2020 vision: through a geographical & personal lens

This will be a long one. It will be a combination of geography, education and personal matters. I could have just done a typical geographical ‘review of the year’, but feel that given the year has turned out the way it has, I cannot seperate it from my personal journey. Also I need to get my thoughts and feelings out there. If this is not for you to read, because you’re only here for the geography or the education-side of things, then that’s ok – the majority of you follow me for that reason. So if you’re ‘getting off the bus’ now, then I wish you a Happy New Year and renewed strength and resilience going forward. While one or more challenges may subside, others will take their place.

For those of you sticking with it, thank you! Do pause whenever you need and come back to continue later. Either way, it really heartens and strengthens to me that one or two people want to read my ‘ramblings’! Here we go…

January, and the start of 2020 saw me exceptionally motivated and with my fingers in a lot of pies. I was bolstered by feeling I had a stable full-time job, and my energy levels were high to engage in things outside of work that I both enjoy and were important to me. For example, the University of East Anglia put out a call for staff and affiliates to share their snippets and stories regarding coping with poor mental health. Being visible is important to me as a way of supporting others, so I happily took part in their #UEAStaffWellBeing campaign. Little did I know, did any of us know, that mental health was going to be a prominent theme for the year.

Image of Kit with a quote "Just like you shouldn't be ashamed if you twisted your ankle or got a lung infection, neither should you be ashamed if you feel mentally ill either. You got this!"

At my place of work, The Enterprise Centre (one of the most sustainable buildings in Europe), friends and fellow tenants Weatherquest had not long started using their own self-built green-screen studio for their info videos and forecasts. I wanted to give it a go, and they generously gave me some time and help to start producing my own green-screen videos. I first did a ‘pilot’ video for work.

Weatherquest were very happy for me to do monthly Geogramblings videos. In return I’d give them a shout-out and help either put up or take down all the filming equipment. I decided my videos will be geographical commentaries and analysis of current affairs. First up, focusing on the devastating Australian bushfires and what it meant in terms of ‘climate change attribution’.

The video and the accompanying blog post describes how the science of climate change attritbution (that is, the science of assessing the extent an individual event can be attributed to climate change) has evolved, and what this has meant for the 2019-20 bushfires in Australia. I also talked about how a podcast I had started listening to on my commute, BBC World Service’s Digital Planet, is a great source of real-world geography stories – in this case how apps are being used to respond to the bushfires.

I very much enjoyed the experience of doing a green-screen video. It also was a gear-shift in how I deliver content – hoping to make it as visual as well as literal. It helped to think of it as another kind of performance, in terms of the prep, delivery and even the nervousness and thrill. It also gave me a firmer appreciation of friends and colleagues of mine who actually did go into the weather forecasting business and have delivered TV forecasts! It’s not easy to do it when you can do retake after retake – but to do it live like my friends Chris Bell and Dan Holley do… well, that’s talent!

When February rolled around the winds were starting to shift. While I was enjoying a lot of success in my job, which included being praised and encouraged by all stakeholders regarding how I was leading an EU-funded project to develop an educational climate GIS, I was informed that unless we could secure further funding for future projects, then my contact will be terminated at the end the one I was leading. I’m certain that Brexit had a part to play in that decision and can’t shake the feeling that something else may have been at play. I had worked so hard at that job. I was a fish out of water for much of it but really proud of what I made of it, and I did have wonderful support of my colleagues. So this did hit me pretty hard.

Also being carried on that proverbial shifting wind, from China, was the word ‘coronavirus’. On one hand, as someone who studied a bit of epidemiology at undergraduate level, I knew that it had the potential to be a bigger news story and larger phenomenon that many were making it out to be at the time, but even so, I never envisioned what was to come.

So, perhaps a measure of naivity, that I made coronavirus the subject of my second video. I’m mostly pleased with it, and I think it contains a lot of sound geography, but I did have to make a couple of corrections in both the video description and accompanying blog post.

