We Must Do Better Than This

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 6th October 2017, adapted and developed from an earlier post of mine,)

The cup slams down on to the desk. Lukewarm coffee splashes onto the pile of documents I’ve yet to read. I don’t sit down in my chair, I collapse into it. The chair doesn’t invite me. I surprise it. In revenge, the wheels send me backwards into a cabinet. Three ring binders, piled precariously, fall to the ground. I can’t be certain but I’m sure my sighs can be heard in at least three adjacent classrooms. I stare at the ten e-mail requests I have received since the beginning of that last double period. This can’t be what it’s all about. It just can’t be.

‘What just happened there?’ should be the question most on my mind. ‘Why did that lesson go so badly?’ I should think about the endless planning I did for this lesson; the immaculate resources I prepared; the constructive yet essential use of ICT. The clear outcomes set, the challenging but achievable goals. Everything was perfect; it should have been perfect. And, of course, I should have been thinking about these questions. But I wasn’t. I had ten minutes to get ready for the next lesson. Another one I had planned for ages. I didn’t have time for questions.

That the rest of the day went well doesn’t really matter. They usually do. However, when I’m driving home, when I’m eating dinner, when I’m spending time with my wife discussing normal things, I know damn well I’ll be thinking about that lesson. I’ll be blaming myself and punishing myself and coming to the conclusion that I cannot and never will be able to be much good at this teaching thing. I’ll be back at my desk for the obligatory two or so hours of marking and preparation. I’ll be in school at 7.30 next morning to go through it all again.

Perhaps this portrays the reality of an impossible job. Perhaps it merely confirms the reality that you never stop learning. Reflecting on what goes wrong makes us stronger. However, nineteen years down the line I’ve finally arrived at the point where I know that, no matter how hard I’ve tried to get over it, that feeling never leaves you. Twenty four hours a day. I’ve dreamt of bad lessons, of troublesome students, of difficult colleagues. I’ve woken up at three in the morning worrying about course work. It never goes away.

I generally love my job. In all those years, there have rarely been days on which I wasn’t excited about getting into school. Recently though that has been a lot harder. The increasing awareness that the big and bold project that is Curriculum for Excellence is nothing but a pipe dream, crushed under the weight of poor implementation and bad decision-making; the inevitable new strategy added on to the pile of those we barely had time to implement last session; all added to a creeping feeling that, despite everything, nothing much has changed in Secondary School. We attempt to develop a Broad General Education from S1 to S3 without any real commitment to changing our timetabling structures. So we resort to what we know. Exams. The tail wagging the dog, once again.

We’re told things must change though.

The First of September was a quiet Friday, it seemed. Like many teachers, I’d been back a couple of weeks and just getting used to a new timetable and new classes. I might never have noticed it had I not been sent a link on Twitter, but there it was. Another major report released quietly on a Friday afternoon, lost in the maelstrom of the school day. The Teachers Workforce Planning for Scotland’s Schools document has much to discuss, much to debate.

The report suggests that – and as an English teacher I raised an eyebrow at this – new teachers, unless they wanted to teach English, wouldn’t require Higher English on entry to Teacher Education but at the point of exit. I wonder how this will go down with those who see TeachFirst as a way to attract ‘high quality’ graduates? Shouldn’t we expect high levels of Literacy to be in place when a student leaves school?

There were interesting comments on a return of the much-maligned Chartered Teacher Programme. Recognition that promoted posts were scarce and teachers were leaving, or planning to leave the profession, due to lack of opportunity, is important. However, there are many whose progress throughout the Chartered Teacher Scheme was curtailed last time round.

But that’s not really my concern for the moment. If you’re like me, you’ll sit through meetings about this and smile. ‘Of course, we’ll read that document. Of course, we’ll reflect and discuss the main points.’ Of course, we won’t, probably. I’ll add it to the workload document I didn’t have time to read, and the follow up report. That one is underneath the National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan.

Oh, there are the new Literacy Outcomes that came out in June; the Education Governance Report that came out in June; the Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education Delivery Plan which also came out this year.

Excuse me while I slam my coffee cup down on the desk again.

You’d never guess from the media coverage, but we teachers are utterly fantastic at what we do. We teach kids to be better than they ever thought they could be, work harder than they ever thought they would. And we do it every day. Enough with the documents though. I’m like that drawer in your kitchen, full of carrier bags. You know it’s so crammed full that you can hardly open it but you keep cramming another one in now and again.

