Showing posts with label wellbeing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wellbeing. Show all posts

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Not Just Teachers, But Human Beings Who Teach


"And what do you do?"

"I'm a teacher."

"But, what do you do?"

Have you ever noticed that whenever we're asked that question, we don't answer it truly?

We don't actually respond by stating what we do. We tell them who we are instead. Or at least we tell them that we identify ourselves by our job title, regardless of all the other aspects of our lives that might make up our character: spouse, parent, sibling, sportsperson, hobbyist, believer.

Continue reading on the TES website: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/we-are-not-just-teachers-we-are-people-and-one-bad-lesson-doesnt

In this article I touch on the subject of teaching as a vocation. The very best thing I have read about vocation is Justin Gray's blog post entitled 'Vocations - Balance and the Art of Happiness'. In it he suggests that teaching is a vocation but it is only one of several vocations that a teacher might have to balance. But don't take my word for it, read it for yourself!

Friday, 2 December 2016

Reading the Warning Signs


We’ve all experienced the moment when, mid-work, the computer begins to automatically shut-down; it needs its updates and a restart.

Our bodies send the same messages, often in code and rarely in the glaringly obvious written-across-the-screen way of digital devices. No, our bodies are more subtle and there are positives and negatives to that.

Continue reading here at www.integritycoaching.co.uk

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

TBCT Interview @ Schoolwell.co.uk

SchoolWell, a school staff wellbeing directory, asked me a few questions about wellbeing, marking, Twitter, reading and #OptimisticEd; the full interview is posted on their site at: http://schoolwell.co.uk/exclusive-interview-thatboycanteach/.

"I am always conscious of how hard the work can be and that part of my job is to ensure that my own colleagues’ wellbeing is prioritised"

"I’ve found it really beneficial to read before I sleep: it takes my mind off all the things I’ve been doing during the day. If I don’t read I often have vivid dreams about those things which leads to a restless night and tiredness the next day."

"What schools should focus on is their expectations of teachers: of the amount of planning, marking, preparation that is explicitly expected. Every new initiative needs to be passed through a filter to ensure that it is purposeful and efficient"

To read the full interview, click here to be taken to the SchoolWell website.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Why I Care So Much About Wellbeing


I have been known to write about, and comment upon, wellbeing (possible understatement). My interest in reducing workload - my own and that of others - is very much linked to my interest in the issue of wellbeing. In fact, so is my obsession with optimism and positivity as opposed to negativity; if you are optimistic about reducing your workload and improving your wellbeing you will look for, and indeed find, ways of doing it.

But why am I so bothered?

Two reasons:

One, it saddens me to see so many teachers struggling with what can be a really amazing job. I believe teachers can have a good work/life balance - I do - and I want to help them to have it. Why? Because if we are all well then our hard work will be more effective. And because no-one should have to work to the point where they are made ill - be that physically or mentally. Which leads me onto my second reason...

Two, as a teenager my dad took early retirement due to workplace-related stress. Diagnosed with depression, I saw him become a different person. When your big, strong, fun dad bursts into the kitchen struggling through tears to breath after battling for hours with a usually-simple task you are affected for life; that's not a point I want to get to. When the man who used to get down on the floor and build the best Lego castles with you retreats and becomes distant, you, even as a child, know that things aren't right - and you don't forget it.

I have seen first hand, and lived with the effects and consequences of, how a job can come close to killing a person. He was a successful doctor at a young age; it was a job that he once enjoyed - spending your days driving the scenic roads of the Yorkshire Dales visiting patients in a classic Daimler sounds idyllic, but this is no James Herriot story. It was a job which crept in and took control - I had an inkling at the time that his boss had rather a lot to so with his decline in health. I love and respect my dad but I know the depression and associated medication has changed him. He would not wish it on anyone - it's certainly something that, suffice to say, I'm fairly keen to avoid. If I can at all avoid it, I'd rather not be a dad who goes missing for hours at a time on a winter's evening, leaving his children at home fearing for daddy's life.

So if in future you read my blog or tweets and question why sometimes I come across as forthright and opinionated, you'll know why. It's fine for you to question my authority - who am I to make suggestions about how you live your life and approach your work? But instantly dismissing my advice, and that of others, as unworkable and unrealistic could be to your detriment. I don't claim to have all the answers but my experiences have hard-wired me to seek solutions to avoid becoming overworked, stressed and even depressed. My dad would not wish upon me that which he experienced (and still lives with today). He would not wish it upon anybody.

