We ask history graduate Matt Inniss 6 questions about his career as a teacher
Name: Matt Inniss
Degree course: History
Did you always know that you wanted to be a teacher?
The short answer is no! I specialised in economic history and was interested in public policy. After University I found myself on the Civil Service fast stream programme at HM Treasury and I spent almost seven years there. The work was fascinating, but I always felt some frustration. I came to the view that if you want to deliver purposeful change and positively affect people’s lives you should try to do so directly. So I started thinking about the best way I could make a contribution. I’ve always loved history and economics, and I was supremely fortunate in my own youth to have received a great education from skilled, committed and passionate teachers. So that’s what led me back to the classroom. I trained via TeachFirst at Paddington Academy – a remarkable school in West London. Ten years later and I’m still at Paddington, and I also work closely with the central team of our Academy Trust, United Learning.
Why should ambitious Cambridge students consider a career in teaching?
If you want to do something that matters; something that always matters, you should certainly consider teaching. I think of it as the essential profession. You can conceive of that at some lofty, conceptual level – the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another, the re-founding of civilisation passing on the best of what has been thought and said. But at the heart of it, it’s a simple and more personal endeavour. We all need teachers. We all need someone, at some point, to help us draw out the capacities we do not realise we have. We need people with patience, sensitivity and empathy and a passion to share their own depth of knowledge and expertise. I can’t think of a more ambitious thing to do than to dedicate a portion of your professional life to that.
What is the main positive and the main negative aspect of your job?
The very best part of teaching is the students. They are fantastic – curious, enthusiastic, hard-working and thoughtful. It’s a privilege to be the person who introduces them to new ideas and interests. It’s great to see success at the end of the year (exams passed, grades achieved, University places secured), as well as smaller signs of progress which are often more significant – growing self-confidence, for example. The Academy I teach in serves a population with significant socio-economic disadvantages, so great education truly can transform lives. Ten years on, my motivation to teach is as strong as ever.
I think one of the hardest aspects of teaching comes from its universality. Almost everyone went to school at some point. Based on individual experience – good, bad or indifferent – everyone thinks they know exactly what education is all about and what teachers do and should do. But having experienced teaching as a student is very different from actually teaching. This can mean that often the public perception of the job can be ill-informed.
Name three skills which are important to develop before joining the profession…
Communication – subject knowledge is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. You need to learn how to break down ideas; how to simplify; how to engage; how to ‘model’ the solution to a problem; how to address misconceptions; how to build on the prior knowledge and interest of your learners when introducing something new; and how to explain something in multiple different ways when your first explanation hasn’t hit the mark. This is the core skill at the heart of great teaching.
Organisation – a busy secondary teacher will have multiple classes with up to 30 students. That’s a great deal of lessons to plan, books to mark, reports to write, and personal relationships to build and maintain. All teachers develop their own ways to stay on top of the workload, but making sure you know how to plan your half-term, week or day in advance, how to spot the pressure points, how to prioritise what’s important and what’s urgent are all vital skills to build up.
Resilience – many new teachers worry about classroom control, but in my experience the key concern is usually one of maintaining resilience; especially when the workload feels heavy and it seems like your students aren’t making the progress that you would like. You need to be able to remember that progress is sometimes imperceptible. You need to be able to maintain the highest expectations for your students and project confidence in them, whilst maintaining consistency.
There are so many routes into teaching – which would you recommend?
I would certainly look at in-school training programmes, known as ‘School Direct’. Observation is a great way to learn more about life in the classroom from a teacher’s perspective. Afterwards, you can train to teach with a wide range of providers, often partnered with a University PGCE scheme, so that you can gain an academic qualification alongside Qualified Teacher Status. Teaching is a ‘craft’ – you learn by doing it yourself, watching others, and reflecting on feedback.
School Direct schemes come in lots of different shapes and sizes. The most important consideration is the school that you will be training in and the quality of support and mentoring which they provide, both in the initial teacher training year and beyond. I would obviously recommend United Teaching as a great place to start!
Tell us a little bit more about United Learning…
We have schools across the whole of England, teaching over 40,000 students – from Bognor Regis to Carlisle! Our motto is The Best in Everyone so we aim to provide an excellent education, in all aspects, to diverse communities. One unusual aspect of the group is that we straddle the state and independent sectors. The majority of our schools are state academies, but we also have fee-paying independent schools.
United Learning has offered me opportunities that wouldn’t be available within a single school. I’ve been involved in United Teaching (recruiting and training teachers across our group); I’ve helped develop programmes for senior teachers and heads; I’ve led an online course for students simultaneously in Accrington and Northampton; I’ve contributed to school improvement efforts and accountability programmes; developed curriculum resources; and had the chance to be a governor at a newly launched Academy!