Reading and Navel Gazing

There was a time when I’d quite happily pack up old books and take them to the charity shop. I’d spend a short time deciding which ones were not important to me or which ones I’d never read again; which ones I couldn’t quite remember reading and which ones I disliked or never quite got round to. But not any more. I’ve come to realise that the books on my bookshelves are, more often than not, a little part of my life story. And, while I may never even open some of them again, I couldn’t bear to see them go.

The books on my shelves are my story: the greatest books I have ever read, side to side with some of the not so good ones. No matter. They all add up to a life of reading. The books we read made us who we are, almost literally, and every one is as important as the other. Every Enid Blyton book you read helps form you as a reader, even though they might be unreadable now. And, by God, they are unreadable now. Every time you go to your bookshelves they are there: a comforting reminder of your past self.

I keep one shelf free for my ‘to read next’ list. Books I pick up in second-hand shops, books recommended to me through Backlisted podcast, or anything I read about on Twitter. Of course it’s a never-ending list but that’s okay too. I’ll get to them eventually, mostly. Those books say more about my changing taste than any others. If the younger me who read Gabriel Garcia Marquez quite comfortably could chat with the older me reading the Patrick Melrose novels, I wonder how that conversation would go. It seems strange that, while arguing that our reading brains develop over time, I still convince myself that ‘Crime and Punishment’ might be a bit of a slog twenty years after reading it for the first time.

And, to the ghosts of books future: I’m waiting for you. I’ll keep you a space. I’ve no idea in what direction I’ll wander but there are more years behind me than in front of me. Time is limited and my current reading could take me off in a number of directions. I know what I’d like to read but I knew what I wanted to read six weeks again and that didn’t quite work out. You have to make space for things that come along and tempt you. Otherwise the reasons for reading them in the first place get lost.

I’ve spent much of the last few years of my teaching career encouraging young people to read and be readers. So often it’s not about the books though: it’s about the experience of reading those books and what we, as individuals, bring to them or take from them. Otherwise they are merely lumps of paper. But to talk about reading and what it means to be a reader is really important some times. A bit of navel gazing is fine. And that’s all this blog is about.

A research- aware profession? It’s not so easy.

I think one of the greatest problems we’ve seen in teaching has been the apparent disconnect between research being undertaken in the University sector and the reality of what is happening in our schools. If we’re ever to truly consider ourselves a profession then we need to face up to that. I would doubt that there is anyone out there who would question the the importance of research but wonder exactly how many of us access the latest findings, and what do we do with it when we do? There is a huge issue here and I don’t think we need look too far to see the difficulty.

Beyond the world of Twitter, it’s pretty clear that teachers are not in need of any addition to their workload. The preparation, the admin, the feedback provided: we tend to find ways to fill up out working day. And while that doesn’t negate the fact that research-based improvement is essential, it still begs the question of what needs to change to reach that point where our profession is research-informed and comfortable with that. So the next time I see a teacher crying in their car, either before entering school or as they prepare to drive home, asking them to do some further research isn’t on my mind.

We teachers are forever sponges. We meekly accept that other thing we have to do. It’s the nature of it at times, isn’t it? But sponges get full too. We end up doing lots of things adequately rather than a few excellently. So we must inevitably reach the point where any new initiative needs to come at the expense of something else we’ve been told is vital. And that’s not a healthy situation for anyone. For those of us twenty or more years into a forty year career, change is not always as easy as it seems to others. In order to prepare a research-aware profession, support needs to come for above.

Many things happen in schools but I’m more and more convinced that if we sway too far away from a focus on Teaching and Learning then we are in trouble. So, if we are to agree that what happens in class must be the best we can offer then we need to create the conditions for that to happen. Asking teachers to ‘stop doing good things in order to do better ones’, as Dylan William argues, is not an easy task. We can be creatures of habit. But leadership teams must help to develop an environment where we have the space to work together on the best things: that doesn’t exist right now, not enough anyway.

The question we need to ask ourselves as a profession is about what we can afford to drop in order to do these ‘better’ things. We can’t just jump to research because it’s a thing. It needs to be embedded in the everyday routines that we have; it needs to underpin any professional development we undertake. And that ain’t easy. It’s one of the greatest challenges we face in school. Having created an unsustainable workload for our teachers, how do we pull back to ensure there they can be the best they can be, for every kid, in every classroom?

Win , or lose, do it with dignity

Okay. So this is is not so much about education but it’s definitely about my own learning.

