Why Listening to The Boss Woke Me Up

Gray morning light spits through the shade

Another day older, closer to the grave

Closer to the grave and come the dawn

I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.’

                         ‘Shackled and Drawn’ Bruce Springsteen – from the ‘Wrecking Ball’ album


Do you know, my blog started with such lofty intentions? Early posts dealt with my classroom experience, which was the point in the first place. I wrote about reading and writing; about digital literacy; about things which happened in the day to day existence of an English teacher. Somewhere along the line, however, I got bogged down. I found myself more and more defending our ‘new’ curriculum and less and less reflecting on classroom practice; and I think the blog has suffered because of that.

That epiphany arrived recently when I returned to my big Curriculum for Excellence folder and was attempting, once again, to make sense of all of the outcomes and experiences in both English and Literacy in the documents. There is a lot of good sense in that big folder and I wanted to reaffirm the direction I was taking, hoping to find some little nugget of genius which would inspire and enthuse. Almost driven mad by the endless verbiage, I slammed it shut, vowing never to return. Enough already.

There is a real danger that, whilst attempting to take in all of the Es and Os in our subject areas, as well as those for which we are all responsible, I could feel ‘shackled and drawn’, tied down, held back. The problem now seems to be that I have to ask myself how much I should allow those outcomes to dictate my preparation and planning. How much notice should I be paying them as I attempt to make sense of what is happening in my classroom?  How much should I allow them to lead the way?

There’s a certain irony there, though, isn’t there? How can I expect to be creative when I’m feeling handcuffed by a bunch of outcomes which don’t appear to lead me anywhere? Is it possible for creativity to flourish in that environment? When faced with a folder full of information is it any wonder that some teachers feel overwhelmed by the scale of it all?

The news that schools would be allowed to delay the implementation of national exams should appease many of those who felt genuinely under pressure but, to be honest, I can’t see how that will improve the classroom experience for children. I worry that we will be in the same situation a year from now. I worry that the potential delay will be seen as a victory against Cfe by some sources in the media, as well as within the profession.

The word ‘responsibility’ becomes key now. The responsibility of a Government to support an Education system in transition. The responsibility of School Management teams to support teachers as they change their practice. The responsibility of teachers to deliver a challenging, creative curriculum. When I plan classroom activities it is my responsibility to ensure that my pupils are challenged and engaged. I may, at times, stray from the script, perhaps, necessarily in order to achieve educational gains. It is the duty and responsibility of my principal teacher to call me up on that; but, more importantly, it is my professional duty to justify what I am doing. The necessity of conversations like that are what will allow the curriculum to progress.

Now, however, having been given that time, there is a responsibility to ensure that we do embed courses which match up to the ambition and imagination we all deserve. If you have more time, then use it wisely. The handcuffs have been removed, for a time, and we are free to be as creative as we please. So ask yourself this: what would you like learning in your class to look like? You are, the great man says: ‘Another day older and closer to the grave’. The shackles are off: let’s get to work.

We May Never Get Another Chance

My last post raised a few issues and ruffled a couple of feathers. The main thrust if it was that I  claimed that I don’t care about what might turn out to be in the new exams. I stick by that. And I’m a hard-working professional who believes that nothing but the best is good enough for our children. I have never believed that the exam system was the most effective tool in assessing learning of pupils. It never worked for me. There may be a time in the future when I have to care but, until that point- and I really don’t think that it is now – I’ll spend my time trying to improve my classroom practice.

I know there are many issues which make that problematic. Parents, Senior Management, the Press; but the only strength I have in this game is the ability to be the best teacher I can possibly be in the time I’m given. So, in response to some of the replies I’ve had to that post I’ll try and develop my argument.

‘Yeah but the exams are important to the parents?’ True. But how much of that is conditioning. One of the biggest obstacles to curricular change is the fact that ‘we’ve always done it that way’. The school experience of parents was all about the exams. Our experience of school was all about the exams. Do we look back at those days  reflecting on our grades? Only if we did well. Too many kids are leaving school with an experience of which we should be ashamed. As Ian Gilbert says in, ‘Why Do I Need a Teacher When I’ve got Google’ ,

‘I suggest that they leave with no qualifications and a whole crate of baggage about how bad they are. Which isn’t nothing.’ page 18 (Gilbert, Routledge Press)

Are we not duty bound to work with parents to develop a greater understanding of why a change in curriculum is so important? Collaboration is a much used word as we discuss the children’s learning. We want our classroom to be collaborative spaces. We want our Professional Development to be collaborative in its delivery. Working collaboratively with Parents is essential to drive forward the changes we need to make; but it is essential that we do so. For their children’s sake, we must convince parents that the change is required. Teach them well and they’ll pass anyway.

