What exactly is a good education? 

With the next Michaela event less than a week away I thought this timely. During the autumn half term break I observed a fellow teacher describe the practice that goes on at the controversial Michaela School in London as sickening and damaging to children. Michaela (and all who sail in her) certainly seems to have a divisive effect among educators, you’re either for or against, part of the cult or desperate to liberate the world from its absurdity. I’m one of the few in the middle. The practices at Michaela don’t sit well with my own philosophy of education but to dismiss their approaches without taking the time to understand how and why would also be at odds with my beliefs, personally I think it important to consider a situation from every angle. I’ve always been keen to understand why, that curiosity has never left me (I’m certain it drove my teachers to distraction) and is one of the reasons that I attended the last Michaela debate (which I wrote about here). Upon meeting a number of its the staff, I found that they were no different from any other teachers I had met. They weren’t the draconian figures critics would have us imagine, they were intelligent people who cared passionately about children and were doing what they felt was best for the community which they served. I guess that’s why I felt the scathing tweets one teacher receieved in response to her show of pride in the school and its students were a little unjust. Aside from that, to behave in an unkind and undignified manner is not really the behaviour we should be promoting in our profession. Ever curious, I attempted to engage in a debate as to how these harsh criticisms of the school had been reached. Sadly to no avail. I was described as “misguided” and stealthily blocked.

Maybe I am misguided? Maybe I should dismiss Michaela for the cult that it is? Or perhaps it is important to draw my own conclusions from an informed position? After all, the concept of dissoi logoi encourages us to make decisions based on careful consideration of all points of view. I’m humble enough to know that I don’t have the answers as to what makes a good education, there are far more intelligent people out there who’ve devoted their life to this question and still not found the silver bullet. I have had my own experience of education though, both as a student and a teacher and I’m under no illusion that my viewpoint will have been skewed by this.

My education was a good one. I was taught well enough to go on to further and then higher study as well as being cared for sincerely by dedicated teams of teachers in both my primary and secondary schools.

 But what if they could have done better?

You see, I was the FSM/PP child. Today I wear that badge like a badge of honour but at school it was more like a mark of shame. My mum worked three jobs to keep us above the bread line and I always felt less of a person when other children would make reference to the grey estate (the council estate where I lived and where my parents, sister and niece still do). Of the 137 students in my year group that left in 1995, a significant number of us went on to study A levels, many continued on to university – a number even going to Russell Group institutions. None to Oxbridge. I’m sure there were many reasons for this. However, in retrospect and with experience on my side, I can confidently say that our lack of knowledge inhibited our opportunities. Somewhere along the line the school made choices, perhaps they made excuses for us because we came from tough backgrounds with low aspirations. The truth is we didn’t know what to aspire to because no one had ever shown us what was out there. It would never have entered my thinking to consider a university like Oxford or Cambridge because they were just for posh people. There was a decision somewhere in the curriculum to teach Daz 4 Zoe rather than Dickens and to teach me enough to go on to study A levels rather than excel in them. 

As a teacher I did the same. Jemma, a brilliantly talented student from a tough background with a tendency to be lazy, was a prime example of this. Jemma was from the same estate as my mum and dad, she was the oldest of three and had to care for her siblings whilst her mum went out to work. Her attendance was not great. She did have a lot on her plate but most of the time she chose not to come in because she knew she was bright enough to get by. Rather than stretching Jemma, we made excuses for her not wanting her or the school results to fail, we continually saved her throughout. Extra classes, coursework catch-up sessions (often after deadlines had passed), staff even did home visits to prepare her for GCSEs in the hope that she would pass. She did, with 8 As and 2 A*s under her belt she went off to a local sixth form college, certain that she was on the path to a better life we felt Jemma was a success story. A few years later whilst out shopping, I came across Jemma working on a till in a discount shop. Making conversation I asked how her further study was going as I had just assumed that university was the natural progression. Jemma swiftly corrected me. She hadn’t gone to university, she hadn’t even completed her A levels. Her reasons? A levels were too hard, there was too much knowledge she didn’t have; stuff she’d missed through absence and stuff that had been deemed redundant on superficial curricula geared to passing tests rather than the promotion deep and long-term learning. Effort had been an issue, she’d become so accustomed to teachers saving her at the last minute that the practices of dedication and determination were alien to her. So when it was her sole responsibility to organise her learning and workload she was completely inept and gave up. She chose the easy option because that’s what we’d taught her to do and the education we’d given her didn’t prepare her beyond the test. We should have been tougher on Jemma (and others like her), we should have expected more and we should have taught her better. 

Many private and grammar schools have programmes of study which go beyond the demands of GCSE and A level specifications, the examinations being almost incidental. They prepare academic students for further study and foster necessary attributes to succeed in these types of environment. This isn’t saying that all students are catered for brilliantly and it certainly isn’t a call for more grammar schools, it’s merely an observation and from which a number of questions:

  1. What can state schools learn from the private sector to increase the social mobility of the working classes? 
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a traditional approach to education and what can we learn from this? 
  3. How can we develop better programmes of study so that we teach the best of what has been to develop more learned, articulate and confident young people?
  4. Can we obtain a best of both approach that serves the vast majority of children in our care, giving them a life of opportunity?
  5. Can a single school offer a curriculum that caters for the needs of all students offering them the opportunity to follow the path which suits them best or do we need different schools for different paths? And if we do, who decides the path of a child, at what point is this decision made and how is it made? 
  6. Can we ever achieve equity in education? 

I’m not professing to have answers but I think that it is worthwhile for any school leader or teacher to consider the questions. When entertaining the notion of how can I make things better we do make things better simply by reflecting and improving the provision in our own classroom, department, school etc. It is difficult to do this when you only look from a single, blinkered perspective.

Often we are blinkered by the constraints of time, external pressure and our position within an organisation. How often do you hear the academic year being compared to a treadmill? And we all know what happens if you try to look left or right when we’re pounding away on that treadmill! So it’s important to press the stop button and take stock of everything else around us as we might be missing out on something much better in our efforts to get to the finish line. 

If I hadn’t have changed schools during my career I would still consider that I was doing what was the best for the children I taught without a second thought. I’d have always made excuses for Jemma because she had a tough life and I’d still continue to make sure those students passed the test to continue onto A levels rather than having a deep and broad knowledge from which true understanding could grow. Listening to the likes of Daisy Christodoulou, Carl Hendrick and Andrew Old in the same forum as Debra Kidd, John Tomsett and David Cameron has given me a more rounded view of education. A fresh perspective doesn’t mean I’ve gone to the dark side of the traditional approach, far from it, but I do see the merits of its philosophy. My experience means that I’ll give my next Jemma a pen when she doesn’t have one but I’ll expect her to bring that pen to every lesson, it means that there’ll be a consequence if she doesn’t do her homework or have equipment, it means that I’ll expect her to copy up work she’s missed because she couldn’t be bothered and it means that I’ll expect more of her than just passing a test because I’m not developing her personal accountability if I don’t have high expectations of her. Tough love in a no excuses culture. A lot like they’re doing at Michaela I presume, they’re just doing it in a different way. Whether their approach is right or wrong only time will tell but conclusions can only be drawn from an informed perspective not from a position of ignorance. Surely a good education is one that opens the door of opportunity not one that perpetuates the cycle of getting what we’ve always got? If we want to develop social mobility we need to expect more from working-class children and give them the tools to exceed expectations. We need to equip our students to excel in any context. Surely this is what a good education is about? 

