Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Letter to my NQT self

So then, Caroline, you didn't do your MA in English Lit despite confirming your place - good decision. Your PGCE will stretch your legs, brain and emotional capacity that have all, you will admit, become somewhat stagnated after three years of bumbling through an undergraduate degree (that seemed to consist of a bizarre mix of the study of British place names and Deconstruction theory).

The next 24 months will be a challenge to say the least. At first just the 6am wake ups will be a source of distress, leading to *that* incident when you fell asleep in the staff room. Then it'll be the workload, as you attempt to balance marking, lesson planning, and the usual excitement of being a 21 year old living in a bedsit in a bustling city centre. But try not to cry so much. The tears don't help: they distress those who care about you and ultimately you will survive, intact and a wiser, better person for it.

Take comfort that when that kid threw the chair it wasn't about you. The one who whispered the Head teacher's name under his breath as a threat to report you for some invented injustice? Still not about you. 
The sensitive one who didn't know how to make sense of her feelings of depression and hid in your room at lunchtimes? Like you, yes, but not about you. 

You'll soon realise that you were one of the lucky ones. You have two supportive, loving, wonderfully eccentric parents who have simultaneously made you feel like anything is possible and that the most important thing in life is being a nice person. That is heartbreakingly rare. Cherish them as well as the children who are not so fortunate. Children can be vulnerable for a host of reasons, and not just the one who have the label of 'Pupil Premium'. Care for them in their most frustrating moments and if you shout and they shout back at you learn from that.

Appreciate how young you are. Older teachers have experience far beyond your years. Respect SLT, even the ones who pass on unhelpful advice about getting up at 3am to work. They've earned their position and you don't yet understand the pressures and tensions they have to respond to on a daily basis. 

Similarly, don't judge other schools. You haven't got a clue about the difficulties of recruitment, complexities of catchment and budget, and healthy dose of luck that can bring about disparities in student outcomes. 

You picked your first school well. Ten years on, your HoF will continue to mentor and inspire you and you'll still be attempting to capture the spirit of mutual support and collaboration, only this time in your own Faculty.

And now, in the style of a certain Mr Springer, my final thoughts. 

It's hard. It's worth it.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Questions V closed DIRT tasks

A lot has changed since the last time I blogged about marking, two years ago. Not least that I was still in my twenties (sob!) when I wrote the somewhat grandiosely-titled post 'the ten commandments of frequent, high-quality marking' and I am now writing as a thirty one year old cynic.
Gone are the "gloriously word-packed A3 APP epics" (although what replaced them is for another blog post entirely), DIRT has now become so ubiquitous that kids up and down the land know the acronym, and - horror of horrors - I'm slowly being won round by SOME use of marking codes.
But my biggest flip-flopping by far has been on the idea of questions as targets.
Here's what my younger self said:

5. Thou shalt word all targets as questions
It's a simple idea that was introduced to me by an outstanding (not the Ofsted version of this word, just simply bloody brilliant) teacher at my first school. The theory goes that asking a question demands a response. Like much good practice in the teaching profession, there's no empirical evidence to support whether this makes even the slightest bit of difference to whether a response occurs, but it's the intention that to me makes this so wonderful.

With zero additional effort, you're establishing that marking is fundamentally a dialogue. If nothing else then it reminds me to respect commandment number 6.

Note: I love the idea of marking work using only a highlighter for this reason. Like an irritating younger sibling it shouts out: "Here! Look over here! What did you forget? You can't leave me here like this!"


This belief stemmed from the use of sheets like these where students 'collected' their targets and I rubber-stamped their progress towards meeting them as I marked:

However, with the introduction of our (very good) whole school marking stamps, these sheets quickly became unnecessary and obsolete. Let's face it, if you can reduce paper in the teaching game then you're going to be on to a winner. And so the focus shifted, quite rightly, to high-quality feedback being given directly on student work.

But, as you can see, even after these changes my belief in the power of the question remained. So what did finally do away with this rhetorical flourish?

Well, as with the best pedagogical shifts, my students did. 

