Showing posts with label #OptimisticEd. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #OptimisticEd. Show all posts

Friday, 12 February 2016

A Love Story?

It wasn't love at first sight. And only those who really knew me believed it would work out. I wasn't even entirely convinced myself. The first letter wasn't even written by me; I asked a friend to write it for me. When we decided to give it a try, to see how things went, I was surprised at how well-matched we were. It seemed my qualities suited the demands of the relationship and, whilst I was nowhere near perfect, we surprised many who would never have match-made us.

I suppose I was gradually falling in love, but I didn't know it. For a long time I thought we just got on well, and that I had a general affection. Inevitably, times weren't always easy, and there have been bumps in the road, but we're still an item. The problems are rarely between us, but as a result of others meddling in what we have together. As with any partnership we grew to understand each other's quirks and we both made compromises. Compromises which have led to a symbiotic relationship - we're good for each other, and we're good to each other.

Who knows how long it will last? Many others in similar relationships have been through painful break ups. Others just manage to keep it together, often through dogged determination and commitment. Thankfully, things are still easy for us, we work hard to remain together but it's not a struggle - it's something I'm still willing to work at, not because I have to, or even because I want to, but just because I do. I'd like to think there's a great future for us - maybe we will continue to prove the doubters wrong. After all, we started out that way, why can't we go on in a similar vein?

'Is this love, is this love, is this love that I'm feeling?' Bob Marley. 

I'm not sure it is love, but as I've said, we do naturally get on and we work really well together. And that's worth something. That's OK with me. I think I'll stick with teaching.

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Wednesday, 10 February 2016


Another example of what optimism isn't to kick things off: on the way home, the shuffle function on my iPod selected Go West's 'King of Wishful Thinking' (don't ask, please) for my listening pleasure. The lyrics are thus: 'I'll pretend my ship's not sinking, And I'll tell myself I'm over you, 'Cause I'm the king of wishful thinking.' That is not optimism. That is insanity. I know Messrs Cox and Drummie were speaking metaphorically about a ship, but pretending something awful isn't happening when it is, isn't optimism.

Ernest Shackleton (yes, OK, I do love him a bit) never pretended that the Endurance wasn't stuck in the ice, and when the ice finally crushed the ship, he admitted it was happening, retrieved all their supplies and made new plans. Optimism is not wishful thinking; wishful thinking would not have saved the lives of the Endurance crew and wishful thinking will not protect teachers from struggling with their jobs.

Admitting his ship was scuppered did not mean admitting defeat for Shackleton. He faced the changes, embraced them and made changes in his own plans. The cruelest forces of nature were against him yet he wouldn't submit - he found a way to be successful and to survive.

If you haven't spotted it already, the ice is crushing our ship. Constant changes in syllabuses, curriculums, testing and data reporting have the teaching profession in an icy grip. There is officially a teacher shortage, seemingly due to the pressure coming from every angle. But should we just abandon the expedition? I hope not. Maybe, if the ship represented the way things once were, we have to abandon ship, but hopefully not the entire mission. We must endure. We need, somehow, to find an optimistic view of the future and fix on it.

In my post entitled Optimism vs. Realism I summarised that Ernest Shackleton could be realistically optimistic because:

He had prepared
He planned ahead
He was pliable

Is there any wisdom in this for teachers?

On a long-term scale, what can we do to be prepared? What do we need to plan for? We must be prepared to be, and even plan to be, pliable. We must be ready to weather the seas of change, though they may be stormy.

If we are prepared with all our good practices, the ones that have stood the test of time, and if we are ready to pull together, sharing ideas and resources, then we can be optimistic about the future of education, even though things seem impossible now. If we begin to make plans, asking ourselves, perhaps, how we can make the best of a bad situation, if we begin to formulate schemes for how to teach what is required, or how to make assessment slick and simple, then we can be optimistic about how things will turn out for teachers and pupils.

If we admit defeat and opt not to be adaptable, there is no hope. If we determine to be flexible, even when we don't agree with the changes, then we can be the change that's needed - we are the ones at the chalk face. I suppose I'm talking a quiet grassroots revolution. A revolution of optimism. Yes, we'll have to comply to some of the external pressures; the ship's going down. But we must not bow out of the operation altogether. Whilst teaching their new curriculum, and assessing in who-knows-what way, and knowing that data might take a dip as a result of changes, we must soldier on. Not thinking wishfully. Or being wildly optimistic. But preparing and planning and being pliable, always with survival in mind.

