Helen Reynolds

After studying physics at Oxford I decided to do a PGCE and then started teaching at Gosford Hill School in Kidlington.

I was quite adamant at the time that I would only spend two years there before moving on to another school, hopefully as a Head of Physics. In the event I was promoted to Head of Physics after one year and stayed at Gosford Hill for the next 21 years. During that time I tried lots of different jobs – Deputy Head of Sixth Form, Vocational Courses Co-ordinator, Website Manager. As well as different roles within the school, I worked with QCA, the Institute of Physics, the TTA  and others on curriculum development, policy development and teacher recruitment.  It was great fun being part of a group of teachers that developed the IoP’s innovative A level Advancing Physics, and being involved in the development of the National Curriculum.

I have always been passionate about public engagement. In 2002 I gave one of the Science Year lectures and throughout my career have enjoyed giving talks and lectures to a wide range of audiences. As Head of Science I developed a format for evening events called ‘The Science Of….’. Over 250 students, parents and members of the local community attended The Science of Magic to see all of the exciting science experiments that look like magic.

But the first people that need to engage are the students in your class and I discovered, more by luck than judgement I have to say, the power of bringing toys into the classroom. So now in my new role as a Teaching and Learning Coach for the Institute of Physics  I talk to other teachers about “Using toys to teach people physics”… and of course the most important word in the title of that workshop is ‘people’.

What was your first degree and where did you study?

I grew up in Cornwall and went to a small comprehensive school that at that time had only 30 students in the Sixth Form. I chose to study physics because of my physics teacher, Mr Ashworth. He was the kind of teacher that told lots of stories, and he showed his enthusiasm and love of the subject in all that he did. My maths teachers went to Oxford and encouraged me to apply so I came to Oxford to study physics at The Queen’s College in 1983. I still remember that interview day – it was the first time that I had ever been to Oxford, unlike today’s young people who visit every place that they apply to.

Why did you choose to study at OUDE?

The internship scheme was in its infancy when I started my PGCE at what was then Oxford University Department of Educational Studies. The idea of spending time in school throughout the year rather than blocks of time was really helpful because it gave you better idea of the shape of the school year. The partnership between the school and the department was very strong and remains one of the key features of the PGCE at OUDE.  Now that I have been working on the other side of the fence as a mentor I can see why staff at Gosford used to comment that if an NQT started who had been trained at OUDE it felt like they had already been teaching for 18 months. What I didn’t appreciate when I applied was how many wonderful people I would meet and work with, people such as Richard Pring, Hazel Hagger and Ann Childs.

What is your favourite memory from your time at OUDE?

I remember the time that my mentor said ‘OK, you are ready for your first lesson’ and sent me off to plan a lesson on surface tension with what was then a second year class. I absolutely loved it and knew from that point that I wouldn’t do anything else.  My mentor was instrumental in finding me the job at Gosford Hill, for which I am extremely grateful given the fantastic time that I had there. I think it is safe to say that it has not been so much of a job as a hobby for which I have been fortunate enough to be paid!

Working with Brian Woolnough was a real highlight for me. He taught me not to make assumptions about how things are done but to think carefully about the purpose of, for example, practical work. It was really interesting to be involved in the development of the Teaching Physics in Schools option, a course that physics undergraduates in their second year can take as an alternative to practical work. This was many years before the Science Ambassadors scheme and it was brilliant to see so many of those undergraduates choosing to teach. One of them even became Head of Physics at Gosford!

Who in your professional life has inspired you?

The first headteacher that I worked with taught Further Maths, and we would talk a great deal about the students that we taught. His passion for maths and for raising the aspirations of all the students in the school was inspirational. The person who made a very deep impression on me was Professor Jon Ogborn. I worked with him on many projects such as the development of Advancing Physics and the Beyond 2000 seminar series. He had a belief that it was possible for everyone to experience the awe and wonder of physics, something that I have always carried with me. So many of the teachers that I have worked with have been inspirational and my time in teaching would not have been so enjoyable without them. I remember walking into a lesson where a very young teacher was sitting with a dyslexic student. She had managed where many others had failed to engage him with reading and he called me over to read to me what he had just written. When he had finished he looked up and beamed at me. Now that is inspirational.

Looking back at your professional achievements, what are you most proud of?

Without a doubt I am most proud of all the students that I taught, particularly those who struggled to understand the subject but persevered nevertheless. It is the best thing in the world when they contact you after many years to tell you how they have made themselves a career, even if it did not involve science! Working at the same school for such a long time meant that I got to know whole families within the community and I am proud of the relationships what we built up with them as a science department. And seeing those interns and NQTs thrive and go on to be fantastic teachers.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of taking up a career in education today?  And perhaps especially what advice would you give to a young teacher who is finishing their PGCE in our department?

To those thinking of going into education I would say …

If you do you will really understand what it means to make a difference. When you show your passion for your subject the students understand why learning that subject is important, and there is nothing quite as fulfilling as seeing that ‘ahh’ moment when they understand.

To those finishing their PGCE I would say…

  • Don’t do as you are told.
  • Support a football team. Nothing beats knowing about football when it comes to getting teenage boys to work.
  • Never underestimate what people will do for smarties.
  • Buy lots of toys and leave them lying around.
  • Have fun! The more fun you have the fun they will have.