Next Nurture 2014/2015

IMG_0875One of the great things about writing a response to the nurture theme that bobs around at this time, is that it makes you look back at where you were this time last year. I gain a lot from reading other’s responses, sometimes I feel quite envious of all that they seem to have achieved, sometimes I feel quite excluded from the world they present, but am not sure why I do, or if it matters that much. Often I feel inspired to get on with achieving my goals, although I think I’m lot more flexible as to what those goals might be these days, perhaps that’s a sign of getting older. When I look back at what I wrote then, I see, through my words, someone living with uncertainty, not sure what lay ahead. So it’s been a leap of faith, but I’m not sure I’ve landed yet, but that’s OK, I can live with that.

 

So how did I do?
Ok, so last year’s goals, how did I get on and what lies ahead?

Continue to read and write, but more so. Continue to work with teachers, trainee teachers and mentors, but more so.

Yes I am and yes more so than I was last year. It was a joy and it continues to be so.

I work really hard to prepare quality materials for the teachers I work with and I want to keep doing that. I love that I am getting to visit so many schools, watch so many lessons, talk with so many teachers. I want to continue to push expectations with training, professionalism in education is not just what happens in the classroom. I’m more convinced than ever that it’s worth investing in teachers.

Research leadership in education.

I was accepted to start my doctorate in April and have been busy with it since. It’s even better than I thought it would be.

The more I read, the more I’m sure of the value of research in education and that it’s too important to try to cut corners or take short cuts with it. I want to be better at it and somehow start to share some of my ideas at a conference? Yikes.

Try to paint more.

Ahem, well I have drawn more, but the paints are still in their box.

Definitely need to do more of this. Paints, sketching, iPad, who knows. I’ve been inspired to do more not least from watch Sky Art’s Portrait Artist of the Year.

Stay true to my guiding values and vision.

Have definitely tried to do that

Believe it in this more than ever. It doesn’t mean an easy ride, but I think you have to be true to yourself

Be happy.

More than I thought I would be

Be smart enough to enjoy the highs of the year ahead
Be strong enough to endure the difficulties
Be thoughtful enough to share my time with others
Be wise enough to savour every moment
Be happy

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Time to REboot RE? #REConsult – Musings in response to Daniel’s Friday questions

IMG_0772.JPGTwitter has been buzzing ever since the consultation documents came out on the proposals for GCSE and A Level RE. Daniel Hugill (@DanielHugill) posted some excellent questions which reflected some of the Twitter debate. I decided to write My thoughts on these questions – I have been thinking some similar thoughts myself!

1. Seems to be some reluctance to teach about religion and belief. Are we embarrassed by it?

Embarrassment of belief? I think there is some truth in this. It’s not new of course, but I think with the increased focus on P&E there have been ways that RE has been able to be justified as being relevant. I find this odd because religion is everywhere! I was often asked about changing the name of the subject over the years but I always said that the majority of the world’s population are religious, how can it be irrelevant? With world events being as they are there are numerous ways to make connections, same goes for popular culture. There is even something of a backlash going on against comedians who get cheap laughs ridiculing religion. But this does lead to the next question…

2. Some students we teach are not religious. This means they aren’t interested in studying religions and beliefs. Is this true?

The religious beliefs of the students is not of immediate relevance. Think of parallels, do you have to be a Nazi to study the Second World War in History, or an animal to study Biology, or to travel to study Geography? Ridiculous obviously. However, even when we look to Art there has been a big push to include students who don’t see themselves as artistic. I would suggest you just need to be interested in two things – ideas and people. Some of the best RE students are the most passionate atheists.

3. That a focused study of religion involves lower level skills that belong in KS3 and not at GCSE or A-level. Is that right?

Agreed this seems to be a thought. It seems to be quite disrespectful of Theology. Perhaps it depends upon the kind of degree the teacher has and their own experiences of the subject? I’ve taught about 6 or 7 different A Level papers including a textual study of John and Patristic Theology! They are demanding, but it’s not impossible to make them attractive to students. Do English teachers have to justify studying texts at A Level?

4. That the popularity of courses will fall if we approach religion using a wider range of approaches. Do you agree?

The popularity of subjects is all down to how you market them and how you teach them – make both interesting and exciting then it works. If you build it they will come.

5. That a focused study of religion and belief cannot be made interesting and engaging by skilled RE teachers. Do you agree?