We teachers must speak up about these issues - not in the moany, ranty way that seems to have become commonplace, but in a way that secures support and seeks change. Friends, partners, colleagues, line managers and doctors are a good place to start - they will all be able to help you in different ways. The thought that taking such actions could actually begin to be of help is often poo-pooed; I've seen it so many times on social media when I've suggested that talking to the boss might help. The thing is, by not speaking out you are making a choice - you are choosing to subject yourself to something such as my dad experienced. You are choosing to subject your loved ones to something such as I experienced. Why is that the preferred option? I do understand the difficulties involved in talking about such delicate issues but I also understand the result of the alternative; it's really not worth it.

Please, if you are a teacher experiencing unacceptable levels of workplace-related stress, get the help you need. If you are a teacher who believes you are working more than you should have to (yes, we all do some overtime, I get that), then reassess and try to make changes in your work/life balance and if you've done all you can, then you must take it further and speak to those who have the power to make changes for you. The possible results of not doing this can be devastating, even if you're not feeling it right now, that erosion of your mental health could be on its way.

I know I am not the only one attempting to do my bit for better mental health and wellbeing in education and I'd be willing to bet that most who are have similar, or worse, stories to tell. Listen to those voices - they are not against you; they are for you. Their words are impassioned because they really do care, not because they think they've got it sussed and are better than you.

Please explore the links I've included at the beginning of this blog post as they all point to other things I've written that explore some of these themes in more detail. If you would like to chat about anything then please do get in touch.

This blog post was re-blogged on the TES blog on 11th October entitled 'If all we do is rant to each other about workload, rather than seeking help, we're choosing to subject ourselves to stress': https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/if-all-we-do-rant-each-other-about-workload-rather-seeking-help-were

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.

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:

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.

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.

Photo Credit: mobilyazilar via Compfight cc

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Broken Hearted (On Vulnerable Love And Finding A New School)

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”


- C.S Lewis, The Four Loves

It's probably worth reading the quote again before I go on. In fact, it may be worth reading it again, then closing this window on your browser - what am I going to be able to add to the words of a literary great? Well, perhaps I can elucidate on how the quote might pertain to teachers.

It's that second sentence - 'Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken' - that rings so true for teachers at the moment. Hearts are being broken; hearts once in love with teaching, in love with being so instrumental in the lives of so many children, in love with the creative nature of the job, in love with the fact that no two days are ever quite the same. The pressures placed on us by the ever-changing demands of the government, the fear of Ofsted and poor leadership (in some schools), not to mention the workload generated by all of this, are wringing hearts dry. Teachers are losing the love, many against their will, because the job does not love them back.

And Lewis' suggested solution? Don't love anything. Don't love teaching. But the consequence of that? Your heart will become 'unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable'. Lewis is saying that love is worth the risk of being hurt.

We must love teaching despite its riskiness. By loving teaching we will weather the storm, even though it'll be difficult. By not loving teaching, and by trying to protect ourselves by becoming indifferent, our heart for the job will grow cold and we will enjoy it less and less. We must go on loving the job, exposing ourselves, being vulnerable, but so that love itself continues. So that children go on being taught, nurtured and shaped.

It may be that working in a particular school is, in this analogy, like being in an abusive relationship, but this doesn't have to mean never loving again. A new school or situation and a fresh start can reignite love, and through making oneself vulnerable again, great love can be found. The job can love you back; it is the experience of many. I know a few teachers who, having considered leaving the profession, rather than 'locking away their hearts', have moved on and found the love again. One told me:


At my old school I felt unsupported... I felt angry about new things which were rashly implemented in the school and which I strongly disagreed with... I felt like my opinion didn't matter and an overwhelming fear that I would be the next teacher bullied and forced out of my job. There was a severe lack of organisation which strongly impacted on workload. We were often given pointless time consuming tasks and ridiculous deadlines such as the next day or a text message on a Friday night with a deadline for Monday. This created unnecessary stress.

I did consider leaving the profession as when I spoke to some teachers at other schools they too were unhappy but I felt that it was not to the extent that I was. I wrote my letter of resignation before even applying for any other job as I knew I could no longer work there. It was the first time I had ever applied for another teaching job. 

My initial impression of my new school was that the head teacher was much more personable and the teachers appeared much happier and said things like 'You'll love working here, it's a lovely school'. From day one I was given the chance to develop my career in the area of my choice and have had so much support. I also feel that I am greatly appreciated and the head often sends emails or personally thanks me for things such as putting on the harvest play - which to me means a lot! It is nice to belong to a school that I feel proud of again. Good organisation from the management means that I have a much better work/life balance and less stress as I am given plenty of warning about deadlines and I'm always given help and support if I'm unsure about anything.

