What is your mission statement?

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I’ve sat in different halls when the newly revised and rewritten version of the school’s mission statement has been revealed. I’ve been on both sides – part of the SLT who is sharing it or a member of staff, being shown version number 473. I’ve heard the cynical sniggers from those who cast it aside immediately as a meaningless document at best or at worst an agenda-laden manifesto of the controlling management team imposing their ideas on the true educators. I’ve read different kinds of mission statements – the extensive, leaving nothing unsaid, detailed essay and the pithy ‘can we say it in ten words’, yes as long as it’s a meaningless educational soundbite. It’s not an easy job trying to write one, but it is easy to be critical of others’ attempts. What has struck me more and more is that it’s often a question that you only have to really tackle when you start showing an interest in promotion, but it’s as important a job from the moment you begin your career until your retirement year (and beyond).

What is a mission statement anyway? Ultimately it a way of communicating your purpose to others. Why are you doing what you are doing? I don’t think anyone properly asked me that until I’d been teaching for about ten years, already well into a Head of Department role. I wanted to really think about my answer and not through it away on something too logistical. To help you come up with your mission statement I’m going to slightly adapt a suggested approach from business via Forbes magazine and ask you three questions to come up with your own statement of intent. As an extra challenge, can you sum up your answer to each question in one sentence?

  • What do you do? The obvious answer is to teach, but what do you actually do so that learning takes place? Have you developed a particular style in the classroom or adopted an approach to learning that influences your planning? Have you got a USP? If you are going for a leadership role or currently in one then what do you enjoy about the responsibility of leadership?
  • How do you do it? What do you bring to your role? Whenever I was responsible for schemes of work I always wanted them to be flexible enough for individual teachers to shape the material with their own personalities. Are you passionate about your subject? What motivates you? Why would it be different to work with you?
  • Why do you do it? For me this is the foundation of your mission statement, in that everything else should be built upon these ideas. What are your values? Some of you will know from my tweets and blogs that I am a big fan of Michael Fullan and his focus on moral purpose. I was introduced to him at the very beginning of my study of educational leadership, but I think it is something that should be considered right at the start. What are the principles that underpin your decisions and choices? Are there deal breakers for you that might cause you to look for another post if a request appears to challenge your values? What does it mean for you to be an authentic teacher and/or leader? Would colleagues be able to say what your values were, do you communicate them to others?

It is not surprising that an understanding of mindfulness and resilience is becoming more significant in teacher development. Rather than be seen as fanciful additions these ideas, along with our core values, construct a teacher who’s well being is integral to their success. As Fullan suggests (referencing Palmer’s Courage to Teach) in chapter 2 of his very readable book, Leading in a Culture of Change,

‘…the best teachers integrate the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of teaching to create powerful learning communities’

At this challenging time, when teachers are even being politically scolded for not being positive about their profession, it is even more important to know what your mission statement is. For many of us, taking time to ask yourself these questions will prove to be the chart that will help get you through the roughest seas and cope with the highest waves. In fact, your mission statement should be the most positive statement of intent and will also be celebration of everything you have already achieved.

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Reflections on Nurture 1314

20140104-154250.jpgI’ve really enjoyed reading colleagues’ reflections on their past year. I have genuinely been in awe at the achievements of my Twitter contemporaries and have put off reflecting on my own path for fear of it being somewhat lacking. The past year has been a year of two halves, the pivotal moment being moving house during the horrible sticky heat of July.

The first half of my year was as a Deputy Head. Being a deputy is a fantastic job. You know how much Stephen Drew looked like he was having fun as Deputy in Educating Essex, well it’s true. One of the reasons why it is a great job is that you work with so many different people, not just amazing students, inspiring teachers, as you might expect, but also astonishing admin teams, incredible caterers, maintenance staff, medical staff, invaluable support staff and creative gardeners. Every day is different, new problems to solve, ideas to debate, plans to implement. There have been quite a few blogs recently that have really been critical of senior leadership teams. This seems unfair on a number of levels. Firstly, it is so easy for teachers to blame the SLT as some kind of non-human amorphous lump. I’ve even seen tweets along the lines of ‘please let us get on with it’ by poor beleaguered teachers, which makes me feel sad. I have no doubt there are bad leaders, ineffective teams and many, many examples of poor communication in schools where staff are not consulted, involved, listened to or recognised. However, there are some amazing, inspirational examples of leadership out there – you only have to read some great blogs to see that.

