Nick Dennis' Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Category: History (page 1 of 3)

Is Rousseau a traditional educator?

As an undergrad student, I was not that impressed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  The phrase, ‘man is born free but everywhere else he is in chains’ seemed too simple a rationalisation for thinking about society. I became less impressed when I learned about his notion of the ‘state of nature’ where humans were uncorrupted and this construction was a  way to think about  how political states should interact in international politics.  I did not enjoy reading his work yet I recognised that he was a complex thinker. Years later (and I completed my teacher training in a university and did not come across his name), Rousseau appears again as a mover in E.D. Hirsch’s thought about what is wrong about education in the USA and as a example of ‘progressive’ educational thought. Rousseau’s work Émile, or On Education, is identified as a key driver in creating a poor intellectual climate for thinking about education, especially in relation to the importance of factual knowledge. Rousseau writes:

No, if nature has given the child this plasticity of brain which fits him to receive every kind of impression, it was not that you should imprint on it the names and dates of kings, the jargon of heraldry, the globe and geography, all those words without present meaning or future use for the child, which flood of words overwhelms his sad and barren childhood.

It seems pretty conclusive that facts (especially the kind I am interested in as a history teacher) are not meaningful to Rousseau. However, accepting this view means ignoring Rousseau’s work that was produced ten years later and published after his death. Considerations on the Government of Poland was Rousseau’s opportunity to put into action his thought as he was asked to provide suggestions as how Poland should be governed. Regarding education, Rousseau had this to say:

I wish that, when he learns to read, he should read about his own land; that at the age of ten he should be familiar with all its products, at twelve with all its provinces, highways, and towns; that at fifteen he should know its whole history, at sixteen all its laws; that in all Poland there should be no great action or famous man of which his heart and memory are not full, and of which he cannot give an account at a moment’s notice. From this you can see that it is not studies of the usual sort, directed by foreigners and priests, that I would like to have children pursue. The law ought to regulate the content, the order and the form of their studies. My emphasis added.

Dates, names, and facts, it seems, are important.

The above highlights the problem with using  Rousseau to represent contemporary ‘progressive’ educational thought because he could also been seen as an advocate of contemporary ‘traditional’ educational thought.

Categorisations that seem clear and coherent in the present are complex and can fall apart when we add history to them.

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Beyond the modern obsession of ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ education

One puzzling aspect of the debate surrounding education on Social Media is starting with the ‘Romantic’ period and blaming Rousseau and his work Emile for the problems in our modern age. The creation of binary opposites from this ‘Romantic’ point has fuelled a wide range of discussions about teachers belonging to one group or another.

I would like to present an anterior history that helps us see beyond the limits imposed by the terms used in the debate by briefly exploring the work of Quintilian. Writing around 95 CE,  Quintilian in the Institutio Oratoria suggested that an effective education should pay attention to the needs of the child:

Yet I am not so unacquainted with differences of age as to think that we should urge those of tender years severely or exact a full complement of work from them. For it will be necessary, above all things, to take care lest the child should conceive a dislike to the application which he cannot yet love, and continue to dread the bitterness which he has once tasted, even beyond the years of infancy. Let his instruction be an amusement to him; let him be questioned and praised; let him never feel pleased that he does not know a thing; and sometimes, if he is unwilling to learn, let another be taught before him, of whom he may be envious. Let him strive for victory now and then, and generally suppose that he gains it; and let his powers be called forth by rewards such as that age prizes.

Institutio Oratoria, Book 1, Chapter 1, 20

In other words, learning should be made pleasurable to the student and that rewards should be given to entice interest. However, this does not mean that there is a lack of rigour:

Some have thought memory to be a mere gift of nature, and to nature, doubtless, it is chiefly owing. But it is strengthened, like all our other faculties, by exercise, and all the study of the orator of which we have been speaking is ineffectual unless the other departments of it be held together by memory as by an animating principle. All knowledge depends on memory, and we shall be taught to no purpose if whatever we hear escapes from us. It is the power of memory that brings before us those multitudes of precedents, laws, judgments, sayings, and facts of which an orator should always have an abundance and which he should always be ready to produce. Accordingly, memory is called, not without reason, the treasury of eloquence.

