Let me tell you a story…

Once upon a time one man had a dream to reconnect communities with nature, the Forest School way. His journey to this destination has never been told, until now…

Hey you wonderful human being! I’m Mark Bumford, the founder of Eco Ed Forest School based in Oldham, Manchester, England, United Kingdom, World, The Milky Way. Let me tell you how it all began.

I’ll start by taking you back to 2012 when I was a fresh faced, poised to make a difference, newly qualified early years teacher.

You know the ones, the really small children that think licking someone’s face is a form of communication? I’d just come out of 4 years of university, 3 doing a degree and 1 doing teacher training.

Of which the 4th being particularly brutal following the last 4 months in an inner city primary school. Here I was consistently told I wasn’t good enough as a teacher, unaccepted by members of the staff and being particularly disliked by one little girl who enjoyed launching wooden blocks at me, any attempt she got. Amazing right?

Life up to and around that point was incredible. I’d grown up in a beautiful part of Mid Wales, worked hard to achieve what I had by being a strong willed go getter and was supported 100% by my family.

Credit; M Bumford

Idyllic some might say and yeah it truly was. I’d started on this path because I had a ‘knack with kids’. I didn’t know I had. I’d been told… many times

‘You know, you should be a teacher’ they said.

‘Aren’t you great with kids’ they would continue.

This went in, and undoubtedly inflated my once massive ego! We all have one at a point, don’t deny it. I became convinced that teaching and all the trappings was for me. A career, good salary, safety, security, you know the dream life.

After what was a much more successful first placement at another school, learning the basics and coming out with the label of a ‘Good’ teacher I was making progress toward my goal!

Not perfect, but this was my first placement. I felt I’d learnt a huge amount and this job was the perfect fit for me. I was becoming a teacher and I was so excited for that.

Those same skills I’d learnt and used there got me a job 6 months into teacher training. The dream was literally becoming reality at a fast pace and in hind sight maybe this inflated my ego even more.

However, the whole brutal experience on my last placement, before my new job, really affected me and the belief I had in my own ability to teach.

Maybe I wasn’t as good as I’d thought? Maybe I was making a mistake? Was I actually cut out to be a teacher? They just don’t understand me! They don’t know what their talking about!

Through this self talk and self searching there became a huge ego driven desire in my life to prove I was a good teacher to others and that I was right. My kryptonite at the time.

Many years later for the first time I realised two things from that time; I couldn’t deal with rejection leading to that overwhelming desire and that all schools are not the same.

A teacher’s success or failure all depends on if they fit into the mould of what a school is trying to achieve. The first school I had, the second I certainly had not.

I suppose luckily, I seemed to fit into the mould my new school set out, otherwise why give me a job? I soon moved up in the summer of 2012, just after the Olympics, to a new town, ready to start my new job.

I had achieved my dream and this was a fresh start. Self belief or not.

One thing was for sure, I needed to ‘get in check’ my early 20’s ego and to actively take every opportunity as a chance to learn.

Did I listen to my own advice? I made some big mistakes and errors in judgement trying to prove myself to colleagues and more awkwardly myself. At times the big ego certainly made trouble for myself in those first few years!

Looking back. Without these mistakes I wouldn’t have been able to learn as much as I have about myself or find my eventual path.

When I’d sat there during teacher training lectures in those huge seminar rooms, on those cold winter days, staring at Powerpoint slide number 4 of 56 and I’d already been there half an hour, I began to ponder on my dream of becoming a teacher and what I wished to achieve from it.

All I wanted to do was impact on children’s lives, shape their futures and become THAT teacher that when an ex pupil reached 40 and their child asked them who their favourite teacher was, they wouldn’t pause to say it was me!

Upon entering teaching with my overwhelming desires to avoid rejection and prove myself, these days of pondering provided a powerful cocktail of needing to go about teaching in a novel way, drawing excitement, risk, intrigue, problem solving and fun into all my lessons carried out through child led play.

I saw it as my way to stand out and attract compliments about my teaching abilities whilst also honouring the way in which children learn best at their earliest stages.

When the children responded to this way of teaching, they provided me with the seeds of self belief, and for a time I started to believe again in my ability as a teacher.

Upcoming publication by Eco Ed Forest School

However, as someone once identified you can spot the pioneers as they’re lay down in the mud with arrows in their back.

What I learnt quickly in practice is that schools like a formula. A measurable, achievable teaching formula. Something, learning through my preferred style, was not. It was difficult for others to see method in my perceived madness. A return to square one of self belief followed.

Sadly, I learnt the hard way and struggled with convincing colleagues and bosses that this was a way to do things that empowered children to want to learn like they had rocket fuel inside them, ready to use.

They must have wondered who this upstart was. The good old ego accounted for most of that. I knew my way was certainly not the only way, but it was my way. I made voice heard on the matter.

But this forced me to travel on a lonely road, no matter how hard I tried to convince bosses and prove to myself I was good enough.

It was like I was climbing a vertical mountain, that was made of ice and I was wearing flip flops.

