Reflections on the first half term (and a bit more) of my fifteenth year – like starting all over again

Albert

I am an avid fan of Tom Sherrington. Before you grab your sick bucket, I think John Tomsett is an incredible leader too. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not the only people on my inspirational teachers on Twitter list as there are so many amazing men and women who are changing the face of education as we know it through the medium of social media, but Tom and John are voices who have a very receptive audience. I’m sure there are many reasons for this but I think it’s important to highlight the fact that, neither of them have had the Marmite effect in the Twittersphere, there is a genuine respect and desire for their opinion. Despite having over fifty years of experience in teaching between them, with many individual successes along the way, they are still very humble individuals who continue to encourage and support teachers far and wide. Their continual self-reflection is what sets them apart from many school leaders (and indeed many teachers). John’s brilliant book This Much I Know has been an excellent benchmark for my own self-reflection and growth as a senior leader. If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest that you do. It can be purchased from Amazon here. However, it is Tom’s blog about his pedagogical to-do list from earlier this year, which can be found here that has been both food for thought at the beginning of this academic year and chicken soup for the soul during the recent half-term break.

John T
A must read

 

When I started in my role as Assistant Headteacher, some of the advice fellow senior leaders gave me included: SLT need to be able to think on their feet, be active as well as proactive and be able to teach off the top of their heads. Five years down the line, I am inclined to agree with the majority of this advice but question the point about teaching off the top of our heads. Perhaps I misinterpreted the suggestion but to me the idea of teaching without prior thought or planning was something I disagreed with. Yes, you need to be able to have such secure subject knowledge that you can respond effectively  to any questions your students may throw at you. However, in my experience, failing to prepare has inevitably resulted in preparing to fail. Furthermore, it is my belief that whatever our role within a school may be, first and foremost we are teachers and the delivery of great teaching is intrinsic to our vocation. However, even though I fundamentally disagree with the premise that lesson preparation is last on the to-do list, I can understand how it begins to slip when faced with other imminent and apparently more important priorities. This is precisely why I was determined to do things differently this year and put the quality of my teaching first…

Starting the year differently

In addition to my personal well-being resolutions, I gave myself some teaching resolutions which would result in a different approach than I have had for the last few academic years. They were:

  1. Emphasise the importance of excellence in everything students and staff do – set the bar high
  2. Develop students’ subject knowledge (grammar – in Trivium speak) and their ability to recall it
  3. Focus on varied and structured practice not edutainment and activities
  4. Revisit my own subject knowledge particularly with the changes to GCSE and A level
  5. Reflect more deeply on topics I have taught for many years, discussing this at length with colleagues and experts outside of the locality

Five tweaks were my starting point as I didn’t want to give myself an unmanageable list or one that I wouldn’t revisit regularly and easily. Furthermore, I wanted to be able to identify which aspects of my practice had the most significant impact on student learning and achievement as well as their contribution towards a whole-school climate for learning.

What have my aspirations looked like in practice?

Excellence

With all of the classes I teach, I spent the first lesson talking about expectations of effort, behaviour and attitude. I generally teach middle-ability students (as we are set in maths) but I have made setting a banned word. The expectation is that all students strive to become excellent mathematicians beyond the scope of any exam syllabus and will work tirelessly to do so. I have continued to revisit standards in all aspects of students’ approach to mathematics: classwork, homework, dialectic (another Triviumism) and rhetoric (in both written and verbal communication), recall, application, presentation and achievement. If the bar isn’t met, students understand that they keep repeating until they do, this could include rewriting a piece of classwork or homework, resitting a test or attending a tutorial after school (I don’t do detentions – a learning based hour is a much more worthwhile use of students’ time). Equally, if students exceed expectations, their efforts are celebrated. Excellence is shared and students work is used to model this. I have found that Amjad Ali’s use of the request a selfie tool (found here) has been effective in raising expectations and changing students’ attitudes towards celebrating their own achievements. Students now request selfies because they can celebrate their achievements with parents and carers.

The attitude of classes has been worth the initial effort that had to be put into expecting excellence as a routine. Professor Barry Hymer talks about initial effort a great deal in his work on metacognitive teaching and how determination is a teacher’s biggest ally. I have noticed that as a result of my dogged determination, the books of the majority of students (we are getting there with the few stragglers) are examples of beauty, pride and excellence. Students are happy to stay for tutorials even on a Friday night because they know that they are improving. The attitude in the classroom exudes confidence, sure we have bad days but generally things are going in the right direction. Test scores are up from the start of the year and the students are committed to proving this against the rest of the cohort in a formal summative setting.