Institutio Oratoria, Book 11, Chapter 2, 1

The training of memory and the ability to retain facts (through devices such as a ‘Memory Palace’) is an essential part of a good education.

For Quintilian, it was not a case of choice between being child-centred or retaining information through training. Both were needed to provide a good education.

It seems strange that we consistently forget or ignore this fluid thinking about education because of the allure of Enlightenment binaries and the certainty they apparently supply.

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How not to ‘whitewash’

The #RhodesMustFall campaign has been interesting because the main goal to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, imperialist and benefactor, has failed. Equally interesting has been the opposition, which has centred around the seemingly simple argument that one should not ‘whitewash’ history (an interesting choice of words considering the reasoning behind the campaign).

This argument in particular assumes that the history behind monuments and buildings is apparent to everyone. It is not. I have no doubt that many people had no idea who Cecil Rhodes was and what he did when they walked past Oriel College. Without context, the statue presented a limited narrative. The campaigners have called for Oxford to ‘acknowledge and confront its role in the ongoing physical and ideological violence of empire’, and there is a simple way to do this.

Making the complex history of statues/monuments/street names available to all can be done through the technology of iBeacons or QR codes that direct the public to a mobile website/app that offers two interpretations in audio or text format. These can be written by professional historians or by using the network of history teachers across the country. After engaging in the content, listeners/readers can then offer their own interpretation as oral testimony. Rather than ‘whitewashing’ history, it allows people to interact with the past and add their own voices.

Imagine what places like Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Liverpool and London would be like where the history of buildings, streets, monuments and public art speak to you as you walk around. What horrors of the Slave Trade would be revealed? What celebrated achievements would they boast of? What tales of fundamental British values would they make complex? The overlapping and intertwining stories would, for the first time, be available to all as they stood in the physical space. Education, something we seem to agree on as a progressive force in society, would be available to all and at the point of interest.

The costs of such a project would be minimal and it could be done quickly. The public benefit would be enormous and it would allow our society to confront, in a very real way, our history. So rather than threatening to withdraw donations, belittling the students for raising questions and prioritising a single story, let us be open to the voices/spectres of the past and confront the issues. If we don’t, we will simply create a safe space for dissatisfaction and anger.

Interested in the above proposal or think it is unworkable? Get in touch (especially if you are in the heritage sector or Oriel College).

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When writing about history teaching goes very, very wrong.

The Daily Mail’s article, ‘GCSE pupils to be taught that the nation’s earliest inhabitants were Africans who were in Britain before the English‘ marshals an impressive array of commentators apparently condemning the new course as a beacon of all that is wrong with political correctness in education.

The article suggests that the course is attempting to rewrite history, yet the scrupulous appeal for what is ‘right’ does not stretch to their research methods. As they are not trained teachers, they have little understanding of what a specification does or comprehend the role of historical interpretation in reading lists. These lists are put together to stimulate debate and offer an insight into the richness of historical debate surrounding any subject. Reading lists are also useful to teach students that different conclusions can be drawn from the same source material. It is also clear that they have not read the book, because in citing Peter Fryer’s ‘Staying Power’, they suggest that it argues that the Africans stationed by Hadrian’s Wall in the third century AD ‘settled’ in the country. Fryer says no such thing.




Quoting VS Naipaul is meant to support their case but as usual in these matters, Naipaul goes too far comparing the supposed rewriting of history to the work of IS.

The press has a right to question what goes on in schools but not when it is based on deliberate misdirection, a desire to create moral panic and – particularly galling from a history teacher’s point of view – a lack of carefully researched homework.

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Frameworks and narratives

In our first history department meeting last week, we discussed the school’s new approach to ‘Building Learning Power’ and how we could create resources to use the language and ideas to structure planning and work for the students. As we went over key ideas, I recalled some work I had done in 2009 with a Year 9 class and presented to the PGCE students at the University of Cambridge which would fit into the ‘Building Learning Power’ language. I managed to dig the resources up and thought I would share them too. I must stress that the lessons were not designed with ‘Building Learning Power’ in mind but by a focus on subject pedagogy and subject knowledge (from reading Carr’s book again).

