We Must Do Better Than This

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 6th October 2017, adapted and developed from an earlier post of mine,)

The cup slams down on to the desk. Lukewarm coffee splashes onto the pile of documents I’ve yet to read. I don’t sit down in my chair, I collapse into it. The chair doesn’t invite me. I surprise it. In revenge, the wheels send me backwards into a cabinet. Three ring binders, piled precariously, fall to the ground. I can’t be certain but I’m sure my sighs can be heard in at least three adjacent classrooms. I stare at the ten e-mail requests I have received since the beginning of that last double period. This can’t be what it’s all about. It just can’t be.

‘What just happened there?’ should be the question most on my mind. ‘Why did that lesson go so badly?’ I should think about the endless planning I did for this lesson; the immaculate resources I prepared; the constructive yet essential use of ICT. The clear outcomes set, the challenging but achievable goals. Everything was perfect; it should have been perfect. And, of course, I should have been thinking about these questions. But I wasn’t. I had ten minutes to get ready for the next lesson. Another one I had planned for ages. I didn’t have time for questions.

That the rest of the day went well doesn’t really matter. They usually do. However, when I’m driving home, when I’m eating dinner, when I’m spending time with my wife discussing normal things, I know damn well I’ll be thinking about that lesson. I’ll be blaming myself and punishing myself and coming to the conclusion that I cannot and never will be able to be much good at this teaching thing. I’ll be back at my desk for the obligatory two or so hours of marking and preparation. I’ll be in school at 7.30 next morning to go through it all again.

Perhaps this portrays the reality of an impossible job. Perhaps it merely confirms the reality that you never stop learning. Reflecting on what goes wrong makes us stronger. However, nineteen years down the line I’ve finally arrived at the point where I know that, no matter how hard I’ve tried to get over it, that feeling never leaves you. Twenty four hours a day. I’ve dreamt of bad lessons, of troublesome students, of difficult colleagues. I’ve woken up at three in the morning worrying about course work. It never goes away.

I generally love my job. In all those years, there have rarely been days on which I wasn’t excited about getting into school. Recently though that has been a lot harder. The increasing awareness that the big and bold project that is Curriculum for Excellence is nothing but a pipe dream, crushed under the weight of poor implementation and bad decision-making; the inevitable new strategy added on to the pile of those we barely had time to implement last session; all added to a creeping feeling that, despite everything, nothing much has changed in Secondary School. We attempt to develop a Broad General Education from S1 to S3 without any real commitment to changing our timetabling structures. So we resort to what we know. Exams. The tail wagging the dog, once again.

We’re told things must change though.

The First of September was a quiet Friday, it seemed. Like many teachers, I’d been back a couple of weeks and just getting used to a new timetable and new classes. I might never have noticed it had I not been sent a link on Twitter, but there it was. Another major report released quietly on a Friday afternoon, lost in the maelstrom of the school day. The Teachers Workforce Planning for Scotland’s Schools document has much to discuss, much to debate.

The report suggests that – and as an English teacher I raised an eyebrow at this – new teachers, unless they wanted to teach English, wouldn’t require Higher English on entry to Teacher Education but at the point of exit. I wonder how this will go down with those who see TeachFirst as a way to attract ‘high quality’ graduates? Shouldn’t we expect high levels of Literacy to be in place when a student leaves school?

There were interesting comments on a return of the much-maligned Chartered Teacher Programme. Recognition that promoted posts were scarce and teachers were leaving, or planning to leave the profession, due to lack of opportunity, is important. However, there are many whose progress throughout the Chartered Teacher Scheme was curtailed last time round.

But that’s not really my concern for the moment. If you’re like me, you’ll sit through meetings about this and smile. ‘Of course, we’ll read that document. Of course, we’ll reflect and discuss the main points.’ Of course, we won’t, probably. I’ll add it to the workload document I didn’t have time to read, and the follow up report. That one is underneath the National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan.

Oh, there are the new Literacy Outcomes that came out in June; the Education Governance Report that came out in June; the Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education Delivery Plan which also came out this year.

Excuse me while I slam my coffee cup down on the desk again.

You’d never guess from the media coverage, but we teachers are utterly fantastic at what we do. We teach kids to be better than they ever thought they could be, work harder than they ever thought they would. And we do it every day. Enough with the documents though. I’m like that drawer in your kitchen, full of carrier bags. You know it’s so crammed full that you can hardly open it but you keep cramming another one in now and again.

