What advice would I give to my younger self?

I was asked this the other day by @memneon as I was musing about the fact I had so few lessons less to teach. It really got me thinking and I completely failed to give him any adequate response.

Here are my thoughts on classroom management:

  • Establish really strong routines right from day one. Don’t take any nonsense. Don’t give an inch. Be relentlessly consistent.
  • Learn back to front the school behaviour policy. Test it out on colleagues. Roll play different scenarios to learn how to handle them calmly and with authority.
  • Shout less (stopped doing this a few years ago but did far too much earlier in my career).
  • Pause more. Give students time to think and process, then test their understanding with good quality whole class feedback.
  • Say what is needed. Don’t be afraid of talking for longer than you planned to ensure a class understands what you are teaching.
  • Talk more slowly. Teachers who talk too fast will never get the whole class to understand a concept.
  • Equally don’t waffle. Keep it concise. Pause. Repeat key points where needed.
  • Talk with authority. You are the expert in the room. Students need to listen to you to get better.
  • Don’t be afraid to throw out the lesson plan if the class just aren’t getting it.
  • Go and see others teach, then talk to them afterwards about the what they did. Do this often. It is one of the best ways to learn your craft.
  • Don’t change routines to try and get a class on your side. This rarely works and smudges the boundaries.
  • Focus relentlessly on good modelling in the classroom.  Model good behaviour. Model good written maths. Model how to set out their work. Model respectful discussions. Model good use of language. Model good use of subject specific vocabulary.  Model everything.
  • Always meet and greet at the door (if you can). Learn their names and welcome them.
  • Be the same every day. If children know what to expect then they will feel safe in your classroom.

Other advice:

  • Make friends with the cleaner, site team, reprographics team, and all members of the admin team.  Without them the school falls apart. They are the glue that holds the school together.
  • Make friends with the rest of your department/team.  Working as part of a great supportive team can make the difference between a bad and a good day.
  • Do your best to follow the systems in school. Systems help to keep the school moving forwards.  Equally don’t worry if sometimes this slips. It happens.
  • You are entitled contractually to a work life balance, and Heads are mandated to provide one in the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document. Make sure you have one.
  • Try not to take work home every night. Having some down time each week is important.
  • Don’t feel guilty about having down time.  Ever.
  • Keep at least one day at the weekend work free.
  • If you are struggling TELL SOMEONE. You are entitled to support when life throws a few hurdles at you.
  • Work to live. Don’t live to work. This is not healthy. It only leads to one thing in my experience.

And finally, some sage advice:

  • Not everyone on staff have the motivation that it is all about the students.  Some are all about themselves. Watch out for them. They will trample on you if they need to.
  • Watch out for the ambitious ones. They too will trample on you if they need to. Be careful what you say around them as it will get back to the boss and will be twisted on the way like a game of chinese whispers.
  • Join a union. Make sure you know who your union rep is, and don’t be afraid of seeking them out for advice.
  • Look out for hypocritical leadership. Leaders who implement policies then don’t follow them in their own practice need to be called out for it.
  • Be cautious about how strongly you argue your point. There are people who will use this against you. These people are snakes and cannot be trusted.
  • It is not a badge of honour to never have a day off.
  • It is not a badge of honour to do more hours than anyone else.
  • Your health matters. Don’t put off seeing a Doctor because you don’t want to leave cover for a class.
  • You must look after yourself. Better to take one day off to beat the illness than have to take a week off because you pushed yourself too far.

Trust – where has it gone?

This brief blog is in response to a tweet seen earlier that @rogershistory tweeted:

This sort of thing really winds me up. I mean gets be actually angry about what is happening in some of our schools.  Ultimately it boils down to one simple thing:

TRUST

A policy such as this is put in place by an SLT that no longer (if they ever did) trusts their teachers to perform their role in line with the teacher standards.  This is a reactionary policy in response to either a Local Authority visit where concerns were highlighted about consistency of feedback and it was raised as a red flag in a period where OFSTED are due at any time, or worse, it is in response to an OFSTED inspection where feedback is highlighted as an area needing attention.

I’ve been increasingly asking the question of when did senior leadership teams stop trusting their staff and embark on systems and processes such as this that are purely there for a draconian purpose to trap the small number of teachers who are not regularly marking their books?  Who is to blame for all this nonsense?  Unfortunately I’m left with only a couple of possible answers.

