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Since January 2008 I have been ever so fortunate to work for Middlesbrough Council as a casual museum assistant, education assistant and gallery assistant at the Dorman Museum, Captain Cook Birthplace Museum and Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. It has been one of those rare jobs to marry both my enthusiasms, abilities and need for encouragement. With excellent managers at those venues I have been able to grow my experience, dabble in different areas of my passion for history and help wherever I could. One of my most regular duties is covering lunch at the Museums shops and today at the Dorman Museum we had a visitor I thought I would tell you about.

One of our venerable elder gentlemen from the community had been on one of his regular walks through the fantastic Albert Park beside the Dorman Museum recently when he had stumbled across a dull coin sticking out of the ground. On closer inspection, holding it to the light, it turned out to be a Penny coin from the reign of Queen Victoria and minted in 1898. This was of interest to the man as he had recently read an article on the spectacular fountain in the center of Albert Park which he thought had been presented in 1898. After getting home I’ve since found that it was actually presented in 1869 by Joseph Pease but that does not undermine the coins discovery at all.

Whilst it may not be linked to the fountain, the coins discovery beside a tree and lack of damage suggests that it had indeed been planted with the tree over a century ago. Sitting there under the ground, unchanging whilst all around changed with the decades, the two world wars, the refurbishment of the park. Completely undisturbed until the roots of the tree it had been buried with finally pushed it up out of the dirt. It is a rather nice potential narrative of the coin and one that ties it to the local history of the area. Someone buried that coin for a reason, maybe for luck, maybe for remembrance.

The supposed burial of the coin, if it indeed happened shortly after it went into circulation will have coincided closely with Queen Victoria’s Diamond jubilee, the Empress of India had been on the throne for sixty years and had surpassed George III as the longest reigning British monarch in 1896.  A possible alternative is that the coin was buried under a tree after the death of Victoria in January 1901. Whatever the reasoning, the coin laid undisturbed for at least a century, a suitable tribute befitting a monarch of such longevity. It has now been kindly donated to the Dorman Museum by the gentleman, which will make a decision on whether to keep it in their collections.

Do you have any memories of Albert Park you would like to share in the comments below?

And if you have not been to Albert Park in recent years, take advantage of this good weather and go enjoy an afternoon there now!

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I haven’t kept the blog regularly updated recently but I have good reasons. I just moved into a flat two weeks ago and have been without internet for a while. On top of that I seem to be working all the time at the absolutely fabulous Dorman and Captain Cook Birthplace Museums and recently the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. So you will let me off the hook?

Today I would like to talk about art. I am not artistic – I am creative. I am I guess an ideas man, able to see the big picture but struggle with the details. As a result plotting stories I can do all day long, painting the eiffel tower I can’t. We tend to dislike that which we struggle with. Yet I have regularly told my fiancé that one day (dreamy sequence..) I will take up painting in our czech log cabin. I recognize the relaxing aspects of art, music, writing, cooking. Since my problems with anxiety and depression I have moved to include avenues to relax in my day to day life – buying a guitar, cookery books, adapting a graphic novel idea to novella format – painting was another avenue but for the future. Well on Valentines Day this year, my sweetheart gave me an acrylic painting starter set and told me simply – “Why wait?”

The result of my first experiment is attached for you all to see. So okay, the Great Artists have nothing to fear from me. But it was a first go, and was fun. I have a target painting that I might mention in another post, which I am gradually trying to build my skills before attempting. Its a project and that’s good for me.

Art has grown into my life in more ways recently after being given the chance to work as a Gallery Assistant for the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Now my idea of art has always been the traditional landscapes and portraits. A string of lights by Felix Gonzales isn’t art, its a crime against the environment burning energy and costing taxpayers. What does a room of monochrome pages offer as art? Nothing to me. And the physical construction of a hospital day room inside an art gallery? Now we are wasting time!

Perhaps it has been the weeks I have spent staring at them lately as part of my job… But my opinion is changing. I now recognize it as art, understand what the artists intentions are after listening to people chat about it and watching educators with school groups. I still may not like it, but I’ll acknowledge it as art. One persons ‘modern art’ I have grown to really like has been that of Anish Kapoor. He likes to play with space, illusions almost, and uses pigment and mirrors in a lot of his works.

I worked the launch evening (invite only) of Mr Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmonds TENEMOS public exhibit at MIMA. The giant funnel/web like sculpture stands over the Middlehaven Dock site in Middlesbrough transforming the visual landscape. I will take photos when I have a day off. They gave a fascinating insight into their work relating it to the ancient greeks (as a historian I instantly became more interested) obsession with geometry. If I had been taught by an artist or engineering teacher like Cecil Balmond, there’s no doubt what discipline I would have followed. He was such an inspiration over an hours talk, highlighting the limitless possibilities. I recommend you google both men and check out their works yourself. Teesside isn’t finished with them yet as they are committed to producing another 4 giant sculptures for the region over 15 years.

Part of the problem people have with modern art is its need in some ways for an interpreter. Landscape paintings do not need explanations, you look and understand immediately. Modern art, abstract and sculptural is produced in such a closed world that the average joe may not have the tools to fully experience it intellectually. As a gallery assistant part of my job is to talk to people and guide them if they want me to, in order to understand what the artist is attempting and then to make their own interpretation. Alongside my teaching, this work has surprisingly become some of the most fulfilling work I have done.

