Interviews with Teachers: Victoria Hewett

Victoria Hewett, also known as Mrs Humanities, is a twice-nominated UK blog award finalist, teacher and soon to be author. She has been teaching in Kent for six years and is currently subject leader for Geography.

Before that, she was Head of Humanities at a free school. Victoria set up the teacher well-being scheme #Teacher5adayBuddyBox in 2016, which now has over 1,500 participants from across the UK and further afield. She also set up well as Magpied Pedgogy, a website which collates the good practice shared by teachers on Twitter.

Victoria is passionate about teaching and learning as well as teacher and student well-being, and it was absolute pleasure to interview her for our blog.

Thanks for speaking to us, Victoria! Firstly, we’d love to know what made you start your teaching blog?

I started Mrs Humanities shortly after starting a new role at a free school in Kent. At the time I was Head of Humanities and the only subject specialist. I felt quite lonely and needed an opportunity to talk and reflect on my classroom practice with others. I started with the aim of sharing interesting and relevant articles, websites, videos and resources to support the teaching of Humanities subjects and soon found myself sharing my own classroom practice.

How did it feel to be nominated for a blogging award?

I was first nominated in December 2016, then to find out in January 2017 that I’d received enough votes to make it through to the finals was really humbling. The thought that people were actually reading and appreciating what I was sharing meant a lot. It was the pick me up I needed after having a mental breakdown due to work related stress several months earlier.

To be a finalist again this year is exciting. I’m in a much better place mentally so feel I can truly appreciate it and I’m so grateful to all those that voted for my blog (again). Now I’m just really looking forward to the award ceremony on the 20th April.

How did it feel to be nominated for the Kent Teacher of the Year award?

This was a massive surprise. I’ve still no idea who nominated me. I discovered the letter in my pigeon hole at work and was flabbergasted when I read it. The nomination could have come from a colleague, student or friend. I’ve no idea but it meant a huge amount to me. The highly commended letter has pride of place in my happy space in my classroom.

Tell us more about the marking and feedback workshops that you run...

At my last school the marking policy required books to be marked every 4-5 lessons, with diagnostic comments and targets. I taught 14 classes and found myself marking a set of books every evening and a set or two over the weekend.

It got too much alongside all the planning, reports, assessment, and departmental responsibilities so I set about in search of ways was that meant I could reduce my marking workload whilst ensuring students received effective feedback to allow them to progress.

I tried numerous approaches until I found what worked for me and my students. Then when we had an Ofsted inspection in 2016, they highlighted the quality of feedback in my books. Around the same time the Department for Education released the Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking report which supported a lot of what I’d been trying to achieve and gave me a basis for my workshops and presentations.

I first presented on ‘Less is More – Marking with a Purpose’ at Pedgoo Hampshire in September 2016. After discussions with teachers, I found that I appeared to be ahead of the game in changing my approach to marking and that many others wanted to do the same. This spurred me on to present at other events to encourage others to move from marking to feedback.

Since then I’ve presented and led workshops on the topic of ‘Feedback not Marking’ at a variety of events and conferences including Beyond Levels at Canterbury Christchurch University, TMHistoryIcons in Chester, PedagooHampshire (again), Rochdale Teaching and Learning Conference, Cambridge Education Festival and Leicester Teaching and Learning Summer Conference.

Each presentation or workshop has been slightly different but the overall aim is to provide ideas and strategies to help teachers, departments and schools to move from marking policies to feedback policies along with the rationale and research behind such change.

What are the most common question that get asked by the teachers who attend your workshops?

The common questions are always related to time. Most commonly though, it’s how can they mark books without it consuming their lives outside of school?

My first response is to tell them to rebel against the system in place by finding alternatives, and then I offer a choice of strategies that might work for them. I tend to suggest trialling a variety before settling for any specific strategies so they can find what works for them and their students.

You shared on Twitter that you came close to leaving the teaching profession a couple of years ago, what happened? And what changed your mind?

I had a mental breakdown due to work related stress. The workload I was experiencing was too much and there was a lack of support from SLT, having previously been dismissed as being a ‘perfectionist’ and creating the workload myself.

I had managed to ‘deal’ with the quantity of work for two years before it took its toll. In the months leading up to the breakdown, I’d written applications for several jobs outside of teaching but hadn’t sent any. I was too scared of leaving behind the department I’d built up from scratch and devoted so much time and effort to.

It finally got too much when I returned to work on the Monday after the Easter break in 2016 and I couldn’t enter my classroom. I had a panic attack and, to cut a long story short, I cried for what felt like hours and got sent home. I couldn’t go in the next day or the next and was signed off work.

