Chatting with: Ross Morrison McGill

The founder of the popular @TeacherToolkit blog talks to us about his career, politics and why he's a digital ambassador for Education Support Partnership.

Teachers are busy beasts, and Ross Morrison McGill was hard to pin down for our interview. But with a blog read by people in 214 countries, a 130,000-strong Twitter following and with a deputy headteacher position in North London, he can be forgiven. 

It’s also Easter and Ross is looking after his four-year-old son Freddie. It was Freddie in fact, who inadvertently got his dad writing. In 2011, he was born 12-weeks premature and had to spend three months in a hospital, 85 miles from home. Ross used a Blogger app to write, recording notes from the doctor and would publish the updates later when he had an internet connection. 

“It was just a way to update our family and friends,” he says. “But my posts got a lot of shares and reached 250,000 views.” 

The Teacher Toolkit blog became a way for Ross to market himself after taking voluntary redundancy soon after. He wrote a few articles on education for The Guardian, and when September 2011 came around and he was still at home, he wrote a bit more. When he went back to teaching in November, it was an effort to keep at the writing in his limited spare time. 

“It’s a huge audience now, but that’s from hours and hours of writing. I was just one of the first teachers to get into online blogging and tweeting,” he says. 

Ross’s nomadic childhood could have made him an unlikely candidate to embark upon a 23-year career in education. The son to two Salvation Army officers, he went to seven schools as a child and said he “failed the exam system”. But he excelled at practical subjects, such as Design Technology (DT), and his sixth form teacher Paul Boldy saw something in him. 

“He said ‘you obviously love this subject, and you love kids, go and teach a year seven class!’,” Ross says. “So I did. And I loved it, so I went off to do a four-year BAEd in Design Technology with Secondary Education.”

The rest, as they say, is history. 

These days, as deputy head, Ross spends less time in the classroom as he wishes and more time in meetings, supporting colleagues and leading teaching and learning and professional development across the school. But he says it’s still all about the kids, and he loves teaching when he gets the chance. 

“When I’m in class, that time is just so much more precious,” he says. “I love seeing achievement on their faces after they’ve overcome a challenge. That sense of pride that they feel. That feeling never goes away. Teachers invest so much time; I guess those ‘eureka moments’ are our reward in exchange for our effort.”

Ross admits to never being interested in politics in his earlier career but is finding himself more involved as time progresses. Perhaps it’s the responsibility he feels for his staff as a senior member of the team? Perhaps it’s the size of the audience he speaks to via his blog and Twitter?

In 2015, he was nominated as one of Debrett’s ‘500 Most Influential People in Britain’, and remains the only current classroom teacher to have been included. Either way, he is now of the firm belief that teachers themselves need to be involved when it comes to the government’s policies on education. 

“Teachers need to take back control,” he says. “There’s got to be something that gives. Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove will disappear in a few years, but we’ll still be here!” The rise of social media, he explains, is providing opportunities to do that and “they are listening”. But the challenge is that there are so many things to fix, it is difficult to know where to start. 

“We are spread too thinly. If we put 100,000 teachers behind one campaign – be it funding, workload or recruitment – that’s going to have an impact. We just need to look at the online petition about academisation to see how rapidly 100,000 signatures was gathered. An indication that there is always strength in numbers!”

Workload is one issue that is often raised by teachers unhappy in the profession. Ross too admits he has a “never ending to-do list” that is a real challenge to manage. He has learned over the years to prioritise his own wellbeing and time with his family, which has knock-on effects on his performance at school. 

“You can’t be too tired to do your job. I’ve learned six hours is the amount of sleep I absolutely need. Any less and I am grumpy! The days can be so difficult if you’re exhausted. You can’t make the right decisions for your class or your school. It’s even harder on your family.” 

It is Ross’ commitment to teacher wellbeing that has led to him volunteering as a Digital Ambassador for the Education Support Partnership. 

While Ross has never had to use the support line himself, he has given the number to colleagues struggling with work issues. 

“There is much background pressure in the sector,” he says. “It’s the culture of inspection that makes you feel like you’re not good enough.  With league tables and competition, we need to give teachers more time off in the day to mark and plan. 

“Why do I care about teacher well-being? Well, I don’t want to be exhausted all of the time or see my colleagues suffer too. Why should we allow our work to impact on our home-life?

“There are hundreds of times that I’ve wanted to quit. I don’t know why I haven’t. Maybe it’s because I love teaching so much, or because I’m too apprehensive to try something else. It must be one of the two, but I'm here for the long-haul.“

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