We recently caught up with Phil Brooks, Gold Winner of the Award for FE Lecturer of the Year in 2020. We also heard from Milan Callaghan, Phil’s PGCE student at the beginning of their teaching career.
Phil has spent his career working with students from severely disadvantaged backgrounds. But his results are some of the best in the country. His students feel empowered to aim high and achieve their goals.
Some of Phil’s students arrive feeling like they haven’t succeeded in education and that learning isn’t for them. So, what does Phil do to foster a safe and nurturing environment for his students?
A major priority for teachers and lecturers in the UK is the happiness and wellbeing of the young people they teach. Phil acknowledges that it’s really hard becoming a teenager.
“They are awash with hormones and their brains are in flux. A whole load of re-wiring goes on, right into their twenties and that’s before we open the Pandora’s box of social media.”
The transition between primary school and secondary school is not easy to navigate, and we’re finding similar issues with students making the move from secondary school to an FE setting. Some struggle with the entire process of secondary school and can arrive at college feeling like they’ve failed.
“We need to enable teachers to have the time and space to empathise, especially during tough moments, to build constructive, meaningful relationships.”
Phil subscribes to Paul Dix’s take on ‘deliberate botheredness’, which means:
‘showing an interest in the individual lives of your students, remembering the things and people that are important to them, complimenting them on what they have done and valuing their contribution to the class.’
For Phil, an inclusive, progressive, happy classroom needs a more conducive environment, smaller, more autonomous communities, more student-centred rebalancing, and a remodelling of trust and relationship dynamics.
“We greet every student with a smile at the door. They need to know we’re glad to see them. Simply having little relaxed chats with students, can make a massive difference in developing trust and building their sense of belonging and integration.”
“My Second Year students tell me they feel like they’re being heard and that they are the happiest they’ve been in years. They have the confidence to believe in themselves. ‘You teach us how to live well’, one said.”
Phil looks to the Netherlands for inspiration. Classrooms in the Agora secondary school have a ‘colourful chaos of improvised desks.’ They champion collaboration, allowing students to set the agenda, organise their own meetings, and personalise their environment, curriculum and timetable. It sets no homework, inflicts no hierarchy and reports no bullying, but much contentment.
This is the kind of approach Phil tries to emulate with his students.
Phil recommends collaborative learning and peer assessment, creating a safe space for students to celebrate each other’s work while constructively sharing feedback. He emphasises the dignity of the individual, the importance of everyone’s ideas, and celebrating creativity from early on. He builds confidence in his students by buddying them up with friends to share their work, fostering collaboration and mutual support. Phil cites Dix when discussing the effectiveness of in-the-moment planning combined with immediate, constructive, formative peer feedback.
PGCE student, Milan says:
“I want students to remember the good times, not the worst times. A huge chunk of children’s lives take place in education. Sometimes our students reflect on negative school experiences. The anxiety of forgetting something, and the threat of being punished, can shift the focus away from learning. We all need to prioritise wellbeing, so young people feel nurtured. The importance of teachers being ‘relentlessly bothered’ in ensuring that all pupils feel valued is crucial.”
Phil appreciates the professional freedom he has in FE to apply a nurturing and encouraging approach to teaching. It reaps rewards in the long run, with students becoming more adventurous and independent, which can help them achieve higher grades. When they first arrive with Phil, only 15% aspire to go to university, compared with 90 % at the end of the course. It could be argued that students who did not excel or fit in at school, end up in his FE class. But Phil suggests educators should make sure they cater for all children. He strives to help them all to aspire higher, while enjoying learning as part of a safe and accepting community.
“Positivity can spread like ripples in a pond. We, as teachers, don’t just respond to norms, we create them. It just needs enough collective reimagining.”
Phil believes we need to use encouragement over compliance to promote kindness, intrinsic motivation, and critical and collaborative skills in all students. Social and emotional learning needs to be given more priority. Self-reflection, self-regulation, empathy and mindfulness need to be harnessed.
“A recent review of more than 200 studies, with a quarter of a million students, revealed that SEL programs make a big difference – decreasing bullying, depression and disciplinary issues. Those in a position of power have a responsibility not only to be kind themselves but also to enable and encourage the development of environments where kindness can flourish, be rewarded and become the norm.”