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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The way you make me feel: why teachers’ emotions matter

20140401-150510.jpgIt would be an understatement to say that, on the whole, the morale of teachers is not good. Never in my experience of teaching have I been so aware of so many colleagues considering leaving the profession. This can be for a range of reasons, but many seem connected to the combination of being overworked due to a level of bureaucracy that seems unconnected to pupil progress and also a general sense of being undervalued. I have read comments from numerous teachers who feel that their managers contribute to their despondent feelings. This combined with the public perception that teachers cause problems for parents by striking, or are seen as whinging despite their ‘long holidays’, means that emotion is interwoven into the professional experience of being a teacher these days.

Most teachers, including myself, can recall times when colleagues and managers made us feel terrible. This could be directly, through managers being unfairly critical or disrespectful.   Or  indirectly; the lack of appropriate praise after a big venture, the lack of recognition of the effort that is being put in. Some have argued that teachers need to ‘grow up’ and not be so sensitive about such things, but does it really matter how you feel when you are working as a teacher.  I would argue that it makes all the difference.

There have been some amazing studies over the past few years looking at the importance of emotion as an aspect of educational leadership. Not least the developments of recognising Emotional Intelligence, pioneered by Daniel Goleman. This recognises that some have a better awareness than others of the emotions of other people. It also then goes on to show why you can gain a greater understanding of people through picking up on the emotions of others. The irony is that this work is almost taken for granted as part of teaching when it comes to recognising warning signs with pupils, but can often be sidelined with colleagues. 20140401-150627.jpgMegan Crawford (@DrMeganCrawford) has written a seminal work, ‘Getting to the Heart of Leadership: Emotion & Educational Leadership’ (2009), challenging leaders to reflect on their values and looking at the dynamics of the range of different relationships within school. I suspect her forthcoming book will also pick up this theme as well. Even in the last week my trusty ‘Educational Management Administration and Leadership’ journal from Sage (@Sage_EdResearch), the amazing publication, part of the membership of BELMAS (@Belmasoffice), covers a variety of aspects looking at Educational Leadership and emotion.  All of these references and more suggest there is no reason why leaders should not be reflecting on the emotional dimension of their leadership and in particular the way they make others feel. As an aside here, I would argue strongly against those who suggest that educational research must only be about pupil progress for it to be of any worth or relevance. Here is a case in point where the excellent research being done can have a direct influence on teachers’ working experiences, and therefore indirectly can influence the experience in the classroom.

Despite this work, there are still leaders who feel that they do not need to consider the feelings of their staff, or colleagues who feel it is acceptable to treat others badly in the professional context. Ask most teachers and they will have a ‘horror story’, or two, about something someone has said or done to them, perhaps to undermine them, to belittle, to be unsupportive, to fail to acknowledge their work, or worse still, take credit for others’ work.  We spend countless time in pastoral training sessions recognising the importance of developing listening skills when dealing with pupils and yet very little time and money is invested in staff to develop mentoring skills. Really listening to someone is a skill and one that matters a great deal in education, because we are dealing with people. People are complex, unpredictable, and multi-dimensional.

So what can we do to respond to the problem of low morale. Leader or not, we should be supportive of one another. Even on Twitter with educationalists it is depressing and frustrating when debates turn into point scoring, or worse still, sniping or deriding. Twitter is an opportunity to be supportive of others who are miles away. In schools so many teachers offer practical support through peer observations, through collaboration, sharing of work load, giving time and recognition when others don’t. Emotion doesn’t mean a lack of professionalism, instead it should be embraced as part of an on-going dialogue between teachers. Emotion can make things happen, can prompt a creative force and can reveal truths. Working in a school can be an emotional experience and events can occur that provoke emotional responses, so it’s good to embrace that there will be times when we need to talk. Being able to express our emotions and recognise our own emotional triggers also helps us to recognise that in others. The butterflies at the start of a term is a good thing, caring about the results your pupils get is a sign that it all still matters. Of course, the classroom itself is not necessarily the place to experience a full emotional crisis, but I know that I have benefitted hugely from the support of colleagues when having to deal with something particularly challenging.

Rather than seeing emotion and professionalism as mutually exclusive, we should embrace that our humanity means that emotion has a place in our work.  So even when morale is low we can comfort ourselves with a few of important points. Firstly, that even feeling low is an emotion, that shows we are still passionate, feeling creatures and that can only benefit our work with pupils and alongside colleagues. Secondly, being emotional creatures can help us deal with the nature of our work in education, which is with nurturing and developing the next generation. People are wonderfully complicated and the emotional dimension is an integral part of that. Finally, our terms are intense working experiences and yes we do have holidays and that means the holidays are for living fully to ensure we are well balanced human beings. So I hope everyone has a wonderful Holiday ready for the summer term ahead.

