Thursday, 21 September 2017

My Life as a Serial Quitter

Those of you that know me will be aware that I recently quit my job at Aberystwyth University to go and take up a post on a graduate training placement as a school teacher at Penglais School. You will also probably be aware that I lasted for only 10 days at school. Some of you might be interested to know how/why this came about. If not then stop reading here...

Why did I quit being a lecturer?
It's a long list. The overall reason was my growing dislike for what I was turning into (gradually getting more and more grumpy and less and less enthused). Underlying this was the way that the job was changing and the overall feel of the university. I would like to stress that I still think that the Computer Science department at Aberystwyth is full of great people who are trying really hard to do as good a job as possible. It's just that there are lots of weird and wonderful obstacles being put in their way. A few specifics:

  1. Mauritius. The Mauritius adventure that Aberystwyth University has embarked upon is so ridiculously ill-thought-through that it makes me want to cry. For many years we taught (successfully) an MSc program in Singapore. I never liked it much for reasons that are not relevant here, but at least it was properly managed, had significant numbers of students and paid for itself. No-one seems to have taken this experience into account when setting up Mauritius which has resulted in, what is in my opinion a disastrous commitment. The impact on workload and staff morale (at least in Computer Science where there are a only small handful of students enrolled in Mauritius) is enormous. I have never seen a definitive count of the number of students in each cohort, but I'm almost certain it is in single figures for every year of recruitment (onto Computer Science). Flying people back and forth to teach a tiny number of students has significant impacts on teaching quality and workloads in Aberystwyth too.
  2. Tell Us Now. Tell Us Now was conceived as a way for students to give immediate feedback on how their education was progressing and on any issues that they felt needed addressing. The idea is simple and reasonable, but the implementation was awful. In the early stages anonymous comments were being passed on directly to staff members, even when they were outrageous and verging on libel and racism. The fervour for the project and the way that it was implemented left many staff  feeling discouraged and defensive about their teaching. This included people who had received awards for their teaching from the students in the same (or previous?) year. The "traffic-light" system for the (conflated in my mind) MEQs meant that almost everyone got amber or red and was made to feel inadequate.
  3. Research. I realized after a long time that more and more of the research that I was doing was not really because I thought it was of fundamental value or importance, but because I knew that I could get the funding to do it. It's always been a bit like this: you chase those ideas that look "fundable", but when you get them you try to squeeze in bits of work that are more exciting
    and interesting. I just ran out of energy for trying to do this any more.
  4. Time Pressure. Pressure on time has always been there, and a few years ago I went down to 4 days per week to try to maintain my sanity. Unfortunately it became increasingly difficult to stop work commitments from devouring the one day per week that this was supposed to preserve for other things. After an unsuccessful attempt to get put back on to full pay (5 days per week) I finally admitted to myself that I wanted to get out before I hit the mental buffers again.
There are many other lesser things, like being expected to take on significant responsibilities (such as health and safety) that I did not have the training or time to address properly, but I think that those are present in so many jobs that they are perhaps less significant.

Why school and why did I quit?
My kids are currently going through school, and whilst many of the teachers seem to be committed and keen to do the best that they can, some of what happens to them seems very odd. I was keen to see how and why these things were happening and to try to do my little bit to make things a little bit better. Naive? Me? Yes. The example of something that I didn't understand (and still don't) that I often recount is the occasion when my daughter was given a past GCSE paper to try after only 3 weeks of studying the GCSE course for the subject. Why? I still don't really have an answer, because I only lasted 10 days. But I suppose it's to do with training them to answer exam questions, sometimes at the expense of really getting to enjoy and understand a subject.

Why did I quit? Mainly because I lacked the energy to extract what I needed and wanted from the school. I was signed up for a GTP (graduate training placement). I was told from the outset that it would be hard work and I was prepared for that. As it turned out, the amount of work that I was expected to do was not too bad at all. Preparing for and delivering lessons was perfectly manageable, although I suspect that once homework and marking had properly kicked in it would have been a bit harder to keep up. And when I had moved up from 60% to 100% teaching load harder still, although hopefully I would have been a bit more efficient by then. Still, I don't think that the workload was close to what was expected at the university. This was a (nice) surprise to me. So why? Once again, there were a range of reasons, and I'm not going to detail them in depth here, because I don't want to accidentally release any potentially confidential information. But here are the basics:

