He reminds me of James Hilton's Mr. Chips...a dedicated teacher over the decades.
"Teaching chemistry is my career and my hobby"
Jim Baker went into teaching because he enjoyed passing on his knowledge. After 42 years, despite how much the profession has changed, he's not ready to switch off the bunsen burner yet
March 3rd, 2013
My own chemistry teacher from Swanwick Hall Grammar School, my great mentor Tom Cook, advised me to become a teacher. I remember him telling me about friends who'd gone into industry who looked more haggard than he did – something that might not necessarily be true nowadays.
I studied specialised chemistry at Sheffield University and I loved it but at the end of the day I'm a people person and I just couldn't see myself in a lab working on my own. So after my degree I did a year's diploma in education.
I remember my professor of education telling us: "You are entering teaching at a very interesting time." And how right he was. Of course he couldn't have foreseen all the many changes, but in the course of my career, teaching has changed radically.
I started teaching in 1970. I've been teaching for so long that in 2008 one lad told me I had taught his grandad. I remembered him too; I've taught thousands of pupils but I'm usually able to remember their names and faces.
When I started teaching, all pupils would be taught chemistry by a chemistry graduate, physics by a physics graduate and biology by a biology graduate. The problem now is that everyone has to do science and there aren't enough specialists to teach them. There are people teaching chemistry who don't know much about the subject.
In my travels I have seen trainee teachers who have done A-levels in psychology and photography and they are becoming secondary science teachers. But children won't be inspired if their teachers are only one step ahead of them in knowledge of the subject.
I retired from full-time work in August 2008 after teaching in the same school, Lincoln Christ's Hospital School, for 38 years. I was head of chemistry and deputy head of science in charge of behaviour management when I retired.
People say you should be moving every two years to get progression, aiming I suppose to get out of the classroom. But I went into teaching because I liked being with people and passing on my knowledge: that's why I became a classroom teacher and that's why I stayed one.
You might think I'd get fed up in the same school as a classroom teacher, but I didn't because every class and child is different. I've found children learn when it's fun and they want to be there so I became a bit of an entertainer in the classroom – it's no good having the subject knowledge if you can't explain it. For me teaching is all about relationships. If you can't build relationships with students, and they don't want to be in your class, no matter what else you do, it's wasted.
In 1997 I got to the final 13 in the Salter's Chemistry Teacher of the Year award. Three years after that one of my lessons was judged by Ofsted to be unsatisfactory. It was probably the worst day of my life. My head couldn't believe it and he asked for another lesson to be observed. The head of science pointed out the high A-level results of my students, but the Ofsted inspector gave the second lesson a satisfactory. She criticised me for doing forces with my students because they are supposed to learn that in primary school. I was so happy that my head and head of department stood by me but it was a horrible, horrible day.
The great thing about being semi-retired now is that I can say what I like. After 42 years teaching I think that the key to being a good teacher has to be developing strong relationships with the children. I also know my subject inside out: I almost daren't say this but I don't plan lessons. I just go in and know what I need to teach. Some of the trainees tell me they've been advised not to smile until Christmas, but I ask them what sort of people do you want to be around? People that are fun and have a good time – the children are no different. If you walk in with a smile, they will feel positive about their learning. Trouble is, there's so much pressure on teachers now that they're tired when they walk into the classroom.
After I retired, my old head of science at Christ's, went to be head of house at St Peter's and St Paul's Catholic High School. He asked if I would give his chemistry teacher some help and, when she went part-time, I started teaching A and AS-level chemistry one day a week. I only teach part of the course but after applying my methods the AS pass rate has improved so they've given me another year's contract.
I teach the things I want to do, my way. It works and I feel sorry for the rest of the staff who can't have this freedom. Often schools with badly behaved children arrange for these kids to be absent when the Ofsted inspectors come around and the school say they'll do the same with me. It's almost funny but in fact it's deadly serious. Things are changing so quickly and teachers are so busy they don't have time to sit back and think about it. But if I were the chief executive of a company in which 50% of my employees left in the first three years I'd seriously review my policies – yet that's what's happening with maths and science teachers.
I soon realised the huge value of modern technology and set up my website back in 1998 in the early days of the internet. I heard about twiducate and now all my year 12 and 13 chemists use it to keep in touch with me and access my resources. They can post their questions and I can answer them.
My students can also email me their questions when they need to know the answers, usually in the evenings or weekends. It takes me ten minutes to answer them while I'm relaxing with a cup of coffee, far better than being chased down the corridor in the school day when there's no time to talk.
Teaching chemistry is my career and my hobby so why should I stop? Statistically teachers working on the frontline tend to have a low life expectancy once they retire, so I don't dare.