At the time, I was struggling to get my students to think about the second-order concept of ‘change and continuity’ and felt that the work I was doing with them at the time really was a ‘march through history’.  After re-reading some work from Ian Dawson, Alan Kelly and Christine Counsell, I went back to Denis Shemilt’s four narrative frameworks for use in history teaching in his chapter ‘The Caliph’s Coin’ from the book ‘Knowing, Teaching & Learning History’:

  1. A chronologically ordered past – events are told in sequence via timelines and with varying degrees of sophistication;
  2. Coherent historical narratives –  where history is presented as a story and historical events have meaning attached to them;
  3. Multidimensional narratives – history is taught through three ‘interlocking and interpreting dimensions; means of production and population history, forms of social organisation, and cultural and intellectual history;
  4. Polythetic narratives – teachers teach history in a way that allows students to understand that truth is constructed and there is no one narrative of the past.

I felt pretty sure that I was good at getting them to think about the first two levels but wanted to stretch them on the last two. An opportunity presented itself when we reached the end of the First World War topic. I had also finished reading E H Carr’s book ‘The Twenty Years’ Crisis’ again, a classic in the field of International Relations. In it, Carr suggest the following:

The main feature of the crisis of the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 was the move from hope in the first ten years to grim despair in the second. E H Carr,

With only two lessons to work with, I wanted the students to challenge Carr’s argument and gain a deeper understanding of how historical narrative is constructed (following Shemilt’s ideas).

Drawing on Ian Dawson’s work on ‘living timelines’, I created three sets of cards representing three European powers at the time. Each card had a ‘crisis rating’ on them and the students were asked to place them chronologically on their own graphs first and then arrange the cards according to the ‘crisis rating’.

Twenty Years' Crisis overview

When placed along the main classroom timeline, students were asked if Carr’s idea of a ‘Twenty Years’ Crisis’ was a valid one. The students were able to see, through the use of the coloured country cards, that Carr’s assertion stemmed from a particular view and the move from ‘hope to despair’ was more aligned with Britain than with Germany.  Students began to grasp that the historical narrative employed by Carr was a indeed a constructed one and could be challenged by examining other countries. This was a major achievement but I wanted to push them a little further in their thinking. Each card had an image which represented a different historical factor such as the Treaty of Versailles (picture of the actual treaty and represented a political factor), the Wall Street Crash and its effects (economic factor represented by a picture of money) and the role of the individual (represented by the green figure).  A close up can be found below.Twenty Years' Crisis card

By tracing these themes on the diagram by focusing on the images on the cards, they were asked to compare their graph of factors against Carr’s assertion. The hope was that by doing so, pupils would gain a  ‘multidimensional narrative’ of International Relations and also an overview of the period. To round it off, a written piece was generated when they wrote to Carr and explained that he needed to take a wider view of the period between 1919 and 1939.

The resources for the lessons can be found here and a video of the events (used as a prompt in the second lesson) can be seen below.

I plan to use the lesson framework with my Year 8 students as we study the Tudors. Any ideas would be very welcome.


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The problem of a single story

Robert Peal’s article in the TES on Friday ‘History’s an adventure – don’t cut it short’ left me feeling slightly bemused. In the piece, Peal argues that current history textbooks lack an extended narrative that is detrimental to exciting students about the stories of our past.

You would be hard pushed to find a stretch of more than 200 words that is not broken by a cartoon, a snippet of “source material” or a “funny fact”. The layout often resembles a magazine, not a book, with short chunks of boxed text designed to cater to the supposedly minimal attention spans of today’s pupils.

Moreover, the apparent attempt to link the past to the experience of the students breaks up the power of the narrative. The downfall is due to the changes in post-Imperial Britain, the move towards encompassing historical skills and the growth of ‘irreverent humour’ in the Horrible Histories series. I don’t doubt that there are KS3 textbooks which are poor having seen/used a number of them myself, yet Peal’s argument resides on two assumptions that are troubling. The first is that textbooks are the best way to tell a story and the second is that a particular narrative should be privileged.