Y'see the problem with GOOD DIRT prompts are that they are HARD to respond to: they've got to be if they're going to lead to actual progress. Learning IS hard.

The problem for the teacher is then managing thirty students at the absolute edge of their ability all responding to a different, personalised prompt. What comes next is that dizzying 'whack a mole' feeling with hands springing upwards at a cumulative rate. Even without heels on, I cannot support every child at once in that kind of situation.

So, kids being kids, they then respond to the simple questions (or, in our case, go for the whole school 'write out the spelling mistake five times' task) and avoid the more challenging ones: the ones that would actually have the greatest impact.

What is needed in this situation is not a philosophical air of grandeur or insipid invitation to marking 'dialogue'. No, what is needed is action with no 'wiggle room'! What is needed is a closed imperative. 

No more 'Can you...?'.

Instead I ask students to




or, answer.

And, you know what? Students now understand so much more clearly what they need to 'do' and more readily complete challenging prompts.

To my younger, more rebellious self it may at least come as no surprise that commandments, like rules, are indeed made to be broken.


Thursday, 1 October 2015

I am a feminist. I am a teacher. I am Mrs C Spalding.

My love affair with feminism started at the age of 16, the moment I read an article in 'The Independent' declaring "Is this what we meant by feminism?" alongside a picture of a drunken young woman complete with spilling beer in hand. It was the era of the 'ladette' - a media-created female parody who mimicked the actions of an equally as mythical and reductive vision of a man who felt the need to prove himself to others by consuming his body weight in strong lager.

To me, feminism was heroic women in big skirts chucking themselves under hooves to win females the vote. For the writer to claim that my generation somehow 'wasn't worth the bother', whatever our questionable drinking choices, was my call to arms. Or rather, to pen: the resulting letter to the editor even making it into the paper.

In the next few years, I consumed the work of Greer and Davies, Faludi and Woolstencraft. And, when my bloody brilliant A Level English Lit teacher directed me towards them, I latched onto Carter, Plath and Woolf.

Alongside this I discovered a whole new group of brave, exciting and ground breaking women. Only these ones played guitars and the drums and fought for equality in a very different area: music.

Riotgrrl grew out of the same American punk scene that gave us the ubiquitous Kurt and Courtney and lifelong loves of mine like Minor Threat and Babes in Toyland. Frustrated by macho gigs and the lack of female representation in the alternative music scene, women and likeminded men banded together and tried to create something a bit different. For me it marked the start of two years of adventures, from helping to run a music festival in a legalised squat in Amsterdam (thanks for letting me go to that one, mum) to contributing to zines now homed in the Women's Library in London to getting published a bit in this book:

I met truly unique young women and men and, although I now cringe at the use of the word 'grrl', it secured for me a lifelong commitment to the feminist cause and the pursuit of gender equality, key to which, of course, is freedom from binary notions of gender for both sexes.

Fast forward ten years and I'm now bucking a good few of the dominant ideologies associated with the female: bread winner, leader, ferocious competitive streak, fan of data, happy in my own skin. I've also married and have taken my husband's name, love shopping, and occasionally wear lipstick. All of which are equally irrelevant. Because if feminism taught me anything it's that I can do whatever I damn well choose to, so long as it doesn't impact negatively on others. As can every man and woman, regardless of their gender.

But I am keenly aware that this freedom is not the case for every woman. We live in an era when a woman can still be shot in the head for seeking an education, where women are still routinely paid less for the same work, and where we have had to develop an acronym for chopping off parts of a woman's anatomy so frequently does it (dis)grace our newsfeeds.

Which all makes me deeply uncomfortable when I see some of the debate arising in education circles.

I am not a 'girl' and do not subscribe to 'girl power'. Does anyone truly believe the Spice Girls, product of a misogynistic pop industry, can be role models for a movement of any significance? Did anyone else read Laura Mulvey? I'm not a 'little bit more qualified'. I'm a lot qualified. I don't 'occasionally wear professional dress'. I am a professional. No I don't believe that I have been discriminated against when applying for jobs and nor do I feel pressured by my work/life balance any more than my male colleagues.

