Meet Tom Vafidis
What are the biggest challenges affecting young people today and how, as a teacher, do you overcome them?
- A huge question to start with! Young people clearly experience manifold challenges in facing modern adolescence; some of which are new, and some of which aren’t. Social media has undoubtedly had an impact- social pressures are now non–stop, and attention spans are threatened by a world in which instant gratification is now the gold standard. I think the most significant challenge for students is to successfully navigate all that and put technology back in its box. The successful learner knows how to work and also knows how far a tool such as the internet can and should take them
As Lead i/c of High Potential Learners and Challenge, how do you push learners to excel past the boundaries of the curriculum?
- I think my last point in the question above is a good place to start here. Our central aim is to help create students that are independent and self-reliant. Stretch and challenge therefore has to have a lot to do with giving our pupils the tools, the knowledge and the expertise to further their own learning. Having an interest is of limited use if you don’t have the resources to capitalise on it. The other massive part of what we do is exposure. I’m a great believer in the importance of academic depth, but you can’t cultivate that successfully if you don’t start with breadth. We make sure that our students have access to as broad a curriculum as possible; incorporating the co-curricular, as well as traditional academic subjects. Giving students the opportunity to discover what they are passionate about allows for a far firmer foundation on which to build real academic rigour. To facilitate this, we now offer a comprehensive programme for our academic scholars and high-potential students; this includes a programme of short lectures, our academic mentoring scheme, scholars’ society teas and more. We have a
What is your favourite thing about your job?
- Another tricky one. I am somewhat infamous for working my way into just about every aspect of school life that I can; and the breadth, scope and scale of what goes on at Ashford School itself is a huge part of what makes my job so enjoyable. There is a huge amount of diverse expertise here, but I have come across few schools where the faculties are so well-integrated and the school so institutionally strong. If pushed to choose a couple of favourites, I would probably go for the following; the first being VI form history teaching. My side of the course looks in-depth at 20c Britain for A-Level, which is currently particularly fascinating in drawing out the complex strands that lead ultimately to our current political situation. I am very lucky to teach such interested and capable historians, and it is always a particular privilege to watch these students evolve into university standard analytical thinkers. My other great love is school music. I think that a musical education is fundamentally important and its rude health at Ashford School is an essential barometer for judging what we do here. A particular privilege is conducting the Ashford Youth Jazz Orchestra; this comprises the best jazz musicians from school in partnership with the highest –level young players around the Ashford area. We’ve toured internationally, appeared in a range of festival concerts and have even appeared live on BBC1 in the last year. Leading such an accomplished group is immensely rewarding- but we also great fun. The term ‘licenced hooliganism’ has in the past been bandied around. I shan’t comment.
Who inspires you in life outside School?
- Anyone who has talent which they’ve honed, developed and worked on to achieve something extraordinary. Most Olympians fall into this category. I also have huge admiration for Jacob Collier- an extraordinary musician who built the foundations of his career through YouTube posts. I think we can all learn from proactive, gifted people who are willing to graft needed to fully realise their potential.
What qualities do you admire in role models?
- All the familiar qualities of hard work, steadfastness and willingness to be true to one’s beliefs whilst being open to the views of others. A quality I also particularly admire in others is eloquence. The ability to express yourself fluently, argue cogently and speak elegantly is in increasingly short supply amongst public figures. I admire those that continue to exhibit and promote it, and I hope we do our very best to foster it in our students here. Inspiration needs articulation.
What’s your favourite topic to talk about and why?
- I’ve always loved discussing politics, and have tried not to shy away from events too much in the last year! I also love breadth however I will happily chunter on about history, architecture, music or food. My footballing chat is sadly appalling, but I do my best…
What is your favourite memory of being a student at Friars?
- There are a few involving writing lines which I won’t go into! The school had a huge impact on me, and I still very much consider myself a Friars boy. I first went there from a local primary and a few memories really stand out; a very retro science lab, stuffed with artefacts, burn marks on the benches and interesting smells. I also have very fond memories of the music; there was a fabulous music room with huge serlian windows overlooking the fields. Being able to sing in a proper chamber choir, play in an orchestra and even go on tour to Barcelona was just fantastic. I think above everything my favourite memory of the school was the grounds, especially the old cricket pitch, and top field. I remember being bowled over by the space; the place felt more like being in a guest in a small stately home than a school. A true family school, with all the trimmings of an old-style prep; flannel blazers, a close–knit culture, and iron discipline. I think I’m right in saying that the old Latin motto translates as ‘hard but fair’…
Summarise your greatest achievement – how did you achieve it?