Doesn’t say much for teachers if they feel they can’t do this, unless they don’t believe it themselves? Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching Philosophy, I specialised in it at university, but I loved so much about my Theology degree and am thrilled when students have gone on to study Theology themselves. If some of these changes happen I can tell you I will be right there happily leading training days on the richness of RE that covers not one university degree but at least two entirely distinct disciplines. It might involve some hard work, but I think this subject is worth that. Why should RE be easy?

My view on REconsult – Celebrate the opportunity to give RE a REboot

 

Whose job is it to care about Staff Morale and what we can learn from chocolate

Teacher in a classroomIt’s interesting to see the difference an ‘e’ can make when added to ‘moral’, it can change pronunciation, change emphasis and create a whole dimension of leadership studies – the importance of the emotional well-being of staff. The last eleven months in particular have been filled with tales of teacher morale being at an all time low and sometimes a dip into Twitter of an evening confirms that. Tired teachers at the end of a frustrating day, questioning whether it is worth continuing with the profession that they once loved with a passion. Often the answer is to raise a shaking fist to whatever happens to be the latest political clanger. A recent favourite of mine was the Tory Peer, Lord Nash, oh so thoughtfully suggesting that lesson planning was a waste of time, so helpful! However, political changes, ridiculous initiatives will always be with us, does this mean that morale is something beyond our control? Far from it.

Within business much has been made of the correlation between how content employees feel with the productivity of the company. Perhaps it might be worth thinking more about the correlation between teacher morale and higher grades – spending the extra couple of hundred on that fancy coffee machine might then seem like a good investment! So who should be thinking about staff morale. Perhaps we are spending too much time shaking our fists at the wrong people? Perhaps Senior Leadership Teams should be making this a priority in their planning with opportunities for change available at every level. So how can SLTs make a difference to staff morale in tangible ways?

  1. Take time to find out what staff are actually doing. It’s important to really listen, observe and read what is happening in terms of subject content. How is the working experience of teachers changing year to year and is this making assessment harder? Are your demands for increasingly frequent assessments actually reasonable or are you making it harder for staff to actually get through their subject content.
  2. Think about everyone’s experiences when you are doing the timetable. I’ve been involved in timetabling for well over ten years and I’m amazed how many educational ideals go out of the window when timetables are put together. It’s so important to think about the quality of each member of staff’s day, as well as the experience of each student. Compromises are often made just to make things fit without thinking about the week in, week out realities that someone has to live with. It’s hard work to do it, but not impossible. Sadly as far as I know existing training in ‘how to do timetabling’ never seems to cover this.
  3. Environment matters. It makes such a difference to your working experience if you have space to work and that someone has thought about you when your workspace was planned. Too often teachers are surrounded by piles of debris that they never have the time or opportunity to tackle. We are busy shouting to the world at large that we are professionals, but staff sometimes have to mark or eat with piles of books or plates perched precariously on knees in crowded staff rooms.
  4. Genuinely celebrate your staff. As schools we are used to celebrating our pupils’ achievements, but do we shout as loudly about staff achievements? I’ve still got the personal letters I’ve received from leaders, who have taken the time to recognise my work, in a genuinely meaningful way.
  5. Give staff a voice. I’ve always thought it’s really important for staff to be able to meet without Senior Management present in order for them to discuss matters that can then be brought forward and presented in a neutral way. This is very different to the valuable work that unions do in schools, it’s about being able to deal with local matters swiftly so that staff are truly listened to and matters can be addressed. This relies upon the next point happening too.
  6. Listen to staff. I’ve written before about the need for leaders to be accessible. It’s so easy to be trapped in meetings in your office. I remember very well feeling guilty if an overstuffed calendar meant that I was not talking enough with staff. It’s not always possible to have that door wedged open physically, but metaphorically it always has to be open. Staff have got to feel that they have access, not just to deputies, but to Heads as well. I was lucky to work with outstanding PAs and their professionalism is essential to ensure that teachers never feel like they are being turned away.
  7. Teachers are people too. It’s sometimes easy to be so caught up in performance, grades and appraisals that we forget that every member of staff is a unique individual with their own lives beyond school. There are mixed opinions about this, but I think there are times when, if it helps, leaders should be prepared to be there to support staff through personal crises. Some feel it’s not professional to bring this into your work place, but we are only human and sometimes we need others to help us when we don’t feel strong. For me I’ve only thought of leaders as being more impressive when this happens.
  8. Invest in your team. Even when budget strings are being pulled tighter and tighter it is so important to invest in the development of teachers. Of course this refers to professional development, investing in good training. As a trainer you can instantly see those leadership teams that are genuinely wanting to invest in their staff – teachers, teaching support staff and admin teams. Investment goes beyond training, to time allocations for responsibility posts, and to creating a happy, productive working environment.

