By Gerald Haigh
Zagreb, Croatia, 22 March 2008
A successful professional – a senior teacher no less – steps up to make a presentation to an international audience of his peers, all leading practitioners in their home countries. He immediately captures their attention, not only by his evident enthusiasm for his subject, but because this fully grown adult male is dressed from head to foot in a bright yellow chicken costume tastefully picked out with red accoutrements.
Yes, it’s Dan Roberts, celebrated chicken-related assistant head and head of science at Saltash.net Community School – in Cornwall, just across the Tamar from Plymouth.
I asked Dan whether that presentation in Croatia was in any sense a key, career-defining moment. In truth, I was trying to plant that thought, and although I got a “Suppose it was” kind of response, my guess is that Dan doesn’t easily see his career in terms of turning points, seminal events, Damascene revelations. For one thing he’s been teaching for such a relatively short time (he’s in his eighth year) that it’s actually been one steady rocket ride.
In one sense, Dan’s qualification for this series is self evident. He’s won awards at Microsoft’s Innovative Teachers Forum at every level -- National, European and Worldwide. The focus for his recognition in 2008 was a project that he’d submitted to the Forum, in the form of a Virtual Classroom Tour (VCT) called “Recharge The Battery”. It’s an online presentation, and record, of a remarkable science-based cross-curricular project that starts by asking students to consider where their food comes from. It developed from there to the rescue, by students, of superannuated battery hens, and the installation of a webcam (“eggcam”) that added to Saltash.net’s global presence.
And the chicken outfit? “Students bought it on Ebay to help advertise their project, and they made me dress up in it for the presentation.” The chirpy chicken brand, needless to say, has followed him ever since. Right down to his moniker on Twitter – @chickensaltash.
So, although that was certainly quite a moment, Dan’s clearly been an innovator from the start. In his NQT year, for example, at Tamarside Community College, Plymouth, he realised that the school needed someone to run a primary-secondary transition programme: “So I went to the head and told him that I’d do that, and would need a responsibility post to go with it.”
If engineering your own promotion in your first year of teaching isn’t innovatory, I don’t know what is. He didn’t stop there, either. He managed to fit in a Master’s degree during that first year, and not much more than 12 months further down the line he was appointed head of sixth form.
Dan did well at Tamarside. He made good friends, and learned from able colleagues in an often challenging environment. Under his leadership, the sixth form almost doubled in size, and exam results went up. “Everything I was asked for, I did,” he says. And there must have been great satisfaction in that, given the eyebrows that were surely raised when he was appointed to the job as a relatively young teacher.
Dan, though, needed fresh fields and new pastures. He had his eye on Saltash, then gaining a reputation for innovation and improvement under the leadership of Isobel Bryce, 2007 South West Secondary Headteacher of the Year, and in 2007 he moved to be head of science there.
Since then, Dan’s innovatory achievements have just tumbled over each other – handheld devices, podcasts, a school radio station, video, slideshows, the use of social networking. All of it, as you’d expect, is very ICT-orientated. Not for nothing did Isobel Bryce change the name of her school, soon after her arrival in 2003, to “Saltash.net Community School” (“Community” is as significant as “.net”). What’s much more important than Dan’s involvement with ICT itself, though – in fact he came late to computers, encountering them for the first time at university – is his fierce commitment to the way that technology supports learning, and more particularly student-led learning. Mobile phones, for example, he sees as student-empowering devices: “…students are able to use all their features like photo, video recording, audio recording, note taking, SMS, Bluetooth and web access“.
Peer assessment, too, is a feature of all his classroom work. Typical of his approach is the way that his students currently use “Ning” for collaborative projects. Talking about this elsewhere on agent4change last year he says, “… the idea is: ‘Don’t check with a teacher; check with a friend.’ We’re finding ways of making them independent.”
It’s clear to me though, that all of that stems from something much more fundamental, and is to do with the relationship which he has with young people in general and with his students in particular. Unlike many of us (certainly unlike me) he had none of the early disciplinary “baptism of fire” problems that can beset the new teacher. Circumstances combined to put him in charge of classes at Tamarside – not always an easy place to teach – towards the end of his teacher education course, before he was fully qualified. His mentor saw that he could do it and, says Dan, “I never really had any behaviour issues.”
'I tell them you have to do stuff for yourself'
Quite simply, he’s always enjoyed the company of the students, running clubs and sports teams out of school, giving them, in his own words, “A place to feel safe”. He’s very open with them too, talking about his personal life, and sharing memories of growing up without much money in a single-parent household. “When they say ‘we can’t do this or that’, I tell them you have to do stuff for yourself.”
So when he says, as he does, “I am really passionate about learning,” you realise that it has a lot to do with what learning did for him, and with a burning desire to see it do the same for all the young people in his care.