Determined. Confident. Optimistic.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Optimism vs. Realism

I was asked recently why you'd want to help anyone to be optimistic when you could help them to be realistic. The questioner, I think, assumes that optimism is a wishy-washy 'It'll be OK!' sort of principle. People who are optimistic in this way we'll call 'wildly optimistic'. My brand of optimism isn't like that though; I'm 'realistically optimistic'.

In the example of the 'unfailingly optimistic' Ernest Shackleton on the Endurance expedition we see that:

He had prepared

Underpinning each of these three statements is the fact that Shackleton had prior knowledge of exploration. He drew on this when he prepared for his expeditions. When Shackleton was seen to be optimistic it was because he had confidence in the preparations he had made; he knew, come what may, that there were plenty of the right supplies available. Knowing he had prepared well, based on his prior knowledge and experience, Shackleton could be optimistic about his team's chances of survival.

He planned ahead

In addition to making preparations (he had what he needed), Shackleton also planned ahead. Each stage of the intended journey was carefully scheduled and each crew member had specific roles. Shackleton and his crew knew what they would do during each phase of the expedition. Because of this, Shackleton was optimistic about what the future held.

He was pliable

Even when plans changed, Shackleton was un-phased and pliable. His experience taught him how to respond - he was adaptable and would quickly re-plan. Due to his prior experience, Shackleton was confident of his own ability to do that, and his crew were confident of it too. Shackleton did not go to pieces when faced with change; he was optimistic because knew that his where-there's-a-will-there's-a-way attitude meant that he would find practical solutions in order to ensure future success. 

Optimism doesn't have to be based on nothing - it can be based on reality. It can be based on having confidence in the reality of good planning, preparation and pliability
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Monday, 8 February 2016

Managing Marking

The year I began my requested move to year 6 was the year marking and feedback became high on the agenda. With the knowledge that book scrutinies with the SIP were going to become common place, not to mention the expectations from Ofsted, I quickly sought help and advice. How was I going to keep up with the marking when the output from year 6 was proving to be voluminous?

My deputy head at the time was a seasoned year 6 teacher and she gave just two pieces of sage advice which revolutionised my marking:

Mark as much as you can during lessons

Previously my focus in a lesson would have been group work, or even one-to-one work, and whilst this has not fallen entirely by the wayside, my focus is now on seeing as many kids as possible during the lesson. By doing this, and marking as I go, I find that I ensnare any issues with understanding before the end of a lesson, meaning I can address needs there and then, often pulling together a group who need help with a similar problem. As I feedback verbally to them I make a written record in their books which they then respond to within the lesson. This I find to be much more effective than the marking I do once the lesson has finished which they are expected to respond to in the following days (when, to be quite frank, it is hard to find time to allow them to do this). Having done this, I'm left with 15 to 30 minutes of 'mopping up' marking to do, usually at lunchtime or straight after school when there's not a meeting. 
If you're lucky enough to have another adult working with you in the classroom then asking them to do the same saves even more time, even if they're just marking right/wrong in maths or checking for spelling and grammar mistakes in English. Share the marking policy with them, take time to show them examples of your own marking and then give them a green pen; trust them enough to have a go.

Plan carefully so you don't have too much marking

Teachers really don't help themselves sometimes. In a bid to have as much evidence of a child's learning as possible they record everything in books. This is not necessary. It also points towards the possibility that the tasks being set are not that engaging. Children like working on paper, or on the walls, or verbally, and they learn a lot by working in this way. Additionally, non-book tasks often promote the use of other skills such as working collaboratively, problem solving and reasoning. 
When you're planning your lessons think of the entire week. How much time for marking will you have? In that time, how many books or sets of books can you realistically get marked? Decide which classes need that evidence in books and plan book work for them. For the other classes design tasks that mean you will have little to no marking. There is no need for these tasks to be considered pointless just because the work is not done in books. As you do this, be conscious of children, groups or classes who have not done recorded work for a while and make sure that there is always some up-to-date evidence in books.

Since then, at my current school, I have implemented a marking system based on using symbols which represent and replace common marking comments. Both staff and children have become adept at using the system and it frees teachers up to spend more time on writing comments which children can respond to in order to deepen their understanding. Even if there is no such policy in your school, this is something you could design and use in your own classroom.

By taking all of these actions, I have, for the last few years, succeeded in managing the workload generated by marking. Whilst expectations are still high for marking and feedback, beginning to build these ideas into your routine should see a reduction in the time you spend marking.

I realise many teachers will already employ these techniques but have written this in the hope that for some, as it was for me a few years ago, it will be a new time-saving idea. I would also love to hear from experienced teachers who have found other ways to reduce the time they spend marking books.

