Monday, 13 September 2021

15 Years In Teaching

Sometimes it's a useful exercise just to think back and take stock. I did that recently as I was preparing to give a talk to some trainee secondary teachers. The talk was about what primary school is like, and how year 6 children feel about transition, but as part of the presentation I was asked to give an overview of my career in education. Here's what I shared with them:

After completing a 4 year course in teaching and art, focusing after the first year on KS1, I graduated and took a job at a primary school.

First school

At this school, although I applied for a job in year 2, I worked for three years in year 3 and for two years in year 5. I became the school's art leader from the second year onwards. In terms of teaching, my improvement was very gradual – I learned from strong, more experienced teachers and worked alongside them to develop both my classroom practice and my organisational and planning skills – I most certainly wasn’t ‘outstanding’ to begin with!

During my time at this school I applied for other leadership roles internally but the jobs went to other internal applicants. I was given small extra responsibilities such as School Council and Displays coordinator. Thankfully, I made the most of any responsibilities that I was given even though it wasn't exactly what I wanted to do; it's worth doing this as the experience can be called upon later, and you can show yourself to be a hard worker. It became clear there were not opportunities for progression and I felt like I was being overlooked and felt that the leadership was not what it could have been.

Second school

After feeling devalued by my first school, I was offered a teaching job with an incentive payment and the promise of progression opportunities. I discovered that sometimes moving school makes all the difference – in this case, the leaders saw potential in me where previous leaders hadn’t.

Here, I taught in year 4 for a year, then requested a move to year 6 where I taught for 2 years. The move to year 6 gave me the SATs experience – the pressure was on to maintain very high SATs scores. The first year saw some disappointments with regards to outcomes (partially to do with changes in expectations in the tests that year) but lessons were learnt and things improved the following year.

Whilst at this school I had the opportunity to lead on Communication (which involved Reading) and then on the implementation of the 2014 National Curriculum, as well as the roll out specifically of the new Computing curriculum. In fact, these roles were ones that I proposed to the leaders of school – in my proposal I showed why these roles would be necessary and how I would be suitable for the role. These roles gave me my first real taste of leadership.

It was at that point where I began to look at things happening across the school and thinking that I could do a good job of leading. At the same time, my observations from school leaders, school improvement partner and Ofsted inspectors were fairly consistently showing that I had made lots improvements in my practice since my first few years of teaching. This gave me the confidence to start to look for leadership roles – I never wanted to become a leader without having first become secure in my teaching as I wanted to be ready to lead by example in the classroom.

Third school

As I sat and read through the Ofsted report before applying, I was literally gasping out loud at some of what had been observed. Further internet searches turned up even more concerning things. There was no doubt, this was the school for me - a place where I could truly make a difference! Deep into Special Measures and about to become an academy, this city centre school appealed to me as a chance to really challenge myself. 

I became on of the year 6 teachers alongside my assistant vice principal role which saw me in charge of improving maths across the school and leading the UKS2 phase, amongst the other more general responsibilities of being part of a school's SLT. Here I taught in year 6 for three years navigating further sea changes in SATs, including the notorious 2016 SATs.

During this time I completed the Teaching Leaders course which was a game changer in terms of my leadership ability and enthusiasm.

PLP

After three years I became primary lead practitioner for the Dixons Trust which saw me working part time in all the Trust's primaries on various projects including developing coaching, curriculum, teaching as well as working with the brand new research school, presenting at CPD events and developing the research school's offer. This role came about partially due to my asking for further experiences and responsibilities - I knew that this was my career and that I needed to ask for the opportunities I wanted as well as working to prove that I deserved them.

During my time as PLP, one of the schools was left without a headteacher due to staffing changes. My role became focused on working at this school for two days per week, increasing the leadership capacity as the deputy head had taken on the acting head role. The other three days of my week were spent continuing to work at the third school, this time leading in LKS2 – a phase which hadn’t seen as much positive development as UKS2 had. 

