Is There a Better Way to Run Parents Evenings?

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

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

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

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

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

If I knew back then what I know now…

If I knew back then what I know now…

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

If I knew back then what I know now…

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

If I knew back then what I know now…

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

If I knew back then what I know now…

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

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

A Referendum on Decency

I suppose I should be used to it now: waking up with a sick lump in my stomach. The ‘No’ vote in the Scottish Referendum; a Cameron majority; Brexit. This feels a little bit worse though. I don’t normally write about politics – although you could argue that education is always political – but my dad is American – he spent over twenty years in the U.S. Navy – and I have dual nationality so cut me some slack here. Trump has just been announced as president. We should all have known it would come to this. He is a product of our environment.

However, I recognise those who voted for him; some of them anyway. Yes, those that are the dispossessed, the long term unemployed, the ’poorly educated’, who feel they have had a raw deal. Things are not like they used to be. They want those happy times back. They think the angry, intolerant, racist, misogynist, disabled -mocking reality TV star is the man to get them there because that’s what he wants too. Don’t worry about the details, the facts. They’ve seen their industrial heartlands turned into wastelands. They’ve seen their communities devastated by something called progress. But progress happens to other people: different people. Now they believe it is their turn.

But they’re mistaken. He won’t help them. Instead we have a world which is that little bit more intolerant, that little bit more misogynistic, that little bit more distrustful. I see it every day. Selfishness, rudeness, lack of empathy. When we’re surprised when kids say ‘Please’ or ‘Thank You’. When someone fails to hold the door open for us. When someone cuts in on you without signalling on the road home. The lack off awareness of others when you’re on the phone on the train. Trump is a product of that. We want things and we want them now. Those with differences, or weaknesses, will need to get out of the way.

The political satirist Bill Maher described this election as a referendum on decency. If it is, look what has happened. America elected the guy who mocked the disabled, who vowed to rid the country of Muslims, who confessed to sexually assaulting women. They elected the guy who promised to lock up his opponent, to refuse to accept the result if he lost, to build a wall. A referendum on decency? I’ve spoken to every class I’ve taught today about this and told them that. The only thing we can all do to counter that horrible, sick feeling we may have is to be kind to others, to be better, to refuse the hateful rhetoric. It’s the least we can do.

Eight Seconds? What Difference Does It Make?

It would be wrong to say that music was my first love but it may well turn out to be my last. Intrigued by the upcoming series of posts by John Tomsett and Carl Hendricks, I sat down this morning with my trusty notebook and began to scribble down some thoughts. It doesn’t often occur to me to sit down and think about how particular songs or artists or albums taught me or changed me. Clearly they have. But alongside books, my thinking life has been enhanced and developed by great song lyrics and amazing tunes. They have entertained and influenced me. They have made me a different person.

// talk a lot about music in my classes, play a lot too. I love hearing my students talking about the bands they’re into; obscure names, weird styles, pop drivel. Teenagers are, perhaps, in the most transformational period of their lives and, I tell them, music more than anything forms who they are. It affects the people they hang out with, the clothes they wear, the books they read. Once over that reluctance to reveal their true passions, they love to talk about their music, their first gigs. It also provides great recipe for writing in the English classroom so I love to tap into that.

For a couple of years now, I’ve taught a unit of work in class called ‘I Don’t Care What You Think of My Music.’ It’s a unit which prepares pupils to write discursively or persuasively so we look at loads of exemplars of those sorts of writing. We develop a checklist of techniques and critique each others work as we go – yes, I write too – but all with a back drop of the class playlist. Each pupil picks five songs which they think should be included and argue their case. I usually choose one from each and Spotify provides the soundtrack to our summer term.

The individuality on display is incredible. They write passionately about what music means to them and how it is transforming them. They give up parts of themselves in a way that suggests a trust that I never take for granted. I feel honoured that they do so. But in that time I begin to think of how much one particular moment in time, one part of a song by one band changed me forever. ‘What Difference Does it Make?’ by The Smiths is not my favourite song by a long way. But when I think of the moment when music changed me from the immature listener who never bothered to like anything in particular to the listener I am now, it would be the opening eight seconds of that song, the eight seconds when I first heard The Smiths.

Eight seconds that changed my life. Up until then, empty with indifference, nothing I could call my own. A jangly guitar, shivering down my spine, and I was never the same. Eight seconds that changed my life and took me down I road I never knew existed. The voice I had been looking for; sad, lonely, melancholic; songs that sang to me, for me. And all these years later, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, it has the same effect. A jangly guitar, shivering down my spine. What difference does it make? All the difference in the world.



The Worst Paperboy Ever


Nothing to do with teaching this one, but here you go.

It is a struggle to delve back and remember this but in another life I was the worst paper boy the world has ever known. I came to the job through a pal who, suddenly and mysteriously, appeared to have money in his pocket. I wanted some of that action. There were comics to be bought and sweets to be eaten. Money was required and whatever this friend was doing seemed to solve the problem.

For a year or so I did the weekday shift. Monday to Saturday. Before school, I’d take my bike and deliver a load of papers in an area of the town of which I had no awareness. Usually the letter boxes got the correct papers. Often, by the time I’d returned to shop where I’d collected them, there had been a phone call complaining and I would have to return, full of apology and a ‘Sun’ to replace ‘The Guardian’.

At that point in my life I had no concept of the difference, apart from the size.

When it became clear to both me and my employer that the hectic one hour a day workload was proving too much for me – and my last day coincided with me being knocked down by a car on the day the world heard that John Lennon had been murdered; a story for another time – I was moved to the Sunday shift. A much more leisurely gig, I had thought.