I soon questioned why was I fighting it and I became moldable to the fit. I allowed myself to be manipulated under the persistent, pervasive pressure teachers are today put under, folding like a sponge to conformity and teaching set patterns like a + b = ‘successful child’.

If I listened to them, then maybe I could prove I was good enough, was my logic at the time.

Where had that strong willed, go getter, gone? I’d always been a determined soul, but a constant no plays heavy on the mind. Ironically, by appeasing the ‘master’ I began to receive validation from colleagues.

One thing that become crystal clear during this period was that playing their game did very little for my self belief, despite this new external validation. It all sat very uneasily with me.

I actually became deeply unhappy, unfulfilled and my classes, yeah they suffered. I turned in, did the job and left. Spending my evening sat on the sofa, beer in hand unmotivated to get up off it and prepare for the following day.

I’m ashamed to say it but that was my truth at the time. This ‘robot’ was not me. More importantly I felt that this was not what I signed up for, 2 years into my ‘career’ that I had known to last people over 40 years!

It all came to a head, even after conforming like a sponge, in a meeting over ‘outcomes’ for my class. I knew they were where I said they were. I knew that those children had the skills I said they did. I KNEW!

But, apparently, my word and professional knowledge was as much use as a chocolate teapot. What a finishing blow to the stomach.

Written proof was needed in more quantity, which I didn’t have, nor did I believe children of 4 should be forced to produce.

My beliefs about children and need to prove myself mattered for nothing. The dragon within me went into battle…. Once again I got my hand slapped.

Why was proving myself so damn hard? Why couldn’t they see what I did? Why was my best not good enough? What I was doing clearly wasn’t the way and I had no idea of what was. I felt like giving up right there and then.

Then, literally as if by chance, something amazing had been staring me in the face for over two years and I’d been dabbling with it for over 4. As I sat in my empty classroom, chairs half tucked under by the children earlier, cold cup of tea in hand and looking out of the window with my mind racing…

I saw it.

There was and still to this day sits a small copse of woods that commands the bottom of the schools playing field. This copse I had been looking at, commenting on and remembering sweet childhood memories I had felt in similar woods, for over 2 years that I had been in the role.

My mind shot back to my teacher training and remembered a way of learning that had made me excited when I heard about it. Forest School!

It was like an epiphany…

I frantically searched Google like the game Pac Man looking for everything I could find. Websites, word documents, Youtube videos, interviews. Soaking it all up and finding that I wasn’t alone in my vision of the way children should be taught! Everything changed for me that day!

Despite my unhappiness I was able to see a way forward. Maybe my career wasn’t over? Maybe I could still be THAT teacher my pupils spoke about when they were 40?

If only I could convince the bosses, somehow, that we could use the copse of woods for learning and I was the man to do that! I’d then be able to find balance between how I thought children should be taught and how I was being made to ‘teach’. Surely it was the key!

One thing was for certain, if I was to succeed my ego was going to get me no where and needed sorting, as did my self belief and I needed to approach conversations in a more diplomatic way.

The attraction of Forest School was too much. Even if I was only doing it for myself, this needed to happen. I decided to get booked onto the next Forest School Leader course that was close enough to attend.

No word of a lie the course changed my life! It was everything I wanted and MORE. As you might imagine right?

The gent who did this for me and I’ve not yet told personally was Simon Robinson. The man’s passion, inspiration, words and actions for Forest School sold me the dream.

I dare say without this diamond, Forest School may not have resonated so emphatically within me and led me down this new path.

This course single handedly validated to me what over 3 years of ‘teaching’ and a number of colleagues had failed to do. It proved me to me!

Self acceptance was what had been missing for all of those years. This acceptance was never going to come from outside, I’d been kidding myself and Forest School helped me realise that.

There is a reason why a focus of Forest School is intra personal skills, because they are the foundations to happiness and harmony within ones self.

It was probably then I realised that I no longer wanted to fit the mould certain schools set out and my enlightening adventure through Forest School training would be my key to open new doors.

A true testament to the power of transformation Forest School holds and this was only after a week!

Credit; M.Bumford

It was the summer holidays when I had gone through training and I knew I needed to practice the skills I learnt whilst also filling out an arduous portfolio over a year.

My plan was to somehow convince the school bosses that we need Forest School and I would be the person to deliver it because I was qualified. Somewhat pre-arming myself before any objections to my status to deliver such a thing was called out.

I probably knew how this would all go down, but ironically a huge curve ball and boost was thrown into the mix during this time.

The government and other bodies that made rules for schools to follow, actually came out and said how awesome learning in the outdoors was and that all schools should be doing it. (Side note; This hasn’t materialised as well as it was first set out, but that’s for another post.)

I thought I had struck gold. Not only was I now a specialist at learning outside the classroom and had belief in myself, but schools were being told they had to learn in the outdoors and we had a forest! On site!

So I started to create plans and how I would do this and how it was going to be amazing for the children when they made fire, used tools, climbed trees, played freely and began to connect with themselves and others in a way they hadn’t before.

But there was still a problem… Old beliefs stood firm, objections to the unpredictability of Forest School were like roadblocks to progress and I had not been their favourite person.