The gender issue is far more subtle, complex, and serious than these distractions.

I might as well add that, on reflection, I also could not give a crap if I refer to myself as 'Mrs' or 'Ms' - it's most definitely not a sign of ownership by my husband (I think he'd snort out of his nose at the very idea) and I don't feel demeaned or exposed at people knowing I'm married to him. He's ace. I don't care if I refer to students as 'guys': my commitment to making all of them feel comfortable in their own skin regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum every single lesson trumps any simplistic notions about the impact of nomenclature.

In our schools, we do indeed have a disturbing gender gap in the make up of our SLT, but I feel equally disturbed by the growing gender gap in achievement between boys and girls in my subject. The causes of both of these patterns are multi-faceted and numerous. They cannot be summed up in an infographic and solutions cannot be honed solely through a national conference or Teach meet. They are social and cultural as much as pedagogical.

So, a plea to the wonderful women involved in #womened. I'd love to be involved too. But let's get serious. Let's stop talking about wearing heels to work. Let's stop using sassy pop references. Let's talk about the fact that boys are underachieving as well as the appalling lack of female Head teachers. Let's make this a real gender debate.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The five stages of post-results grief

Before you read the post, watch this: https://vimeo.com/46652994
A wise woman once said that there are five stages in the response of human beings to death:
1.       Denial
2.       Anger
3.       Fear
4.       Bargaining
5.       Acceptance
Many thanks to Homer for the comic illustration.
Now, IF I was prone to melodrama (Hildrew, Fry, Newton, stop smirking!) I would argue that, as Head of Faculty, receiving a set of bad exam results is a kind of death.
The finality of the letter on the results page marks, for most students, a blunt end to the processes of learning, revision and examination that have been their life for at least two years. As in death, all GCSE students will face the day of judgement that is results day.
When that letter isn’t the one that was hoped for, as Head of Faculty, you also suffer a little death (and not the sexy French kind). For that black letter is the crushing end product of the hopes and aspirations you’ve fostered for your students, whether in your own class or those of others. In some way, a tiny light you’ve been holding on to, flickering beneath your weather-worn exterior, that perhaps, some way, they *might* just ‘pull it out of the bag’, when it really counts, is extinguished.
Of course, I’m not melodramatic. Not one jot. But, Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief do perfectly fit the emotional state I’ve found myself in since the end of August.
Firstly, denial. The first alarm bells were sounded by a text message: ‘It’s not good news.’ My super ego immediately kicked in: ‘Now let’s just think about this. They could’ve made a mistake with their calculations. The double entries between iGCSE and GCSE have just thrown them off! Silly boys.’ I’m a stubborn old mule, and not until I’d created my own spreadsheet from my own downloads of student results from e-AQA and manually crunched the numbers would I finally accept what I’d heard hours earlier – and easily could have read from SISRA Analytics or the spreadsheet our efficient AHT had already emailed round – our results were bad. Students had, rather spectacularly, underperformed in the exam, putting our Faculty and school, yet again, in a euphemistic ‘challenging position’.
So, what did I do? I got mad. “We worked so hard! They must not have revised!” I furiously typed to my DHoF. “Some students didn’t answer all the questions!” I screamed at my slightly bewildered husband. “Bloody AQA’s unreliable marking strikes again!” I tweeted to other HoFs. I even wrote a fairly hysterical blog post that will never see the light of day in which I sought to blame, well, pretty much anyone but myself. And it made me feel better for a time (particularly when accompanied by a large glass of wine and the company of sympathetic friends).
But anger, although cathartic, paralyses you. It leaves you charging round like the proverbial bull in a china shop, damaging professional relationships and yourself if you let it, making it just as unhelpful as the next stage to visit me: fear.
I’m not going to drone on about just how SAD I felt when ‘fear’ hit. Read the latest Guardian ‘Secret Teacher’ column if you want a sense of that. I will say that an internal voice started piping up that maybe my school and Faculty would be better off without me and will also confess that I did more than a little research into moving to Japan… But, after five years as HoF I’m lucky enough to have strong support networks to rely on when the ‘black dog’ hits (you know who you are).
I’m not one for swallowing my feelings and, as in the latest Pixar offering ‘Inside Out’, I’ll happily champion a good sob and a wallow when it’s needed, but at some point you’ve got to reapply your mascara and move on. (OK, the fear of not being good enough is still there. However I’m pretty sure that’s true of most people and I don’t think that, when it’s under control, it is a bad thing. It’s that feeling that constantly makes me want to learn more, do better, and has driven me to finish my NPQSL and sign up to present at TLT15.)
So, now far more calm and collected, it became time to take that cold, icy stare at those little black letters and start to work out how to navigate the way ahead. I guess applying for re-marks could be seen by some as ‘bargaining’, but for me, a tweet I received from a student sums them up best: “I don’t mind if my mark goes up or down. It was just unexpected. At least then I’ll know the mark I got is right.”
I’m pleased to say that at some point this week I reached the final stage: acceptance. Going into school to get stuck into the mundane task of clearing our horribly messy stock cupboard definitely helped. Not only is sweeping up what, inexplicably, appeared to be dog hair from under our display boards a fantastic leveller, but it’s the best possible reminder that LIFE GOES ON. SCHOOL GOES ON.
I’m ready to meet with the governors, the Head, my team. I’m ready to talk about our results and what we’re going to do to make sure it never happens again. And I’m ready to explain to them that in fact, exam results – good or bad – are no death at all. No. They’re the start of the next thoroughly exciting stage of our wonderful students’ lives and, just as before, we will go on supporting them to the absolute best of our ability to achieve what we know they’re capable of, even if (especially if?) they don’t know it themselves.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