The importance of debating Michaela

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Despite Tom Sherrington’s humorous claims, Teach First graduates are not part of a cult. Neither are the staff at Michaela School (Tom didn’t suggest this by the way). They are a team of people committed to what they believe in (pretty much like every other teacher I have been fortunate enough to meet) and are behind their Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh one hundred percent. I can see why sceptics would claim Michaela to be a clique, maybe they are niavely confusing a highly effective, tight knit team (the best kind in my opinion – similar to Manchester United in the halcyon days of Alex Ferguson) for something it is not. Events like Debating Michaela are necessary to help cynics like me understand what the school and the people in it stand for as well as broaden our horizons by experiencing some expert orators in action. There will always be haters but it’s difficult to pass an opinion until you’ve experienced something so I’m reserving my judgement for a little longer. Not to worry, this is not another gushing post about how wonderful the school is, I’ll save that to Toby French who has done that much better than I ever could in his blog post following a recent visit. If I’m laying my cards on the table, then I’m happy to say that fundamentally we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, Michaela and I, so even if it is nirvana, it is still probably not the place for me. The purpose of this post is to share how vital it is to look at the world of education from different perspectives in order to form a balanced view.

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The view from our location, simply stunning

Last weekend I visited City Hall. It is both an impressive and imposing building on the South bank of the Thames and quite a way from sunny Bolton! My mission was to see what all the fuss was about by attending Michaela’s second debate: The Rematch. I had planned to go to their previous event, however, due to unforeseen circumstances had to settle for the YouTube catch up clips (which are well worth a watch and available here). When I booked my ticket, my friends, family and work colleagues thought I was mad. Why would you spend money and go in your own time to listen to someone harp on about education? A few years ago, I would have adopted the same attitude, I worked hard enough for the kids when I was in teacher mode so listening to other teachers talk about education would be a busman’s holiday. Funnily enough, Saturday felt like down time, I really enjoyed it. It was also an opportunity to recharge and refocus my enthusiasm when the last big push with Year 11 is needed. An event like Debating Michaela is the secret garden into other worlds, ones you wouldn’t normally experience. The debates were all interesting and the speakers were outstanding. Watching relatively inexperienced (as pointed out by John Tomsett) educationalists go head-to-head against sages of the stage was enthralling to see. Meeting some of the people who inspire me didn’t disappoint either. I’m always dubious of meeting people I admire after a bad experience with Emeli Sandé a few years ago but we won’t go into that (the mental scars are still too raw), it’s safe to say that this didn’t happen here where my educational heroes more than exceeded my expectations. Katharine herself proved throughout the day why she has managed to pull off something quite unique at Michaela. Her infectious personality and no-nonsense approach, tied up in passionate rhetoric is precisely why her team are willing to go over the wall with her.

For me, the day was about so much more than just debate. It encouraged me to challenge my perspective on a number of things which the motions alone would not have done. First and foremostly, I considered my stance on Teach First graduates. I’ve always been somewhat negative about this initiative as I’d felt it was attracting the wrong type of people for the wrong reasons. On what basis had I founded this view? Little more than anecdotal evidence and cognitive bias. What I found from being in an audience strongly weighted in Teach Firsters was that these people are equally as passionate about working with young people as teachers who had taken traditional routes into the profession. In addition to this though, what was noticeably evident were the characteristics that almost all of them displayed: strong subject knowledge, confidence, commitment and tenacity. Looking back at my progressive education I have a lot to thank my teachers for but I can now see that aspects of it were somewhat lacking. I would have benefitted from a broad and rich curriculum steeped in subject knowledge and cultural literacy. Retrospectively, I question whether we were left wanting because of the programmes of study themselves or my teachers’ lack of subject grammar? It is reassuring to know that the children in the care of the TF army (and the generation of teachers who are coming up through the different ITT routes) will not have to worry about this aspect of their learning. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the talent that comes from Teach First and have softened somewhat in my opinion of this initiative as a result of my experience at City Hall.

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The art of debate itself is not something I am accustomed to, neither my educational background nor subject specialism lend themselves to it, so the opportunity to watch the oratorical cut and thrust was a learning experience for me, something which I could take back and develop further with students. I agree with the sentiments of the Michaela ethos that every child deserves every opportunity, I can see how being able to understand the rules of debate and engage confidently gives students another string to their bow. It is also important to learn how people can passionately disagree in a respectful way (a skill that some adults would also benefit from).

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Joining an audience of unfamiliar faces reminded me of what it’s like to be a student at the beginning of term or starting part way through the year. Even as confident as I am, I was nervous and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone. There are established friendships and acquaintances at events like this so it’s important to make everyone feel included just as the whole organisational team did (Barry Smith was a fantastic meeter and greeter). However, once you were in the audience you were on your own. This is where I am eternally grateful to Daisy Christodoulou. We struck up conversation and she made every effort to include me when talking to others. I’m not going to lie, Daisy is an educational hero of mine, achieving so much in such a short space of time, I have the utmost admiration and respect for her. Her book Seven Myths about Education has been one of the biggest influences in my own philosophy of late (I’ve written about this previously here) so her debate was the one I was looking forward to most. Both Daisy and Peter were brilliant. During the debate they argued so eloquently that, had I no bias whatsoever, I would have been almost divided. In fairness, Daisy gave a slightly more compelling argument and I did have a little cognitive bias so it was a done deal.

This brings me onto my next point of learning for the day, cognitive bias. Despite expert execution and convincing arguments to the contrary, my original stance on all of the motions remained unchanged. This was reflected almost unanimously by the rest of the audience which just shows how hard it is to win hearts and minds. The strongest speaker of the day in my opinion was Jonathan Porter but I voted in favour of John Tomsett, choosing to value anecdotes over evidence. Why is this so? Why would my heart over rule my head? I identified with the points Jonathan made, frequently nodding in agreement with his case, yet I still went with some excuses which is ultimately where my own ideology lies, John runs a school with a love over fear ethos which is how I feel all schools should be run. So despite every effort, Jonathan failed to convince me otherwise although I’m sure he won’t be losing any sleep over it as there were plenty of people happily in his camp.

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My unrelenting bias made me think about how we recruit students and staff our schools. Clear vision and purpose are vital. Headteachers have to communicate their ideals effectively and concisely to parents, students and staff (potential and existing). If this is not done well dissent in the ranks will ensue. It’s not about being exclusive, it’s setting out your stall and then giving people choice; your ethos/core purpose will fit with an individual or it won’t, either way is ok but if these individuals find that it doesn’t then perhaps the school is not for them. How much time is spent trying to cajole disgruntled students, parents and staff who want the aspects of the school which suit their needs but aren’t willing to go all in? This was my biggest take away for the day. Katharine and her team have set out their stall. They are professional, warm and welcoming but their way is the Michaela way and it’s not for everyone. People are under no illusions as to who they are as a school. No one is forced to work or study there, everyone has a choice. Rather than condemning something that I know little about I’m keen to know more, take whatever lessons I can and whilst the Michaela way may not work for our school in our setting it does appear to work for them so you can’t help but admire that.

I learned a great deal from Saturday, a great deal about human nature (both from the people who attended and the ones tweeting on the sidelines) and about the importance of different perspectives. Whilst the wonderful speakers didn’t manage to change my opinion, they did manage to get me to consider different viewpoints and accept that whilst I have my bias, it is important to always view the world through different eyes.