I want to get back to loving this again. There must be a better way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing Our Texts Carefully

I suppose it’s the nature of reading, being an adult and a reader and having a pile of books that never seems to diminish, but I never read enough children’s or young adult fiction. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of or happy about but there you go.  Finding books for the kids in my classes is a hugely important and rewarding part of my job so keeping up-to-date with what’s new should be something I keep on top of. And there shouldn’t be an excuse. Walking through your local High Street bookshop, you’ll see an explosion of colour as books for young people are marketed so beautifully now; some of them are even fabulous.

I had the great privilege of reading two such books recently, both of which were linked thematically and blew me away. The first one is a book I’m teaching for the first time: Patrick Ness’s ‘A Monster Calls’. The second, ‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ by John Boyne called out to me from a shelf in the school library. Both dealing with the difficulties of coping with loss and family illness, we follow the lives of our protagonists through mystical, magical worlds as they struggle to face up to family tragedy.  Both are beautifully written and heartbreakingly moving.

Like many, I first came across  John Boyne with the publication of  ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. Despite the unsettling nature of the subject matter I found it extraordinary. The beautiful tale of two young boys and the friendship which see them through horrible times is both shocking and tragic.

‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ has a more mystical feel. Noah runs away from home and finds himself in a toyshop run by an elderly man. The man’s stories allow Noah to reassess his choices and face up to the real reason he leaves in the first place. Slowly, we begin to see through the fantasy and see a little boy struggling deal with a painful truth about his family. ‘The thing is, she made me a promise, you see. And I think she’s going to break it. And I don’t want to be there when that happens.’ It’s a powerful and moving novel, and a hugely important one. The denouement will leave you stunned with mouth agape.

There is also a similar element of tragedy in ‘A Monster Calls’. Like Noah Barleywater, Conor is struggling to face up to his own monsters; the truth about his inevitable future. He is visited by a monster at 12:07 at night, with tales intended to help him. Conor fights against the monster until, slowly, the truth begins to emerge. ‘Many things that are true fell like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmers’ daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving’. Patrick Ness seems to have nailed that ability to create characters struggling to find their way in the world. His prose is mesmerising, characters wholly believable and I love his writing.

The power of great literature provides us with opportunities to approach difficult subjects in the classroom. Our compassion for both Noah and Conor results in powerful conversations with children; conversations which allow them to develop empathy and, perhaps, to begin to understand challenges in their own lives. We must never underestimate the importance of what we choose to teach as, beyond the story, we can engage, affect and influence our learners and open them up to worlds they may never visit.

Time – our most valuable resource.

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 23rd June 2017)

It is difficult to talk to fellow teachers about real change in Scottish Education without coming across the thorny topic of Time. There is no shortage of commitment, no lacking in interest in new ideas, new strategies. But that’s not enough, is it? We can provide as many as ideas as we like, create as many resources as we possibly can; without the time to properly implement those ideas we will more than likely wander around the edges, more anxious than ever about what we may be missing. Teaching is a series of habits, of learned behaviours, and to change what we do takes real commitment and time from all involved for implementation.

It is this dichotomy which frustrates teachers most, I think. We see the wonderful work by organisations like SCEL (Scottish College of Educational Leadership) and their efforts to get into as many schools as possible, leading the way in new, radical approaches to continuing professional development, but often return to our classrooms overrun with tasks to complete and classes to prepare. And, when faced with those pressures, we return to the habits which successfully get us through our day. It’s not that we don’t want to be leaders; we merely find that the space to implement real change is filled with other things we must do.

I have always been wary of acronyms in Scottish Education. Once we use them, they can become meaningless words, easy to dismiss. However, more and more I’m beginning to see SCEL as our most important. Whatever your definition of leadership, it would be difficult to argue that taking responsibility for our own development is not part of that.

Money is certainly there. Investment in SCEL, in the Pupil Equity Fund, in the Attainment Challenge, in the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. Professional Development opportunities have changed completely over the last ten years. However, our opportunities to benefit from them have not.

Imagine what we could achieve if, instead of a cupboard full of resources provided for our National courses, we were provided with the more valuable recourse of Time. Time to collaborate properly; time to innovate properly; time to embed new habits and transform our classrooms: instead of struggling to cope with what we have already and finding ourselves vilified in the press for our reluctance to change.

There is no greater resource than our teachers. To improve their skills, to improve their ability to teach our young people, then we need to give them what they need. Having SCEL is a ground-breaking achievement but without the time to adapt we may be missing a massive opportunity. Let’s not do that. Please?

