I wrote this as part of a new “About Me” page but I decided it warranted post status.
I grew up and went to school in the town where I still live; Bewdley in Worcestershire. I have always found pretty much everything fascinating and had a real drive to understand things. In fact, I suspect my epitaph will probably read something like “Had more curiosity than fear”. This curiosity and lack of fear led me to read Biochemistry at Bristol University until I ran out of money and transferred to Birmingham for my final year. This is apparently a quite unusual thing to do and as the courses didn’t entirely match up I had to re-do pretty much the entire course. I got through with a 2:1 though and even got 100% on the data-handling paper (which was really the one I had to learn from scratch). My dissertation project was a computer driven tool to help students simulate enzyme kinetics which quite neatly encapsulates virtually the whole of my career since!
After graduating from university I rattled around a bit then decided that education and science were things I cared about so decided to undertake teacher training to become a secondary science teacher with a biology focus (I still don’t know why I didn’t choose chemistry). There are some specific moments that stick out in my memory from this: literally shaking as I did my first lesson; teaching an actual good lesson on genetics; forgetting what should have been simple facts in front of Y12 😔. I pretty much breezed through the pre-experience portion of the PGCE then landed at a local comp. The school itself wasn’t the best and had quite a poor reputation but I felt absolutely at home, joining in with after-school 5-a-side and all the rest of it. I had some ok lessons and at Christmas felt pretty ok about everything. My second placement was a little bit further afield and was in what was on paper, a much better school. For no real reason I can put my finger on though, I never really felt like I belonged there. I had a few silly foot-in-mouth moments like saying “how can anyone find rocks interesting” to my mentor, the deputy head and head of geology! That term and a half was pretty much hell however and became a slow descent into a place where I could not come back from. I did have some good moments, coaching Y7 rugby and a specific practical where we surveyed worms on the school field come to mind, but mostly I just slowly sank. In retrospect I probably could have pulled it back if I’de been a bit more savvy and had asked for help at the right time. I remember doing a lesson on kidney function with Y12 where I was so tired and overwrought I managed to forget all of the names of everything then was told I had to stop as I was harming the kids educations [sobs]. I remember being told “well, I have a two year old and I cope” and the course tutor asking why I hadn’t called for help. [sobs again].
As I fell out of my PGCE I spotted a job as a bench chemist at a local company producing synthetic polypeptides. I managed to get the job and actually quite happily worked there for a few years. I owe a big debt of gratitude to the senior chemist there, Neville, who picked me back up and helped me to enjoy all manner of dangerous chemistry! Being a small company, after a few years I found myself with nowhere to go on the career ladder as I was production manager answering to the MD and found myself wanting a bit more. I reasoned that people with the same job as I had in a bigger company would have a PhD so I applied for a few projects, mostly around structural biology, and managed to get a CASE studentship at Birmingham University NMR department, part of Cancer Sciences, and sponsored by Oxford Instruments Molecular Biotools. This project was to look at a specific instrument, named the Hypersense, and try to optimise its function.
I spent really most of the first year of my PhD learning quantum physics, thanks to my very patient supervisors. I also did manage to characterise some things and got a couple of papers and a conference poster out of it. It was at a conference that we were debating (in a very drunken fashion) some odd features of spectra I had recorded, in particular large negative signals where methyl groups show up. The assumption was that as the machine uses methanol to transfer the sample this signal was an artefact that arose from this but I noticed that the peaks were there even when methanol was not. My drunken theory was that energy was leaking from the rotation of methyl groups into the nuclear system – this idea was widely ridiculed though. When I got back to the lab I decided to test my dubious theory and placed some methanol on its own in my machine. I really expected a totally empty spectrum but to my total amazement got exactly the negative signal I had theorised would be seen by my energy leakage idea. This all lead me down a total rabbit warren of the most complicated physics in existence as far as I could see but after spending the latter two thirds of my PhD trying to understand what was happening I did manage to explain it fairly well. This earned me a couple of first author papers, one in PNAS, and a conference talk. That talk was one of the more surreal experiences of my life where I explained my work to several hundred of the worlds best physicists knowing that a Nobel laureate was sitting in the front row. Then I had random post-docs running up to me and shaking my had telling me “great work” and ended up having breakfast with said Nobel laureate. As far as I can tell, there are still three or four research groups publishing work citing mine so although I found a very very small corner of physics it seems to be a part that has some use somewhere. Unfortunately, Oxford Instruments closed their department down and the credit crunch happened so funding was pretty scarce so I chose to change directions rather than move my family overseas.