The second reason I find the ‘us and them’ approach sad is because it seems to be contradictory to the values and morals we are all trying to achieve in our work. Even on twitter, regulars will know of examples of snide comments, gossipy side conversations when hashtag chats are in full swing, it is so boring. We would challenge that in the classroom, but if we don’t challenge it in the staff rooms then we are surely guilty of hypocrisy. Finally, I think that there is a danger that sniping at senior leaders might put teachers off going for promotion – do they really want to take that on?

Before you think I’ve veered too far away from the path of reflection let me say that what was particularly important in that first half of the year was circumstances that convinced me of the importance of research in developing educational theory. Reading educational research on leadership and management in schools inspired me to be constantly reviewing and auditing what it means to be a leader. If, as a teacher, you inspire one child to think for themselves then you’re doing your job well. If, as a leader, you inspire one teacher that they should aim for leadership then you’re doing your job well.

To reflect on my time as a leader in the first half of the year, I hope I did my job well. I really enjoyed working with staff, training on a range of different topics, with the aim of encouraging leadership in others.

This leads me to the second half of the year. I decided to start this blog to accompany the exchanges I was already enjoying so much on Twitter. I continued to write training material on leadership, mentoring, differentiation and have been able to deliver these to different audiences, gaining so much from interacting with teachers in the process. I have also been able to return to writing about RE matters as well, a subject so close to my heart. I have been privileged to be able to carry on my work nurturing trainee teachers, embarking on PGCEs, either at the start of their careers or early on as a way of securing foundational skills. This at a time when the training of teachers is being questioned and PGCE courses closing. Crazy times.  With education constantly changing, technology advancing faster than we can keep up with it, new educational theory challenging us, this is a time for more teacher training, not less.  We shouldn’t think we know it all, there is so much more to know!

For my whole career to date I have been proud to see being a teacher as a profession. I liked that I ticked the professional box in questionnaires about occupations. What surprised me early on and continues to surprise me is the way that many outside of education seem to think anybody can be a good teacher. Even after the actual demonstration that being a good teacher is not about what degree class you have with Jamie Oliver’s academy, we still hear that content knowledge is the same as delivering knowledge. It seems bizarre to me to not see delivering knowledge, enabling learning in others, is a craft, a skill that can constantly be developed. This inspired me to pursue training others. Conversations with others also inspired me to continue to pursue my area of research interest, that different personalities have qualities that lend themselves to certain leadership roles. Women in education can sometimes be forced into certain gender stereotypes which makes them less likely to consider certain roles. Even this week we have been hearing about women in education sometimes being fearful of joining in fully with Twitter debates.

It wasn’t an easy year. It was a year of challenges but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing does it?

Looking ahead. I wonder.

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

Research leadership in education.

Try to paint more.

Stay true to my guiding values and vision.

Be happy.

“Try not to have a good time…this is supposed to be educational”

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It’s a crazy time. Just when you think you’ve heard the worst there it is, another little twitter murmur that gets louder and louder to something that hits one part of our teaching community hard. One time it’s the Year Elevens struggling with every opportunity to get their grade Cs in Maths and English or perhaps it’s the SEN departments seeing cuts that will thwart their work. Twitter is groaning under the strain of debates about the value of QTS and of course we now have GCSE subjects under threat of closure. Crazy times. However, we should remember the scary times that we thought were coming, but have managed to evaporate so far. There is still time to make a difference and if anybody is capable of making a difference then it’s the teaching community. It’s reassuring that programmes like the last episode of Educating Yorkshire, showing the reactions of teachers to Musharaf’s farewell speech to his peers, reminds us of those moments. For me, what was even more gratifying, was to see a tiny cross-section of the public’s reaction to that episode when watching Gogglebox. As a teacher we know those moments of revelation, but it was good to see that shared with the wider community through the small box in the corner of the room. We should take comfort that retired, 79 year old Leon, a Gogglebox regular and retired teacher, saw that and wanted to be back there. ‘Teaching’s a great profession‘, he remarked to his wife, June, also a retired teacher.