‘Santa isn’t real…

…and George kills Lennie.’ Or, ‘How to ruin literary texts for your students.’

We’ve all had it: on the index page of ‘Of Mice and Men’ a child of questionable wit has written the epithet ‘George kills Lennie’. To quote my students: face palm.
On the better days I remember to check each text before doling them out to my unsuspecting Year 10s. On the worse days the novella’s grand finale is revealed the moment they open that battered cover and, worst, the innocent recipient announces the revelation in a mystified voice to the remainder of the class.
For me this crime is (very nearly) unforgiveable. My current GCSE class are aware they face immediate after school detention should they even contemplate such a heinous act. For what that scrawler has taken away from a reader new to the narrative cannot ever be replaced.
What has been seen cannot be unseen. What is known cannot be unknown.
When you know Lennie’s going to die you’re simply waiting for the inevitable conclusion. All nuances of hope and friendship are crushed. The lives of the ranch workers are branded as futile from the outset: we might as well hurry up and get to the final page so George can blow his brains out and they can all wallow back into their melancholy way of life.
In fact, why bother reading the blinking novel at all?
So why on earth are some teachers doing the pedagogical equivalent of this by revealing whole plots to students before they get a chance to read it for themselves? Why on earth would you want to ‘make sure students know the whole text’ before you begin to actually read?
I still remember, aged 15, the moment I realised Hardy’s Tess would die and my fraught tears at the tragedy of it all. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I still re-read the ending of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ and rejoice in the magical final word that discloses Carter’s skilful inversion of the fairy tale narrative. And every time I’ve taught ‘The Kite Runner’ I’ve waited for the lesson after ‘that’ incident for students to bring their ‘gasp’ back into the classroom. These visceral moments of revelation have the power to spark a whole life time’s love of literature.
This is a plea on behalf of your students: please don’t steal these moments from them.
Don’t insist students know the narrative. Do the opposite. Guard the plot, drip-feeding each incident with the excitement, anticipation and revelatory power truly great works of literature hold. I promise you they’ll be more excited to read it. More engaged. And, who knows, maybe you’ll spark in them the love of literature all English teachers aspire to instil.


Sunday, 17 May 2015

You can do my job.

If I had a quid for every time someone has said ‘I couldn’t do your job’ I’d be a flamin' millionaire. And I’m not talking about my window cleaner (although he has said it) or a sympathetic mate after I've moaned my way through a bottle of Pinot Grigio (although this has happened). No. Most often I hear this from thoroughly wonderful, talented and professional colleagues who most certainly COULD do my job, if only they believed it themselves.

