Back in my Liverpool home

So nearly 3 months have passed since returning to Liverpool and at the request of so many people I have decided to continue with my blog!

I moved back to Liverpool at the beginning of August after an emotional final few days in Brussels. The 1st few days being back involved me moving back into my house, lots of cleaning and organising things ably assisted by some amazing friends who gave up a lot of their time to help. One thing to look forward to was a family holiday to Cornwall. I had never been before and it was the ideal time to spend quality time with everyone after being away for so long. Staying in a very old cottage we where able to explore without having to travel too far. Managed to visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan, The Eden Project, Padstow, Tintagel, Port Isaac and a few other local places. After spending a year trying so many different Belgian beers I decided to carry on with the traditional sampling the best beer and cider that Cornwall had to offer 🙂

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The rest of the summer was spent visiting friends and catching up and before I knew it I was back at Broadgreen and the beginning of term! I received a lovely welcome back and a few people didn’t recognise me, especially with the beard and weight loss 🙂 After a few days it felt like I had never left which is not a bad thing and soon found that not much had changed! I found it comforting working with some of my best friends but also missing the buzz of Belgium.

This month I was also invited back to the Science Learning Centre in York to present a case study of how my career has taken off since completing the STACS (Senior Technicians Co-Leaders in Science) course in 2011 to this years cohort. It gave me a chance to look back at how much I have achieved in just a few years and share my experience of doing such a valuable qualification.

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So as we come to the end of a very busy and long half term I can reflect on some of the changes in my life. Things are looking up in both my professional and personal life.  In work I have been given more responsibilities. This is something I have been craving as I try and progress in my career. Some of it will provide a steep learning curve but I am up for the challenge!

This term as I am a member of the ASE Technicians Committee we are continuing to find ways to promote the role of a technician. Unfortunately with so many budget restraints in schools pay is always going to be an issue. Instead we are focusing on self promotion and trying to increase understanding of the role in our own schools. This was discussed in the monthly ASETechs Tweetups. These take place on the 1st Wednesday of each month and the highlights can be found here. Feel free to join the next one in November!

https://storify.com/ASETechs/tech-recognition

The Technicians Facebook group continues to go from strength to strength and we are hoping to have a 1000 members before Xmas. Lots of excellent advice and tips are shared on a daily basis and we have a very supportive community.

In my personal life, after such a horrendous year, I have unexpectedly met a fellow cat lover called Rachael who has become a very important part of my life. She’s beautiful, makes me laugh, inspires me and has helped me regain a lot of the confidence I had lost. Did I mention she has cats..;)

So that’s it for this update! Hope you enjoy it and thanks for all the great feedback. Phil

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The Last Post (A review of my year in Belgium)

So today is my last day at BSB and also in Belgium. Hard to believe that I have been here for almost a year. Lots of mixed emotions today, and I have to believe that I made the right decision to return to Liverpool. There is no doubt that the decision last June to move to Brussels has affected me in ways I couldn’t have predicted.

My past experience of travelling abroad in the last 40 or so years has been 2 city breaks to Paris and Ireland and a holiday to Toronto and New York. With that in mind, this made my decision extremely tough as I have always been insecure about travelling, especially around Europe as my language skills are not the best! But with the support of friends and family I accepted the job and started planning the move. In July last year I visited Brussels to find somewhere to live and this was the first time I had travelled abroad on my own. It was a great experience and although I didn’t find accommodation at the time it was a very worthwhile trip.

Last august I said aurevoir to my belongings as they made the trip a couple of weeks before me and I started arranging nights out to say my goodbyes. The week before I left the UK, I went on holiday with my family to a large house we had rented in Lincolnshire and we had a fantastic time. The last day was tough as I realised it was going to be a while until I got to see them again face to face.

This is when my journey began, physically and metaphorically. With not finding somewhere to live, HR pointed me in the direction of a staff member that sometimes offered rooms to new arrivals until they could find somewhere themselves. Fortunately for me it turned out that they were 2 of the most amazing people you could hope to meet. Friendly, funny, good cooks and with working at the school, they were able to provide advice and insight to me as I found my way around the local area.

