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Alexandra College

Staff Spotlight - Gemma Brandon

Every Friday, we feature a member of our staff in our Staff Spotlight! This week, we spoke to Preschool Lower teacher Gemma Brandon about her teaching career.


Why did you begin teaching?

I think it was something I always had at the back of my mind; my mum and aunts are teachers, and I had really fond memories of my own Montessori and junior school. It was very similar to Alex - there was a lot of hands-on, sensory learning and a lot of learning was done outside. After finishing secondary school I ended up taking a year out and went back to my old school as a classroom assistant with children aged 3-6, and I loved being there. I really saw that creating a stimulating environment had a huge impact on their learning experience and instilled a love of learning in them. It was a very happy place, and that’s how I knew that this was the career path I wanted to follow. 


What makes teaching Preschool exciting for you?

Every day is exciting in Preschool! It’s always very different, and it’s always full of laughter and happiness. It’s lovely to watch the girls because everything is new and exciting for them, and you never really know what they’re going to share with you next. We have a very hands-on learning approach, so it’s very open-ended, play-centred, and child-led. Every voice is heard, and every idea is encouraged in the classroom. On Friday mornings we set up different role play areas, and so you can find me wearing a feather boa, getting my hair done in the preschool salon, and being fed endless slices of imaginary cake! I feel like the Preschool is a little community within the wider Alex community, and the girls really love being a part of the Alex community. Every time we walk past people, the girls are waving and saying hello to everyone and their smiles are infectious, it’s such a happy place to be. 


Why did you choose to teach at Alex?

When I was in teacher training college, my mum started teaching in the 6th Class in Alex, so I heard a lot about Alex through her. It sounded like it had a lovely holistic approach to teaching that I hadn’t seen in other schools that I went out to during teacher training. At times I would come in and help out with some of the younger children in the Kindergarten, so when I was offered a job in that class I jumped at the opportunity. From the minute I started, I was amazed by the Froebelian ethos - learning is child-led and open-ended, and so it allows each child to develop their learning experiences in a hands-on way. Family Group work and reading, where the older children read to younger ones, enables younger girls to develop relationships with older girls and creates a lovely school community that you don’t always see. I also love the thinking behind the school Crest, and how the school values art, music, sport and academic learning equally. 


You also volunteer often at the LauraLynn Children’s Hospice - what has your experience volunteering been like?

I started volunteering at the LauraLynn when it opened 10 years ago, and it’s just an amazing place. It’s full of wonderful children, families, and staff, and no two days are the same. Sometimes you’re helping out with baking, or art, or a lot of the time you’re reading stories to the children. Then at Christmas time, I’m always dressed as an elf helping out in Santa’s Grotto! It’s always fun, and it takes you out of your comfort zone.  I find that it’s different in some ways to the Preschool because a lot of the children are nonverbal, so you don’t get a lot of feedback when you’re doing an activity. I found that quite hard at the beginning because I’d read a story and there wouldn’t any interaction from the children whereas in the Preschool I’d be interrupted, they’d share their opinions, and sharing in the process. In the end though, children are children no matter what. They all love music and movement and singing, and they all develop and thrive in a loving, nurturing environment. 

In the last couple of years, we’ve done some fundraising for the LauraLynn in the Junior School, with Christmas Jumper Days and bake sales, and it’s also given me an opportunity to talk to the girls about my personal experiences volunteering. I think it’s nice for them to hear about where the money is going and relate to some of the stories.


How have you adapted your teaching for Covid-19? Is there anything you’ll continue to do going forward?

Last January during the lockdown we started to teach Preschool Lower through Zoom, and it was not without its challenges! On the first day, I muted the class during story time only to find that the only way to unmute them was to send them an invitation to unmute themselves. Obviously, the girls could not read the notification, and it ended up with me shouting down the computer for the parents to come back into the room and unmute them! It ended up being a lot of fun and we all adapted to it. Show and Tell often consisted of dogs being brought on as guests, and PE classes with Ms Wales often included siblings and grannies! They adapted to it really well and it was loads of fun, but we were so glad to be back in the classroom in the end. 

One thing that we found very beneficial in the classroom was dividing the class into two pods, with each one using a separate end of the classroom. The smaller groups and lack of visitors coming into the Preschool has helped the children settle in quickly and get to know each other sooner. We also try to use the outdoors a lot more for both learning and play, and they really love that, and then there is the added bonus of lots of handwashing, which is always a Preschool favourite!


What has been the highlight of your teaching career so far?

One of the highlights has definitely been seeing some of the girls that started aged four with me go through the Junior School and Senior School. I’ve seen a few girls come back as Transition Years to come to help out as part of their work experience, and I’ve even seen a few come back to do their work placements with us after teacher training college! It’s just been amazing to see their transformation over the years, and become confident and capable. At our Open Days in years past, some of the J5 and J6 girls would come to help out on the day showing around prospective families. They would share what they do in Preschool and share some of their own memories from their time in the Preschool, which was very special. Often these were the girls who were shy and anxious during their first few weeks, and it was lovely to see the way they had transformed throughout the journey. 

Within the classroom, the highlights are definitely non-uniform days like Halloween or World Book Day and just to see the excitement of the girls when they come in. It’s always a crazy day, but it’s so much fun! To be honest though, every day in Preschool is full of highlights. It’s a pleasure to watch the world through their eyes with everything being new and exciting, and they’re so full of enthusiasm, and they’re just wonderful to be around.