Showing posts with label teachers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teachers. Show all posts

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Wellbeing in Schools: A Framework

When one thinks of an empowered teacher, one does not call to mind the image often linked with that of a teacher; frazzled, harassed, clutching their umpteenth cup of coffee and making a mad dash to their next class, eventually settling down later at home to spend their evening beavering away at marking books, planning the next day's lessons, and all whilst drowning in a sea of that notorious 'paperwork'.

And sadly, there are many teachers out there who fit that description, and, as a result, they run the risk of struggling to provide meaningful educational outcomes for the children they teach. I've known teachers like it and there have been times when I've experienced it myself.

No, an empowered teacher is one who manages their workload carefully and has both work and life evenly balanced, and who consequently is an effective classroom practitioner. But very few teachers set out to have a heavy workload, a poor work/life balance and low levels of wellbeing. It is true that every teacher attempting to maintain good levels of wellbeing ideally needs the support of their leaders. And with schools increasingly concerned for the wellbeing of their pupils it is important that those who have the most contact with them - teachers - have good physical and mental wellbeing.

Maintaining one's wellbeing is an ongoing task which is often seen almost to be a selfish act. However, in considering our own wellbeing we must be aware of how our actions impact on the wellbeing of others. We all have a responsibility to those we live and work with to ensure that the things we do and say have a positive effect on them; improving levels of wellbeing is a collaborative act which should benefit all.

Every teacher can lead for the wellbeing of their pupils and their colleagues. We should stop waiting for someone to provide opportunities for us to improve our wellbeing and begin to create opportunities for ourselves and those within our sphere of influence. Regardless of position or status, we all have the opportunity and responsibility to lead for wellbeing. Having said this, there are very clear and important messages for those with formally-recognised positions of authority.

With these things in mind, let's look at:
  • The responsibilities and challenges for school leaders (i.e. those with recognised positions of leadership)
  • The responsibilities and challenges for teachers
  • The influence on (and of) students
This structure is intended to demonstrate that high levels of well-being should ideally be cascaded down from the leadership, to the teachers and then to the students.

The responsibilities and challenges for school leaders

A leader who does not prioritise their own wellbeing is easily identifiable; they probably run a tight ship, but to the possible detriment of the health of them selves and their staff and pupils. A leader who does prioritise their own wellbeing will also be identifiable by the happiness and willingness of their staff and pupils - they too will run a tight ship. It's just how the ship shape-ness is achieved that's different - that and the longevity of the ship shape-ness.

In order to for their staff to reflect well on them, a leader's staff must reflect their leader. Thus, leaders must model good habits - they must be seen to be taking care of themselves and making decisions which don't impact negatively on their own health. Of course leaders might be expected to put in more hours than those they are leading - they are paid accordingly - but this should still not be to the detriment of their health and wellbeing. When teaching staff see that their leaders prioritise wellbeing, they will feel able to do the same; by leading by example the leaders will have created a culture which values high levels of wellbeing.

Leaders who lead successfully on wellbeing will also have careful expectations of what is achievable and they will ensure that workload is manageable for each individual in their circumstance. They will pass every new initiative through a filter, ensuring that what is expected of teachers does not cause undue stress or demand extra work. It is also the responsibility of a leader to point out where and how expected tasks could be carried out more effectively and more time-efficiently; often it is the time a job takes that impacts most on wellbeing. If time spent working can legitimately be reduced then a more well-rested staff will be better prepared to work with children.

Successful wellbeing leadership depends on leaders listening to their staff. Each teacher knows their limits and should feel that they work in an environment where they can voice their concerns. For the sake of the children as well as the staff member, leaders should always be in tune to the thoughts and feelings of their employees, gaining ongoing dynamic feedback on the impact of their expectations on health and well-being.

Many leaders are attempting to respond to the increasing awareness of the presence of mental health issues in both teachers and pupils. This is a positive move but leaders should not enforce any particular health and well-being activities; what might improve someone's wellbeing might have a negative impact on another's. If someone takes part in such an activity but thinks to themselves 'it'd have been better for my well-being to have gone home and done my own thing' then they're probably right. Leaders can't assume to know what will positively impact a person's wellbeing. If they do want to give CPD time over to wellbeing it should be aimed at improving skills such as management of time and workload.

The responsibilities and challenges for teachers

In an ideal situation a school's leaders will be doing all of the above to ensure that a their members of staff have a good level of health and well-being. But the buck does not stop with leaders; teachers have a responsibility for their own wellbeing and must do all they can to ensure they are well, for the good of themselves, their relationships and the children they teach. Teachers must lead on their own wellbeing, even if, and especially when, their leaders are not.

Workload, and therefore amount of time spent working, impacts on wellbeing more than any other aspect of a teacher's job. It must be a priority for teachers to find ways of working efficiently and creating healthy working habits. Teachers should learn to prioritise, deciding what really needs to be done and what can wait. They should also concentrate on doing one or two things well on any given day – the ones that obviously need doing soonest. Many teachers would benefit from being more organised and making time by planning ahead. Another small but effective practice is maximisation: making the most of the small chunks of time to complete short tasks. An essential time-saving habit is collaboration with other teachers; when teachers nurture good working relationships with colleagues help is at hand; lesson ideas, pre-made resources and even a sympathetic ear.

When teachers are considering how to improve their well-being they must be aware that solutions are not one-size-fits-all. What works for one may not work for another; teachers should take into consideration their own unique circumstances when attempting to make changes to their working patterns.

Teaching requires a lot of hard work; most teachers are aware of what they signed up for. Teaching is also a job for whichever there aren't enough hours in the day; teachers could fill all their time with work-related jobs but common sense and research show that this is not productive. Productivity relies on rest yet so many teachers neglect sleep and time spent occupied by non-work-related activities such as hobbies and time with family and friends. Although term time can be action-packed, teachers should consider making the most of the holidays and the other natural breaks that present themselves every now and then.

Those who don't have senior leaders supportive of the wellbeing of their staff must seek to improve their wellbeing in any way they can. In addition to the ideas already outlined it is crucial that they challenge decisions made by leaders which negatively impact wellbeing. In situations such as this teachers should work together to approach their leaders, possibly with union backing (but maybe not in the first instance), in order to seek change. It helps on these occasions to be prepared with evidence and ideas for workable alternatives.