What is art? An excitable little german lady asked me looking at the monochrome watercolours. She continued:

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to think of this. I know I respect it. It is art, it is art. But I cannot say I know what art is”

Neither can I. But we stood talking for twenty minutes. Maybe that, after all, is the point of art.

I would like to start posting the occasional blog about education as a means of self reflection and possibly canvassing opinions. As you may be aware I am currently studying for my PGCE in Further Education (teaching students from 16 to adult) and volunteering as a history teacher in a secondary school. I earn a little pocket money doing cover supervisor work around the north east.

My first topic is a bit of a taboo and revolves around this central question: When do you give up on a student? By the hushed silence and/or deafening protest (depending on your disposition) I’m assuming your response is to say “Never.”

Is that not premature? Is there a case to be made that sacrifices must be made for the benefit of the majority? I will use an example. A colleague took over a bottom set GCSE class. They were not expected to even take the exams and the teacher was told that they would be successful just to get anything out of them. All students were listed with moderate learning difficulties which translated for a good half of the class as serious behaviour problems. Violence, obscene language, bullying (of staff and students) and outright hostility towards staff charecterise the daily lessons.

Yet, the teacher had success. The students are now all being entered for the exams and coursework and the teacher believes they can get E or above grade – which is better than nothing. Several students have even earned merits in recognition of improved behaviour and understanding. A real sense of positivity is taking hold where previously the students all knew they were the idiot class (the word scribbled on an excercise book is a lot stronger).

Only two students remain a major problem. Very disruptive, they rarely stay in class – getting removed by senior management for isolation. Now it is revision time and these two have shown no interest at all in passing and have hurled abuse at female members of staff. With two weeks to the exam would it be too unthinkable to cut losses on those two students – transfer them elsewhere during the revision lessons so the teacher can have productive vital help sessions with those who want to try their best and prove everyone who said they would get nothing wrong?

The same revision material is provided to the bad apples, just their disruptive influence is withdrawn for the last crucial fortnight.

What do you think? Is it an abandonment? An act of realism? Should the teacher feel they have failed in someway?

Low confidence holds students back

I am currently training on a two-year PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) for Further Education. I would be able to teach everybody who was over 16yrs old. Generally this tends to be teaching GCSEs and A Levels to adults who for one reason or another failed to get them the first time round or those who didn’t want to stay on at school for 6th Form. “Get out now whilst you still can!” was probably their thinking process. As part of this training I have a placement at a local secondary school teaching a challenging GCSE class and a highly
motivated high ability A level class.

The process of qualifying as a teacher involves doing theory and essays on the one hand and demonstrating good practice on the other. I’ve been observed by my mentor and tutors now six times with the first two being graded Satisfactory and the last four being Good. I was frustratingly close to an outstanding grading recently and remain convinced that it is a mythical target and nobody ever gets one (Have you? Tell us about it in the Comments).

It is very much sink or swim with teaching. There are skills you learn for classroom management and teaching but I feel you must have a certain disposition to be able to survive the pressure cooker. When I was getting my first taste of teaching (a 3 week placement 2 years ago) I turned up like the rabbit in the headlights, a nervous wreck. A woman also on the course was the complete opposite. Fully prepared and confident. Then she entered the classroom and the reality knocked her. She had left by the end of that first week, and I’m still here. You never know how you are going to fare till you try it. From my perspective it’s helped to see other respected teachers struggling with some students and having hugely productive sessions with others. In other words it wasn’t just me having problems!

When it comes to students one unifying theme has become apparent since I started teaching. Regardless of ability confidence is key. A terribly behaved student can have total confidence in himself and rattle off the answers to your questions (when you finally get his attention). Likewise an excellent A grade student can suddenly see their marks and attention slipping because their confidence has been knocked. They haven’t been lobotomized, they are still the same bright pupil, they just don’t trust themselves any more.

One of my often repeated mantras in class is TRUST YOURSELF. Lower set students often stay quiet or cause problems because they are embarrased about not knowing for sure what the answer is/work means. Often they’ll start giving you the right answer and clam up suddenly scared because the teachers staring at you with a proud smile on his face. Confidence is such a delicate business.

It also takes time to build up. That’s why we do some activities repeatedly disguised with a different question or title. I have one student who for the entire autumn term barely spoke and never volunteered answers. This student has very poor literacy and was scared of reading in class. Now because I have not let her hide and have praised her for small things, she is forever shouting answers out and not complaining when I ask her to try to read something aloud. She is still the same person who came into class last september, she hasn’t had a ‘gestalt’ moment – she just trusts herself more. Confidence has grown.

As educators we have subjects to teach. A discipline to expound which is MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING ELSE! This is all true, but at the end of the day we are supposed to be helping to build good, productive, motivated people. Learning never stops and our students must be given the basics of interpersonal skills (a huge problem in some schools) and self-esteem for when they enter the so-called real world.

Have you had an experience that hurt your confidence and maybe derailed your education? Or was a particular teacher so inspirational that you excelled in a subject you previously struggled in? Share your stories in the comments below.

Themes of Interest