26:48
So is it true that the 1 to 9 system is to make it more confusing as to what is the top grade so that it doesn’t affect mental health?

Hilary 26:57
I don’t know about that, actually being very cynical, it means that nine is a bigger number than one so they can actually add them all together and see numerically the rank order of a class. This is me being very cynical; if you’re sitting there looking at university entry, you can count all the grades up if there’s a tie between two candidates.

I’m being cynical, but it’s very easy. Nine being as I said higher than one whereas before, you’d have to reverse the order in the set in the 1970s. It’s also the fact that, I can tell you over 40 years, I’ve seen things come and go so often; coursework was introduced, coursework was taken away, coursework used to be sent in to be marked by somebody else, then we got paid to mark coursework, then we somehow didn’t get paid to mark coursework and it became this giant sort of ball and chain around your neck with very little training on each major change that we had.

So, when I think about it, I think a lot of my resilience is because I’ve been through changes where, even as a young teacher, I thought this is ridiculous. Yet it happened and we struggled and every single school in the country was doing the same thing, which is writing assessments and justifying this and giving level descriptors and it shouldn’t be done.

It shouldn’t have been done like that. If you’re going to make a massive change, it has to be, not just an off the shelf thing, but it has to be so clear that teachers aren’t sitting there worrying. You should provide an assessment because you’re the ones that, allegedly had the view as to what you wanted to see in the end but in practice, I’ve spent an awful lot of time rewriting things and rewriting things and rewriting things and getting, as I get older, crosser and crosser because I’m sitting there thinking “Well, if I’d kept the exams from there, I could have used them again!”.

Arian 29:07
History repeats itself.

Hilary 29:08

Arian 29:10
That’s amazing. Right, we’ll be back in just a second.

In one of our upcoming episodes, we will delve into the impact of short term scientists’ work and the wait for one’s own research funding. Do you think there is, or will be enough jobs or funding to justify the intensive science teaching, especially to certain groups like ambitious academic students, and recently with a focus on women?

Hilary 29:40
Well, I’m a bit biased because I live in an area which has got more scientists than most areas of the world. Here in Cambridge, we have science parks oozing out of the countryside and lots and lots of startup companies that actually rely on scientists.

We’ve got, for example, one of the Cancer Research UK research centres, which together with our local hospital, has been awarded a centre of excellence in cancer care, and cancer research in general. I’ve been lucky enough to be on a welfare committee there so I get to see the inside of it. For the international scientists that are employed there, it’s like tennis; when you start learning to play tennis, you spend a lot of time scampering after the ball and picking it up again and then when you get up to Andy Murray’s status, you not only have somebody to do that for you, you also have somebody controlling your diet, physio, psychology, everything and so you’ve got the experts to allow you to concentrate on your tennis.

The analogy is the same with the CRUK, as if you say ” I want to get these results”, you’ve got a team of scientists who know all the techniques, who will do them for you, to free you up to do the actual thinking behind the research. It doesn’t mean you don’t get to play with all the apparatus and do the work yourself but you don’t have to stop and learn a technique to be expert enough to get some valid results. It was enough when I trained to have a degree and I actually did an education and science degree.

So I did a four year course and of course, the minimum for a teacher has got to be a degree and a PGCE or some qualification done on the job, which is fine. Now they’re also saying you can convert your PGCE into an MA in the first year of teaching and I think actually, if you’re a career teacher, you should be concentrating on what is one of the most difficult jobs going, which when you do it well, it looks effortless.

It’s like rowing; if you do well, like in the boat race, it looks effortless, you get the boat for the first time and you’re crashing all over the place. So there is place for lots of scientists and we know from our experience at school that there won’t be 100% uptake per A levels and degrees but so many people finish their degree and then they say they need to do a Master’s to get an edge and there are lots and lots of people who don’t get security because they go into research and very few get tenure straightaway.

So they are going into just lurching from project to project to project; that I think is difficult and that ought to be conveyed to the students when they start but as I said, I’m looking at an area where we probably got more science jobs going than most areas. So there is a disparity and of course with a lot of academia, people travel all over the world because they have to be seen to fit in; it is difficult but somebody said they went off to do an English degree at one of the Russell Group universities and they came back and the only job they could get was working in a bookshop.

They were working with people who left school at 18 and went straight into the bookshop and had gone up to department heads so in fact, all they got out of their degree was three years of not earning, and nowadays, three years of getting a substantial debt that they have to repay some time, allegedly. I think this whole thing about going to university is not the same thing; I’ve seen an increase in people going to a local university because they can’t afford and don’t want to rack up all the rent moving away, which when I was a college kid, that was the fun bit, being on your own, but with parental permission to do what the hell you liked.