Wellbeing should be as much a priority for teachers as lesson planning, assessment and resource preparation.

The influence on (and of) students

Although this section focuses on students, the emphasis remains on the role and responsibilities of the members of a school's staff who spend their time with the children. If a school's leaders are doing their job well, and teachers are also prioritising their own wellbeing, then half of the battle of influencing student wellbeing is already won. What teachers often attempt to pass on through motivational posters and one-off assemblies will only really be passed on by the atmosphere that is naturally created by teachers who are themselves well. There is much truth in the idea that healthy (and indeed unhealthy) habits and mentalities are caught and not taught. Many schools who purport to have a strong emphasis on student well-being forget the influencing factor of staff well-being on students.

As well as setting a good example to students teachers should also listen to and observe students in order to identify traits of good or poor wellbeing. Physical signs such as tiredness and weight loss should be monitored closely. Changes in behaviour are also possible indicators to poor wellbeing, both mental and physical: emotional outbursts or becoming unusually quiet and withdrawn could point towards well-being issues that need addressing.

If we want to listen to what students are saying about the state of their own wellbeing then teachers must teach children to be wellbeing literate - we must exhibit and encourage the use of language and vocabulary which enable students to self-reflect and verbalise their thoughts and feelings. Again, this is something better caught than taught; the use of story is particularly useful here as many age-appropriate novels and picturebooks skilfully explore well-being issues which teachers could use to promote discussion.

It is worth noting that when student well-being is good there will be a positive impact on the wellbeing of staff: Not only do we influence the wellbeing of pupils, they impact on the wellbeing of their teachers; if students are happy then teachers are more likely to be happy too. In the experience of many teachers poor student behaviour has caused more stress than excessive workload. If we prioritise staff wellbeing as well as student well-being a virtuous circle will be created.

Conclusion

In order for teachers to ensure that their students are not only well, but that they are learning successfully, teachers and leaders must see that there are actions to take that are within their powers. It is important to realise that where wellbeing is concerned teachers shouldn't rely on possible future policy change or successful union action to bring about improvements in their wellbeing but that improvements can be made despite the demands of the current educational environment. Teachers must understand that their remit to care for the wellbeing of students means that they have a responsibility to care for their own wellbeing. Leaders must view their responsibility to teachers and students in the same way if they want to run a successful school where student outcomes are optimised.

Further reading on teacher welbeing at the Schoolwell site: schoolwell.co.uk/staff-wellbeing-research/ 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

On Scrutinising Scrutiny and The Coaching Model

A recent discussion on Twitter centred around the regularity with which senior leaders in schools "scrutinised" teachers' lessons, books and planning. Many expressed shock and surprise at the apparent regularity of these activities in some schools. Some commentators linked high frequency of "scrutiny" to mistrust.

The word "scrutiny" will always carry negative connotations, especially for teachers. Its definition is critical observation or examination or surveillance; close and continuous watching - neither of which do anything to make it sound like something teachers would want done to them. The word has negative connotations for clear reasons - it's like teachers are being spied on. And spies don't trust anyone or anything. So yeah; mistrust.

Remove the word "scrutiny" from the scenario though and the act leaders of looking at lessons, books and planning (I use "looking" deliberately as a word devoid of much nuanced meaning) is a necessary thing in schools; leaders must know what is going on at the chalkface, they'd be poor leaders if they didn't. As a result, I would go so far as to argue that the frequent "looking" is absolutely crucial. But it all depends what the "looking" is for. It depends on how and why the "looking" is done. Leadership guru Andy Buck commented that it 'all depends on the climate within which these things are done'.

It's an absolute cliche, and one which causes teachers to curl, at the very least, their toes, but if all this "looking" is truly done for development's sake then the "looking" will be seen by teachers as a positive thing. And it will be welcomed. If areas of development are identified as true areas of development, rather than just things that are being done badly, and if a leader then takes steps to work on those areas of development with a teacher, then teachers will look more favourably on all the "looking". I have heard of schools who continually collect such data but then never do anything about it. It is absolutely imperative that if leaders collect data on 'teacher performance' (for want of a better and less punitive-sounding phrase) regularly they should be doing something about their findings. In my school, and in increasing numbers of others, that something is coaching.

Our model of coaching is adapted from the one outlined in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo's 'Leverage Leadership'. The main difference, and pertinent to this discussion, is that instead of weekly drop-ins and coaching sessions, we conduct a drop-in (15 minutes in a lesson, teachers know which week but not which lesson - this has encouraged teachers to 'just do what they normally do') one week and a coaching session (30 minutes) the next week. For clarity's sake it is school leaders who conduct both the drop-in and the coaching session - I have heard of some models of coaching centred more around peer coaching. Leaders usually drop in on and coach members of their own team.

A sports analogy by way of rationale for the regularity of what we call the coaching cycle:

"Teachers are like tennis players: they develop most quickly when they receive frequent feedback and opportunities to practice." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p65) A tennis coach is regularly present during practice, as well as matches. If they only turned up at the match and commented on how they played that game, and then didn’t show up until the next tournament, then the tennis player is not receiving effective coaching and will struggle to improve.

