The Art of ‘Slow Teaching’

Back in 2002 the School of Education trained its first cohort of teachers. There were just 12 on the course. Sam Draper talks to one of those teachers – Judy Gracie, on going the distance and carving out a career in education.

In this incredibly demanding profession, with its pressures to rise up the ladder and where retention is the biggest issue for headteachers across the country, it was wonderfully interesting to talk with one of the first teachers to train on the UoB PGCE course back in 2002, and see how she made a career out of independent choices.

Judy Gracie is an exceptional teacher, who has made a life’s work of working with young people at her school, as a Science technician, a housemistress, and a science teacher. In the last 18 months, she has returned to the role of Science technician again. Speaking with her reflected the joy and enthusiasm for a profession that has allowed her to come full circle, and has clearly had an impact on many people both colleagues and students, she has even inspired her son to follow in the profession, completing his PGCE at exactly the same university – Buckingham.

Starting work as a science technician within a Buckinghamshire independent school, Judy spent 15 years supporting the department of staff and students and learning the routines of her particular educational home. The role fitted with family life and still gave her the academic rigour and interest of a job within a school. As her kids grew up, she looked around for PGCE opportunities via various schemes, the ultimate goal to qualify and teach within her school, but she found that most routes were blocked to her due to independent school status. However, this was not true of the University of Buckingham, and with the support of her headteacher, Judy began training on the first Buckingham PGCE course for a career that ultimately played to what she calls her “personal strengths”.

Much of academia has altered unrecognisably over the years, but some things stay the same, and it was interesting to hear Judy talk of the structure and content of her PGCE course: “It was great. You got as much help as you needed, but not too overbearing. It felt like a wonderful mix of practical and academic, which allowed me to teach half a timetable almost immediately and gain that practical experience needed.” In her opinion, teaching remains a profession that needs to be practiced and refined in the classroom. The academic and theoretical side of is useful, but “practical courses are better at helping you develop teaching skills. Plenty of clever qualified people still benefit from the teaching experience.”

For many returning to work after time away, it is a big step to engage with a profession that is so demanding both in the sense of ever changing research and educational theory, and the actual daunting task of appearing in a classroom in front of students every day of a term. Despite this, Judy talks fondly and positively about the process in those early months: “The University seemed to know how schools worked and the course requirements fit with that. I know it’s not always like that. I remember that I found the first essay incredibly challenging, as it had been a while since I had written academically, but once I understood the process and expectation, it was straightforward.”

I was curious to understand if the style and process of training to be a teacher had changed markedly over the last 16 years. Was there something different in those first months that embedded the longevity so needed amongst our teaching colleagues? Judy’s response was clear, she wasn’t sure what other courses provided, but UoB suited her down to the ground. “We started with the history of teaching methods, which gave us a foundation of understanding. They then suggested a range of books we could read to find out more, and we were encouraged to develop ourselves whilst focusing on our practical placements.” Simple, practical, autonomous, and primarily focused on how to make the best of your teaching time within the classroom. The opportunity to make mistakes and try everything seemed to be part of Judy’s method and success.

Once the PGCE was completed, Judy decided to stay at her school and look for opportunities as a full-time science teacher, but as with many things, it isn’t always that straightforward. The role of housemistress came up, and after the formal application and interview process, Judy began what turned into the next 9 years of her career – looking after 70 girls in an incredibly complex and rewarding job. A role that is possibly alien to those in the state sector of education, but undoubtedly one that demands heavily, both in time (weekends and evenings were standard part of the term) and commitment (the emotional and pastoral support needed is huge). For anyone who has offered any form of extra-curricular activity, this kind of pastoral role demonstrates levels of depth and involvement that we can all admire as professionals. But after 9 years, Judy sought to move on while she was still enjoying the role: “Eventually I returned to teaching biology in the classroom, but it was undoubtedly a rewarding role. It was a massive commitment to work the hours, evenings and weekends, expected of a housemistress, and it is a role that requires a level of energy that cannot be sustained forever. However, it was important for me when applying for my full-time teaching role that I still wanted to be part of the pastoral side.”

For anyone who has taught for any length of time, the career that Judy has had with its variety of roles, and commitment to the ‘coal face’ daily connection to the students, is something to admire. However, I had to ask her whether she had considered any other roles within teaching, and more specifically, moving up the ladder for promotion. Her response was clear, “I know it’s more commonplace now for young teachers to seek promotion and all that comes with it, but I didn’t think it was the right fit for me. Certain personalities are driven to teaching, and I think they should be encouraged to learn and experience the classroom. Most people who come into the profession have the “can do gene” or the “helpful gene” and understanding what teaching needs.”

So after continuing to support and develop within the classroom for many years, Judy has returned full-circle to the role of Science Technician. A role that came about due to a colleague retiring, and the opportunity Judy saw as too good to miss. A choice to “gain some life back”. Judy still loves and misses the pupils, and was going to leave the profession entirely, but the internal vacancy came up. “I have noticed over the years that the paperwork in full-time teaching started to become exponentially bigger and included constant appraisal of students, staff and progress. Not wrong, but too much for me personally. It’s good to have accountability, but I prefer the support of verbal feedback and personal intervention.” Happily, Judy can still offer her wisdom and support to colleagues and students alike, as a member of the unsung backroom staff that schools depend upon. Giving perspective to less experienced colleagues having a bad day, and ensuring that she still gets to participate in a profession that she clearly has great enthusiasm and passion for.

I personally admire the path Judy has taken since embarking on her University of Buckingham PGCE many years ago, moving through her career in a way that some might seem ‘slow’ has certainly preserved her enthusiasm and love of the job, and that is undoubtedly shown in the energy and commitment she still provides to those colleagues and students she works with. “There is a drive and determination in young teachers to do well, but also a pressure to progress. As I often joke, it’s taken a really long time for me to climb the ladder!” Maybe, in this time of crisis for retention and recruitment, it’s time we look at how we influence our trainee teachers to view a ‘career’. The ‘art of slow teaching’ might be one way to ensure our colleagues go beyond 5 or 10 year careers and provide that wisdom, experience and commitment that so many of our students deserve.

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