I was head of careers for 20 years as well, just a little side thing and I used to try and say to some of the parents don’t knock vocational work. All I want children to do is to go somewhere where there is a career pathway. One of my students was going to go to university and her mum had breast cancer so she made the decision to stay and help her mum; she went into a local supermarket, one of the big chains, and by the time she was 22, where everyone else was looking for jobs, she was driving a work’s sports car convertible, was area manager, earning more than I was and so you shouldn’t knock it, there are different ways of doing things.

My experience is that if you go somewhere with a very, very good structure, it will give you more opportunities and more work experience than it might do just doing a pure degree. I think sciences are luckier because you’ve got the research behind you and science is a massive subject for research and you can just see that from the amazing things that have been done in this pandemic, very, very quickly.

Science is a more vocational course than say some of the others but again, it’s that idea of keeping your doors open for as long as possible. Of course, what’s happening now, which is again not helping people, and it’s divisive, as far as things like income goes, is that a lot of jobs offer internships, unpaid internships, to get the work experience, so that you you’re more employable but that isn’t available unless you’ve got your own income.

A lot of charities do this, for necessity, because they obviously want to raise as much money for what they’re doing, offer internships for six months, unpaid, so that you’ve got the opportunities in a particular area within the organisation but who can afford to do that?

Arian 36:47
Only a few people can afford to do that. I see a lot of of placements being offered, for example, via teach first. I think all of them are in London and most of them are unpaid. So the question is, even if some of them are paid, but they’re not paid very much, how do you actually stay there to do the work and physically be there for two weeks? It’s not accessible to everyone.

Hilary 37:13
Yes, When I went to university and I’m embarrassed to say this, but I actually only got an overdraft for one Christmas because a cheque didn’t clear because of the post and I left university with no debt whatsoever. I was paid a grant to go there and it was great. Now, you’ve got this big “Do I rack up all this debt?”, which I don’t think is fair, I don’t think it’s fair at all because again, people who are on lower incomes have got to borrow the money to do what appears to be nothing for three years.

I think that’s one of the worst things that has happened over my life time. You could argue that too many people are going to university and getting a degree that doesn’t help them at all but you that opportunity for all is still extraordinarily important.

Arian 38:26
Yeah, I had one of my Uber drivers say that, one of his fellow Uber drivers has a PhD in some sort of physics or something in Cambridge.

Hilary 38:37
As I said, we’ve probably got the best qualified booksellers in the country because there are limited jobs for say, English degrees; teaching is an obvious one, going into doing your own writing is something that is extraordinary difficult to be successful at. Yes, you are educated to degree level, and English you can use in lots of different ways, but I’d really like to see some studies about where graduates do actually end up working. It’ll be online somewhere.

Arian 39:12
Especially after this year, after these years,

Hilary 39:15
I’m lucky in that because I retired in 2017, 18, 19, 20, 21 I am financially okay and I don’t have to work. For example, when we had the first lockdown, I was teaching English and I left with the kids on the Friday; I chose not to stay on at work because the other English teacher was a long term supply and relied on his finances for his living expenses, where my pension covers that. I then didn’t work for the nine months up to Christmas this year and then came back to do the five weeks that turned into six months in the science department.

So I’ve done that, it was my choice and I’m very glad I did it because it’s been, in 40 years, the toughest year because we were dealing with flaky children (understandably), staff that have been put under more pressure than any where else, new systems, the underlying concern about the impact if there was an outbreak in school, just the the impact of the entire thing. We’ve had year sevens that haven’t changed into year sevens because they missed year six out and they still didn’t get the full experience of starting a secondary school with moving around to different classrooms, they were in one classroom which was very like primary school.

The impact has been great. I came back in knowing that it was going to be tough, I didn’t realise how tough it was going to be; hats off to every single member of staff that has actually coped for the last year because it has been phenomenally hard and for those of you who’ve been doing PGCE and training, this isn’t the new norm. It has been really, really hard and that ought to be acknowledged more.

There are still people around who think that we were sitting on our backsides at home; we were for the first three or four months because we were teaching, using our televisions as a screen, sitting there having to deal with cats walking across the screen, dogs barking at the postman and using technologies that we’d probably never used before.

Teaching online is a very different experience and it’s something that needs to be acknowledged. We’ve done an extraordinary hard job and we’ve done it pretty well, while keeping up the morale as much as possible for the kids, which is why we teach in the first place.

Arian 1:48
Yeah, so would you promise the next year will be easier.

