Time to rise above our station.

It’s 4.30 in the morning: I can’t sleep. Today is the fourth whole school development day I’ve organised – a morning of workshops led by staff, attended by staff – and, of course, I’m convinced it’ll be a disaster. I’ve woken up with a cold so that feeling of impending doom is magnified, that ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is kicking in. It’s never gone badly before but there is always a first time and I’m pretty sure today will be the day. I’m sick of feeling like this.

I’ve spent the last  two months coaxing and cajoling colleagues into leading workshops, delivering training, sharing ideas. The number of superb colleagues who have convinced themselves that ‘I don’t do anything special’ is both mystifying and heart-breaking. What is wrong with a system whose lead specialists feel like this; worn down by s system which seems to be against them, which often treats them like the enemy? A system that treats anyone who raises their head above sea-level as a show off or a trouble maker? But we’re not allowed to rise above our station, are we?

For a year I’ve felt like that. Last December my book came out. Pretty soon after, I received two tweets from followers; one a very prominent member of the Educational Twitterati, who reminded me ‘Not to get above myself’. The other one – someone who I have met – told me, after beginning writing for TES Scotland, that I was ‘a big mouth who no-one wanted to listen to’. Both comments have never been very far way for most of this year. Oh, I know that some will think I’m massively prominent on Twitter myself. Perhaps. But I’m a humble classroom teacher who has found himself apologising for being so prominent.

I spent much of my childhood being told I’d never amount to much, much of my school life being invisible. Even when I eventually became a teacher, for the first ten years there was little expectation that I would rise above the mediocre; I’d been conditioned to think that. So, being from my background, coming from where I come from, bringing out a book is an extreme rarity. As a result, I find it hugely difficult and uncomfortable to accept compliments. I expect and anticipate that someone will try to burst my bubble. And that means I turn down a load of offers to speak about my book. No more.

For anyone who is reading this, perhaps recognising these feelings, sharing my upbringing and background, it’s time to get above our station. It’s time to break free from sneering negativity and acceptance of mediocrity. I’m just a teacher like you; I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in a position where I can write a book. But for all of us, it’s time to shout from the rooftops – both literally and metaphorically; write if you don’t want to shout – that we have things to to say; that we will no longer be silent and humble and shy about the great things we do in our classrooms. Lift your head up; look people in the eyes: you are a teacher.

Moments of Growing Up

aberdeenAberdeen. I don’t know why it has taken me twenty years to write about this, but it has. Twenty years ago,  sitting on a train leaving Aberdeen for the last time. A life lived.

It seemed such an event at the time, such a turning point, a real change in my life. I had gone there an uneducated wanderer, in search of a life and a love, and was leaving a University graduate with everything in front of me. A train journey to something else, something different. Tom Waits on the Walkman – yes, a walkman, with cassettes – deliberately set up and picked out. ‘Goodbye, so long. The road calls me, dear.’ Not that it seemed like a choice, really. It was the end of something. The end of University. The end of the job I had, the last meaningless, mindless job I would ever have. The end of several relationships, relationships which would naturally end – associates, colleagues, course mates – and some I’d hope to keep or we’d promised to keep. Knew we would not.

‘Goodbye, so long.’ And the emotion I felt that day should not have been a surprise but it was. I knew this time was coming. A scarcely held back tear. A sudden realisation, as the train pulled away, that it was genuinely the end of something special, a time that would not only prove to be the making of me in many ways but one which would define who I was. Like a hugely important era in my history. ‘The road calls me, dear.’ The grey, wistful mumble of the train heading over the bridge, over the river, to a new world. The river that separates. Past from present, then from now.

 I’ve rarely returned to Aberdeen, merely the odd occasion, and never for very long. Not the same. Either I’ve changed or it has. Probably both. I think of the people I knew and no longer know and I smile. But I don’t regret, never regret. Aberdeen. It seemed like my home forever at the time. Should have known better. A life apart, that some other person lived. ‘Goodbye, so long.’ Tom Waits knew what he was on about.

There have been at least two other times in my life, at least, when I thought to myself that this was it for me, my life will never change. The first came when I was about twenty two. Still at home, still in a terrible nowhere job, still with the same friends. Don’t get me wrong, the friends I had then helped me through my terrible years, my drinking years. Always there, always by my side. And they would still be if life did not require us to live differently. Our proud, loud, male existence.

There never was a quiet pint, never ‘just the one’. And therein lies the problem.