Subject grammar

The all-too-familiar gripe of most secondary mathematics teachers is students’ inability to recall and apply basic number facts. It is always someone else (or something else) to blame. This may be true and it may be the case (I’m much more inclined to think that students today are astute enough to know that they can Google almost anything hence don’t see the purpose in committing anything to memory) however it doesn’t solve the problem and the buck stops with us. With this in mind, I have focused on improving subject knowledge, highlighting and learning key mathematical facts. Giving the students a purpose has unlocked this. Friday has become tryday aka request a test. Every week, a twenty minute, low-stakes test with an emphasis on subject knowledge and application dominates the lesson. There is a pass mark, this is non-negotiable and results in a further after-school tutorial if not met. Tests are derived on the principles outlined by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby in their great book Making Every Lesson Count. Another great purchase (available here). Their blogs encourage a no-nonsense approach to teaching and learning which all teachers would be prudent to follow. In daily practice, I expect students to identify the relevant subject knowledge and explain thoroughly how they have applied it. Sticking to this expectation has resulted in reluctant written communicators being forthcoming with their ideas. The reason for this unrelenting commitment to developing students’ subject knowledge was a lightbulb moment I experienced during conversation with Martin Robinson who explained that “strong subject grammar changes the way you think.” He was right, complaining about a lack of subject knowledge wasn’t going to improve recall and application of it, only commitment and purpose from both teachers and students would.

Practice

As I mentioned earlier, Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s book Making Every Lesson Count is an excellent read for any teacher, whatever the stage in their career. The chapter which focuses on practice was a great stimulus when considering a different approach. Being on the progressive side of the continuum, I have tended to give preference to group work activities. I stand by the belief that group work does have a place in learning but have made a concerted effort in my lessons so far this year to place an emphasis on the importance of individual practice. Here is a great blog on regular retrieval practice from Shaun with some excellent links to further publications.  Using a variety of approaches with an expectation of excellence has been much more effective than I have seen in previous years. As a result of this change in attitude, the climate of the classroom is calmer, individual student work rate has increased as well as occasional group work having a much more professional and focussed feel about it. Students are more comfortable with personal struggle and are willing to put the effort into exploring the own ability to solve problems before giving up or asking someone else. They are developing grit by the bucketful which might be a nice sideline with winter in full flow!

MELC
An ideal present for the teacher in your life!

 

My own subject knowledge

This is one aspect of a teacher’s personal development that can’t be reiterated enough. Having been in senior leadership for a few years now, my focus has been on whole-school issues and away from my own subject. Conversations on Twitter and with newer members of staff in my own school have made me realise just how much I don’t know about current issues within mathematics. I have made a promise to myself to keep up with the latest developments in a subject which I am passionate about. I keenly follow some excellent Tweeters as well as all the mathematical associations and exam boards, I have made links with a number of universities and contacted (through the wonder of Twitter) respected maths teachers and heads of department to share practice. Conversations with our own teachers about mathematics teaching are becoming an integral part or our day. Just ten minutes chat with a brew and a biscuit can have a remarkable impact on what happens in the classroom.

Regular reflection

This goes without saying. Most teachers reflect on a daily basis. Generally we spend our time looking at what has gone wrong in a desperate attempt to make sense of our failure and try to ensure it never happens again. Rather than pay attention to what I perceive as disasters, my focus this year is the minutiae, the things that work well or go ok that never get tweaked because they met or exceeded my expectation. We can always get better, with an emphasis on tweaking to transform everything will improve. I’ll teach surds more effectively (which I think I’m pretty good at now) as well as graph transformations (which I generally dread). It is also much more satisfying to polish rather than rebuild. The disasters need looking at too but perhaps this is when you reach out to other colleagues for help as they might offer you a perspective you hadn’t considered.

Maths graph transformations
An example of good practice and a real talking point shared by an established member of staff which helped me approach transformation of graphs differently

 

A long way to go

Yes it’s only December and I’m fairly optimistic for what is left of the year ahead. I feel my teaching is improving (so you can teach an old dog new tricks) and students are learning more from my lessons. The proof will be in the pudding. Year 11 mock examinations are around the corner which will give me some evidence to assess how effective teaching has been in the first few months of this year. If it’s going well, the emphasis will be on refining what is working, if it doesn’t go according to plan then I’ll take solace in Tom’s latest sentiment Course Correction and realise that I am not alone in my detour. Many of us are in the same boat just trying to make a difference. The important thing is that we try.

Row your boat.JPG

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Are teachers perpetuating the curse of the playground bully?

