Head of chemistry Leonard overcame the initial challenges of teacher training with the help of a supportive mentor.
Totally smitten with the subject
Fortunate enough to have inspiring science teachers during his secondary education, Leonard particularly remembers Mr Cook linking chemistry to the wider world. Still his role model, John Cook, although now retired, sometimes does supply work where Leonard teaches, which happens to be his old secondary school.
“Chemistry explains so much about the natural world and underpins so much of the way our society functions – what could possibly be more interesting?”
After his A-Levels, Leonard studied for his MChem at Oxford University and stayed on to do his PhD in organic chemistry. One of the biggest challenges he faced was sitting on steeply raked seating in lecture theatres. Suffering from vertigo, he found it sometimes impossible to sit through lectures – even if he was really interested in the subject!
During his PhD, Leonard often gave tutorials to undergraduates and demonstrated in the teaching laboratories. Although it started out as a way to earn extra money, it gave him an opportunity to interact with students and the additional intellectual challenge of designing problem sets. “Whilst I enjoyed the challenges of research and the day-to-day work in the laboratory, I was finding teaching increasingly satisfying,” he explains.
Secondary teaching was never something I had considered
With the difficulty in obtaining a full-time teaching position at university level without being tied to a research post, Leonard sought advice from careers advisers at the RSC. Having never thought of working with younger children, he took the leap and applied for a chemistry teacher position at his old school. Leonard’s first term of teaching was challenging having received no training and balancing his new career with preparing for his viva voce exam and making corrections to his PhD thesis. “I was lucky enough to have a very supportive mentor and to be able to study for a PGCE qualification whilst completing my first year. The first term was very much being thrown in the deep end.”
Now head of chemistry at Kingston Grammar School, Leonard teaches over 150 students and manages a department of four teachers and three technicians. Most enjoying interacting with students and opening up new understandings of chemistry through practical work, Leonard also enjoys the intellectual challenge in creating resources and worksheets for students.
“I’m happiest when I’m in the classroom, teaching and helping students to understand new chemical ideas. It was clear to me quite early on in my first year that I’d found my vocation and that I’d made the right decision.”
As Dr ChemNet, Leonard answers questions posed by school students on our ChemNet site. With a wide range of questions from simple concepts to undergraduate-level ideas, he often refers to his own library to answer them!
“The role is very rewarding because it often forces me to go back and think about areas of the subject that I haven’t thought about for a while – topics that lie outside the school curriculum.”
During his doctorate, Leonard had a flexible working pattern and he had to be disciplined in allocating and managing his time. As a teacher, he uses these skills all the time to balance teaching and running his department as well as spending time with his family. One of the things he enjoyed most about his doctoral studies was having time to read widely and that’s something he continues to do. It’s something he is so passionate about that he advises others to read too.
“There is still a lot I don’t know about chemistry and I’m always keen to know more. I really love books and so I’d say read all you can – there’s an enormous amount of chemistry out there to learn about and the more you learn, the better you will understand this wonderful subject.”
With children naturally curious about the world around them, Leonard emphasises the need for teachers to capture and nurture that innate interest as they progress through school.
“Chemistry lessons need to be a context for students to learn about the world they live in and the subject’s important links with things in their everyday experience.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Joe Dyson
Published December 2014