I want to get back to loving this again. There must be a better way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing Our Texts Carefully

I suppose it’s the nature of reading, being an adult and a reader and having a pile of books that never seems to diminish, but I never read enough children’s or young adult fiction. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of or happy about but there you go.  Finding books for the kids in my classes is a hugely important and rewarding part of my job so keeping up-to-date with what’s new should be something I keep on top of. And there shouldn’t be an excuse. Walking through your local High Street bookshop, you’ll see an explosion of colour as books for young people are marketed so beautifully now; some of them are even fabulous.

I had the great privilege of reading two such books recently, both of which were linked thematically and blew me away. The first one is a book I’m teaching for the first time: Patrick Ness’s ‘A Monster Calls’. The second, ‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ by John Boyne called out to me from a shelf in the school library. Both dealing with the difficulties of coping with loss and family illness, we follow the lives of our protagonists through mystical, magical worlds as they struggle to face up to family tragedy.  Both are beautifully written and heartbreakingly moving.

Like many, I first came across  John Boyne with the publication of  ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. Despite the unsettling nature of the subject matter I found it extraordinary. The beautiful tale of two young boys and the friendship which see them through horrible times is both shocking and tragic.

‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ has a more mystical feel. Noah runs away from home and finds himself in a toyshop run by an elderly man. The man’s stories allow Noah to reassess his choices and face up to the real reason he leaves in the first place. Slowly, we begin to see through the fantasy and see a little boy struggling deal with a painful truth about his family. ‘The thing is, she made me a promise, you see. And I think she’s going to break it. And I don’t want to be there when that happens.’ It’s a powerful and moving novel, and a hugely important one. The denouement will leave you stunned with mouth agape.

There is also a similar element of tragedy in ‘A Monster Calls’. Like Noah Barleywater, Conor is struggling to face up to his own monsters; the truth about his inevitable future. He is visited by a monster at 12:07 at night, with tales intended to help him. Conor fights against the monster until, slowly, the truth begins to emerge. ‘Many things that are true fell like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmers’ daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving’. Patrick Ness seems to have nailed that ability to create characters struggling to find their way in the world. His prose is mesmerising, characters wholly believable and I love his writing.

The power of great literature provides us with opportunities to approach difficult subjects in the classroom. Our compassion for both Noah and Conor results in powerful conversations with children; conversations which allow them to develop empathy and, perhaps, to begin to understand challenges in their own lives. We must never underestimate the importance of what we choose to teach as, beyond the story, we can engage, affect and influence our learners and open them up to worlds they may never visit.

Catching Up With Good Reads

I’m getting to an age where being invited to other people’s houses fills me with terror. The small talk, the nibbles, the apologies for having to leave early after constantly and surreptitiously checking my watch every ten minutes; my ability to cope with the opinions of others is seriously receding. The concept of the book group is another level of hell. I’m unforgivably very set in my ways and my views. If I like something, I like it; I’m rarely swayed by reviews, whether from friends, strangers or newspapers. But that’s the nature of our tastes. My taste in books is better than yours; same goes with film and music.

It is in that context that I signed up for Goodreads. If you’re unaware of what it is, it’s a Social Media platform for readers, one where we can track what we read and record our progress. There is also scope for ongoing discussion with others and  it is an excellent forum for recommendations. And that’s fine if you like that sort of thing. I’ve not always been that bothered with it but signed up years ago just to see where it would take me. Like most Apps on my phone, however, I forgot all about it. Mostly.

This year has been a little different. In January, when we go through that resolution phase, I signed up to the reading challenge where you give yourself a target number of books to read in the year. I normally hate that sort of thing as it is quite okay if ‘War and Peace’ is the only book you read in a year as opposed to 18 books by Andy McNab or Jeffery Archer. However, I had spent years looking  at shelves of books I had bought and never read. Those were the books I, mostly, put on my list. If I couldn’t read them this year, I would get rid of them.

And it has been fine so far. That long line of neglected books has begun to shrink. That David Sedaris book I bought a couple of years back; finally discovering the joy of Magnus Mills; others that were ‘must-reads’ about five years ago. All moved to the ‘recently read’ shelf. ‘Goodreads’ has, bizarrely, provided a childish sense of achievement as I watch the list decrease and my ‘Reading Challenge’ overcome its targets. I’ve never given myself reading targets before. It has been okay. I do, however, miss  the rediscovered joy of reading an old book from my past; the digression from what I had planned to read to reacquaint myself with an old friend. Re-reading ‘Rabbit, Run’ was my greatest reading pleasure of the year.

