Head of Geography and 2013 ambassador Ben Tainsh shares an insight into what it is like to teach at The Totteridge Academy, headed up by Teach First ambassador Chris Fairbairn.
We have a lot of choices when it comes to picking a new school. This is compounded by two things: firstly, there is a diverse range of schools within the capital that offer a myriad of experiences. Do you want to go to the school where the students work in groups every day? Or another school where students walk in silence between lessons? Or the cliquey school? The failing school? The outstanding school? The school with the brand new building, or a 100 years of history? There is a lot of choice in London and this can make it hard to know where to start in the school that works for you.
Secondly, as a headteacher from Brent once told me, I am a precious commodity, with nearly a quarter of all teachers leaving the profession since qualifying between 2011 and 2015. To put it bluntly this means that there are a lot of jobs and we are often bombarded with responsibilities early in our career to stay in our training schools. A TLR for running farm club anyone? This was genuinely a TLR held by a 2012 ambassador in my old school.
So why did I end up working for TTA?
I wanted to continue to improve my teaching and Chris Fairbairn, the principal and ‘06 Teach First Ambassador, was head of Teaching and Learning at the school I trained at. I still remember watching him at the start of each term taking the staff through new T&L strategies and convincing over 100 teachers that ‘feedback is a gift’ and we can all improve our teaching whether we are in the first or final year of our career. So when I heard that he had been made a principal I was excited to work for someone that I knew could teach, who valued teaching and had a guiding principle of continuous improvement.
My first impressions of TTA
When I got to Totteridge two things struck me: one was how this school that is 254 miles away from the school I went to in Cornwall looked so similar to mine – presumably they come from the same 1960s era of public building initiatives - and second was the positivity and warmth that I felt from the students. I knew that I wanted to work at the school within the first 30 minutes of being there. After the student panel and a tour it was clear that the students were grateful for the focus that United Learning had brought to the Academy and that they were enjoying the changes brought about by Chris and his team. Also, the Totteridge Academy must be one of the greenest sites in London; I noticed whilst walking around that some students had mud on the bottom of their shoes and splattered on the bottom of their trouser leg. I later found out this was because some of the students walk through fields and often ‘jump the brook’ to make their way to school, again reminding me more of a rural school like the one I went to. By the end of my interview day I was extremely hopeful that I would be offered a job.
Did I make the right decision?
I am now just coming to the end of my first year at The Totteridge Academy after spending three and half years in my training school. Over May half term I have been able to reflect on whether this was the right decision for me, and that thinking was guided by whether a principal could actually uphold their values and vision whilst balancing the roles and responsibilities that come with leading an institution, and whether the students would continue to be warm and positive.
I have definitely become a better teacher as a result of working at TTA. Chris and the SLT are always willing to give up their time to talk about teaching. Whether it's formal feedback, or a quick conversation at lunch, they are always full of new and innovative ideas to improve classroom practice. This makes it an exciting place to work but it also makes teaching fulfilling because you are always getting better. I can't help but think many more of my peers would have stayed in teaching if they had experienced an environment like this one.
Over half term I worked with my Y11 class and a couple students told me how grateful they had been for my hard work over the last year and what a difference it had made to them. One student even came back late from lunch and when I challenged him on this he said this. "Sorry for being late Mr Tainsh, I was going to get you a cake to say thank you, but I didn't have enough money".
I suppose you can't have your cake and eat it.
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