I think Peal expects too much from textbooks or does not comprehend their place in the toolkit of a history teacher. They are a resource which the well-trained teacher can use as a basic standard from which they can innovate (teach). There is a form a recognition at the end of the article when he suggests that he uses them to aid planning yet the thrust is that they are the main teaching tool for conveying a story. Due to the National Curriculum (schools who do not have to follow it choose to do so anyway) and the chronological span and flexibility within a single school year, no KS3 book can adequately cover the variety of topics or narratives available even if there is a series like the Counsell, Byrom and Riley books.

The article then uses the work of RJ Unstead at Primary level to showcase how good a textbook can be when there is a focus on stories rather than sources. What is interesting to note is that Unstead’s books were produced at a time when there were no mandated topics to cover (see David Cannadine’s The Right Kind of History for examples of the very  general guidance given to history teachers at Primary level). In the absence of useful material, Unstead’s books helped to fulfil a need for a ‘good story’. KS3 books operate in a slightly different atmosphere and I question the suggestion that a series of books, located in a particular time and for a particular purpose, can be the panacea for the complex conditions of KS3 history. This is an anachronism that seems to slip by in the critique of the inexact use of culturally and temporally fixed reference points.

The most worrying aspect of the article comes in the section ‘Back to the old school’. Here, Peal explains why Unstead’s book fell from favour:

From the 1970s, Unstead became a figure of fun, mocked for his earnest stories of derring-do and insufficiently critical take on British history. In 1962 he defended his brand of scholarship: “Whereas England has often acted foolishly or badly, her history shows the persistence of ideals which good men have lived by since Alfred’s day.” This was not a fashionable view in post-Imperial Britain.

The crude linkage between an unbroken narrative of high-minded ideals and the disruptive ‘post-Imperial’ condition seems to suggest that the ‘best’ narrative of collective memory in the public sphere has been lost due to the post-colonial condition.  This mourning of a single, linear and progressive narrative in this passage reveals a belief that we (English? British? Western?) learn from our mistakes. I am not so sure of this view when considering the Middle Passage, the treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya or the racism in society that fuelled Imperial Britain and continues in various guises today.  I am not suggesting that these examples, a ‘post-Imperial’ narrative, should replace Unstead’s as the ‘right’ one because the collective memory that we deal with in school classrooms is not a competitive history but a connected one.  Examples of the persistence of great ideals are part of our history but there is also the unsavoury and the unspeakably cruel. No textbook can ever capture this depth and this is where the expertise of the teacher, versed in what Michael Rothberg terms as ‘Multidirectional Memory‘, is vital. To deny these parts of our collective memory for the sake of scoring points against a ‘progressive turn’ in ‘post-Imperial Britain’ shows, at best, a naivety about the multicultural society that we live and teach in.

Stories are important for history teaching. They help us to reveal that even though the past is a different place, the human ‘qualities’ of love, desire, greed, hate, hospitality, vulnerability and altruism can be found and this can be used to create a link between the present and the past for our students.  Yet we should not forget that in a desire to support a particular story, we miss the complexity of our history and the world around us.

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Research notes

I mentioned earlier this year that I was slightly frustrated by talk about educational research in schools. So I decided to do something about it and applied to do a Masters at the University of Oxford. My original plan was to write about the research once it was completed, yet  a wonderful opportunity to discuss some of the issues in relation to History teaching specifically has changed my mind. From November, I will be posting a monthly blog on the Schools History Project website based on the readings/tasks I have been set alongside questions about how the generic/specific educational research used throughout the course might be applicable to a History classroom.  The purpose is not to tell you how to use the research but to engage in a conversation about what it might mean.

If you have any topics you would like to suggest in terms of discussion, please add them in the comments section below.

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Digitising Cultural Heritage

Biblioteca Angelica, Rome

The amazing Biblioteca Angelica, Rome

Last week I spent a day and a half in Rome at the Biblioteca Angelica working with Europeana on digital cultural heritage and education. The Europeana Foundation seeks to create new ways for people to engage with their cultural history, whether it’s for work, learning or pleasure and works with member states of the EU, other countries and cultural heritage institutions across Europe. My brief was simple. I had to make a case to various government officials and cultural institute representatives that allowing the digitising of materials would be of great help to educators (especially History teachers) across Europe.


