What Vitas Gerulaitis Taught Me About Persistence

 

He was one of those players on the tour whom everyone knew; as famous for his flamboyant lifestyle as much for his tennis, he nevertheless, in public anyway, exuded a confidence which was hard to stifle. Vitas Gerulaitis famously entered a press conference feeling ten feet tall after finally beating his nemesis Jimmy Connors following years of defeats. He stared around the room, daring a question. Challenging everyone with a cold stare and a glint in his eye, he uttered the immortal words, ‘Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis seventeen times in a row.’ As well as being a killer line, there’s a magnificent persistence in that attitude from which we can all learn.

I’m approaching the end of my fifteenth year in teaching. I think it has been a good one. How do I know? I feel happier than I did last year? Maybe. My classes seemed to achieve and coped well with recent exams? Perhaps. However, it is probably because I know more about teaching now. I’ve come to a place where nothing really throws me in the classroom; I can cope with pretty much everything I need to deal with. I am now managing to merge good classroom practice with academic theory, gleaned through my Masters studies and additional reading. I can justify my decisions in and out of the classroom. I can challenge anyone in the room with a cold stare and a glint in my eye.

Our self-confidence as teachers should stem from our experience and what we know. The longer you teach, the more you should know about teaching, surely. However, I’m not sure this is always the case. Unless we underpin our practice with theory are we not destined to make the same mistakes again and again, perhaps without knowing that they are mistakes? The more I learn the more I realise I was probably metaphorically losing to Jimmy Connors every year. The high points often overcome by a sense of disappointment over this class or that; an awareness of what I should have done differently; an inability to avoid the same mistakes as last year.make it stick

I got to thinking about this the other day as I finished “Make it Stick’ by Peter C. Brown. A fascinating book about memory and information retrieval, it seemed to  challenge my existing thinking in just about every chapter.

‘We cannot remember every aspect of an event, so we remember those elements that have greatest emotional significance for us, and we fill in the gaps with details of our own that are consistent with our narrative but may be wrong’.

Our earliest memories of teaching have tremendous ‘emotional significance for us’, good and bad, but it is how we fill those gaps that helps us to become better teachers. Remembering where we went wrong and correcting that is the difference.

Every time something like that clicks for me there is a mini Vitas Gerulaitis inside, punching his fist in victory. Another wee notch to my racket. And I no longer make the mistake of being pleased when I get to the end of the book and feel satisfied that I understood it. My fist punching moment occurs at the end of lessons when I know my teaching has improved. I know more than I knew then. That’s why effective professional development that has impact is so crucial. It allows us to persist with a goal.

Nobody beats me fifteen years in a row.

 

Trying to Change Everything by Changing Everything – Part Four

So at this point, I see people rolling their eyes at my naivety; I hear them mutter ‘that’ll never happen’. Unless this is just a revolution in my head, where do we go from here? If we are to embark on genuine change for the better, avoiding just another folder full of soundbites and nice pictures where do we start?

Well, in August, every teacher in Scotland will be subject to Professional Update. This is a new scheme introduced by GTCS which makes engagement with professional learning a mandatory part of our job. Perhaps it should be already, of course it should, but it’s not. All teachers will be required to maintain a professional learning record and portfolio of evidence; discussion of this work and its impact will be part of the annual professional review and development process; and there will by a 5 yearly confirmation of this engagement to GTC Scotland. I’m not daft enough to think this will be a panacea for all ills but it will begin to turn the tide I think. The problems will arise if teachers find it difficult to access good quality research and professional development. That’s when we come in. I mean teachers like us here today. I’m currently undertaking some Masters study at Strathclyde Uni which has been the first Uni to start new courses with Donaldson’s recommendations in mind.

The course, Supporting Teacher Learning, is specifically targeted at research based professional development and how we can can become coaches or mentors in schools; how we can encourage and enthuse younger teachers to become action researchers; how we can tap into the wealth of experience we have in our staff rooms; teachers who have, rightly or wrongly, been tagged the staff cynics. These people have seen everything in the classroom. What a tragedy it is for that experience to go to waste. Creating and environment of trust is hugely problematic but essential.