Ultimately it’s all about respecting other members of the staff community. So what has chocolate got to do with this? You could rightly think it’s about supplying the staff room with the obligatory chocolate boxes at the end of a hard term, but actually there is more to be learned here. I’m thinking in particular of the lessons that could be learned from the history of Cadbury’s. Many people are aware of the Quaker history of the Cadbury’s company, but this had huge implications for their care for the workforce.

IMG_0767.JPGThe Cadbury family were pioneers when it comes to staff morale and staff welfare. They brought in many new initiatives concerned with the welfare of their staff, for example, they were one of the first companies to close on Bank Holidays. In the nineteenth century they introduced incentive schemes for employees, invested in further education for their staff and created excellent facilities including,

“properly heated dressing rooms; kitchens for heating food; separate gardens for men and women as well as extensive sports fields and women’s and men’s swimming pools. Sports facilities included football, hockey and cricket pitches, tennis and squash racquet courts and a bowling green.” (The Story of Cadbury)

Perhaps most impressive was their emphasis on social welfare by purchasing 120 acres, creating Bournville, to build housing for their employees. They built housing in line with the Garden City Movement so that it was a clean living environment for staff, many of the cottages with their own apple trees. Sometimes teachers are lucky if they get an apple at work!  The Cadburys did care about their staff as people, about their lives whilst they worked in the factory and how they lived outside of work hours.

It was the Quaker belief system that lay behind the Cadbury family’s decisions to care for the staff so that everyone benefits from the happy workforce. They had a vision which they communicated to their staff and was evident from the actions they carried out to look after their staff. The same goes for mission statements of schools, do they work for the best of every member of the school community?

You might have strategies in place to raise standards, to improve teaching and learning, and to maximise your pastoral care, but how central is your planning for improving staff morale? Is it even part of your strategic plan? And if you don’t think it’s your job, whose is it?

Teacher with Apple

 

see also https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story 

The Case of the Teacher and the Multiple Identities

2014-09-27 13.10.22When I left my last job I thought long and hard about how to say goodbye.  I loved working with the staff there and was sad to go, but how to convey that?  Well something that I did in my leaving speech was to tell them two things that they didn’t know about me and two things that I hoped they knew about me.  The two things that I really hoped that they knew were, firstly, that I thought they were a really amazing staff, that worked really hard.  The second thing was I was really proud of everything they had achieved and that I had learnt a lot from them.  If you want to know what the two things were that they didn’t know, then you’ll have to ask them or me!  I had worked there for a while, but I was pleased that there were things about me that were still unknown. The thing is that I think we need to to be more than the job that we do.  I’m always wary of people who so completely identify themselves with their job, because especially in today’s climate we will all know people who have lost jobs and the devastating effect that can have on an individual’s identity. Instead of it being ‘I am what I do’ we could see that what we do can add important meaning to our identities and helps us to be part of different communities.

Think back to when you were at school, we had a crazy fascination if we ever saw a teacher in the holidays, say, at the seaside, the cinema or in town. What on earth were they doing? How come they are pretending to be like normal people?  In my first job I lived in the same small city as most of the pupils and was frequently followed around town when shopping just because they were so curious as to what I could possibly be buying.  The classic cliche of the teacher going into a box a the end of a day still rumbles on, and with extensive marking and planning, it is easy to feel that are lives are consumed by school, especially during term time. I am a passionate believer in protecting that work/life balance, but that’s not just something relevant for those with dependants, because, well let’s face it, not everyone has dependants. It is ultimately about out our identity that we need to protect and encourage to flourish independently to school persona. The more content we are as a person, the more we are in a position to let our passion for what we do flow in lessons.

