Teachers and Time

Tittle: White Rabbit (Alice in wonderland) Tool: Prismacolor, opaline About: My first color illustration, I forget how long it late but I had forgotten to upload. I hope your critics http://spoiltgraphicdesign.daportfolio.com/ http://.facebook.com/spoiltdesign http://shadowness.com/spoiltgraphic

There are so many saying about time we can have it on our hands, be running out of it, be in the nick of it, it can fly, it can heal and it can certainly be a-changing.  In schools it is a precious commodity, it is actually a place where time costs money.  Our lives are so regimented by time in education, we even have a different year to the rest of the world – they have a boring old calendar year and we get to have an academic year.  Within that we have that time neatly divided up into terms, that gets divided up into half terms, weeks and if that isn’t enough we then divide our week into lessons. Our time is planned for us so it is no wonder that many teachers feel that they don’t have enough time.  ‘Where will I find the time to do this?’  Ownership of time is taken away from us, it feels like everyone else gets to decide how we spend our time.  Terms become whirlwinds and we spin around from INSET day until we are waving off our pupils and collecting thank you cards.  It is something that I have thought about a lot throughout my career and now find myself speaking about with teachers during training sessions.

At one point in particular, nearly twenty years ago, when I was a very busy Head of Department teaching in London, I thought a lot about time.  School days were long, it was a busy school with lots of events and then added onto that travelling to and from school, time seemed to disappear quite easily.  I came across a book called ‘Ten Thoughts about Time’ by the Swedish physicist and philosopher Bodil Jonsson.  Probably one of things that had attracted me to the book was the connection to Alice in Wonderland.  The cover then featured the White Rabbit who, like many teachers, spends they existence running around chasing time.  The next thing that appealed to me about Jonsson’s approach was that he said we had to begin our thinking about time by not being so ‘depressed about it’.  Certainly the years since I first read his book have brought a focus on growth mindsets and now it makes even more sense to apply this to our thinking about time.  If you think you will never come to the end of your To Do list then you probably never will.  If you think you won’t have enough time to achieve work/life balance then you will probably end up being right.  Negativity about time can eat away at you and with current focus on staff well-being it is important to recognise the damage that this can do to you.  Much to my delight Jonsson quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer (see my blog on Bonhoeffer here) on the power of optimism.  If Bonhoeffer can write this as he was imprisoned awaiting his execution it is a challenge to all of us about our ability to be positive about time.

In essence, optimism is not an evaluation of a given situation, but a life-force.  A force that enables you to hope when others have resigned and gives you strength to endure disappointments.  A force that will not let go of the future and leave it hands of the pessimists, but annexes it in the name of hope. (p156f, Jonsson, 1999)

Jonsson goes on to categorise time and gives many practical approaches to developing a better relationship with time, for example, thinking about ‘set up time’, ‘thinking time’ and how we like to sometimes work with divided time and at other points prefer undivided time.  I would warmly recommend this book still today, nearly twenty years later, as a thought provoking guide to aid reflection on how we use time.  When I first read the book it did not stay as a nice set of interesting ideas, instead I applied them to my context, taking into account the kind of person I was and how I felt about time.  For example I am definitely a morning person, my brain functions far more efficiently earlier in the day.  I’m afraid I could never be someone marking into the wee small hours because it would look like a child’s scribble across the page, so I looked at how i was using my day.  The book also made me consider the value of thinking time, especially at times when we feel we have no control over our day, for example invigilation!

The bigger impact of reading the book at that time was that I was one of the school’s timetablers and I realised that perhaps the timetable itself was something that could take account of the differences amongst teachers.  I was lucky to learn how to do timetabling from scratch from an expert (thank you Helen!) and we used software to aid our thinking and not the other way round.  This is something I am going to speak about more in depth at the @Dragonfly_Edu Independent Schools’ Conference – 9 November 2016 at @EpsomCollegeUK (https://t.co/gMFxYK9LHe – this should be an amazing day and really good value for money in terms of INSET – ask me about a discount too at @imisschalk).  Even if you have never been a timetabler yourself I think its vital for Senior Leaders or those aspiring to leadership to understand the process, as it still one of the best ways to get to grips with the workings of a school.  Not least because it is through that process you have a clear understanding of the financial cost of time in schools.

