Saturday, 28 May 2016

I Thought I'd Lose My Job.

A few years ago I really thought my career had come to an end. It was definitely an overreaction but for a few days I had that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach 24/7. In my more rational moments I was sure that at least my being trusted to work in year 6 was over.

It was July and my first set of SATs results had come through. I'd been teaching a really high-achieving and compliant (if not a little boring) year group in what might be considered a leafy-lane school. They'd worked well and had aced practice tests. But the results arrived and calculations were made and there were disappointments. Enough disappointments for it to be a problem.

I went into overdrive: worrying, gathering evidence, mentally phrasing and re-rephrasing my defence. I met with the senior leaders and with my partner teacher and the School Improvement Officer was drafted in for a special meeting. Nothing else occupied my mind; I sat glued to my computer compiling page after page of reports based on the year's data (which thankfully I'd kept a good record of). I only remember one moment of peace: I'd cycled home and, in an attempt to clear my head, I lay in my garden listening to a favourite album from my youth: Kula Shaker's 'K'. 'Hey Dude' still reminds me of that time.

"Smell the rose, the sweet, sweet rose,
Catch the sun, find where it grows,
Smell the rose, the sweet, sweet rose,
That grows on castle walls in heaven."

Things were not smelling of roses and my experience did not seem like anything approaching heaven.

In short, the finger was pointing squarely at me. Well-meaning leaders tried to attribute the perceived failure to some difficult family circumstances I'd had that year. The problem was that they had all occurred after the SATs - they were clutching at straws, perhaps because they didn't want to say I was a bad teacher. They couldn't say that anyway as they had no evidence from their own monitoring that would suggest it were true. My carefully collected (and subsequently curated) practice papers and assessment grids were proof that there were no real issues in the achievement and progress throughout the year. I'd been successfully observed, my books had been scrutinised and there had been no issues with my data; pupil progress meetings had gone well and I always followed through with any interventions or changes that were suggested.

All this made it worse because it was so hard to put a finger on what had gone wrong. I doubted myself but at the same time was the only one being proactive about explaining the differences in the data. My confidence was shot yet I had to repeatedly defend myself, having to appear confident in what I had been doing for the year. 

In the end we put it down to an increase in challenge in the tests - these were the 2013 tests, the first year of the SPAG tests and the first time we began to see Tory ideals creeping in (inclusion of an excerpt from classic literature). Many perceived the tests to have already begun moving towards assessing principles from the incoming National Curriculum.

The agony I felt was prolonged until I'd been told which year group I'd be teaching the following year. I knew there was deliberation. I wanted out because I didn't want that pressure again - and my confidence had taken a severe blow. I wanted in because being ousted would have been proof (in my mind) that they thought I was incapable. In the end I was asked to teach year 6 again - that was probably the best outcome. And I've never taught another year group since.

The following year we had a visit from Ofsted. The previous year's data (which I'd had sleepless nights over- not to mention the terrifying days) did not stop the school from getting 'Good' overall (with two areas of 'Outstanding'). I was observed twice - SLT directed the inspectors back to me on the second day so they could see my cross-curricular use of ICT. An SLT member and an inspector told me there were no points for improvement in my lesson. It was noted in the inspection report that provision for reading (the test in which we'd suffered most) was 'Outstanding' - I'd led on reading for a year and a half. I'd already secured my current job by that point - assistant head at another school. The School Improvement Officer conducted a book scrutiny and affirmed that from what she'd seen in my books I'd make a good Maths leader in my next school. Those awful few days from the year before were long forgotten. We had a successful set of SATs results through that July. All was well. 

And I've learned something from all that; something I'd like my readers to learn too. There's probably a cleverly-worded, pithy quote somewhere which will better express this next point, but here it is in my own words: the things we worry about rarely have any lasting impact. A month, term, year down the line they are all but forgotten. Now, whenever I'm worrying about something work-related, the memory of this event reminds me that it probably won't have any lasting consequences. I do all I can to make things right and then let it go - it's a very freeing way to be but if it wasn't for the described event I wouldn't have learnt that lesson. 

Although at the time I was certain I'd lose my position as year 6 teacher, or even my job entirely, I didn't. Even though I worried that it'd harm my chances of procuring a leadership role, it didn't. All that you are most afraid of may never came to fruition - don't worry unnecessarily. Don't allow your fears to limit your potential. That thing you're living in fear of? It'll probably never happen. 

At least, that's how I see it.

"Smell the rose, the sweet, sweet rose,
Catch the sun, find where it grows,
Smell the rose, the sweet, sweet rose,
That grows on castle walls in heaven."

PostScript: It must be said that throughout this whole experience my wife constantly reminded me of what I ended up learning for myself. She reminded me too of the comparative insignificance of the event and of the principle laid out in Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him". Her support was, and is, invaluable to me.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

A Year 6 Teacher's Vows

 I do solemnly declare that I, your year 6 teacher, shall not pressurise you, my year 6 pupils, during the run up to the SATs. From this day forward, until lunchtime on May 12th, and indeed thereafter, I shall not subject you to emotional torture and shall protect you (to the best of my ability) from the ills of Key Stage 2 testing.