With experience and new found self validation, my tactics changed. From each little past battle, self improvement and a long hard look at myself, little pieces stood out that came to form a more rounded person.

This is one thing that age, experience and self belief gave me.

My tactics and approach were a little more…measured. And things became a little easier. I could do Forest School but only if I compromised to do X Y Z. Progress!

I’ve found that when people get to comfortable with something and all of a sudden that directed toward inevitable change, there is an unwillingness to understand it or someone cannot for whatever reason, hostility follows.

Through conversation and clearing of muddy waters, options become available because people understand. People need to understand, to accept. The same is even more true for children. This was another big life lesson for me.

Is it a schools fault for rigidly following the need for set, measurable, achievable formulas? Or holding children’s outcomes and evidence over everything?

Probably not.

But by design children are not machines, like some cog that spews up information on demand.

This is often missed by unqualified individuals, further up the food chain, seeing children as the future workforce with ££ producing signs above their heads, ready to contribute the all important economy…

Let that sink in for a moment.

Schools are informed to what is important, which leaks into teacher training. This is how the system works. Some schools work to find wiggle room within the boundaries and understand there is a need to push beyond, whilst others remain fixed. It all depends on what aims the school and usually the headteacher sets out to achieve.

In my case as you can probably tell the fixed idea was the more accurate.So some crazy upstart like me, looking for self validation by trying to upset the flow was never going to work. It just closed unhappy walls in and around me far quicker.

Through compromise and solutions though, balance and a place for Forest School was actually found. As you can imagine this felt like a huge victory, right?

With some inevitable bowing to the pressure, 9 months later the Leaders course got done! I vividly remember the day the email came through congratulating me on passing.

Validation complete, I was a Forest School Leader and I had BIG plans that had been in the making for some time. This notion soon became accelerated.

Testing and outcome regimes through 2015 - 2019 in English Early Years Framework became ever more hard to stomach and I could have gone back to my old ways and fought it tooth and nail.

Why would I go back there, when I’d come so far? When I’d developed into a person who was successfully further down the track from my early 20’s.This time I had new skills, new knowledge and self belief.

This all meant it was time to plan my exit from teaching and get off that sickening treadmill. Taking inspiration from my parents journey through entrepreneurship and my transformative journey through Forest School pieces began to fit comfortably together.

On January 4th, 2017 at approximately 10:37 on a Sunday morning, lying on my bed as the sun poked through the window Eco Ed Forest School was unofficially born.

It all began with the launch of a Facebook Page and the sending of an email to a friend who graphic designs, asking them to create the logo that still remains today. I’ll have to share the early logo sketches I made, someday.

The idea behind Eco Ed Forest School from that day to now was to fill in the gaps missed by outcomes in which to develop the whole child, provide children with the experience I always set out to give my classes and reconnect families with nature.

This also meant I became accountable to the people that really mattered and knew what they wanted for their children; Parents.

Remember at the beginning when it became clear to me that not all school are the same, depending on what they want to achieve?

The same is true for some schools who understand that classroom teaching can only deliver some of parts children need and search for that wiggle room in the boundaries . The other 70% is delivered through play, outdoor exposure and social development. In a nutshell Forest School!

Forest School is not a quick fix. Anyone who tells you that is lying, ok? But by committing to the long term process that builds block upon block, forging relationships with people, nature and a persons self until a complete , well rounded person is built. That is how Forest School is done right.

Best yet there is no demand to fit a pre-defined mold. Child or Adult. A person is met, where they are at developmentally, socially, emotionally and physically.

This whacky idea in my head became a breathing reality when I delivered the first series of sessions on 14th — 16th February 2017 and from there has touched and shaped so many lives since. Including my own.

I remember these days more than others, not just because they were my first sessions as Eco Ed, but because following the session on the 16th February I received my first and most meaningful gift. It may have only been a bottle of wine and a card, but those two items meant as much as if I’d been presented diamonds!

The family in questions expression of support touched me deeply and provided me with the knowledge that I’d found what I was looking for.

You know who you are!

Demand became so much for our Forest School services that I called time on my teaching career in the summer of 2019 and excitedly took on Eco Ed fulltime.

Officially commencing on the September 1st 2019. Our birthday!

Tough life calling a 100 square hectares of forest your office,ae!

Through Forest School as a vehicle I was able to remove myself from unhappiness and oppression to a place of exceeding happiness, validation and empowerment that I can now share with families so they may benefit.

Most importantly, through reflection on this Forest School journey I’d learnt so much from these bad experiences that have shaped and moulded me into a stronger self believing individual.

So can you! Reflect on the bad and draw lessons and power from it. Most importantly guide your children how to do that to. Or let me guide them for you!

In the end, it means the world to me that I can provide families just like yours with the opportunity to fall in love with Forest School and all its riches, so our children may grow up happy, confident, well rounded, successful and ready to kick ass.

Remember, like me, you’re one session away…

Mark x

Founder of Eco Ed Forest School

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The Natural Learning Community That Offers Childcare Where Children Learn From Playing Outdoors, Like We Use To.