Living in Tervuren has been amazing. It’s a beautiful town that sits in between the hustle and bustle of Brussels and the laid back university city of Leuven. There are a lot of expats, as well as some of the friendliest people you could ever meet. Coming from Liverpool which is also a very friendly place, it felt like a home from home. There are some great restaurants, pubs, bars and local bakeries.

With the decision not to bring my car, the issue of travelling around was a bit of an problem at times. I suffer from osteoarthritis in my hip which needs replacing and I was also hugely overweight. In the run up to Christmas last year I was able to get a lift to work or at least half way and walk the rest. So many staff at BSB offered me lifts to functions or just on their way home I started to rely on them too much, especially with the huge roadworks outside school it meant them going out of their way. Travelling to Brussels meant a 20 min walk to the tram stop and coming home it’s all up hill!

The Christmas holidays arrived and I returned to Liverpool to catch up with family and friends and also to see my 3 cats who I was really missing. Unfortunately a couple of days before Christmas my wife left me and I returned to Belgium in the new year dazed, depressed and in a very dark place. With support from school, friends and family in Belgium and back in Liverpool, I did my best to stay positive and I made a conscious decision to embrace the country and the culture and I put myself out there more.

The biggest decision I made, was to try and lose the weight that was affecting my health so much. I had started with some success the year before but this was the time to up my game. Making the most of the beautiful park and forest on my doorstep, I started walking to work and back everyday and even heading off into the forest of a weekend to clear my mind and get some fresh air. At work, I changed my diet and cut back on all the treats that would come in to the staffroom. As I write this post I can proudly say that I have hit my target weight loss of 5 stone (32kg). Over the years I have tried and tried and not got anywhere with dieting but since everything changed at Christmas I have managed to stay focused even with the lure of trying new beers! AIthough I have reached my target, I am setting another one for when I get back to the UK. One of the benefits of this is having the opportunity to go shopping and buy myself a new wardrobe!

Coming to terms with all the changes in my life this year has been difficult but I have found that surrounding yourself with positive people has helped ease the pain. It can help you make clearer decisions and change your whole mood when you can’t see the wood for the trees. The walks to work of a morning have been a blessing and a curse. As I started the journey, I found myself flooded with emotions and what if’s, how things could have been different if only I… but by the time I had got to work I would recover and focus on the positives, the people I had met, the beautiful scenery, newly found confidence, the experiences of working abroad.

Making the decision to come over to Belgium last year was difficult but making the decision to return to Liverpool was even harder. Lots of people say you shouldn’t go back but I miss my friends and family and I know I will have to deal with lots of issues which can only be done by being in Liverpool. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time over here and made some fantastic friends. The job, although challenging, has increased my science knowledge, developed my management skills and improved my confidence. Working in a school that provides such superb facilities has been a steep learning curve as I had never done so much Biology!. It has helped working in a very knowledgeable and understanding department with some very talented teachers and technicians.

Some of the highlights of my year include:

– A local streetparty

– Getting to see comedian Mark Thomas live, after years of near misses.

– Zythos Beer Festival (my 1st one)

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– My first proper Xmas market in Germany

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Attending the Duchess of Richmond Ball celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

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– Hee Tervuren festival weekend.

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– The Belgian National Cycling Race went through Tervuren.

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– Going to Brussels drinking and not getting home till 4! (haven’t done that for years)

– A last minute dash to Leuven to see Scala + Kolacny Brothers play a music festival in Leuven.

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If you don’t know who Scala are check out this video.

– Discovering so many amazing beers!!

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So as I fly back tonight, I can look back at the amazing time I have had and I will always have the memories. I have made so many new friends and shared some fantastic experiences with them and I can always look forward to returning for a visit and who knows what might happen in the future.  To the people who moved on whilst I was away, it’s their loss.

As for the future…

“Our future will be shaped by the assumptions we make about who we are and what we can be” R.M Kanter

I have even made a video of some of my highlights. Thanks to everyone who has supported and been there for me on this adventure and for reading my blog!