So, here’s my attempt to convince them, and you, that being a Head of English is no different from being a classroom teacher.

You’ll still be setting consistently high expectations.

You’re still trying to create a positive climate for learning and teaching.
Just as in a class, some teachers might not be bosom buddies, but as a leader it’s essential to try and create a cohesive team.
You are still managing behaviours.
Your strategies might be quite different, however, as generally staff don't respond well to the doling out of detentions.

Keeping others safe and developing their SMSC are still vital.
Personal problems are not simply the preserve of students and, when facing times of crisis, the support a leader can offer is invaluable. It must be instant, consistently apparent, and demonstrate the same genuine care and compassion that we show our young people.
You will still aim to inspire others.

You still have to differentiate.
Teachers, like our students, having varying levels of experience, knowledge and skill. Just like you do in a classroom, you’ll learn to utilise people’s strengths and support them in areas they're not yet as confident and/or competent in.

You’re still learning and teaching.
I take the same joy in watching my team develop as I do my students. I am also even more keenly aware of my own learning as I seek to become a better leader.

You’re still judged on progress over time.
Okay, so it’s for a slightly bigger group of kids, but the principles remain the same. It’s just that your ‘mark book’ now contains a year group; you just have a few more pupils to worry about and support.

You’ll still be focused on interventions and ensuring that they have a notable impact.
Teachers intervene on a lesson by lesson basis, making changes to ensure that all of their students ‘get it’. As above, the only difference for a HoF is that they’re doing it with more of them and, as a result, keeping sharper records to track what they do.

You’ll still need to systematically check understanding. 

Feedback is still essential.
You’ll have had difficult conversations with students when they’ve not quite achieved as well as they thought they had, or to underline some ‘home truths’ about their lack of effort and resulting underperformance. Although the idea of talking to a peer in a challenging context might frighten you, you’ll approach it in the same way - with honesty and sensitivity – knowing that, just as with students, these conversations get easier to have with practise.

You’ll still need to ensure you use time well.

Planning will still be vital.
But thanks to enhanced PPA provision you’ll get more time to do it and your plans will be for more than lessons.


Monday, 4 May 2015

#twitterati challenge

Whilst feeling a bit rubbish about returning to work after a lovely, long weekend of fun with my nephews...

...I got tagged in this ridiculously lovely blog post by @sandratowers...

...which left me feeling revived and ready for Tuesday, and meant I couldn't refuse her #twitteratichallenge!

These teachers on Twitter really inspire me:

@tillyteacher - it's equal parts her generosity with her outstanding resources, her sense of moral purpose, and her ability to be an ear to bend when this job feels like it's getting the better of me that make Laura May Rowlands one in a million. I'm very excited at meeting her in person this October at TLT15 and will seriously owe her a cocktail for the World Book Day resources alone!

@shornymorgan - I won't hold it against her that she makes me feel terribly old... Shorny is a tour-de-force of ideas and enthusiasm. I hope the edu-world is ready for the combined power of these two. 

@englushlulu - For her immense blog that provided my Y11 with 9hrs of revision materials for their exam this year. The epitome of what Twitter can be!

@chrishildrew - I'm proud to say this man is my ex-HoF, but reconnecting with him online now he's 'down south' has only reconfirmed his status as my professional hero. It may not be very 'growth mindset' (and dubious taste in pop music aside), but this man has one epic brain. 

@xris32 - For being a local (authority) legend. Whether it's catching up over a rich tea at the LA meeting with him or his sharply analytical blogs, I know he'll get to the root of the issue and find better words than I ever could. 

The twitterati challenge rules:

In the spirit of social-media-educator friendships, this summer it is time to recognise your most supportive colleagues in a simple blogpost shout-out. Whatever your reason, these 5 educators should be your 5 go-to people in times of challenge and critique, or for verification and support.


There are only 3 rules.

