Voices from the Classroom: Russel Tarr, International School Of Toulouse

Russel Tarr

Russel Tarr has a degree in Modern World History from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. He is the Head of History at the International School of Toulouse and author of the award-winning www.activehistory.co.uk, which provides innovative resources and online simulations for the history classroom. He delivers training courses to history teachers in the UK and Europe, writes regularly for the national and international press on historical and educational issues and is a prominent figure in the educational community on Twitter. He is also the author of www.classtools.net.

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Website: www.classtools.net Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Russel Tarr, aka The Mr Men Teacher, is a British expat living and working in the southern French city of Toulouse. Frequently appearing at CPD events, History teacher Russel is well known for his websites activehistory.co.uk and classtools.net. He’s also the organiser and host of the Practical Pedagogies Conference at his native International School of Toulouse.

What got you into teaching?

The truth? A lack of any brighter ideas. After completing my degree at Oxford, I took a year out to work as a barman in various places around Germany, then returned to do a PGCE in Birmingham to keep the student years going. I had an unfortunate teaching placement in a school with a dictatorial head of department who would blow his top and accuse me of disrespect if I so much as departed for one minute from his prescribed lesson plans. This turned me off teaching so much that I accepted a job as an auditor in a Birmingham accountancy firm for a year. My ineptitude and boredom in that role forced me back into teaching at the age of 25.

Tell us about your first teaching position.

I was appointed as a teacher of History and Politics at Wolverhampton Grammar School (WGS) in 1997. Within days of starting work there I realised that I had finally found my vocation, and my enthusiasm for classroom teaching has never dimmed since. WGS was (and, I'm sure, still is) a wonderful community of teachers and students. In my NQT year I was required to teach every single year group, including Government and Politics, Early Modern History and Late Modern History, at A-Level. The pressure was intense in a very enjoyable way.

Within my first term I was completely entranced by the potential of this new-fangled “internet” thing for education, and had developed a basic website with links to resources such as John Simkin’s Spartacus historical encyclopedia (still going strong, I’m glad to say!). By the end of the year I was starting to write my own digital versions of ‘choose your own adventure’ games with historical themes, and ActiveHistory.co.uk was born!

Who inspired you early on?

I was extremely lucky as an NQT to have a fantastic head of department named Russell Charlesworth (who is still at WGS). As a first-rate historian and educator, he gave me support whenever I needed it, but he recognised the importance of giving me the freedom to experiment with my own teaching ideas and resources. I was surrounded by many other great colleagues in Wolverhampton, but as a History teacher it was the annoyingly dynamic Geography teacher (and now head of Bradford Grammar) Simon Hinchliffe who kept raising the bar in terms of inspirational teaching.

If you could share one great thing about where you work now, what would it be?

With regard to the school, that would be the buzz I get from working as part of the most creative, dedicated and collaborative team of classroom teachers you could ever hope to meet. With regard to Toulouse, it has to be the fact that at the weekend it only takes three hours to drive down to the Mediterranean coast (in the Summer) or for a bit of skiing in the Pyrenees (in the Winter). It’s a lovely part of the world to raise a family.

What’s the best part of your job? You obviously put a LOT of content out there for other teachers to enjoy.

Planning and delivering new lessons in an engaging and effective way with my students: especially when they replace a scheme of work which has proven less than successful. The students here at IST are a joy to teach, and they're not shy to let you know if they think a lesson isn't up to the standard they expect. It's also great when I hear back from students and teachers in other schools via Twitter that the resources I've shared on ActiveHistory or ClassTools have worked well in their classrooms, and to get inspiration from other teachers on Twitter and return the compliment. Whether it’s a photograph of students engaged in a ClassTools QR Treasure Hunt, or a “Fakebook” profile that has been designed for a historical or fictional character, it’s amazing to learn that a tool I’ve put together is being used all over the world.

You’ve become a popular voice when it comes to e-learning, stemming from experience in both teaching and computer programming. What are your views on the importance of this field?

Technology should only be used when it's the best tool for the job and when it can be seamlessly integrated into the lesson: never because it is a trendy new gimmick. For almost 20 years I have been developing online decision-making simulations and virtual interviews on www.activehistory.co.uk, and scores of more activities on www.classtools.net. I have developed every single one of them to provide some flexibility and variation to the way in which teachers can deliver their lessons and to plug the gap when more traditional methods simply can’t deliver the same educational benefits.

In other words, I have a pragmatic rather than an evangelical attitude to e-learning in the classroom. We need to guard against the idea that the simple use of technology within a lesson must automatically be a pedagogical step forward. I am conscious of a certain backlash against interactive whiteboards, which were all the rage a few years ago but which for many teachers are an over-engineered solution to a nonexistent problem. There has also been a lot of lazy talk about the younger generation being the first 'digital natives' - a nonsense which intimidates some teachers away from embracing technology, and makes others complacent about the central role we still have as teachers in educating students about such things as online safety and effective research skills when using the web. One example of this for me the concept of ‘flipped learning’, which usually means nothing more than “watch the video and take notes at home and we'll discuss it next lesson”.

What are the greatest challenges you face as a teacher?

Like many other teachers, it's the constant battle to ensure that the voice of classroom teachers should be at the very heart of any discussion about the direction of any vision for schools.

What resources do you use every week? What are your favourites?

Obviously I use ActiveHistory and ClassTools all the time, because they have the tools I programmed as I couldn't find them anywhere else. Beyond that, my day always starts with a perusal of Tweetdeck to see what's being going on in the Twitterverse, of Feedly to see what's being going on in the blogosphere, and of the Facebook support group for IB History teachers. In terms of resources I use with my students, I love tools which promote collaboration simply and effectively: Google Presentations for group projects, TitanPad and Padlet for class brainstorms. The server-based ‘socket technology’ required for real-time collaboration is something which currently remains just out of reach of amateur coders like myself!

Anyone you’d like to give a shout-out to?

Three teacher friends of mine: Here in France, my Geography counterpart Matt Podbury. Back in Blighty, my good mate Simon Hinchliffe. And over the pond in the USA, my buddy Richard "Feel the" Byrne. If you don't follow all three of them on Twitter, sort it out!

Tea or coffee?

A double espresso, especially just before teaching 7X last period on a Friday afternoon.

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