The image of almost completely empty roads in Wuhan was shocking as much as it was intriguing – and yet, our roads were to look the same not long after.

In hind sight, my week-long trip to San Francisco in early March now seems questionable at best, despite at the time being isolated cases with official guidance being to carry on unless you were coming from, or through, China. I was heading over by myself as a beloved cousin-in-law was planning to get married in the summer, but we simply couldn’t make it work child-care wise for us all to go. So my wife was to go for the ceremony with me getting in a visit ahead of time in-lieu. But true to form, I didn’t just go to visit dear friends and family – which on balance I’m lucky I did – who know’s when I’ll see them again – I also got some good geography out of it! My focus was on the efforts towards sustainability, using examples such as the Exploratorium museum and Urban Ore, a community effort towards zero waste.

I admit, I was exceptionally relieved to hear that as a result of my travels, no-one I had been in contact with while in San Francisco came down with COVID-19, and I hadn’t picked it up either. Since the virus was closer and in the community than everyone thought, that was a bullet dodged. In fact, not two days had passed since I arrived back from California that San Francisco decided to lock-down, and places like the Exploratorium closed. A month later, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Exploratorium was to furlough, lay-off and make staff changes to 85% of their employees. When I heard this, my heart sank. I worked very closely with a range of people during my time there. Museums almost totally rely on footfall to make ends meet, so this was no surprise albeit upsetting. On top of this, staff there, including ‘Explainers’ who are high-school and college students, come from a highly diverse array of socioeconomic backgrounds, enabling those with less-priveleged backgrounds accessing not just the education that a museum provides, but also the community and vocations they generate too.

The UK went into lockdown five days after I arrived back. Although I knew my job was coming to an end, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t see my colleagues face-to-face nor set foot in the office again. Like many of us, I gave the government the benefit of the doubt and thought we’d crackdown enough that I would be back before the end of my contract at the end of June. We all know what really happened.

Mass hysteria seemed to set in as people panicked-bought and knuckled down like we were being invaded. The government’s framing it all as a ‘war’ didn’t help, in my opinion.

Our local Morrison’s had many bare shelves at the start of lock-down. Not just an indication of collective irrational behaviour by consumers, but also how unprepared the system was to buffer against it.

For the most part, I actually enjoyed working from home. My solar-powered garden shed was a nice isolated space just for me. Perhaps also having a sunny spring helped with that.

All set up and ready to go working from home in my converted solar-powered shed. The shed is on its own off-grid solar system, with the exception of the internet being brought in via the house mains.

Towards the end of March I was determined to carry on with my videos. But with The Enterprise Centre locked up and with no green-screen of my own, I did my best to commentate on the situation, and how it related to the economic and geographical phenomenon of ‘the downward spiral’.

A ‘downward spiral’ was manifesting itself as a result of the lockdowns and responses in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Below was my attempt to illustrate this, but of course you can spawn off further impacts from any one of the aspects that feature in this spiral.

ds-covid

Even before the stay at home ‘order’ was issued here in the UK on 23rd March, the recommendations to stay away from places to gather such as bars, theatres, clubs etc already started local economies sliding down the spiral. The government’s furlough scheme was one attempt to slow down, or pause, this spiral.

With the kids out of school and nursery, we as a family attempted to make the most of it. As April approached, I decided that I wanted my own green-screen set up – as I thought the videos I made with Weatherquest were very effective. So one wall of the shed was covered in green fabric, and I rigged up some lights and got some budget recording equipment. So all the green screen videos you see from now on were using my bespoke budget set up!

As a family we went on local lockdown hikes, one of which we practised Theo’s map skills in order to create an educational video for Digimap For Schools. Digimap For Schools combines Ordnance Survey mapping and GIS (as well as some other features) in a way that makes both accessible and fun. This video was used in a webinar I led to help teachers learn about the GIS tool.