I started with the view that teachers get blamed for lots of things in society yet what we really want to do (in my view) is to create a sense of connection with the world around us and help students understand people beyond the horizon on their vision.  As a History teacher, I suggested that this is pretty difficult to do when you are limited to source material in your own language and have been provided by the textbook makers. If our job is really to help tell the ‘human’ story, then access to resources from different countries with translations would be incredibly helpful to gain a truly multi-perspective view on significant events such as the First World War. Using Steven Johnson’s idea from ‘Future Perfect’, I suggested that because publishers acted centrally to negotiate rights, the sources available in a ‘home’ language are always limited and ignore the unique and difficult images/texts. If you are brave enough to go beyond this provision in limited time,  you are confronted by an array of problems. Yet if these resources were curated, translated and made free for educators, we would be able to benefit from the ‘distributed’ network of the web. One example of where things worked well was the Europeana site on the First World War. I suggested that the cultural institutions and government departments were ‘choice architects’ in the ‘Nudge‘ mode of thinking and some of the choices they gave us meant that it was very hard to do our jobs (and ultimately what states want).


My second point was much more pragmatic in that it dealt with enabling teachers to access already existing material in collections so we could tell the ‘human’ story. In essence, I asked them to rethink the ‘choice architecture’ they use when working with teachers. I gave the example of the British Museum and its offering of CPD for teachers (£300 for half a day and £500 for a full day). Prices such as these limit the possibility of sharing their cultural heritage expertise and I asked the question whether institutions put funds into outreach with teachers as part of their project budgets. The lack of interaction with teachers also meant that generic learning activities were created, reducing the capacity to educate people about the items museums held. Using the cognitive psychology notion of the illusion of explanatory depth, I asked delegates to turn to the person next to them and explain how a person learns.  The intention was not to embarrass anyone but to show that just because you have an experience of education and think you know it pretty well, your causal knowledge (knowledge about how the world works) about it is poor. An experience of school does not furnish you with complete causal knowledge on learning. Where does retrieval come into it? Research on working memory? Emotional connection and advanced organisers? I used an example of a worksheet from the Smithsonian which was generic in its questions. My point was not to suggest that cultural institutions should neglect learning but to work with people who are steeped in it as the benefits are tangible for all parties. Taking a lesson from ‘Multipliers’, they need to tap into the genius around them. If they worked with educators effectively and provided training, the content knowledge of the institutions would overlap with the pedagogical knowledge of the educators and would create the Pedagogical Content Knowledge that is highly prized. The teachers would also help the institutions devise activities built with a deeper understanding of learning in mind.


My final point was to place the delegates into the context of history and show that the work they were doing started long before they were born. Using Theodor Adorno and Michael Sandel, I suggested that they needed to move away from a limited vision of education and consider the deep roots of the project. Giving examples of Renaissance thinkers and educators, I pointed out that they were part of the cultural ‘gift exchange’ that started in the 1400 and 1500s and this was done without the tools and technology available to delegates today. If we really are interested in ‘cultivating humanity’ through heritage institutions and schools, we really need to move beyond the ‘logic of the market’.

The following day was spent working through draft recommendations and I would like to thank the group that I chaired as they were genial and very efficient!

I would like to thank Jill, Steven, Joke, the Europeana team and our Italian hosts for a very interesting few days.

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Tweaks for the new academic year

R2D2 as the ‘Pomodoro’ master. Image from

This year, I have made a few small adjustments to my teaching. Part of it will link to my research on History teaching and Cognitive Psychology/Behavioural Economics and other aspects are just to ease organisation.

Everyone Starts With An ‘A’

After reading the RSA paper and thinking about the ideas from ‘Nudge‘, I have told all my students that the default grade is an ‘A’. It is their job to maintain it and not to ‘lose’ the grade. Where they submit work below the standard, they are given a ‘not yet’ and then specific help on what they need to do to improve to make an ‘A’ grade.

Short, low-stakes quizzes each week

Again, thinking about repetition and memory retrieval, I have started these quizzes with students from Years 9-12.