So, a mandated commitment to professional learning? Will it work? It will if we step up and take responsibility; we don’t wait to be told; we see through the bull and start reading, start learning from each other. Forget the name, ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. It has never been anything but a burden. Not because it calls itself a curriculum and it’s probably not; not even because it has the word ‘excellence’ in it. It has been a burden because it has become merely a label. Like “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.” Just labels. Like Chartered Teacher. Just a label. And, as you know, when you label something you can compartmentalise it and hide it away and dismiss it as a thing. We love doing that in teaching. So good teachers get lost behind the facade of cooperative learning or Aifl or whatever the latest fad is.

An experienced teacher said to me recently that co-operative learning had changed her career. I was delighted for her, but also quite sad. Because I was looking at someone who was a brilliant teacher, absolutely brilliant, but she could only justify her success through her use of some daft arse strategy. Her class was great because she was great. If these gimmicks were so great we’d all be using them well. And we’re not. She could co-ordinate superb group work in her class. Nothing to do with co-operative learning.

Let’s stop labelling things and regain our pride in what we do.

 

Dear friends, dear lawgivers, dear parliamentarians, (dear teachers) you are

picking up a thread of pride and self-esteem that has been

almost but not quite, oh no not quite, not ever broken or

forgotten. 

 

So where are we now? This is a new curriculum which is about twelve years old now. We can’t wait and pontificate any longer. The last of the new exam courses come into being next year and that will be it. Full transformation of our entire school system, 3-18. That’s never been done before so it is a huge job to ensure that we get it right. But as I said in a blog post recently, change takes place in the staffroom. Despite all the cliches about teachers being at the heart of any curriculum; teachers being the most important people in the room; not everyone gets that. There might be reasons for it. Don’t know. But what I do know is that I won’t get another opportunity like this in my career.

I spend much of my time at this time of the year visiting trainee teachers and, while they seem more prepared than ever, it worries me that I tend to see indentikit lessons. These young teachers spend much of their time preparing lessons filled with trendy techniques without really understanding why they might be effective. They are unaware of the research. ITT colleges will change that and already are moving in that direction.

If you remember Tony Blair at the time of the Good Friday agreement. He said, ‘A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders.,’ breaking a promise in the same sentence. But we are on the verge of something. If we do it right we can change the educational experience of every Scottish child forever; perhaps we can start picking away at the child poverty problem.

Curriculum for Excellence? Not yet. But it will be. It will be.

 

What is it? We, the people, cannot tell you yet, but you will know about it when we do

tell you.

We give you our consent to TEACH, don’t pocket it and ride away.

We give you our deepest dearest wish to TEACH well, don’t say we

have no mandate to be so bold.

We give you this great CURRICULUM, don’t let your work and hope be other than great

when you enter and begin.

 

So now begin. Open the doors and begin.

                                          Edwin Morgan

Trying to Change Everything by Changing Everything – Part Three

So we have the blank slate, the space and freedom to change the curriculum. Where next? And where does research enter the picture, you may be wondering? The Chartered Teacher scheme died a death in 2011, but before that, in 2010, Graham Donaldson, who is a major figure in Scottish education and former head of HMI, which we still have, published a report, Teaching Scotland’s’ Future, making some ambitious claims to transform Teacher training in Scotland and, subsequently, professional development in general.

Scattered throughout the report are references to Masters study from the beginning of every teacher’s career. He doesn’t go so far as to say that Teaching should be a Masters only profession but he doesn’t stop too far away.

‘Masters level credit should be built into ITE qualifications, induction year activities and CPD beyond, with each NQT having a Masters Account opened for them.’ p.76

Graham Donaldson 2010 Teaching Scotland’s Future

He recognises the need for every teacher to engage in academic Masters level research. He suggests that all new teachers have a ‘Masters’ account opened as they enter the classroom and they will be expected to add to that as their career continues.

‘Evidence suggests that CPD is often evaluated in terms of the quality of provision, rather than the impact on improving outcomes for learners’ p. 63

And here’s the thing. Here’s my big point. We can talk about what we’ve to teach, even how we’ve to teach but if the teachers coming out of training college are no better than we had then how can things change? I’m an English teacher. Some days I’m a genius, you should carry me round the town square shoulder high in celebration. Absolutely brilliant. On other days I can be terrible. Should never be allowed back in the classroom. But, on most days, I’m very good. That’s where excellence comes from. The consistency of very good.

But I teach 150 kids every day. I mark their books. I prepare 24 lessons out of 30 every week. Like most teachers I have very little time for research. My initial training didn’t prepare me for that, didn’t expect it of me. I seek events like this out. I go to teach meets which can be very good, mostly are. I helped develop Pedagoo which is a fabulous organisation.