1 You cannot knowingly include someone you work with in real life.

2 You cannot list somebody that has already been named if you are already made aware of them being listed on #TwitteratiChallenge

3 You will need to copy and paste the title of this blogpost and (the Rules and What To Do) information into your own blog post.

What To Do?

There are 5 to-dos you must use if you would like to nominate your own list of colleagues.

1 Within 7 days of being nominated by somebody else, you need to identify colleagues that you rely regulalry go-to for support and challnege. They have now been challenged and must act as participants of the #TwitteratiChallenge.

2 If you’ve been nominated, you must write your own #TwitteratiChallenge blogpost within 7 days. If you do not have your own blog, try @StaffRm.

3 The educator nominated, that means you reading this must either: a) record a video of themselves (using Periscope?) in continuous footage and announce their acceptance of the challenge, followed by a pouring of your (chosen) drink over a glass of ice.

4 Then, the drink is to be lifted with a ‘cheers’ before the participant nominates their five other educators to participate in the challenge.

5 The educator that is now (newly) nominated, has 7 days to compose their own #TwitteratiChallenge blogpost and identify who their top-5 go-to educators are.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

They're both fruit, but one's an apple and the other's a pear.

There’s something that’s been bugging me of late (that has perhaps become more acute as we reach the final death throes of Year 11 exam preparation) and that’s how the devil to help students create ‘holding together’ comparison.

Now it strikes me that at a number of points during the English GCSE and A Level courses you can get away with ‘connections’ and ‘links’ – ‘faux comparison’, if you will. In fact, in the AQA AS LITB1 exam the assessment criteria merely demand that you respond to the same bloody question on each text! A one hour response to three texts in fact becomes three discrete mini-essays. However, at other times what is required is meaty, developed, nuanced comparison and this is where many of my students end up quite simply stumped because to truly compare, weigh, balance, intertwine and discriminate verbally is one thing, but to record these explorations in a coherent written response is quite another.
So, how have I tackled this? Well, first of all, as well as the usual exploration of themes, context and ideas I make sure from the outset that all students can say a lot about a little for each text individually before they even attempt to compare.

To do this we spend a lot of time deconstructing texts at a word and sentence level (see activities like ‘onion analysis’, ‘the least popular word’ and ‘black out analysis’ on my blog). Then I give them a scaffold to develop these ideas into a confident written response such as our PEARAW or @chrishildrew’s WETRATS. Note: the aim should always be to remove these stabilisers as students grow with confidence, but for many the security of the sentence starter in their first encounter with the oft dreaded analytical essay cannot be underestimated.

Next step? Students need to rehearse the comparison in a non-essay based format before they attempt to really write. In previous years, I’ve used the ubiquitous Venn diagram for this purpose, but I’ve found it increasingly less effective of late as it seems to lead to generalisation for less able students who struggle to focus on textual detail. I like spider web analysis, where post-it notes allows students to develop the link, but also a good game of ‘odd one out’ works nicely.
And then, finally, I introduce the fruit. Apple and pears, to be more specific.
For ‘the fruit’ to work you have to concur with me that two texts being selected for comparison by necessity have at least one similarity (otherwise, quite frankly, why would you bother). It thus follows that a logical place to start is by defining that similarity. Not in the general sense, but by pinpointing that shared quality, whether it be theme, tone, language technique, or subject matter. Students then need to hone in on this quality in the first text.
What then follows is where this first text diverges from the second: their difference (for any similarity between two discrete texts will only go so far). ‘Ok, they’re both fruit, but, can you now identify that one’s an apple and the other a pear?’

What results is an initial essay structure that devotes a meaty chunk of time to comparison, encourages students to make developed links, and is nuanced through discussion of meetings and departures:
·         Both are fruit.
·         Zoom in on text 1 (WETRATS, PEARAW etc.)
·         But one’s an apple and the other’s a pear.
·         Zoom in on text 2

That is until one bright spark pipes up: “But, Miss, they’re not fruit at all! They’re poems.”


Friday, 6 March 2015

Open the blinds - and your eyes

I’ve got a serious gripe: classrooms with all of the blinds pulled down.