It was during this year, just before Christmas, that I was called back from one of the other primary schools as my own school had had 'the call'. After a positive couple of days (which saw me praised by a cricket-loving inspector on my teaching of cricket skills during a lesson I covered for the head) we were given the verdict: 'Good'! I felt that my goal had been achieved and I was ready to move on.

Fourth school

My role as PLP led to me becoming the deputy head of primary in an all-through school. I had already begun developing the curriculum for year 5 – it was a growing school, the oldest children being in year 4 at the time – and I was excited at the prospect of setting up a brand new UKS2 phase. I was also interested in the opportunities that an all-through school brought, particularly in terms of year 6 to 7 transition.

In my second year I began working with secondary subject leaders to develop a year 7 and 8 curriculum that would support transition. This was done by looking at aspects of the primary curriculum and bringing them into the secondary curriculum. As well as rolling out this curriculum, I worked on ensuring that children from our primary, and the other primary schools in the area, had a successful transition, despite the fact that the last two years had been affected by Covid restrictions.

Extra Curricular Activity

Whilst working at my third school I began blogging about teaching and education. I also joined Twitter, first of all to get my writing out there, but also to learn more from others. Being part of a national – and international – learning network has taught me so much and exposed me to so much CPD. I’ve been able to have my writing published in magazines and books as well as various online outlets. Education became an interest of mine, and more than just a job, through doing this  I’ve found that writing about my experiences, and writing about the new things I learn, has really helped me as I reflect, process and clarify my thinking and understanding.

What's Next?

I will be working as deputy head in my current school until December. I am currently in the process of setting up my own educational consultancy and in January I will begin work as an educational consultant, using my knowledge and experience to work with schools on improving their offer, with a particular focus on the curriculum and on teaching and learning. Watch this space as well as the following for more information:

www.twitter.com/aidansevers

www.facebook.com/aidansevers

www.aidansevers.co.uk

www.aidansevers.com

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Forensic Assessment

As teachers we are all too familiar with the concept of assessment and its importance. We know that without assessment there is no teaching, only spewing random content into an abyss. We need to know what the children know before we tell them more things we think they should know.

I don’t need to tell you that it would be pointless trying to teach a child to multiply a 4 digit number using a written method when they don’t even know how to multiply two single digit numbers together. You’d need to know what they can’t do, not only so you don’t try to teach them something that is too difficult, but so that you can teach them exact right thing that they do need to know: in the above scenario, some basic times tables, for example.

Digging

But just knowing that a child needs to know their times tables isn’t enough. Which times tables? Because teaching them 144 different facts (if you’re aiming for all tables up to 12 x 12) is going to take some time. What if they actually already know their 1s, 2s, 5s and 10s? Well then you only have 64 facts left to teach them so you can focus on those. What if they also know the majority of their 3s, 4s and 11s and are really only struggling with the facts that follow the 6x6 mark. By my count that’s 17 times tables facts that they need to know (6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9, 6x12, 7x7, 7x8, 7x9,7x12, 8x8, 8x9, 8x12, 9x9, 9x12, 11x11, 11x12, 12x12 e.g. if they know 6x7, they also know 7x6).

Digging Deeper

So which ones do they know of those? How would you find out? The obvious answer is to test them on those tables. What actually happens often though is that we test them on ALL the 6 times tables only to discover what we already knew: that they can do 1x6, 2x6, 3x6, 4x6, 5x6, 10x6 and 11x6. If you know this already, or once you have found it out, then only test them on 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9, 6x12. If we want to find out specific information we can design specific assessment opportunities and focus time and energy (ours and the children’s) on exactly what we want to know.

We can then add in all those other more tricky times tables and assess exactly which times tables they don’t yet know. In doing this you may begin to benefit from the testing effect (in a nutshell: repeat exposure to the same questions with feedback means that next time they may remember more correct answers) and you can find out exactly what it is you need to explicitly teach that child.