Getting more cultured!

Now that my replacement has been chosen, I am working on experiencing as much of Belgium as possible before heading back to Liverpool in the summer. This started a couple of weeks ago with a visit to Cinquantenaire.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinquantenaire

Bearing a very similar resemblance to a famous Paris landmark it is flanked by 2 museums. One being a war museum and the other called Autoworld. A very lavish Ferrari was parked outside advertising the fact it was a car museum.

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In front of the striking archway is a public park with a fountain and lots of stalls and attractions around the centrepiece. These included food stalls, theatre groups and a silent disco! This was all complemented by a bed of pink and red tulips that were in full bloom.2015-04-18 15.11.42 2015-04-18 15.08.07

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As it was such a beautiful day I then jumped back on the Metro and decided to head into Brussels to have a beer in the sunshine outside a lovely cafe and watch some street artists perform in the square. Brussels was the busiest I had seen it as I walked back towards Grand Place to see if anything was going on in the square but I had just missed a local flower sale which given my track record looking after plants was probably a good thing! Managed to get a few more pics of the beautiful buildings around me again whilst avoiding the many “selfie” sticks about!

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The following week was all about the Zythos Beer festival in Leuven! Meeting up at the bus station in Leuven we took the free shuttle bus to a business park just outside the town to a big warehouse. There were hundreds of people there from all over the world and it was amazing to hear all the different languages and accents from around the globe. Lots of people were dressed up in various fancy dress including monks, nuns and bottles of beer! For 10 Euros you were given a tasting glass and 7 credits to go and sample some of the 1000’s of beers on offer.

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There were so many beers to choose from that you are also given a catalogue as you go in! Out of the ones I tried I enjoyed nearly all of them apart from one very dark beer as it was so bitter. My favourite was also the weakest and it was a coconut beer made by the brewers behind Delirium. Yes I did say coconut! They also had Banana, Peach and Cactus flavours…

After a few hours of trying out the beer we decided to head back to Leuven for food. Whilst waiting to get the shuttle bus I got chatting to a couple of very drunk Belgian guys who actually worked in a brewery. They had won so many beers in the Tombola they were selling them off at a Euro a bottle. Whilst in Leuven town centre it’s always worth popping into one of the many beer shops and picking up some of the more unusual beers available.

Hoping to get some more visits in the next few weeks so stay tuned 🙂

Solar Eclipse – A view from Brussels

Three days before the partial eclipse and the weather around Brussels was fabulous. Cold and frosty in the morning but then bright sunshine. 24 hours before the eclipse and it’s thick cloud and zero visibility. The actual day of the eclipse and it was just as bad, but undeterred we set up tables with our pin hole cameras and held our breath for a gap in the clouds! Whilst we were waiting to see anything we had the live stream from the BBC website in the prep room and it seemed that the Faroe Islands were having similar problems to us.

Then it appeared! Faintly at first but enough to get a good view and snap a few pictures. I’m quite pleased with some of the images and they where captured by my Galaxy S4. I even prefer this to a normal camera these days as the picture quality is great for day to day things.

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We had set up desks with pin hole cameras and binoculars so that as many students as possible could take part as can be seen in BSB’s official photos. It did become noticeably colder and darker but then again it wasn’t the best day for seeing the sun!

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Meanwhile back in my home town of Liverpool there were some fantastic shots appearing as they had a lot less clouds! This was my favourite picture of the day.

http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/solar-eclipse-dazzles-liverpool-merseyside-8882832

All over social media there have been some great stories and pictures of such a rare occurrence and it’s great to see Science and Nature so prominent in the public eye. And that’s it for us for a while. Check out when the next one is appearing near you next!

http://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/list-solar.html

The Role of a School Science Technician

My first post of the new year is not about living in Belgium but about the role that a Science Technician plays in a successful Science Department.

