Why I became a teacher: I’m on a mission to change education in Brazil

Science teacher and deputy head Phil Hawkins joined teaching to make a difference. He’s now in Brazil, working to transform its education system. This is from the Guardian…

Over the years, my friends and family kept telling me I should be a teacher. It started to resonate with me. I’ve got a bit of a thing about being part of a solution, shaping lives and promoting democracy. I wanted something more. In July I got a place on the PGCE course at St Mary’s College to start that September. So very quickly I found myself with my wages and company car gone, doing a PGCE. I really found my sweet spot. I found I loved teaching.

I got a job at Ashburton High in Croydon, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was a really tough school. I was teaching all the sciences but was most interested in the pastoral side of things, dealing with the challenging children. I was promoted to head of year. Then the new Labour government named and shamed the worst 18 schools in the country. Ashburton was on the list. It was devastating. We had our first Ofsted inspection, then went into special measures. It was a nightmare but I was determined to stick with the school because of the relationships with the kids, and a fierce loyalty to my colleagues. The kids were rough diamonds really, they’d been let down by adults all their lives so naturally they were in your face, but when you formed that bond with them, the intensity was amazing. I wanted to be there until we had come out of special measures. There was an inspection every term and massive pressure.

In 1999 I moved to Woodcote High School in Purley as head of year. It’s a true comprehensive school with a massive range of kids, a great place to teach. After a couple of years I became deputy head and got really involved in curriculum development. I did a lot of work with National Strategies and joined PiXL. Our results were on the rise and that got us noticed by other schools. Experience proved the best way to improve was showing best practice within a peer setting. Our school got invited to become part of the Good to Great Programme and that was the best professional development. Heads and deputies all from similar schools had an instant connection. It was a really pivotal experience in my life and prepared me for what was to come.

In 2001 my wife and I went to Brazil with some friends for the summer. We stayed with Brazilian families in Vitoria, off the beaten tourist track. The family we stayed with had teenagers and being the saddo I am, I asked them all about school, they invited me to visit. I went the next day with no permission from any teachers or the school. I was shocked by what I saw – 80 children packed into a classroom that was boiling hot. The learning was completely passive. The teacher was writing on a chalkboard in the front of the class from a textbook. I spoke to the teachers – morale was terrible. The pay was awful. One teacher worked all day at school and then as a pizza waiter in the evening. I thought how can you do your job? Children in Brazil either go to school from 7-11.30 or 1-6 and most teachers do the whole day, sometimes in two different schools. I spoke to the kids, they were sparky, full of opinion. More than half Brazilian state school children drop out. Brazil’s education is in crisis. I was emotionally moved. While we were flying home, it sounds like a cliche but I felt a calling to do something about it. I resolved to find an NGO in the UK doing education development in Brazil so I could help. But my research came to nothing. There were charities working in Brazil with street kids but nothing this level up.

My wife was pregnant with our first child so my ideas had to stay on the back burner. Then in 2005 I spent the summer in Brazil. I visited loads of schools, LEAs and teachers. Brazil is a very relational culture. Everyone knew someone else I could meet and the doors were opened to me. I was hearing the same testimonies up and down the land. I thought of all the national strategies I’d been engaged with – what would work in this geography? Would would be worth adapting? In summer 2006 a friend and fellow teacher Ben Cole from Heathside School came with me. We had loads of resources prepared and were speaking at an education conference with 4,000 teachers. But all the schools had been closed due to swine flu. One of the speakers was the minister of education. He was really interested in what we were doing and invited us to Brasilia to meet his team. We found that the national objective of the government had been to get every child into school, and largely they had done it. Their next objective was to look at quality. There was a real moment of connectivity.

So we formed a charity Aprender, which is the Portuguese verb to learn. Partnership was the key for us, we desperately wanted to avoid an imperial “we’re here to show natives what to do” approach. We found the teachers had such a thirst for practical strategies and were so open to ideas. But I realised we couldn’t really do enough just coming every summer. My head agreed to give me a two year sabbatical from my job and my family and I moved here in August 2010.

Now I’m actually here I’ve been able to get so much done. Working in lots of different schools, doing active learning, running workshops, helping teachers believe they can change the way things are. We’ve started a support school here in Goiania in September. I recruited the head, an ordinary teacher I met here with a big heart. I did a crash NVQH and PGCE course with him and he has recruited and trained the other teachers to teach in a UK-style school with proper lesson plans and schemes of work with the focus on active learning and engaging kids. It’s in total contrast to the state school norm here in Brazil. Ultimately our goal is to change Brazil’s education system.

In April this year we had to make a decision to cut off the umbilical cord to the UK and my sabbatical ended. It was hard to give up my deputy head job, my pension, my security but I feel so much that it’s the right thing.

If teachers reading this are interested and wanted to come out in August and run workshops and observations that would be awesome. Teaching in a poorer culture changes your perspective on your normal job. It relights your fire, gives you a different perspective. When you’ve had a bad day it’s an oasis to think of that amazing experience you’ve had and you can crack on changing people’s lives either in the UK or elsewhere.

More at:  Why I became a teacher: I’m on a mission to change education in Brazil

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