I turn up to events because I’m a bit weird. No offence but if England is anything like Scotland we are a drop in the ocean. And I think that ocean indicates the difficulties in a changing anything in teaching.

What I hope Donaldson’s recommendations will begin is a slow revolution in Teacher Training where, eventually, every teacher is Masters educated. Where the academic rigour excepted of every teacher THROUGHOUT their careers attracts the smartest people in the room. That teaching is no longer a rest home for the indifferent or a haven for those who couldn’t do anything else or were too frightened to leave the comfort and institutionalised environment of school.

And, slowly perhaps, we begin to change the make up of the teachers who enter classrooms of every school in Scotland. Teachers whose practice is underpinned by academic research alongside rigorous lesson study. Teachers who can smell the bullshit of edubabble and can spot an educational turkey a mile away; who recognise that, in general, all collegiality in schools is contrived; who take responsibility for increasing the standards, for raising the bar, for putting and end to the excuses for low expectations. Poverty is a terrible blight on any society but the cries of ‘at least she got something’ when a kid manages to pass one exam at the lowest level is an even greater stain on that society. Let’s stop shrugging our shoulders accepting that.

Edwin Morgan again:

What do the people want of the CURRICULUM? They want it to be

filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its

A nest of fearties is what they do not want.

A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.

A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.

And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’ is

what they do not want.

 

Our new curriculum can change this.

Trying to Change Everything by Changing Everything – Part Two

As part of the McCrone Agreement, ‘A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century’, an alternative route was provided for experienced teachers who did not want to enter management; those who had reached the top of pay scale and had no where else to go.

We now had the Chartered Teacher programme – a Masters level programme which would provide a different direction for those who didn’t want to go along the management route and run a department. I was one of those. I wanted to develop my teaching practice. The programme consisted a series of modules and, after each two, teachers automatically received a salary increment.

(At this point, I would like to apologise for repetition but the next section is part of a blog post I wrote in the past. I repeat it here for, hopefully, obvious reasons)

There is a scene in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, which reminds me, in a strange kind of way, of schools and their teachers. It’s the scene where Graham Chapman, as Brian, is being chased by a band of followers, who are convinced that he is the Messiah. As the group moves on, a character played by Spike Milligan shouts for attention, convinced he has the answer to their prayers. The group ignores him. They walk off in another direction. He shrugs his shoulders. He walks off in the opposite direction. Not that important to him, really. We give up so easily.spike

There are various ways to metamorphose this scene into schools, especially in the current CPD context. The group are completely ignoring the one man there claiming he has the answer. How many times has someone popped up in your department with a sure-fire way of improving Learning and Teaching, be it Writing/ Reading/ any other thing we do every day, badly, allegedly? And how many times has this person been ignored and dismissed as another ambitious wannabe manager looking for a foothold on the ‘golden’ ladder of promotion?

But what about Spike, himself? Giving up at the first sign of any obstacle to dispensing his vital, perhaps even crucial, view of the problem area. Give up. Nobody is listening anyway. Sound familiar?

However, you could see the real culprit as the so-called messiah figure who always seems to be disappearing round the corner at the least opportune moment. I’ve been teaching for almost fifteen years now and in that time I’ve experienced several of these remote messiahs. Currently ‘Co-operative learning’. And very often I blindly follow, hoping for the answer, just around another corner, just out of reach.

And for me that symbolises the disconnect when it comes to professional development in teaching. There are great things happening all over the place but no real co-ordinated connection, no-one persisting in getting those messages across.

Let’s return to Edwin Morgan:

 

Is it not a mystery? The parts cohere, they come together

like petals of a flower, yet they also send their tongues

outward to feel and taste the teeming earth.

Did you want classic columns and predictable pediments? A

growl of old Gothic grandeur? A blissfully boring box?

Not here, no thanks! No icon, no IKEA, no iceberg, but

curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles and

heavens syncopations and surprises. Leave symmetry to

the cemetery.

 

In part three, I will discuss the more recent Donaldson Report and how this may lead the way to something better.

Trying to Change Everything by Changing Everything- Part One

This is the first part of four posts which will make up my presentation from Research-Ed York on May 3rd 2014. I have chosen to present it in parts because it adds up to about 3000 words and, heck, even I couldn’t be bothered reading all of that in one go. Feel free to comment, good or bad.

 

Imagine this scenario: you are genuinely given a blank slate when it comes to your curriculum. When the powers that be came to a conclusion that this way wasn’t working and they wanted to start all over again. What would you do?