I promise that I will strive to keep you stimulated and engaged, even as together we learn the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. I will be a good teacher, for better, for worse, and I shall not continually mention that the SATs are coming up. Instead I will endeavour to prepare you for the rest of your lives until we are parted by the spring bank holiday, and eventually the six weeks holiday.

I pledge that I will respect, trust, help, and care for you, remembering that after all, you are fragile people with real emotions. I will persevere with you, in sickness and in health, not only to secure for you academic success but emotional wellbeing, social ability and general well-roundedness.

And when July comes, I promise to reassure you, in joy and in sorrow, that I, your year 6 teacher, believe that you, my year 6 pupils, really do have qualities that the test could not test. I will be your champion, reminding you that you have the capacity to succeed in a myriad of different ways as you express your own unique personalities and skill-sets. And as the last day of school rolls around, and we are rent asunder, I will wave you off, confident that your sanity and happiness remains intact as you look forward to blissful weeks of summer.

This is my solemn vow.

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

Photo Credit: lukas.b0 via Compfight cc

Thursday, 10 March 2016

#OptimisticEd: An Analogy

The storm rolls in. Skies darken. Seas toss and turn; sleepless, restless. Ships flounder in the squall, doing all they can not to founder. White-crested waves prey on sailors who are all too aware of their possible fate. Winds whisper threats and the ocean bed cries out for destruction. Peril lurks just beneath the surface too: rocks lie in wait, ready to rent asunder any vessel unfortunate enough to stray there.

Yet in the darkness, piercing formidable clouds, shines a light. A beacon of hope. A promise of safe haven; a place to drop anchor and to set foot on solid ground. And the lamp atop its tower guides weary mariners, not quite home, but to a place of security. A harbour in which to weather the storm. Sailors who know their voyage must go on amidst the tempest, find courage and strength in the knowledge that though the gale, somewhere over the raging waters, warmth and rest will be found. The lamp, as it cuts through the gloom, serves as a reminder that there is a way and indeed, it shows the way.

Captains, spirits buoyed by the light its prospect of shelter, radiate confidence and crews unite to bring ships safely in with their precious cargos intact. And there, amidst the howling deluge, there is calm. The familiarity of the tasks stills inner turmoil, and the necessity to improvise stirs passions and hardened seafarers and cabin boys alike work patiently but passionately to reach sanctuary. A peacefulness extends to every deck on which the lighthouse casts its watchful and friendly eye. A peacefulness that says "There is yet hope."

And when the gleaming radiance of the lighthouse has guided them safely through treacherous shallows, and when the ship is moored, lashed safely, docked securely, then the crew will know that the hope they held, promised by the light, was justified. That their confidence, born of the experience of many-a nightmare passage, and of the knowledge of adequate preparation, was rational. Then songs will be sung, and drinks will be drained in memory of those less fortunate; the ones who saw the light yet scuppered, convinced that to swim for shore, or to drown and have it over with, was all there was to be done.

Photo Credit: y.caradec via Compfight cc

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Wellbeing x Optimism

 Thanks to February I've racked up a fair few blog posts now and in looking back over them I can see there are definite recurring themes. This, of course, is deliberate; I want my posts to have a united focus and I want my blog to have consistency. But in review, I was left asking myself a question:

'What does wellbeing have to do with optimism?'

I've written a lot about achieving a good work/life balance and its obvious link to wellbeing. I've also written a lot about being positive and optimistic about teaching (here, here and here, for example). But what's the link?

In a nutshell I propose that the better your work/life balance and the better your wellbeing, the more positive and optimistic you'll be. Stands to reason, doesn't it? But could it be the other way round? If you are more positive and optimistic could your work/life balance and wellbeing be better? Let's explore.

Apparently (and almost certainly unsurprisingly) negativity is one of the key indicators of fatigue. And we've all experienced that, haven't we? When we're tired it's very hard to look on the bright side of life. And teachers are tired, tired people. Especially the ones who for one reason or another have a poor work/life balance. A lack of clearly-defined boundaries between work and personal life leads to emotional stress and even anxiety and depression. And it's hard to feel positive at times when you're experiencing stress.

Interestingly, a quick google search of 'negativity and stress' reveals much about how stress can be caused by negativity. There are several articles suggesting that conditioning yourself to think more positively can reduce levels of stress. Of course, I would never prescribe positive thinking on its own; it has to be accompanied by practical doing. So if you took a few practical steps to improve your work/life balance and began to engender positive thinking at the same time, research and experience shows that you would feel less stressed. And if you were less stressed? What then? Well it would surely lead to more positivity and a snowballing optimism.

But that doesn't necessarily lead to better work/life balance and wellbeing, does it? Well, effective and dynamic optimists will look for solutions in difficult circumstances. Yes, there are arguments that pessimists identify problems and therefore make contingency plans but in the heat of a moment one with an optimistic outlook will be more likely to believe there is a way forward and to find it. Optimists won't look on workload and believe it is all externally governed, they will take ownership and find ways to make it manageable. In my own experience, dynamic and proactive optimists are more likely to take personal responsibility, ensuring that their wellbeing is factored into the way they organise their life.

