At the Bett Show 2020 in London we interwed Ross Morrison McGill, english teacher and @TeacherToolkit’s founder.DFI International
In our interview we asked Ross Morrison McGill, english teacher and @TeacherToolkit’s founder, how his idea was born and how it has devoloped in time until it beacame @TeacherToolkit platform. This platform is used by english teachers to search for teaching resources, to listen to podcasts and to follow webinars. We report the interview above.
How was the idea of @teachertoolkit born?
It started in 2007. I was moving to a new school to become an assistant principal which was the kind of beginnings of me being a senior teacher stroke administrator in a large school with 100 teachers and 1500 people. I thought it would be a good place to just reflect and write a diary and I started off writing one blog. I did not really do much of it, I just played around and I use the platform blogger.com ,at the time was very clumsy and hard to use.
Then my son was born premature we had to go 100 kilometers away from home every day for three months to be by the incubator for premature So essentially, because the reception in the hospital was really weak you could not tell parents about emergency things. So I started to write a blog on my phone and go home and put it on a blog, and then share it on my Facebook. This was in 2011. The blog went viral and I started to really enjoy writing blogs again and I knew I had an old teacher toolkit block that I had never wrote. So essentially I had just lost my job and teaching was the job I loved and because I was not in the classroom, I went back to teacher toolkit.
I had to reinvent myself and write about teaching and then I had a little audience: one reader 100 readers 1000. And after two months at home I got another job as a supply as a school leader. I kept up with the blog while I was back in school so then introduced to write about what I was doing, just like a diary. So it grew lots of interest because people could read about someone else doing the job and it allowed other people just to connect. So I started to keep blogging about what I was passionate about which is research design and technology school leadership, teaching and learning and good quality teaching relationship, basically everything we have been in the classroom. I shared the things that I would create, trying to help teachers to be the best they could be but also the challenges, the highs and the lows. I connected the blog to my tweets and my Facebook so I had a network to share it. So very, very quickly the blog statistics started to increase and at some point the blog became extra work loads. People would ask me for more stuff and it became a 24/7 helpline. Then at some point people started to offer me things.
How long did it take to be so popular?
The Twitter picture topia started in 2010, but my personal account when I first started experimenting was in 2008. In 2010, by December, I had 10,000 followers: in three months it was so quick. Now I do not know if I was an early adopter or if I was pragmatic and I gave common sense advices and that is what teachers need because they do not have the time. They need things that can grab very quickly. Now if you ask me how many people see my tweets on a high month I might say 9 million.
They were people just visiting my profile, but I got many messages a month. And then my growth just keeps going up, 1000 every month and it is just me, managing it all. I have written lots about the analytics and stuff because at the time I wanted to understand what was going on. So now we have Google Analytics and this way I started to understand how the audience interacted on my blog and teachers’ needs.
So you think that the good results is due to a good interpretation of the data?
Yes, and also the right content. Most times I have tried to write for myself. Sometimes you would want to write because teachers needed certain ideas. Sometimes the press would publish something such as school inspections, which I am quite passionate about, so I would forget all my ideas and write on it. So I do lots of research and then with Twitter I can create it in the thread and prove your research, people can read it quickly. The analytics are useful to inform my writing and my views on what teachers needs. If the average reading time is only a minute and a half why write a blog for 12 minutes; if it is 300 words a minute and I write an essay not so many people will read it. The WordPress it is not as sophisticated but you can find a see over the years. Survive just go to summaries you will see how it started in the very beginning. I have learned how to use voice technology to write and to look at analytics. Last year alone I have just gone past 11 million readers on average, every day. So it is getting bigger and bigger.
Teachers need to share but they are so stretched for time they do not have time, but teaching is a team sport, you have to share solutions to very difficult problems, but you only have three minutes to do it before 30 children arrive. School leaders have to think of the big picture and look forward ahead and teachers want to share, but they do not have time so I just try to offer ideas and solutions and resources I have got, I have podcasts every week.