The biggest problem is that when I look from my unread books to my newly purchased shelf I seem to have created a whole new, even bigger, pile. Of course I keep buying new books; of course I always will. And of course I’ll go back to reading old ones.

In his book ‘My father and Other Working Class Heroes’, Gary Imlach discusses the problems with televised football. ‘Every goal we see is remembered for us.’ Creating an online record of every book we have ever read creates a similar issue. Forgetting great books and returning to them unexpectedly can be a joyous thing; it can reintroduce you too old friends or enemies. And it reminds us of why reading consists of a lifetime of Good Reads.

Clouds in My Coffee – Being With My Books

In his book ‘Out of My League’ the journalist George Plimpton quotes humorist James Thurber who claimed that ‘every American male falls asleep to the dream of hitting the winning run in baseball.’ In that, he hits upon the very heart of the male psyche. For perhaps we all want to be the hero: scoring a late goal in the cup final, the winning runs at Lords; standing on our classroom desks proclaiming ‘O Captain, My Captain.’ Plimpton wrote about his attempts to live out this childhood fantasy, humiliating himself in the process. Most of us never get that chance. We do, however, identify ourselves in the literary characters we love.

With twenty years of hindsight, I think this may be what connected me to Harry Angstrom all those years ago. The protagonist of John Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run’, Angstrom has been described as a ‘heroic antihero’, one who stands alone against world. When I first read the books, in my early twenties , I realise now that I foolishly, pretentiously and wholly incorrectly felt that the world had dealt me a dodgy hand, fought against my injustice and saw a kindred spirit in Harry.

That seems to be the power of reading; that we can see ourselves in fictional characters, allowing us to develop some form of empathy, mistakenly or not.

But the character I saw as a rebel, one standing up for himself despite the mistakes he makes, I now see an unconscionable monster: one who damages everyone around him with his cruel behaviour. What was I thinking? Taking time to reread ‘Rabbit, Run’ half a life away has provided an insight into a younger me I perhaps wouldn’t like very much now. Wholly selfish, concerned only with my own place in the world, righting wrongs. What an idiot I was.

Re-Acquainting myself with Harry, all these years later has given me the opportunity to consider how much I’ve changed.

We recently changed our smallest bedroom into a library. A bunch of Billy bookcases, of course, filled to the brim with a lifetime’s collection of old paperbacks, beautifully bound hardbacks and a multitude of travel and photography books. In quieter moments, when I’m alone, I like to run my hands along the spines, feeling the stories within them recalling a younger me, a lifetime ago, when I first picked many of them up and jumped in. Having a library in my home has been, it turns out, a lifetime’s ambition. It’s a small room but it’s ours.

Sitting on the floor, surrounded by a lifetime of reading – a lifetime of friends and enemies, loves and hates, laughter and tears – I realise that books have changed me and I could never have lived with out them. Who needs to be a hero when you’ve got that?

Talking up teaching will help solve recruitment woes

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 11th August 2017)

Recent suggestions that Scotland could soon have a “Teach First” system of teacher training should not come as a surprise. If you haven’t heard of Teach First, it is a charity set up to tackle educational disadvantage in England and Wales. Participants bypass traditional teaching routes to work directly with disadvantaged schools. Graham Donaldson first suggested something similar in his 2011 report, Teaching Scotland’s Future. But he clarified that “routes of this nature could complement” more traditional routes into teaching – and therein, perhaps, lies the rub.

If “traditional” teacher-education routes were still financed and supported as they always were in t

However, despite this “proud tradition”, we are struggling to recruit enough teachers. We have to look at all options now, surely? Well, no. We are struggling for numbers because successive Scottish governments have defunded education to such an extent that it is hardly the attractive profession it once was. And there’s a familiar ploy: defund something until it is barely able to function – then privatise. That’s what it will be: a firm step towards the privatisation of our education system.

So here’s a thought: perhaps making teaching an attractive prospect, not one used as political ping-pong by politicians, will attract graduates. Perhaps highlighting the work of teachers who do amazing things day in, day out, instead of focusing on the negatives, will attract graduates. Perhaps allowing us to showcase the skills we have and our love for the jobs we do will attract graduates. Perhaps paying us properly will attract graduates.

And another thing: please stop saying that Teach First-type routes attract “high-quality graduates”. That’s an insult to every teacher I know – all of them already high-quality graduates.