My problem with posters (and other stuff)

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Tom Bennett wrote an article in the TES recently which caused a bit of a furore. He wrote about the ineffectiveness and inappropriate use of activities such as hour-long DVDs and poster work. Having read the article (avaliable here) I struggled to understand why both social media and the press went a little wild. Battle lines were drawn and the gloves were off. Generally, the two tribes of progressive and traditional educators were ready to go to war. Tom seemed to be the recipient of some incredibly inappropriate comments which I didn’t expect from the educational community but hey ho, life throws us surprises every day. Obviously, Tom being accustomed to the odd Twitter spat or two, handled any negative press with his usual calm, collected and sometimes impish manner. What I found mildly worrying was the way in which a number of people on social media failed to recognise the line between debate and personal attack. More so the fact that the majority of these people were linked to education, not the behaviour I would want modelled to the children in my care. I have written about perpetuating the curse of the playground bully on social media previously here. The purpose of this blog is not to preach about that topic (those of you who think we should toughen up will breathe a sigh of relief) and Tom has written an equally eloquent piece in this week’s TES about the wonderful ocean of EduTwitter which welcomes colourfully passionate debate. I am in complete agreement with Tom on this and I don’t feel the need to fight anyone’s corner. The purpose of this blog is about posters and similar activities.

For those people who have their feet firmly planted in the traditionalist camp, I am your worst nightmare. Eyebrows will be raised now and eyeballs will be rolling at the thought of another progressive cry for an active engagement based, child-centred approach to teaching. Again, not the purpose of my blog today. I’m more likely to frustrate those of you who want to label yourselves as true progressives if you read any further. I’m not going to deny the progressive versus traditional debate but my opinion (for what it’s worth) is that you don’t need to be in one camp or the other, a shark or a jet. You can be a shade of grey and I’m pretty positive that I’m not alone in this view. Before traditionalists and progressive alike are furiously hammering their keyboards to tell me that I’m wrong, you won’t change my mind. So let’s talk about posters….

As far as posters go, I’m with Tom and the trads on this one. My viewpoint doesn’t just stem from my experience in front of classes but from those as a student myself. One of the activities I endured under complete duress was the “let’s create a poster on ..” lesson, I hated the whole torrid affair from start to finish. The reason for my unreasonable bias was my perceived artistic ability, I simply had none. These were the days when BBC Micro computers were all the rage and any graphics you wanted to add were down to your own fair hand. Pictures had to be drawn, one aspect where I was seriously incapable. Did I learn anything from the painstakingly laborious hours of below-par, bubble headlined, badly coloured, A4 offerings? Probably not. My lack of artistic expertise ensured that style over substance was the focus of my efforts. The anxiety of how the finished product would look to my peers was always more important than the content itself. For me as a student, these activities were a waste of my learning time. I didn’t see the point nor did enjoy the experience. I saw it as “downtime”. This was compounded by the timing of the activities, generally used at the end of a term, when a display was needed or if our teacher was absent. Poster work wasn’t seen as “real work”. There was never any kudos given to it, I was never assessed on any of my posters at school (thankfully) and I’m sure the majority of my work was filed under B.

I hate to admit it but as a teacher I’m sure there are plenty of times I have perpetuated this waste of students’ time. Posters being a go to when planning has been poor, energy levels low or classes have been challenging. Not all the time but often enough. Again, I don’t think I’m alone in this admission. That doesn’t mean I don’t use posters now. I do but only when they will have an impact on students’ learning.

In the blur that was my degree, one assessment I remember with clarity was a poster presentation I had to deliver. My vivid memory of this experience was because I was out of my comfort zone. I could do exams, they were my thing, but posters, those bad boys filled me with dread. However, unlike my secondary school experience, on this occasion I excelled. Why? There was a purpose to my efforts. Excellence was modelled and clear expectations were given. Content was key and by this time technology could support the aesthetics. This was the only assessed visual presentation of my three year degree. It was clearly not commonplace. It mattered. I had to raise my game and I had a strong knowledge basis on which to build on.

The other influential factor came early on in my teaching career. My HOD gave me anecdotal evidence (I was young and naive then) about a teacher who was an expert at getting students through GCSE resits. He raved that her extremely impressive success rates were as a result of her approach, posters and practise. I began to look into this notion and the examples of her work with these students supported my HOD’s claims. The posters produced by the students were high quality, topic based, simplistic, clear, relevant and always sporting at least two worked examples and exam style questions. The posters consolidated the 11 years of prior learning. They recapped the subject knowledge succinctly and efficiently. Another suggestion of the miracle working teacher was that students stuck the posters they had produced around their bedrooms and would spend time every night looking over them and committing them to long-term memory. The additional benefit being if they could visualise their bedroom during the exam they would be able to recall the posters and their content.

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Applying a critical, discerning analysis of approaches to teaching and learning is vital. Were the extreme reactions to Tom’s words educationally sound or were they in an effort to jump to the defence of something which was being criticised? Posters do have a place in a number of subjects but when they are ubiquitously associated with downtime across school are we doing a disservice to those subjects where poster work and design are an integral part of the course. The dilution which taking the easy option creates results in a depreciation of their value. Observing creative subjects such as Art, Graphics, Drama, Media and Technologies can be telling. There is so much more given to the worth of the humble poster in these disciplines, there is also a much higher expectation on the design work which students produce in these areas. However, a great deal of teachers’ time is taken changing students’ mindset. The approach that the rest of us take towards this type of activity could go a long way to supporting this shift.

Films, DVDS and videos (for those of us who remember what VHS is – my Year 10 had no idea) are similar tools which have a place. Again, we need to think about how and when they are used. Purpose, impact and effect on learning, not just something to bang on when you’ve a stack of marking to do or an imminent deadline to meet. Being a child of the eighties used to having one film every two weeks from the boot of Video Man’s car (superhero figures in St Helens were thin on the ground) I would gleefully welcome (along with my peers) the sight of the TV and video being wheeled out during English lessons and as an occasional treat at the end of term. Adaptations of texts were used wisely, always after we’d read the text and broken down to be discussed. As equipment was not readily available, you had to wait for the next installment, the build up added to the excitement. If you were watching an end of year film you knew you’d been good, you’d worked hard, you were being rewarded. You sat and watched attentively, silently, even the awful productions (Spring and Port Wine scarred me for life) held your engagement. I was somewhat affronted as a young teacher when “treat films” were not appreciated by the students. As Dylan said “times they are a-changin,” I was offering something that the young people in front of me had in abundance, they could access much more interesting material than I could show them at the touch of a button. There were fifty other good intentioned souls like me with laptops and projectors showing them film after film. So how could I be upset at the lack of excitement when I was the fourth person of the day to suggest that they watch a film? A film which incidentally they would inevitably only watch the first hour of. Films a plenty, there was no treat. DVDs weren’t a reward, they became a distraction from students’ desire to communicate with one another. They would happily talk over the feature and I would regularly threaten them with turning it off as they were spoiling it for anyone that wanted to watch, generally this didn’t phase them as it was only myself and a handful of the class who were paying any attention. The behaviours which become patterns then influence attitudes where the film or play is important on the learning, in English and Drama (among others) where it’s a useful teaching device. I understand now why English teachers everywhere dismay when the rest of us get out Kung Fu Panda and Mean Girls, the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is never going to compete. I very rarely see a film being played as a treat now. Effective use of visual media can be observed across subjects, sparingly for the most impact on learning.