 

It’s time to speak up & say something interesting

20140203-150601.jpgI recently watched a short clip on television that introduced me to The Bechdel Test. This was not something I had heard of before, but was fascinated to discover that it was a very simple test that was applied to films concerning their treatment of women. This was popularised by Allison Bechdel in 1985 and consists of three simple rules:

The film must contain:

  1. Two named women who
  2. Talk to each other
  3. And the topic of their conversation must be about something other than men

Really simple you might think, but when you see some of the films that fail this test it does make you pause for thought. These failing films include recent box office hit, The Wolf of Wall Street, not surprising perhaps, but other films that fail are Slumdog Millionaire, Shrek, The Bourne Identity, Ghostbusters, Wall-E, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Men in Black, Shawshank Redemption, Up and Toy Story. Why don’t these films have a female conversation in them? It could be because the setting wouldn’t allow it, but when you look at the list that doesn’t explain them all. There are many great films that fail this test. Their failure needn’t detract from their greatness, but it is a bit sad when it seems those you made the films thought that women have nothing interesting to say. It reminded me of one scene from Sex and the City where, yes many, many conversations were had about men, but many were not. This one scene had an exasperated Miranda who wanted to share her joy of her new Palm Pilot whilst the others wanted to discuss boyfriends. Is that really all women can talk about?

Whilst watching the latest Celebrity Big Brother I was amazed that the issue of sexism was such a strong theme throughout its run. Whether it was the naive craziness of the Lee Ryan love triangle, with grown women fighting over a very silly man, or the confidence of Luisa which others either found disgusting or threatening. Now I am not condoning all the moral choices that were discussed during the programme, but I was amazed by the way the public hated Linda’s moaning ways and yet were happy to make Jim, who had spent the majority of the programmes bad mouthing many of the women, although all the men were ‘honest’. This seemed to culminate in a heart to heart between Jim and Luisa, which was brilliantly commented on my Allison Woolley (Education Editor from the Guardian) when she said:

@alicewoolley1: Jim telling Luisa she needs to tone herself down and pretend to be less assertive. Classic sexism. #cbb

This just seems to reinforce the idea that women should pipe down. This comes at a time too when I had read a great blog from @Chocotzar (http://chocotzar.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/i-would-if/ ) . She talks about the patriarchy of Teachmeets and of Twitter itself. She touches upon an idea that has been raised before, that not enough women are prepared to speak up on Twitter. There have many well-publicised cases of women being trolled, not just by men, but by other women as well and this is thought to have put many women off from speaking up. This makes me feel very sad and the notion that women have nothing to say or are frightened to speak and I find this far more worrying a prospect than a young girl twerking on a music video award show.

In days when some are remarking on the lack of women role models it is worth taking time to think about which women are speaking up and what are they saying? Any young woman looking for a role model should really look no further than Malala, a young women with plenty to say, all of it inspiring. Great news indeed that she has just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is not the only role model available to young women. In other spheres Jennifer Lawrence is carrying films as the lead taking on strong roles such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a character with a story that is not just about her relationships. Jennifer Lawrence herself has challenged some of the stereotypes wrapped up in the body image of the Hollywood ideal. Lena Dunham also has brought a refreshing depiction of life as a modern young woman. Dunham herself as writer, producer,director and actress should be inspiring young women that if they do not feel that they are being represented to go out and write their own stories.

20140203-152524.jpgI could list the inspirational figures of yesteryear, but as educators we need to lead by example and show what is worth speaking up about today. Whether you agree that the educational world on Twitter is patriarchal or not, it is still worth speaking up,whatever your gender and speak up for positive role models and the beneficial effect they and we can have on young people.

Twitter: our school playground

I was lucky enough to go to a lovely village junior school. There were two playgrounds, one of which was a patchy Tarmac slope with a covered barn-like area at the top end, an extension of a beautiful old building. This covered area, I think housed some PE equipment, but I could have got that wrong. I seem to remember utilising an old vaulting horse as an impromptu stage under there. With a few of my friends we performed lunchtime concerts to the other children. These concerts (fifteen minute events) consisted of songs (Bananarama covers) from our new album (a C90 cassette). Whilst these ‘concerts’ went on, other playtime activities continued as normal, boys played football, girls plaited hair and teachers drank tea. The playground was a world in its own right. It was where historic battles were fought, intergalactic invasions thwarted and romances born, flourished and sadly expired. All the different factions within the school met together, exchanged ideas and settled disputes. Lessons were an unfortunate necessity, a background hum, that got in the way of these important gatherings.

Over recent weeks I have begun to reflect on the similarities between the congregation of pupils in the school playground and the interactions of tweeters on Twitter, particularly those within the educational Twitter community. There are such clear groups that exist within our playground. There are the naughty ones who play up all the time, pulling at the bunches of the pretty girls’ hair, calling them names and sometimes making them cry. The girls shout at them and tell them they are stupid. On Twitter the trolls fulfil this role, playing up to gain attention from everyone. Their behaviour usually works within the boundaries of their virtual playground. Jealousy and ignorance are a potent mix and behind the anonymity of a computer screen, people say things without thinking, forgetting that their fellow tweeters are human beings too. This kind of dehumanisation can also be seen in the actions of the playground bullies.

