Morrissey and Concrete Slippers

Returning to my own secondary school for teaching placement wasn’t exactly in the plan but it was here and I had to deal with it. Some fifteen years after leaving, vowing, promising, determined to never darken its paper towels again, I found myself sitting outside the head teacher’s office once more, for very different, but equally terrifying, reasons. The prospect of teaching terrified me. Recurring nightmares about my time at school there terrified me. Talk about facing your demons. The only thing that would have made it worse would be if many of the staff were still the same. Yep. You guessed it.

It was a tough, tough, placement for many reasons. There were ghosts up every corridor, ghoulish memories in every classroom. But, perhaps, those experiences steeled me to life as a teacher. I was in my early thirties and came home in tears on more than one occasion. I couldn’t sleep. I wrote my letter of withdrawal from the PGCE course and had it in an envelope, ready to post. I worked all night on creative lessons which were disastrous. Not an unfamiliar story for student teachers, I’m sure. Every teaching moment was a new experience and there were more bad ones than good. With hindsight, I can’t believe I actually made it this far.

Almost at the last week, though, I started to make some progress. Classes weren’t so trying; things started to get through, both ways. I no longer fought every period. Then, on one particular day, I was walking home when I was greeted by a young S1 boy sitting on a wall; a boy who had initially been a nightmare in class. He spoke pleasantly about how he had enjoyed my classes and would now be sad when I left. I was on top of the world. As I left, glowing with pride, he called after me. ‘I really like you but my pal thinks you’re a spekky b*stard’. Like a salted snail, I crawled home, dying with every step. To quote the great sage, Morrissey, ‘I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.’

Remembering that short period is a sobering experience. It reminds me that, even when things are going well, a potential banana skin appears after every bell; that it is, if not okay, then expected that you’ll fall on your face every now and again (possibly even literally); and it is important never to believe that you’ve seen it all in the classroom. When we get bogged down by the every day reality of the job it is very easy to forget that we manage ludicrously complex relationships on every school day. How we attempt to keep on top of the increasingly imposing paper work. How we attempt to energise and enthuse students every day of our lives.

I suppose the moral is that, even when I’m riding high, rattling on in my blog, tweeting like there’s no tomorrow about how much I’m enjoying my teaching, I’m only ever one class away from the concrete slippers. And that having a good day merely ensures that tomorrow is, at best, another blank slate.

I’ve recently finished Tina Seelig’s book, ‘What I Wish I Knew When I was Twenty’. Would I be where I am now? You know, it would be easy to say that I wish I’d travelled more, done many things, more. But you know what? I wouldn’t swap this for the world. It took me a long time to find teaching; even longer to find any sort of sense in it. However, I do remind myself, when my head is beginning to grow in size, when someone says something nice about my blog, that once upon a time there was a small boy, sitting on a wall…

Publish and Be Damned

New Yorkers ‘are both guards and prisoners and as a result they no longer have…the capacity to leave the prison they have made, or even see it as a prison.’
My Dinner with Andre

Is it true that teachers can be guilty of building our prisons, blocking us off from opportunity. Perhaps it is not always our own fault, but does it happen?

Since publishing my first post on this Blog on January 1st 2011 my teaching life has changed beyond all recognition. I sat with my first post in draft form for ages. No confidence to jump in. Why would I have? I work in, perhaps, the most conservative profession there is. Little changes and when it does it does so very slowly. People know their place in the pecking order and if you hang around long enough you’ll get your reward. Anyone who stands out gets shot down.

When you believe that, it becomes very difficult to break out of the chains. The ‘My Dinner with Andre’ clip reminded me that we can become our own prisoners when we accept our lot. It is easier not to stick your head above the parapet. It is easier to keep quiet and nod. And because of those often self-imposed prison walls we arrive at the stage where teachers announce that they have accessed research in an embarrassed tone, where teachers apologise for daring to improve.