  1. The Heads themselves – some headteachers are simply not up to the job.  They have been over promoted, accelerated through the ranks without taking the time to really learn about leadership and management. They forget that to build successful teams you need to have good relationships based on mutual trust and respect.
  2. Governors – effective governance is all about being a “critical friend” to the leadership of the school.  They are there to support and encourage, but also to ask hard questions and hold the staff to account.  This does include having one eye on workload management for teachers and leadership. Governors need to have a constant eye on new initiatives to ensure that the demands on an already overworked teaching workforce are not exacerbated by an over-zealous SLT who initiate changes in policy off the cuff without little or no thought about how their teachers are going to put it into practice.  Governors need to have regular meetings with staff through a staff forum or similar, as well as effective whistleblowing procedures where policies that significantly impact on their ability to be effective in the classroom as well as maintain any form of work-life balance can be red-flagged without putting them at risk.
  3. OFSTED – a huge amount of trust has been lost over time and systems of measuring impact been demanded by SLTs over many years as part of chasing a “Good” or better OFSTED rating.  Numerous frameworks have come and gone, and I have worked through somewhere approaching 10 inspections in my career. They all are constantly looking for evidence of policies being consistently applied, of impact, of consistent whole school data tracking to show progress, etc. This historic drive to find evidence for everything, and SLT creating ever more numerous systems and procedures (and no end of fancy spreadsheets) to track it all have added almost exponentially to workload over the last decade.
  4. Government through the accountability culture that has built up over schools since the 90s and made worse by both Conservative and Labour Governments.  Accountability measures are the key driver of the need for schools to measure impact of everything in order to support with moving schools up the league tables, beating other local schools, being in the “top 25% of schools” etc.

Thankfully there is an increasingly vocal profession that is fighting against this sort of oppressive regime. More teachers are prepared to call “bullshit” on these kind of practices. We need to continue to be brave and stand up against policies such as this.

A headteacher I know often uses the phrase – “a teachers day is already full up like a glass. If we are going to add something for them to do, we need to take something else away”.

Policies like the one Tom cited are utterly contemptible. They show a deeply worrying lack of consideration of workload implications.  They show a complete lack of awareness of increasing levels of research that show that the most impactful feedback is instant and verbal.  They show a complete disregard for the differences of the subjects taught in school and that effective feedback can look quite different depending on subject is being taught.

Ultimately, they show a complete lack of TRUST in the staff they lead.

Supporting Subject Leaders in Primary Schools (part 1)

As a primary governor and teacher who is passionate about reducing workload and improving work life balance for teachers I’m looking more closely at how schools can support more effectively subject leaders to fulfil their role and have an impact on school improvement without an excessive increase in their workload.

To help I ran 4 polls:

The results were actually quite distressing to read.

With over 1000 replies, only 28% of primary teachers are paid a TLR for being a subject leader.

Almost two thirds of those who replied to poll 2 don’t have any allocated time to fulfil their leadership role.

90% of responses thought that primary subject leaders should get allocated leadership time.

Just over half of responses felt that a fortnightly allocation of management time would be appropriate for subject leaders.

I then followed it up with another poll as a result of a tweet I received with two paragraphs from the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document (Sept 2019)-

Management time
52.6. A teacher with leadership or management responsibilities is entitled, so far as is
reasonably practicable, to a reasonable amount of time during school sessions for
the purpose of discharging those responsibilities.

Section 3 – Guidance for Local Authorities, School Leaders, School Teachers and Governing Bodies of Maintained Schools

Allowances and other payments TLR payments (paragraph 20)

48. Teachers are expected to contribute, both orally and in writing as appropriate, to
curriculum development by sharing their professional expertise with colleagues
and advising on effective practice. This does not mean that they can be expected
to take on the responsibility of, and accountability for, a subject area or to manage
other teachers without appropriate additional payment. Responsibilities of this
nature should be part of a post that is in the leadership group or linked to a post
which attracts a TLR1 or TLR2 on the basis set out in paragraph 20.

The poll showed this:

This appears to suggest that a significant number of subject leaders in primary schools are not currently being paid a TLR but are being held accountable for the subject that they lead through the performance management process.

Part 2 of this blog will suggest some possible strategies that schools of varying sizes might be able to employ to support their middle leaders to drive improvement in their schools.

If you have any suggestions of strategies that work in your setting then please comment on this blog.

Why teaching is no longer the path for me (at least for a while anyway)

So it’s finally time to confirm that I’ve handed in my notice. My final day of teaching is Wednesday 23rd October. I start a new job outside of teaching on the 1st November.

The big question is – what has driven me to turn my back on a career that I have invested  pretty much 25 years in, that I have loved (and still do love some of it), and that has been a huge privilege to work with some of the best young people?