The full edit of this Digimap For Schools webinar is now available on their YouTube channel. In that edit, host Pete O’Hare and I take some questions and give a few more ideas that are related to planning walks using the tool. On their YouTube channel, you will find recordings of other webinars, some ‘how-to’ guides using their tools and some other cool stuff.

The middle of April was when I first started to realise that I probably wasn’t ok and that my mental health was in decline. The trip to San Francisco was the last time I had close interaction with very special people outside of my immediate family, or that I was able to do things simply for myself. Now everything was online or remote at best and there was very little human connection. So when the Geographical Assoication’s annual conference came around in the middle of April, though disappointed us geography educators weren’t getting to see each other face-to-face, it was a relief.

I documented the 3-day virtual #GAeConf20 event over three blog entries. If you’re considering ‘attending’ the conference this coming April, and you’re not sure what to expect or whether it would be worth it, then do check them out.

  • Kicking it off online (GAeConf20 Part 1) – Today saw the kick-off of the Geographical Association’s eConference 2020 – While all of us geographers are unable to gather together this time around – we certainly did in virtual spirit. Here’s my quick review and thoughts of a successful first day.
  • The #geographyteacher community (GAeConf20 Part 2) – Day two of The GA’s #GAeConf20 – Not only do I share-on amazing practice and ideas from the #geographyteacher community, but also reflect on how vital such engagements are, especially in times like these.
  • ‘GIS some more (GAeConf20 Part 3) – The final day of #GAeConf20 caused my mind to blow on several ocassions. Corn-starch glaciers, twisty graphs, and more challenge from a radical geographer. It’s been quite a ride. Thank you, Geographical Association! #geographyteacher

My offering for the conference was titled ‘Teaching climate change issues using GIS”. I looked into the importance of GIS in geography teaching but also the importance of teaching climate change – through the frame of it being a safeguarding issue. I gave some practical tips and resources that can be used in the classroom.

But the highlight for me as having Theo along to help me present in the conference TeachMeet!

As an independent member of the #GAConf21 organising commitee, I can safely say that the next conference in April 2021 will get as close as possible to the real thing – with attempts made to have everything from the ability to virtually switch rooms, visit virtual exhibition stands and engage in social events. Also, the plans are for all presenters who have had their submission acccepted to still have the chance to give their talks and workshops.

May saw me drop down from full-time to part-time, two days a week, as I began the transition to finish my job. I began job hunting, but also set about trying to give freelancing a go. My first two tasks were commission pieces of work for the Geographical Association. One to write an article for one of their journals, but the second, a substantial piece of work creating a whole scheme of work to fit with GCSE syllabuses regarding the causes and effects of climate change, and mitigation and adaptation strategies. With more time on my hands I signed up to help with the Youth Climate Summit, scheduled for delivery in November, and also the Decolonising Geography group – more on that in an bit.

May also saw me give my second Digimap For Schools webinar – how to use the GIS tool to give virtual tours and field trips. A very fitting topic given the circumstances. Very few schools were running field trips now.

This didn’t focus specifically on field work (data collection, analysis etc). That’s for another day, but instead covered a range of things that Digimap For Schools can do with regards to virtual exploration, from quick little tasks to full-blown field-trip itinerary.

Yes, it was early days, but I was feeling a bit dispondant into June as my contract was coming to an end. Trying to set up any income via freelancing work was proving very difficult. Some agencies or establishments that I have done some work with before, such as teacher training, were either unwilling or, more commonly, understandably unable to pay me for any time I could offer to them – whether it be setting up future potential face-to-face delivery or more likely, virtual delivery. But also, and I’m making this public for the first time, despite having hundreds of visits to my website and videos a month, having a ‘donation based’ system (Ko-fi) for people to say ‘thanks’ – which is clearly and often refered to – was simply not generating anything substantial. There have been many very kind and generous people who have donated (thank you, so much!) but they make up for about 1-2% of the visitors that I get. I’m torn between understanding that not everyone feels able or comfortable parting with their own money in this fashion, and screaming out loud that all this work doesn’t actually come free. While on balance, I get a lot of joy out of simply putting stuff out there that anyone can make use of however they feel, some days I do feel a lot of my good will is being abused. But, I think it would be unfair to pin that on individuals, really, and more teachers should be given an individual budget from their schools for them to spend freely on educational material or training that they wish. Part of my frustration comes from seeing plenty of people, a few who don’t have substantial experience in classroom teaching, making money through educational work that is not as enriching, targeted or bespoke. However, there are also plenty who are worth their weight in gold, and that counters that feeling a bit by knowing that they are earning a bit from their hard work and determination. I thought about naming a few examples here, but then would feel like I’m doing an injustice to those who I left out but deserve mention. Here’s the cliché, “you know who you are”!

