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.

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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?