Is There a Better Way to Run Parents Evenings?

I don’t mind admitting that I’ve always really enjoyed Parents Evenings. Meeting the adult behind the child is a privilege and, as one who enjoys talking, it’s a real buzz to fly though a whole series of short meetings. But I wonder whether our current model of Parents Evening is the most helpful. Those who can’t make it, don’t want to make it or, as often happens, are too traumatised by their own experience of school to ever think of making it, may be desperate for an alternative model. Can we find a system that works for everyone; or one that improves on what we’ve got?

Currently we seem to have the system that we’ve always had. Parents or carers make appointments and, if we’re running on time, we have five minutes to discuss their child’s whole year in English. They move on to the next subject for another five minutes. And so on. It may be the best way to do things but have we really thought of more helpful alternatives? After all, Dylan William suggests that we should try and stop doing good things in order to do better things. And If there is another way to make these evenings more productive, should we at least discuss them?

What about no year group specific evenings? Consultation evenings could be spaced out throughout the school year and anyone can book up once, whenever they like. So the unfortunate timing of, say, S3 Parents Evening could be less of a problem if that parent can come along next time. The downside? Well, as a teacher, I’d need to prepare to discuss different year group work but I’m not sure that would be a major problem. On the other hand a parent with two kids at your school could possible see both sets of teachers on the same night. It’s not a hugely ridiculous thought.

What about subject specific evenings? You could have a staggered series of evenings where, rather than individual meetings, parents and carers could come up and sit in a classroom for half an hour and experience a short lesson, or explanation of what was happening in their child’s classroom. Just imagine being able to clearly explain your homework or feedback or classroom management approach to a whole group of interested adults. There would be less of a focus on the one-to-one ‘interview’. It would mean a completely different approach but arguably would be far more productive in the long term.

I keep coming back to Andy Day’s line that ‘the greatest tragedy in education is the empty seat at Parents night’. It sticks because that truth should worry all of us. Those we need to see are often the ones who don’t come. It should be incumbent on us to come up with a system which works for everyone. And, yes, perhaps our current system is the best. Perhaps it’s not just because we’ve always done it this way. But we should at least have the conversation.

If I knew back then what I know now…

If I knew back then what I know now…

I wouldn’t worry too much about being liked. If you teach well and are fair and honest, children will respect you as a teacher, perhaps like you. As Paul Dix says in his book, ‘leave your ego at the door.’ While you can develop positive relationships which often last for years, your students are not your friends. Remember why you’re there: you’re their teacher and they need you to teach them. Be kind, be fair, be consistent. Some kids may never like you; most will. That’s life, don’t sweat it. There are bigger things to worry about.

If I knew back then what I know now…

I would have spent my first years becoming much more evidence-informed. There wasn’t much of a requirement to keep up with the latest research twenty years ago. We all kind of muddled through, often making it up as we went along. They say that we become the teachers we will always be after about five years and I certainly had a few stale years in there. Perhaps some pedagogical research might have helped. Without a doubt it has enhanced my teaching since. My GTCS Professional Update has encouraged me to reflect on my reading. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am now without it.

If I knew back then what I know now…

I would have created a much more healthy work/ life balance. Trying to be a teaching hero isn’t healthy. This job can overwhelm you, totally engulf your life and will fill every spare moment if you let it. I let it. It exhausted me and all that extra effort didn’t make me any better at my job. Producing resources is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being an English teacher but, if you’re not careful, you can over prepare and I lost the buzz of a great unit of work or a creative new way of teaching a text. I wish I had paced myself better. I might have enjoyed it more. Ring-fencing time is essential and your family and friends are more important. Switch off. Completely.