I am not a teacher who chose to do a PGCE after my degree to try teaching out.  I wanted to be a teacher from the age of 17. I did a 4 year BSc(Ed) course at St. Luke’s School of Education, University of Exeter and after a sabbatical year started my first job in Sept 2002 in a fantastic maths department in a school in Surrey. I was blessed with a brilliant mentor and the most amazing Head of Department who was (and still is) a huge inspiration to me.

Very early on, my fiancee (now wife) and I quickly realised that the job was at times all consuming (She is a primary teacher). At the end of year 2 we decided that before we got married we needed to see the world in order to re-align our priorities and “work to live” not “live to work”.  We had an amazing 6 months travelling then came home, got married and relocated to Wiltshire.

My first role as a 2nd in maths was a bit of a mixed bag. Some really horrific times where I doubted if this job was for me, and some amazing highs. I met a deputy head who was the most inspiring person who spurred me on when times were hard and worked with some great teachers in other departments who I am still in contact with now.

I moved to another school after 5 years for another 2nd role and after a further year took up my first Head of Department role.  Wow!  Nothing, not even the NCSL Middle Leadership training I did could have prepared me for what was involved in running your own team.  That 5 1/2 years at times were a blur. Some huge achievements both for me personally and for my team. Some more huge lows, including a couple of calls to Union reps for issues that required their support.  After some major issues with some questionable management practices that I won’t go into here I moved to the school I am now leaving.

The change couldn’t have been more different. The school helped me to fall in love with teaching again.  I re-discovered what teaching a class of enthusiastic, focused, well behaved, motivated young people felt like.  I could focus again on pedagogy rather than constantly fire-fighting. I was leading a fantastic team that was on a par with the first department I worked with, and I was working for a Headteacher who had a clarity of vision that I hadn’t seen before and I could see myself working for her and the school for many years.

During this journey into management we had endured numerous curriculum re-writes, OFSTED framework changes, changes in governments, numerous changes of Education Secretaries, and the national picture was constantly changing.  There was also the issue of a lack of pay rise since 2010.  These constant changes meant more work, but with an ever decreasing (in real terms) salary. Doing more for less.

The pressure to deliver results in a maths team is something that unless you have taught maths, english, or science at secondary level you simply cannot understand what it requires of you.  This pressure over the 7 years as a middle leader made me have to chose between my own children, and the children in the school(s) I was working in.  My children are now 11 and 8.  When you hear phrases come out of their mouths like “Daddy never laughs” and “why is Daddy always sad” your heart breaks.  When you come home and within 5 minutes you are telling them off because you are so stressed after work that you are like a coiled spring. When everything becomes hard to get done because the huge levels of stress is making you so tired from lack of sleep, unable to concentrate, getting you to the point where you are unwell, unable to exercise due to injuries that are likely to have been exacerbated by stress, and going to see your doctor due to the impact of extreme stress on your health, you realise that something has to change.

I reached this point in February this year.

It was time to make a change.  Time to make a choice.  My family v the children in my classroom.

The job had got to the point where it was simply impossible to be the sort of husband and father I wanted to be, as well as the kind of teacher and leader I wanted to be.  I loved both of them.  But there was no longer room in my life to be able to do both. One had to go.  It was a simple choice where there was only going to be one winner.

So I got in touch with one of my oldest friends who agreed to help me write a CV for the first time in nearly 20 years.  After spending my entire Easter holiday getting it done it was sent to some companies to see if there were any posts available.

In early May I was contacted by a company and called to interview. I heard before May half term that they’d like to offer me a role leading a team of people and I accepted. At this point I spoke to my Head and informed her that I had accepted another job and would be resigning.  I was however unable to formally resign as I needed to negotiate a start date.

When I was finally able to resign I left my Head’s office and cried. The only feeling I can compare it to was when my Grandparents passed. It genuinely felt like I was grieving. I was losing something that I had invested 24 years into. I’d given blood, sweat, tears, and every possible emotion you can imagine to this life.

The day after was a Friday. I came to work feeling lighter. I felt less stressed than I had for months, probably years. I went home that weekend and enjoyed myself with my children. The first time I’d felt able to do this for longer than I wish to remember. I laughed. Actually laughed with my boys. I played cricket in the garden. Watched them in their squash lesson. Smiled without it being forced. Relaxed. I mean actually relaxed. I didn’t do any work at all.

It’s now a few weeks since I resigned.  I’m finally getting excited about what I’m moving on to. I’m relaxing at home. Enjoying being a Dad. Working hard to be a much better husband. The house is less stressed. I am less stressed.