To explain more, here are some of the core ideas behind Bambrick-Santoyo's model of coaching:
  1. "By receiving weekly observations and feedback, a teacher develops as much in one year as most teachers do in 20." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p65) Coaching has to be done consistently and regularly.
  2. "Observation and feedback are only fully effective when leaders systematically track which teachers have been observed, what feedback have received, and whether that feedback has improved their practice." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p62) Coaching outcomes have to be tracked so that they leaders are aware of what to be looking for in future observations, and so that improvements can be celebrated.
  3. "The primary purpose of observation should not be to judge the quality of teachers, but to find the most effective ways to coach them to improve student learning." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p63) Observations are not summative, they are formative, therefore the whole process is designed to be supportive. In our experience, teachers have received coaching positively and understand that it is for their benefit, and the benefit of the children.
  4. Feedback should be given face-to-face and should provide specific and manageable action steps for improvement. A coaching session is a discussion where the coach questions the coachee to enable them to analyse their own practice, leading to them identifying their own point for developing – this enables them to internalise the feedback. Face-to-face meetings are more useful than lengthy written evaluations. 
Once a lesson drop-in has been conducted, the coaching session will usually follow a similar pattern:
  • Precise praise: "The most effective praise is directly linked to the teacher’s previous action step: you validate the teacher’s effort at implementing feedback." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p80) Coaching sessions allow coaches and coaches to highlight and celebrate the progress and improvements.
  • Probe: "When giving feedback start with a probing question that narrows the focus of the teacher to a particular part of the lesson." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p81)
  • Identify problem and concrete action step: "We learn best when we can focus on one piece of feedback at a time. Giving less feedback, more often, maximises teacher development." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p70) "Action steps need to be bite-sized: changes teachers can make in one week." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p75) Rather than observing once a term and giving a long list of areas for development, coaching provides regular, manageable next steps.
  • Practice: "Great teaching is not learnt through discussion. It’s learned by doing – or more specifically, by practicing doing things well. Supervised practice is the fastest way to make sure all teachers are doing the right things." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p86)
  • Plan ahead: "Practicing and planning ahead go hand in hand: practice the skill and then adjust the coming lessons." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p87)
Personally, I don't like the use of the word 'problem' as it isn't aspirational but it has clearly been chosen so that it begins with P like the rest, and it does the job well enough.

To finish, as you reflect on the process outlined above and begin to form your own opinions of it, a couple of quotes from two teachers in my team who are coachees in the coaching process:

“Coaching has really helped me fine tune my teaching in different areas of the curriculum and is continuing to help me become a better teacher every day. It supports my pedagogy as we are in a fast-paced environment and keeping up to date with  new ideas and policies can be tricky alone! The 1-2-1 support is really effective and is making a big difference 😊 Thank you!”

"The coaching has been informal, supportive and best of all, useful! Achievable, realistic and logical targets are set which have had a real impact on my teaching and, as a result, the learning going on in my class. Thanks."

The frequency becomes a non-issue when the processes involved are truly developmental and supportive. The model taken from 'Leverage Leadership' is just one way of making this happen, there are probably many other ways of doing it - this article is supposed to outline one way of doing it with the purpose of showing that regular interaction between leaders and teachers can be a positive thing for all involved, and a thing that gets results for the children.

Please feel free to ask any questions about our approach and do try to read the whole section (Chapter 2: Observation and Feedback) in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo's book 'Leverage Leadership' as it expands on the ideas laid out above.

Friday, 28 October 2016

From the TES Magazine: Teachers Who Just Want To Teach


This article was published in the TES magazine on 28th October. It explores how to support teachers who have no desire to do anything but remain in the classroom and teach. I was particularly chuffed that my second outing in the magazine was accompanied by a picture of the late, great Robin Williams in his masterpiece 'Dead Poets Society'.

Many teachers choose not to climb the career ladder up into the ivory tower of senior leadership. For most, their reasons are admirable: they got into teaching to work with children and that’s the way that they want it to stay. And who can knock that as an ambition?

To continue reading, follow the link: https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/teachers-who-just-want-teach You will need a TES subscription to read this article.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Teachers! Be More Batman!


You'll be unaware, but across the internet a debate rages: is Batman a superhero or not? The first result from a google search adamantly suggests that "In the strictest sense, Batman isn't a superhero because he has no "amazing" powers (e.g. powers that are magical or pseudo-scientific)." 

Superman was born with a whole range of amazing powers: super-human strength, the ability to fly and X-Ray vision to name a few. Spider-Man was imbued with powers by a radioactive spider, mutating to possess precognitive spider senses and the ability to cling to most surfaces, among other capabilities. But Batman is just human like the rest of us; perhaps why he has probably enjoyed so much success as a fictional character.

If Batman doesn't have powers, what does he have? Abilities. He has genius-level intellect, peak physical and mental condition, is a master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant, a skilled detective and he utilises high-tech equipment and weapons. Yes, his vast fortune helps with the last one, but otherwise his abilities are all realistically attainable to a certain extent.

Teachers often have very high expectations of themselves. This may result from the pressure put on them 'from above' to perform. But it often comes from a personal sense of responsibility, stemming from the same emotional place that led them into education in the first place. Teachers expect themselves to be superheroes, amazing powers and all. And it is unrealistic and damaging to their health. A superhero without actual superpowers who tries to behave like he has wouldn't last long. If Batman flung himself from the top of a building (without a gadget) he'd meet an unfortunate end: if Superman did the same, he'd swoop off into the horizon, a silhouette passing the setting sun. When teachers try to live life as if they are super-human, the consequences are potentially disastrous for themselves, their families and their pupils.

"With great power comes great responsibility" is a true enough maxim. But how true is "With great responsibility comes great power"? Not true at all. The responsibility we are given doesn't come with a free helping of superpowers, yet so many of us are pushing our human abilities to the limits, expecting to be able to do what only super-humans could.

Yet we have a job to do. An important one and a difficult one. Whilst Batman battles to clean up crime in Gotham City, we have our own dark enemies to face as we protect the innocent ones from their influence. And we must do it all with human ability only.

So how can we be Batman-like teachers? What are those shortcuts to becoming a superhero teacher without actually having superpowers and without killing oneself in the process of trying? Let's revisit his list of abilities:

