Story/Interview January 17, 2023
Finding courage and confidence with online learning
English teacher Julia Gillis didn’t enjoy school herself. But instead of running away from education, she chose to become a teacher and make learning as fun as possible for today’s students. After seeing pupils thrive in online classrooms during lockdown, she joined King’s InterHigh to champion learners who don’t do things in a traditional way.
For Julia, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing students find their courage and speak in lessons for the first time. As Head of Years 3, 4 and 5, and a Year 5 Class Teacher, she’s determined to make each class count, which sometimes involves using outside-the-box texts.
Tell us about your background and how you became a teacher.
After I completed my degree, I moved to a different part of England and then Wales. I was at a bit of a loss without The Open University, and I was unsure how to use my degree. I decided to become a teacher after spending time volunteering at a local youth club and seeing how rewarding working with young people can be. I now have more than 10 years’ teaching experience.
As well as teaching, what other jobs have you had?
Being a teacher is the best job I’ve ever had. Every day is different because of the unique things that each student brings to a lesson.
You told us you wanted to be a different kind of teacher to the ones you had growing up.
Teaching was very different in the 80s and 90s. I wasn’t inspired to be or do anything. I was really shy, and wouldn’t volunteer to speak in front of the class. I can empathise with our students who find it hard or are too shy, and I try to provide a safe place for them to build their confidence. I was a passionate reader, but I found my school English lessons boring. My aim is to make English as exciting as possible for students.
“Being a teacher is the best job I’ve ever had. Every day is different because of the unique things that each student brings to a lesson. I can empathise with our students who find it hard or are too shy, and I try to provide a safe place for them to build their confidence.”
What drew you to King’s InterHigh?
During lockdown, my previous school taught a full timetable online and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had students that were previously quiet in the classroom chatting to me and engaging in ways they never had before. I realised a traditional classroom didn’t suit everyone, and some students thrived online. I wanted to embrace that, and those students who didn’t want to be educated in a traditional way.
How does teaching compare between online and physical schools?
At first, I was worried I wouldn’t build the same relationships with students. But I think everyone listens more in an online environment. As teachers, we want to find that kind of connection. There are less distractions, so it becomes easier to do that. The great thing about online school is the students can just get on with their work.
What challenges and rewards come with teaching online?
It can be challenging supporting students through the first few weeks and developing their confidence. When I was a child, I always got told I needed more confidence. Once, I attended a Mess dinner (for military personnel) and I listened to a speech about how before you can be confident, you need to find courage. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve ever learnt, and it’s so rewarding when the students who are lacking confidence find the courage to put on the mic for the first time, or type their first words into the chat pod.
“It’s so rewarding when the students who lack confidence find the courage to put on the mic for the first time, or type their first words into the chat pod.”
How do you create great learning experiences for children?
I try to find texts that are relevant and appeal to a younger audience. Sometimes I’ll go for ones that are accessible through the use of pictures, as well as text. I used one about tigers recently that provoked strong emotions with our Year 5 students. It was wonderful to listen to their discussions and their thought processes about how we could help to save endangered species. Their engagement with the text enabled them to go on to write some powerfully emotive and persuasive texts, too. I think it's important to remember that as adults, the texts we like don’t always appeal to children, so it’s essential to find books that are relevant to younger students whilst still providing great learning opportunities.
You helped set up the Friends and Foundations Week. Tell us more about this.
We’ve used the artwork students created to form ‘classroom displays’, to instil a sense of belonging in their class and their school. We’ve had a great start to the year as students have been able to get on with their studies, without having the burden of being unsure of where to go next.
Can you share any positive feedback you’ve received from learners?
“I just wanted to say that I’ve tried a few different English teachers but none of them compare to you. You’re honestly the best. Is there a petition so I can have you back as my teacher?”
I truly believe King’s InterHigh encompasses the best parts of a traditional school but allows students to develop at their own pace, and to develop their own unique style by learning in a safe environment. All of our students have such unique characters. The best part of my job is discovering that and watching them flourish.
“Children need to feel valued. They need to know you care about them, and want them to achieve their full potential. The environment needs to be helpful to learning. King’s InterHigh is great for that.”