Saturday, 13 February 2016

Date Night

Tonight is date night. I say that as if it's a regular fixture in our calendar but it's not. It should be though. My wife is a stay-at-home mum of three and has recently set up her own baking business. Our evenings are taken up with book marking, macaron making and house cleaning, amongst a whole host of other chores.

Evenings out are what works for us - getting out of the house is important as it stops us thinking of all the jobs that could be done and we are less likely to be distracted by technology if we're in the pub or at a restaurant. We consider going out for a meal a luxury as we can't always afford it, and it means finding a babysitter too. Tonight we're benefitting from a kind Christmas present of Zizzis vouchers and my sister is doing the honours with the children. We're really looking forward to enjoying some good food and quality time together.

Even though we don't always get to go out, we ensure that we have a weekend night together to watch a film and have a glass of wine. We also try to spend the last half an hour of each day together, just to catch up and wind down. We've learnt that if we don't do this things get strained between us and communication breaks down. The time together is essential.

If you are a teacher in a relationship then you have to prioritise time with your significant other. Thankfully I have a super-supportive wife who understands the time requirements and the pressures of the job and she enables and encourages me to use time at home effectively. But this understanding is part of a give and take relationship - sometimes I have to put the work down  clear the schedule and make time for what's important. If I never did this I don't think my wife would be inclined to be as supportive, and she'd have every right not to be! 

Having said this I know that this is the first time in five months we'll have been out for a meal together - that is not good enough. This half-term holiday I pledge to make time for more regular date nights during term time - we can't always wait for holidays! Who's with me?

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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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Thursday, 11 February 2016

Saving Time or Cutting Corners?

If teachers could save time on their everyday routine tasks then inevitably there could be more life in the balance.

I love finding time-saving techniques but in many cases my methods of doing things backfire on me. Last night I tried to move the table without first moving the chair. The chair fell on my foot and hurt me and then I had to bend over and pick it up. It would have been quicker to have just moved it in the first place. This is often the case with attempted corner-cuts. The old saying goes 'More haste, less speed'.

When looking for realistic time-saving methods you will inevitably make mistakes and end up doing some things twice. But in the long run you'll find some truly effective shortcuts.

Last week I did a small thing which has already impacted and saved time. I made a list of all the resources (websites, books, downloads) we use in our maths teaching as some weeks we forget to check all of them for suitable ideas and activities. This week whilst planning we referred to the list and found some great resources for our next week of teaching. In previous weeks, we invariably ended up making our own resources, therefore increasing the amount of time we spend in preparation. In making a simple list to refer to, we saved a lot of time.

It's worth noting, however, that sometimes a great deal of time can be spent searching for the ideal resource, the one you've imagined in your head, when in fact it would have been quicker to just set about making it from scratch. On other occasions when you pick a pre-made resource in an attempt to save time, you can end up with something which isn't up to the job so the children don't learn and you end up repeating the lesson using a resource you had to spend a bit of time making. It's no good cutting corners sometimes; you end up spending more time on a job.

For most teacher tasks there will be a hack - a way to do it more quickly and more efficiently. Make sure that you look for those time-saving techniques in everything you do but be aware of the corner-cuts; they may end up wasting your time.

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.