Interview with Vanetta Spence, Assistant Vice Principal at Fairfield High School

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We hear a lot about how tough teaching can be. But 14 years into her career at Fairfield High School, Assistant Vice Principal Vanetta Spence says there is no job in the world she’d rather be doing.

Please read on to find out more in this interview with Vanetta…

What was your route into teaching?

As I studied for my degree in biochemistry at UWE Bristol, I realised that I did not want to work in a lab. I was much better with people.

I was considering doing a PGCE when a job came up at Fairfield and I decided to go for it. I worked as an unqualified teacher for a couple of terms until I was the right age to join the Graduate Teacher Programme.

The GTP (the on-the-job training route at that time) was brilliant for me. It allowed me to get into the headspace of being a teacher. I really enjoyed feeling I was part of the school community, rather than coming in and out.

The continuity also meant I could get more involved with school life; I started a science club and took a group to the Stages dance festival.

I did a second school placement for a day a week but other than that I was at FHS. I had an official mentor, a buddy mentor and there were three other GTP trainees here at the same time, so we had a really good network.

Tell us about your early career

In the year after my NQT year, I became a head of department, the Ethnic Minority Achievement team, which worked with students who had just arrived from overseas and who did not have English as their first language.

I had taken an interest in EAL (English as an Additional Language) from the start, shadowing the team in addition to teaching science, and working with the special educational needs teacher, and I had come to realise the vital importance of language acquisition for these students.

I felt ready to apply for the management post a lot earlier because I had been in the school throughout my GTP training.

What happened next?

The head teacher was restructuring and asked me what she should do about my post – and I told her to delete it! I felt that ensuring the progress of EAL students should be a priority for all staff, not just a small team.

By making accelerated English a focus for everybody, and ensuring teachers are comfortable with it, we have got FHS to a position where we do not fear EAL; our staff don’t break down at the thought of a student arriving without any English.

They recognise the powerful impact of building vocabulary and encouraging socialisation.

Did you get a new role?

I was ready for a whole-school responsibility, and led on student voice as I built up my middle leadership skills and qualifications.

Meanwhile, I was teaching RE as well as science. FHS has always had a “can do” culture where it is easy to move disciplines and shadow others to learn about their roles.

I had never thought I would even get to be a head of faculty so I was very nervous when I had an interview for an assistant head post.

I found it very gruelling, but once I got it I knew I would be able to do it. I have taken on various responsibilities over the years – last year it was academic outcomes and now I am Assistant Vice Principal for Outstanding Personal Development, Behaviour and Welfare .

Fourteen years – that’s a long time in the same school

I’ve been in the same school, but there have been many changes, so each time it is a completely different journey. I started at the old school in Montpelier, which had an intake of 100 children a year, then I was involved in the move to Allfoxton Road and the amalgamation with St Thomas More.

They were challenging years. The school is much bigger now and has earned an Ofsted rating of Good with Outstanding features. I am even working alongside some of the people I taught.

I am studying for my NPQH headship qualification – I don’t know where that will lead!

How do you juggle work and home life?

I am lucky to be in a school that really values family. My son Emmanuel is five and my daughter Evie is two.

I have brought them with me to school sports days and I bring them to the school plays and galas. trips, and the head allowed me time off to attend my children’s nativity play. That really helps – I feel supported and valued.

It can be hard, especially when children are very young. I am in school from 8am until 5.30pm and there are often evening meetings, but many staff who are parents work part time and we do all we can to honour their requests; we’re very family-orientated.

I’d urge anyone who is struggling with responsibilities not to be afraid of asking for help and support.

What advice would you give to anyone about to enter teaching?

Don’t go in with preconceived notions. Just because you like kids and have worked with them does not mean you will immmediately relate to them in class.

I am a black teacher but I don’t relate to every black child that walks through the door. Spend time in a school before you start your training so you can dispel some of the myths.

Most of all, be ready to provide creative opportunities for students to enjoy their learning – I often use Music in my Science lessons.

We have had some most unusual teachers being fantastically successful. If you enjoy your subject, the students will sense that.

The pastoral side is important and so are the extra things you bring – the science teacher who plays in a band, the maths teacher who is great on the violin. There are so many opportunities to really enjoy teaching.

So would you recommend the job to others?

Definitely – more people should do it! It can be tough – the marking, the bureaucracy – but it is really rewarding. It is great to meet students years later who have gone on to do fantastic things and to know I was a part of their success. Teaching gets a bad rap – but we have a great laugh!

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If you have ever considered retraining as a teacher you may well be interested to hear that Fairfield High School is currently offering members of the local community the chance to do a one-year PGCE at the school from September 2017.

The opportunity is being organised through the Excalibur Teaching School Alliance in collaboration with Bristol University and Bath Spa University.

If you would like more about the teacher training opportunity please email admintsa@stjohns.wilts.sch.uk or phone 01672 519 555.

You can also find out more information by visiting http://excalibur.org.uk/excalibur-tsa/.

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