  1. There was (almost) no training. I had expected to be given some training in the school. I was given no significant guidance about the day-to-day processes in the school. This included how to use the systems that were in place for dealing with poor behaviour. It was (a very significant) issue related to behaviour management processes that made me decide to walk away. On the whole the children were great and I managed to keep the lid on the classes that I had. There were some people that required more effort than others, but on the whole I felt that it worked ok. I do not however have any external reference for this because nobody observed any of my lessons or gave me any feedback on how I was doing (I taught a total of 19 lessons).
  2. It was not clear what I should teach. I was given a scheme of work spreadsheet which consisted of (mainly) single word topics that should be covered with each group. These were at the level of things like "sequences" or "fractions", so I went off and planned a few lessons in advance on these topics. After giving my first lesson to one class which I shared with another teacher I discovered that the scheme of work had been changed by him so that the topic that I taught was no longer supposed to included. No guidance was given on how long each topic might be expected to take or what aspects of it might be appropriate for each year group or set.
  3. Important information was (very) difficult to get. I tried to get hold of information about various things including the school's child protection policy and the literacy and numeracy framework strategy. I asked a few people and I was given a one pager on the CPP, but it all seemed to be very difficult to get hold of.

There were other issues, such as piles of recycling, old toner cartridges, disused computers etc. lying around in the office, corridors and classrooms, a leaky roof etc. which just smacked of neglect, but I suppose these are just symptomatic of the lack of resources available to the school.

I am not proud of walking away after only 10 days, and I was somewhat unfair on the school in doing so (I didn't give them an opportunity to address the issues), but I just couldn't face having to become the "thorn in the side" that I feel that I have been for so long inside the university. I was hoping to be able to slide unobtrusively into the bottom layer of the school and teach the children without having to stick my head above the parapet too often, but I rapidly came to feel that in order to even meet basic standards (such as adhering to the behaviour policies of the school) I was going to have to start going over people's heads and generally being a nuisance. So I walked away. And conveniently (and true to form for all large organisations) I had not yet been given a contract, so could do so with impunity. I feel guilty for the children that I have left in the lurch and (a little) for the school, but mainly I feel that it was the right decision for me.

Marie has just pointed out that this sounds really miserable. It's not! I am happily tinkering away in my shed (both physical and virtual) to try to get some saleable products together. It's taking some getting used to, but I will de-institutionalize myself and blossom into... something or other!

Postscript: The more astute amongst you will notice that I have not mentioned the school uniform issue. This also irritated me, but was not a significant contributor to my leaving. I continue to believe that it's a red-herring and that it just provides a wonderful focus for lots of time, energy and anger on both sides of the debate. If you are interested in learning more about it then I suggest going to and searching for something like "school uniform academic achievement".

Friday, 3 March 2017

Our Nissan Leaf: experience so far

It's getting on for a year now since we bought our first electric car, an ex-demo Nissan Leaf. So far it's done exactly what we wanted and expected. First and foremost, "it's just a car". It's not some weird experience to get into and drive, you just get in press the button and drive it like any other automatic car. We have had no technical issues with it yet, and it still seems to behave exactly the same way it did when we bought it. I'm not sure how many miles we've done, but it must be around 8,000 I think.


1) It's just a car
2) It gets you to where you want to go
3) It's comfy and quiet
4) It's cheaper to run than our diesel burner (quite a bit cheaper, but sorry no I don't have exact figures)
5) The traction control is pretty good in the snow
6) There is almost nothing to service/worry about servicing
7) It has good ground clearance (which matters where we live)
8) It does 0-60mph in just over 9 seconds (we timed it very precisely using an Android phone stopwatch and the speedometer)


1) People assume that you believe that you are saving the world by driving an electric car
2) People feel the need to point out that the electricity that you use generates carbon dioxide
3) People feel the need to point out that electric cars are crap (even though they've never owned one)
4) It is only capable of doing about 95% of the trips that we do (we drive our other car for the longer trips)
5) There are no fast chargers around Aberystwyth
6) I don't get to drive it much (I usually drive the diesel burner)


I like it. It's cheap to run, and hopefully will be cheap to maintain due to all the complicated bits that are missing (like the engine, clutch and transmission). It's irritating that everyone assumes that you are a naive tree-hugger who doesn't have a clue about anything technical because you own an electric car. It's pretty much the ideal second car as far as I can see: the range limit (about 85 miles if you drive conservatively on hilly Welsh roads) is a bit limiting and precludes it from being our only car, although if there were one or two more public fast chargers around it would be a lot more viable. If it had a range of (say) 200 miles then I think I would be happy to have it as an only car. Nissan say here that this is going to happen soon, but we'll wait for an ex-demo/secondhand one I expect. Please don't bother telling me that I'm an idiot for buying this car, there are many other better reasons for calling me an idiot.