Finally something everyone appreciates in schools is when people make time for you especially when we recognise its rarity as a commodity.  Feedback is more meaningful, thanks feels more sincere, listening is more valued.  To be the recipient of someone spending time with you can make a difference to our own development and progress as teachers.  Sometimes wasting time can be just the tonic you need in our stressful world.  There is so much to consider when it comes to our own thoughts about time.  Don’t miss out on the benefits of pausing to reflect on what time means to you because you are the white rabbit running around in a state of perpetual lateness.  Or to put it another way:

Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity. Jean de La Bruyère

I hope to be able to share more thoughts about time with some of you at Epsom College and the Dragonfly conference in November!

Jonsson, B (1999), Ten Thoughts about Time, Robinson, London

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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.

How do ‘Back to School’ signs make you feel?

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One thing you can be certain of is that, within seconds of schools breaking up, shops will be taken over by huge advertising campaigns proclaiming that we should all be thinking about going ‘Back to School’. What this means in reality is piles of neat white socks, Teflon coated indestructible trousers and pinafores, endless rows of new highlighter configurations and, of course, new ranges of pencil cases, my bet for this year – Minion inspired yellow will feature heavily. But how does it all make you feel?

Perhaps you are a parent and have managed to switch roles smoothly, thinking only now about the needs of your own offspring for the next impending year. Perhaps you wave an angry fist at the advertising hoardings berating them for stealing the joy of those early days of summer from tired teachers, ‘just let me have my five minutes of freedom!’ Perhaps you are one of those creatures who has already put the stresses of a frantic summer term behind you, a now distant memory and you already gain a heady sense of anticipation about all the wondrous possibilities of the new academic year.

Maybe the signs cause a sense of queasiness thinking about the big hurdles between now and the start of September – results days. Will you achieve your goals, will the students get where they want to go. ‘Back to School’ signs often prompt the teaching equivalent of resolutions, whilst thinking about the academic year ahead. What must I do to improve; what changes do I intend to make? This is particularly true if the prospect of another year at the chalkface causes butterflies in the stomach – good or bad ones. These are some of the ‘Back to School intentions I have had over the years.

  1. I will not get behind on marking. Interesting one this, given our political leader’s instruction to not do it after 5pm (but to focus on teaching more – I mean if marking has nothing to do with your teaching, surely you know you’re in trouble!). Personally, I have found that a teacher must respond to their own body clock about this. If you are late-into-the-night person, then that can work for you. I haven’t been, hence I often had early starts & other strategies to try not to fall behind. This is an area where teachers can get their own kind of ‘teacher’s block’. Marking becomes harder to do the longer you leave it. Eventually it becomes a giant monster blocking your path, the black cloud that lingers and impossible to ignore. Along with picking the right time, making sure you don’t do the – I’ll do this first because I like this set and it’s easier- route. Personally I think that’s a big mistake, because you have to face the hard stuff sooner or later. I found that if I imposed the discipline of chronology on it, it at least began to chip at the teacher’s block before it took hold.
  2. I will not have an untidy desk/pigeon hole/inbox. This is an area which often reflects the teacher’s character. I’m sure we’ve all heard people say, ‘My desk is untidy, because I’m generally an untidy person!’ There is undoubtedly truth in this, but I found it often just became my excuse. Personally I tend to ‘nest’ – I will happily build piles of paper/debris/rubbish around me, claiming I might need it shortly. I’m not a neat person, but because of that I had to keep a clean desk, because I knew if I gave that notion even a moment to take hold I would have piles of rubbish permanently covering my desk. So, every night I would temporarily clear my work-space/desk, because coming into a clean desk is far less depressing. The same went for pigeon holes – clogging up with endless bulk mailings. So I forced myself to clear it once a week, if possible on a Friday so that coming in on Monday morning was that little bit easier. Didn’t always happen, but was great when it did.
  3. My lessons will be amazing. We tend to review the year and reflect on the highs and the lows, the real achievements we have made and those frustrating brick walls we have faced. The reality is that some of our lessons will be amazing, lots we hope, but it’s worth remembering it takes two, or in a teacher’s case about 30 to tango. An amazing lesson is about synchronicity. Sometimes everything clicks into place and our amazing planning, activities, resources and assessment works. Other times it doesn’t and that’s not always down to us – let’s face it, it could be something as simple as the weather being a bit blustery. Intention and planning can be amazing, and hopefully it will work, but we can still learn a lot about our classes and ourselves when it doesn’t so we should cut ourselves some slack.
  4. I will keep up to date with what’s happening in education. Well if you’re reading this then you are probably already doing one of the best ways to make this happen – using Twitter. Someone once told me you should always have more followers than follow people, but I’ve never managed that. There are always so many interesting accounts to follow, from the headliners to many teachers sharing their resources and displays. Keeping up with the headlines is fairly easy to do via Twitter, but look out for the people who don’t appear on every #ff list, because there are some amazing accounts, blogs, pictures, experiences out there.  If you are a leader and want to dip your toe in the whole research stuff that is going on then I whole heartedly recommend joining BELMAS (British Educational Leadership, Management & Administration Society). The first year is FREE to join and you get two different research journals sent to you during the year (10 a year!), you get book discounts and you attend one of the warmest, friendliest conferences (organised by the wonderful @DrMeganCrawford), which overlaps with a #SLTeachmeet! Where else would I have been able to discuss #WomenEd with the amazing Vivienne Porritt (@LCLL_Director), female leadership in Cyprus, becoming a Headteacher in Chile, the perils of Social Media for leaders (@plurivocal), and Ethics in leadership with the brilliant Rob Campbell (@robcampbe11). Someone recommended it to me when I first took on a leadership post and it’s the real deal, genuine collaboration between research and schools. 
  5. I will have a life outside school. This is something I’ve always been passionate about. We know people who sign up to a lot, not just the classroom stuff, but it’s so important to protect the non teaching bit of your life. I’ve admired the whole #teacher5aday trend on Twitter as teachers at all levels share their time off with others. Our emotional well being is so important for us to function well in the classroom and with colleagues. If things are not right, talk to someone. As a deputy I took the care of staff as a major part of my role and would like to think they knew they could come and talk whenever. Sometimes I think the phrase work/life balance has been hijacked to mean being a parent to your children. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that’s essential, but I think we sometimes reduce the word ‘life’ in that phrase. It’s about our lives, whatever path we have taken, our identities and its that I believe needs looking after, because our school communities can be so overwhelming that we lose sight of that.