This sort of happened in Scotland around the turn of the century, not long after Scotland was given Devolved powers. We were given the gift of one of those big conversations that Tony Blair used to have: it’s just me guys. The ‘National Debate on Education’. Once again, inequality in Scotland had reached embarrassing levels, one in five children living in poverty. and, unsurprisingly, educational achievement. That ‘big’ conversation with the population of Scotland formed the roots of Curriculum for Excellence, roots which are still developing twelve to thirteen years later.

On 9 October 2004, the Scottish Parliament was officially opened. Our national poet, Edwin Morgan wrote a specially commissioned poem for the occasion. Today I’m going to use that poem as part of my talk, taking the odd liberty as I go. You’ll find the full, original text here:

 

                ‘Open the Doors! Edwin Morgan

 Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!

We have a curriculum which is more than a curriculum.

There is a commerce between inner and outer,

between brightness and shadow, between the world and those who

think about the world.’

 

The reason I mention this salubrious occasion, the opening of Parliament, is that almost exactly a month later the initial document ‘A Curriculum for Excellence’ was published. This document identified four key purposes of education; those that enable young people to become, “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.”

Those eight words were the first words placed on that blank slate.

However, you’re kind of setting yourself up for a massive fall if you put ‘Excellence’ in the title of your curriculum. The original ‘writers’ of the initial document never intended it to be a curriculum even. They provided some thoughts and guidelines which resulted in that ‘eight -word manifesto,’ as I have called it. What happened after that was up to us. A true blank slate, if you like. And who could argue with those as outcomes for our children. Successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Well, therein lies the rub. Who decided what a successful learner was? Or an effective contributor? And why not a confident learner or a responsible individual?

So, where was the research? Why am I here today at Research ed? Well, there was none. There was a whole lot of talk about what we wanted from our education system, from our schools, from our teachers; but nothing like real research-based evidence to say that those eight words, those four ‘capacities’ – as they came to be called – were based on anything other than a dream. However, for me it was dream worth fighting for.

I had been teaching for about five years by this point and genuinely, naively perhaps, felt a huge surge of optimism about what might happen. A blank page? Surely that was a good thing? What happened might seem frighteningly predictable. IMG_0715This small document turned in to a series of rather longer documents which eventually would be gathered into one of those impressively huge folders we all having gathering dust somewhere. IMG_0713In each there was a series of posters which looked like this. IMG_0716From eight words to ‘War and Peace’.

But still. Teachers were, it seemed, being given more freedom than ever before to create curricular content. The four capacities developed into eight areas of focus. Apart from that, off you go. I’d always heard the cry for autonomy and ‘let us get on with it’. Our bluff was being called. And that brought its own challenges. When you’re given that blank slate you’d better ensure that it works, that children are being challenged and are learning. It might be an uncomfortable thing to admit but teacher autonomy doesn’t always ensure that. And when the more conservative sections of our society who didn’t believe that change was required, that did not trust or support our teachers, sensed that problems were afoot then these were the stories which filled the press. CfE wasn’t working. Children weren’t being taught; they spent all their time in groups, discussing stuff. With no challenge or rigour.

But don’t believe the stories. The problems would be about how to teach children with such a level of challenge that the new way would raise the bar for them rather than a weaker form of what we had before. Yes, the big folder was liberally sprayed with terms like ‘21st century learning’ and ‘child centred-learning’; but there is nothing in there that suggests that we should lower expectations. The word ‘knowledge’ only appears once in the English and Literacy outcomes– ‘using what I know’ also appears once – but it is assumed, I think. So where does research come in? It became clear that the only way we would change for the better was through improved teaching. Easy.

In part two, I’ll discuss some of the difficulties in changing the culture in schools and how CPD needs to be the focus of these attempts to change everything.

