Today, I’m spending my day reading about “Improving the Quality of Teaching” across a school a part of my NPQSL course. It doesn’t sound like the most fun way to spend a day, but, an hour and 20 minutes in, and I’m actually hooked. As part of my reflections, I was asked to consider these questions:
I’m not going to share my responses here, but rather my sudden awareness of how visible we are in school. I’m a Middle Leader, not part of the Senior Leadership Team, so I’m certainly less visible than others, but my role means that I now have a more visible presence than I have done previously. Question 4 was really interesting: “In terms of others’ perceptions of you as a leader, what kinds of things form the main focus for your attention?” In my head, I know what I focus on, but is this what others see? My head is always a jumble of new ideas and developments that I want to try out in my classroom. Inevitably, if these ideas are a success, I want to share them, but does this meant that I flit from one thing to another, trying this and that and talking about another “next big thing” in a staff meeting? Is it infectious enthusiasm, or just downright annoying? Much of what I have read today talks of leaders having to “walk the walk”, of practising what they preach, under the scrutiny of others who are watching to make sure that words and actions are in agreement. By jumping from one thing to another, can I do this? Can I make sure that I am staying on top of everything before introducing something new? Perhaps I need to slow down on the pet projects and focus on one thing at a time.
In so many ways, the internet, social media platforms and courses such as NPQSL are an absolute asset to education. In times where professional development and courses are barely available, we have to find our own ways of progressing our careers and developing our skills. But a non-stop source of support , advice and ideas can be such a bad thing too – there is a world of creativity and inventiveness available to us at all times: my Facebook and Twitter feeds are constantly me showing me another “next big thing” to take into my classroom. As an aspiring Senior Leader, I will have to rein in my enthusiasm a little – focus on one thing at time, embed one idea before moving on to the next one. Perhaps then, if asked what others’ perceptions of my focus are, I might have some idea what the answer would be.
Capture your passion for teaching in 3 to 4 sentences. A very tough challenge, but here goes:
Even in the darkest times in a classroom, there are always tiny glimmers of light. Breakthrough moments, when every single child is focussed, engaged and loving school, fill you with pride and renewed enthusiasm. Looking at the children, and knowing there is always something you can do, no matter how small, to make a difference in their lives. Remembering that is key: you can’t always solve their problems or take away what goes on in their lives outside of school, but for the 6 hours they spend in school, we can do something they will always remember.
I have been meaning to write this post for some time now, but – teachers, you may find this hard to believe – I just haven’t had ten minutes spare to sit down and do it. So, here it is.
Life in schools at the moment is pretty crap. In the 16 years I have been teaching, morale has never been so low. I don’t mean in my school in particular, I mean nationally. I have friends who are teachers, I have many Twitter associates who are teachers, and no one is happy. I could use my time to write a long, ranting post about how crap teaching is, but I’m not going to. There are three reasons for this:
1). I am armed with my opinions, not all the facts, and so I would never write a post full of half-correct ideas;
2). Ranting isn’t my style, and
3). Why would I waste my rare few spare minutes of peace and quiet getting myself all riled up and angry, putting me in a bad mood for the rest of the day?
I thank those amazing educators and bloggers out there who do have all the facts: they are the people you should turn to if you want to find out why we are all miserable.
Instead, I want to spend my time trying to be positive, because that is what I do.
Yesterday, I spent a few minutes completing a survey set up by Emma Kell, looking at teacher wellbeing. One of her questions asked why I had gone into teaching. So far, she has surveyed almost 1000 teachers. I’d like to bet that not many of them chose “because it suits my lifestyle” or “for the holidays”. I’d like to think that the majority chose “to make a difference in society” or “I like spending time with young people” as their answer. In these trying, frustrating, exhausting, infuriating times, that is what we have to remember. We are in this job for the young people we teach. Yes, the government may be failing them, yes, our education system is in complete turmoil at the moment, but we have to remember those children we are there to teach. As part of my NPQSL course, I have been reading a lot about creating a positive culture. Positivity is infectious, and it is necessary to help children to succeed. Equally, negativity is infectious too. The children pick up on it. The negativity that so many teachers are feeling at the moment is completely understandable, but we can’t allow it to permeate our teaching and our classrooms. We need to make the best of what is a dire situation, in order to help our children to succeed – whether that be academically, socially or just to help them to be good people. Yes, we have to teach boring lessons about modal verbs and identifying the past progressive and using fronted adverbials, but we can at least try to make school fun by teaching with a smile, even if inside we are crying about the subject material. The children we are teaching will be shaped by the education they receive – on paper, that may not be the education we want to give them, so we have to do all that we can to ensure they enjoy their time in school – we need to still make sure we give them the educational visits and the fun days and the amazing experiences that they remember for far longer than their standardised score and the random letters that are assigned to show their English and Maths ability.