During my time off a vacancy came up at a school nearby. I’d written the application after some encouragement from family but didn’t want to send it. I was scared that firstly the school wouldn’t be any different; secondly, I worried I couldn’t continue teaching with my mind the way it was and thirdly, I felt I wasn’t good enough for the school.

After much encouragement, I submitted the application with seconds to spare before the deadline. I got invited for interview and was offered the job within minutes of leaving the school. The interview day showed me not all schools were the same and I later accepted the job.

I’m incredibly happy that I did; the school is fantastic. I feel leadership recognise the importance of maintaining and supporting staff wellbeing and feel that if such issues were to arise again I’d be supported rather than dismissed.

Tell us more about the book you're writing...

I’m currently writing a book entitled Making it as a Teacher: How to Survive and Thrive in the First Five Years. It’s kind of self-help guide crossed with a teaching and learning book. In the book I’m exploring the challenges of the career, and strategies to overcome them to support and retain new teachers.

It came about after writing a blog post. In July 2017, I reached the end of my first five years in teaching and thankfully didn’t end up as one of the statistics. To reflect on my experience, I wrote a post entitled 5 Years a Teacher after which I was contacted by a representative from Routledge Education and asked if I’d like to submit a proposal.

I agreed as I’m passionate about helping others and have shared my experience of being a teacher and my mental health journey to support those in similar situations. I want the book to do the same. Also having just come out of the first five years of teaching after wanting to leave numerous times, a breakdown, and now finding myself thriving in the profession I feel I can effectively demonstrate why it’s worth staying.

I want other teachers to know there are other options, and there are solutions to many of the challenges they may be facing. Although the book is aimed at new teachers, I think it will help many others.

You juggle a lot of personal projects alongside your teaching, how do you manage it? What does a typical week look like for you?

It might look like I juggle a lot, but in the last year I’ve become very effective at managing my time and working smartly. It took a breakdown to get to this point, but I’ve benefited from the experience.

My usual week consists of working 8am – 6pm. I stay at school to get my work done and barely take anything home in the week. I know this isn’t possible for everyone though.

My evenings are for me (most of the time), I’ve recently started going to the gym twice a week and tend to read, write, or procrastinate for the rest of the evening.

On the weekends, fortunately my husband likes a lie in whilst I’m an early riser so I find weekend mornings to be very productive.

Once a fortnight I’ll spend a Saturday morning matching up participants for my wellbeing scheme #Teacher5adayBuddyBox and then I’ll write a blog post or two before the husband wakes up around 10am. If I’m not doing that I’ll spend the morning writing the book. Sunday mornings are spent planning lessons for the week ahead.

The rest of the weekend is then mine to enjoy.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the wider teaching profession today?

This one is tricky. I think I want to say workload but actually I feel the excessive workloads are often related to the systematic change resulting from government.

There’s also the new GCSE and A Level specs, new grading systems, removal of levels, SATs, etc. These changes all add to the workload for teachers, leaders and schools.

Accountability measures and performance related pay haven’t exactly helped either. They’ve just contributed to the need to record and justify everything we say and do, all too often to explain why certain and regularly unobtainable) targets haven’t been met.

What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

The teaching. I love being in the classroom and talking to my students about Geography. I love seeing them engage with the topic and experiencing their sense of achievement when they ‘get it’. That’s what makes the challenges of the career worthwhile.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about going into the teaching profession?

Experience the classroom before training; give yourself a true insight into teaching but don’t let moaners or the media put you off if it’s really what you want to do. It is hard but with time it does get easier. If you love your subject (or learning in general if opting for Primary) and you want to inspire others to love it too, it is worth it.

If you’re considering teaching because you are unsure of what else to do, don’t do it or at least get sufficient school experience as a TA or other form of support staff before taking the plunge.

If you go for it, my top three tips are

  1. Be organised
  2. Plan learning not lessons
  3. Reflect regularly but don’t punish yourself

If you could say anything to try and inspire anyone to become a teacher, what would you say?

Teaching has given me the confidence to do a lot of things I never would have done. Whilst you mould minds and create learners, students change you, challenge you and inspire you. Embrace that.

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Check out Victoria’s blog here: www.mrshumanities.com

Find out more about the 5 A Day Buddy Box here: www.teacher5adaybuddybox.com

And find Victoria’s collated resources from teachers on Twitter at www.magpiedpedagogy.wordpress.com

If you’re on Twitter, follow Victoria here: @MrsHumanities