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Tom’s point about wasting students’ time is pertinent, everything they do should be of value. That doesn’t mean we can’t have occasional treat lessons but they should be of worth, earned as a result of hard work not just for the sake of it. Posters can be powerful, their rhetoric can have significant impact so let’s not devalue this with a lack of preparation, purpose or perspective.

Is leadership actually a job for the boys?

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Bette Midler in the 1991 film For The Boys

Altruism has always been a problem of mine and I have to work hard to understand people, particularly teachers who don’t want to make a positive difference on the world around them. I do accept that, for some people, teaching is just a job and I respect that view. My most humble admiration is given to teachers who just want to teach, the people who spend 22 out of 25 hours a week at the chalkface. This is where the difference is made, not from the ivory towers of senior leadership which appears to be decorated in an abundance of non-contact time. I am a senior leader in a school, that is a fact, but I like to pride myself on never losing sight of what it’s like to be a classroom teacher.

For as long as I can remember, seeing the good in others and the desire to work toward a greater good has always been an overwhelming factor in my personal motivation. I guess my (generally) sunny disposition and positive outlook have made me somewhat blind to the prejudices and biases which exist or that I may have unwittingly experienced.  However, my ignorance as a result of personal outlook and experience does not mean that these biases do not exist. Furthermore, it is our role as gatekeepers of future generations to address the imbalances in opportunity which our students may encounter in their lives. Fortune may have favoured us but the children in our care may not have such a positive experience if we allow barriers to exist. This may also be the case for teachers in our care too.

Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion goes a long way to give psychological insight into why prejudices, social and cultural biases develop and grow. Some may conclude that I’ve led a life thus far of privilege, I have. I’m content and feel I’ve had a reasonably successful 36 years on this planet. However, birth rite and personal circumstance could have stacked the odds in favour of a different path. I was the original pupil premium poster girl and when I fill in an equal opportunities form I tend to run out of ink. A Venn diagram of all minority/disadvantaged groups that I could fit into would look like one of those magic eye puzzles which send your eyes funny.

I’m a passionate member of a teaching union and I am saddened that society is more increasingly adopting a self-first approach. The united we stand attitude is on the demise. I don’t agree with everything my union presents as members’ opinions, in fact some of the press releases from them drive me to distraction. There have been bad decisions made at times, which, we have to accept that all members have played a part in. Whether it be through lack of consideration of the matter at hand, abstinence or apathy. As with any high profile organisation, the media has played its part in painting a picture favoured by the direction of the political wind. What has been the result of bad publicity and decisions that have been controversial on its members? Some have chosen to leave, others to criticise publically, others privately, many perhaps to do nothing. Very few members attend regional or national meetings, participate proactively and try to influence change positively. Standing on the side-lines offering opinions, spouting evidence of why incorrect decisions have been made seems a much more favourable past time in society nowadays than actually rolling your sleeves up and mucking in to make things better.

So, let’s get to the point of my ramblings today. The College of Teaching and WomenEd seem to be getting a great deal of bad press on social media. From the off, there have been some damning criticisms of both (some of which have been valid and founded on sound evidence), the majority of which have failed offer any workable suggestions to improve these movements. I don’t know enough about The College of Teaching to give a balanced view so I’d rather focus on the WomenEd movement which I am happy to be part of. Let me be clear that I am not a man-hating feminist who longs for a world where female domination rules and men are no longer needed like in the Two Ronnies’ regular mini-series The Worm that Turned, nor do I agree with everything that is stated by the WomenEd movement. I do believe that, in essence, the ethos of the organisation is to make school leadership better (for both men and women). School leadership which puts the development of people first will surely create a better climate for everyone?
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Sometimes social media can be like a concert where the audience are heckling and chatting are so loud that it makes it difficult to focus on the performance. We’ve all been there, with a group of friends watching an artist whose material you’re unfamiliar with and you’ve only come for the company, so you choose to communicate with your group rather than listen to the person on the stage. Equally, I bet most of us have been on the flip side of that experience, you’ve got tickets to see your favourite artist and all through the gig there’s group of people spoiling it for you by talking and generally acting in a disruptive manner. Either way leads to frustration and an inability to form a balanced opinion of the gig itself.

The blogs and tweets that have been damning the WomenEd movement have been plentiful. They have caused the hairs on the back of my neck to bristle, not because of the male/female issue but more that they swiftly jump to discredit the work of people who want to make things better in an aspect of education which they feel passionate about. Initially these responses caused a knee-jerk reaction from me and I frantically scraped to find evidence to support my emotional response. Surely if I had facts to support my argument then obviously the people whose views I would be challenging would be proved wrong? Perhaps if I used statistical terms and words that would make them feel insecure in their own understanding they would realise the error of their ways and bow to my intellectual prowess? The more anecdotal evidence I found, the more I realised I was supporting precisely the cases I was trying to disprove but my experience of the world is very different to most of my counterparts in school leadership.

I’ve been doing more reading and listening than talking recently, particularly to those whose views may challenge my own. Thanks to David Didau, I’m beginning to entertain the notion that I could occasionally be wrong. David addresses the danger of cognitive bias brilliantly in his book What if everything you knew about education was wrong? and how we can always find evidence to support our own opinion. One of the most vocal critics of WomenEd has been Andrew Old, he has been clear to state that he does not oppose the movement, more the statistics that they have used to support their cause. He has written a series of blogs explaining his point of view here, here and here. This has, in turn, provoked a number of supporting blogs, one of the most recent being from Rory Gribell here. I have to say, I find myself agreeing with some of both bloggers’ points. However, the reality is that some women experience leadership that is very much a man’s world. Not just in respect to their movement into leadership but also in the way they are treated once they are there (and arguably the way in which they sometimes choose to perpetuate this with their own actions). My own observations (which obviously bare no weight because they are not in a table of numbers obtained under controlled conditions) are that leadership teams favour men because “we need good male role models in education”, of policies which favour the recruitment of males if both candidates score the same on interview points, of staff interacting very differently with male headteachers than they do female heads, of people in senior positions in the LA telling female headteachers that they are “beginning to look like a headteacher now”.  I have also experienced bad leadership from both women and men. This is something which the WomenEd movement is keen to prevent and address through better CPD but this honourable plight is being lost in the argument over numbers, facts and statistics. I don’t think anyone would disagree with a move to get school leaders to focus on what really matters? So let’s look at the cause of the outrage:

There is a smaller proportion of women promoted to leadership roles than men.

In an effort to discredit this claim there was a flurry of evidence to the contrary, the workforce survey taken from 2014 was banded about liberally. There was a drilling down of specific groups: primary and secondary etc. to further dismiss claims of imbalance. Then there was the ridiculous argument that leadership should reflect the school population rather than the teaching population, which in itself is an absurd example of how statistics can be used to mislead. Based on the workforce survey, the claims that Andrew makes are founded, however, the data is two years out of date. Maybe some more current data would be useful here since I have known a number of male senior leaders progressing further in the last couple of years and very few female senior leaders. However, I’m still inclined to believe that there are healthy numbers of women in senior leadership if I base my opinion on my own setting. We have a female headteacher (the only female headteacher appointment that I am aware of within our LA in the past twelve months), a senior leadership team that is weighted in favour of females to males 5:1 (including the head). So there isn’t a problem of women in leadership positions from where I’m sitting. Life is rosy. It’s those poor blokes I feel sorry for! However, I’ve said it before, the school I work in is different, very different. We are the anomaly in almost every case. We are unique. I would be a fool to think that we are an accurate representation of the male/female leadership population in secondary schools.

