Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Amongst all the reflection and positive vibes kicking around at this time of year there must come a point when I take stock of the real issue. As a teacher, the only question I need to ask myself is, ‘Am I better than I was this time last year?’ It’s all very well being complemented for my Blog – or not – and the Twitter followers mounting up makes me feel valued. Sort of. However, the whole point of this was as a means of improving as a classroom teacher and unless I can evaluate that accurately how can I say that this year has been a success?

How much time have I wasted on useless CPD this year? Countless hours of meaningless psychobabble, certainly. I’ve lead working groups which, due to time constraints, never really lead anywhere. I’ve been ushered into halls to watch huge boxes being ticked. But I’ve also started a Masters. I’ve also read heaps of books on Education. I’ve also attended some inspirational Pedagoo events and the odd Teachmeet. But how much of this alters my practice? It may make me feel good about myself, give me the perception of being more knowledgeable but does it help the pupils in my class on a day-to-day basis?

It can be a difficult question to answer, can’t it? Exam results are good. Attainment seems to be high. However, what about those gaps in knowledge which I know are there and cannot always plug due to my own gaps in knowledge. What if every single minute of our Professional Development started at that point and was directed specifically at pupil weaknesses? My class might have difficulties with create writing or reading comprehension or whatever. Or the department has these issues or even the whole school. It might be something the exam results highlight in S5 (year12?). What if we focused purely on that thing for the whole year, for EVERY pupil? It might seem obvious but I’ve a fair idea that that rarely happens.

I’ve written before about the rage I feel looking back at the Development time I’ve wasted. Probably hundred of hours taken away to meet someone else’s agenda. If ever there was a New Year’s Resolution for me as a teacher it will be to ensure that that does not happen any more. It has been twelve years since the McCrone Agreement in Scotland ensured an entitlement of thirty five hours supported Professional Development but what seemed like a good idea at the time has proven to be a disaster for teacher development. Ticking off the hours, perhaps completing all thirty five by October, is possible but the impact is something which is often forgotten. Meaningful CPD needs to be top of the pile again.

Exactly three years after starting this blog, it is clear that it does wonderful things for the ego. I feel more confident in expressing my opinions and the fear of even having an opinion is long gone. But if I’m to live up to the title of my blog I need to focus more on the reason we are all doing this job. The needs of my pupils, the gaps in knowledge they have, the real purpose of teaching is what I should be focusing on more than anything. Reflection only really works if it is for yourself. Perhaps I need to remember that more in 2014.

Game Changer? It’s Up To You

This may well be my last post of the year and, as I’m writing it on Christmas Eve, it sort of lends itself to a degree of reflection.  In a year of great personal development for me in a educational sense, I’ve been contemplating my own role in education. I’m employed as a classroom teacher; the lure of middle management or beyond has never tempted me. However, I’m becoming more and more aware of my responsibility as a leader of educational change in other roles. The 2010 Donaldson Report, Teaching Scotland’s Future, claims that ‘all teachers should see themselves as teacher educators and be trained in mentoring.’ So how does this fit with my current position and what can I do about it?

It seems to me that whenever I open my mouth about education, whenever I tweet about education, whenever I blog about education, I’m attempting to influence a debate. For many years I have been a mentor of student teachers. I attempt to influence them in more specific ways. My blog is a purely personal reflection but it would be naive of me to think that what I say doesn’t affect even one person’s opinion, either positively or negatively. And, so, whether I like it or not, I am a leader of learning. Even as an effective classroom teacher, I need to be constantly aware of that.

This year I started a Masters programme, specifically a module on Supporting Teacher Learning. It has been eye-opening in many ways. Access to educational academia has often been humbling; my thoughts and opinions on certain things have been, rightly, dismissed as nonsense. On the other hand, I have been provided with the opportunity to develop others ideas, especially about how teachers develop, and firm up some preconceived notions I had. Three months in, I am more confident about expressing my beliefs, knowing that they are more embedded in theory as well as practice. Perhaps I am beginning to take myself a bit more seriously too.

On the First of January my blog will be three years old. It has taken on many guises over those years; naively optimistic to cynically crowd-pleasing to what it is today; something of which I’m extremely proud. And it has taken this long for me to see the true value in it. I flesh out thoughts and opinions, explain classroom processes and strategies, whine about my mistakes. However, what I also have come to realise is that when people read it, they read it because they choose to and so what I say has value to them. As a blogger, and not a hugely significant one, I need to bear that responsibility. This is not a boorish staff room; it is an audience of people who choose to listen because they want to hear what I have to say.

I called this post ‘Game Changers’ because, if I’m to take Donaldson at his word, that is exactly what we should all be. It is not enough to express half thought through opinions and not be willing to back them up. We need to hold our heads up, having developed our points, and to argue our case without it becoming personal. This is not about Twitter or Blogging or Teachmeet or anything specific. It as about stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility for our views. There is too much at stake, both South and North of the border, not to. An intelligent and informed population is what we strive for when we enter teaching. Our educators, our ‘Game Changers’ should reflect that too.

Who’s really there?

I’ve been teaching Hamlet for a few weeks now and grappling with the concept of identity. It’s a complex old play and one which causes no end of debate and discussion. However, identity is a difficult thing to grasp for all of us, never mind sixteen year-olds. The first words of the play come from Barnardo who asks, “Who’s there?’ He and Francisco are guarding Elsinore from perceived threat from Norway. It’s a question which Hamlet tortures himself with for the rest of the play, though. Who is he? What kind of person is he? On Friday I asked my class who they were.

One of the reasons for studying literature is to instill a feeling of empathy for characters and, perhaps, learn something about themselves. We choose appropriate texts partly to place students in the shoes of those who face difficulty at times; perhaps they may develop a greater sense of meaning in the world. but asking them who they were merely resulted in a bullet point list of what they were. Sister, brother, friend, school pupil etc. To really understand the trauma Hamlet goes through I wanted them to think about ‘who’ they were. What qualities might help them out in a  crisis; a real crisis? Like Hamlet, what weaknesses do they recognise in themselves?

I haven’t seen the class become so focused and intent. After a few minutes of discomfort they really began to scribble down their thoughts. In fifteen minutes the lines were pouring out. I promised I wouldn’t read them unless they wanted that and they did not have to share them, which confirmed their honesty, I think. The ones I did read were touching and harshly self-critical. Ironically, I am facing my own weaknesses at the same time. ‘Hamlet’ has always caused me problems. I’m slightly daunted by the prospect of teaching the play and never feel I do it justice in class. When Hamlet recognises his own weaknesses when compares his father to his uncle: ‘My father’s brother, but no more like my father /Than I to Hercules’  it reminds me, perhaps, that we rarely recognise, not our teaching flaws, but our own character flaws.

How might we ask that initial question of ourselves as teachers? Who’s there? Professional reflection is becoming more embedded in our every day practice although contractually obligated Professional Development in Scotland rarely insists on it. It may be alluded to but any reflection I’ve ever offered has never gone any where. I’ve never been asked to reflect on the impact of Development in my every day practice. That I do so anyway suggests a necessity on my own part. Does true self-reflection stop at the school gates or should it involve a close look at ourselves as people too?

Hamlet’s procrastination causes (spoiler alert) chaos. If he had acted to overcome his weakness earlier perhaps lives would have been saved. I often wonder that after fourteen years of teaching how much time I have wasted by failing to recognise my true flaws. Facing up to the truth was a real challenge for this class of sixteen year-olds. What if we were all to do that? ‘Who’s there?’