We sit down with 2020 FE Lecturer of the Year, Phil Brooks to find out how the past year has been for FE Colleges, what inspires him as a lecturer, and what educators can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic.

How did it feel to win your award?

I was thrilled to have been awarded the Gold in 2020! I was very proud and humbled. It was a real opportunity for celebration, during testing times and I was so happy to share my success with Dudley College and the wider community. It was testimony to everyone at the college for enabling me to be adventurous and to my students for the trust they place in me.

How did you find out?

On the morning of Friday 27th November, the final day of a weeklong series of Gold Awards announced on The One Show, and the day after being asked to appear on BBC Local News’ Midlands Today, I was visited in class by our Principal. They announced that I had won the Gold Award and presented me with a bottle of champagne. I still couldn’t quite believe it!

I phoned my wife, already excited at the prospect of a visit to the House of Commons, then my Dad. “Best thing to happen to the family since your Grandma won Beauty Queen of Wednesbury”. You’re going to have to find a way of telling your Mom” (a teacher herself but no longer with us). The closest I can think of, is to shout the news to a teacher on duty in the playground, through the railings of my old primary school later that day. So now I’m going to be on Midlands Today, the One Show and Crimewatch!

What has the effect been of winning?

It’s given me a renewed confidence and respect at work. It was wonderful to see my college and students featured so positively on local news. It has given me a platform to discuss my style of teaching. I was lucky enough to have an article published in FE Week earlier this month, about the  government’s decision to axe the Erasmus Programme. I am now working on contributing to an educational blog linked to the Teaching Awards Trust, which is also very exciting.

How has the last year been for your college?

Dudley College was a recipient of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Education in February last year. Just before the UK went into lockdown in March, my students and I caught the last plane out of India, taking with us memories of India as colourful and indelible as the Holi festival stains on our clothes. Our exchange visit with Mahatma Gandhi International School, was life-changing. My students had an international exhibition of their photographs in a gallery whilst in India and even met Gandhi’s Great Grandson before the launch. Some came home with fresh aspirations of studying abroad.

The pandemic has made us work in new ways, fostering flexibility and an ability to cope with change and uncertainty. Microsoft Teams has been a game-changer; making for smarter and more efficient communication. However, with communication being 7% verbal, 38% tone; 55% through the way we move and hold our body – the nuances of communication can’t fully be conveyed through such platforms. When we return physically to college, we have to make the face to face time, really count. On return to a new normality, in FE we need to look forward, with a new creative daring.

What are the main challenges facing colleges at the moment?

Further Education is often seen as a last-chance saloon for retakes, retraining and a perceived less academic, vocational route; and as such, has more than its fair share of vulnerable students.  FE has been, for too long, the neglected sector of education. Funding for industry-standard resources, community engaged collaborative projects, exciting, extracurricular activities and support for mental health are more important than ever.

Even before the pandemic, why weren’t exciting trips and amazing collaborative experiences occurring more for FE learners and what are the barriers to this happening more widely across the sector? How can colleges, staff and students be supported more in order to build futures that are increasingly rewarding, fulfilling and purposeful?

FE is often framed in terms of its potential for transforming lives and communities in 21st Britain. In some areas, the breakdown of traditional patterns of work, particularly in heavy industry and manufacturing regions, now combined with the added effects lockdown has had on retail and hospitality, are putting a strain on economic and social infrastructure. Where there is long-term unemployment, there are often mounting problems of social exclusion. There is also a growing awareness of the need for education to respond practically to issues of inclusion and widening participation. However, at present, FE does not have the resources to shoulder these lofty objectives. The pressures of providing evidence of ideal data can undermine a lecturers capacity to focus on supporting students actual growth and wellbeing. FE funding should reflect its importance economically and socially, to the individual as well as the health of society.

