Why everyone in schools should care about RE

nunswater1Aside from time spent as a Senior leader, I have been an RE teacher for over twenty years. To be honest it was the only subject I ever really enjoyed at school and was pretty certain from Year Nine that I would be studying Theology at university. By university I had also developed a strong interest in philosophy which ended up being my specialism. So why did I like the subject so much? Not surprisingly one answer is that I had great teachers. Their lessons were imaginative, dynamic, fun, intelligent and challenging. The topics were so varied that we could be studying the rituals of Jewish marriage, ethical theory, nineteenth century theological heroes, atheist arguments on applied ethical dilemmas, learning Koine (Greek) and trying to understand the existence of evil. By the time I left school I had grappled with all of those things, via active learning, developing my own research projects, debating, creating mind maps, playing games, trips to discover new and fascinating cultures, and leading seminars; it was a great experience. I loved that my thinking was challenged and that there was often no right answer. Not once was I preached at, asked whether I had considered ‘trying’ a particular religion, prayed with or for. From Year 7 onwards it was always an academic subject with exactly the same standing as any other subject on the curriculum. Even when I was sitting in a particularly gruelling interview for my Durham University place and was asked, ‘do you feel disadvantaged coming here from a comprehensive school?’, I took a deep breath and told him about how good my lessons were. I think that before I had even considered being a teacher I already had a biased view in favour of good RE.

When I started teacher training, I realised that RE was not the same in every school. For example, on observation weeks, I watched a low ability Year Nine group spend a whole lesson colouring in a picture of Jesus and the fishermen. My passion remained undiminished. For me it was still the most varied and interesting subject. So I find it really sad that headlines say that RE today is marginalised, confused and even irrelevant to a modern curriculum. I still think that everyone in schools should care about what is going on in RE and in fact think that Senior Leaders should be proactive in their support of the subject. Why does RE matter? Here are some of my reasons why I still believe in RE:

RE is far from irrelevant. It’s a myth to say that religion is irrelevant in the modern world. Throughout my teaching career I have frequently had to answer that one. My first response hasn’t changed – the majority of the world’s population has some affiliation with a world religion. A very rough estimate is that out of six billion, maybe 1.1 billion would describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or secular. In a very bad analogy it would be like saying that studying animals are irrelevant because I am a human. Religion is still such a massive part of our world. Think about that as you approach the Christmas holidays later this term! Understanding religion is seeing that it is an influential part of our world, you only have to watch the latest episode of Homeland to know that. The relevance of what was covered was frequently made evident from the questions that came from students, or the discussions with parents, when ethical matters overlapped with family experiences. Perhaps the most shockingly relevant lesson was when a Head of Department managed to let me, a trainee teacher, know after a class debate on abortion, that one of my students had just returned to school having just had a termination. None of her classmates were aware. The girl in question said that she would have stayed, even if she had had advanced warning, because it had given her a chance to explain her view, despite no one knowing her experience.

RE is not only about religion. It is another myth that RE does not cover Humanism, secularism and atheism. I can honestly vouch for the past thirty years and know that they have always played their part. I’ve attended meetings of the RE Council with wonderful representatives of the British Humanism Association to know that collaboration has been a part of RE for some time. I know that I was expected to know Dawkins’ views when I sat my A Level RE and that was a million years ago. RE covers so much, not just knowing your way around a church, but it’s about understanding people and their motivations, why do people believe the things they do. This leads me to my next point.

RE is as much about development of skills as it is about developing knowledge. Before AfL was even on the scene, higher order questioning was the way that good RE was taught. Good RE has been about developing good arguments, to speak confidently on a number of difficult and controversial issues. It has been about learning the difference between fact and fiction, to empathise with views different to your own and promoting tolerance. Never has there been a greater need for this. I’ve taught Thinking Skills, Critical Thinking, Theory of Knowledge and these are all good subjects, but RE has been developing these skills for some time now. If you also study Philosophy then you learn the structure of logic that underpins good argument as well.