Identity is a crucial component of our working lives. Rather than have one identity throughout our careers we take on a succession of different identities, different roles in different schools, a bit like trying on shoes and some fit us better than others. Some we fall in love with, if you’ll permit me to continue with the analogy, and others we can’t wait to kick off at the end of the day. What perhaps we don’t acknowledge enough, whilst we are working in schools, is how tricky those transitions from one identity to another can be. It could be that we really enjoyed being a Year 7 tutor and then suddenly the next September you can assigned to the Year 9s without so much as a warning. There is a sense of loss with, quite often, next to no time to adjust to the change. Herminia Ibarra talks about the ‘reinvention ripples’ that happen when we change identities. In schools it sometimes feels as if there is no time for the the ripples.

Splash created by a drop of water splashing into a calm poolOther transitions can be much harder and trickier to cope with, for example, the move to middle management. When that pile of examination board forms hit your pigeon hole that have to filled in right away, or the out of date text for the website, or the schemes of work that need updating, it seems a million miles away from the days when you could spend that time planning and marking. Bigger still is the move to senior leader.  Again, it is not an augmentation of your current job, it is a completely different job. You are moving from one job to another and more often than not there is no acknowledgement of that. I can remember when I first became a Head of Department heading to a bookshop to find a book called, How to be a Subject Leader, which didn’t exist at the time. I pretty much did the same thing when I became a Deputy Head. Of course, there is a great uncertainty taking on a new role with all of its new responsibilities, but it is more than that. You are also taking on a new identity. For example, being a Senior Leader means getting used to some conversations stopping when you walk into a room, when previously you might have been in the middle of that conversation. That’s fine, because you’re in a different group now. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a fun working day, or respect your staff with every atom, but you also have to do some not so pleasant jobs sometimes which mean you really need that bit of distance. It is hard and you can be prepared in terms of your experience, prepared even in terms of your knowledge base, but nothing can quite can prepare you for the change in identity.  With all of these changes being a part of our working lives, I think we need to ensure that we are more than what we do. We need to hold something back. We need to keep something for ourselves. That stops us from being completely consumed, in case the distinction between us at home and us at work disappears altogether. Even the most open book amongst us should have a hidden chapter or two.

So what is in your life that is protected just for you. I’m not talking about family or friends, but something about you, your interests, your party trick, a special hidden talent. We can be open books to our colleagues, we can share what is going on in our lives, but keep something just for you. These days teachers’ emotions and reaction are being watched every moment by the ‘Educating Essex/Yorkshire/East End’ Series.Those unmanned cameras zoom in to witness the despair, the joy, the frustration is writ large on our television screens. Even in our technological advances the barriers are being broken down. I am a great fan of social media, not least because it makes even the more famous more accessible and that our communication is made easier. Twitter is genuinely a fantastic media for career development. However, we need to manage it with our work roles. I definitely agree with @TeacherToolkit’s recommendation for at least two Twitter handles, keep one for your professional identity and keep the other one for kittens, memes and fascinating pictures. Don’t give yourself away completely, particularly if your using it with students, protect that part of your identity that school can’t get their hands on.

So what are things that your colleagues perhaps don’t know about you? Are you a secret Heat magazine reader? Do you play bingo? Do you love listening to thrash metal? Think about the Venn diagram below (you’ve got to love a good Venn diagram) how much of an overlap would there be on your version and what is being held back just for you?2014-09-27 12.44.27

What kind of reception are you?

1st Floor Lobby Welcome DeskStarting a new term can be a daunting prospect. It could be because you are starting a new school or it could be that you are taking on a new responsibility. It could be that you are starting a PGCE in school or are a keen, but mildly terrified NQT. You might have had to move to a new part of the country and be experiencing all kinds of new feelings about your surroundings. It could just be the usual butterflies that come just before a brand new academic year begins. Whether well established or brand new it could be quite normal to ask yourself I wonder what reception I will receive. How you interact with colleagues can make such a difference to your working experience. Staff still genuinely worry about using the wrong mug, or sitting in the wrong chair. At one school I actually had my pile of books, planner and diary moved because I had put it on the ‘wrong desk’. The reception you receive is important.