For years I did not know who was clicking anything, I just put a resource on my blog and people would click the PDF and take it. Now at least with a bit of investment I know how many people have downloaded a content and I get people's address so I can contact them and share books and resources.
Which are the main new streams in teaching? What do you think that teachers are looking for now?
On my website there are two things that teachers always click for marking to reduce the burden of written marking assessment in the books. And you know the word differentiation, it means that if I have 30 peoples, I have to meet all their individual needs.
and England at some point, this got lost where people coming to observe would want you to demonstrate that you are one person versus 30. So as a result teachers will then create in lots of silly things to please observers. I might produce one worksheet but then have to translate it or create different versions for different children, for one lesson for someone else watching me how to teach. When observers come to visit the classroom, they only see the tip of the iceberg the top, they don't see the bottom. And so those are the two biggest things that teachers need help with on my website, but always the most popular topics for new teachers, it's always to plan lessons. So one of my most popular resources, is the five minute lesson plan which is over a million downloads. It's a map for planning a lesson. So the big picture would be how many children, what lesson, how many lessons to go, what is the intention so to learn about x, how you gonna make it exciting, how you gonna make it stick so they remember. Section for learning is questions so top middle bottom, asking questions, keywords, meeting groups of students, so that's the differentiation. And then, planning the sequence or the flow of your lesson for one hour. So that has evolved into now a digital templates. So now I have an online version and people can log in and create a trial and it saved as a PDF, you can add tags you can search, but it is much more adaptive . What I insist is that the word stickability you cannot change because that is memory. I want you to work out in five minutes, what you are teaching, why, what will you test when the students come back to you tomorrow. How you do that is entirely up to you, because teachers need autonomy so all the other things are your teaching style, the size of your classroom, how many children, what is your subject, how old the children are also. Basically any aspect of school life, I have thought about it and put it onto one page it is a thought template.
And do you think teachers are using this templates?
They are using the five minute plan, which is the most popular page on my website, and then this comes off because at the bottom of this page which is on the menu it links on the bottom to the other templates. So I shared this on Twitter in 2007, I was tweeting at that time. And, in fact, the template, I was using in 2007, but I did not share it until 2011. And then when I did it when in England, in 2011, if someone was watching you teach you had to provide a lesson plan. Most teachers will have to write two pages like an essay, to help the observer watch the lesson, but I thought it was better to make it five minutes and give a script, because the lesson plan should benefit the teachers and the children not someone visiting the classroom once every three months.
In your opinion is Ed Tech overestimated or do you think red is really useful in teaching?
I used to come here as a teacher and as a school leader, frustrated because the schools that I worked in had no money. the technology was always the old version. Whereas if you are another type of school and lots of money you can buy all the care and maybe the children are a bit better behaved and will not damage your products, it is not to say there is any child should not have it. I think there is opportunities for it and it has benefited but when I first started teaching I learned on a blackboard and I used to draw with children, then you get the whiteboards, and then you get the interactive whiteboards, now PowerPoints and all that and it's quicker and I can repeat the content and all that and I think that's good but with technology in the classroom there's the emails. Most teachers will teach their children maybe 20 hours a week. I would suspect the vast majority of all of us are getting 20 to 50 emails a day, if not more. So if we assume it takes two minutes to read one email, and you're getting 20 per day over one week that nearly is a whole day extra work.
I still have to teach 30 children for 20 hours a day, and that is a huge physical demands on my time. I may be given one or two hours in the week to plan, to phone parents, to load rewards on software, and I am now on my phone, my phone that I pay for, deleted emails trying to keep up my work at my home without any compensation for my contract. So you will see a lot more teachers struggle with managing workload and always working night and day on the journey, because they're trying to deal with emails and keep up because there is the fear of missing out. I think the danger of the technologies is that can lose human touch. I can now put a live video and you can see and hear me, which allows people to know me, and we can use Google Hangout we can have a video conversation, so there are lots of benefits. Technology is expensive, it goes out to date quite quickly and you might have a new phone I might have an old one, so I get bullied, other schools with more challenging intake where students might steal phones, you just say no, so then the danger is those children are not getting that experience of how to manage screen time.