‘Yeah but management still judges us on results.’ Maybe. But ’twas ever thus. Exam results have never been there to judge the children. The government judge local authorities who judge schools who judge teachers who judge kids. The further away from the bottom of that hierarchy means you can wash your hands of the real challenges. Are we really saying that if we improve learning and develop independence in our children then our results will be worse? Teach them well and they’ll pass anyway.

‘Yeah but the pupils need good exam results to get into University.’ Why won’t they still get those good results? There is a really worrying assumption that changing what we do everyday is almost guaranteed to be to the detriment of our children’s education. That does not make  sense. If we are really saying that we need exams to assess the progress of our children then look at the stats. We are seriously letting down a huge number of them. Look at the university drop out rates, from the university they tried so hard to get into. The Uni we told them was the be all and the end all. Teach them well and they’ll pass anyway.

Surely there can be no real arguments for retaining the Status Quo? Have you heard the latest Status Quo record? Rubbish. Absolute rubbish. If we are to let the examination guide our teaching then that is what we will get. A tired old Status Quo record with no connection to ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’, whatsoever. And that is my idea of hell right there.

So here’s a thought. If you think your management team will frown upon a department that claims to ‘not care about what might be in the exam’ then don’t tell them. Smile and nod. Tick those boxes that need ticked. But get back to school and start developing a creative curriculum which will inspire every child who walks up your corridor, who passes through your classroom door. If you really believe that if you teach kids well they will pass any exam that comes along then now is your time to prove it. Now is your time. You may never get another opportunity. Now is your time. Now is the time.

On My Bedside Table – March 2012

Last year I set up an educational reading wiki primarily for the purpose of sharing the thoughts and ideas I was developing as I read more and more learning based texts. I hoped to share those thoughts with like-minded educators who could argue and debate some of the important issues about which I was reading. However, while loads of people expressed an interest and, indeed, signed up, the reality of the teacher’s life meant that interaction with the wiki was virtually non-existent. People were just too busy to make it a priority. It sort of withered on the vine.

So, that brings me here. I still want to share my thoughts on my reading so will do so in a series of blog posts.

I’ve had Will Ryan’s ‘Inspirational Leaders, Inspirational Teachers’ for a while. The reviews were good but I hadn’t really expected the effect it would have on me. Ryan knows what he’s talking. Inspiration is the key word as he describes both what it means to be inspirational in the classroom as well as a head of school.
When I read educational books like this I try to stick to the same routines. I use a highlighter as I work my way through each chapter, taking care to ensure that anything I highlight will be useful to me later. Afterwards I will go back through the book and write out each highlighted passage into a small A5 ring binded notebook. That might seem overly burdensome but it does allow me to reflect on any points I highlighted on first reading.
Looking back through the many notes I took on Will Ryan’s book brought me to two passages in particular. In the light of the current debates on implementation of Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland, Ryan makes the assertion that:
‘Schools should create a curriculum based around powerful, memorable and well-structured learning opportunities that hook children into learning for the rest of their lives.’ page 32
To me this sums up our new curriculum as well as anything. Despite the quagmire of examination debate, at the heart there is a push towards greater real learning experiences for children. We are talking about learning and teaching more than I’ve ever known in my career and I see and hear of great things happening all the time. ‘Hooking’ children into learning must surely be one of the main aims of any education system.  The Scottish Curriculum is providing greater opportunities to do just that.
Will Ryan provides practical ideas with great real life anecdotes from teachers who inspire in their schools. He places children at the care of the schooling process and what a refreshing read it is. He may, perhaps, be preaching to he converted as many of the people who need to read this book probably won’t but it is an essential read for teachers of any subject and leaders of any school.
‘Children will be totally absorbed in rich learning experiences that are carefully planned to fulfil a range of learning objectives, some of which could be academic and others are based on the skills and attitudes young people will need to pass successfully through life.’ page 229
A vision of the new curriculum in action? I think so.
Next on my list.
The Game of School: Why we all play it, How it hurts kids, and what it will take to change it. By Robert L. Fried

The Connected Educator by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall