Starting an MA

I’ve finally bitten the bullet and decided to start an MA.  Although it was hard work qualifying as a ‘Teach Second’ straight off the back of my second maternity leave and completing my NQT year when my boys were two and four, I relished the return to studying then, and have been having itchy studying feet for the last couple of years to take it to the next level.

Having finished my degree in the 90s and spent a whirlwind fourteen years working in television production, travelling the world, interviewing people and making programmes from travel, arts and makeover shows (it was the 90s) to more serious documentaries, the carefree single life of my 20s was over. The arrival of my children naturally enough brought time for reflection and re-evaluation: bringing a new life into the world can do that to a person.  Making television has much in common with teaching: both are intense, challenging and high-octane, creative yet knowledge-based and require a balance of perfectionism and knowing when to say ‘that’ll do’. Both require constant updating of skills, necessitate split-second decision making, balancing the ever fluctuating chemistry of different groups of people and frequent adaptation to the whims of the policy-makers.  On reflection, though, gazing at my new-borns, hanging out the washing in between the pumping and the pureeing, television was too cynical ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, too throwaway – tomorrow’s chip paper, and while it could have purpose, it too often lacked legacy.  Making the decision to return to my studies and undertake an English PGCE felt invigorating and exciting, especially after the time out from the workplace on maternity leave. What would I prepare for my interview lesson? How would I handle a room of teenagers? Could I still be able to write an essay after fourteen years? What on earth did they mean ‘wait for silence’? Luckily under the guidance of Ross Cotter at Middlesex University and alongside a fantastic cohort of talented trainee teachers, I slowly grew in confidence and loved being in the classroom, planning lessons (obviously this took ages at first, as I was actually scripting lessons as if they were TV scripts) and labouring over card sorts and classroom displays (I have a little less time for that these days). Marking was always a struggle – still is, probably for most English teachers, but my co-head of department’s mantra ‘marking is planning’ still resonates when I need a boost.

Now eight years on from re-training, I have stayed at the same school I joined in my NQT year, an outer London comprehensive with a truly supportive staff and SLT, working my way slowly through from 3rd to 2nd in department, to joint Head of English and finally flying solo as HoD for the first time last year. I still feel like a novice in many ways, indebted to the knowledge and experience of those not only in my school environment and local area, but the generous #TeamEnglish community on twitter who share their ideas, research, reading material and resources.  I have always actively sought out further reading in the hopes of improving my teaching, being wary of the 3 – 5 year plateau as well as the risk of my classroom teaching suffering as I took on more responsibility. The reading recommendations from the twitter community have had a huge impact on my teaching practice, but I have recently increasingly felt the need for a more structured approach to my learning.  Taking on board the 10% braver WomenEd exhortation, I returned to the idea of further study once again.

Having looked into various MAs and MScs in the last few years, I have dithered somewhat in making a decision. My gut instinct was to pursue the passion and plump for the literature-based luxury of a course in a specialist area that would benefit my teaching, such as Shakespeare, Victorian or Gothic literature. I was hugely tempted by the postgraduate offer from the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, with the Shakespeare and Education MA on offer as a distance learning course (still might go back to that one…). Then I got distracted by the leadership and management type of Education MA, with flexible courses offered in Educational Leadership from the likes of UCL, but couldn’t shake my underlying cynicism about leadership training; and then went down a rabbit hole of specialised courses, such as those focusing on Assessment.  Status and prestige also played a part in my deliberations: having been encouraged by my A-Level teachers to apply for Oxford but not done so as I felt it wasn’t for me, I thought maybe now was the time to apply and put that one to rest, with the MSc in Learning and Teaching looking appealing, and a friend from work applying for another MSc there who might be my study buddy. With so much on offer and work as all-consuming as ever, I let it slide for a while.

It was in the throes of exhaustion and despair from PPE marking and needing to get my mojo back that I investigated an MA simply entitled ‘Expert Teaching’ because in all honesty, let’s strip it back here, that’s what I want to get better at, always: teaching so kids are learning as well as they can be.  While being sceptical of the somewhat corporate sounding ‘Ambition Institute’ and the MA not being university-based, but rather accredited by Plymouth Marjon University (somewhat far from the aforementioned hallowed spires still on the bucket list), the course design and focus was functionally and structurally what I was looking for. The structure of the modules appeared sound, with six modules exploring different aspects of evidence-based research and how they apply to classroom teaching, starting with Consolidation then Assessment, which is an area I really want to improve in the immediate future. The specific focus on improving opportunities for disadvantaged children, the school-centred approach with courses specifically designed for working teachers and the involvement of Peps Mccrea, Sam Twiselton and Christine Counsell among others also convinced me, along with meeting a current student at ResearchEd Rugby who enthused about the course content, structure and teaching. I guess Oxford can wait…

So far, all I’ve done is log on, navigate the very user friendly Canvas software, update my profile and complete the introductory module (complete with low stakes quizzes, I was pleased to observe! Obviously I went back and re-took them until I got 100%). My boys were laughing at me for being excited that I could access my MA on an app, but compare that to my degree in the 90s or even the technology in 2010 on my PGCE and the interfaces are all so much more accessible and streamlined. I’m hoping the course design and accessibility factor will all help to make it easier to balance with the workload of Head of Department.

So it remains to be seen whether the MA programme of study will be manageable and worth it to sharpen my practice and knowledge and keep my teaching mojo alive. I’ve just picked a course which seemed best suited to me at this point in my teaching life. I do plan to blog about the MA but am fully aware that when term starts I may not keep it up!  Wish me luck – it’s a leap I took to challenge myself to be as good as I can be in the classroom, test some of my beliefs about teaching, learn from people outside my comfort zone and to put myself where I ask my students to be: learning.

I’d be happy to hear from anyone else who has undertaken an MA alongside teaching and how that has gone, along with any advice!