‘You and Me, all we want to be is lazy’

Of all the things that have begun to happen to me as I get older, increasing claustrophobia is my most concerning. Whenever I’m in a position where I can’t see a way out – whether an exit or an excuse – I start to get anxious and feel my heart rate increasing. More and more , I avoid social occasions, certainly if there is likely to be a large crowd: more recently I’ve begun to dread larger CPD events, especially ones where the ‘presenter’ asks the ‘audience’ to do some work.  I feel the same way when Bruce Springsteen turns his microphone to the audience: ‘No, Springsteen. YOU sing!’

That feeling is probably the reason why online learning appeals to me. I can read things when and where I want: there is no one with flipchart paper or a microphone to put me on the spot. And, to cap it all off, I don’t have to tell anyone who I am or where I’m from or what I hope to get from the day. Seriously? If you’re running a CPD day and have to ask that then there’s a problem. Indeed, if you’re an educational ‘consultant’ and need that reassurance then you really need to up your game. If you’re selling your product you should be clear what it is from the start.

But online learning is much more appealing to me. Sometimes. The comforting delight in knowing that you can give up at any time means that, for the most part, I give up at any time. Never finish things, I dip in to blogs and research papers and find books, and get about half way through them and give in, learning lots of little things along the way. And, knowing I don’t have to ‘feedback during plenary’, it is massively satisfying. But it’s different when you’re an adult. I’m not sure how I would have got on if I had something like ‘Flipped Learning’ when I was at school.

That tendency to give up is probably why these things won’t work for everyone in schools. It is in our nature to be lazy. As Daniel Willingham says in ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, ‘Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.’ Some of my students may love online learning; some may hate it; most, I think, would love the idea but never find the motivation to do it on their own. Flipped learning makes a lot of in correct assumptions about the willingness of children to work in their own time.

So, while crammed classrooms are probably claustrophobic for some kids, it really is the best way for us to teach a class of thirty. It’s not perfect by any means but I’m yet to be convinced that more ‘open’ approaches to learning can work for every child. We have a responsibility to those kids who needs us most, those disadvantaged by background, and new, untested strategies are often vanity projects. Teaching them well, in the best possible way, is our duty. Let’s not take risks with that.

What’s Up, Docs? Digital Technology in English.

As  an English teacher I get no greater pleasure when I see a classroom full of children engrossed in a book. Whether that is a focused ten minutes on their own choices or hanging on every word of Macbeth, books are what got me here and books are what it should be about. So when it comes to tech, I’ve always approached with caution. With any new ‘innovation’, I always begin with two questions: will this help reduce my workload rather than increase it and will it genuinely be a better way to teach kids stuff? If the answer to either of those is ‘No’ then I’ll ignore it.

I have real concerns that some of the major international tech firms are looking on at Education in the UK and are rubbing their hands with glee. So much money; so much possibility. The blind swallowing of this thing called ‘21st Century skills’ often disguises the fact that good learning is good learning no matter the tools we have in front of us. But is it incumbent on us all to find out what might work for our classrooms and ourselves? Perhaps. Again, approaching with caution – and a firm eye on the price tag – is key.

Having said that, though, it is our professional responsibility to utilise the best strategies for our classrooms. Using effective tech is already part of what we do in Scotland. The Government issued document ‘Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through the Use of Digital Technology’   states that: Digital technology is already embedded within Scottish education. It has a place within Curriculum for Excellence, Initial Teacher Education and the Professional Standards set by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS).’ So, knowing that, I have always tried to use the best resources I could find for my classes. The danger comes, however, when we use tech just because it is there.

I have recently been dabbling with the  ‘Classroom’ suite of tools from a very big tech company. For writing in the senior school I have begun to see it as hugely impressive. Our students have to produce a Folio for Higher and National 5. Using Docs this term has allowed me to follow progress very closely, to mark and assess as they go along, and avoid the chasing up of late bits of paper. It both cuts down on my workload and helps the students to make progress. Sold. I would never use it with younger kids; they need to write accurately with pen or pencil before they should move on to more focused tools but for seniors it works really well.

As teachers we should be able to assess how tech works most effectively. Kids have loads of gadgets but are not as tech savvy as we may be lead to believe. In fact it is often  lazy assumption. They have tools with great power. Whether we can tap into that or not remains to be seen but we should find out of ourselves. Tech, if anything, should allow us to extend the classroom, providing genuine opportunities for learning. If it doesn’t do that the we should leave it alone. And get back to the books.

Show a Little Respect: Perhaps We Do Have More in Common

I have always resisted the urge to comment on the Michaela School in London. Aside from being a particularly heated, often nasty, occasionally cruel debate, I never see it as my place to comment on a school I’ve never been to, never worked at. It seems that we in Scotland have more with which to concern ourselves. However, their successful Ofsted report this week spurred me on to write something; their undoubted success might be symbolic of a greater divide in educational discourse.