My conclusion is it is hard for adults managing of screens line and it must be very hard if you are 12 ears old. So we have to think about carefully how we can help them, but also help teachers manage all the things they have what is going to be beneficial, what is adding workloads and what will have an impact on the child to be happier, to get better grades, to make my life easier as a teacher. Often you get technology or research that makes claims but it does not tell me what to do as a teacher. Everything needs moderation and I think teaching is all about do less, but do it better and I think when you do it less, you can do it better and that is all teachers need to do. So in my book I talk about some practical ideas for teachers that make their job easier to reduce work, improve their well being.
Teachers can now create resources like you now create videos online and tutor or teach teachers. If I can sit in my home and create a video and share it or sell it. I don't need to work in a store anymore, because I can make a bit of pocket money on the side, and that's what teachers have been doing and I know they have, and I do it myself, the last five years, you just look at Teachers Pay Teachers in America are millionaire teachers from selling resources. It's only a matter of time before most industries antiques and start to have to reinvent yourself. we have a new generation of teachers that are entering the profession now, born with Twitter and Instagram, and they can have the perception that things come quickly. It could be false because in the classroom, you have to build relationships, and it takes a long time. Whereas if I can go online and I find the right website, download the resource and it takes me 30 seconds and I use it tomorrow. It is a quick fix it doe not work I do not care, it saves my work. I think the way teaching is going to evolve significantly in the next five years.
As you know, we live in Italy. Do you have to suggest to us, Italian people, some best practice to use in our country?
It is hard because I have been to Italy, five or six times, but I have not visited the school.
I always say, teachers do not need to know more stuff. They need time to practice what they already know, apart from a brand new teacher who is learning. But the brand new teachers need an experienced teacher around them to help explain why I am doing certain things rather than others and to show them what happens if you do certain things. And today the good thing with technology is we can watch ourselves on videos but teachers are very shy about watching themselves teach, sometimes because of the capability, or the performance management or appraisal of judging how good you are, as a teacher. We work with people. People will always make mistakes.
Do you think that is more important how to communicate to students than to use a particolar methodology?
Some great ideas are probably my best methodology. So it is kind of choosing your ideas, your core ideas thinking about why they work and how you implement them as a teacher, so you have research, and you have teacher practice and the research might say you must use iPhones, but as a teacher, can you tell me how I do it with 30. We have quite a lot of challenges in England at the moment with what the government want to do with schools, what they believe what works for all children, including parents who want their children to go to selective schools, or parents that can't afford to buy an education, go to the public schools. Some people believe in competition selection that's good for growth, other people believe in equality where everyone should be entitled to have a fair kind of playing field and it's up to you. I do not think we can ever get consistency I do not think we will ever get everyone to be able to do the same things it is just the facts of life, we are all different. Schools are not without its challenges but I think sometimes what we choose to do as countries we might make matters worse. It is a three way partnership, you have got parents, you have got the people, and you have got the teacher. I think there are benefits for a country with higher education because you give more opportunities. If you educate your ground level, you educate people better to make more choices later on in life. In England we are probably making more choices based on evidence and data, rather than do we want our children to grow up as snowflakes or with mental health issues. In England, today we have 40 children excluded from schools every day. So the other side to do my bit to not just help teachers but shape policy.
if I could go back to the basics teachers just need to focus on the mechanics, the practicality. And it's there school leaders can protect that time to talk and share. And they do every week is good for collaboration it's good for my memory, I can then practice come back one week and talk about it. if I bring a problem, and I am struggling and everyone thinks I am an amazing teacher and I am still struggling, and it makes the other younger teachers think that no it is okay to make mistakes, because otherwise I might feel a mental health crisis in my own staff room. Everything sound amazing when actually what I need to do is say "When I struggle, let me help you.".