If I knew back then what I know now…

I would have taught more Shakespeare. Having a bad experience at school led me to dread teaching Macbeth for the first time. I’ve no doubt that experience was passed on to pupils in my first few years. Since, I’ve come to love it, along with Othello and I’m just a little bit obsessed with Hamlet. All pupils deserve to be taught the greatest there is and diving in to a great Shakespeare play is the ultimate gift. As part of a wide range of challenging literature we, as English teachers, have the power to affect lives. We shouldn’t waste these opportunities. And I wish I’d been more aware of avoiding my own negative experiences. After all, I became a teacher despite them.

Approaching my twentieth year, I can’t really say I have too many regrets. I love my job, mostly, and can’t think of anything I’d rather do. However, it’s interesting to see new teachers starting out on their own journeys, seemingly much better prepared than I ever was. There are fantastic young people coming in to the profession. We have much to be optimistic about. But we also need to reflect on our own experiences to, perhaps, help them along a bit.

A short post -So what exactly are we developing on development days?

Here’s where I am on teacher education after nineteen years of teaching.

If you have, on average, six Development Days every year, and those last, let’s say, six hours each  at a conservative estimate. That’s thirty six hours of development time every year. If a school has one hundred teachers, which is not unheard of, then that adds up to, unless I’m worse at Maths than I thought, 3600 hours of development time. Imagine what we could achieve if all of those hours were focused on improving pedagogy which directly improved the education of our children, instead of meaningless processes of management speak.

Looking back at how much of my development time over those nineteen years has been wasted with comically time-wasting processes, box-ticking and time-serving, passively sitting in front of forty pages of someone’s Powerpoint presentation, is it any wonder that we become passive in our approach to Development Days?

Alberto Manguel – his part in my reading life

I’ve always loved reading about reading. The lives readers lead and the way books have formed them is an endless source of fascination, often envy. From Francis Spufford’s ‘The Child that Books Built’ to Susan Hill’s ‘Howard’s End is on the Landing’, tales of the remarkable journeys that we go on as readers have encouraged me to reflect on my own reading history, forming many of my values as an English Teacher. In particular, Alberto Manguel’s books continue to document the life of the reader like no others. So I was thrilled recently to discover that he has a new book this year, ‘Packing my Library: an Elegy and Ten Digressions’.

My first experience of Manguel came when I discovered his ‘A Reading Diary: A Year of favourite Books’ in a second hand book shop. It is a joyful short read, doing exactly what the title suggests. He takes us through his literary thoughts on classics such as ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’: he never reviews, never critiques; merely shares his thoughts as he walks alongside Mole and  Sancho Panza, reflecting on his life at that moment. I’d never read anything like it. Beautifully written, infectiously optimistic, it might possibly be the root of much that came after for me. He recognised that ‘Reading is a comfortable, solitary, slow and sensuous task’ while recognising that ‘every book exists in a dreamlike condition until the hand that open it and the eyes that peruse it stir the words into awareness’. And if I’d written that sentence I might never have to write another one.

When I began to write my own book on reading, it was to Manguel that I first turned; his ‘A History of Reading’ being as a good a point as any to start. Impeccably and painstakingly researched, Manguel walked me through the roots of reading. From a pre-Aristotle age to very contemporary, political approaches to reading, the book is a remarkable achievement, carefully arguing the roots and the pros and cons of silent reading, to translation and banned books. How we have changed as readers through the ages, how reading has been valued, and de-valued throughout history and how reading and literacy  have become the political tool of our age is a liberating story.

He sums up the importance of reading in the words of Thomas a Kempis: ‘I have sought for happiness everywhere but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book.’

While I’ve had it for a few years, I’m unsure I’ve read all of Manguel’s ‘A Reader on Reading’. It’s a magnificent collection of essays which you can dip into; my favourites being, ‘How Pinocchio Learned to Read’ and ‘The Library at Home’. The range and breadth of subjects covered suggests a writer who knows his subject. His journey is a thoughtful and remarkable one and this is a book which I return to often. Those of you who really ‘get’ that books can be a haven from a hectic world will love it:

“In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change, and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.”

