James Gilks | Teach First

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James Gilks

  • Studied: Chemistry PhD, University of Nottingham
  • Taught: Science, London
  • Now: Chemistry teacher, London

I was doing my PhD in organic chemistry. My original plan was to go into research but through helping out in undergraduate tutorials I felt I had an ability to articulate ideas that students latched onto. Sometimes academics know a lot, but they forget what it’s like to not know. There’s a thrill in helping someone understand something that’s really quite difficult. 

I went to a Teach First recruitment event in the chemistry building at university as I was walking past at lunchtime – completely by chance. I remember thinking how unfair it was that if someone’s parents weren’t wealthy they wouldn’t get the same class of education as someone who could afford to pay. It was purely by chance, but now I don’t think I’ll leave teaching. 

I was ready for the challenge of the Leadership Development Programme. I found it tough to start with – I’m quite self-critical and a bit of a perfectionist. I was quite hard on myself but I had built up resilience during my PhD that helped me, and I knew I’d keep going. It’s important to realise you’re not going to be perfect from the beginning. But the project work I’d done, especially during my PhD, gave me the ability to break down a problem into manageable chunks. 

There’s a massive need for change in education. Without getting a core number of motivated, ambitious people into teaching I don’t think there will be enough change. I think there’s a dearth of subject expertise, especially in physics and chemistry. I find it really sad. Young people are crying out for subject experts in their schools. 

In addition to preparing you for careers in science, medicine and dentistry, chemistry teaches you about what’s going on in the world and it also teaches you to think laterally and to solve problems. To take what seems like a complex problem and to apply logic to it is a great life skill. The problem-solving element of science is something I’ve always enjoyed. 

I enjoyed the challenge of going back to Key Stage 3: It took me a while to realise how an 11-year-old would think about something, compared to how I would think about it. And if you can control 30 lively kids in a classroom and make them learn some chemistry there’s something really quite powerful about that. The benefits of the Leadership Development Programme are immeasurable. The sense of fulfilment is unlike anything else.