Walking into one of our rooms with all three blinds drawn has the power to send me spiralling into a claustrophobic whirl of hyperventilation. The walls begin to creep in towards me. The strip lighting seems to surge and buzz. My skin shrieks out for vitamin D. I run scurrying for the pull cord.

Maybe it’s my poor eyesight. An enclosed classroom, to me, is a darkened cave in which children are (seemingly) given permission to behave like the woolly mammoths that might’ve once inhabited them. They lie, lump-like, slumped across tables.  A stray scarf or other uniform infraction – that might’ve been challenged – seems to go awry in the womb-like gloom of the cave.  A mobile phone creeps out of the crack of a trouser pocket…

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, it’s definitely children who seem to demand that the blinds are down. But, I have also heard one repeated, impassioned, retort from teachers when I’ve challenged them for enshrouding their classroom with the tug of a curtain cord: “Students can’t see the Powerpoint!”
Most of the time this simple issue can be solved with an equally simple solution: keep the blinds open and turn off the incessant, omnipresent, electric light instead! Although using high contrast text – black and white – can also offset a friendly fuzz from daylight too.

But if this doesn’t solve the solution…? Shock. Horror. Turn off the Powerpoint! Ask yourself, is it a useful prompt for students or simply a useful prompt for you?

When I read this recent article that suggests the ‘naturalness’ of classrooms has the power to boost learning, my grievance finally felt vindicated. Here was the evidence I’d hoped for. For it’s my stance that with light beaming in through the windows learning itself becomes illuminated, bouncing sharply from the exercise book page and lighting up the conversations between teacher and student.
So, next time you’re tempted to smother the sun with a couple of sheets of grey plastic, don’t. Open your eyes to what you’re doing.

Open the blinds.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Don’t you dare make a judgement about my teaching from the Ofstedcategory of my school.

On a good day I’d say that, after eight and a half years at the chalk face, I might finally be getting the hang off this teaching malarkey. The horror shows are fewer and further between and I’ve come to recognise and celebrate those light bulb moments when they come about. But, if you want the credentials, I’ve been formally observed twice by Ofsted and my (ahem) ‘teaching across time’ on both occasions has been graded ‘Outstanding’. Sod it, every PM observation I’ve ever had has been graded a 1 too.*

And yet, my school ‘Requires improvement’ and I’m sick and bloody tired of this meaning people automatically assume that I need to be paired up with a teacher in an ‘Outstanding’ school in a Teaching Alliance or other network to learn from the teachers who work there.
No. What me and the other teachers in my school need is more time to share our own good practice from within and get better together. We do not need the local private school ‘doing their bit’, thanks Tristram. We need less pressure, more PPA/CPD time, praise and encouragement, some sort of work/life balance, and space from the relentless judgements and pressure that Ofsted bring to make true strides forward for our students.**

But it’s so easy for us to fall into the trap too; too easily we learn to think of ourselves as sub-standard. Tired teachers who are continually under the cosh from the media or Inspectors don’t have the poop to speak up for themselves and shout, ‘Hang on a second, Mr. I’m actually blinking good at what I do’. Perhaps as a consequence of this, I think there’s a perception amongst some at my school that the ‘Outstanding’ judgement in observation (sorry Mr Moyse we still grade at our place) is some unattainable measure that requires props, bells and whistles to secure (which is clearly rubbish). I think on occasion less experienced observers might even be tempted to hold it back, despite seeing students that are engaged, inspired and – fundamentally – learning.

It’s perhaps no surprise that a government who’ve demonstrated their belief in grammar schools is now seemingly creating a two-tier mentality amongst teachers: us and them; the haves and have nots; RI and ‘Outstanding’. Is a ‘Requires Improvement’ school the new secondary modern? Do the entitled grow in confidence because they’re told they’re inherently able and academic and encouraged? C’mon teachers, let’s not buy into this false dichotomy.