For more excellent stuff on marking:

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Sunday, 7 February 2016

Wellbeing Hymn

'Liturgy of the Hours' is a Roman Catholic practice which I've not time to even begin to really understand. In brief, though, it's a supporting structure designed to aid priests in focusing on God throughout the day. Modern hymn writer Stuart Townend, however, has written a song I do understand, and I'd like to share some parts of it with you, suggesting that it contains a good framework for wellbeing:

With ev’ry morning I will kneel to pray,
To be a blessing in this coming day
In ev’rything I say and ev’rything I do,
To wholly honour you.

Beginning the day with the remainder of the day in mind is helpful. Considering the manner in which you hope to say and do things before you get a chance to say or do something thoughtless, reduces the chance of speaking or acting without careful judgment. If you are mindful of being patient and kind from the outset, you're more likely to succeed in being conducive to the happiness and welfare of the children you teach and the staff who you work with.

At noon remind me through this day to give
My full attention to the ones I’m with,
Be mindful of those things around and those within,
And fully enter in.

In these days of mobile devices and addictive social media, it's easy to forget to actually interact with those who are physically present. Every single person who reads this will have been guilty of this. Face to face communication and the sharing of joys and fears, is crucial to our wellbeing - a problem shared is a problem halved. 

It is better to 'fully enter in' to the job than to do it half-heartedly and at lunch time, when you're losing the will to live yet know you've still got two hours of teaching to go, it's a good time to refocus and get ready to give yourself selflessly again to the kids who need you.

And in the evening as my thoughts retell
This passing day let me remember well;
So that no bitterness takes root within my soul,
Help me to let them go.

Reflecting on the day once you're home from school can be constructive or destructive; it depends on how you reflect. 'Count your blessings' is a twee idiom, yet many would testify to its benefits. What was good about your lessons? What did you learn? Who did you help? Finding even the smallest of positive events can alter the perception of a tough day spent in school. 

And if there really was nothing good, then considering how you will learn and move forward from your experiences can have the same effect. On the other hand, it's helpful to chat (with a friend or loved one) about some of the difficult scenarios you've encountered so that you can 'park' them and move on.

And in the night-time may my mind be free
To truly rest and be refreshed in sleep;
And by releasing every worry, every strain,
Be free to start again.

A great 'Amen!' goes up from teachers here. A night free of dreams about field trips gone wrong or exam results or that awful year 10 class - what we wouldn't give for that! Be it prayer, be it list-making or some other practice, having a technique for clearing the mind before bedtime will lead to a better night's sleep. Different things work for different people. 

And even though we know in a few short hours we'll be considering hitting the snooze button yet again, with a routine of mindfulness such as outlined above, as your head hits the pillow, the knowledge that a day can be bearable and even enjoyable, will further relax your mind, readying you to gain from sleep's healing properties.

This hymn assumes the singer will be calling on divine power to answer the prayers contained within. In my analysis of the contributing factors to my own wellbeing I often conclude that, were it not for my faith, I would not have as healthy a way of dealing with a teacher's workload. In short, I remember that work is not the be-all and end-all and that there are more important things in life than my job.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Taking Charge

These days plugging your phone in to charge must rank up there with brushing teeth when it comes to bedtime routine. You wouldn't want the battery to die halfway through the next day, would you? We understand the importance of recharging when it comes to the mobile technology we couldn't live without but how much do we pay attention to our own power reserves? As teachers we expect to rock up to work and energise children, often when we're running on empty ourselves. It's akin to sending that text when the battery's on 1%, the phone subsequently dying mid-send, leaving you wondering if the message ever reached its destination. Will the kids learn if we're absolutely knackered?

Ask yourself: What do I plug into? From where do I draw my energy? For 99% of us the answer to that will be something other than planning the next day's lessons, or any other work-related activity for that matter. Some of us will find it in 'alone time', some in spending time with family and friends. Others of us will play a sport, binge-watch a whole season of The Walking Dead or indulge in some geeky hobby. And let's face it - a good proportion of us will enjoy a glass of wine every now and then, perhaps with a cheeseboard.

'When am I supposed to have time to do that?' It's a valid question; sometimes teaching can be so all-consuming. But it's something that time has to be made for - you're in control. Just as you would never forget to plug your phone in before bed time, you need to plan to plug yourself in too. Even if it's just half an hour of reading every night, or taking one night off a week to play 5-a-side. If you plan it in, you'll be more likely to do it; you'll be more likely to rearrange your whole schedule in order to accommodate your power-up. Some busier weeks you might have to run on emergency reserves; on the other hand, when an unexpected lull throws the opportunity to relax and recharge, you should take it guilt-free.