In common with many successful teachers, Dan was originally headed in another direction, and the change, when it came, was simultaneously a disappointment and a significant boost to his self esteem: “At university I wanted to fly as a pilot in the RAF. I went to the RAF College at Cranwell and passed all the aptitude tests, for flying and for suitability as an officer. Then I failed the medical because my legs were too long and I wouldn’t be able to eject from the aircraft in an emergency.”
Undaunted, he then applied for the only civilian start-from-scratch flying training scheme then in existence, run by British Airways. He was accepted on that, too. “Everything was in place," he says. "I was about to go out to the USA for basic flying training.” (It’s cost-effective to train pilots in reliable weather conditions.) “Then right at that moment, 9/11 happened, and BA cancelled the whole programme. Within a few days I was in teacher training at Marjon [University College Plymouth St Mark & St John].”
To be one of a tiny proportion of successful candidates for a coveted job, and to be assessed (twice, in Dan’s case), as having leadership, teamworking and personality traits well ahead of the general population can’t do anyone any harm. It leaves a mark on a person. It’s not arrogance (officer selection would quickly detect that) but it’s more than just confidence. It has a lot to do with being comfortable in your own skin, with your own abilities. I saw the same thing recently in a young history teacher who’d been selected for officer training at Sandhurst, only to turn it down in favour of teaching. And as Dan says, “It was the most rigorous interview process you can imagine. I knew no interview would ever really trouble me again after that.”
So what next for Dan Roberts? What he says is what people in his position always say: “Yes, I want to get on. I’d like to be a headteacher. But I don’t want to lose contact with the students. So I’m not sure.”
He may not be. But I’m pretty confident he’ll find the right niche, even if, as he did in his NQT year, he’ll set to and invent the post that suits him.
Conditions for Innovation
- Students are perhaps the most important spark for innovation in schools but are often overlooked (often because of problems with the school’s student voice system).
- Headteachers, school leadership teams and teachers have to be open to innovation, ensure that it is demonstrated and given the highest profile.
- School leaders should innovate by example, and make it clear to all stakeholders that they must take risks in the classroom on a daily basis.
- Particularly important for teachers is that they are in a ‘safe place’ where they won’t be made accountable for taking risks to innovate if they don’t pay off.
- We should propel our pioneers! Give your creative lead innovators (all schools have them) the time and resources they need to be successful. Allowing them opportunities to share this with the rest of your school community on a regular basis is essential to inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
- Lead innovators should nurture others within the school community through peer coaching. Within a short time you will be inundated with new innovators.
- A strong professional development programme is the key to ensuring that any innovation is sustained and snowballs to all within the community.
- Professional development must be personalised, differentiated with realistic time and resources given to access it, to carry out action research within the classroom and then evaluate its effectiveness.
- Encourage all learners (students and staff) to collaborate and share their good practice and examples of their innovations to create a innovative learning culture with a real buzz.
- Link innovative projects and practice to additional accreditation such as post-graduate qualifications for staff or additional funding. This enables all learners to grow as innovators and reflective practitioners
Sources of inspiration
- Dan pays tribute to colleagues and mentors:
- Right at the start was Barbara Allmark, the tutor who took a chance and short-circuited him on to the PGCE course at Marjon when the BA flying course fell through.
- Isobel Bryce of course (“An inspiration to me”), and Karl Sampson, his line manager when he first arrived at Saltash.net. Karl, he says, “Reminded me about my love of learning as I moved from my previous school.”
- Also at Saltash.net, he mentions deputy head Dave Garland, “For his love and knowledge of new technologies.”
- At Tamarside, Gordon Watson-Broughton, head of science and advanced skills teacher, who helped him carry out action research for his Masters degree on learning.
- Mike Hughes, prolific writer and consultant on learning, and very much an innovator himself.
- And the people he follows on Twitter: “There are too many educators to mention but basically everyone I follow is a source of inspiration to me; I read most of their blogs and tweets and share their good practice.” (You can check out the people Dan follows on Twitter by visiting his page at http//:twitter.com/chickensaltash
- Get out more: "Develop links with global partners from within education and business that can support innovation and provide unbelievable opportunities for all learners. I benefited greatly from my experiences in The Teaching Awards and with Microsoft’s Innovative Teachers Programme. A period as a lead practitioner with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust helped too. And check out charities working with education. I enjoy working with Cool Earth where I have my own page."
Dan Roberts' blog is here
Follow him on Twitter here
Saltash.Net Community School
Read Dan Roberts' article for school leaders on curriculum innovation on the National College's Future website.
Gerald Haigh is an educator, freelance journalist writer, and expert on school management systems. He has a regular column focused on school capital projects like Building Schools for the Future on the National College's Future website.