Like many, I suspect, one of the main reasons why I became a teacher was because I was taught so well. It’s amazing what you can remember, the moments of kindness and encouragement as you look back over your own education. I can think of primary school teachers who encouraged our creativity and imaginations. In days before pupils had official labels and were lively or bizarre, I can think of teachers such as Mr B, who protected their quirky reactions and made them feel safe in the classroom. I can think of Mrs W and Mr W who encouraged me and my friend to perform our tribute to Morecambe and Wise in front of the school, such a forgiving and positive audience! At secondary school I quickly found subjects that made me feel at home. I loved the freedom to develop ideas in Art with Mrs H who genuinely seemed to believe that we could achieve anything we wanted to on the paper. I also loved the variety that RE offered me with our teacher who made us laugh with his fantastical tales. I was lucky enough to have my early RE lessons with Terence Copley who introduced each new denomination or religion by telling us that he had a cousin that believed in that. We marvelled at the glorious diversity of his curious family tree – he had us hooked. We quizzed him endlessly about the cousin of the day to see if we could catch him out. I can honestly say that I learnt a lot in such a joyous, unselfconscious way. Isn’t that what it was all about and is still all about today – the simplicity of the learning experience?

Don’t get me wrong I am not against complexity. Like Leon, I think teaching is an amazing profession, and being a professional I think we should have a great deal of pride in wanting to perfect our skills. In these crazy days then, I think we have to hold onto the joy and know that teaching is bigger than any latest press release that comes along. Political theories come and go, but the art of teaching well to promote learning will continue. The title of this blog is a wry quotation from Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and perhaps his portrayal of droning teachers suggests a distinct lack of a good time. Education could be seen as a compulsory necessity rather than anything fun. However, the increased number of pupils visiting Thornhill Academy’s Open Days and the hundreds of teachers emailing for jobs there, suggests that success in education has an awful lot to do with having a good time. The teachers make the lessons look fun, the experience looks uplifting, it looks rewarding and that’s because teaching is all of those things. Yes it is frustrating when we have to use one set of paperwork and then the latest inspection memo tells us we have to rewrite everything in a new format, but we do it and it doesn’t stop it being fun teaching students.

I’m not sure I have ever seen so many colleagues so demoralised by the current state of affairs and it is really sad. Perhaps it is because there has never been a time when teachers are able to communicate with each other as we can now, so we are more aware of the national ‘staff room climate’. The flip side of that is that there has never been a time when we have shared so much of what is working well with us. I think it is great when teachers share their classrooms, displays, lessons, productions, events and achievements with each other.

It’s amazing that one person can have such an influence on the direction of education today. It’s ironic really that we are having debates about whether teachers need to be qualified because someone without any teaching or educational qualifications has suggested it doesn’t matter. 20131101-192727.jpgNever has education felt so political, but that shouldn’t hold us back in our work. This is certainly not the first time I’ve been told by a non-teacher how to be a teacher. It’s a curious thing that so many feel qualified to comment on how to be a teacher. I think lots of people enjoyed David Schneider’s take on this, when he tweeted, ‘I’d respect Michael Gove’s passion for unqualified teachers more if he agreed to be operated on by an unqualified surgeon‘. The learning process is a fascinating, captivating challenge. If someone came along and told me that there was one way that people learn I would laugh heartily. How can that possibly be true when we are working with human beings? The notion that we can prove that a particular method works definitively or that things have to be done in a certain way is crazy. Our classrooms are filled with individuals, not clones, and that’s what everyone else is seeing on television, good teachers working with individuals.

We can weather this storm, because we are teachers, we are professionals. Just remember the joy. Think about the last time you felt that joy in a lesson, because they got it, because an individual pupil got it,because an activity went well, because your class made you laugh, because they performed well in a test. Watching the faces of the teachers when Musharaf was speaking in Educating Yorkshire was moving because we know how that feels. Cling on to your beliefs and remain true to your vocation and this too shall pass.

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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.