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?

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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Making your mark

image Well this is my first post so I thought that I would write about making your mark.  This is something that we teachers are in a privileged position to do each year, because we, like the pupils, get a fresh start every new academic year.  I know that I share a keen interest with many teachers in brand new stationery and it means that this is the perfect time of year as shops are busting all over with ‘Back to School’ signs.  Of course shopping centres are full of parents equipping their children with correct Teflon uniform and graffiti resistant pencil cases and the sense of relief of handing their little wonders back to the teachers is tangible.  The newness of a pristine unopened notebook almost makes it worth the return to school in its own right.  I wonder whether you, like me think really carefully about what is going to be on the first few pages.  We all want to start as we mean to go on and if, heaven forbid we make a mistake then we are compelled to rip out (spiral bound) or pull out matching back pages (stapled) in order to have a better go at it.  Just like the students we might remember to write the date on that first day, we might even underline a title.  The first page has so much hope on it it hard to match it to any other moment.

The great thing for staff and pupils alike is that the new term is just like that first page.  It is currently pristine, ready for everyone to make their mark on it.  I have always really emphasised with teachers how important it is to grant pupils the clean slate that comes with every September.  Try to rid yourself of every previously held prejudice, because we all change after a summer holiday.  Even worse, do not take on other people’s prejudices, let the students make their own mark.  I’ve never been a believer in New Year’s resolutions so this is the next best thing, the pristine first page of the new notebook.

Thinking about new schools, or new teachers, or new NQTs.  Well you might think you’re situation is more daunting, but it is even more free.  Your notebook is so pristine that you can create any impression you want.  You can carve out he right way forward for you.    It’s the notebook equivalent of getting to use a fancy gel pen…even better.  Summer holidays are ace.  I would hate to lose them.  They are long enough for adventures, long enough for bad memories to disappear into a hazy hot afternoon.  Everyone has the chance to make their mark with a new term.  The point of blogging for me? To make my mark.  To take time to think, reflect and hopefully encourage others to take a moment to share that.  We shall see.  At this point, it’s all good.

“Birds flying high…you know how I feel…sun in the sky…you know how I feel…reeds drifting on by you know how I feel…it’s a new dawn It’s a new day…it’s a new life for me & I’m feeling good” Nina Simone