I have read many blogs from their teachers, from their visitors, from their critics. And, while there may be things which seem anathema to me as a teacher, from what I’ve read and heard the kids love it at Michaela; teachers love working there; outsiders love visiting. That should be enough, shouldn’t it? Of course it should. Kids who wear their uniform with pride, set high standards for themselves and are polite and erudite is a noble aim. How Michaela get to that point is really nothing to do with anyone else.

And that’s not a damning indictment of anyone else’s school. There are great schools everywhere: not all of them have the same approaches as Michaela yet they work. I work at a Secondary School in a firmly working class area and we are a great school, improving all the time. But are the kids polite all the time? No. Do they always do their homework? No. They often come from backgrounds where school and education is not valued and that’s a genuine concern. There are a whole host of cultural reasons why schools become what they are. Michaela started from scratch, taking the opportunity to embed cultural and educational habits from the beginning and I commend them for that.

So, for those who feel antagonism towards Michaela and what they do, I wonder if it’s because we feel that their success is  slap in the face for what our own schools are doing, in some way their being right makes us wrong. It doesn’t. It’s just a school doing what they do very well indeed. I see teachers trumpeting their Ofsted/HMIe success all the time on social media. I often see criticism when poor reports are issued. We should all be delighted when any school does well. Their students deserve no less.

Our recent election cycle saw opposition parties in Scotland criticise our schools as disaster areas; oh, how the SNP have ruined our education system. And while there are undoubted problems, much of the criticism was dishonest nonsense. My greater concern though was for the kids sitting exams at the same time, hearing how terrible they were, how bad a deal they’d been served. Think about how the kids at Michaela feel when they read criticism of a school of which they are very proud. We should be celebrating the success of any school, embracing the good things happening. That doesn’t mean we have to be just like them, although there may well be lessons to learn on both sides. We might find that we have more in common than we think.

What’s Grown Ups Going to Think?

There is a moment in ‘Lord of the Flies’ when Simon, the artistic, religious visionary, speaks an uncomfortable truth. ‘Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.’ The boys in the story begin to show what happens when all rules, all modes of decency, are eroded. I thought about this recently when reading some of the sneering tweets aimed at the hashtag, PedagooFriday.

I created #PedagooFriday six years ago;  blame me. I wanted to create a space where anyone could share a positive experience from their classroom and, perhaps, develop a happier tone at the end of the week. I’m very proud of what it became, even though I have no input into its running now. Of course, there will be things that are not so great, things that you might feel are nonsense. However, we should welcome new voices even if we may disagree. If not, we welcome a world of ‘Lord of the Flies’ and the atmosphere of ‘survival of the fittest’ pervades.

When the rules, or lack of them,  are established, we manoeuvre in our attempts to be one of the tribe, to impress Jack, the most powerful, strongest, angriest voice. Standing just behind his shoulder, we can throw spear-like tweets knowing that someone has our back. Who we hurt, or upset, is neither here nor there because this is a Twitter and you choose to enter the arena. There is no attempt to enter dialogue, to explain; no attempt to empathise or understand. It is acting without responsibility and, we soon discover, there are no rules.

So, many entering the fray for the first time, sharing their practice, find themselves spurned and mocked very publicly. Jack and his tribe sniff out a weakness; perhaps retweet with a mocking aside; perhaps write a hilariously scathing blog post in retort. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Because Twitter is in the public domain and if you choose to land on the island then what do you expect? Very quickly you are asked to choose one side of the island over another and you better make the right choice because after that anything goes.

Except it doesn’t. We may well choose to share ideas others may think of as silly or frivolous. It may well be the first time we’ve cleared our throats and, like Percival Wemys Madison, ‘The Vicarage, Harcourt St, Anthony, Hants’, have chosen to speak up. We are, for the most part, trying to find our voice in the scary world of Edutwitter. And who can say that at some point we haven’t tweeted something we later regretted or were embarrassed by. When I joined Twitter seven years ago, the educational landscape was a fairly empty one. Now it is a ferocious island where, it seems, it is every man for himself.

So you may think you are right in everything you say; you may even be right. But it takes bigger person to recognise the teacher behind the idea; the teacher tentatively stepping on to the beach, finding their way. It takes a bigger person to welcome all to the debate. Our humanity is based on how we treat others. Social media should be no different. If we don’t consider that, like the characters in ‘Lord of the Flies’, as soon as proper adult turns up, you just look like little boys again.