With England about to play in a World Cup semi-final and with a realistic chance of winning the whole thing, there something slightly unsettling about the experience. Not that I wish the team ill will but, and I know this will be controversial, my experience of sporting success for England is that it comes, unavoidably, with a certain amount of jingoistic destruction and celebratory chaos which renders the event slightly tainted. I do hope that can be avoided this time. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want them to lose. It’s just that I’m wary of the aftermath – as are so many countries around Europe.

That form of Nationalistic braying, sneering at others is no stranger to Scotland. As one who voted ‘Yes’ to Scottish Independence and would again in a heartbeat, I am very much aware of my ‘No’ voting friends who were harangued and called ‘Traitors’ by those who campaigned for a ‘new beginning to a new country’. No thanks, if it’s going to be led by you, my friend. We should be very aware of the ‘See You Jimmy’ wig-wearing nutballs before we start to point the finger at others. If we’re ever to become an Independent country again, let us step off the moral high ground.

However, there is something different about England’s progress to the semi-final. In the past, the arrogance and sense of entitlement displayed by commentators and media pundits has made it very easy to mock their eventual defeat on penalties. Especially when that attitude was displayed by the players and managers. This time, they have a manager who is extremely likeable, displays respect and dignity for others and a team which, more or less, mirrors his image. I really like them: despite the perceived lack of challenge they have done what they needed to do and done it well. I just wish all of the supporters – and most of them do – can reflect that if or when they win.

So why do the other nations in the UK, and Europe, often want England to fail? Yes, it is easy to dismiss the comments of a Scot as ‘small-nation syndrome ‘ or jealousy or bitterness. If you do then you’re missing the point. It’s probably because for a lifetime we’ve seen England, when they win, braying and sneering in our faces. It’s not enough to win: like Trump, it has to be seen as others have lost to the great power. The entitlement of an Empire now fading. There’s the Union Jack waving, National anthem thumping, mocking of foreigners in the press. The glee at Germany’s exit, and France for that matter, is evidence that it still exists. And England fans have to own that.

If England play well then I genuinely hope they win. The best team always should do. But support them? No thanks. Asking me to do so is to fundamentally misunderstand what football is all about. Rivalry is part of the game. If my team loses then we brush ourselves off and start all over again. But you don’t choose who you support; your team chooses you. If England win then they’ll have done fantastically well to be World Champions. It doesn’t means Brexit goes away. England have had a remarkable tournament with a manager who oozes dignity and respect. Let’s hope, win or lose, everyone follows his lead.

Reading for pleasure is not merely about the reading for pleasure.

Reading ‘Why Baseball Matters’ by Susan Jacobs recently, I was struck by the writer’s concern for the future of the game as a spectator sport. Apparently attendances at games is down massively, especially in those under twenty-five, who seem to prefer to access their sport in small, smart phone friendly chunks. Major League Baseball is very concerned. It seems that the next generation of sports fan has trouble with the patient build up of play, the potential for low scores and the possibility of a game that could last at least three hours. When you consider that the season consists of over 150 games then you might think they have a point.

More recently I had a fascinating conversation with my Higher class about their fears over upcoming exams. Of course, they felt the pressure from all sides about doing their best. They put pressure on themselves. They seemed too believe that they’d been told that failure wasn’t an option and that scared them. But what concerned them most about the actual exam was the necessity of sitting for three hours in silence (two halves of ninety minutes). To most of them silence was anathema; it didn’t figure anywhere in their lives; they didn’t know how to cope with that level of concentration.

Isn’t this just another reason to say that reading is important? I read Twitter with horror at times when I see that some folk think that expecting young people to read for pleasure is unnecessary and ‘not really our job’’. I can’t fathom that; it doesn’t make sense. Of course we want them to be strong readers but without the experience of sitting for long periods in quiet contemplation with a book, then think of all we are losing. How easily we give up on it, on them. How damaging that may be.

Part of my reasoning for starting every lesson with ten minutes of uninterrupted reading is that young people very often don’t get that quiet anywhere else in their school day. Developing the ability to sit still and concentrate on what they are doing – even if it takes many of them a while to get there – is hugely important for them. So reading fore pleasure is not merely about consuming literature, whatever that might mean to the individual. It is about creating the conditions for thinking and contemplation; it is about respecting the silence of others; it is about so much more than just the reading material.

So don’t give up on younger readers. It seems crazy to suggest that being able to read well is enough, that reading is an optional extra. Think of the benefits of being a lifelong reader that we’ve all had. Think of the benefits they’ll reap later when they have developed the ability to concentrate on a baseball game, a football game, a cricket game, a Shakespeare play without reaching for their phones. There are enough distractions for them. Let’s try and give them something that might help them with that.

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.