Using iTunes U and Google Classroom

I am using iTunes U with my Politics class to organise notes/videos etc. I will also be using Google Classroom with all my students to help with drafting/submission of work as part of the Everyone Starts With An ‘A’ idea.

Email for personal meetings not for questions

After reading this article, I thought the reasoning behind it seemed really sensible. Students in Y9 upwards will only get a reply from me if it is to arrange a meeting to discuss their work (which they must bring along). The benefit will be less time wasted on answering simple questions and more time actually talking to the students about work (which links to Everyone Starts With An ‘A’). My Y7 class is spared this as they think I am scary enough (I am).

Cornell notes

As a student, Cornell notes seemed a really good idea but I never really used the process. After hearing Dale Banham talking about his success with them, I thought I would trial it with my Politics class.

Using the Pomodoro technique

After taking the Coursera Mooc ‘Learning How To Learn‘, I decided to adopt the Pomodoro technique for really focussed work (with the help of my R2D2 timer). I am also suggesting it to students as a way to overcome procrastination.  I do find that I can only use the technique early in the morning before school starts or after students and staff members have gone home at the end of the day.

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Teaching at the Wren Academy – Part 3

Today was my final day at the Wren Academy and as I left the school, I had more questions than answers. This is a good thing.

After my first lesson, Ruth and I had a discussion around differentiation and checking progress in the lesson. On the first point, I do differentiate the work for my students lower down the school yet I do not do as much at A Level (I currently teach Politics to the Sixth Form). This is something that I will consider carefully over the next few months as I prepare to teach Unit 2 AS Politics. On the issue of checking progress, there are a few things to ponder. Many of the ‘progress checks’ I am aware of in terms of lesson observations seem to be an example of performativity rather than a substantive check on learning (hinge questions aside). I say this because learning is not necessarily reducible to a timetabled lesson.  However, I also believe that you should know where your students are coming from and where they are now so you can point/push/cajole them in the right direction in the lesson and if there was one thing that came out of my visit to the Wren is that to really help the students and my own teaching, I should have visited a number of their lessons first and read some essays. Something to consider for next time.

I also felt a little dissatisfied because if I had taught the sequence of overview lessons the Russian Revolution to the students at Berkhamsted, I would have set them an essay. This was my fault for not really thinking through the learning process before I arrived and if this is to work well next time, I might suggest a definitive task so I can actually see where the students are and start the feedback process (a genuine collaboration).

The conversation on progress also made me reflect upon the differences in inspection regimes and the issues can be seen through the lens of Liverpool College. Earlier this year, Hans van Broekman the Head of the former independent school (now an Academy) stated that ‘joining the state sector has improved our teaching’. You can read his article in the TES here. I’ll leave you to make your own judgements about the purpose of the piece yet what came across strongly for me was that before the move, Liverpool College did not think carefully about teaching and learning. More importantly, the changes they have implemented seem to be driven by the inspection regime rather than any substantive notion of what good teaching and learning looks like. For me, this is a dangerous path because if you survey what Ofsted has stated makes good teaching and learning over the last 10 years, you will find that they are consistently inconsistent (although they seem to be doing some hard thinking of late which is very encouraging). What the Independent Schools Inspectorate has been good at is thinking about the learning they encounter and seeing how it fits within the stated aims of the school (which will help Professors Becky Francis and Merryn Hutchings who, rather worryingly, missed out the Independent Schools Inspectorate when they conducted research into the quality of teaching in the independent sector for a Sutton Trust publication) . That is not to say that the ISI system is perfect because it is not (and expect another blog post on this soon). However, what ISI is good at is recognising the accountability/quality assurance processes within the schools it visits. To my mind, Good schools (in all guises) have robust internal accountability procedures because they are driven by their core purpose.  

So, as I head off this weekend for some more CPD with 200 other History teachers at the Schools History Project Conference in Leeds, I have a few more questions to consider. A great starting point for further reading and thinking.

I want to thank Ruth, the History team and the other staff members at the Wren for their warm welcome. I would also like to thank the students for their time too. As an A Level group left a lesson today, one of them asked if I was teaching at the school next year. When I replied negatively, the student said that I should. They have no idea that they made my day.

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