“Half the village has seen me in my pyjamas”: the perks and perils of teaching in a rural school

The Key

Lisa Pettifer is the leader of professional development at The Nelson Thomlinson School in Wigton, Cumbria. She’s also an English teacher who is passionate about professional collaboration. Lisa spoke to us about the challenges of teaching in a rural context and her hopes for the College of Teaching. She’s moderate in everything, she says, except chocolate. Follow her @Lisa7Pettifer.


quote-start“Are you an arts or a science person?”, my geography teacher asked me during my GCE options meeting in 1981.

She completely flummoxed me. I couldn’t understand why a geography teacher would want to know this (nobody had told me she was also the school’s career adviser). We were in Grimsby: it was a working class area, and you got a job where you lived. What did it matter whether I was into the arts or the sciences?

The local market in Wigton, Cumbria.

The local market in Wigton, Cumbria.

Twenty-four years later, I wonder how many young people still don’t get the big picture and what going to school can mean for the rest of their lives.

I’m a bit of an arts person, it turned out. It was a module on language and education during my third year at Lancaster University that got me thinking about teaching, and I ended up being the first in my PGCE cohort to land a job: Caldew School in Dalston, Cumbria was looking for a ‘lively and creative’ English graduate. That has always stuck with me: I still feel I have to live up to that expectation – and retain that energy and freshness. I’ve been in Cumbria ever since, and am now head of professional development at The Nelson Thomlinson School in Wigton.

Challenges and stereotypes

Leading professional development is a challenge in rural Cumbria. There’s a lot to celebrate up here, but we’re battling a profile issue: unless we put ourselves out there, people forget that we exist. And publicity around Ofsted’s latest report on the county didn’t help – the report was a bit damning, but it was based on a swoop of inspections in late 2013. That’s not the latest reflection of secondary education in Cumbria!

Such reports affect people. They mean people don’t want to move their families to an area, and this impacts on local aspiration. It’s a bit tricky to defend against stereotypes – that’s why I wonder about that bigger picture.

The view from Lisa's classroom at Nelson Thom.

The view from Lisa’s classroom at Nelson Thomlinson.

Local accountability

The upside: the population here is stable, and there isn’t the choice of schools that parents have elsewhere. Schools are here to serve families, and often the same school serves the same family for generations. This brings me to local accountability. You belong to everybody else in a small community. I see our parents in the post office, at the rugby club, and in the pub on a Friday evening, when I’ll end up answering questions about blazers and after-school clubs. Half the village has seen me in my pyjamas!

My teacher friends in cities think I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In a rural area a teacher’s commitment is to her community, not just to her school. That’s something really special, and it’s a privilege.

Connecting the isolated

It can make us inward-looking, though. Two things I’d love to achieve: I’d help all teachers in isolated areas to look outwards, and I’d make collaboration between teachers much easier. At the moment, that means travelling. I went to the London Festival of Education this February, and down to Leeds for ResearchEd a few weeks ago. I’ll be back there in June for Northern Rocks before visiting Switzerland with the TES! I’m meeting more and more Cumbrians at these events, though, and that makes my heart smile.

This is where the College of Teaching comes in. I buy into it completely. To me, it could be an umbrella organisation for the profession, providing unity. It wouldn’t matter then where you were – you could have the same access to professional development resources in Cumbria as your counterpart in Bristol or Manchester. Any teacher, even in the loneliest school, would be connected. It’s also a chance for us to evaluate our own prejudices: I’ve changed my mind a lot since I got involved seven months ago.

The College also offers teachers a shared voice, so that we can be more vocal to the press, to policy groups and to the government. We need unions, yes, but they’re there to champion our working conditions. The College is for professional development: it’s right for us to keep those separate.

Eventually, wouldn’t it be brilliant if rural teachers became known for being forward-thinking and outward-looking? Being recognised as passionate and engaged professionals, not just country bumpkins: that would be great.quote-end


In a series for Key Insights, David Weston wrote about overcoming the barriers to powerful professional development. You can read part one here. If you’re a member of our service for school leaders, why not take a look at our articles on CPD? The @CollofTeaching are now looking for trustees with professional knowledge. Are you interested? Click here, if so.

Do you work in a small rural school? Visit www.thekeysupport.com/summer to find out more about how The Key can support you.

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