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.

#4countries Post-Brexit.

When it was created back in 2011, part of the thinking behind Pedagoo was the belief  that if you put a group of teachers in a room and allowed them the time and space to discuss all things education, then great things can happen. Put them in a nice room? Even better. Treat them like intelligent professionals? Fantastic. I’ve just returned from a weekend at the Norton House Hotel where I spent two days with 25 educators from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. And, yes, great things did happen. Seven hours of sessions on Saturday, four on Sunday, ram-packed with intelligent conversation, searching for common ground.

And it went on through dinner and breakfast. Other than a set of bullet points for discussion there was no plan, no agenda. We found a path through the complexities of each of the four education systems and began to discover a way forward. It was a challenging and exhausting experience – by five thirty on Saturday I was out for the count – but hugely rewarding and wonderfully invigorating. While recognising the blocks to progress, what was fascinating to find out was the huge ambition and focused determination to overcome those barriers.

As we began, what was striking was that after the initial moans and groans about our respective education systems, the pride and joy we felt about the job we do every day in our communities shone through in every conversation. We started in our own countries, developing themes for debate and recognising areas for development, and as we moved into mixed groups, the room came alive. We probed and pushed, explained and extrapolated. There was serious debate and loads of laughter. But we began to focus on the things that we may learn from each other in post-Brexit Britain. Whether we feel that the UK is on its last legs or at the beginning of a new, golden age, we can still share the vision we have for our children.

In my group, when asked ‘From what you’ve heard about the context, if you could move to any of the other countries, which one would you move to?’, every single person knew that they would stay where they were. For what better way of changing things for the better than working hard to enhance our own communities. The (very) real David Cameron reminded us of Debra Kidd’s line from ‘Notes from the Front Line’: “it is pedagogical activism that will prove to be the butterfly wing of change” .

Sitting at dinner on Friday night, slightly nervous, none of us really knew what to expect. By Sunday, we left with greater resolve and determination to go back to our schools with a rebooted energy to continue to fight to enhance the life of the children we serve.

I left with a greater understanding of the difficult issues teachers from other UK countries have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. However, there were also wonderfully inspiring tales of hope and aspiration from everywhere; a determination to succeed against difficult odds because we all understood why it was important. It was an honour to be invited to the #4countries conference; an honour to meet such inspirational people, people I can now call friends. No matter our political futures, we understand that education exists to allow the children we teach to become empathetic global citizens; to strive to be the best that they can be. They will need to be.

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.

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.

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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.

Is There a Matthew Effect for Teachers?

 

Most teachers I know are working themselves into the ground. Under difficult circumstances they commit themselves fully to the children in their charge and balance this with full lives outside school. They have suffered for years from poor CPD provision and, despite this, teach well and have children achieve great things. They care not for social media, never consider going to a Teachmeet – they might be totally unaware they exist – and wouldn’t think to pick up a book about education. And, because of this, there is an increasing disconnect between those who blog and use Twitter and those who don’t.

For, while some of us engage in a self-styled CPD sought out in the Blogosphere, things don’t change much in schools. CPD is still delivered to teachers rather than by them; discussion of the impact of that CPD is mostly non-existent. In a sense, we create a form of the Mathew Effect where the gap in engagement with new ideas or, wait for it, research, becomes ever more wider. And, while we continue to blog, attend or even present at Teachmeets, we start to see the same faces and hear the same voices. Preaching to the converted, in many ways.

So our ‘wee world’ gets further and further away from the majority of classroom teachers. New research is disseminated to those with an inkling of an idea of who the researcher is – e.g. Hattie, Whittingham – with nothing much filtering down into the staffroom.  We play to our own audience. I sometimes get a bit too comfortable with that though. Knowing that I can prattle on in my blog and receive some nice comments and nods of agreement, reasonably unchallenged. Things might be a little different if I were to share my blog in school.  It’s all a little too easy, isn’t it?

The aim for me then is not to ‘be right’ about things – I’m very often not – but to engage others in the discussion; not to worry about how many retweets I get for my blog but that I make more teachers aware of what I want to say. I aim to pass on articles and blog posts which I think are relevant to everyone, regardless of the negativity that that might send my way; to ‘talk up’ teaching whenever I can to whomever I can. Fearghal Kelly got it spot on in his analysis of Pedagoo in his recent blog post. Instead of fighting negativity:

‘Let’s instead continue to focus on developing and sharing our classroom practice positively and professionally and as a by-product perhaps we’ll influence the wider picture.’

Twitter has been great for my career. I’m asked to speak at events now and to review educational books. I’ve seen some of my favourite bloggers – and now friends – write those educational books and become established speakers on what can only be described as a ‘circuit’. But there is a danger that we allow that gap between where we are now and where we were to get too wide. We can get a bit up ourselves at times. Remember that, regardless of what we achieve, we are but a tiny minority of the teaching profession. Let’s develop our audience through the positive vibe we create and share in our own staff rooms too.

 

Changing. One Step At a Time.

 

I have for some time held the belief that CPD needs to be transformed if we are to change anything in Education. The top down delivery movement has had its day. My involvement with Pedagoo over the last three years has convinced me that teachers are crying out desperately for something new, especially as we struggle to come to terms with the workload issues apparent with curricular change in Scotland. I’ve been thinking of that a lot this year. In February, sitting in a class at Strathclyde Uni, I looked about the space we were in and thought about the possibilities of a room full of teachers in a University environment.