A number of times I have been asked to explain what I do, but it’s difficult as there are so many different things. One of the companies that support Science Departments (Sciencecraft) asked what was it like to be a Technician and this was the reply from Chris Hardie working in a school in Middlesex:

http://blog.sciencecraft.co.uk/

Fast forward to 2015 and I am one of the lucky ones who has been recognised for my achievements over the last few years which has culminated in my current role as Head Technician at BSB, one of the best schools in Europe. Without the advice and support from the many Technicians and Teachers I have had the pleasure of speaking to I would not be where I am today.

Because of this I try everyday to support other Technicians. As a member of The ASE Technicians Committee we discuss ways that we can support and improve not only how we do our job, but to ensure that people outside of Science can see the valuable role that we provide. We encourage more Technicians to apply for RSCi and RScitech. This is to show employers that we have the skills and experience to do the job. It also shows a commitment to the role.

http://www.ase.org.uk/professional-development/registered-science-technician-rscitech/

In 2013 I set up a forum for Technicians to complement the other ones available. In under 18 months this community has expanded to nearly 700 technicians who on a daily basis go out of their way to support others, share amazing ideas for new practicals or help us to improve our skills. In an age when education is losing money it is becoming increasingly difficult to be able to attend external CPD courses but this is the next best thing.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/schoolsciencetechnicians/

Inspired by others I set up a questionnaire and shared it across the internet to find out more about the Science Technician Community and found some interesting stats. Out of 627 replies:

80% of Science Technicians are female

0% Science Technicians were under 21 and only 10% were under 30. Only 20% were under 40.

25% have been a Technician for over 20 years

50% are educated to degree level including 10 who are P.H.D’s

65% had attended an external CPD course in the last 2 years

The full results of the survey can be found here:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1xSLZLqFuOXhkfjYUC_TBjnzdcr8Oxz2oJRH0B43uDfE/viewanalytics

The biggest concern here is the ages of Technicians. With so few younger people joining our profession it is becoming less and less attractive as a career for the under 30’s and who can blame them? One of the questions I asked was what one thing would you change about being a Technician? Out of all the responses there were a couple of big things to come out. Now if you are a Technician these will not surprise you…

Better pay.

Lack of recognition for the skills we have.

These 2 responses are linked together but unfortunately a lot of schools and educational establishments can’t see this. Whenever I see jobs advertised it is very rare that the pay is over £20,000 even for a Senior Technician. For a Science Technician, pay is usually advertised at below £17,000 and even rarer that the job is full time. When you then look at the job requirements it nearly always asks for the candidate to be educated to degree standard. How many other jobs do you know where that level of education pays so low?

It is when you look at the actual job descriptions you realise how little school management understands our role. Often you see jobs such as photocopying, displays and invigilation listed as part of the job description. Departments that don’t have Technicians have to do their own so why is it different in Science? Until the majority of leadership realise we are more than just “staff who can do things teachers aren’t allowed to” nothing will change.

That’s where we come in. As a Technician who has managed to get Leadership to see my role as one that should be respected and the benefits it can bring in improving the Science Department, I call on other Technicians to do the same. Invite your Headteacher up to observe when you are demonstrating to a class, take photos of experiments were you can see students enjoying the Science, get involved in open nights so parents can see who you are. Promote yourself!

We are very lucky at the moment that we have the support of so many outside agencies who are trying to convince schools of our value. Some of these include The ASE, CLEAPSS, The Science Council, Science Learning Centres, Gatsby and companies such as Gratnells and Sciencecraft to name a few.

There are also a lot of Technicians getting involved in discussions on Twitter and promoting our role including @LammasScience @ASETechs @TechknowUK @Chimbles84 @quinnell75 and many more. We even started a Technician Tweetup last year which runs on the 1st Wednesday of the month. Previous ones can be found here:

https://storify.com/ASETechs

So although it can seem a bit doom and gloom at times we love our job and always do our best to ensure that students get the most out of their Science lessons and want to go on and study Science in the future. YOU can make a difference, YOU just have to believe.

The Social Side

It hasn’t all been work, work, work though and I have been exploring more. On a recent Bank Holiday (on a Tuesday!) I went for brunch with the technicians of BSB past and present to Stonemanor which is a British shop and Tearooms which serves teacakes, scones and cheese on toast!

