Why Northern Rocks 2017 gave me hope as a teacher

Ben James Connor

Ben Connor is a Year 5 teacher at St. Michael’s Church of England Primary School. He has been teaching at St. Michael’s for 7 years in various year groups and is the R.E. and Computing Subject Leader. Ben is interested in the use of media to inspire writing, especially film and also using technology to enhance learning across the curriculum. He has been active on Twitter for over a year, stealing hundreds of good ideas and contributing a few of his own.

Website: bbcteaching.blogspot.com Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Photo: @MrBenWard. Photo: @MrBenWard.

It’s been a hard few weeks. Every day when I wake up and turn on the TV, there seems to be more and more terrible things happening in the world. Sometimes this makes it hard to get out of bed, get to work and put on your ‘teacher’ face. Difficult questions from pupils and answers that seem hollow.

Add to this the difficulties in education these days, especially now that the government is all over the shop. It’s tough being a teacher.


At times like this you need something. You need something “At Northern Rocks, I found hope.”that makes you realise that life isn’t that bad, that there is hope. On Saturday 17th June, I found hope. I found hope in an event that brings teachers, educators and experts from all over the country together. These educators, some travelling great distances, joined together with a shared sense of the need to collaborate, discuss and revel in what it is to be a teacher.


I had heard whispers of this event. When I first started using Twitter properly, it was just after Northern Rocks 2016, and people had been buzzing about it then. When tickets came out for Northern Rocks 2017 I grabbed one with both hands. This year it seemed quite quiet running up to the event, and there wasn’t much publicity in the weeks prior. Maybe this was because of co-organiser Emma Hardy MP also running her successful political campaign, leaving fellow organiser Debra Kidd to run the show single-handedly. However, the fuss was worth it.


My first few Twitter conferences were strange. I felt like a child on their first day at school. However, there were so many people I knew there, it felt comfortable from the start. Some of those people I had never met in ‘real-life’, however I knew them through interacting with them on Twitter. Even those people I didn’t know (in either sense of the word) were open and friendly. A free coffee was also welcome.


Debra Kidd opened the event with a few words, then it was straight down to business. First, a ’Wonder Woman’ panel comprising of a group of the most influential women in British education. Mary Bousted (ATL general secretary), Dame Alison Peacock (CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching), Jules Daulby (teacher for The Driver Youth Trust), Sam Twiselton (director of the Faculty of Education at Sheffield Hallam University), Laura McInerney (editor of The Guardian’s Schools Week) and Jill Wood (headteacher of Little London Primary School). Chaired by Emma Hardy MP, the panel answered a range of difficult questions about testing, assessment and wellbeing. My favourite question being “What have you done that’s naughtier than running through a field of wheat?”


Photo: @Janeh271.


Next up was meant to be an interview with Amanda Spielman (Ofsted chief inspector). However she had pulled out at the last minute due to the recent election. David Cameron (not that one) stepped in and gave an impassioned speech about the lack of impartiality in Ofsted, lambasting Mrs. Spielman for not allowing teachers to hold her accountable in the same way that her colleagues do to them.

Photo: @gmills79.


Then to Workshop 1. I couldn’t choose. I could have listened to the behaviour master Paul Dix, Alex Quigley, Lisa Jane Ashes… The list goes on. I eventually plumped for the insightful Stephen Tierney. Having seen him speak at Lead Learn Lancs 2016, I knew I was guaranteed a talk full of the practicalities of being a leader. The talk was entitled ‘The Lazy Leader’, and gave an insight into how Mr. Tierney manages a cross-phase MAT. Full of anecdotal evidence as well as ideas gleaned from other sources, the talk left me feeling more prepared for my first leadership role, due to begin in September.

Photo: @theredepartment.


Workshop 2 was another dilemma: Do I listen to the inestimable Dame Alison Peacock, the event organiser Debra Kidd, James Mannion’s talk on Oracy? In the end I chose educational legend Ros Wilson. Full of laughs, anecdotes from over 50 years of teaching and consultancy work. The main thrust of her talk: The classroom can be an inspirational place. Teachers have a responsibility to ensure this is the case: by making sure that inspirational topics are taught well, and dull topics are taught as inspirationally as possible. My favourite quote though: being a teacher is “Doing something when there’s a kerfuffle”.