I continually find that new students would often rather quit than fail. A massive problem and barrier to success for today’s students remains mental health and self-esteem. Young people now face enormous pressure to succeed and fit in, from all angles. They are increasingly caught up in the confidence sapping, homogenising influence of information and communication technologies, which offer a torrent of ideas, images and lifestyles, competing for their attention and sense of identity. How much training do FE lecturers really receive in supporting students’ wellbeing and mental health?

What is the best part of your job?

Being a teacher is such a privilege. I love trying to unlock the future potential of young people. Many young FE students had negative experiences at school and feel disenfranchised by education. FE is where we can change lives. FE is about creating that climate of possibility. It’s about lighting a spark, turning a light on for people, through amazing experiences.

Helping our students to like who they are, believe in what they can do and have the confidence to try exciting new things, makes teaching one of the most rewarding endeavours. We will always be the pivotal, decisive element in the classroom.

How did you get into teaching?

Both my parents were teachers. My brother is a teacher and my cousin is a headteacher. I met my wife as a fellow student during our PGCE. So, you could say teaching is in the family. My undergraduate degree was in Photography, Film and Television at Napier University in Edinburgh, where I first started to enjoy giving presentations to the class. My MA in Education was awarded the Caparo Prize for my dissertation on Assessing Creativity.

Previously, I travelled around the world as a photographer and published a book called 60 Degrees North, exploring cultures in the Sub-arctic. I worked as a portrait photographer aboard cruise ships in Alaska, amongst other places, with an arts council grant, connecting British and Russian primary schools. 10 years ago, I worked with the London Science Museum, together with secondary schools in London and the north of England, resulting in a book about climate change.

What is your ethos and top tips for being a great FE Lecturer?

Kindness and collaboration are key. Students mirror our behaviour, values and attitudes. I try to be caring, coaxing even persuasively coercing where necessary, but with a zero-tolerance for put downs or mockery between learners. If your teenagers think you have no expectation of them, they will feel you don’t think very much of them. Try to create ripples of self-worth and confidence to counteract the often negative messages vying for their attention. This can be as simple as getting them to enter competitions, helping them try and publish their work if it’s really good and giving regular praise whenever deserved.

It’s important for educators to be unremittingly kind. Learners bring an array of often hidden, sometimes overt emotional baggage to the mix everyday, but the establishment of a positive culture in our lessons is almost entirely down to us. Though times are tough, we need to try to maintain a positivity and a ‘can do’ mentality whenever possible.

Take a chance. Let the under-dogs in even if they have failed to fully achieve the prerequisite grades. If there is a spark of passion and determination, give them an opportunity at interview and enrolment. You might be surprised in what they can achieve. Some of my best students have started from lowly beginnings, with grit in their teeth, ready to show what they can do, given half a chance.

Make the work challenging and exciting from day one. Though we are reduced to working more unilaterally than ever at present, teamwork is still where the real magic can happen, and it is where I believe, the essence of growth is, in the classroom. Set big goals and big projects straight away. Try to work collaboratively, not just departmentally but institutionally. I work closely with local colleges and arts organisations, coordinating projects with world-class photographers. It really creates an ambition when collaborating with big names and highly renowned practitioners, who are often willing to ‘give back’, engage with the community and offer their advice to the next generation. Nothing creates a buzz more than working with celebrities – my students have photographed Lenny Henry, Noddy Holder, Professor Brian Cox, Rachel Riley and a whole host of politicians.

Did you have a great teacher growing up?

Yes, as a college student. Roger Hickman was a lovely man – very kind, supportive and encouraging. His style was exceptionally student-centred, even at the cost of his own health. He took us on formative landscape residential trips to Derbyshire and the Lake District. He famously once set up a trip all the way to Jamaica, to find a Jamaican student who had stopped attending the course or answering the phone back in the UK. Roger found Earl, in a bar in Kingston and persuaded him to return to West Bromwich and complete the course. That was going the extra mile! I later taught alongside Roger.  At University, Robin Gillanders was another inspiring teacher. When I won the Gold, I wrote to Robin and to Roger’s widow.