Hilary 1:53
Yeah, I will promise; the next year is always easier. In fact, if you stay in one school for three years, you get it pretty well cracked, because the year sevens see you as a teacher and then you become part of the furniture. My concern is that a lot of teachers are burnt out this year. There is a big staff turnover, nationally, and one thing I’ve learned is that children don’t like change; you could have replaced a pretty mediocre teacher but they’ll still give you a hard time until they get to know you.

They want to know what they’re doing, they like security and stability and that’s why I’ve come back, and it’s been easy to come back because I’m recognised; I’m teaching third generation now, I’ve taught someone’s great aunt, that’s quite scary. Once you’re acknowledged like that, the children feel comfortable with you, so the trust stays if you don’t stay away too long.

Once you get to that stage, teaching becomes much, much easier because they know you, they know what your boundaries are and everything else like that. Preparation is still hard, marking’s still hard, assessments are still hard but it gets a lot easier and of course you can press the repeat button on all the resources you’ve built. As you noticed whilst listening to my lessons, I’ve never stopped learning and some of my stories, my anecdotes, happened in the last month and some go back to the 1980s.

A lot of my ex students will share their experiences with me via social media because they know that I’ll use their experience to help children; they’re telling me things as if to say, “I wish I’d learned this at school” and so it goes full cycle. I’m just so glad that when I was five, I wanted a pen that wrote red so I decided to be a teacher.

Arian 4:17
Just for the pen. That’s amazing. Well l’ve got a pen that writes with blue, green and black – it’s a multi pen.

Hilary 4:27
I only thought teachers had red pens and I wanted a pen that wrote red so that’s why I decided to be a teacher.

Arian 4:34
That’s amazing. Do they do red ink as well if you want a fountain pen?

Hilary 4:40
The school colours were brown and light blue and when we had to handwrite reports, the front of the forms were light blue with brown ink so I bought some brown ink for my fountain pen so that I could write children’s name in front, so it matched. I did one year in advance, really well organised for my form and it was a year when there was a teacher strike and we didn’t write reports. Sometimes you can be a bit too organised.

Arian 5:12
Yes, I found that, that’s why I try to not to not do much in advance.

Hilary 5:18
Especially, when up to the end of term, we were doing blended learning where we were trying to teach to the computer and teach in the classroom, it is so difficult to remember to do that. It got a bit easier in the last few weeks because teachers were stuck in one room so they could actually do some preparation and make sure all the hardware was set up, but when we were moving from classroom to classroom, you’ve still got to do a crisp start to your lesson while setting up your laptop, setting up the microphone and remembering to log on to your virtual classroom.

That was just extra pressure to have a crisp start to a lesson than when you’re doing this; I would love some non-teachers to follow us around and see exactly what happens; several times I just didn’t get a break or a lunchtime because I was thinking I’ve got to set it up now because otherwise I’m just going to add to my stress, trying to do this at the end of the lesson plus pick up the children from where they’re lined up. It was just that extra pressure.

Arian 6:35
Yes, I can confirm that’s what happened. I was doing it for the first time so I don’t know whether the ignorance or not knowing what was happening made it easier or harder.

Hilary 6:52
Well it’s a hard job anyway in the first couple of years but I think maybe your ignorance probably helped you a lot, because you’ve seen the sorts of knock on effect on experienced teachers who are going around looking like zombies because they just don’t know where they’re going. So yes, when you’re used to a routine, where you’ve got your own space, you’ve got your stuff where you know it’s at.

I had no idea how heavy the set of textbooks was to carry around from room to room; just little things like that. Some of them could be left in the room that you taught them in but of course we haven’t got multiple sets of textbooks, we’re used to having just the textbooks in the room, the children coming to us. So little things like that were challenging.

Arian 7:45
Wow, well it should be easier next year. Well, that’s fantastic, thank you so much Hillary This was amazing. You know what, you might have to come back for another episode because I feel like there’s just way more that we could keep talking about.

Hilary 8:05

Arian 8:05
Maybe you’ll have a special season like “Hilary’s special whole season”. But for now, thank you. Thank you for listening. And remember, strawberries are the only fruit with the seeds on the outside.

Hilary 8:24
Are you sure about that?

Arian 8:27
Are there other fruits? Is that not true?

Hilary 8:30
It’s another thing to look up.

Arian 8:31
I’ve heard strawberries are the only ones with seeds on the outside.

Hilary 8:33
Are they true fruits though? An apple isn’t a true fruit, the core is the true fruit, because the fruit is the ovary wall and so what you’ve got is a swollen receptacle round an apple, which is obviously designed to be eaten by horses and pooed out later, but the actual core is officially the fruit.

Arian 9:07
Oh there we go, see, there’s a fun fact.