As a PhD student I sometimes find it difficult to explain what I am studying to those who do not work in academia. It all comes out in a bit of a blur. I’m sure there are times when someone who does not work in your field asks ‘‘so what exactly do you do?’’, and you sigh and have a rehearsed short speech. This is something I find quite difficult and something I wanted to learn more about.
This brings me to how I started working with The Brilliant Club, who are a non-profit organisation with the aim to get disadvantaged pupils into higher education. I was very interested in developing my skills as a lecturer and as a primary school teacher, I do love to teach.
The Brilliant Club’s aim is to create a fairer society where no child’s education is limited by their background. The Brilliant Club gives children the opportunity to write, evaluate and reflect on their work. As a child, if you were not aware of how university works or aware of what you had to do when you got there, you could be less likely to choose higher education.
I know from experience, that as a child, this was one of the reasons why I chose to take two years out before going to university, I just didn’t know if I could do it! And now you could argue that as a PhD student, I love it so much… I just keep coming back for more!
And so, this is where my journey began, in a short zoom interview where I presented a small presentation to two adults posing as children. As a teacher this felt quite normal, however I can imagine having an adult pretend to be bored and ask difficult questions during a presentation could be off putting!
Once accepted, I was happy to complete the ‘light’ training. Enough for you to understand what you are doing and gladly, not overwhelming enough for you to back out due to your already mountain-like PhD workload.
To work for the brilliant club, you must be working towards or have finished a PhD in any given subject. You must also be willing to give up two hours a week for six weeks to teach a university module to students at a school. And finally, you must be motivated enough to keep on top of the six weeks of weekly marking tasks from the homework that the students must complete. Bearing in mind you are already dealing with your PhD and for some of you a part-time job.
For me, the program I was handed was in creative writing. This felt nice and easy considering children already learn about this in school. I cannot imagine how difficult it could have been if asked to create a program based on philosophy of social science for eleven-year-olds. Hats off to those who have!
In the first session, the students came in quietly, shyly holding their module guides as shields as they entered the little classroom I had been assigned.
I smiled ‘Hello everyone! Take a seat! Let’s all get comfortable and ready’’. After a battle of who would sit near the back and a few arguments about who had to sit nearest the front (I did wonder if I smelt) they soon relaxed.
I was surprised at how quickly that first session went and how after five minutes I struggled to maintain the focus of the room without being interrupted by excited anecdotes about sports clubs, where they were going on school trips and of course their pets. I learned collectively they owned 4 hamsters and had a school pet fish called Sherlock (you can’t make this stuff up).
For the next six weeks at 9 am every Thursday morning I was waiting to see my keen little scholars. This isn’t to say there were not some incredibly amusing moments working with them. I remember a conversation I had with a child in the second week in reference to their missing homework.
‘’Miss I lost my homework’’
‘’But you submit it online Timmy?’’
‘’Oh yes, it must have got lost on the internet’’
An excuse, I definitely cannot use if having to applying for mitigating circumstances when study at university but refreshing to hear it is still used at school level. The homework did seem to be the most challenging aspect of being a Tutor as I found out in Week 3:
‘’Your homework was very interesting James, all those big words you used!’’
‘’Yes, my grandma did mine for me because she has a degree’’
I quickly realised that I was communicating through feedback, with James’s Grandma Pearl BA (Hons). The start of a quick conversation that I had to have with the Lead Teacher at the school, who also found the funny side.
By the fourth session my students were becoming more confident and were asking me more questions about my experience at university and how to improve the structure their writing. I found that I had to rethink some of my teaching points and create space and time to model to the children, how I would communicate my learning and ideas in written form.
From my experience, there are 3 things to consider when becoming a tutor.
- Remember they are children, and you must be able to stay encouraging and appreciate the small steps they make to success on the module you are teaching.
- Prepare to be unprepared: You may realise during your time with the children that you need to adapt your teaching to be inclusive for all needs.
- Ensure you are taking in the whole experience, this is a six-week course, and it does go by so very quickly! As much as the children are learning, you are also learning from them.
In my final week with the children, I asked my group about their experience with the program. The feedback I got was mainly positive and they could even explain in which session, they started to really understand the points we were covering. These lovely ‘light bulb’ moments that I know will follow them and build their confidence when they start to think about their futures and if University would be right for them. However, I must say my favourite feedback was:
‘’I’ll miss you Miss Martin, you have great highlighters, we never get to use highlighters, I can’t wait to go to university and use them in all the books I read’’.
The Brilliant Club is a fantastic opportunity that I will continue to be a part of during the next two years of my PhD. The beginning of mine and hopefully others’ journeys into higher education, whilst also giving back to the community and preparing the next generation of scholars for their learning journeys.
So, if you have time, want to build your lecturing skills and own more than three coloured highlighters, give this great opportunity a go.