Working for Oak

I am writing this as I finish my final day of Oak National Academy lessons. I have made 25 lessons in 15 days and my brain is a bit mushy. I thought as it is, hopefully, a one-of-a-kind type event I would just write down some thoughts and feelings on the experience.

Oak National Academy: the story behind the coronavirus lockdown school

Getting asked to work for Oak

When I was contacted and given the opportunity to work for Oak it was the beginning of July, there were three weeks to go in the weirdest school year in history. I was splitting my time supervising students in school three days a week and planning for September COVID adjustments the other two days from home. I was pretty busy.

I felt like Oak was an opportunity that was too good to pass up though. And no, it wasn’t due to the money.

I agreed to do Oak because:

  • It was an honor to be asked
  • It seemed like a chance to be part of something that was a product of society rising to an unprecedented challenge. A small part of history.
  • I had a feeling that if I was part of it then I would have the right to comment on it as I would understand its context. *
  • I had a massive fear it would be done badly if I wasn’t there to ensure it was good (I know; egomaniac).

These features were so strong that I would have done it for free to be honest. Time was a serious problem though. Through induction I would work late evenings and early mornings to ensure I hit my deadlines and completed the 5-day induction by the end of the week.

Planning the lessons

Time was not the biggest problem though. Neither was battling my lock-down hair into something less like that from a Lego figure.

Actual selfie

The overriding problem was the crushing feeling of permanence. The lesson I make on ionic bonding will be up for the year. The decisions I make will be permanent. I think as a profession we often forget the advantages a lack of permanence can have in teaching. If you fumble a word or don’t explain something perfectly, there is always a chance to start over as nothing lasts. When you are filming yourself it’s a case of constant second guessing and wondering ‘will that make sense to all students from all backgrounds?’

Oak provided extensive CPD on these aspects which definitely helped but still it is weird because I wasn’t planning my series of lessons. That is when it struck me; It’s not about me and my personal preferences on how X is taught. It’s not even about my school and the context it serves. Lessons needed to be constructed in a way that made them accessible to as many students as possible. The curriculum review panels had agreed with the subject communities the content of the Oak curriculum and it was my job to make lessons that fit into its scope and depth. Luckily the subject advisors were experienced and flexible. Early on we were able to discuss the route through our topics and ensure it was clear and well-reasoned. We manged to avoid the ‘teach it in spec order’ trap that people can fall into.

Teachers and technology

The learning curve working for Oak is huge. Within days you are using multiple new types of software in a variety of ways, trying to be efficient, all the while knowing you have X amount to do by the end of the day. If you fall behind, that puts your Quality Assurance team behind, and you don’t want to be the weak link. I would say I am fairly decent with technology, especially for a teacher, who notoriously lose the ability to turn on a projector once they qualify, but there were times when I was scratching my head. Now three weeks later I find myself a relative expert, the curse of knowledge is strong and I now feel how obvious everything was in hindsight. Throughout the whole process the IT support team were calm organised and resourceful. Responding at all hours to queries ranging from the mundane to critical.

Filming lessons

I was told in my training that it was important to get good lighting and I was distraught to find my spare room had the natural lighting of a small cave. Fortunately, I work in a science department, so I managed to requisition some lamps and got some light diffusing covers off amazon (other multinational tax dodgers are available). The ‘lamps of 1000 suns’ was born!

I think my early lessons were filmed about 3 times each. I was clumsy with my words and a perfectionist, which is a bad combination! I was so worried about the lessons structure that my slides were overly wordy and I chose to ignore redundancy and modality effects as I gained confidence in presenting. Teaching to an empty room is very weird and it takes time to get into the swing of it. As I gained experience and confidence this began to change. You will probably be able to notice it if you compared my first ‘structures and bonding’ lesson to my later ‘chemical analysis’ lessons. I have not been brave enough to re-watch them since passing QA.

The training recommended we display warmth and joy and act like everyone was loving the lesson. Those that read this and know me will understand that imbuing those emotions is not easy for me. My voice is quite monotone and my resting face is one that would be classified as ‘bitch’. For the last four years my New Year’s resolution has been to smile more.

If you stand for nothing Burr… What will you fall for?

Needless to say I had to work on that warmth! Turns out its mainly to do with eyebrows.

The review process

In hindsight I was so grateful for the review process. Things changed as lessons were learnt along the way and so getting my lessons reviewed by other teachers before filming and by QA afterwards was crucial to ensure there were no copyright, video quality or science issues. It prevented some absolute clangers making it into the lessons. Feedback, they say, is a gift.

The right to complain

As I write this I am acutely aware that on edutwitter Oak has its fair share of critics. I think this is mainly down to two issues:

  • The way the funding was awarded and its lack of tendering process
  • The idea that at Oak our aim is to run a secret ‘trad’ insurgence and tell all schools how to teach like Grandmaster Gove wants them to.

As far as the former goes, I think that may be more a result of political or personal bias it’s not like they Oak are a ferry company without any ferries. As for the latter all I can say is HAIL HYDRA! Oops I mean all I can say is teaching is a professional that has huge debate within it and people have strong feelings about their own teaching choices. I know some will watch my lessons and love them, others will have useful feedback and I welcome the discussion on twitter. There are some that will probably nitpick and take issues with what I have done. That’s fine.

At the end of the day Oak have made thousands of lessons in the last three weeks and the country is in a better position to deal with whatever September brings because of it.

Overall, I am really grateful to all the staff at Oak who have been so friendly, knowledgeable and supportive. The countries children will be so grateful for such an unprecedented resource if or when they need it.

* This is the same reason I became a teacher. At the time I was fully intending to be a stay-at home dad in the future (long story!) I had read in the papers and via my Netscape web browser (I’m old) that the education system was broken. I needed something to do for a year while my (at the time) fiance (even longer story) was at law school. So I decided to do the PGCE so I would be able to challenge my future children’s teachers with relative impunity.

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