  1. Genius-level intellect - perhaps we don't quite need to be geniuses but a good amount of knowledge and understanding are key to operating as a teacher. As JL Dutaut once put it so eloquently: 'We need to be knowledgeable as teachers, not just about our subject, but also about pedagogies, not just about practice but about policies. And the knowledge we as a body have and create every day in classrooms should be heard, and should inform those that make the policies, because teaching is an informed profession.'' There is no need to expect yourself to innately know everything about how to teach but there is a wealth of information out there which will begin to inform your practice. Read the blogs, the articles, the magazines, the books. Listen to your colleagues, your boss, the guy doing the training day. Consult the research that's already been done for you.This is your first step to becoming a Batman-like teacher.
  2. Peak human physical and mental condition - at risk of sounding like a broken record, I must reiterate in the context of this article that these things are important. We need to be doing all we can to ensure that we are well. And yes, our leaders must ensure this too. Being rested and alert can make or break a lesson, regardless of time spent planning it (in fact if you've stayed up late planning it, chances are it'll go to pot if you're tired as a result). As difficult as it may be to prioritise wellbeing it is absolutely essential that it is top of your list: without being well you'll struggle to teach well. Even Batman takes time off from fighting crime in Gotham when he gets a bit bashed up; when you're feeling a bit worse for wear the best preparation you can do is get a good night's sleep then reassess in the morning. Getting rest, eating well, exercising regularly, spending time doing things you love and with family and friends are all essential to your success as a Batman-like teacher. I've written about wellbeing a lot - follow this link to read more.
  3. Master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant - right now, many teachers feel they are in the midst of battle. Our colleagues the country over are feeling oppressed. Whilst some would advocate political engagement, I think quicker gains can be made by challenging the status quo in our own schools. We have much more chance of changing policy and expectations by directly petitioning the leaders in our own schools. Sometimes it won't even take a battle - sometimes your senior leaders just need to know that one of their edicts is difficult to put into practice, or that you are struggling to complete all your tasks and that you'd appreciate some extra time. Many teachers are afraid to be honest about these matters - if they were willing to stand up for themselves, fighting hand-to-hand (however peacefully) they could effect personally beneficial change. And if they fight with stealth and patience, as any martial artists would, suggesting solutions to problems, showing willing and a positive attitude and perseverance, they are even more likely to win over their leaders in order to bring about improvements leaving you with more time to focus on what really matters: the children. Perhaps a tenuous link, but there are many who would testify to the success of this type of combat. For more on this read my post 'Rise Up! (Being Militant Teachers)'
  4. Master detective - there is nothing more like sleuthing in teaching than assessment. Putting more effort into assessment allows a teacher to spend less time on planning. If you are making effective use of time in lesson to continually assess children's needs then their next steps become more obvious; you won't need to agonise over what to do in the next lesson, you will just know. Keeping a record of all this - nothing more detective-like than a notebook - can make following steps in the teaching cycle much simpler. More time spent assessing and giving feedback in lessons also means less time spent marking books after school. This one works well with the first point: the more you read about your subject and pedagogy, the easier it will be to recognise the clues which will help you to work out what children need and how to teach it to them. If Batman were a teacher he would definitely know his data!
  5. Utilises high-tech equipment and weapons - I have to be careful here; no way am I wading into the debate about the use of tech in classrooms. Nor will I speak on any kind of pedagogy. We all have our weapons - our go-to tools - and successful teachers have a particular tried-and-tested arsenal of methods which ensure children learn, time is not wasted and behaviour is managed well. These Batpeople of the classroom will also have tools which make their lives easier too: the ones that keep them in peak condition. In order to survive, and have the appearance of a superhero, you will need to build your own batcave and fill it with equipment (physical and metaphorical) that you know supports the way you teach and the way pupils learn. It's worth remembering that with every new Batman incarnation comes a bigger and better car, the addition of helicopter or whatever else: our arsenal can always be improving, especially if step 1 is followed.
Teacher, no matter how great you are, you are not a superhero with super powers. You are a human being with great responsibilities who, admittedly, might often be expected to deliver super-human results. You do not have powers, but Batteacher, you have abilities - don't be afraid, or ashamed, to use them. Please don't kill yourself in the process of trying what is humanly impossible - your citizens need you in one piece. 

And they won't quibble over whether you have super powers or whether you simply have abilities.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Greener Grass (or 'Finding A Better School')

Reading Keziah Fetherstone's piece in the New Teachers supplement from the TES (Friday 9th September) reminded me of this interview I did with a teacher who left one school for another and found that actually the grass is sometimes greener on the other side.

Having qualified in 2011 our interviewee is in their 6th year teaching. They have taught across Key Stage 2 in two schools: the one they left, and the one where they work currently. The interview explores the differences between the two schools and provides an insight into the experience of someone who has made the leap because they were unhappy in their school:

How did you feel working at your old school?

In the beginning of working at my old school I loved it! It was the only place I had applied for because it was the one I felt was closest to my own views of teaching. University gave us a great chance to form our own beliefs, and I really feel like I stuck to them when searching for a school to start my career.

Towards the end however, it simply wasn't the school I joined. So much had changed. I was trying to stick to the methods that I knew worked, methods I had been praised and commended for, yet somehow they were no longer allowed and I was suddenly seen as a poor teacher; not because the children weren't learning anymore, but because of how it looked. It became very superficial. I tried to follow the strategies I was being criticised for not using, but because I didn't believe in them, that came through my teaching and progress decreased from the high rate I was used to. The children were 'doing' lots (which therefore, superficially, looked great on the surface. But I could see they weren't learning anything; any independence I tried to give them was wasted, because they didn't have the skills to apply to anything (although their sparkling book looked like they could!) Those who had been there longer than me were a lot smarter at 'playing the game' but I was unwilling to join because it felt wrong. I thought 'these little people need to leave here capable of achieving a job, or we have failed them'. In order to do that, they needed to be equipped through good teaching and ample opportunity to learn; not listen and copy because their page is more important for the moderation coming up.

Anything I was doing in class was based on everything we'd be told at our rousing annual first INSET day of the year. Every year there was a big presentation, the school's aims and such, and I left wanting to try these ideas in my classroom. That's what started it all. I think, once they saw these ideas in practice, they got scared because it was something they'd never seen before; all the ideas were from Shirley Clarke's 'Outstanding Formative Assessment'.

Did you ever think of leaving the teaching profession as a result?

As a result of how I was treated, and the awful feedback I was getting, I fully expected to receive a terrible reference. For this reason only, I did consider other careers, although I did only apply to teaching jobs eventually. All applications I sent were successful, and I turned down all offers other than for post I am now in - I still wanted to stick to my values. My reference was great although I was, to my surprise, asked to stay. This made me feel like anything I had been told wasn't really true; as if my time as "the teacher to support" was over and they'd move on to "upskilling" someone else. It made a lot of what had happened seem worthless. A tick box exercise for "Staff Discipline" or someone else's chance to boast at Performance Management about their generous input into my seeming improvement, thus evidencing their own contributions as a Leader.

Has moving school changed your perspective?

My new school hasn't changed my perspective in the sense that I enjoy my job; I mostly always have. But it has motivated me again.

What is it about your new school that is different?