Then there’s the use of a credible organisation like the NASUWT to add support to the case made by both Andrew and Rory. A lovely table is used to show that there is very little difference between male and female promotions “up the leadership ladder”. Some of the examples in the table actually favour women! There’s a couple of issues with the data here: one is sample size, the other is relevance. For example, they found their mean average (which in itself would be a bad choice for the average here) of headteacher interviews attended before appointment from 24 male secondary heads and 27 female secondary heads. This in itself is not a useful sample size and could then beg the question is this a biased sample? What if female members of the NASUWT are more successful than the rest of us? Overall, the secondary sample was 319 for interview and 338 for application. On conservative estimates of my own local authority, we have 16 secondary headteachers and approximately 950 teaching staff, if we then look at all the LAs across the country we then realise that this sample size is not really a realistic representation of the picture. Then there’s relevance, Andrew states that the NASUWT did their survey a “few years back”, it was published in 2010 and copyrighted in 2008. The report is available via Andrew’s blog here if you find yourself encountering insomnia and in need of an alternative to counting sheep anytime soon. If you look back 6 – 8 years in your teaching career, I’m sure you’ll agree that a great deal has happened in that time and professional climate is pretty much unrecognisable from what it was then (the halcyon days where learning styles were still in fashion). Perhaps it would reasonable to challenge the data for its validity in this case? Prudence would suggest to step out of the greenhouse before throwing stones. My preference would be to put the stones down and get my hands dirty by influencing the plants’ growth in the right direction before passing judgement.

As much as it pains me to say it, I agree with the points Andrew makes in his latest blog Is promoting women really the issue? Data can sometimes send us in the wrong direction especially when we apply a whole-sale approach to subsets. David Didau articulates this beautifully in his recollection of the science teacher who continually disproves the SLT-identified issue with evidence to the contrary in What if everything you knew about education was wrong? Andrew sums up his blog by saying:

“Instead of setting up campaigns and organisations to advance the careers of ambitious women, how about we start looking to advance the interests and status of unpromoted classroom teachers, most of whom happen to be women? This should help narrow some of the gender gaps that do exist, but it might also help rebalance our schools, by encouraging less micromanagement, less bureaucracy and better teamwork.”

I find myself in complete agreement with him on raising the profile of the classroom teacher but surely the best way to address this is by having advocates for this movement in a position of influence? I would not describe myself as ambitious, I didn’t start my career wanting to be a headteacher and there’s a large part of me which questions whether I would ever want to be the skipper of a ship weighted with such responsibility. I never wanted to be anything more than a classroom teacher that prepared her students for life as best as she could. There have been points in my career where I understood the limitations of my influence and realised that if I wanted things to change I needed to be proactive and get in there with my sleeves rolled up influencing the change not standing on the side-lines shouting criticisms loudly.

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The truth is, I want to be part of a team investing in the solution not be part of the problem. I don’t have to agree with everything my captain says (I have often disagreed with my headteachers behind closed door) but I have to be proactive if I’m going to make a difference. The will be evidence to support inequality in school leadership, there will be evidence to contradict it. In spending all of our energies debating this we are focussing on the wrong things. Let’s just go to the gig, experience what we’ve come to see without interruption and form our opinions afterwards. Whether we like it or not, these organisations exist so let’s work together to make them better. Don’t stand on the side-lines, be part of a team.

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Radiators, Drains and Palettes of Colour

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Despite what the title might suggest, this is not a blog about my DIY misgivings. To be honest, if I did try to write about my abilities with a hammer, paintbrush or electric drill I think the account would verge on that of a farce. Enough about my lack of technical ability and back to the purpose of this Friday night/Saturday morning act of sharing.

Last week I wrote about the danger of hitting the wall which all teachers go through at least once or twice in an academic year to a lesser or greater extent. You can catch up with my blog here. It was written after a tough couple of weeks for me personally, where the loss of a friend (who died too soon) and my uncle happened in quick succession. As a result of these tumultuous rites of passage, my energy levels were low. Sensing this, I recognised the need to recharge my emotional batteries and put strategies in place to reinvigorate my personal well-being. Coming out the other side of it (the last time I actually felt sad was about 17 years ago), I began to consider other colleagues who, for whatever reason might be hitting their emotional wall and so I decided to share. Writing the blog was somewhat cathartic for me and I started this week determined to continue in an upwards direction.

It’s now Friday and, with one week to go the finish line of half term is most definitely in sight. There is a buzz in our household (despite the onset of various holiday bugs), all being in education in one form or another we are understandably excited at the prospect of a whole week off.

This week has been great! In fact, it has been no different from previous weeks but there has be a distinct difference. That difference has been me. It may be a cliché but you do have a choice as to how you experience life and it ultimately boils down to how you approach your day. I am a natural radiator and have made sure that this week I was on full power (the cold is setting in after all). Going out of my way to share this with other colleagues and students, sensing their emotional levels and being sensitive to their feelings has had a reaffirmingly positive effect. Good working relationships and high energy levels has contributed to the general feeling around school. I’m not naive (nor egocentric) enough to think that it’s just me, I work in a happy school with lovely students and staff so any good intentions resonate around the place, but I can definitely say that having a happier outlook this week has certainly helped me to feel better.
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Another goal that I set myself this week was not to avoid the drains in my life. I’ve written about radiators and drains in my advice to my NQT self previously. It is important for anyone in education to be self aware but it is vital for senior leadership to act as a conduit for positivity whenever faced with a possibly difficult situation or negative environment. To do this when you’re not at the top of your own game can be hard and the tendency of radiators is to avoid drains like the plague. However, in doing so you’re not affecting a change. You’re allowing pockets of negativity to form which can have an adverse effect on us all, especially the children we teach. There is another perspective to consider which may serve to shine some light on the situation. Asking yourself why are these people acting like drains and do they really want to be this way may help to strengthen your approach.

Empathy is a very important aspect of teaching yet often, we become too busy and blinkered to apply it to those around us. Taking time to understand why friends, family and colleagues may be feeling or acting in a certain way will make a difference to their emotional state, it may also give you the opportunity to influence their behaviour in a positive direction. Remember, it is important to balance energy spent with the drains with the time working with radiators though. Your emotional reserves are the priority, a bit of mutual appreciation and positivity goes a long way in keeping the levels up.

Being self aware and socially aware are key aspects of emotional intelligence that I’ve experienced or observed in great leadership. I used to believe that it was innate, you either got people or you didn’t . However, after a great deal of reading around the subject and continual conversations with two very patient heads, I began to consider that everyone can improve their self awareness to some extent. This is a continuous process and takes effort but the benefits of an EI approach to yourself and others are worth it. Yesterday, I watched a TED talk (suggested by our Headteacher to all of the leadership team) which acted as a gentle reminder of the importance of self awareness. It’s worth a watch and can be found here. In addition to self perception it also gave powerful insight into how others may perceive us and highlighted the benefits of being measured when necessary as well as the concept of mirroring where appropriate to put people at ease. Incidentally, I used the suggestions from the talk with a student and noticed their response almost instantaneously. The content wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before in one form or another but it was a timely reminder.

