Conwy to Toulouse: My five stages of Geography inspiration, part 1

Matt Podbury

Matt Podbury is head of Geography at the International School of Toulouse, France. He is the author of, a free repository of teaching and learning resources for secondary school Geography. Matt is also the co-creator of Together with Jim Noble (@teachmaths), he administers the ‘Live Your Dream Foundation’ at the school in James’s name.

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I was lucky enough to be brought up in the geographical haven that is North Wales, and spent most of my youth walking in the Carneddau, canoeing around the coastline of the Llŷn Peninsula and mountain biking in the Gwydyr Forest. After my subsequent travels around the world, I maintain that North Wales is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to, and while many children perhaps don’t fully appreciate where they live, I certainly did. Even when other social distractions surfaced around A-Level time (Llandudno’s Broadway Boulevard), I still spent as much time as possible out and about.

Of course, the geographer mould was first forged at a young age at Ysgol Aberconwy, and in particular by a young Geography teacher named Stephen Taylor, who was nothing short of inspirational in and out of the classroom. Friday demands to cancel any planned Saturday activities would result in my A-Level class all piling into Stephen’s battered old Lada at 8am on a snowy Saturday morning armed with ranging poles, quadrats, flow meters and clipboards, heading down to Conwy Valley to study fluvial processes, glaciated landscapes, ecosystems, weathering and everything else that extensive free field centre that is North Wales offers to a Geography student. I learnt from Stephen that boundless enthusiasm and positivity in teaching is the real hook that reels students in – he was the master, at this and I have never seen him bettered.

Ysgol Aberconwy Class of 1996

After graduating with a BA Marketing and Geography from Keele University in 2000, I spent a little while working in the other world before finally starting my PGCE at the University of Sheffield in 2002 under the watchful eye of my second inspiration, Margaret Roberts. While I didn’t fully realise who Margaret Roberts was at the time, it soon became evident that I had someone very special who was more than a tutor and encouraged me to push the boundaries while focussing on creative enquiry based approaches in the classroom. It took me a little while to get back into the swing of university deadlines and lectures, but it was brilliant and daunting to be in a classroom, teaching the subject that I loved in my placement schools in Chesterfield and Worksop. In the March of 2003, I was appointed as teacher of Geography at Meadowhead School in the south of Sheffield.

This was a two site school in the middle of a huge council estate with a roll of about 2000 students and where I was to meet my next two key people - Anne Harper and Ann Cousins. They had taught at the school for many years (Ann still does) and I was the first new member of staff in the department since Queen played their last concert with Freddie! They are the best Geographers that I have ever known, had travelled extensively and had a pure passion for teaching the subject.

Nanjing, 2008

Ann, the head of department, was incredibly organised. She immediately tasked me with the challenge of writing new schemes of work for Geography and Leisure & Tourism, as well as updating others with my NQT ideas. Meanwhile, Anne Harper taught me all I needed to know about how to deal with the most challenging children in the school. Her classroom was a place of learning, focus, no messing and no bad behaviour, none! It was amazing to witness and Anne truly knew each and every one of her students, even if she did have 150 different Year 9 students every week. After 18 months at in the job, I was made head of both Geography and  Leisure & Tourism, taking on the challenge of managing and inspiring hugely experienced colleagues. Thankfully, I was encouraged to take risks and make changes as and where I wanted to. I have a real love of school trips and getting students out of the classroom as much as possible, and this was one piece of ammunition that I was going to use to tackle my first big issue.

I was faced with rapidly falling numbers at GCSE level, with the History department running away with the best students. A well-targeted marketing campaign the following year saw numbers triple at GCSE and led to an inevitable showdown with the head of History! GCSE revision weekends to Snowdonia were introduced, as well as action packed Year 9 trips down to Cornwall and the Eden Project to stir interest in the subject and to get Geography into the school newsletter – front page if possible. We changed the Year 9 schemes of work (SOW) to hook the students, and brought in some brilliant personal and local Geography challenges. We also used some state-of-the-art PDAs in conjunction with the Sheffield City Learning Centre. Around this time, I was enrolled onto a middle manager’s course, as well as taking the first tentative steps to become an AST.

Eden Project Year 9 Geography Trip, 2009

However, in the summer of 2008, while watching the retirement ceremony of a departing colleague who had been at the school for 35 years, I freaked out! I remember thinking that this could be me in 2044. I had already been at the school for six years and it had flown by. I was comfortable; I knew the students; I had great colleagues and friends at the school but I felt that I needed to leave for a new challenge.

Read the second part of Matt's journey here.

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