Recharging is not optional; it's a necessity. What's your power source?

Friday, 5 February 2016

Good Evening, Bad Day

When you've had a bad day, don't exacerbate it.

I covered an ill colleague's class today and let's just say they didn't quite live up to my high expectations. Poor behaviour, and having to constantly remind children of the standards they are expected to conform to, is something that puts me in a bad mood. I like it when children are learning, even if there is a 'buzzy' atmosphere, and if that happens I have a good day.

Maybe I need to be more resilient in these situations. And I'll reflect on that and hopefully be a little more prepared for next time.

But tonight I did the right thing. I got in my car and cranked up the Red Hot Chili Peppers (well, as loud as my ears would allow before they crackled). Once the kids were in bed my wife and I watched Liar Liar (it's on Netflix now) and had a laugh. Jim Carrey. I'm still in awe of his lunacy - my teenage obsession has not worn off. I was reminded of how in life's most serious situations there is a time for silliness. Laughter may be the best medicine, especially when shared. We drank wine. We made bacon butties. We watched a fairly thought-provoking episode of House. We did what we wanted, and felt fully entitled to it.

I also turned to Twitter this evening for advice about a work situation, knowing that if I didn't have some sort of plan of action, I'd turn it over in my mind all weekend. Because some great colleagues were willing to engage and share their thoughts, I was able to park the problem and get on with enjoying my night; the evening I deserved.

When you've had a bad day, be kind to yourself. Constructively offload and actively seek pleasure. Don't make things worse, do your bit to make things better.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Doing It With My Eyes Closed

I'm going to bed. I'm actually in bed now. A full three hours ahead of when I went to bed last night. Sometimes you've just gotta go. And that's about the long and short of it.

Our bodies do this extraordinary thing when we become tired: they behave as if they are tired. When we've had a lack of sleep, our body reminds us in rather unsubtle ways. Mine sends messages to my eye saying, "'Ere mate, if you just start twitching, and then go on doing that, y'know, at least once a minute, say, then maybe he'll realise we're knackered." My eye obliges, often for days on end. Then there's a little muscle in my arm who gets in on the twitch action. Eventually (because I have to ignore twitches, really) my eye says something along the lines of, "Enough of this, already. I'm just going to close. Oi, Righty, are you shutting too, pal?" And they agree. They don't care if I'm actually handling a motor vehicle on the public highway, or reading my daughters a story (it's equally as dangerous to fall asleep during either), they just go right ahead and clock out.

And if shock tactics don't work then my body has a secret weapon. One which had me visiting doctors last year convinced I had late-onset type 1 diabetes (it is a thing). My body sends out the message: "Right troops, time for a full assault." (Are you bored of the personification of the rest of my body yet?) And I shake and shiver uncontrollably. I can't regulate my body temperature. I wake up in the night drenched in sweat. My dreams are wild flights of delirious fantasy.

I have to listen to my body when it gets that vocal. And that's how I ensure I get enough sleep. I just do it when I need it because I know it's barely worth me dragging myself into school when my body is going at me hammer and tongs. Even with the best planned lessons, the most carefully-considered resources, the books marked in the right colour pen in a way that gives children opportunity to respond to my comments in order to deepen their understanding - even with all that, if I'm shattered then, quite frankly, I'll do an inadequate job.

To my mind a huge part of preparation for the classroom comes from hours spent asleep. Even when Ofsted come a-calling you'll find me downing tools no later than 10pm, ready to catch a whole load of refreshing and revitalising Zs. Sleep is restorative - it trumps planning and marking. With a good night's sleep under the belt I'm much more likely to make spontaneous magic happen in the classroom, magic that can't be planned for. That's what I tell myself, anyway. Seems to work.
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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Room With A View

I go up, pull open the blinds, set up the little fold-out table and just sit, looking out over the city. It's not a particularly picturesque view, but essentially it's not the inside of a school; it's the outside world. And that's where I go to work interrupted (mostly). Witnessing the weather, watching the cars and cats go by - it calms me and focuses me, or sometimes just takes my mind off it all for a moment.

It's the best place I've found in the building to work after my afternoon teaching duties. It's a bit makeshift but it gives me space: physically and mentally. And a place like that is important to most of us. Our environment affects our mind, which in turn affects our ability to work. And if you can keep your hidey hole fairly secret, you'll not be disturbed that often  either!

Have you found your hidey hole yet? Your little oasis of calm within the walls of the school? I'd really recommend finding it and using it on those occasions when the office or your classroom just isn't doing it for you. 

A place with a window is ideal - a reminder that out there is a world which doesn't depend on what you're doing, a world which won't come crashing down if you don't get your work done. A window gives perspective. Reminds you that school isn't the be all and end all. 