My school is different because teachers have so much freedom, but still with the expectation to do a good job! I think the fear for SLT is that freedom makes lazy teachers who don't work. My school is full of hard workers, making sensible sequences of lessons that their class benefit from. Although the pressures and the workload are still exactly the same, the atmosphere is totally different, making for happier staff able to deliver better lessons. I know personally, that if I have put my heart and soul into a plan, or sequence, or strongly believe something will work, it will come across. In the same way that not believing in what I was asked to do previously came across.

What are the characteristics of a school that you should leave? How can you tell that you need to leave a school?


For me, it was once I was receiving conflicting feedback that I realised it was time to go. I couldn't perform when the criteria for a lesson was the complete opposite of the pointers I had been given previously. I was being judged on that - the school's leaders were forming opinions of me based on that. If you're in a situation like that then, depending on the ethos of your school, the impact that opinion has on you, and those around you, can have a big negative effect.

The feedback I was getting wasn't really based on anything. I guess the easiest feedback to give, is to advise you to do the opposite of what you're doing. And giving feedback makes people feel important, "I told them to do that" - but ultimately, the effects of you acting on what they say (managing the change, teaching and learning implications and associated data trends), aren't seen as their problem.

What were the tell-tale signs (when you went to look round and when you went for interview) that your new school was going to be a better place to work? What was the initial impression compared to your old school?

Firstly, after a few years of full time teaching, the 'walk round' is so totally different to when you're an NQT. I could feel myself asking different questions and looking for different things.

That said, I asked every single school I looked at about their approaches to classroom layout and lesson design. From my experiences, I wanted to make sure that my new school was a place that valued differences among the children, and were encouraging teachers to act on those differences in order to make the best learning.

The Head, (my new boss) showed me round and he had such a good sense of humour; I'd never known anything like it! It really is a great place to be. I spoke to children, looked through books and got a feel of their expectations of me should I be successful.

However, I also looked for things that I could make an impact on and change. I think one of the things about my previous school is that I was always seen as the new boy, so a position of responsibility was almost laughable; an awful prediction that I had nothing to offer. Yet here I saw and heard things that I knew I could do something about in time, and I made that known.

The tour, interview and interview lesson, were enjoyable. Although it's important to say, when I started at my new school, I went through this strange transition in the first few weeks of trying to teach in the way I had been forced to, as if I had forgotten the methods I used best. Of course, I carried some strategies over but I needed to return to the core of what I used to do, the methods that were successful before someone quite simply changed their mind, based on what was "fashionable", and I was no longer good enough.

As a person, I needed a short period of reinvention; I felt very worn down by my experiences. Being told you're not good enough, yet seeing so much misconduct being swept under the carpet was almost humiliating. It made no sense to me and I found it difficult to brush off. Being asked to stay was even more confusing as I didn't understand why! Why would you want me here if I've been doing such a bad job?

A change of scene was very much needed and a fresh outlook on what my primary objectives are; to teach children the skills to apply to various challenges independently. Yes, they will be assessed. But their life goes on after that stupid week in May, and we need to do our bit in preparing them for that life.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Being A Reading Teacher

At the beginning of this year I decided to shake myself out of a long slumber, to blow the dust off my 'library' and to become a reader again. I joined the 'fifty book challenge' and promptly got my wife on the case too; fifty books in a year (we are both currently on track).

I cannot remember learning to read (other than the flash cards my mum did with me pre-school) - I imagine I've always been able to read! As a child, thanks largely to Roald Dahl and later The Hardy Boys series, I was a fairly avid reader - the torch-under-the-covers type. Later in my teens, aside from 'Moonfleet' (still one of my favourite books) I read very little. Studying English at GCSE didn't do much to encourage me to read increasingly complex or canonical texts - we covered Jane Eyre but cannot recall actually having to read the whole book. By the time I was at uni I scraped my 2:1 by skimming through library books for the underlinings and highlightings of more diligent students who preceded me, without ever having to read a book in its entirety. And by that age I certainly wasn't reading fiction. After uni, Ian Rankin rescued me when I picked up a copy of 'The Falls' in a holiday cottage - I spent the next couple of years scouring charity shops and buying new releases; I'm now well versed in Rebus' career.

On one hand I regret that I fell out of love with reading - think of all the books I could have read during my 'dark ages'. But, on the other hand, I get to read them all now of my own volition, now that I'm a (mostly) sensible adult. I'm not one for those '100 books to read before you die' lists but I have begun to try out some of the books that feature on those lists: To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, Candide, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse Five, The Old Man and the Sea. I can honestly say I've enjoyed each one - probably wouldn't have if I'd have been made to read them as a teen.

The benefits of me, as a teacher, reigniting my own passion for reading have been many fold. And consequently, I have come to be of the opinion that every teacher should be a reader - and more than someone who just reads the odd bestseller. In my blog post 'Reading for Pleasure' I outlined some of how my passion has been transferred to the children in my class but here I'd like to discuss further ways in which teachers who are readers (i.e. those who make a habit of reading) will see benefits in the classroom:

I am currently reading 'Reading Reconsidered' by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway. It's full of highly detailed practical advice on how to teach reading skills. As I read, it dawned on me just how complex the reading comprehension process is. The authors of the book insightfully break down how to go about establishing and analysing meaning as well as outlining where difficulties lie. They reference many novels by way of giving supporting examples - because I had recently read some of the books mentioned I was able to understand the concepts put forward in the book much more comprehensively than I would if I'd have read it, say, in December. But greater than that, as the book discussed plot type and narrator techniques I was able to recall examples from my own reading: 'Oh! Slaughterhouse Five has a non-linear time sequence!' and lo and behold, a page later it's mentioned as an example.

It was following several similar moments as I read that I realised teachers must read for themselves. Yes, we should pre-read the texts we read and teach to our class, and we should read to help us make decisions on book selection but we should also read for our own enjoyment, at our own level. Why? Because it makes us into readers and it is the only thing that will give us deep insight into what books are like - the varying ways they are narrated, the different plot types, the similarities between two texts, the complexities of older texts, the devices used by authors. Having a continually growing understanding of what books are like is essential if we want to help children to learn how to gain meaningful understanding of a variety of texts. If we aren't readers then we will struggle to model what it is like to be a reader. We will find it difficult to identify why an author has chosen a particular word or why the narrator has left certain pieces of key information out. And if we can't model reading in this way due to a lack of our own experience, are we really teaching reading?