 

If you’re new to a school then you might be hoping that people will be friendly and warm; that you can get to know others and feel at home very quickly. You might be smiling endlessly as you’re introduced to new person after new person, their names evaporating before your eyes as soon as they’ve been uttered. If you’re well established, you could be wondering about new colleagues, what are they like and will they fit in? Perhaps you’re still pining for colleagues that have just left and find it hard to believe that these ‘new ‘uns’ are ever going to be as fun. For the couple of weeks of term there are a lot of new people to meet, adults and children. How people treat us, and how we treat other people, is very important at the start of this experience. The reception you receive makes a difference.

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When I worked in London I used to go back into the City after a summer away to an ever-changing landscape. It wasn’t just the children who had grown up and changed, but the buildings had too. Many of the big City banks and companies would constantly invest vast sums of money in refurbishing their reception areas. Schools have also picked up on the importance of this, particularly in recent years. Twitter has even had proud head teachers post images of their refurbished receptions ready to welcome hoards of visitors to their school. When I walked around the City, I would nosily look in through the glass walls of these companies to catch a glimpse of what went on inside. A favourite company that I recall had the most spectacular chandelier that mirrored every colour of the rainbow on a sunny day, emphasizing the opulence of the surroundings. From outside it looked very pretty, but if I’d had to walk in there on my first day at work it would be hard not to feel intimidated and a little daunted at having to match the heights of the company I’d have just joined. The reception you receive can change your perceptions.

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Some of the reception halls try to incorporate pieces of art, like the huge, impressive pieces in the entrance to Deutsche Bank. Would seeing a work of art put you at ease; many schools proudly display the best of their students’ art, would that give you something to focus on rather than the reality of your nerves? There are other reception halls that might be vast in scale, but rather sparsely furnished in a minimalist way. If you walked in there on your first day you could try to sit as neatly as possible in their designer chairs being sure not to knock their delicate orchids. If a school reception were furnished in this way you could image the well placed spread of school literature on the table in front of you, tempting you to see just how amazing the schools’ achievements really are. On a school trip to a school in Manhattan I had to wait in the school’s special reception room having just come in from a downpour. I can remember wanting to disappear into a hole as I sat on the most perfect sofa, dripping quietly, opposite the most perfect, glamorous Manhattan couple smiling with their beautiful teeth. Sometimes the designer approach is impressive in terms of its designer status, but might not necessarily be the warmest of welcomes in its clinical minimalism.   You can imagine your voice, echoing around as you announce your arrival at the reception desk. Perhaps they want you to know for certain that they are very, very important and you better be on your best behaviour. Or maybe they are suggesting they are serious about their work and so you should be too. The reception you receive creates an impression.

 

Plasma screens with news stations showing can be a feature of reception halls in businesses and now in schools, showing that not a thing passes them by and they are as up to date as you can possibly be. Although in one entrance hall I went into they had three giant plasma screens, two showing different channels of news – maybe to indicate that they are not biased in any way and are open to different ways of looking at things, but the third one showed a film of a tropical fish tank. Needless to say it was the fish film that mesmerised me. Balanced with the news channels, I wondered whether they were showing me that on the one hand you can be stressed with the news, but on the other the fish would relax me. Or maybe I would think they were serious about current events, but the fish showed their fun and creative side too. Some school receptions have vast trophy cabinets filled with every kind of cup, shield, chunk of glass and block of Perspex. These perhaps want to give future parents and pupils the impression that if you come to this school or work in this school you area winner, you will succeed, you will reach the top. The reception you receive can make you think.

 

Thousands and in some cases millions of pounds are spent on creating the perfect reception. Perhaps this is money well spent when so much can hinge upon those important first impressions. The environment around us can affect the way in which we feel, particularly when we are in a new and unfamiliar situation, but what about us as people what kind of reception do we give others? Have you spent the first week bouncing around catching up on everyone’s news? If you are going into a new school or if you ‘part of the furniture’ what impression do you give? Are you warm and fluffy, the one who tells you where everything is? Are you somewhat reserved, everything looking great, supremely efficient, like the minimalist showpiece, but no warmth and comfort? Do you show your fun and creativity, or is it empty and hollow sounding and lasts for the first few days. Are you the one that invites everyone to the pub that first Friday? As I’ve said before I was known to have a new bag, notebook or pencil case to show and tell, something new or different for the start of term. Do you make others feel at home? Or do you make them feel intimidated? Welcomes can take many forms and some can last for an afternoon, others for years. The reception you give to another can really make a difference.