Photo: @WatsEd.


Workshop 3 was, again, a problem. Why do they have so many amazing speakers at these events? I chose Tim Taylor. What a truly gifted educator. I’ve been in one of his “We created the walls of Whitby Abbey, investigated a grave and encountered a mysterious doorkeeper.”workshops before and always leave amazed at the level of control he has over thinking, even in room full of teachers. One of the main proponents of Mantle of the Expert, Tim walked the group through an English project based on Dracula. We created the walls of Whitby Abbey, investigated a grave that stands outside the graveyard and encountered a mysterious doorkeeper. The process that takes place in Mantle of the Expert is incredible, if done well. Even as an adult I felt part of the story, taking on the role of a journalist and being part of Whitby Abbey itself created a unique opportunity for description. Engaging children in learning is key, and often difficult, but you could see how this process could enthrall and inspire our pupils.


Photo: @rethinking_ed.


For Workshop 4 I chose to listen to Amjad Ali. He’s someone I have followed for a while and have always been intrigued about his optimistic, enthusiastic take on teaching, as well as his myriad of ideas and routines to aid effective teaching. I wasn’t disappointed. Humble and engaging, he ran through ten ideas to support learning. Although Amjad is a Secondary teacher, the ideas were transferable.

  • ABC questioning, encouraging children to use the phrases ‘I’d like to…. Add, Build or Challenge’ when responding to their peers.
  • Playing music as pupils walk into the class, then turning it off when you are ready to start, even as adults we stopped talking. Then asking a child who has performed well in the lesson to choose music for the next lesson.
  • The ‘Thinking Tax’: giving each child three coins. When the child asks for support with work, take a coin away. If a child helps another pupil, give them a coin. Keep a record of how many coins each child has at the end of the lesson. Children can then work out whether they are in credit or debit for the year.
  • Possibly my favourite: The VIP chair. When a child makes a Very Important Point in a discussion, they get to sit on the teacher’s chair.


My notepad was full of ideas that I plan to implement when starting in my new role in September.


Photo: @MrsMathia.


When I saw that there were so many ‘Panels’ at the event, I wasn’t convinced. My favourite part of these conferences is getting to as many workshops as possible. However, the panels at #NRocks17 were fantastic. David Cameron, Tom Sherrington and Professor Mick Waters compared the Educational systems in England, Scotland, Wales and the rest of the world.


Photo: @viewthrudifeyes.


Perhaps the best panel of the day was given by three teenagers (Olivia, Daisy and Millie) who spoke with passion about their education, especially the barriers presented to them as young women. All three spoke clearly about the issues in education, the problems facing them (particularly wanting to study ‘boy’ subjects) and their demands for a better educational system for all, focussing more on real-life skills and less on testing.


Photo: @CristaHazell.


What can I say about the final event, the finale, the grand conclusion? It was… surreal. The irrepressible Hywel Roberts, aided with gravitas by Professor Mick Waters and David Cameron, remade Room 101. The twist, three ‘educational’ items were to be put in Room 101. Both Mick and Hywel put forward strong cases for the photocopier, school uniforms and ridiculously long job interviews to be ‘gotten rid of’. Their acting skills? Well let’s just say you wouldn’t have thought Hywel Roberts had once been a drama teacher. Laughs ensued, and eventually Hywel ignored much of the crowd and put all three items in Room 101.


Photo: @NRocks2017.


A fitting end to a good-natured, engaging conference. I now know what the buzz was about. So many amazing experts, teachers and coaches gathered together – both those presenting workshops and those along for the ride. The prevailing tone of the conference: If we want to see positive change in our profession, it must come from within. And if every teacher in the country made positive changes in their own classrooms, then that national change can occur.


Did you attend Northern Rocks 2017? Share your thoughts below!

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