In doing the above you are on the way to being forensic, digging down to a deeper level and discovering exactly what a child doesn’t know or can’t do so that you can teach them precisely what they need to know.

Digging Even Deeper

What if you’ve done the above and you find that a child just can’t get the hang of 6x9 and 7x8, for example. Why is it that those particular tables present a problem for them? Perhaps it’s just that they are trying to memorise them and they seem to have run out of capacity. Maybe they don’t have a good enough understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes when they multiply two numbers and don’t have any methods or techniques to be able to work it out quickly. Or they might just be getting the two answers mixed up: 54 and 56 are quite close. If you’ve got to this level then you’ve been just as forensic as you can get and you’ve dug right to the bottom and can begin to think about how to address the child’s needs.

The thing is, the thing that makes teaching so hard, is that you have to do the above for every child in every subject that you teach if you are going to be truly successful as a teacher, and if the children are going to be successful as learners. If we don’t dig deep and assess forensically, we are leaving far too much to chance.

That Sounds Like Too Much Work!

But this level of analysis risks jeopardising teacher wellbeing and that is a problem. What good is a teacher who has assessed forensically to within an inch of their lives to the point that they are barely even fit to use the information they’ve gained as they are just too worn out when it comes to planning and delivering solutions?

Deliberate Assessment Opportunities

And this is where the planning of assessment opportunities comes in again. It would be too overwhelming to hope to glean this level of information across the day, across the week. It is almost impossible to hope to discover that, through teaching lessons and being with them in class, one child doesn’t know 6x9, another doesn’t know 8x7 and another doesn’t know 9x12, without specifically asking the questions. The design of mini assessments is essential in finding information out at such a granular level. And please don’t misinterpret me here; by assessment I do not necessarily mean test.

Recording Information

Recording this information is essential too. I don’t know about you, but I know I can’t memorise which times tables each child doesn’t yet know. Again, this is beginning to sound time consuming. Some teachers would spend hours setting up tracking grids and excel files and the like but that isn’t necessary. A simple set of scribbles in a notebook will tell you everything you need to remember. For example, next to each of those tricky times tables put the initials of each child who needs to learn it.

Then, armed with said notebook, you can set about really honing the experiences you give to the children in your class. More often than not there will be a group of children needing the same things – design a quick task that allows them to practice exactly what they need to practice, tweak the task for another group of children (in the times tables example its as simple as changing a few digits).

Not Just Maths

It’s not just maths we can get forensic with – it’s almost anything.

English

Don’t just get them to write and then pick out which things they can and can’t do against a long list of objectives. Decide exactly what you want to find out about, design a task that specifically requires that skill and administer that. You could find out which word classes they don’t know? Or which punctuation marks they can use. Perhaps which poetic techniques they can use.

Science

In science we are more likely to assess within disciplines and within units, but even so we can get more forensic than just a whole unit test. Find out which of the classifications of animal they can name key features for. Ask them which of the states of matter they can draw a diagram of. Find out which of the planets can they name.

Art

If you’re going off the National Curriculum there are fewer objectives to bind you. However, if you’re teaching art well, you will be teaching a whole heap of procedural, substantive and disciplinary knowledge. Your school may have even set its own objectives to assess against. Design tasks that allow you to find out if they know how to use a paint brush in an impressionist style. Ask children to draw a 3D shape using one-point perspective. Provide a task that requires children to draw an anatomically plausible human body.

Not too much, not too little

I suppose I could go on and on. This should never be overdone to the point that every task a child ever completes is specifically designed to discover what a child can or cannot do, however, it should be a regular feature in your classroom. The fact that the tasks are designed to assess specific things means that they don’t have to last longer than 5 or 10 minutes, and then you can get on with revisiting old concepts, teaching new content and providing children with time to practice the things they have learnt.

Neglecting to gather information at this level, or only ever gathering information that barely scratches the surface, will mean that your teaching cannot be precise enough. In order for children to make the most progress possible it is necessary to really dig down deep, to get forensic and to truly find out what exactly they can and can’t do.