So clearly I’m doing this whole freelancing thing wrong. Maybe the middle of a pandemic wasn’t a great time? Maybe I’m too altrustic for my own good? (I actually hate asking for remittance, even if it is earnt or due, as I didn’t go into education to make… heh… even ‘recover’… money). But in any case, with this feeling, I felt like applying for Universial Credit was a failure on my part. I’ve since made peace with that, though – and no-one should be stigmatised for claiming benefits.

Still, I cracked on. And although unsustainable in the long-run, at least for the time being I was doing more of what I loved, something my job couldn’t fulfill – so I wasn’t totally sad the latter was coming to an end. But it did give me amazing experiences and connected me with some wonderful, passionate, talented people. And that I will forever be grateful for.

One thing I love taking part in are TeachMeets. I took part in another, this time for Discover The World Education. The theme was “International Connections”, and given that both personally and professionally I have links all over the globe, I thought I’d contribute! I teamed up with the amazing Kate O’Donnell from the Exploratorium, and we chatted about a few examples of teaching and learning activities that teachers in the UK and around the world can do, if they can’t quite get around to visiting the Exploratorium itself.

I also gave two talks for the UKEdChat Conference – one being the climate change and GIS presentation I gave at the GA Conference and the second, which was very well recieved, regarding ideas how to utilise critical thinking in the classroom as tools to fight disinformation – something so rife right now.

While successful as an educational presentation, I felt this one was a little personal too. I’m still upset and angry about Brexit, for instance. Back in 2016 I approached the referendum debate with a critical mind and employed all the enquiry skills in the book to come to the conclusion that leaving the EU would be a massive net-negative. The evidence was so strong that I was an activist in trying to guide people to see how I came to the conclusion. Disinformation and fake news has not just been harmful by-proxy (COVID, American politics – my family is half American), but also directly. The platforming of hate-groups on mainstream media and the abuse of powerful voice by transphobic celebrities has caused me further mental harm, and has even damaged personal relationships.

The garden continued to be a sanctuary into the summer. How very very lucky that my family and I have one. The kids would be out in the garden most of the day while I continued to work in the shed. We were also putting the fire-pit I had built for my wife’s birthday to good use.

The eldest turned six in June. There were no parties, but Zoom calls instead. Friends and family from across the world recorded little snippets for me that I stitched together – making up a ‘Happy Birthday’ song as well as some messages. A friend of ours ran her hands-on play scheme outside in her garden for a little, one family at a time. It was an opportunity to teach Theo about how moulins form in glaciers and how they can make them move!

The end of June I was now completely unemployed, and so into July I really started to feel like an actual member of the geography teacher community again. I’ve always had an element of imposter syndrome given that I hadn’t been in the classroom proper since 2017, but nevertheless the community have been very generous and gracious having me stick around. I’ve done my very best not to become an ex-teacher who is backseat driver, but rather use my knowledge and expertise to support what wonderful teachers are doing in the classroom themselves and the manner in which they wish to do it. My only blog entry for July being one example, collating ideas for virtual and school-based field work activities.

I was also busy supporting the Decolonising Geography group in putting together a primer video about what the movement is all about. The shift and desire to accelerate momentum of the process of decolonisation in light of events earlier this year in particular had many asking what does this mean for teachers and educators?