RE fits beautifully on the curriculum. I have been lucky to work alongside many enlightened heads of departments who have been happy to talk to their students about the compatibility of RE with their subject. These have included Maths, Science, English, Languages, Art, Music, and other Humanities. The skills developed in RE can enhance performance in other subjects and vice versa. It is such a contemporary subject that text books can barely keep up with the changes in ethical topics. At certain points I was telling students to read the paper the morning of the GCSE because the law could have changed.

RE needs support. Anyone who has ever been a one person department knows how hard and lonely it can be. You have meetings by talking to yourself, making notes to yourself, deciding on resources by yourself. It can be very isolating. For a while I was chair of the ISRSA (Independent Schools’ RS Association) and organised some national conferences at Chelsea Football Stadium. Every year I would talk with colleagues who were so grateful for the opportunity to talk with other departments as they often felt so alone. I know this is true of other gatherings such as St. Gabriel’s as well. What can make it worse is the lack of support from SLTs, which can make a massive difference. With the greatest respect staff can be dumped in RE if they are timetable is light. Not surprising when often students are encouraged to do RE when everything else is too hard. Despite all this RE is a multi-disciplined subject. I think I have taught about six entirely different GCSE subjects as part of RE and at least the same again for different A level subjects; biblical studies, ancient history, church history, philosophy, ethics and rabbinical history. Entirely different disciplines with different thinking and learning skills needed. I’ve worked with colleagues who have respected my subject and those who have not. It can be tough having to defend yourself to parents and colleagues in a way that other subjects don’t have to.

RE has substance. Good RE has always been overflowing with important things to learn. It is not about singing ‘Kum ba yah‘ and sitting in a circle talking about the beauty of flowers. It is the place where I learnt about Plato, Kierkegaard, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Rambam, Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein, Bultmann and Dawkins. It’s a tough subject where ideas are challenged, rather than pandered to. Not knowing what is going on in your RE department is not a good enough excuse. Shame on the department for not sharing it enough and shame on other subjects for not finding out.

Senior Leadership Teams are missing a trick by not supporting their RE departments. So much of what should be found in your average RE department handbook should support a school’s mission statement and aims. Looking for evidence of spirituality? Look at the RE department. Wanting to show evidence of pupils understanding morality? Look at a GCSE lesson debating euthanasia. Need to have evidence of global awareness? Look at the RE department’s work on pretty much anything.

So let’s say a loud Hallelujah that RE is in the spotlight and let’s light the candles, get some incense going, because it’s time to celebrate and remember the value of GOOD RE.

Teachers are just too darn nice – let’s play Top Trumps! Getting more from lesson observation

I know that one of the ways in which I have been really lucky in my career so far, is that I have been able to go into many, many different classrooms and observe teachers. It is something I love to do, not least because you always learn so much from observing others. Being observed, however, is quite a daunting thing at times. I know that at the start of my career I used to be incredibly nervous when I was observed. My memory tells me that my first observation as an NQT was nothing to celebrate. My observer told me that during the lesson I said “OK” 76 times. Now I’m not sure if I have remembered that number accurately, but I can believe it. I was so nervous. Teachers are on the whole masters of their own domain and so to have a rival authority figure in the classroom does make you question your judgements. I also remember that when I was inspected in my first post, it included a dismal lesson observation that was probably the worst lesson in history. I was so demoralised and embarrassed at how badly I had performed. It really matters that when you are observed you feel like you have shown your best to others. I knew I hadn’t and there were so many things I learnt from that horrible experience. What’s interesting is that I can remember details more vividly from these lessons than I can from the numerous more successful observations over the years. I bet if you asked a few senior leaders they could also tell you some juicy details from terrible lessons they taught, that had been observed.

The thing about lesson observations is that whilst no one particularly is desperate to be critiqued – note critiqued not criticised – it’s the way you learn. This is why I entitled this blog as teachers being too darn nice, because one of ways in which lesson observation can be least effective is when all observers say is that it was really, really good. There are going to be many outstanding practitioners out there and many outstanding lessons, but we all want to get better. Would we think the teacher was any good, who gave back an essay to an A star student with the comment “really great, I learnt a lot“. There are many reasons why feedback from observations tends to be more praise than guidance and I will look at just a few of them.

