The way you make me feel: why teachers’ emotions matter

20140401-150510.jpgIt would be an understatement to say that, on the whole, the morale of teachers is not good. Never in my experience of teaching have I been so aware of so many colleagues considering leaving the profession. This can be for a range of reasons, but many seem connected to the combination of being overworked due to a level of bureaucracy that seems unconnected to pupil progress and also a general sense of being undervalued. I have read comments from numerous teachers who feel that their managers contribute to their despondent feelings. This combined with the public perception that teachers cause problems for parents by striking, or are seen as whinging despite their ‘long holidays’, means that emotion is interwoven into the professional experience of being a teacher these days.

Most teachers, including myself, can recall times when colleagues and managers made us feel terrible. This could be directly, through managers being unfairly critical or disrespectful.   Or  indirectly; the lack of appropriate praise after a big venture, the lack of recognition of the effort that is being put in. Some have argued that teachers need to ‘grow up’ and not be so sensitive about such things, but does it really matter how you feel when you are working as a teacher.  I would argue that it makes all the difference.

There have been some amazing studies over the past few years looking at the importance of emotion as an aspect of educational leadership. Not least the developments of recognising Emotional Intelligence, pioneered by Daniel Goleman. This recognises that some have a better awareness than others of the emotions of other people. It also then goes on to show why you can gain a greater understanding of people through picking up on the emotions of others. The irony is that this work is almost taken for granted as part of teaching when it comes to recognising warning signs with pupils, but can often be sidelined with colleagues. 20140401-150627.jpgMegan Crawford (@DrMeganCrawford) has written a seminal work, ‘Getting to the Heart of Leadership: Emotion & Educational Leadership’ (2009), challenging leaders to reflect on their values and looking at the dynamics of the range of different relationships within school. I suspect her forthcoming book will also pick up this theme as well. Even in the last week my trusty ‘Educational Management Administration and Leadership’ journal from Sage (@Sage_EdResearch), the amazing publication, part of the membership of BELMAS (@Belmasoffice), covers a variety of aspects looking at Educational Leadership and emotion.  All of these references and more suggest there is no reason why leaders should not be reflecting on the emotional dimension of their leadership and in particular the way they make others feel. As an aside here, I would argue strongly against those who suggest that educational research must only be about pupil progress for it to be of any worth or relevance. Here is a case in point where the excellent research being done can have a direct influence on teachers’ working experiences, and therefore indirectly can influence the experience in the classroom.

Despite this work, there are still leaders who feel that they do not need to consider the feelings of their staff, or colleagues who feel it is acceptable to treat others badly in the professional context. Ask most teachers and they will have a ‘horror story’, or two, about something someone has said or done to them, perhaps to undermine them, to belittle, to be unsupportive, to fail to acknowledge their work, or worse still, take credit for others’ work.  We spend countless time in pastoral training sessions recognising the importance of developing listening skills when dealing with pupils and yet very little time and money is invested in staff to develop mentoring skills. Really listening to someone is a skill and one that matters a great deal in education, because we are dealing with people. People are complex, unpredictable, and multi-dimensional.

So what can we do to respond to the problem of low morale. Leader or not, we should be supportive of one another. Even on Twitter with educationalists it is depressing and frustrating when debates turn into point scoring, or worse still, sniping or deriding. Twitter is an opportunity to be supportive of others who are miles away. In schools so many teachers offer practical support through peer observations, through collaboration, sharing of work load, giving time and recognition when others don’t. Emotion doesn’t mean a lack of professionalism, instead it should be embraced as part of an on-going dialogue between teachers. Emotion can make things happen, can prompt a creative force and can reveal truths. Working in a school can be an emotional experience and events can occur that provoke emotional responses, so it’s good to embrace that there will be times when we need to talk. Being able to express our emotions and recognise our own emotional triggers also helps us to recognise that in others. The butterflies at the start of a term is a good thing, caring about the results your pupils get is a sign that it all still matters. Of course, the classroom itself is not necessarily the place to experience a full emotional crisis, but I know that I have benefitted hugely from the support of colleagues when having to deal with something particularly challenging.

Rather than seeing emotion and professionalism as mutually exclusive, we should embrace that our humanity means that emotion has a place in our work.  So even when morale is low we can comfort ourselves with a few of important points. Firstly, that even feeling low is an emotion, that shows we are still passionate, feeling creatures and that can only benefit our work with pupils and alongside colleagues. Secondly, being emotional creatures can help us deal with the nature of our work in education, which is with nurturing and developing the next generation. People are wonderfully complicated and the emotional dimension is an integral part of that. Finally, our terms are intense working experiences and yes we do have holidays and that means the holidays are for living fully to ensure we are well balanced human beings. So I hope everyone has a wonderful Holiday ready for the summer term ahead.