All of this makes me realise that I have made the right decision.

I’ll still be involved in education. I’m going to be doing some maths tutoring. I’m a primary school governor and hope to get much more involved in this over the coming years. I’m still going to attend conferences and hope to be accepted to speak at some too. I still feel that I have much to offer education, but am going to do it from a position of a former teacher.

Results Day

Ok, a quick blog of what I’ll be doing tomorrow for #GCSEResultsDay2019.

  1. celebrate the success of my students.  Regardless of what else needs to be done with the results this is the absolute priority.  They’ve worked for 5 years to get to this point and deserve to be congratulated (or commiserated for some).
  2. Before going to the area where students will receive their results I will go armed with several printed copies of the grade boundaries (not released until 6am tomorrow).  A copy for me, one for every maths teacher that is there, and a couple of spares just in case.  This means that those discussions with students who are borderline students can take place immediately.
  3. Get your examinations officer to print out and get signed a script release form if you are with an exam board with a script viewer option. (Pearson Edexcel do which is the board my centre uses). Do not let students leave until this is signed.

    Last year when I tweeted this next bit it wasn’t universally popular due to the workload implications.  Please accept my apologies for this now, but I will be doing this.

  4. Once the students have left the building the hard work begins.  With script viewer I will be downloading scripts for every student who is within 5 marks of the grade above.  I have used this larger than normal gap due to the lack of accuracy of some examiners.  I was able to get a couple of grade changes in the last 2 years for students who were 4 and 5 marks away so I will continue with this.
  5. As I am already an examiner (and I marked paper 2H this Summer), I will be going through the individual scripts with a fine tooth comb.  I will be annotating the scripts with any potential mistakes to see if they are worth appealing.  As it is so expensive to review scripts (if the grade doesn’t change that is), this work is a money saver and also helps with a formal appeal if the request for a remark doesn’t come back with a grade change.
  6. It is important to check the whole paper.  Mistakes from examiners will include giving more marks than they should as well as not giving enough marks.  Hence the warning with any request for remark that marks could go up or down.
  7. The errors I find are generally of two types:
    a) glaringly obvious – unfortunately in spite of their best efforts examiners do make some pretty obvious errors.  It is rare to get an examiner with 100% accuracy, particularly given the interpretation questions.
    b) possible errors – these are more ambiguous and often will involve a second opinion from one of my team.
  8. Once I’ve added up the change in marks and seen who should (in my view) be remarked, I’ll send this request with reasons to my examinations officer and SLT line lead for them to make the final decision.

This work takes time, but it meant that last year I only requested around 20 scripts to be reviewed. I was successful with remarks for about 10 students.  From a list of about 16 or 17 this was an extremely high success rate.

If I didn’t have script viewer then I’ve have requested a lot more with a much lower success rate.  This included students moving from grade 3 to 4 and therefore not having to retake maths, a couple from grade 2 to 3 which meant they could get onto their college course they wanted, and some at grade 6 or higher which meant they could get onto the level 3 qualifications they wanted.

This effort is the final act of my year as a head of department before the new academic year starts.  I don’t just look at grade 3/4, grade 4/5 and grade 6/7.  By looking at every student it sends a message that every student matters, not just those that impact on the headline figures.

Why I’m Feeling Optimistic

Today was the first day back at my school.  Over the Summer there was been a huge amount of work going on, new ICT, moving the department into a new block, sorting/organising/clearing out the old maths store area, thinking about curriculum changes for the next year (and beyond) etc.  I sat this morning for the annual SLT update and setting the vision for the year and felt relaxed but focussed.  I wasn’t stressed about results, or all the work that needed to get done.  I’d even managed to sleep well last night, which for the first day of term is pretty much unheard of!

I sat with my team later in the day, and said the same phrase I’ve said every year that I’ve been a head of department, and this is now the 7th year in that role.  The phrase was “I’m really excited about what we are going to achieve this year”.  I’m sure if you are reading this as a middle or senior leader you will have said this yourself on more than one occasion.  If you are reading this as a non-leader within your school you’ll have probably heard if a fair few times.  For the first time in about 3 years it felt wonderful to actually mean it again.  I am genuinely excited and looking forward to what we are going to achieve this year.  Here are a few reasons why:

  1. We have a crystal clear vision from our SLT about what our core purpose is, and it is simple and easy to remember.  This included a clear message about making sure we as class teachers are able to focus on teaching and learning.
  2. I felt a real sense that everyone within the leadership team at all levels is actually pulling in the same direction.
  3. We are coming off the back of a year when the results across the school were really brilliant, and we spent time this morning celebrating this with loads of rounds of applause for individuals and teams.
  4. I now have a clear vision again of what I want my team to develop this year about our teaching and learning.
  5. I am confident that my team is all pulling together, is supportive, encouraging, focused and is packed full of really good quality teachers.
  6. I have spent time pausing and reflecting on my own teaching, and am focused on what I need to do to improve.
  7. The bigger picture has a secretary of state who is making the right noises about leaving the curriculum alone for a while and focusing on issues like recruitment, retention, work life balance, pay and conditions.
  8. We have an inspectorate that are also changing some of the foci to include things work-life balance.