My list isn’t comprehensive and it most certainly isn’t true for everyone, I’m certainly not telling people what to do!  I love the good intentions of September, even if it gets hard as Autumn slips into Winter. However it’s worth noting that reaction to the next ‘Back to School’ ad you see. How do they make you feel and perhaps more importantly why. Do they make you think over your resolutions? Butterflies are always a good thing when September approaches, so if you’re a PGCEr or NQT starting out with a tummy full of them do not fear, because I think it’s a good sign. I have them still after over twenty years as a teacher. What’s on your list of good intentions for the next academic year?

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?

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I want to Continue to Develop Professionally: one teacher’s learning journey

Teachers don’t come out of a box labelled ‘Teach20131115-121424.jpger’. We take a long journey, some longer than others, but still a journey. For many of us it begins with school and with the way in which we were taught ourselves. Either we were lucky enough to have some inspirational teachers who nudged and encouraged us along paths that were new and challenging to us. Or alternatively we had terrible, terrifying experiences that gave us clear ideas about how not to do things and therefore made us think that if we were a teacher we would definitely do things differently.

Next came our degree. Some, lucky enough to know what they wanted to do from early on combined an interest in a particular area with an educational underpinning. The rest of us had a specialism that had become our particular beloved subject. If you work with sixth formers or spent any time with school leavers you’ll know that not all pick their degree subjects out of a deeply held passion for that subject. So it would be interesting to poll colleagues to see just how passionate they were when they came to take their subject. Hopefully, hugely. You come to the end of the degree and do you think, ‘hooray, now I can go and do my teacher training’? Some must do. I’ll be brutally honest, genuinely I wasn’t that sure at all when it came to considering teacher training. A friend working at a university told me to give it a go and if it didn’t work out I would come out of the year with a great qualification. He was right and I was wrong. It was a great move to make, fantastic even.

So now the teacher training. Boy, have we heard some opinions about teacher training of late. I have heard lots of teachers dismiss their PGCE year as inconsequential. I think I must have gone to a really good course with great lecturers (let’s give them a plug – Exeter!) and yes my lecturers were pretty special – including Terence Copley and Ted Wragg, but I definitely think I learnt a lot. If nothing else I thought a lot about things, about what to do if they misbehave, about writing a scheme of work, about how to teach history by building trenches out of tables and chairs (in the days when you had a second subject). I also learnt how hard it was to prepare a million lessons, evaluate them and produce amazing resources every single night. During teaching practices I would meet up at the weekend with a fellow student teacher for soup and bread (financial resources were so limited) and we would encourage each other and commiserate over the latest lesson disasters, ‘oh you had a child faint in your lesson? I can better than, I had a girl cut her hand‘. If nothing else it was practice and people very quickly told us when we did something wrong.