At a time when we, more and more, expect our learners to be active, to be independent, resilient, resourceful, can we really be confident that our teachers can always say that of themselves? Many have been oppressed by management structure for so long that they do not bother any more. Many are afraid of change. Many are lazy. And many are waiting for an opportunity.

When given that opportunity great things happen. Walls come down, confidence explodes and teachers find the lost passion which transforms classrooms.

I said earlier that change in education systems is slow. I do, however, detect a transformation. The rise of Teachmeet, allowing teachers of any experience to listen to great practice and develop the confidence to present their ideas – when did we ever have that? – and connections through Twitter, are changing the culture of what we do. Teachers feel involved in change rather than having it imposed.

I think that when you impose a curriculum on teachers and indeed learners, then you provide the circumstances for those teachers to absolve themselves of responsibility when it goes wrong. ‘Nothing to do with me.’ This is why consultation is so essential in these decisions. And not cursory, disrespectful consultation which we know is a box ticking exercise as decisions have already been made. Real involvement in change. Providing opportunities for teachers to develop the kind of abilities I see blossoming at every Teachmeet I attend is essential if we are to provide the best for our learners. Allow them to flourish and watch change take place.

Pressing the publish button nearly two years ago brought that change for me. But seeing others follow me and blog, tweet, teachmeet, pedagoo all indicate that there is a better way. Press that publish button. Or better still, encourage someone else to do it too. Go to a Teacmeet. Just to watch. At first. Break down those walls and set yourself free.

Class Don’tJo

After a promising start, I’ve become a bit disillusioned with Class Dojo. In case you are unaware, Class Dojo is a behaviour management system – their words – which promotes positive behaviour in the classroom. I won’t explain it in detail. Have a look here for more. Kids love it because they get points and create a wee avatar for themselves. Teachers love it because they can display progress on the projectors and whiteboards in their classroom. Win/ win? Well, I’m not so sure.

What started well – the younger kids were constantly asking about points and competitive to get to the top –  it became exactly that. A competition. After a few weeks, inevitably perhaps, the ‘running order’ took on a familiar look. The boys who had previously been poorly behaved started to drift to the bottom of pile – it is not so easy for them to remain consistently on task, or always stay focused – and others began to pull ahead.

The system began to reaffirm the class stereotypes and reaching the bottom become a race and then, inevitably, an identity. I’m fully prepared to put my hand up and admit that it could have been my failure to implement the system properly but class dojo wasn’t working for me.

As Shirley Clarke says:

‘Children who are used to rewards tend in future not to choose activities when there are no rewards to be had, and also prefer less demanding tasks.’

It had become a system of rewards with an inevitable ending. I may as well have hung a string of mars bars at the front and promised them to the good kids. My reading and understanding of Mindsets didn’t seem to square the circle. Points didn’t add up for me. (sorry). Having had a similar experience with Accelerated Reader I have now, perhaps temporarily, stopped using Class Dojo.

However, the point of this post is not to be negative about a resource that others are using more constructively than me. The whole point of my blog is to reflect and discuss. What was I doing wrong? Or what was wrong with Class Dojo I could fix before giving up on it?

My biggest problem was/is with the original ‘reward’ list, both negative and positive.  My 30 mixed ability S1 (year8?) kids had no problem with the good things. They could ‘do’ teamwork; they generally ‘helped others’, participated, often worked hard, were on task etc. Although I really believe that vague comments about hard work don’t help.

However some of these young kids come from chaotic backgrounds where disruption, disrespect and the absence of anywhere to even do homework is a real problem. Of course schooling should be about teaching them these qualities but making that very public is really bad, in every way. Sorry. I found that many were switched off when they started losing points for this and many were always going to do that.

I’ve stopped using it for the moment until I can come up with a set of ‘rewards’ that all can realistically achieve, consistently. Getting the comments right will be essential if this is to really work beyond a bit of fun. Otherwise it is merely a tech tool which is only skin deep and, potentially, very damaging.