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Taken from Scott Schwefe's TED Talk

For most of us on the last hike to the top of the half term mountain, we are delirious with the prospect of the imminent break and positivity levels are high even if our energy levels are almost gone. It is important that we take time to stop and enjoy the view from the summit (otherwise what’s the point in climbing the mountain) and ask yourself:

How am I feeling?
What are my self perceptions?
What have I achieved this term?
What do I still need to do?
How are others feeling?
What are their perceptions of me?
What can I do to support them to get to the top of their mountain?

It won’t hurt to take a step back and do this, in fact, it will probably ensure everyone reaches half term ready to enjoy the view from the summit. Celebrate what you have achieved with students and staff so far this year, encourage them to do the same. After all, even though our journey is a very personal one, we are all in this together and sometimes a view through different eyes helps us to see just how important our contributions are.
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A World Without Appraisal

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In a world without teacher appraisal would you care any less about the children you teach ? Would you no longer stay after school to support the struggling student?  Would you decide that the school play or the Year 8 football team no longer mattered?  Would the work on evenings,  at weekends and in holidays suddenly come to a halt? Would you stop trying your best? Would you cease to reflect about on teaching?

Appraisal and performance management tend to have little or no bearing on how much we care about students or how hard we try to get it right for them. It can be said that, most teachers try hard in spite of appraisal. They keep giving their time up after school for revision despite the fact that they know some students won’t meet their targets, they continue to contribute to extra-curricular activities even though it isn’t explicit in their appraisal documentation, they come in on a Saturday to contribute to the school community, not to tick a box. Teachers never give up. Even when they know they are not going to meet targets through no fault of their own. Even when every effort is futile, they never lose heart.

So why are we desperately trying to fit passion, enthusiasm and altruism into a box of a system designed with failure and accountability in mind? Paperwork which gets looked at twice a year if we’re lucky? A system where meetings can have detrimental impact on relationships between colleagues rather than strengthen them?

How different would a world without teacher appraisal be?

Perhaps in a world without teacher appraisal there could be honest discussions where teachers don’t waste time communicating between the lines in the fear of venturing into the mine field of capability and unions? Perhaps in a world without appraisal and performance related pay we would nurture intrinsic motivation within staff rather than dangling the carrot or following with a stick? Perhaps in a world without narrow focused targets colleagues would take responsibility for the bigger picture? Perhaps in a world without accountability teachers would be more willing to listen to honest feedback whose soul purpose was to improve the provision for students and nothing more? Perhaps in a world without appraisal teachers would work together to improve outcomes for all students in all aspects of school life? Perhaps in a world without tick boxes we could create a community based on a collective approach rather than being in a culture where an individual need only be concerned with their own class? Perhaps it’s time to take a view through different eyes?

What would you do if, on the first day back the headteacher showed you the school priorities and declared “It’s not about history/maths/English* (*add or delete as appropriate) getting their grades up, it’s about everyone working together to improve the outcomes for students at this school? What can you do to support these subjects in their journey whilst improving the provision for students in your own? What can we all do to develop character in our young people so that they are the change society is crying out for?”
What if the rally cry was genuine and authentic backed up with action to prove it wasn’t just disingenuous rhetoric? The response from every member of the team would be positive. You would sense a feeling of empowerment; of loyalty and dedication to the school and its students; of  determination and motivation; of a continual and collective approach to improving teaching and learning.
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The reality is that most teachers go above and beyond to improve student life chances despite their appraisal targets. Targets which are based on the premise of extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation and have been developed with the worst case scenario in mind. How many teachers do you know that are motivated by money? How many worst case scenarios have you come across in your career? Is there any teacher (good or bad) that you have met who doesnt possess the desire to improve their practice? And for those very negligible few who aren’t cut out for this noble profession, is appraisal and performance management really the best way to address the inadequacies of their personal motivation?

Perhaps it’s time that someone took a view through different eyes? Perhaps it’s time that we caught ’em being good rather than catching ’em being bad? Perhaps it’s time that we shifted the culture from personal accountability (I and you) to collective responsibility  (we and us)?

Perhaps we are entering a time where some leaders are brave enought to say “I already have…..”

Making numeracy across the curriculum magical

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With the volatility of this year’s GCSE mathematics results prominent in the news, the spotlight on numeracy will be shone brightly on many schools this coming academic term. The pressure will be on for colleagues in maths departments up and down the country who are determined to improve students’ understanding and application of the subject. Teaching maths in a secondary setting, I have always felt like the poor relation of my colleagues in the English department, who are given equal, if not more stature within the school. As for the English lessons themselves, they are naturally exciting and diverse. They allow students much more freedom and creativity in their learning, whereas dedicated mathematicians have to work frantically to inspire enthusiasm from our young scholars. We spend hours trying to make interesting resources for Pythagoras’ Theorem that will engage our students whilst imparting the necessary knowledge into their busy, young brains. And we do this in the meagre hope that they will be able to recall and apply said information in formal examinations and, more importantly, in their life after school. We are even guilty of harbouring a crazy notion that some students may actually enjoy our subject. Sadly, we hear all too often the vast numbers of students saying that maths is the worst subject on their timetable. So we as passionate teachers of this amazing natural art, have some difficult times ahead in our efforts to change their attitudes. And, how do those of you who have been tasked with what can be the poisoned chalice of numeracy across the curriculum go about addressing this fixed mindset on a global scale as well as improving the standard of mathematics throughout the school? Well, if I were to take up the mantle again, here are a few things I wish I’d have known:

1. Changing minds is as important as teaching the maths – your biggest challenge will be getting the buy-in. Children will treat maths like Marmite, they will love it or hate it. Their reasons for this will be one of three things; their own ability, the teaching they have experienced or the messages that they have heard from the people they listen to most. Your job is to give students confidence, create a culture of inspiring maths teaching (not just within the maths department) and to counteract any negative publicity that they may have experienced with lots of positive ideas and initiatives!
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2. Accept that this is your crusade and only steely determination will give it momentum – teachers are among the most enthusiastic and supportive groups of people I have ever come across, but they are also the busiest. People will be happy to help, however it is you who will be the driving force by enabling them to do so. Little and often is the best diet to give colleagues. Also, make sure that you have regular conversations with an advocate from SLT; it’s much easier to move things forward if you keep them on side.

3. Start with staff – if you are going to encourage numeracy across the curriculum then you have to support staff with their own mathematics. Breakfast sessions on percentages etc. with coffee and croissants as an incentive are a great way to up-skill colleagues and encourage them to share ideas. Some teachers may not feel comfortable sharing their mathematical inadequacies with the group. Working with those staff on a one-to-one basis can pay bigger dividends in the long run. The conversations that you will have will give you a tremendous insight into their departments and help you to support the numeracy in their subjects; the dialogues will encourage empathy for one another and give you fantastic opportunities to build relationships. This is also something that your colleagues in the maths department can help you with. A clever way to make inroads into other subjects at this time of year is to offer to help with data analysis, you won’t find any non-mathematician declining assistance in such matters!

