Michael Benzine has been teaching at Bracewell Primary for seven years. As Year 5/6 teacher and ICT co-ordinator, he has revolutionized the use of technology for teaching and learning in this small, rural primary. In just two years, his initiatives have lead to the school’s Ofsted rating rocketing from Good with Outstanding features (“particularly the leveraging of technology for learning”) to Outstanding with “satisfactory use of technology for learning”.
We are here at Bracewell to observe Michael ‘in the field’ (or ‘IRL’ as Michael likes to put it – more than once), and glean from his practice just what it takes to be a tech-savvy teacher in the 21st Century.
“I wasn’t always this switched on,” says Michael. He has a many-lensed ball on a stick strapped to his head and the chinstrap restricts his speech somewhat – his teeth remaining gritted throughout our interview as if he’s irate or really needs a poo. “Time was, I’d get all fretted up over shutting a window on me laptop. ‘Where’s it gone?! Where’s it gone?’ I’d say to me TA, Glynnis.”
“It was behind the other window, wasn’t it?” recalls Glynnis, Michael’s TA of the past five years. Michael agrees, albeit through gritted teeth. His head-mounted ball on a stick wobbles as he chuckles.
I ask him about the contraption on his head. “It’s a 360 degree camera,” he beams, tapping it gently on one side. It lurches to one side and Michael quickly rights it by flicking his head violently in the opposite direction and shouldering Glynnis off her small plastic chair onto the 100-square carpet.
“Aren’t they really expensive?” I ask.
“Oh yes! 50 grand or more,” says Michael, helping Glynnis to her feet and accidentally nutting her with the camera. “This is an evaluation sample. I often review tech and I’ve got this bit of kit on condition that I only write how amazing it is.”
“And how is it so far?”
Glynnis smiles and rubs her forehead. “He films everything he teaches and beams it to our trainee teacher, Keith.”
“Keith? I haven’t met him yet.” I say.
“No,” says Michael, still adjusting his chinstrap, “he’s in Asda right now, picking up some biscuits. He’s watching now on our Oculus Rift.” Michael shows me his smartphone and we watch a man in his twenties, wearing a box on his eyes, bump into a display of kitchen roll. “Keith!” shouts Michael. “Michael!” shouts Keith, steadying himself on a bin-end of travel shampoo.
Michael’s nowhere to be seen. Glynnis apologises and explains that Michael’s in with the Head. Apparently one of the kids has accused him of pushing him into a pit of molten lava.
Later, Michael emerges from Mrs Garbutt’s office and explains.
“I teach a lot of my lessons within Minecraft,” (he’s still wearing that camera on his head) “so, from time to time a student might be eaten by a crawler or get rattled by the Enderman.” Glynnis shrugs.
“In this case, I was explaining how we could use this particularly fiery landscape to inspire our Big Write on setting description and I, er, waved me arm and accidentally pushed Callum into a volcano.”
“He respawned.” adds Glynnis, with a smile.
As our crew enter the classroom, it’s 5.30am and Michael is hunched over one of the small pod-like tables with Glynnis handing him Lego bricks, a piece at a time.
“I like to create scale-models of the class, using Lego, so’s I can see the lines of interaction and plot key transitional moments in each lesson.” He’s got his tongue pushed out between his teeth (despite the chinstrap) as he carefully lays each brick.
“I get the Lego free.” he adds. “From Lego.”
Glynnis is smiling proudly at us and back at him. “He says it’s amazing,” she hands him a Lego man with a small black ball on a stick stuck to its head.
“How long does it take you to plan each lesson?” I ask.
Michael seems too engrossed in his Lego to reply.
Michael re-emerges from Mrs Garbutt’s office. Over his shoulder, we can see a red-faced Callum being consoled by his mother, who is darting sharp glances at Michael’s back as he ducks to keep the camera clear of the door frame.
“I was teaching with the Oculus Rift on,” he later explains, “and was trying to swipe the word ‘nice’ into the recycling bin.”
“He slapped Callum.” Glynnis puts her hand to Michael’s shoulder.
“I’m at the vanguard.” Michael’s fingering his Lego man. “A disruptive teacherpreneur. When you’re in the white heat of the digital chalkface, sometimes fingers get burnt. In the staffroom, they call me ‘Robocop’.” He smiles, with red-rimmed eyes.
“To your face, yes.” adds Glynnis, still smiling.