It’s time to speak up & say something interesting

20140203-150601.jpgI recently watched a short clip on television that introduced me to The Bechdel Test. This was not something I had heard of before, but was fascinated to discover that it was a very simple test that was applied to films concerning their treatment of women. This was popularised by Allison Bechdel in 1985 and consists of three simple rules:

The film must contain:

  1. Two named women who
  2. Talk to each other
  3. And the topic of their conversation must be about something other than men

Really simple you might think, but when you see some of the films that fail this test it does make you pause for thought. These failing films include recent box office hit, The Wolf of Wall Street, not surprising perhaps, but other films that fail are Slumdog Millionaire, Shrek, The Bourne Identity, Ghostbusters, Wall-E, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Men in Black, Shawshank Redemption, Up and Toy Story. Why don’t these films have a female conversation in them? It could be because the setting wouldn’t allow it, but when you look at the list that doesn’t explain them all. There are many great films that fail this test. Their failure needn’t detract from their greatness, but it is a bit sad when it seems those you made the films thought that women have nothing interesting to say. It reminded me of one scene from Sex and the City where, yes many, many conversations were had about men, but many were not. This one scene had an exasperated Miranda who wanted to share her joy of her new Palm Pilot whilst the others wanted to discuss boyfriends. Is that really all women can talk about?

Whilst watching the latest Celebrity Big Brother I was amazed that the issue of sexism was such a strong theme throughout its run. Whether it was the naive craziness of the Lee Ryan love triangle, with grown women fighting over a very silly man, or the confidence of Luisa which others either found disgusting or threatening. Now I am not condoning all the moral choices that were discussed during the programme, but I was amazed by the way the public hated Linda’s moaning ways and yet were happy to make Jim, who had spent the majority of the programmes bad mouthing many of the women, although all the men were ‘honest’. This seemed to culminate in a heart to heart between Jim and Luisa, which was brilliantly commented on my Allison Woolley (Education Editor from the Guardian) when she said:

@alicewoolley1: Jim telling Luisa she needs to tone herself down and pretend to be less assertive. Classic sexism. #cbb

This just seems to reinforce the idea that women should pipe down. This comes at a time too when I had read a great blog from @Chocotzar ( ) . She talks about the patriarchy of Teachmeets and of Twitter itself. She touches upon an idea that has been raised before, that not enough women are prepared to speak up on Twitter. There have many well-publicised cases of women being trolled, not just by men, but by other women as well and this is thought to have put many women off from speaking up. This makes me feel very sad and the notion that women have nothing to say or are frightened to speak and I find this far more worrying a prospect than a young girl twerking on a music video award show.

In days when some are remarking on the lack of women role models it is worth taking time to think about which women are speaking up and what are they saying? Any young woman looking for a role model should really look no further than Malala, a young women with plenty to say, all of it inspiring. Great news indeed that she has just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is not the only role model available to young women. In other spheres Jennifer Lawrence is carrying films as the lead taking on strong roles such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a character with a story that is not just about her relationships. Jennifer Lawrence herself has challenged some of the stereotypes wrapped up in the body image of the Hollywood ideal. Lena Dunham also has brought a refreshing depiction of life as a modern young woman. Dunham herself as writer, producer,director and actress should be inspiring young women that if they do not feel that they are being represented to go out and write their own stories.

20140203-152524.jpgI could list the inspirational figures of yesteryear, but as educators we need to lead by example and show what is worth speaking up about today. Whether you agree that the educational world on Twitter is patriarchal or not, it is still worth speaking up,whatever your gender and speak up for positive role models and the beneficial effect they and we can have on young people.

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.

Twitter: our school playground

I was lucky enough to go to a lovely village junior school. There were two playgrounds, one of which was a patchy Tarmac slope with a covered barn-like area at the top end, an extension of a beautiful old building. This covered area, I think housed some PE equipment, but I could have got that wrong. I seem to remember utilising an old vaulting horse as an impromptu stage under there. With a few of my friends we performed lunchtime concerts to the other children. These concerts (fifteen minute events) consisted of songs (Bananarama covers) from our new album (a C90 cassette). Whilst these ‘concerts’ went on, other playtime activities continued as normal, boys played football, girls plaited hair and teachers drank tea. The playground was a world in its own right. It was where historic battles were fought, intergalactic invasions thwarted and romances born, flourished and sadly expired. All the different factions within the school met together, exchanged ideas and settled disputes. Lessons were an unfortunate necessity, a background hum, that got in the way of these important gatherings.

Over recent weeks I have begun to reflect on the similarities between the congregation of pupils in the school playground and the interactions of tweeters on Twitter, particularly those within the educational Twitter community. There are such clear groups that exist within our playground. There are the naughty ones who play up all the time, pulling at the bunches of the pretty girls’ hair, calling them names and sometimes making them cry. The girls shout at them and tell them they are stupid. On Twitter the trolls fulfil this role, playing up to gain attention from everyone. Their behaviour usually works within the boundaries of their virtual playground. Jealousy and ignorance are a potent mix and behind the anonymity of a computer screen, people say things without thinking, forgetting that their fellow tweeters are human beings too. This kind of dehumanisation can also be seen in the actions of the playground bullies.