1. Who am I to judge? Teachers often are humble souls and so they frequently question whether they are experienced enough to be able to suggest improvements to colleagues. Of course it is all about sharing experience because teaching is all about having choices. None of us will respond in exactly the same way each time 20131016-210447.jpgwe are faced with a challenging subject, topic, class or pupil. We select from our great array of strategies as to which would be the best approach at that time. Therefore we should see lesson observation, particularly peer observation like a game of Top Trumps – swapping cards on the best, highest scoring tactics. In recent years I have spent a lot of time observing PGCE students and NQTs, learning so much, because you don’t just learn from people who have been teaching longer than you!

2. Nobody has ever taught me how to do it! Very true. When we train to be teachers we learn how to plan and teach, we don’t learn how to mentor. I do think to be a good mentor you need to work on very different skills. We all know that when we ourselves have been observed, some people have been better at giving feedback than others. If you feel a little uncertain about your mentoring skills then get yourself to some INSET training on it or ask your school to put some training on dedicated to it. It’s an important part of development so definitely worth the investment.

3. Teachers are just too darn nice. When teachers are working collaboratively, boy are they collaborative. It’s all about encouragement and therefore we have to super positive because of the overwhelming sense of solidarity amongst colleagues. There are of course problems with this. Firstly observation just becomes all about back slapping. It’s lovely to be praised and you will frequently find me tweeting that not enough of this goes on in schools (@imisschalk), but bland praise with no substance becomes meaningless. The other problem with this is if peer observation is all lovey dovey it can then make it harder for managers to observe (for example as part of appraisal) and to fairly critique; ‘oh it’s so demoralising, all they do is criticise‘. It is not being nasty to suggest alternative ways to tackle something. If someone were to say to me, ‘this has worked really well for me, you might be able to adapt it for your class’ I think I would be able to take it and not to rush to the staff room in floods of tears.

Teachers are all about having high standards and if outsiders (and by outsiders I mean newspapers and politicians) suggest our standards are slipping we are outraged. Therefore we should carry that through to our observations. If a lesson plan is confusing then say so. If class noise levels got just too loud then ask if they thought so too. If you didn’t understand the main concept or objective then focus discussion on it, it might just be you, but it also might be that several students had the same experience as you. The discussion that can follow from that, carefully managed of course, could be really exciting and a chance to discuss underlying aims, approaches and goals.

It’s been such a tough time in education recently with oh so many changes and it is really easy to forget all the good stuff going on. So many teachers are keen to share good practice that now is the time for really useful observation feedback. This is about standing up for standards, discernment is a good thing! Work scrutinies across the country are looking for comments in pupils’ work that move learning forward, using numerous strategies, so why shouldn’t we want that for ourselves as well? After all that work you put into your planning, do you really just want a ‘Well done!’ or ‘You are working really well’ for your feedback.

So, stop being too darn nice and start being real.

Learning Lessons from ‘Breaking Bad’

I know that I am part of a world-wide club of people who have fallen in love with the television show ‘Breaking Bad’ over the past few years and who are currently mourning its loss with the final episode broadcast both in the UK and US this week. For those who have not been following it, firstly, what are you waiting for? Join the club and get stuck in, but in the meantime let me at least introduce you to its story. Walter White, a high school Chemistry teacher discovers that he has cancer and his worries, over funding the high medical bills and what will happen to his family after he has gone, lead him into the murky world of producing high quality Crystal Meth. When I first realised just how good this series was, I rushed to a Chemistry teacher and told him to start watching, but are there some lessons for teachers and education in general.

