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News > Queen's College News > In Conversation with Mr Willows

In Conversation with Mr Willows

History teacher Mr. Willows joined Queen's in 1999. Here he shares his thoughts on 'The Crown', our Diversity Action Group, the History curriculum and teaching at an all girls school for 20 years.

When did you start teaching at Queen's and why did you join? 

I started Queen’s in September 1999 – just before the Millennium. I joined Queen’s to become Head of History after a decade teaching boys in Croydon - chalk and cheese in many ways. I was particularly drawn to the central location and I loved the buildings; as a historian, our site at Queen’s is so fascinating and much nicer to teach in than the 1960s buildings I was used to in Croydon. I think there are lots of stereotypes about teaching all girls versus all boys. Some are definitely not true (for instance, I thought girls might be neater workers and take more pride in the appearance of their school work – some do, but a lot don’t!) I do think, however, that girls work more collaboratively together than a class of boys. 

How has the College changed in the years you have worked here? 

It has changed physically since I started, with lots of building work including an extended Hall and a whole new floor - the Sixth Form centre complete with glass walls and a lift! It now has a uniform which it didn’t when I started – so everyone dresses more smartly and less adventurously although there are some Seniors who still keep the flag flying for idiosyncratic outfits! It has a male Principal; a return to the origins of Queen’s, but different from the previous Principals I worked with. Overall, it is a little less quirky and a little more mainstream, but I strongly believe it has retained its special and unique ethos: A Queen’s girl (student) is still a Queen’s girl! 

What's been the highlight of your teaching career at Queen's to date? 

That’s a really hard one in 21 years. One of the things I have most enjoyed are the school trips abroad. In my early years, I went to Russia and then China and more recently to Turkey and New York. We were set to go to Washington before Covid intervened. The Battlefields trip is always special as we take the whole year group and stay overnight. Seniors’ trips to Germany and Poland are also very special too. 

And the lowlight? What have you found to be the main challenges of teaching during lockdown? 

Covid has been pretty awful and remote teaching. It’s been a tremendous learning curve with the IT and we’ve all done our best, but it can’t replace the face-to-face classroom experience.  

Without naming any names, what makes you particularly remember certain pupils? 

I have always had a good memory for faces and terrible memory for names – so might struggle to name names even if you asked! All teachers, I think, would admit to remembering best the slightly naughty and slightly cheeky students and those who are a little eccentric or individual. That covers quite a lot of Queen’s students! 

We know you've been working with the Diversity Action Group to ensure that our History Curriculum is more diverse. Can you tell us a bit about the key changes you've made in this regard? 

This is something that I genuinely feel passionately about. Over 20 years ago, I completed a Master’s in History in Education on how the History curriculum could be used to challenge racism, sexism and homophobia. I recently re-read it and it felt quite radical for the time.  But the Black Lives Matter protests last year led me to some serious soul-searching. For all sorts of reasons, I hadn’t fully delivered on the potential of that dissertation and this was something that I wanted to improve on. Over the summer, the department started reconstruction of the School curriculum aiming to ensure that a more diverse History curriculum was in place for September. The suggestions and comments from alumnae through the Diversity Action Group have been incredibly helpful here. The College curriculum will follow in future years. As well as adapting the topics we teach and the approaches we take to existing topics, I have organised ‘Continuing Professional Development’ (CPD) to help the department develop its teaching on Diversity; set up a History prize to encourage students to engage in original historical research on Black and Minority Ethnic themes; and invited historians to talk to us about their work. Dr Miranda Kaufmann, author of “Black Tudors”, will be starting us off next month.  

My highlight last term was when a Class 3 British-African student asked me “Will we be doing any African history?” and I could reply matter of factly, ”Oh yes, we will be looking at the Kingdom of Benin and West Africa next year”. It’s only a start and the curriculum will be constantly under review, but I am confident that real and meaningful change will result.   

Do you have any book recommendations for those interested in History? 

Given my previous comments, I would clearly recommend “Black Tudors” by Miranda Kaufmann and I am enjoying the new biography of Toussaint Louverture, “Black Spartacus” by  Sudhir Hazareesingh; the most significant work on him since C.L.R James. 

What era of History do you enjoy teaching the most/students enjoy the most? 

I genuinely enjoy all periods and I think that students can do so also, depending on the topic and approach. One of the beauties of History teaching is that you can regularly change the syllabus or topic at GCSE or A-level and learn about a new historical period. 

What is your least favourite period of History to teach? 

I think some topics are just inherently duller than others. For instance, I used to teach Victorian politics in detail and with topics such as the Irish Home Rule Bill, once you reach the third Bill it’s a bit of grind! Overall, I’m not the biggest fan of economic History.  However, one of the things I love about History is you can have a topic that seems fairly uninteresting and irrelevant for decades – such as the story of free trade and protectionism - and then suddenly, something happens in the present that makes it really relevant. The whole issue of free trade and tariffs is now rather relevant again because of Brexit!  

What do you think about Television Historians? 

I think there are arguments on both sides and sometimes they really do over-simplify History and it's all about the individual historian; but, generally, I think anyone who gets people interested in History is a force for good.  I have been looking into Black History recently and I do think that David Olusoga is amazing. He's such a good TV historian; he's got this wonderful voice that you want to listen to. He’s so engaging and is very good at telling the story in a way that captures people's interest.  

Where do you sit on historical fiction in films and TV shows? 

I generally enjoy them and I'm currently watching ‘The Great’, about Catherine the Great, on Channel 4. It’s silly and it’s fun - it’s also totally ahistorical and no basis for learning anything about  Russia! I love ‘The Crown’, but have mixed feelings when they deliberately make things up and film events with the wrong people, at the wrong time or in the wrong order, to suggest connections that were not there in reality. If ‘The Crown’ is your main way to learn about the history of Britain in the 1980s - which it might be for some young people - then that does worry me a bit.   

Recently an MP requested a ‘fiction disclaimer’ for the latest season of The Crown - do you agree with this? 

As a subject, I think History is really important for issues around fake news. I would certainly hope that when we teach History we are teaching pupils to be sufficiently sceptical when they’re watching programmes like ‘The Crown’. I hope that every Queen’s pupil, past and present, would watch it being fully aware that it’s a mixture of fact and fiction!  

What historical event do you wish people knew more about? 

That’s a toughie! Given Brexit, Scottish nationalism and the current questions about English identity I wish people knew more about Athelstan – the first king of England. 

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