I had been funding my way through my PhD by building websites for people and had managed to scale my little agency, MS Internet, to twelve developers. I had an offer for acquisition by a local events company and took that, in part to enable me to put enough time onto my thesis to make sure I actually passed my PhD. While I was there I acted as a tech lead and app developer but was massively bored. I had become a governor at the primary school that my son attended and somehow discovered that ICT lessons were essentially the same pointless nonsense they had been twenty years previously when I had suffered them. I also found the Computing at School group and Naace amongst others and started to get involved. I ended up going into my school and doing a day’s workshop on web development with a far more mixed ability group than I expected. This was a great day, although exhausting, and really propelled me into the CAS machine where I started to look after the link to industry until I was replaced by someone far better qualified.
As my lock-in time was coming to an end I went to a hack-day at Facebook London and ended up building the beginning of a product we named Zammer. The idea behind this was to make revision fun and therefore more effective. I left my acquirers with Zammer and an idea of a new agency that I dubbed TBC Digital and that was going to work around Smart TV. Smart TV never really happened though so it ended up just being mobile, which ended up getting quite good traction. I also started working Howler although I had more of a back-seat role in that.
For a time TBC Digital boomed and we literally couldn’t hire fast enough. We had 1000 sqft in an old mill building in Bewdley and sixteen staff. The monthly wage bill was horrendous! Maybe my heart wasn’t really in it but TBC faltered and despite a valiant effort (for like two years) we eventually had to close it. It was a relief at the end really. I went back to freelance and everything settled down a bit.
I was still bored though.
I occupied myself with building apps and did ok although I was a bit frustrated with it all. I got into martial arts and ended up coaching youth MMA for a couple of years before training for a cage fight (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQw-70bgDTM) which I have to say was an incredible experience! We’re back to the “more curiosity than fear thing again…
After this I decided I aught to settle myself down to just making apps and not fighting vikings. This gave me quite a lot of flexibility though so I started doing a bit more at my school, where I was now chair of governors. We recruited a new head teacher, had some fun and games with the Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3086297/Councillor-withdraws-claims-primary-school-teaching-eight-year-olds-anti-Nick-Clegg-songs-telling-Labour-party-wants-live.html) and all sorts but I found it all quite cathartic. I found myself helping to interview some prospective teachers for two roles at school, one in KS1 and one in UKS2, and thinking I could do better than some. We had had around 50 applications so there was a bit of a process to go through and ended up chatting a fair bit while the head dealt with the usual things. This all brought back to me the experience I’d had in my PGCE and that it wasn’t all bad! Over the next couple of weeks I went through a process of curiosity about teaching to thinking maybe actually I might like to have another go. I came clean with the head and she helped me to gain some experience under the guise of a governor being helpful. I decided that I needed to be in there long enough for the novelty to wear off before I could really say that I wanted to change my entire career so started helping in a Y5/6 class every Friday morning. It wasn’t many weeks before Friday mornings had become the highlight of my week and I was doing more and more. I asked if I could try to teach something and failed horribly! I tried again a couple of weeks later and did far better, to the extent that I decided to apply to do a PGCE in primary with a maths specialism. I ended up running a coding club and helping (participating?) all over the place at school, including doing coding with all of LKS2 and about a thousand school trips. I also took over the redo of the school EYFS outdoor area and pitched in with the computing scheme of work, all of which have been the most enjoyable things ever!
So, I find myself as I write this having burned all my bridges to one career and thoroughly excited about another. It feels a bit like I should have just gotten on with this a long time ago but as cliched as it might be I feel ready to do this now and am looking forward to using everything I have experienced to build exciting, fascinating, fun, thought-provoking and down-right educational lessons 🙂