We need to give each other a break. We are all in this up to our necks together. No-one really knows where they stand in school at the moment – it seems every day, another new and crazy, work-creating change is being introduced. Yes, we’re fed up with it. Yes, we are constantly on the back foot as we never know what’s going to happen next. And yes, we need to have a point of blame for all of this; someone to direct our anger and frustrations at. But we need to stop and think about whom we are directing this anger at. I know a fair few Headteachers, and I know that none of them woke up one morning and thought: “ I know. What I’ll do is: I’ll get rid of the curriculum that everyone is familiar with. I’ll scrap the assessments they all know. I’ll invent some crazy assessment system that no-one really gets, and I’ll make it up as I go along, but I won’t tell anyone what I’m doing. I’ll take away all the fun lessons and fill the timetables with loads more writing and maths. I’ll give them some stupid grammar stuff to memorise, and, while I’m at it, I’ll change the names of stuff like calling “Data Handling” “Statistics”, we’ll change “SPaG” to “GPS” and change subject names like “ICT” to “Computing”. That’ll be a laugh.” I’m pretty sure that’s not what happened. The Headteachers don’t like what’s going on any more than we do, yet they’re the ones who have had to enforce the changes, knowing it would make their staff unhappy. They are feeling the pressure too – even more than we are, as the buck stops with them.
These are trying times, and not everyone will come out of the other side still working in education. That is guaranteed. But, while we are there, we have to do the only things we can do: stay positive, through all of the $*”! that gets thrown at us, talk to each other, be open and honest if it all gets too much, and support each other. I have a suspicious feeling things may get considerably worse before they get better, so we need to help each other get to get through this.
Some frogs from my youth put it beautifully, so I’ll leave the final word with them…
Just over a year ago, I took a bold step into the world of twitter and blogging. Whilst most of my forays have just been the random musings that the strap line of my blog promises, one or two have shown me the power that social media can have.
Almost a year ago to the day, I posted a pleading blog as an assessment leader in crisis, floundering in the newly “created” world of assessment without levels. From that blog, I received words of wisdom from many good people. Crucially though, Michael Tidd put me in touch with some wonderful people at the White Horse Federation in Swindon, who helped me on my way with my assessment journey.
Fast forward a short while, and a trial system was in place, and then rolled out across the whole school in September. There have been times when I have felt quite smug about the fact that, as a school, we more or less know what we are doing. However, for the most part, I have still had one or two niggling doubts about what we do, especially when we have made changes mid-year or even mid-term.
No secret was ever made of the fact that this system was developing as we went along – staff, children, parents and governors have all been kept informed of what we are doing. However, I have always known that the system wasn’t completely perfect for us. Not least because it was designed by the White Horse Federation to suit their needs, and we were/are using it alongside a few minimal functions of Target Tracker (purely for the purposes of looking at groups of children, as it links to SIMS). I am eternally grateful for the support the WHF have given, and continue to give, and I know that they too have made changes to the system as time has gone on.
Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Assessment Without Levels conference at Cheltenham Racecourse, where some wonderful speakers provided me with a huge amount of food for thought. Not least Jamie Pembroke and Michael Tidd (who, I am not ashamed to admit, I was very excited to finally get to meet at last!), whose key message was: do less, but better. Jamie has always been a firm (and vocal!) believer in not using assessment systems if they don’t work for you. He is, of course, completely right, but the only way to find something that completely fits your assessment system is to build it yourself. I don’t want to spend more money and time learning about a different system that still doesn’t quite fit our needs. But sadly, my web/app designing skills don’t quite meet the desired level (I was excited a couple of years ago when I managed to get an Excel spreadsheet to change colour depending on the numbers put in!). If I’m honest, our needs for a tracking system are going to change anyway. I’m not completely sure how yet; when listening to Michael and Mary Myatt yesterday, I knew exactly what we were going to do and how. 24 hours on, and that clarity has faded a little, but I still have ideas.