Finally, as I wait patiently for his new book, another essay collection to recommend is ‘The Library at Night’. Now I grew up in libraries, having never had my own at home, and, in an era where libraries are seen as an excessive luxury rather than societal necessity, Manguel’s essays will make you weep with joy for a world sadly disappearing. He takes us through a series of thoughts and explanations, a series of treatise about libraries as collections of books as much as spaces; how those spaces, wherever they may be, provide us with places to live, places to think, places to grow.

“And for the course of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexations, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass into their world.”

Thank you, Alberto Manguel.

Have we failed to learn from the past?

It’s important to stress, as I’ll go on to discuss Water Humes’ recent article ‘Seven reasons why Scottish education is under-performing’ , that I don’t think that our education is failing.  However, that it is ‘under-performing’ may or may not be up for discussion  and it would be difficult to argue that it has been flawed in its implementation. I tweeted last week that I agreed with each of Humes’ seven reasons but I want to go further by dealing with each in separate posts. These are just a collection of thoughts, so please argue with me if the need is there.

1.  Failure to learn from the past

I’m cheating slightly here but I wrote about this very subject about six years ago. There was a danger of us ignoring the voices of ‘previous reforms’ at the time, something I compared to ‘The Diderot Effect’. The Diderot Effect stems from a short essay called ‘Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown’, by French Philosopher, Denis Diderot. In it, the writer contemplates his life choices after the gift of an expensive new dressing gown plunges him into debt and despair. He’s delighted with the new gift but starts to believe that this beautiful new thing has begun to make everything else look dreary and old. The essay deals with his quest to replace his possessions with shiny new things, in the hope that his new gown won’t seem so out of place. He descends into poverty and ruin.

It seems to me that part of the difficulty in ‘implementing’ the Curriculum for Excellence, or any shiny new curriculum really,  has been the assumption when any great change takes place, that everything that came before it is now defunct – dreary and old, in effect. Experienced teachers have every right to feel slighted by this, even if it is only a perception.  A situation should never arise where previous practice is dismissed, whether that is done mistakenly or not. Effective ways of informing, collaborating and engaging with teachers have been missed. Communication has come across as flawed but it is not too late. The biggest challenges still to come are surely in preserving the best bits of what is happening and merging them with newer ideas.

There are those who may cry ‘I told you so’ but we ignore experience at our peril. This ‘arrogant sense that the past has little to teach us’ has come to pass but it is not too late. A mature and robust education system must be able to admit that mistakes have been made: if there are flaws then we can fix them. But let’s not ignore the voices who’ve been though change. Diderot’s character merely changed a dressing gown. We have so much more to lose.

‘Nothing Ever Mattered More Than Not Doubting’ – A huge year for Scottish Education?

On the first day of teaching practice in 1998, in the school at which I still teach, I entered the staff room nervously, eventually sitting down beside a kindly gentleman who greeted me warmly. We chatted for a while before he offered me some advice: get your jacket on and go and do something else. Teaching will ruin your life. Of course I was shocked and outraged; I looked upon what I assumed to be a cynical old fool and vowed that that would never happen to me. We went on to be friends over the next few years until he retired, but I never got over that first meeting, especially when I got to know this brilliant man who had been worn down by the education system.

Twenty years on and I can understand what he meant. Continuous change is exhausting and often demoralising. It often feels – like a repeat of ‘It’s a Knockout’ (wee joke for the kids) – that, while we’re trying to do our jobs there seems to be buckets of water being thrown over us from all angles. It’s so easy to allow yourself to become cynical and forget the younger teacher who walked in to the staff room for the first time. But we have to try. It’s why I like to mentor new teachers; they often remind me of me.