So how do we fight this crap? It’s apposite that the answer was tweeted to me at 9.40pm on a Sunday night by our brilliant Deputy Head of Maths @mr_g_walton. It’s positivity. It’s recognising our own hard work, commitment and talent. It’s celebrating one another’s teaching and shouting about the good practice we see. It’s the good practice blog started by one of our Senior Lead Practitioners. It’s our school website that lists the amazing things our students do on a daily basis – not just on the two days in two years the Inspectors choose to swing by. It’s working with other brilliant teachers without knowing the grading attributed to their school by Ofsted. And not caring about it either.
Rant over.


*Btw I do know this is a horribly arrogant way to start a blog, sorry, but it seemed necessary to make my subsequent point! And, for the record, external judgements are absolutely not how I would choose to judge my own teaching: I do that via the achievements of my student…  and the occasional ‘thank you’ card.
** Note: this is not the same as saying that our fantastic and hardworking SLT don’t provide time for this. Improving teaching and learning is at the core of every Inset and staff meeting. My comment is aimed at those external forces that make a presumption about the CPD needs of my school without having any understanding of it.

***There were supposed to be two more sections to this post, but I’m going to pause here and leave them for Round 2. Coming to a blog near you soon:
Don’t you dare judge my students and their achievements by my school’s Ofsted report alone.

Don’t you dare judge my school, its aspirations and the learning that takes place within it, solely by a number assigned to it on a piece of paper.


Teachers alone will not change this world

This blog post started as an NPQSL thinkpiece response to the NCSL's 'The Light is Worth the Candle' - hence the citations which I've left in to sound 'like brainy and stuff'. Anyway, the thinkpiece is a fab, optimistic piece it's well worth getting your hands on, but it left me feeling a little like Atlas: the world on my shoulders. Note: I've adapted it a little to try to help it make it a bit more sense without reading the original stimulus...

Education has practical and moral benefits: it has “positive effects on health and wellbeing” (Ross 1999) and “reduces the risk of poor mental health” (Feinstein et al 2006), but also has the ability to “create the kind of society that reflects and sustains what we believe to be good human relationships.” For those of us working in education, this is clearly aligned to the moral purpose with which we approach our jobs. From mentoring individual students to whole school professional development to improve the quality of teaching, this sense of commitment to a worthwhile endeavour is important in sustaining us in what is an increasingly challenging profession.

“Most would agree that a young person’s attainments, health and wellbeing should not to any large degree be determined by his or her parents’ income”. I too find the persistence of the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers extremely concerning, not least in the context of my own school. It seems logical that here will be ‘private, social and economic returns’ if the gap is closed, but also agree that this is fundamentally a moral issue or fairness and equality.

Dyson, Goldrick, Jones and Kerr (2010) highlight that education “All too often, instead of equalising life chances… reproduces existing advantages and disadvantages”. The most recent Teach First advert did a good job of communicating the emotive nature of this achievement gap, calling it “an epidemic and national scandal”. However, despite also acknowledging that this is a “multi-layered problem” it is my opinion that Teach First here falls into the trap of presenting their initiative as one of the ‘silver bullets’ that has the power to bring about significant change. If this achievement gap has “persisted across more than a century of public health and education provision” then I do not believe that teaching initiatives alone can reverse this trend in any more than a localised and/or temporary context whilst such inequalities persist in wider society. The more cynical may even say that scapegoating educators as the solution to this societal issue is a convenience for a government in which the gap between the richest and poorest in society has been a significant issue.

If nothing else, then the thinkpiece reaffirmed my own commitment to the comprehensive state school system. As it notes, in the historical tripartite school system “comparatively few children from working-class families were going to the grammar schools”. In this context, the current government’s reaffirmation of the grammar schools is troubling. Similarly, the diversification of British schooling through Academies, free schools etc. would seem to raise concerns that, rather than providing equality of opportunity, educational reform is in fact creating a plethora of varying opportunities and experiences.

In conclusion, when it comes to narrowing the gap in achievement, school leaders may well need to focus on their own localised contexts, celebrating ‘small wins’ where gaps narrow and accepting that any wider whole scale shift towards true equality is in the hands of politicians and wider socio-economic systems. Teachers alone will not change this world.