I don’t understand our willingness to accept the degradation of our teachers in society. We chose this profession because we wanted to change the world for the children we teach. We turn up every day, despite seemingly constant criticism from all sides. There are clearly recruitment issues, but there are simple ways to solve that. Open up and fund ITE programmes properly, don’t erode them until they disappear. Because that’s what will happen – believe me.

Time – our most valuable resource.

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 23rd June 2017)

It is difficult to talk to fellow teachers about real change in Scottish Education without coming across the thorny topic of Time. There is no shortage of commitment, no lacking in interest in new ideas, new strategies. But that’s not enough, is it? We can provide as many as ideas as we like, create as many resources as we possibly can; without the time to properly implement those ideas we will more than likely wander around the edges, more anxious than ever about what we may be missing. Teaching is a series of habits, of learned behaviours, and to change what we do takes real commitment and time from all involved for implementation.

It is this dichotomy which frustrates teachers most, I think. We see the wonderful work by organisations like SCEL (Scottish College of Educational Leadership) and their efforts to get into as many schools as possible, leading the way in new, radical approaches to continuing professional development, but often return to our classrooms overrun with tasks to complete and classes to prepare. And, when faced with those pressures, we return to the habits which successfully get us through our day. It’s not that we don’t want to be leaders; we merely find that the space to implement real change is filled with other things we must do.

I have always been wary of acronyms in Scottish Education. Once we use them, they can become meaningless words, easy to dismiss. However, more and more I’m beginning to see SCEL as our most important. Whatever your definition of leadership, it would be difficult to argue that taking responsibility for our own development is not part of that.

Money is certainly there. Investment in SCEL, in the Pupil Equity Fund, in the Attainment Challenge, in the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. Professional Development opportunities have changed completely over the last ten years. However, our opportunities to benefit from them have not.

Imagine what we could achieve if, instead of a cupboard full of resources provided for our National courses, we were provided with the more valuable recourse of Time. Time to collaborate properly; time to innovate properly; time to embed new habits and transform our classrooms: instead of struggling to cope with what we have already and finding ourselves vilified in the press for our reluctance to change.

There is no greater resource than our teachers. To improve their skills, to improve their ability to teach our young people, then we need to give them what they need. Having SCEL is a ground-breaking achievement but without the time to adapt we may be missing a massive opportunity. Let’s not do that. Please?

‘You and Me, all we want to be is lazy’

Of all the things that have begun to happen to me as I get older, increasing claustrophobia is my most concerning. Whenever I’m in a position where I can’t see a way out – whether an exit or an excuse – I start to get anxious and feel my heart rate increasing. More and more , I avoid social occasions, certainly if there is likely to be a large crowd: more recently I’ve begun to dread larger CPD events, especially ones where the ‘presenter’ asks the ‘audience’ to do some work.  I feel the same way when Bruce Springsteen turns his microphone to the audience: ‘No, Springsteen. YOU sing!’

That feeling is probably the reason why online learning appeals to me. I can read things when and where I want: there is no one with flipchart paper or a microphone to put me on the spot. And, to cap it all off, I don’t have to tell anyone who I am or where I’m from or what I hope to get from the day. Seriously? If you’re running a CPD day and have to ask that then there’s a problem. Indeed, if you’re an educational ‘consultant’ and need that reassurance then you really need to up your game. If you’re selling your product you should be clear what it is from the start.

But online learning is much more appealing to me. Sometimes. The comforting delight in knowing that you can give up at any time means that, for the most part, I give up at any time. Never finish things, I dip in to blogs and research papers and find books, and get about half way through them and give in, learning lots of little things along the way. And, knowing I don’t have to ‘feedback during plenary’, it is massively satisfying. But it’s different when you’re an adult. I’m not sure how I would have got on if I had something like ‘Flipped Learning’ when I was at school.

That tendency to give up is probably why these things won’t work for everyone in schools. It is in our nature to be lazy. As Daniel Willingham says in ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, ‘Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.’ Some of my students may love online learning; some may hate it; most, I think, would love the idea but never find the motivation to do it on their own. Flipped learning makes a lot of in correct assumptions about the willingness of children to work in their own time.

So, while crammed classrooms are probably claustrophobic for some kids, it really is the best way for us to teach a class of thirty. It’s not perfect by any means but I’m yet to be convinced that more ‘open’ approaches to learning can work for every child. We have a responsibility to those kids who needs us most, those disadvantaged by background, and new, untested strategies are often vanity projects. Teaching them well, in the best possible way, is our duty. Let’s not take risks with that.