Firstly, do not underestimate teachers. In these heady political days of examining and analysing just what teachers are achieving, it is refreshing to see that it is the exquisite subject knowledge of Walter White that makes the entire ‘Breaking Bad’ epic possible. Sure, he had started in industry, but walked away from that and ended up in the classroom. Perhaps it could also be argued that his expertise was totally underestimated; no one realised just how good Walter was. We work in schools where many teachers have extraordinary specialist knowledge, pet areas that they are passionate about. Sometimes if they are lucky that knowledge coincides with an examination specification or a curriculum model which allows them to indulge their joy with their class for a lesson or two. I have been lucky enough to work with teachers who were passionate on specialist topics as diverse as the origins of Quakerism, Ball Lightening, writing their own novel, Elizabethan history, Acoustics and Byzantine texts. Walter was good, really good at subject. So good he was able to produce Meth of 96% quality, beating everything else on the market. Of course, I am not suggesting that we should use our amazing knowledge for evil, but in a time when the phrase “those who can do, those who can’t, teach” is still floating around and professionalism is being challenged in headlines, it is worth celebrating how hard many teachers have worked in their subject areas. This is a real challenge for those in school leadership. Are there ways to celebrate your staff’s knowledge and allow them to shine. There is joy in celebrating knowledge and Walter came alive with his chance to be clever. Perhaps a Mastermind for staff would allow those specialist subjects to come to the fore and wow everyone. It is also about remembering our original motivations that make our subject our passion. Clearly if one of those subjects is new recipes for manufacturing blue meth then it might be worth asking a few questions.

The second point I think worth learning from ‘Breaking Bad’ is never underestimate your students. The other focal point of this amazing series is Jesse Pinkman, an ex-pupil of Walter’s who ends up being taught once again, this time how to cook Meth. Jesse’s path goes through every twist and turn imaginable, heartbreaking at times and exhausting at others. An addict himself, but he listens and learns. Throughout most characters, particularly Walter, appear to underestimate his intellectual abilities, often calling him stupid. However, his expertise ends up being a threat, putting himself in jeopardy. He may not match the skills of Mr White, but his 92% cooking ability is a rarity. Jesse is the classic underachiever and nobody, including his parents, expected anything of him and yet he learns. Jesse becomes our tragic hero, through his suffering we are willing him on to find happiness. Nobody should be written off as a lost cause. I truly believe that one of the wonderful aspects of teaching is the opportunity for a fresh start with every new academic year. Those teachers that hold grudges or hang on to ‘year-group’ reputations stifle the opportunities for everyone to make good. It also reminds me of countless times when the regular naughty student was sent for a telling off and you are left wanting the best for them.

This takes us to the final thing to learn from ‘Breaking Bad’ for the moment. It is that there is always room for redemption. It is the most joyous thing to encounter in good writing. As you work your way through a book or in this case through a television series you get to a point where you find yourself willing the characters to find redemption. It is the most wonderful concept. Naturally I am now speaking with my theological bias and I would happily dive back into some Systematic Theology at this point. Redemption is when someone is granted forgiveness or are absolved of past transgressions. The transgressions come one after another, with increasing frequency in ‘Breaking Bad’ and yet it is so beautifully written that our sympathies are bounced around like an RV driving across a desert track. ‘Breaking Bad’ caused its viewers to visit, revisit and review their ethical values. Critics fluctuated between judgements of Walter as pure evil to Walter the hero, or anti-hero. Forgiveness comes after an acknowledgement and awareness of wrong doing. After the confession comes absolution. Teachers know what it is to be pushed and patience tried by repeat offenders. We know what it is to be tested to our limits, but even after the multiple horrors of ‘Breaking Bad’ there is still the hope of redemption. It is also one of the many wonderful aspects of working in education. We deal in redemption, not least because it is a time when mistakes are made and hopefully lessons are learnt. Teachers are fortunate witnesses to redemption in dealings with students.

Perhaps it’s too hopeful a view and there are many who will write wanting all kinds of endings for ‘Breaking Bad’ and the reality is, for those that loved it and had invested time and energy into it it was always going to be hard to say farewell. This is strangely true for teachers leaving a school. There is never a good time to leave, you always leave some people – teachers, pupils, parents – unhappy, wanting an alternative ending. So long ‘Breaking Bad’, we don’t want you to go, but we learnt so much from you, so thank you and goodbye.