One Big History Department: history teachers assemble – finding my tribe as an early career teacher

Here Emma Bevan of Harrogate High School continues our blog series for teachers in the early years of their careers and shares her experience of working together to become better history teachers.

I vividly remember the reminder bestowed to me and my PGCE cohort in one of our final sessions. It was an important reminder, and something that didn’t make sense to me at the time.

The reminder was that “you are a history teacher now, and the people around you are your tribe”. At the time, I was very aware that the people around me were my competition for jobs, and that I hadn’t really seen them since we had been on placement. Like a dysfunctional family, I felt like I hadn’t been able to pick my tribe.

After we all fled the PGCE nest, I didn’t imagine there would be any family reunions and that was a chapter closed. As expected, the first few years in the classroom were spent finding our own feet in our individual classrooms. Occasionally we reunited in short conversations snatched at Historical Association conferences, and local YorkClio meetings. This was because despite leaving teacher training behind, we were still motivated by becoming better history teachers.

But beyond that, a lot of us were focused on our own history teaching journey, and until recently I believed that was just the way of things. We might occasionally interact on Edutwitter, and send lessons to each other, but that was the extent of our tribal bond.

Recently, however, I have discovered a fundamental shift as two things have dramatically changed my thinking. They are; my growing awareness of my own ignorance on anything other than white British history, and the increase of time and exposure to high quality CPD.

Firstly, the shocking events of the summer and the growing consciousness as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired a sense of urgency within the History classroom. As a result, I became critically aware of my own limited subject knowledge, and painfully self – conscious of my lack of ability to immediately spring into action.

Secondly, the lockdown of 2020 has sparked an increase in accessible CPD, as well as for some, the time to engage further in the latest ideas on history teaching.

Christine Counsell’s recent SHP virtual keynote on how we need to be shaping the History curriculum, was inspiring but also daunting. As someone who had been manically planning, in the first few years of my career, the old recognisable chestnuts of “Why did William win?” and “Was General Haig the butcher of the Somme” the dawning realisation was that, in order to improve my practice, I would need to head back to the drawing board.

But these two realisations culminated when I signed up to the Historical Association’s webinar series on Diversifying the History Curriculum, hosted by Justice for History. Not only did I realise how little I know about how much I still needed to learn, but also how “bolt-ons” were going to end up tokenistic. I needed to be reshaping my approach to History, and generating new schemes of work that taught history properly, in a way that is truly representative. A way I had never been taught history, but the way I needed to now be teaching.

Faced with this huge task, I was verging on the side of defeatist, overwhelmed by what I now felt I needed to achieve. For one person to do this all on their own was unimaginable. Frantically searching for an answer, I realised the people who would have a possible solution were exactly the same people who were the solution in themselves.

In what can only be compared to the assembling of the avengers, I put together a group chat to develop a working group. Assembled for our unique teaching super powers, what was immediately clear was everyone’s’ motivation to overcome the same problem. 

In our first Zoom meeting, we were all painfully aware of our lack of subject knowledge on Africa before slavery. This was something we all felt needed addressing as a matter of urgency, and would help us start to shift the fundamentals of history in our classrooms.

Dividing up roles and deciding a rough timeline we have started on our first tribal expedition.  First was conquering subject knowledge, as without any clear idea of what we were wanted to inquire into, we were all still very much in the hinterlands. At our next meeting, we are aiming to thresh out our acquired knowledge and start to streamline our scheme of work.

As a working group, we are still in an embryonic stage without even a name. But, that mountain I know I need to climb in order to teach history how it should be taught, doesn’t look so daunting when you are surrounded by like-minded people.

Africa before slavery has become our first focus and now I have understood what was meant in that PGCE session, hopefully it is only one of the many to come.

Membership of the @histassoc offers access to the largest network of history teachers in the UK, supported by years of practical experience and theorising about history teaching – definitely #OBHD and a base from which to support the sort of creative and supportive working groups that Emma describes.

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