No, if you went out, you went out. At about twenty two I recall an evening when one of our crowd, always this one – the loud and aggressive one rather than the loud and funny one – was particularly loud and aggressive. You could sense a tension in the crowd, had been for a while. We felt or knew that we were coming to the end of something but did not know how to do it.

A situation which almost came to blows, involving me for no other reason than silence and complicity. I didn’t need this any more. I remember very distinctly thinking that this could not go on. An epiphany which began the end of that particular part of my life. I recall walking (slightly) behind my staggering friends – for they were my friends, remember – and thinking that this could be it for me, This life, unless I acted. The next pub we went to – for we did go to another pub – saw me standing quietly to the side. I would like to say that I, somewhat romantically, gave a silent toast to my friends and left but that is not what happened. What did happen was that I brooded silently, eventually took a final look all around me, a final sip and walked out, home. Soon after, by coincidence rather than design, I left East Kilbride, much like leaving Aberdeen six years later. I continued to see these friends, occasionally,  for some time after but all had things to do, business to take care of, living to do and we lost touch. We all became different people.

Some of us actually grew up.

Not Just Confidence. But Integrity. A ‘sort of’ Review of ‘The Confident Teacher’ by Alex Quigley

confidentThere’s a long walk up from York City Centre to Huntington School but it’s a beautiful day, unexpectedly beautiful, and I’m soaking in it. My first visit to the city and, after a nervous, sleep-interrupted night in a TravelLodge, Research-Ed is getting ever closer. I’m listening to Teenage Fan Club. I recall it clearly; Songs From Northern Britain; a nod to my three hour trip from Glasgow the night before; the real Northern Britain. To the jangly guitar twang of ‘Ain’t That Enough’ the humble and ordinary looking Huntington School appears to my right. Yet despite that ordinariness, a welcoming aura surrounds the place.

That welcome feeling defines the school. Throughout the day, the words ‘honourable’, ‘humble’ , integrity’, pepper my notebook. Personified in their remarkable head teacher, John Tomsett, and the one speaker I really want to hear, Alex Quigley, Huntington School in May 2014 is everything you expect it to be. Pupils, in on a Saturday, justly proud of their school, go out of their way to assist. I get my talk out of the way – a poetry-based analysis of Scotland’s curricular development. Yeah, I know, right- and wallow in the atmosphere. If I had ever wondered about the kind of school I’d like to be a part of then on that day I found it.

Two years on, and both John and Alex have become successful authors. There’s a lot of them about in Education. The Twitter world has spawned a multitude of new voices. These two rise above them all. The humanity and integrity I witnessed two years ago shine on every page of John’s book – I blogged about it here – but Alex’s new book, The Confident Teacher, is a different thing altogether.  I loved his first book, Teach Now. Becoming a Great English Teacher. However, the new one achieves something of which most other Education books find themselves falling short.

Like the echo chamber of social media, very few teachers I know bother to read Edubooks. They don’t have the time. There’s a feeling that reading about new approaches and techniques is just another burden on top of the mountain of work we have to complete already. I can teach well. Why should I read your book? Alex’s book does something quite remarkable. I read a lot of these things and, perhaps for the first time, I think ‘The Confident Teacher’ speaks to teachers as equals. It understands the real issues we experience and never patronises. It is practical, positive, hopeful. It is a book written with integrity, humility and a deep, deep passion for teaching. It has knocked me sideways.

Leaving York that night on the evening train back to Northern Britain, I reflected on what I’d experienced that day. I remember little of the sessions apart from my own, the day was too much of blur for that. But I took away an image of the kind of experience I’d hope my school provided. I love my school and hope we display the characteristics of Huntington, at least on some days.

This might not be a book review as such, but I’d recommend Alex’s book to any teacher looking for some practical advice on how to improve our day. Reading it took me back a couple of years; to a school that operated on confidence, with confident staff and pupils. Read it now.

Missing the Music of What Happens To Us

phone-690091_960_720I suppose the last straw, the final nail, came when someone about two rows in front lifted up their phone to film the opening lines  of ‘Caroline, No.’ It wasn’t the first time that night that I’d wanted to shout out, ‘Put your phone down. He’s there. In front of you. Brian Wilson. You’re missing this!’ Our desire to capture what we think might be beautiful or valuable or historical, and the newly attained ability to do so – I wonder how many filmed moments are ever watched more than once or twice –  deflects our attention from the real moments, the moments we experience in the flesh.