There is No Beginning

There is no beginning. We saw Lewis

laid down, when there was not much but thunder

and volcanic fires; watched long seas plunder

faults; laughed as Staffa cooled…

(From ‘Slate’ by Edwin Morgan)

 My National 5 class are working on ‘Slate’ this week as part of their compulsory Scottish text study. Edwin Morgan wrote it in 1979, in the light of the last Independence referendum. We Scots voted for Independence but, apparently, not enough of us. It is a poem, I think,  about the difficulties of change while accepting that change has always been with us. It is a poem about persistence over time. It is never easy, often damaging, but always leaves something better in its wake. I think.  After attending the Higher English Implementation meeting with the SQA today, I can see some parallels.morgan2

While we’ll see a new Advanced Higher course in the next year or two, Higher English implementation may be seen as the final piece of a very big, 3-18 jigsaw. The new curriculum has been changing for years but the final assessments – the last ‘exam’ most pupils will sit in English – will be in place for most next year. Like “‘Slate’ it’ll be a bumpy ride. However, I saw some real progress today; progress towards an education system I want to be a part of; an Education system that sees assessment as an ongoing process, allowing more autonomy for the teacher. Eventually.

We often forget that we have not merely been transforming parts of our education system over the last ten years; it is not about changing exam systems or transition between primary and secondary or early years. It is a huge transformation of education from ages 3-18; and that has never been done before. It is a move towards a more equitable system; a move away from a system where those who are the best at passing exams prevail. There are many who are concerned by that change; perhaps they are more secure with the way things were; perhaps they feel that change is happening too soon. I get that. But when I step away from my own personal concerns –  the things I am dealing with in the classroom on a day-to-day basis – and look at the bigger picture, I can see the dust settling and a better land in its place.

Morgan recognises ‘thunder and volcanic fires’ as Scotland settled into the form it has become. We certainly have that. Staffrooms are split over the new changes. The negative media reports on the Curriculum certainly don’t help with parental involvement and support. There are troubling things happening as implementation occurs. However, there are many, many more good things. Let’s talk them up. Let’s make it our professional duty to do so. You many only see ‘the sorry glory of a rainbow’ but it’s there and it’s beautiful.

Morgan starts his poem with ‘There is no beginning.’ He is right. Our education system has constantly changed and constantly come up against resistance as it does so. There are still loads of questions and, perhaps, we won’t find the answers for some time. Brian Boyd’s paper for the Jimmy Reid Foundation, released on Monday, certainly paves the way. I started to see the progression of courses today and to understand how I can raise the bar and challenge my classes to achieve. There is no beginning. There was no beginning. Let’s now make sure we do it right.

What Exactly Are We Developing on Development Days?

In all of my fourteen years of teaching I’ve never known a time when workload was such an issue for me. Perhaps it’s an age thing; perhaps I just don’t have the energy to cope with what I used to be able to do. More than likely though it is the increased expectations of a new curriculum, with new courses to adapt, when nothing else appears to be slipping from the table. So at no other time has Professional Development been more important for a workforce which, at times, seems to be approaching breaking point. But, what exactly makes effective CPD?

It is not often the expert who schools buy in at considerable expense to speak to whole staff gatherings. I have listened to some wonderful speakers on Education over the years – and some not so wonderful – who have both entertained and moved me with stories of effective strategies and wonderfully inspiring classroom experiences. But, though I often leave feeling much better about myself, I am no further forward in implementing whatever they we’re supposed to be talking about in the first place. Transference is a hugely difficult thing to achieve. There are so many factors to contemplate when we adapt change in the classroom.

It is not often the Local Authority ‘official’, chosen to attend an In-service Day to impart the latest wisdom on LA target setting. Sitting on uncomfortable chairs for an hour, watching someone talk me through every word of a Powerpoint Presentation rarely teaches me what they want me to learn. I generally become more understanding of the way we expect our pupils to learn, though, and can comprehend exactly why we can bore them with uninspiring delivery. Perhaps if they convinced us why it is important rather than simply telling us that it is, we may reap more benefits from days like these.powerpointless

I would even go as far as to say that it is not often the ‘course from the catalogue’ which we decide might interest and inspire us when we get back to class. We can all remember the time when we’ve sat in a seminar on something incredibly inspiring, determined to go home that night and construct a series of lessons around it immediately. More often than not the reality of our day-to-day business results in that folder going on a  pile of folders we may never get to. In time, that great feeling is forgotten and you can’t remember what you were thinking about in the first place. So what might work then?

It seems to me that the way we ensure our development has impact – and surely that much mean better learning for the pupils in our classrooms – then we need to be convinced that it will have impact. We need to recognise the shortfalls in the abilities of our pupils and, as a result, recognise the deficiencies in our own teaching. Then, perhaps, Professional Development will achieve the sort of outcomes we’ve been missing. I can look back on countless hours of wasted development time and would weep if I wasn’t so busy. We need to remember that Development Days are not merely a day out of the classroom. They are Development Days. What exactly are they developing?