So, when optimism is a key characteristic of a person they will experience greater wellbeing as a result. This will perpetuate their optimism which in turn will lead them to seek out more efficient ways of working to ensure their work/life balance is good. Which will make them more optimistic... the whole thing is cyclical. But what if you're not already running in that wheel? Jump on at any point - good habits can be formed. The cycle can be entered at either or both points: practical doing and positive thinking.

What could practical doing look like? See my blog posts:


What could positive thinking look like? See my blog posts:

Monday, 29 February 2016

Reflection: #teacher5aday29dayswriting

I was going to use my last #teacher5aday29dayswriting post to write up my notes from the Standards and Testing Agency meeting I went to today, but it would be pretty boring and it's past ten o'clock now so that can wait. Instead I shall reflect upon the benefits of writing daily for 29 days.

Last week I spent most of my free time writing a job application (you should be allowed a couple of days off for that because how, realistically, is filling in all that stuff meant to fit in with a teacher's schedule?) It's like they want to make it hard for you to leave your current job... Anyway, having spent so much time writing recently I found that sentence structures and phrasing came very easily. I also felt the application conveyed my personality more than previous letters of application have - this is surely because I've been blogging, let's face it, about me, myself and I every day for the last month! Whilst I wouldn't say practise has made perfect, it's certainly helped.

I think I've genuinely written some helpful stuff over the last few weeks. Posts have been hit and miss - inspiration didn't desert me but the lack of time to think things through means that some posts probably came off half-baked. However, many of the posts I've written have garnered positive feedback, sometimes just from one person who claims that my message was timely and useful to them. I'm not going to lie, that's a good feeling. And it's why I started my blog - to have an impact and to inspire others beyond the realms of my social circles. It'll be interesting to see which posts stand the test of time.

It's done wonders for my blog's stats! I love statistics as much as the next bloke and, whilst getting hits is not why I write my blog, it's gratifying to know that my pieces are being read. Allow me to indulge myself: currently my all time page view count stands at a little over 20,000 - 12,000, over half, of those page views were in the last month! In that time frame two of my blog posts have reached over 2000 views each - most of those in a two day period. I think I've gained a fair few followers on Twitter too as a result. When I wrote my first blog post I naively dreamed of it going as viral as all the 'Why I've Left Teaching' articles and I learnt there and then that my subject matter is not what the masses want to hear. However, I started my blog in the vain hope that I would be able to reach some people somewhere, and I think my stats show that that is happening, especially as a result of blogging so regularly.

Finally, I have really enjoyed the chance to switch off from my work and to do something a little different. I have tried to stay true to the vision I have for my blog's content meaning that I've still written about teaching-related things - a busman's holiday I suppose, but still not actual work. The pieces I've had the most enjoyment in writing are the more creative ones:


Each of those posts conjures up memories of where I was when I wrote them, and how I was feeling - I've had some really good times partaking in this challenge.

I don't think I'll continue posting daily, but I'm sure a habit has been instilled in me. Maybe in the coming months I'll blog more frequently than before, but also more thoughtfully than perhaps I have over the last 29 days - a balance must be struck. I must give a huge thank you to all the visionaries waving the @teacher5aday banner for challenging, inspiring and supporting me through this month of blogging. Same again next year? Ooh, I might do!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Blaze Your Trail

The word 'autonomy' comes from the Greek 'auto' meaning "self" and 'nomos' meaning "law", so together the word means "one who gives oneself one's own law".

But I know too many teachers wanting autonomy who are waiting around expecting to be given it. But if the definition of the word is anything to go by, that's not how it works.

For example, many teachers who are bogged down with work are not willing to speak to their leaders to ask for some extra time. They worry that the answer will be no. Or they believe there is no point in asking because someone else once did and their request was rejected. My answer to these objections is that you don't know until you've tried. If you are a hard worker and have a good reputation then most heads will be inclined to listen to your concerns and find solutions. And what's the worst that could happen? I can't imagine many headteachers who would start capability procedures just because a teacher asks for a morning out of class, even if they do turn down the request.

Being an autonomous teacher means being a go-getter. Go get that extra time you need, go get the help from a colleague, go get that next job if your boss really is that bad.

In the business world employees are much more used to autonomously blazing their own trail, whereas many teachers expect to be led down a well-trodden path. My wife, who worked in the private sector before we had our children, and who is much more savvy than I am when it come to employment, has shown me another way. I have written proposals asking for TLR awards, I have suggested that a role be created for me after pointing out a need in school, I have asked for the advice and training I've needed in order to further my career. After a few years of waiting around for things to happen, becoming an autonomous go-getter was the only solution.

Even the best heads need signals from their staff before they can cater for their needs. Start sending out those signals - and make them obvious. Make your signal as obvious as walking into the office and explaining your problem and suggesting your desired solution. Go get what you want - blaze your trail.