As a school, we assess too much. I knew that from the outset, but I thought it better to do too much and cut back, rather than not enough and add to people’s workload later on. I know we aren’t in the business of popularity contests, but taking away work rather than adding more is always going to score brownie points! Staff have got to grips with the way we are planning and assessing, and they are doing it well. The children know what they can do and where they need to go next. The parents (hopefully) know where to look to find out how their child is getting on and what they can do to help. I’m not going to change any of that, just streamline the record keeping somehow.
I’m not back to square one, nowhere near it, because this year, I have a very sound starting point, thanks to the WHF. And, a year on, I have the confidence in my ability to develop this, something that I lacked massively last year. I also have the confidence to talk to Ofsted about what we do: my favourite phrase of yesterday was “I’m sorry, we don’t do that here. What would you like to know?” I can’t wait to try that one out when our inevitable HMI visitor comes knocking on the door.
So, for the time being, we carry on doing the bloody good job that were are doing already . But conversations will be had, plans will be made, and hopefully, in the not too distant future, we will be doing less, and even better.
Teacher wellbeing has been a huge focus over the past 12 months, with the creation of movements such as #teacher5aday. The Guardian Teacher Network even published a report which stated that teachers needed to relax over the Christmas holidays to avoid burnout.
I have written before about the difficulty I have in forgetting about work over the Christmas holidays, but for once, I have listened to the advice of others. I have completely switched off over the last week and a half, having done absolutely nothing work related, and haven’t even felt guilty about it.
When I tell people I’m a teacher, invariably one of the first things they say relates to the amount of holidays we get. We are indeed lucky to have 13 weeks holiday each year. But my goodness, they are needed, each and every one of them. This
year has been a challenge so far, I am unashamed to admit. There are many difficulties in my class, none of which I can share here, but each of them makes life a little less easy for us as a class. Each of them wears me down a little more and takes a little more of my energy. At the end of a very long term, I am not ashamed to admit that I was on my knees. MNQTH was equally as exhausted, so my poor (also tired) children had to put up with parents who were drained and grumpy. As a family, we had been ill for weeks, as we didn’t have the energy or strength to fight off the coughs and colds. Physically, mentally and emotionally, I couldn’t have carried on much longer in class without a break. I will even admit to having shed a few tears when I got home at the end of my last teaching day, purely from relief because I knew that the holidays were almost upon us.
The life of a teacher is, without doubt, an exhausting one. I don’t know how it compares to other “normal” 9 to 5 jobs – I’ve never had one – but I do know that a teachers couldn’t do their job without the regular breaks. And not just “doing school work at home” kind of breaks, but completely switching off and doing no work. Of course, it wouldn’t be possible to spend the whole holiday doing nothing for work: I’d spend the rest of the term playing catch up, but a few days off does no harm whatsoever. For me, I’m going to have another couple of guilt-free days off to make sue my batteries are full charged ready to face all that the coming term will undoubtedly throw at me.
When I started writing this blog almost a year ago, I didn’t really think through why I was writing it. I think in reality, it was just a bit of a project – something new to try. As time has gone on, I’ve used it as an opportunity to share what life in a classroom is really like: the challenges, the successes and the rewards.
I haven’t posted much this academic year. It’s not because I have nothing to say: quite the opposite. I have much that I could write about. I am facing many, many challenges this year which I would love to be able to share, to seek advice, to give support to others, and mostly to get things off my chest. However, I can’t, as too many confidences could be broken and identities guessed by those who know me. I miss being able to write – as time goes on, I am sure there will be many positive experiences and successes that I can share. However, without betraying any confidentiality, I talk to my family about what I experience in my classroom and in the school.
