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.
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:
- Emphasise the importance of excellence in everything students and staff do – set the bar high
- Develop students’ subject knowledge (grammar – in Trivium speak) and their ability to recall it
- Focus on varied and structured practice not edutainment and activities
- Revisit my own subject knowledge particularly with the changes to GCSE and A level
- 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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.