And in our haste, we miss the shy couple who, instinctively, reach out for each other’s hand when they hear the first chords of ‘God Only Knows’, turning to smile fondly; the elderly gent, smartly dressed and previously reserved, jumping to his feet like an excited child for ‘Help Me Rhonda’; the involuntary gasp of many at the engrained familiarity of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice.’ The music of what happens to us.

It’s such a shame when we waste our time staring through the lens of a phone, hoping to capture a memory, especially when the truly interesting stuff is often happening all around us.

That desire to grab hold of the moment has become a commonplace factor in the classroom too. Teaching can be a collection of wonderful moments and technology allows us, more than ever before, to freeze those in time; social media inadvertently encourages us to share those moments, hoping they’ll be noticed and loved equally by others. Perhaps we have gone too far though. Choosing to capture the lightbulb learning moments can mean we miss the ‘Pet Sounds’ of real learning in our classrooms. Rather then the shiny, perfect essay by little Ryan, we miss the effort in Alice’s attempts to write in full sentences for the first time or the pleasure Ross displays after being praised for his improvement.

Increasingly, lately, and for too long, I’ve been too guilty of looking for those bits of teaching; my attention focused on one lens, missing what is really happening in my classroom, what is happening all around me. I’ve undoubtedly lost focus, forgotten what was important. So, for a while at least, I’m putting my lens away.

This is not a big huffy abandonment of Twitter or blogging. Just a recognition that, for a time, I need to put the phone away, step back a little, and find out what I loved so much about teaching in the first place. Rather than watch some wobbly footage of the best bits, I’ll have a look at the audience instead.

Your friends don’t really want to watch your footage of Brian Wilson, no more than they really want to see your holiday snaps. They’re probably not that over-excited about hearing about how many of your kids got ‘A’s  either. Not everything needs to be for forever. But just don’t miss out on the important bits. The music of what happens to us.

Gulp! Five Years On…

Back in the day, my first opportunity to have my writing in print came in the highly regarded, award-winning match day magazine -programme to you and me – of the great Partick Thistle. Fortnightly, more or less, for about six years, you could read about my childhood memories of watching my team, or ponder over the creative ways I could liken that week’s political events to the experience of being a Thistle supporter. All good things come to an end though. And my page had to come to an end too. I’d written about every memory, every experience, every possible thing I could. I stopped because I couldn’t possibly continue to force things on to the page. Better to let someone else have a go.

blog

From then on I concentrated on teaching. I began blogging exactly five years ago – Gulp – with the intention not of sharing my thoughts, but of expressing them in a way in which I could formulate and clarify my own ideas. While I was on Twitter, I hadn’t thought of the links between that and blogging, or how they could complement each other. What I did discover was that there was a whole new world of people who had things to say and things to share. Our school context didn’t cater for that. I wanted to write but hadn’t factored in the CPD possibilities.

I’m a much better teacher than I was five years ago so I suppose the blog title is an appropriate one. I’ve connected with hundreds of great people, many have become good friends. Blogging has opened doors for me that nothing else in my professional life has come close to. I’ve been invited to write articles for many other publications, been invited to speak at all sorts of conferences and Teachmeets. However, like my days as contributor to the Partick Thistle programme, I am coming to the end of the line with this. I’ve said as much as I have to say.

I’ve never wanted to be a ‘big-hitter’ on Twitter or anywhere else. I’ve never really wanted to leave the classroom. I’ve never really wanted to be seen as an expert in anything. My work with Pedagoo intended to be a way to get teachers talking in a way they’d never done before. We do that and continue to do so. I truly believe that the educational landscape is beginning to change in Scotland and we are a part of that. There are discussions going on in staffrooms – not all but many – which may never have happened before. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.

So 2016? I have two huge events happening in my life this year: one personal, one professional. Potentially game changing in many ways. But I think my blogging days may be coming to an end. I’d like to move into more creative writing – something I’ve done more of recently -so may mix my educational thoughts with that. So this is no big ‘I’m off. So long, and thanks’ speech. I may still blog occasionally. It’s just a realisation that I’ve come a long way in five years and I’m maybe ready to move on to something else. Blogging is a blast and, should you be considering it, get going. Be proud of it. I know I am.

The Book Whisperer- Scream it from the Rooftops. #favedubooks

Cross-posted from Pedagoo.orgIMG_0553
Being an English teacher, I still look and cringe at my first, probably, five years of teaching. Everything that had got me to where I was, everything which I had experienced up until that point and had supported me through the years of working in terrible jobs – the wilderness years, as I like to call them – had books to thank; books and my ability to read them and stick with them. What shames me is that by the end of my fifth year I had just about thrown in the towel when it came to encouraging Reading for Pleasure in my class.