The shop itself is amazing. It’s only when you walk round you realise how much “English” food you miss. Salt & Vinegar crisps, Hovis bread, potato cakes, scotch eggs! Not very cheap as they have to import it all via Waitrose…

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After brunch a trip to Leuven was on the cards. Nearly everywhere was closed apart from a pub called Domus which serves their own beer brewed on site. A few beers later and some amazing spicy chicken wings it was off to the cinema to see Interstellar. The film itself was in English but there were French and Dutch subtitles at the bottom of the screen which was distracting at first but after a while I started trying to practice my Dutch reading skills. Great movie by the way and a superb soundtrack as well.

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Last Sunday I was given the opportunity to visit a traditional Xmas Market actually in Germany. We visited a town called Monschau just over the border which was about 90 min away. It was just how I imagined it to be. Extremely quaint and old fashioned set in the base of a valley. Anyone who knows me also knows my nickname is The Grinch around this time of year but dare I say it? I actually felt Christmassy.

Some of the local shops where selling beautiful homemade mustards and pates and there were some fantastic arts and crafts places as well. Handy as I picked up a few Xmas presents as well.

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The food and drink was excellent especially the Gluwein (mulled wine) with Amaretto in (available in Aldi in the UK!). This was a great way of warming up in freezing conditions. Food wise I had some Brockwurst sausage, Mushrooms cooked in garlic butter with bacon lardons, potato cakes with apple sauce and of course Snitzel and Stollen. We went into a couple of pubs with really friendly and welcoming staff which made us feel right at home drinking some German Beer (not as good as Belgian though…).

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At the beginning of December I was honoured to be invited for drinks and to meet up with the Science Council and their partners as they were in Brussels visiting the European Parliament to discuss EU Science Policy. As an RScitech it was great to meet so many people involved in different aspects of Science on a daily basis.

As I went into the city straight from work, I took the opportunity to have a look around the Brussels Xmas Market and to visit Grand Place to see their giant tree. The bar we met up in was called Bonnefooi and I would heartily recommend it. A very shabby chic place with musical instruments mounted on the wall and playing a mixture of Soul, Acid Jazz, Trip Hop and Lounge Music. They even have live music and DJ’s on most nights.

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http://www.bonnefooi.be/

It has also been a difficult few weeks dealing with homesickness as it’s been over 2 months since my last weekend home and I really miss my family. Skype is handy and useful but it can’t replace the real thing.

Anyway this is my last update of 2014 and it’s nearly time for the Xmas holidays which I know a lot of teaching staff look forward to more than the summer ones. I’d just like to say a big thank you to everyone for taking the time to read my posts and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you in 2015!

Visit to Technopolis and Mira

So it’s been a while since my last update but it has been a busy few weeks in the run up to Christmas. Lots of big practicals going on and the classic dilemma of trying to perform photosynthesis experiments in December! A couple of weeks ago I went on my first school trip to the amazing Technopolis which is only about 30 min away from School. We took Year 11 on a day of science discovery where they could try loads of great hands on equipment and experiments.

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http://www.technopolis.be/eng/

One of the most impressive things at Technopolis is their giant Rude Goldberg machine which I unfortunately did not see in action on the day but to give you an idea what one is check out this video by OK Go.

After a great morning exploring and a quick lunch break, we headed off to Mira which is an observatory just outside Brussels. (It’s also next door to one of the best breweries in Belgium but that’s another tale…). Not knowing what to expect, I was thrown by the coach turning a tight corner into a narrow road. Up ahead was a big hill with a beautiful church on top and my thinking was perhaps it’s in the church or at least next to it. Nope. We pulled in and there was the observatory. At the bottom of a hill, behind a restaurant! Very unassuming and quite small, Mira still managed to deliver. We sat through a presentation on sunspots and then headed up to the roof to look through a telescope and see them for ourselves. Again I was thrown by what to expect. In a very small “shed” they had a couple of impressive telescopes that we could look through. Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse as we went to look through the lens and we didn’t get to see very much. Still it didn’t matter and it was great to see the students being enthused by our guides and we even got to see a small piece of rock from Mars!

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