- I’m hoping that it hasn’t happened yet! This is a really–hard question to answer but I think links to my previous answer. At Friars, I learned how to work- having been, bluntly, seriously all over the place when I arrived aged 9. Within a month of being there, a fairly withering report said ‘Tom has potential but always goes for the gap’. More prescient words were never said. From that point I learned to knuckle down and how to get the best out of school. By the time I left at 13, I held scholarships to my senior school and went on to do history at Oxford. I firmly believe that if I’d been to school somewhere else, my life would have been very different. That’s why what we do here matters so much.
What does it mean to provide students with an Education with Character?
- The dictionary definition of this focuses on ensuring that education serves to develop the whole person, rather than simply hothousing a single subject or skills set. At Ashford, I think this boils down to opportunity. The array of activities available is almost unparalleled, and as a head of house I’ve experienced more of these than I previously knew existed! I subscribe to the view that a good education should be about attempting things that make you uncomfortable and push your beyond the familiar. Only by doing so can you continue to grow and develop. I do my best to model this and encourage my students to do the same. Character is something to be built- and education with character should be about giving our students the tools, ethic and resilience to stretch themselves. Opportunities are the basis– thought not the whole solution– to this.
Is there a particular moment in your teaching career that has been most rewarding? What is it?
- Another difficult one to boil down. Some of the larger achievements have been fantastic; helping a student win their place at Oxford is a particular highlight, as was performing live on BBC1 with the Jazz Orchestra. Great as such things are though, this isn’t really what makes the job rewarding. Infinitely more so, are the snippets day to day. If a class leaves a lesson discussing what they’ve just done, when a student particularly ‘gets’ a complex issue, or when year 7 write their first extended essay and realise it is not, in fact, a form of torture. In my book, these everyday accomplishments are the true measure of what makes teaching worth doing.
What made you decide to teach History?
- Like any good history essay, I think there are a range of factors. I read history at university and have always been fascinated by the way in which the past can be used to inform the present. I also think that history is incredibly important as a subject discipline. If you want to be able to argue- study history. If you want to be able to evaluate the evidence in front of you and decide what to trust- study history. These skills strike me as particularly vital in the 21st century, as dodgy news outlets, and expedient readings of the past become increasingly commonplace in everyday life. Above all– history is also viscera, exciting and great fun. Generations of year 7s will attest that no other subject features anything like the same quantity of blood and guts.
How do you keep your students engaged in class?
- I think the key is to avoid being too formulaic. History is all about debate and argument, so I think that lively discussion in class is essential. If students learn to articulate their views, defend their ideas in the face of scrutiny, then their written work becomes far more accomplished. I’m a big fan of post-it notes, they are a great way of getting students to make an instant judgement or a snap conclusion. Hot seat quizzes are great fun and get the whole group involved. For upper years, I love using cartoons and sources to burrow down into the politics, psyche or mood of a particular era. I have also been known to resort to silly voices and accents. Variety is the spice of life, history should never be considered from one angle, so neither should it be taught in one way.
As Head of Pilgrims, what is your secret to building camaraderie and unity across all years for house events?
- There is no single answer to this- but perhaps if there is a secret it is that it should have relatively little to do with the housemaster! My role is to lead by example, make sure that I am always present, always keen and always prepared for the unexpected. Beyond that, I think the key thing is ensuring that the students in the house know each other well, and have a bank of shared experiences. House competitions are a great vehicle for achieving this; for example in the summer we put on an amazing performance of Shrek in just two days (Tony nominations pending). We’re very lucky to have times in the year where the house can unite with a common purpose and achieve something together. Throughout the year, however its equally important to keep things mixed. We have weekly assemblies, and in addition to those led by me, different forms are tasked with taking on certain weeks. We also have an intra-house competition in Pilgrims. The house is split into 10 ‘Pilgrimages’; these small groups featuring a mix of students from different year groups are given challenges, quizzes and more. This is great fun, and essential in making sure that the house represents more than just a collection of forms.