Producing this video with the support of members of the group was very enlightening, and helped me to give my own privilege and biases a much overdue re-check.

This August was the first summer I had ‘off’ since stepping away from teaching. With the easing of COVID restrictions my family and I spent a lot of time outdoors – hiking, going to the beach. My wife was back to work so I was looking after the kids by myself a fair bit. We got to explore all the local parks and play areas – something the kids enjoyed a bit!

I also got to enjoy a chat with someone who I had as a young whipper-snapper of a trainee teacher… an Outstanding budding teacher called Mr Moses. In 2016-17 I had the privilege of mentoring him, fast-forward four years and had the pleasure of being interviewed by Mr Moses for an episode of “Ruskin Asks”, a project by The Priory Ruskin Academy‘s Geography Department and Eco-Committee.

At the start of September, wildfires were raging across the western United States. And one, even though it was a relatively small one, got really, really close to ‘home’. The Bridger Foothills Fire ignited on the 4th, and overnight it expanded rapidly from 400 to 7000 acres, consuming the eastern side of the southern end of the Bridger Mountains just outside of Bozeman, Montana. I took the opportunity to provide some geography education on the causes, conditions, impacts and responses, but also use my platform as a way of helping a community I’m connected to (but couldn’t be present in) – by helping to spread the word to anyone who may wish to contribute towards fundraisers that would help members of the community get back on their feet.

I have a deep emotional connection to the Bridger Canyon area and the town of Bozeman. My wife is American and her family on her dad’s side have a three-generation connection to the Bozeman area. In Bridger Canyon, the family have a house that was once the main occupance of my wife’s paternal grandparents but now is the place where the extended family comes together as often as we can. The house was also the base for a field trip I ran for a small group of high-school students in 2012. So many, many fond memories. Fortunately for my family, the fire stopped just a kilometer short from the house. That was a close call.

Meanwhile on this side of the pond, I saw started to see a number of job opportunities arise – one was to go back into the classroom as a part-time geography teacher. I felt I had a very strong shot at it as I was invited to interview. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be, undone mostly by being not being totally clued up on the very latest pedagogical practices. The feedback I got was genuine, from a trusted person that I respect very much. I knew therefore that the person who did get the job will do a bloody good job, then! I’m not a believer in fate. More like, that if an opportunity goes passing, then there will be another that comes along that you will be able to grasp firmly but warmly with both hands.

While I was awaiting whether I’d be called for interview on a couple of other job opportunties towards the end of the month, my piece for the Geographical Association’s magazine was published. Titled “Climate Change: A Safeguarding Issue?”, it is a piece that I’m exceptionally proud of – and I hope serves a springboard to making climate change a more urgent and visible issue for school SLTs. Expect to hear more about this idea in 2021.

If you are a GA member or a subscriber to the magazine, head over to and have a good read! There are a always a brilliant range of goodies, tips, thoughts for geography educators at all ages. Included in this Autumn 2020 issue is an article by Rouna Ali, a fellow member of the Decolonising Geography working group, giving a summary of the work that is going on and how others can join in.

So as you can see I was keeping myself busy, but it was hardly generating any income. Good will and good ideas doesn’t put food on the table, unfortunately. So as October approached I was relieved and mightily delighted to have successfully interviewed for a new job as ‘Higher Education Champion’ for The Network for East Anglian Collaborative Outreach (neaco). This post is overseen by the University of East Anglia’s Admissions, Recruitment and Marketing department (ARM). neaco works with students in years 9-13 who live in areas identified by the Government with low rates of progression to higher education. The 4-days-a-week position was to start at the end of the month. Working with high-school students again… Yay!