Being able to read does not make one a reader. Reading one age-appropriate class novel each half term hardly makes one a reader either. By skimping on one's literary intake (and I have learned this from experience) no matter how you 'push' for the children to enjoy reading, no matter how well you 'do the voices', no matter how Pinterest-worthy your beautiful book corner is, you will probably struggle to effectively teach reading. To reiterate: it comes down to knowing what books (in general, not individual books) are like.

And the encouragement comes in this form: it is an easy change to make. All you do is pick up a book and read it. And repeat. You won't need to go into too much deep analysis of your own reading - with half a mind on teaching reading you will start to naturally identify text features and literary devices and similarities between books. The very (continuous) act of being a reader will prepare you far better for being a teacher of reading than if you are not a reader. 

Of course, I would also recommend that you begin to read about the teaching of reading too - helpful books like Reading Reconsidered will open your eyes further to what you are reading in your own novels, as well as what is present in the books you read at school with the children. But get into reading novels for pleasure first - get a few of those under your belt as for most folk reading novels for fun is easier than reading non-fiction for learning purposes it it hones those reading comprehension skills all the same.

So, if you wouldn't consider yourself a reader, why not set yourself a challenge? Be realistic perhaps - don't aim to read too many too soon, or don't aim to read the heavier, more archaic classics just yet. I'd recommend using Good Reads (app or website or both) to track your achievements and I'd recommend first and foremost that you read for YOU - not even so you'll become a better teacher of reading, and definitely not so you can feel good about having ploughed your way through the James Joyce that everyone says is 'an absolute must read'.

To be a teacher of reading, you should be a reading teacher.

A version of this article was published in the TES magazine on 2nd December 2016 entitled 'Throw The Book At Yourself'. It can be read online, with a subscription, here: https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/throw-book-yourself

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Rise Up! (Being Militant Teachers)

In recent conversations with teachers I have had my eyes opened to a world of pain that some of our colleagues are being subjected to. Whilst I don't assume every school is like the ones I've worked in or every leader is as understanding as the ones I've had the pleasure to work for, I was shocked to hear of the expectations that are being placed on some some teachers in some schools by some leaders.

It would seem that some of us are falling prey to unrealistic 'marking and feedback' requirements. One primary school teacher asked on Twitter how to lighten their marking workload of 102 books every day. The expectation on this teacher was external - they weren't ascetically burdening themselves. They were being expected to 'deep mark' three sets of books (Maths, English and Topic) a day for a class of 34 Key Stage 2 children. This was linked to the expectation that they have evidence of recorded work in each book on four out of five days per week.

My only real advice to our colleague was to leave that school and find one where things are being done properly.

But I soon realised that, although it would remain my ultimate advice, there must be something else that could be done until leaving becomes a legitimate option. All my usual tips for marking (marking in lessons, planning carefully so you don't have three sets of books every day, peer or self marking etc) would barely scratch the surface in this situation. So what interim advice is there to give?

Militancy. If you have found yourself in this situation, particularly with marking and feedback, then you need to fight back. I'm not talking Che Guavara-style revolution (or worse) but I'm talking about a diplomatic revolt; a polite rebellion. Perhaps what I'm suggesting is a contradiction in terms but a strong word is neccesary because what I'm suggesting will take much strength, conviction and determination. Allow me to explain:

Boy Scout Militancy - "Be prepared." 

First gather your evidence: Ofsted reports from schools who have reasonable marking expectations; this document from East Riding of Yorkshire (http://eridingsuperceded.eastriding.gov.uk/resources/assessment/020312_jmundy_assess_marking_feedback.doc); the short myth busting video from Ofsted; an exemplar marking policy, again from a school that doesn't have ridiculous ideas about what marking should look like. Also, be ready to present well-thought out solutions to the problem - preferably tailored solutions that will appeal to your leaders. It's also worth considering practising exactly what you want to say.

Henry Ford Militancy - "Working together is success." 

If you're suffering from the unrealistic expectations then others around you will be too. If you don't know who they are, be willing to share your struggles and you will find your allies - the ones who are also breaking under the sheer weight of the workload. One teacher alone may be seen as a weakling unable to cope whereas a whole team of teachers together should indicate that there is a more universal problem which needs to be investigated. There is strength, and support, in numbers.

SAS Militancy - "Who dares wins." 

Once you're armed with your evidence and solutions and flanked by your colleagues, the next (and perhaps scariest) step is to call a meeting with your leaders. This potentially requires more derring-do than the resulting meeting. Once the meeting is underway you and your colleagues will need to keep your nerve and continue to dare to speak up for yourselves.

Satyagraha Militancy - “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” - Gandhi 

Speak to your leaders civilly. I'm no peace negotiation expert but it stands to reason that non-violent, non-threatening, even amiable, behaviour is in everyone's best interests. If daring to call a meeting is the scariest part of the process, then this step is the most difficult - emotions, and the tongue, are hard to tame. You'll need self-discipline to kill them with kindness - that rehearsal in the preparation stage will come into its own here.

Caesarian Militancy - "It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience." - Julius Caesar

Be patient; to use another Roman analogy, Rome wasn't built in a day. These negotiations will take time - you will need to gather more evidence, regroup and continue to push for what you need. Don't just 'volunteer to die' by taking 'No' for an answer and then working yourself into an early grave marking hundreds of books each night. With ongoing negotiations you may need to endure the pain with patience whilst remaining hopeful that your militant actions will eventually bear fruit.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Dear Parents Of Our Primary School Children


Dear Parents Of Our Primary School Children,

You may have read of the crisis that the teachers of your children are in the midst of. You've probably heard that teachers are leaving classrooms in droves, that the workload is impossible and that funding is being cut left, right and centre. You might even have come across heartbreaking 'Why I'm Leaving Teaching' articles. And no doubt you've worried about the impact on your children. Forced academisation, teacher shortages and increasing pupil numbers all sound terrible, too. The number of schools being rated poorly under the constantly-evolving expectations sounds scary, especially when you know your child's school is one of them.

You'll be aware of the new standards that this year your children will be tested on at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. You might have seen reports that even scholars struggle to answer some of the questions in the Year 6 Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar test and you feel downhearted, to say the least. The fact that no-one even knows what the expected 'level' for your child is since levels were abolished confuses you.

