Interview - David Miller

13th January 2012 at 00:00
The UK Teacher of the Year in 2008 had a profound impact on pupils. But two years later, he left his job teaching English in East Dunbartonshire and now works on an array of digital-learning projects

Why did you leave the classroom?

My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson's about 10 years ago, which developed into dementia. The award opened doors that allowed me to spend a lot more time with him before he died last April.

What are you doing now?

Teaching was hugely exciting, with a lot of variety, but after eight years I had begun to feel that schools could be stifling. I like to keep on the move. I'm now involved in various projects: university-based, in schools around the UK, conference work and digital storytelling in Denmark.

You've helped to build digital links between pupils in Scotland and Texas. What differences exist in attitudes to technology?

There seemed to be much more confidence among the Texans in dealing with social media for learning. The teacher instantly set up a Facebook page, and had Skype in her classroom. In Scotland, I had to take an iPad to part of the school not controlled by the authority. It made me angry that getting round these blocks became part of the narrative.

Are we Luddites in Scotland?

We are crippled by risk aversion. Scottish society has become mollycoddled into thinking someone's always looking out for us and we can't take responsibility for ourselves. There is this fear in corporate IT that we can't open up technologies because somebody will post something dodgy. It's like stopping children breathing in the playground in case somebody smokes.

Have you a tip for teachers who wish to embrace the digital world but lack confidence?

Join the conversation on Twitter. Every Scottish school should have a Twitter account, if only to trumpet pupils' success.

You tweeted: "Embrace the infinite variety of the digital while remaining true to things that are made." What did you mean?

I love what digital can bring to learning, but - and it's a huge but - with the march of digital it becomes all the more important to keep kids in touch with real-life experi-ences and the material of life. I was in a primary school and some of the youngest children went off with their iPads to play tea parties. It struck me as ridiculous that they were moving cups around the glassy surface of an iPad, not using bone china.

What do you think of Glow?

I launched myself into it, but it seemed to require so much effort. Virtual learning environments are dying on their feet around the world. For creativity to really spark, people have to be able to use the tools out there. The Skype thing with Texas would not have happened if it had been a Glow Meet - it would have taken six months to get guest log-ins, all the paperwork, etc. The idea that YouTube is closed to teachers - headteachers should be banging down the doors of corporate IT.

And Curriculum for Excellence?

The general principles are sound, but frameworks of any kind turn teachers into auditors. Vast amounts of time are wasted, and creativity stifled, because every learning experience seems to have to align with some bizarre little code. It seems that there have been some mediocre minds implementing Curriculum for Excellence.

You have a traditionalist view of handwriting and spelling. Why?

The iPad television advert amazes me - using a finger to draw things on sand is almost making us primitive again. The fine motor skill of holding a pencil and forming letters is crucial. A child's ability to then form words and sentences is fundamental to our definition of ourselves as humans.

Former pupils admired you for breaking into tears, unashamedly, while reading from The Great Gatsby and Lord of the Flies. Should teachers let emotions run free?

It's a tricky one - it has to be authentic. But there is definitely a cultural thing that we seem unable, broadly speaking, to let our emotions go, through fear of what others might think. Obviously, it depends on the subject - you're not going to burst into tears over a hanging valley or a trigonometrical equation.

Boys responded very well to you. Why?

They loved seeing a man being emotionally connected with something beautiful. They were a bit in awe and did find it unusual. It's about giving boys emotional freedom - I'm hugely into emotional intelligence.

You entered teaching in your late 30s. Was that an advantage?

Hugely. You have to be fearless in schools to be effective, and you learn from the various knocks life gives you. Your communication skills develop as you get older, and if you've got a life narrative behind you, that brings a huge extra dimension to your teaching.

How do you view the changing role of teachers?

I hate the pervasive idea that teachers are becoming guides on the side, that all knowledge is out there on the internet and all teachers need to do is direct. A teacher totally immersed in their subject and passionate about it should be centre stage and really energising children. You're never going to interest a child unless you're passionate about your subject, and you're not going to show any passion if you're just standing on the sidelines saying: "You might want to look at this website."

Personal profile

Born: Jamaica, 1962

Education: Glasgow University, MA (Hons) English literature and history of fine art, 1985; PGDE (Distinction), 2002

Career: Worked in computer software and the arts, including assistant to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama's principal, and fundraising manager for Glasgow's Mayfest festival; taught English as a foreign language in Denmark and Italy; English teacher from 2002-10.

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