Technicians: your friends in the classroom

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Science technicians are a vital member of the department. Their practical knowledge and experience is increasingly needed for the influx of new teachers, and dare I say it, teachers in general. But awareness of what the technician role is and what we do is often lacking.

Technicians have always made it happen behind the scenes, and when a department was filled with career teachers who were highly practically competent and skilled, things were different. Now, times have changed, as has the role technicians play in schools across the country. This desperately needs to be officially recognised, but will require a huge culture change within education. It comes at a time when industry and the working world is screaming out for a new generation, who “can do” practically.

It is often said to teachers that you should befriend your technician. But this sometimes leads to instances such as when a new graduate trainee teacher asked me if “I responded well to biscuits”. Let’s reflect on that. Technicians are professionals, colleagues in the same department, and are usually line-managed by the head of subject or head of department. We are employed to support practical science, not to be at anyone’s beck and call, and nor are we a pet. On this occasion I graciously put it down to a lack of workplace experience.

Technicians also tend to have quite a lot of work experience outside of education, so their perspective is different and we generally see the bigger picture. I’ve been asked: “But my technician isn’t very helpful, and moody, what can I do?” I’d ask another question: what do you think lead them to being like that? I’m sure for the majority of cases when they started the job, they were enthusiastic and full of great ideas, willing to help in all kinds of ways. Something to remember is that technicians are outnumbered in the department and sadly in a growing number of schools there is only one technician. So anything a teacher can do to help is always appreciated.

I had lunch recently with a former technician colleague. Together we had more than 50 years’ experience and the issues and problems technicians face are exactly the same with little or no improvement. Technicians are, by their role, problem solvers, and come up with the solutions often in a very short space of time. By their own initiative science technicians have been helping trainee teachers and teachers in general by coaching and mentoring them in the practical activities they need to do, sharing the knowledge, tips and expertise they have to ensure that demonstrations and students’ experiments actually work, safely, with good practice.

So here are some hints.

We know that teachers are very busy, and do not have much time for preparing the requisitions far in advance. However good preparation will cost less effort in the long run.

Before putting in a requisition, research your activity, and don’t just use YouTube for ideas – these can be highly unsafe, and even if they are OK the resources might be extremely hard to source. Talking to fellow teaching colleagues is good to avoid equipment clashes, even before you put the requisition in. Make sure this is done in good time, for example a week in advance. Take a moment to think of the volume of equipment that is being asked for, for example you might want 10 samples for each working group but that could mean, say, 150 beakers for one part of one lesson, in a department where multiple lessons are taking place at the same time. Or say you might ask for 15 ripple tanks – most schools have one or two of those.

Most importantly, talk to the science technician – they are the department’s practical advisor. They will know what resources are available, potential options, or have ideas on alternatives. Doing this saves so much time, for everyone involved.

If you haven’t done the activity before, ask the technician to run through the equipment. They will, if they have time, set it up and go through the practical with you. But this shouldn’t be done five minutes before a lesson…

Get students in a room to clear away. This helps the technician efficiently and safely remove equipment. This could be one of many that needs to be cleared, and lesson changeovers can be short. A helping hand to move equipment, even for a couple of minutes, could be greatly appreciated if you are free. Another thing is to let the technician know straight away if you want to repeat or have the setup saved. It can be very frustrating after you have put it all away to find it is still needed.

Constructive feedback is helpful, and not only when things didn’t quite go to plan – everyone likes to hear things went well.

Help with buying resources can be hugely appreciated too, such as if you pass a particular shop or see a great resource while you are shopping, rather than telling the technician you saw them, and maybe they could buy them for your lesson. This is much better than getting biscuits or chocolates – especially when those only come with a late request or for getting someone out of trouble.

I often offer to go into lessons to carry out demonstrations, and this is full of benefits. It’s another body in the room, it allows the teacher freedom to see their students react and discuss questions, and the students see what a technician can do, which is a really positive thing.

Technicians are a font of information and this can help with contacts or projects that are taking place. Working together always offers far better opportunities and you will reap the rewards.

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Paul Cook

Paul Cook

Paul Cook RSciTech is senior lead technician at ARK Burlington Danes Academy
Paul Cook
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