4. Produce ready-made resources to get departments started – once you’ve talked to teachers and found out the needs of their department, try to give them resources to make the job of delivering numeracy in context easier. A simple idea is to create a folder on the network with questions relevant to their subject. Exam banks are an invaluable tool for this since they have tonnes of in-context questions (particularly for science and technology). Once you’ve started the ball tolling with enthusiastic staff, there will be no stopping them. Encourage these trail-blazers to share ideas with other colleagues, this will give you more time to support the less confident departments. A handbook can be a really good resource but make sure it is useful. Explanations of correct approaches to common calculations can ensure consistency of teaching. Refer back to it regularly at every available opportunity to make sure that it’s not another document gathering dust in the back of stock cupboards across the school. You can reinforce the methods by offering to teach the mathematical aspect of a lesson, that way you can model the teaching whilst minimalising any confusion that students get when learning skills from non-specialists.

5. Work with other schools – in a culture where time is precious, collaboration is the single most difficult thing to do. If you are a secondary teacher then work with your feeder schools; primary colleagues, go and see what’s happening with your students once they start at the local high school. We’ve got a great deal to learn from each other so approach lessons with an open mind. The biggest hurdles for co-ordinators are finding the time to implement ideas and fitting in with the plethora of agendas that schools have to continually contend with. Looking at teaching in early years rather than focusing on year 6 can be an enlightening process and will subject the teacher being observed to less pressure than if you were going to watch an exam class. SLT support here is vital, they are the ones who have the strongest links with other schools and are the people who can free up your time to enable collaboration to take place. Think about the timing of your visits. Cover is at its minimum in late September/early October (and everyone is in better spirits) so you are much more likely to get a positive response to a request in the autumn term than in summer gain time when everyone is preparing for the next academic year and primary schools are busy with enrichment activities. You’re less likely to see formal maths lessons happening in June and July, although there will be some excellent contextual learning taking place at this time.

6. Use form time and assemblies to your advantage – have you ever known a form tutor or head of year decline an offer to kick start their students’ day? Getting into assemblies is a great way to market numeracy across the curriculum as well as raise your own profile within school. Proceed with caution though, only deliver an assembly if you feel confident to do so. If you’re not totally at ease with “numeracy jazz-hands” then enlist the help of more gregarious colleagues to sell the importance of mathematics on a grand scale. An infrequent numeracy newsletter can provide welcome relief for form tutors. Don’t enslave yourself by promising a weekly missal as you just won’t manage it. Instead, use your musings to reinvigorate enthusiasm when you sense interest is waning.
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7. Publicity is everything – use every opportunity to advertise numeracy. Acquire as many display boards as you can. Bold and bright headlines on the school’s website can quickly draw attention as to what’s happening in the mathematical ether. This is where if you’re not creative or technical then you’ll need to be persuasive and have a cupboard filled with chocolate. In my experience, TAs are the most creative people on the staff and are always willing to help; enlisting them to be your Laurence Llewelyn Bowen around school will ensure that displays are vibrant, eye-catching and up-to-date. It is important that you do work collaboratively with your helpers and don’t leave them to their own devices. In doing so you will ensure that people feel valued and that any advertising clearly conveys the message you want to share in a professional and polished manner. Convince teachers who are popular with students and staff (if you’re not one of them) to spread the importance of being numerate, this may go some way in addressing the negative publicity our beloved subject often gets. Encourage those staff who don’t have anything good to say about mathematics to say nothing rather than reinforce negative attitudes.

8. Support parents and carers – a lack of mathematical confidence in a child’s home environment can result in a lack of support/encouragement of the effort they put into the subject at home. Offering information, help and guidance to parents and carers will enable them to take an interest in their child’s learning as well as building relationships and counteracting any bad educational experiences that they themselves may have had. Information evenings, offering adult numeracy classes and sharing guidance on how to teach certain skills are all easy ways to continue the mathematical conversation long after the students have left the building.

9. Take numeracy beyond maths lessons – every teacher gets frustrated that students can’t apply transferable skills across subjects and contexts, yet we never really address this issue effectively. Most students will not go on to devote their life to mathematics so it’s our job to show them the purpose in what we are teaching. We must enable children to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply this in situations where it will be useful to them. The best way to do this is contextual learning: showing them how they transfer what they’ve practised from a text book in real-life settings. How often do maths departments organise a trip? And yet there are lots of opportunities for the application of mathematics out there. Try to integrate the type of maths students would be expected to do as a plumber, doctor or artist into teaching about ratios rather than just doing more of the same. Get the maths department to use resources that students might see in other subjects to encourage their use of numeracy skills across disciplines.

10. Make maths fun – this can be hard at times because students (and some staff) see it as something that they have got to do and so must endure. This attitude will almost certainly switch off everyone involved and is not one to be encouraged. There are lots of competitions, organisations and software/apps that children of all ages and abilities can get involved in, they just need someone to lead the way and give them opportunities to do so. Maths/puzzle clubs can give some of the most vulnerable students a safe place to go whilst supporting their numeracy skills so are a great way of delivering intervention. Again, enlist the help of teachers, TAs and other students to make the magic happen. For all your hard work banging the numeracy drum around school, nothing can compete with the experience that students have in their maths lessons so it is imperative that you develop a collective ethos within the team itself and work closely with the head of department (if it’s not you). Half the battle is getting children hooked and this happens in the classroom. If you can create a vibrant and exciting environment where every child feels that with some effort along the way, they can achieve in the subject then everyone is a winner.

Again, this is another I wish I’d have known that blog. Please be assured that I am not professing to have the secret to numeracy across the curriculum, in fact quite the opposite. The purpose of this article is merely to prevent those of you carrying the torch from making some of the mistakes that I did. I have produced some resources along the way that may act as useful starting points. I’m happy to share these so please feel free to get in touch. There are lots of great ideas out there so don’t be afraid to use the internet to network and collaborate with others in a similar position. If you’re lucky enough to be in a school where numeracy is already well-established, don’t reinvent the wheel. As Chris Evans says, “Agree and add to.” If you can, learn from the people who have implemented the existing practice and ask for their advice; this will save time and prevent you treading on too many toes/egos. Time is key, you’ll never have enough of it, and it will be a while before you see the fruits of your labour but this is when personal motivation is paramount. Good luck on this exciting new venture in your teaching career and keep going even when you have those difficult days when you feel disheartened, because the work you are doing now will have an impact on the students long after you’re there to see it.
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Why doesn’t personalised learning apply to staff as well as students?

