Leaving Highgate

I spent my first seven years in teaching as part of an amazing department at Highgate School. For most of that time, my HoD was Dan Abramson and Robert Wilne (past Head of Secondary at NCTM) was Assistant Head. Robert had revolutionised the department a few years earlier with some radical changes: he introduced a scheme of work with great ideas, loads of links between topics and very specific approaches to teaching. Dan continued this tradition, bringing in many ideas from AfL and relentless energy. In the words of one of my colleagues Peter Davison, Dan could be prime minister if he wanted to.

When you teach maths at Highgate, you feel like part of something special. The whole team, now over 20 teachers, is strongly encouraged to use the same approach to teaching. I remember that Craig Barton sounded pretty shocked when Greg Ashman described a very similar style of department; I suspect that it’s pretty rare and perhaps not for everyone.

The advantages: It makes for an incredibly coherent experience for the students. When you take on a new class, you know what models and vocabulary they’ve seen before and how they’ve been taught to think about every topic. You can be sure that the highest attaining will not have been pushed through more material than the scheme dictates and you can reliably call upon the standard models to help lower-attainers.

Outside of the classroom, the number of conversations about approaches to teaching was probably 20 times what I got at the (academically very similar) school in which I subsequently taught. I think that this is a great advantage of shared teaching methodology: if you wanted to change how you taught, you had to convince the rest of the department that your ideas should go in the scheme. Many teachers stayed in the office to work until 6 or 7pm; it helped that many were young and family-free but I like to think that it was partly because the sharing of ideas made it an inspirational place to work.

If I loved it so much then why did I leave? Mostly because my wife and I wanted to buy a house, which is not easy to achieve for a teacher in London.

What followed was two fairly depressing years. My new colleagues were passionate, highly knowledgeable, experienced, and interested in the success of their students. But there was no scheme of work beyond the chapter list from the textbooks and discussions about how to teach maths were few and far between.

Then I discovered Twitter.

I remember very distinctively one mid-winter run, I was listening to Jo Morgan on Craig Barton’s podcast, talking about how she found twitter and all the great ideas out there. I’d just been through a similar process and it made me feel quite emotional to be part of a community again: I think I almost cried.

Despite my improved mood, I still childishly felt a bit sorry for the people on twitter because I suspected that the reason they were online was because they lacked departments like Highgate. Over time, I’ve come round the view that twitter actually has some advantages over Highgate: I can draw from a much wider range of experiences and ideas, and it has exposed me to many more ideas from the world of educational research. There are negatives too: there are still times on Twitter when I ask for ideas or opinions and don’t get any. In the Highgate maths office it was harder for people to ignore me!

I can’t actually remember if I discovered edu-twitter or Craig’s podcast first, but if I hadn’t found either of these, then I think it’s quite possible that I would have left teaching. Two years later and I’ve just started a job in which I’m the only maths teacher in the school. That doesn’t phase me because I’m safe in the knowledge that I have my online community of teachers.