I know that anxiety abounds at school gates up and down this land. The teachers of your children appear not to be coping, and it looks like your children won't either.

Well most of what you've heard is true; the situation is dire. However, you must take heart: whilst the government announce ever-changing educational policies and budget cuts there is a vast army of teachers determined to make every moment count for your child. 

These teachers turn up for work early and leave late (no, it really isn't a 9 to 5). Then they work at home. And at the weekends (and yes, I know we aren't the only ones).  And they strive to make your child's learning enjoyable and engaging. And they pore over data, analysing it to work out what your child's next step is so that learning can be personalised.

And chances are your child's teacher does the same. Because for every teacher who leaves, there are many who stay for the sake of the children. And because they love the job and want to make a difference. It is sad that there are many teachers leaving, but there are many staying, too. Your child's teacher is probably doing all they can to help your child to make progress; many teachers will be going above-and-beyond what is required of them to try to make this happen.

And those same teachers will be greeting your children with a smile every morning, enquiring how they are, and genuinely caring about them. They'll be the one who picks them up in the playground after a nasty fall. They make your child laugh. They become your child's best teacher ever (until next year). They are a comforting constant in the changing scenes of life - someone your child confides in. They're the teacher your child gets excited (and then incredibly shy) about seeing in the supermarket on a weekend. They're the one they call 'Mum' or 'Dad' by accident, much to the delight of their friends (who've all done it too).

And it's these teachers who soldier on regardless of the latest government initiative. It is they who take a dry curriculum and inject it with life and infectious personality. They're the ones guiding your child through the run-up to their SATs, walking the fine line between building and destroying confidence. Ensuring that they're not just teaching a list of grammar objectives but providing a fun and relevant context, disguising the fact that they're even learning lots of (probably) useless terminology. They are determined not to let your child be brought down by the way in which our leaders are dismantling our once-proud education system - these teachers bear the weight of this, adamant that your child won't feel the squeeze at all. 

Parent - it is times like these when your child's teacher needs your support. Think about it: for every teacher there are around 60 adults who could stand up and make some noise about the plight of your children. There are over 24,000 primary schools in the UK and if there are an average of 10 teachers in each school that's 240,000 primary school teachers. Multiply that by 60 and you've got over 14 million parents or primary-aged children who could voice important opinions about your children and their future - 20 % of the UK's population. And that's without doting grandparents getting in on the action.

You may feel powerless but this needs to start from the ground up, from a grassroots level. Speak positively about education - it is the future of your child. Share success stories via social media. Say thank you to your child's teacher. Ask them how you can help. Give them a gift. Offer your support in anyway you can. Write to your MP. Get up-to-date with education policy - that's not just the realm of politicians and teachers; you have an important role to play in your child's education. It has got to the point where, for the sake of your children, teachers need you in their corner: that teacher who we spoke of before is being maligned by the authorities, the media and the general public and if the future for your child is to be bright, an end must be put to that.

Parent power - teachers need it. Will you join with us?

Faithfully,

A Primary Teacher

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Friday, 26 February 2016

Being a Celebrity Teacher


In this burgeoning age of celebrity teachers, is it OK to just be a teacher? 

Teaching is a profession full of ambitious individuals but career development opportunities are limited. Some innovative teachers are now opening doors for themselves with social media being an important proponent in this process. Teacher bloggers and journalists, self-appointed consultants and even practitioners with thousands of followers on Twitter are pushing forwards and making a difference from a grassroots level. It's akin to Grime artists appearing in the UK pop charts. In the face of criticism from the media and the government, teachers are rising up - Pulp's 'Mis-shapes' springs to mind:

"We're making a move, we're making it now,
We're coming out of the sidelines."

And largely, these new celebrity teachers represent us well. I'm all for them. But it does leave little old me feeling like a Heat magazine reader - wishing for the finer things in life as they see non-celebrities become minor celebrities just because they went on a reality TV show once. I just teach a handful of kids and work with a small team of people - is that enough? 

Well, the obvious answer has to be 'Yes!' Remember that time you saw little so-and-so in Tesco and they shouted "Look, it's Miss Thingumajig!" and then acted all shy when you said hello? You are a celebrity to the kids you teach. Remember when you found your colleague upset and you took the time to chat with them? You matter to her. You see, we all have our little sphere of 'fans', and on them we have an influence. And the reach of your influence is far greater than you might think - your colleagues' partners, your pupils' parents will benefit too from he work you do; the ripple effect is in play. Year on year you influence more and more children - there will be young people all across your district who have memories of you. It's up to us to make sure we're famous and not infamous!

You may never reach superstar teacher status in the eyes of the entire profession but to those you work directly with, you could be a superstar teacher. On whichever platform you stand, it is your responsibility to represent yourself and the profession well - you have the power to make a difference, even in, or perhaps especially in, the most difficult of circumstances. 

Your impact is needed. Even if your name isn't up in bright lights, even if your face isn't on the cover of a magazine, even if you're not the talk of the town, you are a superstar celebrity teacher to someone.

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Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Revealing True Colours

I entered into the #teacher5aday29dayswriting challenge knowing that time and inspiration might be obstacles but feeling confident that I could overcome them. Even so, I've been surprised at how, by evening time, something has inspired me everyday to write. I go through the day alert, waiting for a glimpse of the next spark: the one that will ignite and eventually become something more.

Today I've been reading 'The Kite Runner' by Khaled Hosseini; a quote caught my attention:

"Children aren't colouring books. You don't get to fill them with your favourite colours."

This spoken to the father of the book's protagonist with regards to the father's disappointment that the boy has not followed in his footsteps as he would have liked.

Remember those 'colouring' books you had as a child? The magic ones where you'd simply brush over the outline with water and the colours would mysteriously appear. I think possibly children are those. The colours are all there already, hidden, and we educators have the responsibility of revealing the already-present hues. We have the task of coaxing out the in-built characteristics, the ones that their DNA have gifted them with. The tones that make them who they are. Not all of the colours will be beautiful to every beholder.

