In the Autumn of 2013, Emma and I were having a twitter chat via direct message.
“Did you go to Southampton today?” she asked
“I couldn’t – it’s so far and I’ve already been to two events in London this year. We should do something in the North.”
“Let’s do it!” she said. And Northern Rocks was born.
Yesterday, for the third year running, we had 500 teachers coming from every corner of the United Kingdom, to celebrate what it is to teach. And for the third year running, I sit here overawed by the passion, commitment and sheer generosity of spirit that characterises this very special event.
We never have to beg anyone to come to speak. They offer in their droves. And this year, taking on board constructive feedback from last year, we ensured that we had a 50/50 gender split. In fact, in the end, we had slightly more women than men if truth be told, but I won’t apologise for tipping the scales the other way. And we made sure we had BME representation from amazing speakers who completely disprove that it’s somehow difficult to create more inclusive events. But true inclusion is so much more than counting colour or gender. It’s about giving voices to those who might not normally have the opportunity to speak. And so this year, we opened our conference not with a big name, but with a big message. Chris Kilkenny spoke for the first 15 minutes to a silent hall of open mouthed delegates, some of whom were weeping, of the experiences he had growing up in abject poverty with a mother who was a heroin addict in Edinburgh. He spoke of the need for someone to have lifted his head up and given him experiences that would have made him look beyond his community. He pleaded with us to remember that every time we ask for trip money, ingredients money, equipment money, we ensure that the very children who need it the most, are excluded from activities. He told us how he would have loved to take Food Technology at GCSE; how useful it would have been to him. But that he couldn’t because he knew he’d be asked to buy ingredients. He reminded us that those most keen to hide the reality of their poverty, will hide in plain sight, masking truth with clowning or disruptive behaviour. Later he tells me that his overriding memory of childhood was hunger. These days, Chris works with young people like him, doing his best to try to keep them in school and on track. He is paid £14,000 per year. His biggest challenge in life is keeping a roof over the head of his two year old child and making sure he doesn’t go hungry.
Next to him on the panel was Kier Mather – a Year 13 pupil from Hull who spoke with such passion and articulacy about the exam factory experience of school that he felt was ripping creativity out of his life. He told us of a teacher he likes and admires, collapsing in tears with stress in front of her class some weeks ago and how he struggles to understand how any politician can find the workload and pressures teachers face acceptable. I sat next to these two brilliant young men, whose life experiences could not be more different, but who were united in a sense of social justice and I felt such a sense of hope and optimism for the future that it was hard to answer my own questions on the panel.
Natalie Scott, in her lovely blog on NRocks spoke of the “sparkle” that seems to characterise this event over others. That sparkle is in the eyes and smiles of the people who attend. People like Kieran Judge and his dad. I spent Friday morning with Kieran and his cohort of SCITT trainees who I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past year. At the end of our final session, Kieran came over to me and asked if it would be ok if he brought his dad to Northern Rocks. “He retired a few years ago,” he said, “but he loved teaching.”
Throughout the day, as a I walked between sessions, I saw this dad and his lad sitting together in workshops and debates, soaking up the day and a lump came to my throat. Here was a man, four years retired, but still so passionate about education that he’d come to a conference, and it was beautiful to see him sitting with his son, just setting out on his career. They were so full of joy at the end of the day when they came to thank me, that it seemed to me to epitomise what we’ve tried to achieve. Northern Rocks is not just CPD. You don’t need CPD when you’re retired. It’s that and more. It’s a reminder of what we do and why we do it. It’s a reminder that teaching is first and foremost, an altruistic profession, full to the brim of people trying to build a better world. It’s a profession that will never be motivated by targets and performance related pay, but by recognition of the heart and soul work we do and a simple thank you would go a long way. If we really want to keep teachers in the profession, we would do well to remember that.
Thank you to all who came, spoke, attended, played, laughed, cried, danced and thought. Thanks for throwing money into our buckets and making a refugee’s dream of attending university a reality. Thank you for tweeting your excitement and enthusiasm before, during and after the event. I’m sorry the wi-fi wasn’t good, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t need trending affirmation. Your joy was visible from space