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?

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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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