Today, my dad gave me a card, signed from “a proud dad”. He told me that he was proud of all I have achieved in the past year, with my blog, my personal experiences and how I deal with all I am faced with at work. His words really affected me. He said “I didn’t realise what teaching is all about.” Nor do many, many people. Sadly, it’s not just about standing in front of a class and teaching them. That’s what it should be about. But nowadays, it’s about pastoral support, social care, providing children with stability, sometimes providing them with the basics like food and clothes, providing them with a friendly face and someone who cares. Giving them someone they can talk to, tell their troubles to, let out their anger with. Getting to the bottom of why they are angry or scared or unkind, rather than just punishing them for lashing out. Getting the balance right between supporting the needy and working with those who just get on with it. Making sure that no one is overlooked or left behind. And then worrying about getting the children to where they should be, identifying gaps, planning interventions, monitoring progress and then doing it all over again.
If I’m honest, when I went into teaching 16 years ago, I didn’t really know what it was about either. It was a different job back then. Perhaps my rose-tinted glasses have got rosier with hindsight, but back then, it was just about teaching. Yes, there were children with different needs to the rest, children with behavioural difficulties and educational needs. But for the most part, children just got on with it. As the years have gone by, I have had to learn new skills, develop new strategies and, if I’m honest, become tougher to help children to deal with their own challenges. As a 21 year old NQT, there is no way I would have had the resilience to deal with this year’s challenges. I would have fallen apart within weeks. As an experienced and well respected teacher, I finish every day exhausted, worn down and emotionally drained. But I face each day with new energy and resolve, and a vow to support these children to the very best of my ability. Do any of us really know what teaching is about? I don’t think we do. But I do know it’s no longer just about teaching.
I didn’t follow #behaviourchat tonight on Twitter. I often miss it because I’m planning or marking or some such other joy. But I caught this final thought to sum it all up:
I completely agree: absolutely every child deserves a champion. Someone to support them, to coach them, to mentor them and help them to succeed and to achieve. Some children need this more than others: for many, they just need to know that there is someone there for them if they need help or to talk. But for some, this champion needs to have a more permanent and prominent role.
So what happens when a big proportion of the class needs a champion all of the time? What happens when, being that champion, you are pulled in a multitude of directions?
I have had one of those days. You know the one: the kind of day where one child had an argument on the way to school. Another is missing a family member. One didn’t quite get dressed before coming in. Another has had big family issues over the weekend. One hadn’t had any breakfast or snack. Others, well, I didn’t quite get to the bottom of their difficulties today. And several others just came in “in one of those moods”. Each of these children has strategies in place to help them to cope – for many, just a quiet chat and a reminder about the expectations is all that is needed. Others have more formal strategies, be it reward charts, adult proximity, time out or time with one of our Learning Mentors.
How is it possible though, as one adult in a class of 30, to support each of these individuals and be the champion they need and deserve. If one or even two have a difficult start, then it’s easy to provide the support they need. But when so many of them come in needing undivided adult support and attention, things go wrong. I want to be that champion, I really do. I sensed as soon as the children came in that many were needing positivity and TLC. So the positivity came. While we registered and went to assembly, each of those children could demand a little bit of my time: I could talk to them, ask about their weekend, calm and soothe those who needed it whilst still attending to the needs of the rest of the class. But once lessons began, they could no longer have that undivided attention all of the time. That’s when things went wrong. I couldn’t give the pastoral support each of them needed and teach lessons to the rest of the class.
We have a pastoral team at school who are brilliant at their job. They can talk with children, calm them down, get them ready to learn and to re-join their peers in class. But even they are being stretched in all directions. So many children now have complex needs which we need time and manpower to support. Children can’t learn if they are angry, upset, anxious or hungry. If they are worrying about what is going on at home or who they will find meeting them at the end of the day. We can’t even contemplate teaching them to write stories or to round numbers when their heads are somewhere else. Yet we are expected to do just that. We need to do just that, for the other two thirds of the class who have come in to school ready and willing to learn.
Often, Monday is the hardest day of the week for my children. I guess it’s because of the weekend/week day transition. Tomorrow is a new day, and I’m sure it will be a better one. I will be the champion these children deserve. We’ll take a step back, sit down and calm down and be in a better place to learn, to be happy and to succeed.