The cats who cross the road, back and forth, back and forth, will go on doing so. The city will continue in its frenetic activity, never really sleeping. Your world can be a bigger place than your job; a room with a view will help you to remember that.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

There's Always Tomorrow

What if I miss a day? I know it's only 29 minutes each day, but it could happen. This is something I want to do: write every day for a month.

I find that writing refocuses me. Writing about my work focuses me on my work. Writing about something entirely unrelated helps me then go back to my work. On occasion, when I hit a wall, I will down tools altogether, pick up a pen (OK; my ipad) and write creatively - that's something that the weekly #teacher5adaywriting challenge has taught me. I've even done it at school when I know I'm supposed to be writing some action plan or other. Once cobwebs are cleared (by the process of thinking creatively) I'm back on task and ready to assess my impact on the subject I lead, giving evidence to support my statements and providing myself with next steps.

So it's not likely that I'll miss a day, because this isn't a bind for me - it's a release.

But what if circumstances outside my control dictate that I miss a day? I'll be disappointed won't I? After all, I am the competitive sort, the one who likes to stick to goals set. The one who woke up already in a bad mood this morning because it was too windy for me to achieve my target of cycling to work.

Well, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa (What?! I have three small girls), I just have to "Let it go!" It doesn't sound like sage advice, really, but the whole point of #teacher5aday is that stress is reduced, not added to, so being able to shrug off the potential disappointment of not achieving a goal is pretty necessary to me.

I love being organised and having to-do lists and time tables, but even when I've failed to complete something in the time I wanted to do it, I'll just change the date on it and shift it to the next day:

"Life always offers you a second chance. It's called tomorrow."  ~ Nicholas Sparks from 'The Notebook'

So if I don't write one day? No point in worrying about it:

"Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?" ~ Jesus from 'The Bible'

If I don't get all my jobs done one day, and I just need to get to bed so I, ready for another day? Same. No point in worrying about it. There's (nearly) always tomorrow.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Unfailing Optimism: Does It Work?

Like damp rising within I've felt a fear: the fear that everything I write will be sneered at as idealistic, unrealistic, patronising and platitudinous. The very people I wish I could influence (not for my gain but theirs) are predisposed to believe that change for the better is not achievable. Indeed I've had such comments; other people simply refuse to engage.

Some have interpreted my content as advice that we teachers should just shut up and get on with the job resigning ourselves to the fact that we have to work 90 hour weeks (probably). They think positivity and optimism in the face of turbulent times in the profession are worthless and pointless qualities to be advocating. Despite the fact that I constantly try to back up the calls for positivity and optimism with practical advice, I'm sure there remain naysayers and detractors. 

"He was unfailingly optimistic, and disapproved strongly if anyone showed a long face," wrote a Frank Hurley of Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton's second-in-command on the harrowing Endurance expedition to the South Pole. After months of being stuck in pack ice, losing their ship, sailing through icy seas with set back after set back along the way, Frank Wild, when left in charge of the majority of the crew on Elephant Island whilst Shackleton pushed on to find help, still expected his men to be positive and optimistic. And it saved their lives. Of course he ensured, as Shackleton did also, that many practical steps were taken to make sure that pessimism, hatred and depression didn't set in after braving the polar seas in life-threatening conditions.

Perhaps, if being 'unfailingly optimistic' can save lives, then maybe it can change lives too. Positive thinking might seem wishy-washy and unscientific but in survival scenarios it has been seen time and time again that positivity wins the day. For Shackleton and his crew, where expeditions such as Scott's ended in fatality, optimism was key: no matter how bad things were (and things were bad) Shackleton never gave the slightest sign to his crew that he thought they were going to die. He optimistically believed that they would make it out alive, and against all the odds, they did.

It is interesting that the Endurance crew members' diaries reveal that throughout the ordeal they felt well-led, looked-after and happy, and in turn most of the crew members, most of the time, were optimistic too, never doubting their leader and his optimism.

Sometimes we have to force ourselves to be positive in our thinking in order to effect change. Waiting for a situation to alter before you can think positively and feel well and happy is the wrong way round. If Shackleton had waited until he'd reached the whaling station where help lay he would no doubt have reached it with many of his crew members dead, that's if he wasn't dead himself. We must rise above the difficulties of a situation, think optimistically and let that steer our thoughts, ideas and decisions if we are to survive the wilds of teaching right now.

To finish, a quote from Shackleton himself, when asked to give some advice to some school children: " trouble, danger, and disappointment never give up hope. The worst can always be got over."