Over the last 9 months I’ve been searching for my mojo.  I’d lost it for a while.  Changing schools has potentially saved my career, and it is great to be able to start a year with a real feeling of positivity about not just my future, but also that of the team I lead and the students I teach.

If you are not quite feeling it yet, you could perhaps try some of the following:
1) Remember to take some time every day to find that magic moment with a student or colleague that really brightened your day, that gave you that buzz, the butterflies in your stomach.
2) Look for someone you can talk pedagogy with and reflect on how you could improve your teaching in one or two key areas (more than this and it won’t have long term impact).
3) Take time to read, not just for work purposes but to relax and switch off.
4) Make sure you take time for you so that the job we do doesn’t become all consuming.
5) Get to a teaching conference and listen to some of the amazing people who have helped to re-invigorate my love of teaching and inspired me to do better.

I hope all those who read this are able to enjoy a wonderful year in this great profession of ours.

Edutwitter debates – #pausebeforeposting

So I’ve watched and partaken in some of the debates on twitter this half term.  It started with #toiletgate, where apparently teachers who don’t let students go to the toilet during their lessons are some kind of dictators, and those that do are allowing disruption to interrupt learning at every turn.  There was then a twitter storm centred around some educators making comments of a very personal nature about other members of the edutwitter community.  These comments were at best ill advised, and at worst a truly vile invasion of the private lives of fellow educational professionals.

Throughout these and other various spats that have taken place I was left trying to work out why we cannot just debate in a considerate and calm way that promotes mutual respect, and sets an example to the many thousands of young people that we work with every day.

Suddenly today I realised what (at least part of) the problem is, and it reminded me of a part of my leaving speech when I moved schools at Christmas.  A small section of my speech referred to the fact that we cannot subscribe to the ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching. Schools are not exam factories that are a production line of young adults where all their needs are the same.  Not only is every class different, but each of the approx. 30 students in each class are also different.

And this is the problem with debating things on #edutwitter.  Not only are all students and schools slightly different, but every teacher is too.  Some things you can standardise, but the issue is that if all teachers did everything in exactly the same way then what need is there for human teachers anymore?  They might as well roll out the production line of teacher machines and get rid of all those hard working teachers.  Remembering that every teacher is different, that their days might not have all been smooth, that some are more emotional/impulsive/argumentative/antagonistic/repulsive than others explains why we, at times as a profession, seem to struggle with modelling good debating skills on a public forum.

I started engaging in twitter debates on education with a very naive view that all other teachers were polite, would engage in debate respectfully, wouldn’t reduce a disagreement into something like we would see when two teenagers fall out.  How wrong was I?!? Over the last year or two, I have seen some incredibly ugly sides of teachers that I didn’t realise (or perhaps didn’t want to realise) existed.

I want to finish by reflecting on what we say to those children/young adults/adults that we all work with daily when they fall out with each other.  I tend to use phrases like:

“You need to think before you speak”
“If they said that to you how would you have felt?”
“Do you think that going after them was really the best course of action when you were already angry/upset?”
“If you felt upset why didn’t you find someone else to talk it through with rather than going to pick a fight?”
“Perhaps not posting that reply on your social media wasn’t the wisest thing to do!”

and so on…

I think that all those on #edutwitter who wish to engage in sometimes emotive/difficult/challenging debates would do well to remember some of these before posting some of the things that they do.  It just might prevent a discussion from deteriorating into something that you might see on a teenagers social media feed.

At the end of the day, I haven’t met (in person or on social media) a teacher/educator who isn’t in this job for at least some of the same reasons as me – To make a difference; To share a passion for the subject that they teach; To inspire a love of learning in the next generation; To support those who find education/learning a challenge etc.  We would all do well to remember that the next time we get a surge of blood running to our heads and we start to type something that perhaps we should delete before sending.

I suggest a hashtag something like #pausebeforeposting might be a good place to start.