It would mean less money but less effort on my part and less commitment, especially during the school holidays when bed was like a cocoon I never wanted to leave.

What I didn’t account for was the size and weight of Sunday papers compared to their daily sisters. More people purchased Sundays – perhaps people had more time to read them – and my bag was huge and heavy. As a result, my route was longer. My delivery got longer and slower and many a time there were complaints when papers were arriving long after their previous paper boy would get them there. The last straw came when I stopped to sit for a moment on the stairs of one of the flats to which I was delivering. I was awoken by one of my customers about an hour later who had come out to look for me because he was worried. He’d phone the shop to enquire about his paper and both he and my ‘boss’ were concerned that I’d disappeared. I think that was my last day.

Anyway, back to the heart of the matter. At the time of the daily paper round, in my early teens, I was having a hiatus from supporting Partick Thistle and was Liverpool mad. I think it had started with the transfer of Kenny Dalglish; that and winning an awful lot of the time. But my room was covered in posters; every available space, including the ceiling, had something to do with Liverpool on it. They were very successful in Europe and had, to everyone’s amazement, been drawn to play Aberdeen in the European Cup. The whole country was talking about the game and tickets were like gold dust. ‘The Sun’ began a voucher scheme where you could be entered into a draw for an all expenses trip to the first leg at Anfield. The more vouchers you sent in, the more chance you had of winning, surely. You see where this is going, don’t you?

As a slightly wayward paper boy, beginning to resent the lack of salary incentives in the job, I saw an opportunity. It began with me buying a ‘Sun’ here and there. Even then that stuck in my craw a little bit, but needs must. Then it got a bit silly. I would ‘accidentally’ add another copy or two to my bag as I left on my round. Then it became four or five.

By the time the deadline came around I had about one hundred and fifty vouchers and whole load of cut up ‘politically suspect’ newspapers in my parents’ rubbish bin. it would be worth it. How could I fail to win? Who else would have put both their criminal and moral character on the line for a mere football game. I was a teenage criminal mastermind who was about to strike gold. I was already planning my trip and contemplating who would be my ‘Plus Guest’.

That I’d heard nothing as the game approached didn’t really bother me. I only had to know the day before really so what was the panic? Hindsight’s a funny old thing though. The day before the game, in a small corner of one page in the paper, it was revealed that someone from Liverpool had won. They lived about ten minutes from Anfield and wasn’t that a great story and a coincidence? It hadn’t occurred to me that that fine upstanding newspaper would ever do things unfairly. I was devastated. I recall reading that while wandering slowly and aimlessly across a busy road one October morning.

I would do that one more time, a couple of months later, while reading about John Lennon.


Not as Good as I Thought I Was – It’s Official…sort of.

There is a certain obstinacy in a refusal to change in the face of the facts. Pride gets in the way; a reaffirmation of the the way you’ve always done things takes over. The realisation that perhaps your strongly held beliefs about something which you’ve argued for for years are not so right after all leaves you feeling uneasy. So you emphasise them all the more, louder, drowning out any other possibility, closing your ears. Continuing with those wrongly held views eats away at you until you become bitter and cynical.

The first staff room I ever sat in was filled with experience and cynicism in equal measure. Sure, there were young upstarts like myself who were filled with the hope of a new career but, for the most part, the loud and certain finger waggers sneered their opinions as facts, spilling vinegar and scorn on anyone who dared to oppose them. It is an intimidating bear pit for a young teacher to be thrown into; and one which can deflate an ability to stay enthusiastic and idealistic. I never lost my ability to adapt and change when necessary but it was hard back then.

I recently started a creative writing course. It was with the ludicrous idea that perhaps I’d be quite good at it. I’m not. Go figure. However, those two hours on a Tuesday night for the last two months have given me more than I could have ever expected. I have learned how to be a better teacher of writing. I always thought I was good at it, certainly enjoyed it. Alarm bells started ringing over the last year or two when my senior classes’ Creative Writing was being marked well below my estimation of them. I can’t lie. It was my fault, of course. After fourteen years it was becoming clear that I wasn’t as good as I thought.

It would great if I could write that I took the brave and noble decision to admit my faults and ask for help, resulting in a creative writing course, but it wasn’t like that at all. Purely coincidental, but there is something humbling about facing up to the truth that I could have been better which I have, subsequently, found life-affirming. I now model my teaching of writing on the workshop format of the classes and get stuck into the words my students write, more than the essays. It has rekindled my love of language.

I would never have been able to admit those flaws in that staffroom of old; I would have been laughed out of the room. I found my place in blogging, Pedagoo and Twitter and in the last two and a half years I’ve been able to share success and failure equally. Recently though, I’ve felt a change. When once Twitter was full of optimism and idealism, mixed with energy and a supportive peer group it seems to be turning into that staffroom I experienced all those years ago.

New bloggers are often derided and mocked; openness and honesty criticised; optimism stamped out. Those who once were new bloggers develop an air of the staffroom cynic and sneer with their own certainty and superiority. Looking around the blogosphere (Is it still called that?) I’m not sure if I would have the courage to start now; things have changed.

The opening line of this post certainly applies to me in everything I do in the classroom. But how much does it apply to us all? How can we be certain that everything we do is correct and how much damage could we be doing if we refuse to change?

Two years ago, I wrote a post about what I wanted to achieve in the summer. I became very good at only one of the three things I decided to try. I finish for summer on Wednesday and want to make another vow. This one I’ll keep to myself, but I will return as a better teacher. I have realised that if you don’t change you don’t stay still; you fall behind. I am not as certain of my teaching abilities as I once was and I think that’s what makes me a good teacher.