My subject leader journey

Kris Spencer

Kris Spencer is head of Geography at Jersey College for Girls and a School Governor. He is currently enrolled on the Cranfield School of Management Advanced Development Programme, and is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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Image credit: Flickr // Sam Howzit Image credit: Flickr // Sam Howzit

I wasn’t always going to be a teacher. In 1988, I was at Jesus College, Oxford researching the iconography of landscape in British film. In the late eighties, it was a topic right on the edge of Geography. My thesis supervisor was the razor sharp Professor David Harvey; probably the most famous geographer in the world at that time. But a postcard note in my college pigeonhole changed the direction of my life. A colleague in the School of Geography had obtained a lectureship and asked me to take over his part time teaching job at St Edward's School in Summertown, an Independent School just north of Oxford. I accepted the job. I thought it would be an interesting change from the Upper Reading Rooms and the cramped viewing booths of the British Film Institute, plus a much needed boost to my scholarship stipend.

From the first lesson, with a bright and rambunctious A Level group, I was hooked. I was given a wonderful level of support, and slowly I began to understand the craft of teaching. In my case, this meant unlearning quite a lot of what I'd supposed from a PGCE I'd taken three years earlier as a stopgap. By sharing space with some very good teachers and making my own mistakes by the dozen, I was able to harvest some fundamental rules of engagement and core values which have stuck with me throughout my career.


I remember the warmth of 'Teddies' (St Edward's School, Oxford) very well. One example of this has particular clarity. My head of department at the time, Joe McPartlin, would come into my A Level class. He'd be stuck on point of geographical information, and would ask my advice. Joe was past 50, I suppose, and I was a hot dog DPhil “The teaching profession depends on the formative effects of unselfish acts of kindness.”student fresh from the University. I would give him my lofty views on Adiabatic Lapse Rates, equifinality and desert landforms, or whether overpopulation was a myth. It took me six months or so to twig that Joe would ask me the same questions a day or so before coming into my classes, and often supply me with the answers. I learned a little bit about my own hubris from this, but more importantly that the best of the teaching profession depends on the formative effects of unselfish acts of kindness.


I came into teaching from a background in postgraduate research. I have always enjoyed the discipline of research. Coming up through the ranks I would often use The Economist and FT as my sources. From there came the itch to write articles, and then textbooks. I spent the middle part of my career as both a teacher and a writer. This was before textbooks were written for specific exam boards. With the rise of the internet, research has become easier and the resources we can produce more finished and professional.


However, we abandon books at our peril. My battered copies of Collard and Strahler & Strahler rarely fail me when I am faced with a some hard to grasp aspect of physical geography. As a head of Geography at both St Paul's Girls' School and Abingdon School, I aimed to lead subject teachers who looked beyond the set textbooks and rigid schemes of work. In the teaching of such a content rich subject I have always held close that the aim of education is the knowledge, not just facts, but of values.


I have been lucky in my professional life. In addition to Teddies, Westminster, St Paul's Girls', Abingdon and Latymer Upper Schools have all provided great pupils to teach and interesting challenges. There are many ways to measure the quality of a school. I would always look at how much the pupils and the teaching staff want be “There are many ways to measure the quality of a school.”there, and how much they enjoy working with each other. At Latymer Upper School I was a senior manager for 11 years. I was a pastoral leader. I had a test, of sorts, which I would use to see how new teachers were getting on. If they could talk warmly about the pupils they taught then I knew that they would be set fair to thrive. I don't believe there is one set approach to be a successful teacher. There are some basics of course - turn up on time, do the marking and never be caught off guard - even if you are on the back foot, never appear anything other than on top of things.


We’re heading in some exciting new directions in Geography, not least in A Level. I am pleased that the work on landscape and sense of place (an area in which I worked in the late 1980s) is now part of the mainstream. As a subject we have the mighty triumvirate of sustainability, globalisation and inequality as central to our subject. Geography is still the best route to rejoice in the great variety of the world. It is also the subject which best explores all that we are doing to mess up our planet. I hear from the academics I come across that "geography has come of age". Part of me loves this, of course, but another part of me wants geographers to pull at things, and ask the difficult questions. We must also be greater than the sum of our parts. Geography as a discipline must also fight a tendency for fragmentation, especially at university level. It is why school Geography remains so important.

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