At around about that point, I stumbled upon ‘The Book Whisperer’. Slightly cynical at first, the title sounded cheesy and cringeworthy, I’ll have to be honest. It, without a shadow of a doubt, changed me as a teacher. I read through this book with increasing ardour, angry at myself for forgetting why reading for pleasure is so important. Donalyn Miller, a teacher from Texas, had written a book which rekindled my belief in reading and one which is never very far from my desk whenever I contemplate reading for pleasure in the classroom. I return to it again and again.

What struck me was not merely the simple message that if we are to create and develop children who will go on to be life long readers – and who would argue with that? – then we have to live that philosophy every day in class, not merely when it suits us. I had become the teacher who drops reading when things get busy, assuming it to be a luxury a packed curriculum could not afford, but the passion and love for her students which oozes throughout the ’The Book Whisperer’ convinced me that there is another way: Time, Choice, and Love have become the backbone of my practice in developing readers.

Creating the conditions for our students to see reading for pleasure as a valued and valuable skill takes a lot of time and commitment but if we, especially as English Teachers, don’t do it, then who will? I’ve persisted with many of the strategist I found in this book – time to read every day, free choice, consistent support and discussion – even when it would have been easier not to. I’ve sacrificed other things in order to keep reading as a mainstay of every lesson. And, do you know what? My students make progress in all areas as well as leaving me having begun that process of becoming a reader.

If you’ve ever heard me rattle on at Teachmeets or Pedagoo sessions then you’re more than likely to have heard me mention ‘The Book Whisperer’. And, while I read some incredibly good Educational books on all sorts of subjects, this one is my favourite. Donalyn Miller has followed this up with more of the same in ‘Reading in the Wild’ but her first book is essential for those of you who are responsible for Literacy and promoting reading for pleasure. Indeed the message screaming from each page might be, “There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more.’ Read it soon.

‘You Make Me Wanna Be a Better Man.’ A review of ‘This Much I Know About Love Over Fear…’ by John Tomsett

There’s something about blogging which has provided me with a better understanding of how education has brought me to this point in my life.  The more autobiographical posts have allowed me to think of my own learning and,  I think, it is that approach which has helped me to improve in the classroom. In a sense, we often thrive on our autobiographies unconsciously when we are in the classroom. Reading John Tomsett’s book ‘This Much I Know About Love Over Fear’ exemplifies that exactly. Mr Tomsett has written  a beautifully nuanced reflection of his life and how it made him the man he is today.

I’ve met John on a few occasions – at a Pedagoo event and even in his own school at ReserachEd last year. Along with his Director of Learning and Reserach, Alex Quigley, there is something extraordinary about these two. Not merely where they work and what they create but their very presence convinces you of their commitment to the learning of their students. Mr Tomsett’s book is a reminder to all of us of the importance of learning in our lives and how our experiences influence where we go and what we do. It is a beautifully written, honest account of Mr Tomsett’s life in teaching and a life we could all all learn from.

At PedagooLondon a couple of years back, I heard Mr Tomsett speaking  about his challenging boys’ class and the writing they did on the Rumble in the Jungle. It was one of those sessions in which you could have sat for hours; not merely that I was stealing every idea I heard but John’s genuine love for these boys shone through in every word. He recounts that work again here in the book and it is compelling stuff. What wouldn’t I give to have been in that classroom with those boys. It is a stunning chapter, filled with compassion and hope.

There may be things you disagree with here – I’m not sure that the section on lesson planning made that particular part of teaching any less onerous – but his reasoning is honest, intelligently thought through and packed full of humanity and humility.  However, I was writing down lines from almost every chapter about how to be a better teacher and a better person. Reading Mr Tomsett’s book – and Alex’s excellent ‘Teach Now’ – confirmed that education books have reached a new era. Blogging has resulted in an explosion in writing – and good writing too – about education. Many more have a voice. ‘This Much I Know…’ is as much autobiography as instruction and all the better for that.

What we learn from Mr Tomsett’s book is that ‘love’ is a word that we should embrace in teaching not fear or feel uncomfortable with. A love of teaching. A love of colleagues. A love of learning. But, most importantly, a love of the students he teaches and is responsible for. Perhaps if we looked more to our own stories in education we may develop a greater understanding of our present. I loved this book and wish I could write as well. It has set a bar for my own writing.