Winning strategies

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Two winners of this year's Institute of Physics teachers' awards talk to Ian Francis

The eight winners of the 2001 Institute of Physics teachers' awards, this year all from secondary schools, are deemed to have "raised the status of physics and science in schools". David Smith is an advanced skills teacher and head of physics at Greensward College, Hockley in Essex. He was nominated by a former student, now studying engineering at university. That was two years ago; he won the award at the second time of asking, put forward and steered through the requisite hoops by a deputy head. He describes getting the award as the "highlight of my career".

Greensward is a modern 11-18 technology college where pupils now study for GNVQ rather than GCSE science over a five-term year. The technical college funding and assorted awards and sponsorship mean the school is comparatively well resourced: every teacher has a laptop, for example. In David Smith's opinion, the challenges facing science teachers here do not really centre on funding.

He uses an ICT-linked physics framework to give "electronic lessons" using a laptop and a projector, incorporating PowerPoint presentations, Flash animation and QuickTime movie clips. When I visited, he was keen to play with his latest toy, a camera rigged up to project close-up views of demonstrations. Pupils appreciate the clearer presentation and also note that "Mr Smith doesn't have to get out of his chair".

Pupils can access course material through the school intranet or from home over the internet (at least 80 per cent have internet access) or by taking away a CD. For him, the quality of resources is paramount. "We've got to change the job description of teachers so we are presenters of good quality resources. If resources are good, the job is easier. Teachers should not always be making do, making resources on the hoof."

His innovative high-tech approach is not just proven in exam results - although he has helped pupils of all abilities to achieve - it is being able to share quality resources. His CD can help non-specialist staff drafted in to teach physics by giving them a structure. Specialists can use it too, just picking the bits they fancy. Bringing in the new at Greensward has not been painless though. A lot of science equipment that was in cupboards gathering dust had to be sacrificed. He admits: "It breaks your heart to throw stuff out but it has got to be done."

He formerly worked in the petroleum industry as a seismic engineer. Even though as an AST he is paid more than the average teacher, he was better off financially doing seismics. But, he says, "teaching easily beats trolleying up to the city and spending hours and hours in the car".

David Smith fancies teaching abroad at some stage, so his own children "can grow up somewhere different".

HELEN Pollard is an advanced-skills teacher at The King's School comprehensive in Peterborough and happily admits that getting the award was "one of those hit or miss things". Unknown to her, a former pupil put forward her name. Learning she was a winner was an exciting moment, as was being presented with the award by eminent physicist Frank Close - a former King's pupil - at the school during Science Week in March.

Helen Pollard has taught in a variety of schools and says she cannot pinpoint the secret of her success. But her enthusiasm for the subject is clear and her achievement is demonstrated by the popularity of physics at the King's.

She says that relevance is the key and tries to create an atmosphere such that pupils want to bring in newspaper cuttings, talk about science they have seen on television or bring things in to ask how they work. She is not afraid to side-track or have a lesson plan hijacked if the detour is productive. For her it does not matter if something is on the syllabus or not: "Go there if it's interesting."

A major concern is the amount of time needed to prepare for practical work. Because technician time is in short supply she worries that science teachers end up trying to do two jobs at once. She shares her expertise with student teachers through her involvement in initial teacher training and relishes the chance to get out to other schools.

* Entries for the 2002 awards should reach the Institute of Physics by November 30. More nominations for primary teachers are welcomed. See web: for details.

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