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As we start our well-deserved summer break, most of us are too delirious with excitement to reflect on the year that has just concluded let alone look ahead to the one that lies before us. However, if we don’t look at the past with a critical eye then how can we improve the provision for the future?
I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole, I’ve never been one of those teachers that can teach to a formulaic plan of starter, exploration, consolidation, plenary, check progress every 15 seconds, etc… I’ve just done what works for me, practised it and hopefully, improved my provision over time. Working in a school where the approach is very corporate (every child must experience the same diet in every classroom across every subject) can prove difficult and disheartening for teachers who like to approach their teaching as I do, who enjoy the challenge of taking a risk or two in their learning environment to give the students the most purposeful experience possible. I can understand why schools do it; teaching can be variable and how can we as senior leaders, ensure that the children in our care get the best chances in life through the education we provide for them? This is where leadership teams must be brave and apply the same logic to their staff as they do their students – personalised learning for everyone. Thankfully, for the last four years I’ve been at a school that has shared my vision for creativity and encouraged a unique approach to teaching and learning. It is a place that has also felt like the square peg; putting the well-being and character development of students and staff at the heart of its ethos when everyone around us seemed to putting league tables and performance before anything else. That’s not to say that results are not important, we all know the importance of a good education; GCSE grades and A levels can mean opportunity for some students. We owe this to the children in our care but not at the cost of their mental health or personal happiness.
Balance is imperative. At times, it can feel like a difficult and lonely journey, being a solitary voice in a sea of bureaucracy and hoop jumping but it is then when leaders must follow a moral compass in order to ride out the storm. Hopefully, teachers are beginning to realise that the tide is turning, ethos goes beyond any political agenda and more schools are working out that education has to be the constant in the various tumultuous seas in which it sits. A recent experience of Ofsted also reiterated this sentiment. The inspection itself felt more of a helpful process focused around dialogue than in previous visits.
It is heartening to work with like minds and realise that we are not alone. The internet makes this search for kindred spirits much easier, networking with schools and individuals from all over the globe who not just share but also challenge our beliefs can only prove to strengthen our provision for students in the long run. One of the individuals I have been lucky enough to work with is Martin Robinson, author of the fabulous Trivium: 21c. The work he has done with our staff has been invaluable in provoking discussion about the importance of a good education, which has turned into proactive approaches by staff to develop the ideas of the trivium. His visits have enabled us as to challenge staff attitudes and develop opportunities to keep the conversations, and in turn improvement going.

Where do we start?

With staff development, the premise that no teacher ever comes into school wanting to do a bad job must always be the starting point. Furthermore, it must be a continual source of reference when, at times, senior leaders become frustrated. It is important to remember that, leaders in schools are in these positions because they possess a certain amount of personal ambition and aptitude; have had a certain amount of good fortune (or not at times) and happenstance. Not all teachers share our drive, this too is ok. Too many headteachers become angry with staff who do not work in their way rather than encouraging those staff to achieve the best that they are capable of. When this frustration creeps in it’s important to keep sight of the Harper Lee quote:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.


What might seem reasonable and achievable to an accomplished classroom practitioner and highly respected senior leader on £50000 a year, may be completely unreasonable or unachievable to classroom teacher paid half that amount with half as much free time.
I promised that as I moved up through the ranks I would never lose sight of what life was like at the chalk face teaching 22 periods out of 25 a week, doing countless duties,  running numerous extra-curricular activities and still having the passion and desire to support the school trip in what should be your holidays. This is where we start, looking at those staff who go above and beyond every single day. They may not be the best classroom practitioners but their heart is in everything they do. It’s our duty as school leaders to support and develop these staff in a way that encourages them to take chances and learn from mistakes whilst continuing to nurture their enthusiasm and passion. No one would disagree that the character students build and lessons they learn from extra-curricular experience is equally if not more-so beneficial than any amazing lesson on Pythagoras’ Theorem. This is why CPD must be purposeful, thoughtful, useful and inspiring.

Trusting staff to identify their own areas for development

I’m a messy cook, I know this. The end product of my cooking tastes great but the carnage left in my wake is heartbreaking for the clean up team afterwards. Over time I’ve tried to get more efficient at tidying as I go along to limit the aftermath (which I have done) but I know it’s something I continually need to work on. However, when my partner tells me how messy I am and what a bombsite the kitchen is, you can guarantee that the next time I do cook (which may be some time in the distant future) I use every pan I can, welding a variety of culinary delights onto the metalware as I do! Most people are naturally reflective and know their weaknesses without someone from above pointing this out so what about using this process of self-reflection to plan staff CPD which can be then linked into their appraisal targets thus setting something which is much more valuable to everyone than a coerced box ticking exercise that’s not looked at until the following year when either jubilation or disappointment ensues?

Another thing people don’t like is criticism. We have to accept it but we tend to be more willing if it comes from someone we respect, a friend or perhaps our equal. Hierarchical criticism can sometimes make staff feel like their card is marked. So would it not make sense to group staff with peers and respected colleagues getting one another to be critical friends thus taking the judgement out of the conversation and helping them all move forward together?

Balancing the differing needs of everyone with the needs of the whole school


Leadership teams should look at what everyone needs to know and this must be on the CPD calendar but they shouldn’t clog up teachers’ time with unnecessary INSET. The best gift you can give to a teacher is time and the promise of protecting that time for the purpose of whatever it is that colleague needs to work on. Leadership teams need to look at the talent that is in front of them and how precious their time is. What is the point in making the best teacher on your staff go to yet another INSET on questioning when they’ve already led the last two of them?! Being brave enough to make the right choices for their students and staff is another responsibility of a concientious leadership team. It is always worthwhile asking: Will this be something that will make a difference? Is this something that is purposeful and sustainable or is this jumping on the next government initiative?

Stay true to your core principles and beliefs. No one knows your school better than you and your staff do.

Education…is a painful, continual and difficult work to be done in kindness, by watching, by warning: by praise, but above all, by example.

John Ruskin


The litmus test must always be Is this right for our students and staff? If it’s not then don’t do it. You can put money on the fact that just at the point when you’ve got everyone using and applying the latest buzz word so that it’ll be burgeoisie, the next initiative/acronym will be beating down the door ready to bemuse and demoralise staff and students alike. A term that literary editors use when casting a critical eye over a piece of writing is be sure to KISS it (keep it simple stupid – harsh but effective). If personal development is simple for the staff involved, they are much more likely to engage with the programme rather than avoid it!

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Dialogue is important

Conversation (in person not electronically) is key in delivering purposeful and personalised CPD that will be useful for your school. Dialogue is at the heart of this. Listening to what staff are saying, hearing their criticism and responding to it is just as important as getting the SLT message across. A lot of the time, a global overview and experience means that senior leaders do know better but this is not always the case so it is vital that the conversations you have with staff are professional dialogues not monologues. This not only strengthens relationships with individuals but helps to build your credibility and trust among the entire staff body.

Another term that editors use is show don’t tell. Our role as leaders is to illuminate the way, it is not to enforce my way or the highway expectations that teachers couldn’t ever dream of meeting. Coaching is an excellent way to do this. Not all staff are coaches but spotting the naturals in your school and using them to work with colleagues is one of the most effective ways of implementing sustainable change. Be aware that this change takes time, it is not something that happens overnight so stick with it!


Positive communication is important. Think about how your interactions make staff feel, are you building them up or knocking them down? We’d never let the latter happen to a child in our care and yet sometimes some senior leaders are guilty of doing this to staff.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Blanket CPD complemented by blanket monitoring the following week will ensure that everyone in the school is using Bloom’s or doing their DUMTUMs. However, teachers will be doing so without an understanding of why they are doing it and whether or not teachers mechanically going through the motions is actually having a positive impact on the students will be questionable. That is why the continual conversation is key. It is why personalised CPD, just like personalised learning, takes time, determination and lots of effort at a senior management level. Remember, the biggest mixed ability group you’ll ever come across is in your staffroom (if your school is lucky enough to still have one). True understanding for everyone will take place at different paces and to different depths but this can only happen through continual conversation and perseverance from everyone. Harnessing the intrinsic motivation of each and every one of the staff along the way is a great vehicle for embedding practice. The only way to do this is by enabling appraisal and CPD to be a journey taken together with every member of staff rather than a legislature that is enforced on them. Our business is the business of people, building character and developing future generations to come. You can’t place performance targets on something as unique and beautiful as the human soul so why do the government and, in turn school leaders even try?