Early Career History Teacher: experience beyond the classroom

This is another blogpost primarily for colleagues at the start of their history teaching careers. Caitlyn Palmer, history PGCE student at the University of York, shares her experience of taking on a project beyond the classroom and how it has supported her developing professional practice.

As a History PGCE student training with the University of York, there are certain things that I expected I would do during my training year. Teaching students of a range of ages? Tick. Being involved in departmental meetings? Tick. Teaching myself areas of history I had not interacted with at all, or in many years, before teaching my students? Tick. Supporting a pupil in a public speaking competition, and then reflecting on it for OBHD – I would have never predicted this. But I want to share how my involvement in the HA’s Great Debate 2022 has helped my own ITE as it has enabled me to consider history teaching and how we engage in the past in new ways, and has given me a unique opportunity. I want to encourage other colleagues at the start of their careers to take part in history beyond the classroom.

It began with a conversation between my Head of Department and I, both members of the Historical Association, about the upcoming local heat of the Great Debate. We wondered if our students would be interested in taking part. The question this year was focused on the change students believed had had the biggest impact to their local area in the past 70 years, to honour the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. I realised that, while busy as an ITE student, I was less busy than my colleagues and that my time was more flexible. So, the Great Debate entry became a personal project of mine, and I began advertising it with Year 12 students. I hadn’t met any of this year group on my placement so this was potentially a challenge. Would the students want to be involved in a competition they had never heard of before, with a teacher they had likely not heard of either? I was delighted, and not a little relieved, when multiple students registered their interest. At our first meeting I shared some public speaking ‘top tips’ with each of them.

In mid-November, I organised an in-school heat, to help us decide which student would represent the school in the heat hosted by the York and North Yorks HA branch. Three Year 12 students and a Year 10 student delivered speeches to an audience made up of students from the Lower and Upper School History Clubs at my placement school. Each presented excellent arguments, and it was a tough decision.

Our winner’s speech argued that it was agricultural changes, specifically linked to technology, that had impacted the East Riding of Yorkshire most in the past 70 years. 90% of East Riding land is for agricultural use, and it was this fact that really stood out for me. Despite its integral role, employment related to agrculture has dropped hugely, and I wonder how many residents of the East Riding are aware of the importance of agriculture to their local area, both today and in the past? Working with all the students had given me a great insight into an area that is not local to me. It helped me to think more about how I find out what is of interest to all the young people I teach.

In preparation for the local heat, I began working closely with our student to refine her speech content and to help her to practise her public speaking skills. The strength of her historical understanding and original draft meant that this was a relatively easy role for me. It was a great chance for me to work 1:1 in a mentoring role with an A Level student. I was able to draw on what I have learnt about how to present the past and history to an audience (aka teaching!) to encourage her to replace quite dry statistics with personal stories, and to draw out her knowledge gained from her family’s generational involvement in agriculture. My teaching practice has also demonstrated to me the importance of using imagery when presenting information. I passed on this advice and we worked together to ensure that her speech presented vivid images of life on an East Riding farm across time, beginning with her great-grandfather preparing for market, and ending the speech with her father ploughing the same field today. It is stories that we as humans connect with, and the final speech painted a picture of what life in an East Riding agricultural family was (and is) like. This was her first time public speaking, but presenting on a topic so close to her heart made it easy for her confidence to grow as she practised her speech. That was a useful insight for me too!

The evening of the heat was great! Despite the pandemic leading to the York heat being held on Zoom, I learnt so much about local history (everything from Hull’s ports, to York feminists!), about what interests local young people and also how they approach topics. I was struck by the passion that the young people had for history. Entering the world of education after eighteen months of disrupted learning did make me concerned that students would have become disconnected from history, despite teachers’ best efforts. However, it was clear that students remain as interested and passionate as ever. And our entrant was ‘highly commended’ – we were all so proud of her!

When starting the Great Debate journey with my Year 12 students, I did not expect to have any reflections from the event that would impact my long-term teaching practice. After all, surely this was just an event where students would improve their public speaking skills, and maybe gain some historical knowledge in the process? But as I watched the proceedings on Zoom, and thought about the Great Debate process following the event, I realised that the strength of using story and imagery really did shine through the best speeches – we learnt from them. In addition, giving students the opportunity to engage with history of their choosing had enabled their creativity and passion for history to grow. I need to create these opportunities. In an ever-limited history curriculum, where teachers agonise over what to include, or remove, from schemes of learning, adding an opportunity for students to investigate a topic of the choosing may seem like an added stress, rather than an added extra to students’ education. But perhaps the enthusiasm the Great Debate shows to us demonstrates that allowing students to follow their own interests can spark something in them – that ‘history tingle’ that so many history teachers and history ‘nerds’ alike know of. This can be the key in getting them interested in history, or simply increasing their confidence in engaging with the past – the latter of which I believe is central to success in school history.

As a part of this, it is evident that local history is central to student engagement. As my PGCE has continued, I have grown more and more interested in using local history in the classroom. This event proved to me how useful the local is as a ‘hook’ to engage students, and to enable them to draw broader conclusions about the world and the past. It also made me realise that local history appears to have no limits – we can easily look beyond the stereotypical historical ‘highlights’ of an area, and begin investigating other stories that have impacted our local area. For example, the limitation of only looking at the most recent span of 70 years of history allowed the traditional route of looking at the impact of the World Wars on local areas to be removed, and instead our young people used different lenses to analyse the world around them.

The Great Debate was great for my students and it has opened up more history, and the community around it, for me in new and exciting ways. Both students and history teachers can gain so much from this experience, and therefore I cannot wait to be involved again next year. I would also encourage all ITE students to grab opportunities beyond the basics of your PGCE. I have learnt so much that is really, really useful for my own professional development.

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