 

It is a wonderful feeling to be made to feel welcome. I always appreciate the welcome I get every time I arrive at schools. I’ve been lucky enough to work in schools where the reception was one where you were looked after and it often made those early mornings more bearable. I was lucky to be greeted with smiles and kindness. We appreciate that in the places where we work and go to school. This seems to be a great opportunity to apply the Golden Rule: we should treat others, as we would want to be treated. How would you like to be welcomed to your school? There are many different styles of reception hall around busy cities just we as individuals are able to welcome people around us in countless ways. It is not just about welcoming people to a particular building, but also about how we make people feel when we encounter them. To make someone feel welcome or to be made to feel welcome is tremendous.

 

So what kind of reception are you?

400_399_Reception_low

 

 

The Via Negativa of SLT: what they are not

HeadmasterI’ve read quite a few tweets and blogs that, I think, might make the heart sink of anyone who has ever been part of an SLT. There seems to be quite a lot written about things that SLTs are getting wrong, often written by people observing those roles from outside. In response I wanted to write a description of the work of members of a Senior Leadership Team by describing what they are not.Headmaster-Office-Door-si-007

Being a member of SLT is not:

  • About leaving your humanity behind. It’s all too easy to describe a decision as made by ‘management’ or ‘SLT’ because it dehumanises teachers into a thing, an object, that is making life difficult, rather than talking about people
  • Easier than being a teacher with a full timetable, it is different, a different job with different challenges. Each role is of value and essential to the smooth running of the school
  • A step away from the classroom, it should still be about everything that is going on in the classroom, the reason why we do what we do. Most SLT members will still have some teaching commitments & some have way too much teaching commitment (in my opinion)
  • Irrelevant to Teaching & Learning.  Better leadership means a better school, which can improve the standard of teaching and learning
  • For everyone. It is not a natural progression that everyone has to aspire to, but it is something that if you feel you have an interest in you should not hold back, but investigate right away
  • The ‘them’ of an ‘us and them’ scenario, it’s not about finding someone to take the blame for decisions that are often made elsewhere, but should be about colleagues working for the same goal
  • A provider of answers to everything, teaching is difficult and there are many times when it is best to work together to work out what the best solution is for your school
  • A heartless occupation, there is nothing harder and more heartbreaking than having to work with a colleague who is struggling for whatever reason
  • A punching bag, although the are times when it can be helpful to take that role, if you assume opposition from the outset it ends up being a waste of time and energy
  • Someone who should just let teachers get on with it, they are themselves still teachers and they are, in many cases, hanging on to their reasons for going into teaching in the first place
  • About making changes just for the sake of it. As professionals we all want to make progress so that sometimes, but not always involves change
  • Communicating one way. It might seem that many members of SLT are constantly issuing reminders, updates, emails, etc, but by far one of the biggest aspects of the job should be listening to everything that is going on
  • About living in your office and this is sometimes really hard to avoid. Listening to others often involves lots of meeting with colleagues & this inevitably ends up happening in offices, but it’s not about hiding thereheadmaster-2
  • About trying to thwart the professional development of their colleagues. They are not trying to waste precious budget on useless INSET days to irritate overworked teachers
  • Being beyond criticism yourself. Members of SLT should have extensive appraisals carried out, where all kinds of members of the school community can have their say
  • About being in it for yourself, in fact a personal vision of education & a shared vision for the school should be providing the motivations for decisions made
  • An emotionless experience. Sadly, being promoted to an SLT doesn’t automatically make you immune to feeling hurt when unfair comments are made, but you just have to deal with it
  • About being better than anyone else, as it is with the classroom, so it should be with the school and that is above all else people should be treated fairly
  • About being infallible. You do not automatically have Pope-like status and therefore can still make mistakes, but you need to have the humility and integrity to recognise your failings, we’re all human

Now this is not to say that there aren’t failing leadership teams of failing individual members of those teams and if you’re faced with injustice you have a decision to make. Either move on to a school more akin to your values or challenge the way things are.

Education Book recommendation for the Summer: Ecclesiastes

20140702-114319-42199272.jpgAs we approach the summer holidays it is a time when many teachers thoughts turn to their summer holidays and the reading material for those long, lazy days. On Twitter I have already seen a number of book lists, which seem to consist of weighty educational tomes (make sure you check your baggage allowance!) that all seem to be worthy contenders. I have a recommendation for your reading list and it is only 51p on Kindle and about sixty pages, it’s an easy, accessible treat. My recommendation for a summer reading is the book Ecclesiastes. Shockingly it is a book of the Bible. I am recommending it, not only because there are lots of gems in there to make you think about life, the universe and everything, but also because I think it can give an insight to a lot of what is happening in education at the moment.