As a senior leader I have been privileged to be able to mentor PGCE trainee teachers through their QTS year. Far from being a waste of a year, it was great to have time to sit and discuss lots of different aspects of teaching, pedagogy and strategies. It’s really tough for PGCE trainee teachers, especially those trying to work a 90% timetable, as their levels of paperwork are huge. Being observed by tough criteria is challenging and I think the process of target setting and checking is a continual process of development. Once you get though the PGCE year there is now the NQT year. I’m so old I didn’t have to do that. It’s quite a frustrating year in some ways if anyone attempts to make it a simple repeat of what has gone before. My last NQT and I kept coming back to the word ‘bespoke’ about what we were trying to achieve. However, I think, depending on the circumstances it is like the process of starting with stabilisers and then taking them off the bike. Someone is there for the few wobbles and occasional crash, but otherwise you’re heading out on your own.

So then you’re on your own. Hopefully, with supportive colleagues, you are still nurtured and encouraged. So how does development continue at this point? Well there has been a lot of flack recently about training away days, but I always liked the space they gave me mentally to listen to an alternative perspective. Even if the trainer did not inspire, it was a different viewpoint or even a reassurance that you’re not doing a bad job. I also ended up organising a national conference for about 200 delegates myself for a few years, and with a small team, we worked for months and months to prepare everything. Ridiculously hard to put on a day for a decent rate that teachers really enjoyed. I know that they are not as fashionable these days, but I still think they are really useful, often because it is an opportunity to tackle a new topic or learn about a new development, but then I would say that.

What has crept up on me is the rise of the Teach Meet – a wondrous phenomenon of the sharing of good practice. Something that senior leadership teams ideally should have been encouraging throughout. I think Teachmeets are amazing events, not least because it is a chance for teachers to get a pat on the back. If they get positive feedback then it is affirming and pushes you on that you’re doing a good job. It’s basically like a lesson observation without the children, which is where for me it’s limitation lies. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing negative about a Teachmeet, but if possible (and there’s the rub) I think lesson observations are better. Not only do you see the amazing teaching idea and all right it’s only one teacher and one lesson, but you see the interaction, the evolution and adaption of the idea which is ultimately what it is all about. So, personally I think the more you are able to observe lessons, the better, that certainly makes it possible to continue to develop professionally.

As a professional I believe that to continue to develop I want to learn from someone who has studied more than me. It means I read some of the amazing academic texts that are have been published. My understanding of teaching has been transformed through reading giants such as Fullan, De Bono, Holt, Grint, Robinson and Cowley. A school I worked in was forward thinking enough to run extended internal INSET with fantastic experienced leaders that challenged me and opened up whole new worlds of academic study that inspired me to do a Masters degree. For me, that is continuing to develop professionally. If I think about teaching an A level class, I would share peer essays for them to think about potential mistakes, or to understand parallel examples, but I wouldn’t teach a new topic with them. I would encourage students to lead revision seminars to ensure their understanding was correct and to help them understand through teaching, but I wouldn’t ask them to teach a new topic.

We can gain a huge amount from sharing good practice amongst peers, but our learning is about pushing forward, about recognising that there is always more to understand. There is so much more I want to learn on my horizon. I thought it was quite sad when I saw someone on Twitter say that they didn’t know a teacher who had ever read an academic educational journal and then make use of it in the classroom. Through twitter we have access to some amazing articles now and sometimes an article from an incredibly different context can inspire new ideas. I remember coming up with a new curriculum idea after reading about the schools in a tiny fishing town in Newfoundland. That’s an amazing thing about professional development, it creeps up on you when you least expect it. I have been lucky enough to be able to deliver INSET in some schools. I love delivering INSET, not because I can’t teach, or have failed as a teacher, but because I am passionate about communicating ideas and being part of that process that gives teachers head space to continue to develop professionally. So the learning journey continues, it’s an education accumulator. We should always share good practice, but let’s not be afraid of the idea of an expert. There’s already too much ‘us and them’ in education, let’s not make learning from academic educational experts as part of CPD another example of it.

“In order to be a teacher you’ve got to be a student first”

Gary L Francione

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.