My daughters love colouring books. But often, once the picture is satisfactorily coloured, they will add flowers and trees and sunshines and rainbows to further enhance the image. I think as we are drawing out a child's natural skills, abilities, feelings and preferences we will, to some extent, impart some of our own. Some of these will stick, some will fall by the way. But through interaction with parents, teachers, friends, peers and others, the image of a child will also feature some of those embellishments that my daughters love to add. Not all of them will make the picture look better in everyone's eyes

We can't treat children like a fresh sheet of A4 - we don't have to start from scratch. Nor are teachers required to take a Dr. Frankenstein role, creating cut-and-paste collage children from a mish-mash of educational theories. If we decide to approach children as we might a colouring book then at best by the end of each year we might have classes of mini Miss Smith clones, for example, rather than a class of individuals. Children are individuals and (in the cheesiest moment of this whole blog so far) we, to paraphrase Phil Collins, should want to see their true colours shining through. Once we see them, and understand who they are, then we can begin to make suggested additions: Rahim is really good at drawing, so perhaps I'll show him how to use a painting app on the tablets so he can easily share his images online. Ayesha always brings in really tasty baked goods; let's also develop her instructional writing so she can write recipes. Knowing a child's uniquity and interests will give us the opportunity to add more colour to their palette, but never should it be because they are our favourite colours. Just because you're football-mad, it doesn't mean that you can foist that on your class. Not all children (not even all boys) are football-coloured.

The illustration of the magic painting books falls down when it comes to wielding that watery paintbrush. As a child it was simple: dip paintbrush in jam jar of water, brush on page. Job done. With teaching it's not that simple; it takes an artist. We are all artists. And it's all about our brushstrokes, and our choice of brush, and the temperature of the water. But remember, the colours are all there somewhere and we have to get creative in order to reveal them.

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Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The Pedagogy of 'Zog'


"Now that you've been shown, you can practise on your own
And you'll all be expert fliers by the time you're fully grown."


That's the pedagogy of Madame Dragon in Julia Donaldson's 'Zog'. Every time I read it I wonder if teaching really is that simple.

At a recent Talk for Writing training session it was said that "If you're not modelling reading, then you're not teaching reading" and I agree. I am strong advocate of whole-class reading where the teacher models aloud the thoughts of a reader - why did he say that? What does that word mean? I wonder if...? In writing too: if the children haven't seen how a writer works, its hard for them to be one - they need to see how a writer re-reads and edits, considers word choice, sentence structure and so on. So in a sense, Julia Donaldson is right to portray the model-then-practise approach to learning.

But in maths I often take a very different approach. At the end of this half term we had an in-house 'teach meet'. It was a really positive way to end a half term and was enjoyed by all. I challenged my colleagues to begin lessons not by standing up and 'teaching' (by which I suppose I meant modelling) but by giving the children an activity to complete first without any input. My reasons are simple: you find out quickly who can do it and who can't. In this way no child is sitting listening to something that is either too hard or too easy for them. In this way you can very quickly see who is applying previous skills and strategies and who is struggling to make links. As a result you can very quickly start making learning more bespoke: if you are prepared with extension activities then the ones who find it easy can move on, some children you will decide need to continue working, for others it will be clear that you need to intervene, and it is at this point, for these children, that you model in a small group.

In writing I like to employ the 'cold write' technique. Although more time-consuming than taking a similar approach in maths, it does, again, mean that you can tailor the subsequent learning so that you you know what to model and to whom.

So, Madame Dragon in 'Zog' was right to model how to fly as she had no doubt already assessed whether or not the young dragons could fly. I'm sure she started her lesson by saying "Good morning dragons, I'd like to see, who can fly up into that tree," and upon finding that none of them could, embarked on modelling the flying process before sending them off to practise.

I challenge you in the same way I challenged my colleagues: begin more lessons by just giving the children the task, making assessment the first job you do. Use the first five minutes to decide who needs the modelling, who needs to continue applying their skills and who needs challenging further. And then get on with the modelling but allow for plenty of practise time too.

"Now that you've been shown, you can practise on your own
And you'll all be expert ??? by the time you're fully grown."

Monday, 15 February 2016

>10%? (PPA Time)


A popular call as a solution for teachers' workload is for teachers to be given extra time at school within working hours to get more of the 'admin' done (throughout this post I will refer to planning, preparation, assessment, moderation and the like as admin). And it's not a bad idea. In fact it's something we do.

Guidelines suggest that a minimum of 10% of teaching time is given to teachers as PPA (planning, preparation and assessment), and it is a statutory right (more info here: http://www.tesfaq.co.uk/ppa#TOC-How-much-PPA-time-should-I-be-getting-). So, let's take a rough estimate of teaching time to be 25 hours meaning 2.5 hours of PPA time should be provided. Our children have 27 hours 5 mins of teaching time so our PPA time should roughly be 2 hours 45 minutes.

The first question to ask is, are you getting what you are entitled to? If not it is worth querying it with your leaders. Many teachers won't even stop to work out how much time they are owed.

The second point to consider is, is even 10% enough and what would happen if you were given more time? 

Our PPA time should be 2 hours 45 minutes, in actuality we get 3 hours 30 minutes. 45 minutes more than 10% of timetabled minimum allowance. As per guidelines this extra time is best referred to as non-contact time - it isn't protected in the same way as PPA time and as a result is designated for other meetings such as Pupil Progress Meetings and Appraisals. However such meetings occur only once or twice per term, leaving each teacher, most weeks, with the extra time to use for their own benefit. Phase Meetings take place during this time also but since all teachers in the phase plan together in one appointed room I find that the meetings become part-and-parcel of the PPA session, therefore taking up little extra time. Our PPA sessions are covered by a combination of senior leaders and HLTAs who teach PE, PSHCE and French lessons.

It's anecdotal but many of my colleagues have mentioned that they prefer to work in the mornings; it's when they feel most productive. Our long PPA sessions can only take place in the mornings. I use the hour before it starts and some of lunchtime to make the session even longer and I complete a great deal of work.

Our extra non-contact time is a gesture which is indicative of our leadership team's commitment to reducing workload. Obviously it still isn't enough time to get EVERYTHING done, but it's a helpful kickstart. The structure of our PPA time encourages collaborative working and the sessions are attended by senior leaders - our staff are vocal about how supported they feel by this set up. If you are a senior leader in a primary school I'd urge you to consider a similar scheme.

Oh, and don't forget the cake.

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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.

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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