On the right linear air track

18th December 2009 at 00:00

"My name is Gregor Steele and I used to be a principal teacher of physics. But that doesn't make me a bad person."

I use this introduction whenever I am running a course for science technicians. Of course, it is an exaggeration to suggest they all think principal teachers of physics are bad people. I'd say it's only about 85 per cent.

Physics PTs have had a long and honourable tradition of not letting technicians touch their equipment (look, if we're descending to that level of humour). They keep it locked away where no one else can get their hands on it and break it. Then they take early retirement, are replaced by a faculty head of home economics and a probationer whose own physics teacher didn't let the pupils touch the equipment in case they broke it, and suddenly the hapless technician is asked to set up a linear air track for the first time in 20 years.

Couple this with the fact that many technicians have a biologychemistry background and you have a real need for a course pithily called "Introductory Physics for technical support staff". This is the message I got two years or so ago when I met with support staff in Edinburgh.

Introductory Physics now exists, and is accredited under SCQF (Scottish and Credit Qualifications Framework). My colleague and I were asked to run this course at a nice hotel as part of a technicians' conference. We would have a function room, rather than a lab, and would be running with a couple more delegates than the course was designed to accommodate. Deep down, I knew it was a bad idea. At least the cooked breakfasts I indulge in solely when in hotels might compensate.

Except it wasn't a bad idea. Even a migraine on the first night that left my head reverberating like Tom the cat's when he runs into a strategically-placed frying pan couldn't spoil the experience. Part of it was down to the support I got from within my own organisation. The rest was due to the people who came along.

It would be both patronising and inaccurate to portray every technician as an unsung hero or heroine working uncomplainingly behind the scenes to support the noble cause of practical-based school science. It would also be unjust not to recognise that in many schools the drive to change for the better, to keep up-to-date and to give pupils the best experience possible comes just as much from technical support staff as from teachers.

They therefore deserve CPD just as much as teachers. Get them all together, press the "on" switch and things move as smoothly as a cart on a well-adjusted (and recently liberated from the PT's closet) linear air track.

Gregor Steele did indeed enjoy his breakfasts at the technicians' conference.

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