Teacher Toolkit, a.k.a. Ross McGill, is one of the most successful teacher-bloggers in the world. He has nearly 60K followers on Twitter, his blog is the number 1. educational blog in the UK, and his book, 100 Ideas for Secondary School Teachers, is one of the most successful books about school published in the last five years. When you drill down into the factors that have created his success, you realize that his story is one of triumph over adversity in a number of different ways – and his overall message is one of real hope for “ordinary” teachers.
The child of religious parents, who were members of the Salvation Army, his schooling was always unsettling because the family travelled so much; from the ages of 5-18, he only stayed put for 3 years. He doesn’t seem to have excelled initially at school, failing to gain good grades in subjects he now shows real mastery of: ICT and English. Ultimately though, his experiences of school were positive because, as he says in my interview with him, a Design and Technology teacher, Mr. Paul Boldy, at his school in Fleetwood, Lancashire, changed his life: Boldy not only encouraged Ross’s love of the subject but also got him to teach younger students, which, in part, encouraged him to become a teacher.
His experiences of failure at school still inform who he is: he remains a little unconfident about his writing abilities and has a modesty about his achievements that possibly comes from being someone who was once bottom of the class. From 1993-1997, he trained to be a teacher at Goldsmiths College but didn’t take up a job in the UK immediately, preferring to do a stint as a VSO teacher in Nigeria first, where he was Head of Design at St. Thomas’s School, Kano. Returning to the UK, he worked as a supply teacher at St Thomas More RC School and then at Alexandra Park School where he was Head of Design from 2000-2008. It’s clear he was instrumental in helping the school raise standards. He worked there with Tom Sherrington, who was then a Deputy Headteacher but now is better known as @HeadGuruTeacher, having become a noted blogger, headteacher and pivotal member of Headteacher’s Roundtable. In 2004, both his headteacher, Rosslyn Hudson, and Deputy Headteacher, Sherrington, nominated him for ‘The Guardian Award for Secondary School Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School in London’. His article about APS in the Guardian is well worth reading because it really outlines what makes an outstanding school.
Things were going well when he joined Crest Girls’ Academy in 2008 as Assistant Principal; he joined Twitter at the end of that year and began tweeting as TeacherToolkit, quickly achieving a devoted following because of his pithy, incisive tweets, his ability to listen to people, and his eagle-eye for good teaching materials. He also uploaded his resources to the TES website such as the Five-Minute Lesson Plan, which led to him becoming the TES Resources Contributor in 2013. However in 2011, financial problems at Crest meant that he took voluntary redundancy and this led to him having quite big money worries; surviving off £20k for one year – with no job and his wife on maternity leave for one year. This probably explains much about his attitude to becoming self-sufficient. To make a difficult situation far, far worse, his son was born prematurely and was gravely ill for some time – but now mercifully is fine. He has blogged movingly about his family’s experiences of caring for a sick child here. The feedback and support he got from his blog about his son encouraged him to set up his own TeacherToolkit blog, and the rest, as they say, is history: the blog is, by far, the most read teacher blog in the UK. Its combination of excellent, relevant advice for teachers, its brilliant presentation and Ross’s diligence at responding to all queries on Twitter as well as the blog mean that it has become the “one-stop-shop” for many teachers to sort out their teaching problems and find out about the essential research they need to know about.
From 2011-2014, he has been working at Greig City Academy as Assistant Vice Principal, being chiefly in charge of CPD and Appraisal. I know from my own Deputy Headteacher that he has gained a loyal following because of the way he has blogged about dealing with the tensions of dealing with staff, family and his own ambitions. His human approach is evident in this thought-provoking blog about working and childcare.
I asked Ross how he managed to run such an up-to-date blog and Twitter stream while holding down a full-time job: he explained that he sets up automated Twitter responses that can Tweet during the day without him doing anything, and that he has 35 blog posts in reserve which he can post at any moment. The short answer: be very well-prepared and work hard.
Recently, he has become much more savvy about developing his own independent brand. Everyone in the educational world wants a piece of him: he told me that he is inundated with offers to speak, to write and endorse. But he’s become a little wary after getting his fingers burned at the TES. After gaining the accolade of top TES contributor in 2013, he was told that he could not put links to his own for-sale resources from the TES website. The full story can be read here. As a result, he no longer uploads his resources for free to the TES website but sells them directly through his blog, using a website called Sellfy.com.
Possibly inadvertently, McGill has challenged some of the dominant institutions in education at the moment, what Michael Gove’s favourite philosopher, the Italian Marxist Anton Gramsci, termed the “hegemony”; the ideology promoted by the powerful which exert a huge influence over people’s lives without them fully knowing it. In challenging the TES Connect over the way they promote resources, as you will see on his blog, he is seriously questioning why this powerful global company, which makes huge sums of money, is profiting from teachers offering their resources for free without getting anything back in return. Furthermore, it is an open secret that the TES consistently has backed government policy in privatizing the education system in its editorial approach; while stories questioning some aspects of government policy are to be found in the TES, the overwhelming slant is favourable to the government, with its lead comment/opinion writers being strong supporters of Michael Gove.
We also see McGill challenging the hegemony of the DfE in much of what he writes in that he has been a strong supporter of “bottom-up” training such as TeachMeets, which by-pass the “top-down”, prescriptive approach of much government teacher training.
This said, McGill is no radical or particularly political; I would characterize his approach as eminently reasonable and practical, almost “apolitical”. As you will see on the interview, the advice for teachers is all about encouraging them to meet, to jointly plan and jointly evaluate their practice; it is very much a co-operative model. However, he’s not against competition where appropriate; after all, this is the man who is selling his resources on the free-market without the support any major institution. He feels ambivalent about performance related pay and I think possibly feels it may be needed in certain situations, although he shies away from stating this explicitly. He is strongly supportive of the Teacher Standards, which some teachers have questioned. In many ways, he embodies many of the tensions that most teachers feel: we know the importance of co-operation between each other and schools, the vital need for autonomy, but equally, we’re aware that a free-for-all with all clarity about standards being abolished won’t do either.
Where next for McGill? Well, in September, he starts a new job as Deputy Headteacher at Quinton Kynaston. It sounds like a really good school, with some very exciting opportunities. Talking to him, I think he wants to find more of a happy medium between blogging and teaching. I’m surprised that a school hasn’t given him more room and time to explore his amazing internet success. For example, why hasn’t a school set him up with his own “TeacherToolkit Centre”? He is doing a really important public service in presenting high-quality research in a palatable form for teachers. This is something the EEF is trying to do, but their stuff doesn’t quite have the zip and pizzazz of McGill’s work, which is both distinctive and authoritative. Perhaps QK will do this. He’s also set up his own job vacancies service https://twitter.com/@MyEdHunt which is entirely free, and this is taking off too. So many avenues…
Above all, it’s hugely impressive and moving to see the way McGill has tackled the varying challenges of a disadvantaged education, a very difficult personal time for his family, redundancy, the wrath of a multinational media conglomerate, an extremely demanding senior post in a tough inner-city school, and managed to create the UK’s most successful educational blog and Twitter feed. Wow! And it couldn’t happen to a nicer man. Hats off to him, I say!