Moving school is the most drastic of solutions, aside from leaving teaching altogether. If you are seeking a love of education, and your current school situation isn't loving you back then maybe extreme action is needed; another school could be reciprocal in the love you give. Another school could mend your broken heart. 

If you feel like leaving your current job would be too radical, then I wonder if some of my other blog posts would be of use to you. I have found ways to remain in love with the profession and I'm desperate to share them - I mourn the fact that so many feel unloved by this job and long to help others to a place where they are once again feel like they're in a loving relationship with teaching.

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?

Photo Credit: EJP Photo via Compfight cc

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:


Photo Credit: kennysarmy via Compfight cc

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Wellbeing Hymn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Taking Charge

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 February 2016

Good Evening, Bad Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Doing It With My Eyes Closed

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Room With A View

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

There's Always Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 1 February 2016

#teacher5aday: Removing the Scaffolding

The view from my classroom window for the past year has been characterised by hi-viz jackets, heavy plant and, more latterly, clean stone houses supported by scaffolding. And it's scaffolding that's got me thinking.

The #Teacher5aday initiative is a great scaffold, enabling teachers to lay down the foundations for a good balance between work and life. It provides a supporting structure as teachers construct greater wellbeing, thus making themselves more fit for purpose.

But scaffolding is always intended to be removed. Once the house is built, it has no need of an external supporting structure. A teacher must approach #teacher5aday with the eventual goal of generating a natural ability to ensure that work does not take over their life.

The challenges and ideas for looking after self are brilliant and through taking part you will hopefully begin to realise which of them could become a part of everyday life. One day, your house must stand alone. 

That's not to say that there will come a day when you don't need #teacher5aday - we always have the need to tap into like-minded individuals, to be a support to others and to receive support. There are always new things to try, new challenges to set yourself. It's just that #teacher5aday can't be a substitute for you taking responsibility for your own health; it's not a life-long crutch, it's just a temporary scaffold guiding you towards independence.

The next time you take part, be ready to consider how that challenge will assist you in becoming a natural regulator of your own work/life balance.

Photo Credit: garryknight via Compfight cc

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Why I Never Use The Word 'Busy'

It all started when, every week, an unemployed friend would ask me how my week had been, to which I invariably replied 'Busy!'. As time went by, he began answering the question for me: 'Busy?' I felt mightily uncomfortable as I highlighted the major difference between my week and his: I was 'busy' and fulfilled, he was largely at a loose end as he applied for job after job, consequently feeling very unfulfilled. I decided to stop saying I was busy, instead telling him some of the things I'd been doing instead, making for much more interesting conversation.

I decided to completely stop using the word - not to colleagues, not to my wife and not to my friends. By definition I was, and still am, busy, but I ceased to describe myself so.

Apart from boring people with a one word answer when they genuinely enquired about my week, there has been another benefit too:

In telling others that I was busy, I was telling myself that I was busy too. And in telling myself that I was busy, I told myself that I didn't have enough time to do everything that I needed to do. I found myself writing things off before I even had a chance to look at my schedule - 'How could I possibly fit that in? I'm way too busy.'

Now that I don't label myself as busy, I am finding that I have a better attitude towards the additions to my to-do list. Now I think 'I can do that. I can fit that in'. And I do. I've also found (as previously mentioned here under 'Routines and Busyness') that when my schedule is full I work more efficiently; knowing that there are other things lined up for me to do means I get on with tasks.

On a practical note, there are three things that have really helped me with fitting lots into my day:

  • the apple calendar (there are other calendars available) which syncs between my ipad, iphone and icloud. I use this instead of a paper diary these days and I plan jobs into consecutive blocks of time. The calendar reminds me when it is time to do something; it's a bit like having my mum around and is very effective - I have to do it if the calendar tells me to.
  • the apple reminders app which again syncs between devices. Both this app and the calendar app allow you to schedule and set reminders for jobs - this is almost the key to all my organisational success! Naturally I'm quite forgetful, but with these apps, you'd not be able to tell. I am now in the habit of reaching for the nearest device and making a note on my job lists (in the reminders app) or booking something in to my calendar, meaning that I don't have to remember to write it down later. If something doesn't end up getting done, I just change the date and time of when I'm going to do it.
  • an actual notebook, you know with paper pages. I have no scraps of paper. Everything goes in the notebook: CPD notes, planning ideas, answers to maths tasks that I need to mark, observation jottings, SLT meeting notes... everything goes in!
So by being busy, but not thinking of myself as busy, I find myself maximising the time I have and using it much more effectively. It's been a very simple change, but one that psychologically seems to have had a big impact on how I work.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Unfailing Optimism: Does It Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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