Playground politics were essentially all about which group you were in, the more popular your group, the more power you wielded and the higher your playground status. Take for example those people of high status. Maybe it was because they had an important role, perhaps they were form captains, milk monitors, or classroom prefects. You couldn’t touch these people, they were the pro’s. The rest of us would just look up to them in admiration. Unless you were in their inner circle they would just be seen from afar. You felt happy if a prefect asked you to move out of the way – suddenly your existence had meaning. Twitter has those top dogs too, in the educational sphere as well, quite often their importance marked by the elusive blue tick. You have been verified! You belong to the upper echelons of our Twitter society. The lowly amongst us sometimes timidly include their Twitter names in the hope that our existence too will be acknowledged – they read what I wrote! My words have meaning!

Not surprisingly there are obvious parallels between the existence of the in-crowd on Twitter and the ones in the playground. Those not in the cool-kids-clique are merely spectators on the outskirts of the exchanges that happen between these holy elite. I have wondered whether there was an equivalent of the Twitter no-no of retweeting praise. Did the in-crowd go around the playground telling everyone how great they were? Perhaps they did, and perhaps that’s why they still do it today. The cool kids of the playground are able to get everything right with, what appears to be, effortless ease. They had the best bags, the sharpest shoes, the coolest coats, not for them the cheapest cagoule from C&A. The really cool kids didn’t have to try to be cool, they just were. Of course this inner circle, both on Twitter and in the playground, generates another group, the wannabes, those that doggedly aspire to be part of that group. They cling on with gritty determination and huge amounts of effort. It makes me think of the months I took trying to persuade my mother that ‘donkey jackets’ were THE thing to wear and not the outfit of choice for dustmen. By the time I had tipped her over the edge into agreement the in-crowd were already pioneering a different fashion trend. Twitter has its effortless tweeters, those that are ahead of the news, making the news, setting the trends and then there are those who are trying to escape their perpetual struggle to do more than just retweet others.

Our choice of words is something that defines our experiences of playground life. The part of the country that I came from had its own language and terminology. I know, I’ve checked with others from other parts. For example, do you know what a ‘jitty‘ is? That time of life is also full of its own meaningful language, so it would be quite natural to chastise another by remarking that they were ‘in a right eggy Jeff‘. These words have the action of giving you an identity, you are part of the crowd, you belong. It is so obviously the case that this is true of Twitter, how some fellow tweeters might laugh should you not know the meaning of ‘twitosphere’. This is true too for the educational tweeters that not only sprinkle tweets with selections from the plethora of educational jargon, but add in a new layer of terminology uniquely formed from mixing education and social media. Language is about belonging, to shamelessly cherry pick from Wittgenstein, ‘don’t ask for the meaning, look for the use’. Twitter newbies, watch and learn, but most importantly get stuck in.

We have already seen there is an elite society built into Twitter, but there are even more ways that the Twitter community echoes the dynamic of the playground politics. Twitter is a world where you can actually nominate tweets to be favourites! It would take a strong, independent soul to deny that it’s rather nice to see that another person has favourited something you said. That moment of recognition has its equivalent in the playground. Can you remember that time when you went out on a limb to say something funny and the kids laughed or better still someone said, ‘that’s funny‘. Oh the sweet acknowledgement!

I’m a great fan of Twitter. I had been on Twitter for a while before I really saw the power that lay in its format. I think it was about the time of the London riots that I realised that Twitter was the best and quickest way to find out what was happening. Needless to say I’m not sure I was always the quickest in the playground to find out what was happening, but as a teacher and deputy, pupils used to wonder at how quickly I knew about the latest ‘news’. Of course, just as it is with the playground, there can be a great deal of misinformation on Twitter and discernment is needed in both arenas. Maybe you too, honestly followed the ‘Boston charity’ that appeared almost instantly after the marathon bombings promising to donate a dollar for every follow, that was quickly shown to be fake. It would be good to say there was more evidence of discernment on grown-up twitter, but recent examples of thoughtlessness, e.g. Tweeters in the public eye chastising Yorkshire schoolgirls, seems to show evidence to the contrary.

What light can this Twitter/playground analogy shed? I think there are lessons for us to learn, perhaps even from the mistakes of playgrounds past. Firstly, Twitter should be an open community and the range of ‘hashtag chats’ does suggest opportunities for sharing. In their schools, teachers genuinely want everyone to be able to be comfortable at break times and lunchtimes. We act swiftly to counteract any sense of intimidation and endeavour to stop bullying. It was not surprising, therefore, to see some teachers step in and challenge recent examples of trolling of school children. Beyond those obvious objections I think the playground might make us remember the outsiders. Those that don’t have a natural ease in the situation but want to be part of the community. It is possible to spot cliques emerging even within the educational Twitter community. There was always a fair bit of showing off in the playground and there certainly can be some of that on Twitter. With the wonderful gift of hindsight we can look back on playground memories and realise just how much we were all the same and at its best I think that this is something that Twitter can show too. Sure there will be private jokes, the in-crowd, the effortless cool kid, the wannabe, but 140 characters is actually a pretty good way to break down those boundaries as well as establish them. I learnt a lot about people, the world and life in general in the playground, I’m pleased the same is true for Twitter too.