I wrote a post yesterday about where I thought we should be going in Scotland and what it might take to get there. I wanted to make the point that we should be prepared to push aside all of our resentments and gripes, all of our reasons to be cynical – of which there are many – and be prepared take control of our curriculum. It will take a huge shift in policy and approach to allow us to do that and it may well be naive; but whoever got anywhere without a bit of that. They may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one…

I hope that message came across in the post but I’m not sure I made that totally clear. I’m not asking for time; I’m not asking for a period of stability; I’m not even asking for any specific changes to the curriculum. I want to see a period where we take what we have now and start to talk about how it fits the needs of our children. We can debate forever whether the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence has been good or bad, how we’ve spent an inordinate time on S4-6 assessment, whether consultation has been non-existent or not. I’m bored with that. It’s like a revolving door of resentments – perceived or not  – and it’s getting us no where.

So in a year where we will have pay discussions, we should, as part of a modern day ‘McCrone Settlement’ be prepared to demand a say on the future of the curriculum. We should make promises that we will engage with research if we are given the space to do so – more teachers required please. I understand that there’s a lot of resentment out there, often rightly so, about time wasted. But if there’s a real chance of a curriculum approaching anywhere near ‘Excellent’ then it’s worth fighting for.

A few years ago, I bumped into that crusty old teacher. He’d gone back to Uni to study something he loved and he looked twenty years younger. He’d been burned out by the system. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to look back and be proud that I was part of something special.

In this together – there’s no other way

There’s a tendency to slip into absolutes in education: this works, that doesn’t; this has failed, that’s a success. In Scotland, it’s remarkable to notice that if , on Twitter, you make a positive comment about our curriculum, the same people will retweet and ‘like’; similarly, if you tweet a comment seemingly negative about CfE, there are the same names who jump in behind it. It’s not an especially healthy forum for debate. And, while we convince ourselves that, no matter what ‘side’ we’re on, we are right, it’s likely that both sides are probably wrong. Is there a point where we have to sit down and talk about why we might be wrong if we really want to make things right?

That situation is not helped by overblown, hyperbolic headlines about betraying a generation; I see enough wonderful things happening in our schools to know that that is nonsense. But to bury our heads in the sand and ignore our responsibilities to discuss the direction of travel is worrying. This week Professor Walter Humes threw his twopence into the debate. Seven Reasons Why Scottish Education is underperforming  It raises a host of difficult challenges which may rest uncomfortably with some, but I find it difficult to disagree with most of it.

Of course it is easy to dig our heels in and ignore these questions; after all, we often dislike to venture outside of our comfort zones. But to see these issues not as criticisms but genuine attempts to take us on to the next stage, with unity and purpose, is an opportunity not to be passed aside. There are incredible things happening in Scottish Education, inspirational. Our focus on Health and Well-Being is truly a wonderful thing; SCEL is changing the way we learn as teachers;  and many more. But there are undoubtedly issues with Literacy; there are issues with how we look after our teachers’ Health and Well being and how we allow them to take part in the process of change. It would be foolish to ignore those.

Teachers’ disquiet stems from a long term perception that our own knowledge and skills and experience are often by-passed by the next strategy or next ‘big thing’. We work ourselves into the ground for our pupils but, while we are allegedly ‘consulted’ about changes in the curriculum, things come to us from above, with an edict to implement. We may have been involved in the process of implementation but our views on pedagogical relevance are rarely sought. We have no emotional involvement in changes, no awareness that our prior experience has been taken to consideration. It’s not difficult to see why as professionals, we feel deflated and marginalised.

Real change takes hard work;  it’s not a document or a directive. As teachers we should be taking more responsibility to try and make sure our voices are heard on pedagogy. We are a talented, professional and vastly experienced work-force. However, it is essential that we are also a questioning profession. That doesn’t mean we don’t like what’s going on; it means that we want our say and we want to be a part of the process. In a year when teachers’ pay is once again about to be a huge focus of the public discourse, our ability to shape our own future is more important than ever. If teachers are given the time and space to shape the future of our curriculum, unlike in the shallow, piecemeal way we’ve had for the last few years, then we are capable of shaping the the futures of the children in our classrooms. And, remember, they deserve no less.