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When my stepdaughter was fourteen she got into vlogging. She was good at it too. She was engaging in front of the camera, showed a passion for script writing and a flare for editing. She seemed to enjoy the whole creative process. We were incredibly proud of what she was producing, as was she. The vlogs covered issues ranging from growing up as a mixed-race teenage girl, to having same sex parents, to feminism and a nigling worry of growing old alone as a crazy cat lady, among many others. The positive comments made her feel as though her efforts were worthwhile. Feedback suggested that she used humour and satire to address topics that were pertinent to young people. There were things she needed to work on but she knew this and regularly asked followers (and family) for suggestions for improvement. Criticisms were constructive and her work improved. We got over our initial embarrassment at being the butt of a number of her posts and were happy that she was using her time online for something other than Facebook. Her site was gaining hits, she was happy.

Then came the trolling…

A few students from her classes whom she didn’t particularly get on with during the school day got wind of her chosen pastime and decided to participate in the critique of her work. The trouble is, they weren’t interested in her vlogs, they were merely intent on the assassination of her character. The fact that she had given herself (and them) an online stage meant that she was fair game. They used all the usual excuses, they were just trying to establish the facts, if you put your opinions out there then expect to have them challenged, it’s all in the pursuit of the truth, if you can’t take the criticism then don’t post opinions. The list went on and on, becoming more and more personal as time progressed. Amid cruel comments about her physical appearance, her self-righteous attitude and her raving feminist approach, our fourteen year old became very depressed and gave up a hobby that she had thoroughly enjoyed, one which was giving others like her some comfort in their own similar situations. As parents, we took an objective but supportive approach to her predicament. We asked her to consider what she could learn from the experience and encouraged her to be reflective, resilient and to keep on vlogging. She is resilient and reflective but she refused to give way. It was the end of her internet social commentaries, the experience dealt a huge blow to her self-confidence and personal well-being, one which meant she wouldn’t voice her opinions outside of her comfort zone for the foreseeable future. What a shame that she had so much to contribute but was silenced by a continual and unrelenting barrage of abuse disguised as critique.

As a teacher I see children experience this same kind of attitude every day, whether it be in person or as a result of online communication. Generally, the people who do the trolling or bullying describe themselves as telling it like it is or saying what everyone else is thinking or just being honest. This is how they justify cruel behaviours that leave even the most resilient young people feeling broken, alone and alienated. We challenge the behaviours in school, we sanction the perpetrators in a hope that they will learn from their actions and reassure the victims that it is not their fault. We explain the importance of ignoring intimidating behaviour, of not giving in to bullies, of staying strong, of rising above it. We’ve seen the devastation that callous actions can cause and as advocates for young people we do our best to act as protectors and model the behaviours that we want them to adopt…

But do we?

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are educationalists, people who are passionate about teaching, people who care about children. They inspire me to want to be a better teacher. What I do find saddening is the bickering, back-biting and in some cases out-and-out bullying that seems to be rife in the Twittersphere at the moment. Surely this is not the behaviour we would allow to be commonplace in our own schools? Surely as parents we would be horrified if our children were the victims of such cruel words? Surely we would discourage young people from using social media if they were receiving a stream of personal attacks? Surely we would be mortified if any child we were responsible for was participating in such cruel behaviours? And yet, it’s there, among us. Daily. Different victims but generally the same voices. Their defense, to use self-deprecation in order to gain some kind of justification for their scathing attacks I disagree so I’m therefore now using ad hominem?! Is it wrong that I’m just trying to establish the truth?! They trawl their timelines for examples of when they have been badly done to (generally out of the context of an ongoing disagreement). Failing that, there’s always the what qualifies your opinion interjection, the where’s your research to support that discreditation or my particular favourite, my degree’s bigger than your degree card. Are these people actually reading what they are writing or thinking about how they are making the person on the receiving end of their tweets feel? Do they care? They wear the badge of being purveyors of the truth when clearly they are assassins of personality. Certain members of the online community only need log on and tweet about the most innocuous of topics and attract scathing abuse with little or no reason. And yes this happens in some groups of people in the real-world, yes this is a sad fact of life and we need to learn to deal with it but it doesn’t mean it’s right and it’s certainly not ok to let it go unchallenged.

Also, it’s important to look at why you use social media and the internet. It’s a great place to share ideas, offer new perspectives and challenge the way people think by listening and adding to. However, if night after night you’re getting into the same arguments with different people and using the same excuses as to why this is the case then the problem is maybe your approach? Perhaps you may be better suited in a combat class at the local gym because holding on to all that anger is no good for anyone – go let it out. Treat yourself, you’ll feel better!

We are all guilty of gossip at times but we do need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and think about what we are communicating to others. Would we accept it in our professional capacity? Would we be happy for our children to be on the receiving end of such behaviour? Would it be acceptable in the staffroom? Let’s not perpetuate the curse of the schoolyard bully. Let’s rise above it. Perhaps it is time to think about what we want to achieve? Perhaps it’s time to delete that response or comment before it’s shared? Perhaps it is time to model the behaviour we would want to see? Perhaps it is time to take a view through different eyes.