A couple of Saturdays ago that vision became a reality. At #PedagooGlasgow, over eighty teachers gave up their time to talk about their practice; to attend high quality workshops and interact with what they were hearing; to, hopefully, fulfil a need for quality development they perhaps are missing in their own contexts. There was no sponsorship, no free gifts, no tickets, no lunch provided, no prize draws. And there was a moment, during the day, when I managed to take a breather and have a look around, thinking, ‘this is exactly what I had in  mind when I first had the idea’. It was, I think, my proudest moment in teaching, a real sense of achievement.

What was best though was that many of those who lead workshops had never done so before. My ‘constructive persuasion’ – not bullying at all – came about merely because I believed those people had loads to share and others would want to hear them. My school, your school, all of our schools are full of them. Just waiting for an opportunity to speak up. Hopefully they will go back to their schools and tell others; hopefully they will come back and present again, bringing a colleague with them. That, for me, is the real spirit of Pedagoo, that invitation to share and include others.

So what next? Changing existing cultures is an incredibly difficult and challenging task. In many ways teaching is a hugely conservative profession. But what is clear is that we all have a responsibility to make that change happen. Attending Pedagoo events and Teachmeets are nothing if they don’t actively change our practice. I would also argue that unless we go back and convince our colleagues that these events are valuable then we are missing a trick. We all need to engage with the Pedagoo community to ensure that the conversations started on days like PedagooGlasgow and the forthcoming Pedagoo@PL event continue and become part of our everyday language.

After #PedagooGlasgow we were discussing how we might take the energy and enthusiasm and positivity of the day and make change happen. Ian Stuart @ianstuart66 believes that change needs to be organic and that you cannot force it. Keep plugging away and changing one person at at time. The idea frustrates me but he’s right. Whether we like it or not we all have the responsibility for improving things for all teachers. All teachers should be teacher educators, to paraphrase Graham Donaldson. If we are to radically change the make up of the way we improve as teachers then we must bring others along with us. Pedagoo is helping us do that and changing the landscape of CPD provision in Scotland. It’s a slow process but it’s worth it.

 

 

 

Lunch Counter Mornings and Coffee Shop Nights

I love my job, I really do.  In fourteen years of teaching there has never been a day when I haven’t got a buzz from going into work. I love the banter with kids, colleagues. I love the chaos of the school day, the unpredictability of a huge establishment full of people. I love learning to be better, helping others to learn to be better.  I have seen the way I can affect change in a child’s life – both positively and negatively – and understand the importance of what I do. Being a teacher is a great life. I love it, but it hasn’t been easy.IMG_0488

Scratch below the surface and you’ll find a teacher who struggles to keep up at times. I’ve seen teachers who are naturally suited to the job. They connect wonderfully with people in and out of the classroom. They immediately click once lessons start. I’m not one of them.  I’ve had to work hard at that. There is much of this job which I find difficult everyday.  I still can be tetchy with kids when my message doesn’t get across. Not often now, I work very hard at that too.  However, the soft side of teaching has been a problem for me in the past. I’m better now.

Added to that, what others outside teaching may not see, are the late, late nights marking and preparing.  The extra early mornings when I need to go in and prepare classes, photocopy etc.  The odd, unfathomable, undeserved, unprepared for parental complaint. The punch in the solar plexus which leaves you winded longer than it really should.  Sacrificing social events, visits to the cinema and the theatre – weekdays especially – that you can never get back. Being a teacher is a wonderful fairground ride but it can make you feel slightly queasy at times.  I think we have responsibility to talk about those things more than we do.

After my last post, on marking, I received some comments from people who felt that marking everything was just not possible. I tried to explain in the post that I only mark things which pupils will work on afterwards. It is challenging but necessary. It takes up an awful lot of my time. I often want to avoid it but I know that I will be doing the children a disservice, and letting myself down. I wrote the post because I thought it was an important change in my teaching life. I wanted to share that.

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I was present at PedagooLondon last week and I heard the great, great John Tomsett talking about how he felt it was his professional responsibility to share. He’s right, of course. However, we must ensure that, for the sake of every colleague out there, that we share the failures and the disasters and the private dark moments we all feel at times.  The ugly things we sometimes feel that we don’t want to do. The sinking feeling we get when we see that pile of marking eyeing us aggressively from the corner of the room on a Sunday night.  The problem pupil who seems to be winning.  The things we try to push out of our minds.

But when we face up to it, do the work and come out at the other end it is, as I said at the start, a job and a life which I absolutely love. I make the sacrifices and I see the benefits of everything I do and it makes me a better teacher. It does us no favours if we turn away from the challenges we face. I started blogging to discuss all things teaching but I now feel more of a responsibility to be honest about the difficulties I face. It is my professional responsibility to do that.

I’ve had discussions with others this week about the life of a teacher, especially now that one starting in the profession may be working until their late sixties, at least. If you’re not up to that, don’t do this. It is a job which never goes away. It’s a commitment that you need to sign up to whole-heartedly or not at all.  I love my job. But it is never easy.