October certainly was a morale-booster. Not only did I have good news on the job front, but I was also invited to have the privilege of finally, finally, giving a Odd Salon talk! Before I get to my talk… What’s ‘Odd Salon’, you say? Under normal circumstances, the quirky, weird, but very popular talks take place monthly in San Francisco and New York City. The crowd don’t just sit and listen, they are encouraged to get cordially rowdy and a little drunk. At the end of each talk, the speaker gives a toast to cap off the story. Visit Odd Salon’s YouTube channel to see recordings of the amazing presentations. If you like quirky and strange stories about the world, its history and the lives that occupy it, then you should check it out. I toyed with the idea of proposing a talk myself, but I would have needed to be accepted for a time I would be in San Francisco (or New York, but more likely the former). However, since during the Coronavirus pandemic Odd Salon has gone online. And that gave the opportunity for an Odd Salon fellow to approach me to be their first international speaker.

My talk was titled “The Anthropocene: Does Arrogance Outlast Decay?”

October is also Black History Month. So as part of my contribution, I had the pleasure of interviewing two inspirational young people, Akhera Williams and Sam Koffi of Reroot.Ed. Reroot.Ed is an educational campaign run by young black students. Their goal is to make the secondary school education system anti-racist, critical and inclusive.

The Youth Climate Summit took place in early November. It was an engaging, free and accessible week of climate action and discovery for schools, with events hosted online throughout. All the sessions are available to rewatch here. I helped out a bit on the design committee, but my main contribution was to take success stories of climate action from young people and turn their narratives into a piece of poetry called “Why Not Now?”.

This was a lot of fun! You can find out more about the stories that made up the poem by clicking on bits of the lyrics here.

On the geography education front, I hadn’t got up to much over the rest November, but an article I had written a little earlier in the year for the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) was published at the end of the month. It was based on a talk I gave a few years back about how I modelled student leadership, not just in lessons but also structurally in the department, based on Hart’s ‘Ladder of Participation’.

The article was written for the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) “Ideas From Teachers” blog. To check out other articles and find out about how you could contribute your teaching ideas and tips, click here.

The idea in providing students with leadership opportunities in school is not novel. But while student leadership is more or less ubiquitous, to what extent in any given establishment does it truly hand over the reins to students themselves? Student leadership and youth empowerment had always been a core component of my approach to teaching, and I learned to recognise and move from ‘tokenism’ leadership towards ‘partnership’. So I gave my experience via this article, which may give you some encouragement and ideas to hand over the reins yourself.

On the whole, I didn’t managed to get much done, geography-wise, throughout November and December. I had fully engaged with my new job, which I found it a challenge, to be honest – but very happily supported and welcomed! It is strange doing a job where you work with high-school students but can’t at the moment set foot inside of a classroom. Most of the time I’ve been resource prepping, training and planning for the new year. I have delivered a few sessions virtually, one being a StressLESS session to Year 13s about mental health.

And that actually brings this look-back at the year full circle. There are other things that have chipped away at my mental health in addition to the pressures above. A lot of my coping mechnisms, or ‘protective factors’ have been absent – such as not being able to get out and about by myself and hang out with friends in the LGBT+ community. I also now really appreciate the daily commute I used to have to and from Norwich in my electric car – giving me some alone time listening to podcasts.

It’s now around 11pm on New Years Eve. And with an hour to go I would like to end with a message to all teachers and educators out there. Many of you are suffering and anxious. You are so caring and concerned for the kids you teach, and determined that their futures are not disrupted by what’s going on. But you’re also on the front-lines seeing the harm that is being done by this obsessive determination to make schools one of the ‘front-lines’ in this so-called ‘war’. You deserve better. The kids deserve better. And it will get better. So many of you have been telling me – in my darkest moments – that it will. Stay strong, stay together, stay true. But above all, stay human. Because to me, teachers are some of the most wonderful, beautiful, selfless humans out there. Look after yourselves.

Much love to you all, and see you in 2021 💓

One thought on “2020 vision: through a geographical & personal lens

  1. Also freelancer & Consultant, and I know you do what you can and what you are good at. Stay positive & keep on, to dare is to do.

    Like

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