Playground politics were essentially all about which group you were in, the more popular your group, the more power you wielded and the higher your playground status. Take for example those people of high status. Maybe it was because they had an important role, perhaps they were form captains, milk monitors, or classroom prefects. You couldn’t touch these people, they were the pro’s. The rest of us would just look up to them in admiration. Unless you were in their inner circle they would just be seen from afar. You felt happy if a prefect asked you to move out of the way – suddenly your existence had meaning. Twitter has those top dogs too, in the educational sphere as well, quite often their importance marked by the elusive blue tick. You have been verified! You belong to the upper echelons of our Twitter society. The lowly amongst us sometimes timidly include their Twitter names in the hope that our existence too will be acknowledged – they read what I wrote! My words have meaning!

Not surprisingly there are obvious parallels between the existence of the in-crowd on Twitter and the ones in the playground. Those not in the cool-kids-clique are merely spectators on the outskirts of the exchanges that happen between these holy elite. I have wondered whether there was an equivalent of the Twitter no-no of retweeting praise. Did the in-crowd go around the playground telling everyone how great they were? Perhaps they did, and perhaps that’s why they still do it today. The cool kids of the playground are able to get everything right with, what appears to be, effortless ease. They had the best bags, the sharpest shoes, the coolest coats, not for them the cheapest cagoule from C&A. The really cool kids didn’t have to try to be cool, they just were. Of course this inner circle, both on Twitter and in the playground, generates another group, the wannabes, those that doggedly aspire to be part of that group. They cling on with gritty determination and huge amounts of effort. It makes me think of the months I took trying to persuade my mother that ‘donkey jackets’ were THE thing to wear and not the outfit of choice for dustmen. By the time I had tipped her over the edge into agreement the in-crowd were already pioneering a different fashion trend. Twitter has its effortless tweeters, those that are ahead of the news, making the news, setting the trends and then there are those who are trying to escape their perpetual struggle to do more than just retweet others.

Our choice of words is something that defines our experiences of playground life. The part of the country that I came from had its own language and terminology. I know, I’ve checked with others from other parts. For example, do you know what a ‘jitty‘ is? That time of life is also full of its own meaningful language, so it would be quite natural to chastise another by remarking that they were ‘in a right eggy Jeff‘. These words have the action of giving you an identity, you are part of the crowd, you belong. It is so obviously the case that this is true of Twitter, how some fellow tweeters might laugh should you not know the meaning of ‘twitosphere’. This is true too for the educational tweeters that not only sprinkle tweets with selections from the plethora of educational jargon, but add in a new layer of terminology uniquely formed from mixing education and social media. Language is about belonging, to shamelessly cherry pick from Wittgenstein, ‘don’t ask for the meaning, look for the use’. Twitter newbies, watch and learn, but most importantly get stuck in.

We have already seen there is an elite society built into Twitter, but there are even more ways that the Twitter community echoes the dynamic of the playground politics. Twitter is a world where you can actually nominate tweets to be favourites! It would take a strong, independent soul to deny that it’s rather nice to see that another person has favourited something you said. That moment of recognition has its equivalent in the playground. Can you remember that time when you went out on a limb to say something funny and the kids laughed or better still someone said, ‘that’s funny‘. Oh the sweet acknowledgement!

I’m a great fan of Twitter. I had been on Twitter for a while before I really saw the power that lay in its format. I think it was about the time of the London riots that I realised that Twitter was the best and quickest way to find out what was happening. Needless to say I’m not sure I was always the quickest in the playground to find out what was happening, but as a teacher and deputy, pupils used to wonder at how quickly I knew about the latest ‘news’. Of course, just as it is with the playground, there can be a great deal of misinformation on Twitter and discernment is needed in both arenas. Maybe you too, honestly followed the ‘Boston charity’ that appeared almost instantly after the marathon bombings promising to donate a dollar for every follow, that was quickly shown to be fake. It would be good to say there was more evidence of discernment on grown-up twitter, but recent examples of thoughtlessness, e.g. Tweeters in the public eye chastising Yorkshire schoolgirls, seems to show evidence to the contrary.

What light can this Twitter/playground analogy shed? I think there are lessons for us to learn, perhaps even from the mistakes of playgrounds past. Firstly, Twitter should be an open community and the range of ‘hashtag chats’ does suggest opportunities for sharing. In their schools, teachers genuinely want everyone to be able to be comfortable at break times and lunchtimes. We act swiftly to counteract any sense of intimidation and endeavour to stop bullying. It was not surprising, therefore, to see some teachers step in and challenge recent examples of trolling of school children. Beyond those obvious objections I think the playground might make us remember the outsiders. Those that don’t have a natural ease in the situation but want to be part of the community. It is possible to spot cliques emerging even within the educational Twitter community. There was always a fair bit of showing off in the playground and there certainly can be some of that on Twitter. With the wonderful gift of hindsight we can look back on playground memories and realise just how much we were all the same and at its best I think that this is something that Twitter can show too. Sure there will be private jokes, the in-crowd, the effortless cool kid, the wannabe, but 140 characters is actually a pretty good way to break down those boundaries as well as establish them. I learnt a lot about people, the world and life in general in the playground, I’m pleased the same is true for Twitter too.

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