The author is a shadowy figure, less accessible than say your Hatties and Dwecks. The author has no name as such, although is referred to as Qoheleth, which means the ‘wise one’ or the ‘preacher’, in fact in some versions this is actually translated as ‘Teacher’ so think of the connections there. They seem to be a philosophical kind of person, with their opening words, having more than a dash of Buddhism about them,

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1)

Already I imagine there are some that might say, ‘Ah here is someone who truly understands the craziness that forms the basis of educational matters these days’. This quote certainly does set the tone for the one of the themes of the book. The author considers the meaningless nature of what we know. A wonderful epistemological question right from the outset. What can really be known? A question that, if we could answer it, might just guide our journeys through Teaching and Learning land. Qoheleth says that so many of the things that we consider to be important are really worth nothing; he says that it is just like chasing the wind. A lesson to be learnt there regarding levels perhaps, is there really such a thing as an objective benchmark and do we need one anyway?

Perhaps one of the most telling parts of the opening section of Ecclesiastes is when Qoheleth says,

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”? (1:9f)

I recently came across the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ when researching new assessment and differentiation practices and wondered what it was referring to. When I looked further it was essentially the distilling of information into boxes or different shapes on a handout. Look back across the decades of teaching experience and you will see this practice existing in one form or another. We might give ideas new labels, but perhaps Qoheleth has a point, is there anything of which one can say, Look! this is something new! Perhaps instead of looking for easy new answers, or debunking myths, we should be considering permutations, in the words of one of Ian Gilbert’s Thunks (@ThatIanGilbert), can you really stand on the same beach twice. It is all too clear that education is forever in a state of flux, perhaps there is nothing new, but what we can do is learn to adapt to our ever changing environment,

If you feel like the emphasis on the meaninglessness is a little too much for the summer holidays, keep going, in the way you would with Its a Wonderful Life, because chapter three takes you to familiar territory. One of the most well known passages of Ecclesiastes has made it into popular culture, particularly if you know the 1965 hit for The Byrds, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’. The passage famously examines the concept of time and the inevitability of certain events and rituals.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. (3:1-8)

There is a time when certain things are right and a time when they are not. Inevitability requires an acceptance that there are things that are beyond your control. This is not the same as refusing to challenge injustice, but it is to recognise that ideas will come and go regardless. There is a time to search out, but there is also a time to give up. What is particularly noteworthy for teachers is the time to be silent. The space for peace and quiet can be a rare thing in schools and especially for those who work in schools. What better way to restore balance but to seek out a moment or two of silence over the summer. Even the tweets can cease some times. What is encouraged is to live your life to the full and to enjoy the pleasures of today, because they could be gone tomorrow.

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. (5:18)

If Qoheleth is to be believed then our lives should reflect the balance of all those things. One of the worst mistakes you could make, particularly as a teacher, is to imagine you know what is going to happen. The academic year might be sketched out, dates might be in place, calendars taking shape, but it has yet to be painted in. Students will return as new individuals and their learning pathways are yet to be written.

Qoheleth writes on the nature of wisdom and encourages us to persevere. A number of interesting ideas are included, which you might agree with or think are ridiculous, but they at least might give you something to think about. Some might give you comfort when faced with the latest educational headline.

Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart. (7:3)

Other points might be helpful for those who get embroiled in ‘educational’ twitter debates.

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools. (7:9)

Another point might be helpful when you find yourself about to embark on yet another debate about teaching standards.

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions. (7:10)

If after all of this you feel at a loss as to what your goal should be, Qoheleth has something to say about this too, which may appeal in its simple nobility.

So I turned my mind to understand,
to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
and to understand the stupidity of wickedness
and the madness of folly. (7:25)

Now I’m not saying it is always an easy read. Ecclesiastes is a strange, challenging, difficult, depressing, uplifting, bizarre, annoying, confusing and illuminating read. I do recommend that you read it, whatever your beliefs and if you do not believe in religion. I haven’t given the end away. Read it, you never know you might love it.

 

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