Posted in Personal Reflection

What I have learned as a pregnant teacher…

Pregnancy is a wonderful thing which, for us, did not come easily. As a new head of department, it has been an especially difficult time for me; balancing the stresses of exam preparation, coursework and leadership with the very profound concerns of becoming a first time parent is pretty overwhelming. I am constantly trying to reconcile my anxieties and neuroses with my happiness and excitement. I firmly believe that open and honest reflection makes us better in all
aspects of life, and I hope that this post might shine some light on this crazy journey so that other expectant mums in the teaching world might feel slightly less alone. It really is an incredible time, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is also scary, isolating and unpredictable.

Pregnancy is hard. Probably the hardest thing I have ever done (and I still have two months to go!!!). Your body takes over and no amount of planning, reading or preparation can change the fact that you are no longer the master of your own destiny. This is a scary thing if you’re a control freak like me.Baby-loading---please-wait-T-Shirts

School cultures and support networks are absolutely key to making pregnancy at work bearable. My school have been really excellent, but I know that not everyone is that lucky. I would advise any pregnant teachers out there to think about:

  1. Brain fog. It is inevitable that you will be forgetful, unable to focus, and generally very tired at various points during your pregnancy. This is made doubly hard if you are in teaching where attention to detail and a god memory are pretty vital parts of the job! Try to identify times in the day where you are the least lucid and plan accordingly (for me this is usually from around 2pm onwards). I often teach A Level in the afternoon, and there have been some comedy moments where I’ve been trying to explain some complex and abstract element of literary theory, and forgotten what I was doing mid-sentence. I am combating this by doing a lot more scripting and planning talking points so that I don’t get off track. If I have anything really intricate or important to do (such as coursework annotation or data stuff), I am ensuring that someone can check it for me when finished, because I know I am more prone to make silly mistakes right now.
  2. Duties. I had a lot of lunchtime duties which meant that I couldn’t actually sit down to eat at all. Some days that meant I went from an 8:30 duty to back to back lessons, and then a full lunch duty; this was insane. My school made this part of my risk assessment and took these lunchtime slots off me. If you have  duties which are outdoors in cold weather, it would be worth asking to be moved inside (pregnancy represses your immune system which makes you far more susceptible to colds). If you have duties on staircases or in places which are going to be really busy, ask to be moved to a location where you are less likely to be jostled.
  3. Seating. If you have your own classroom or desk area where you work regularly, see if the site staff at school can find you a comfier chair with proper back support. As you get into your third trimester, this is a real life saver.
  4. Stairs and long journeys. Depending on what your school building is like, it is worth plotting out for yourself what your most common routes around the building will need to be. I don’t have my own classroom, and actually teach over two floors. I am lucky that my school is a very modern building with a lift, and so the site manager gave me one of the much coveted lift keys to make my life easier. If you have lots of stairs and room changes, it might be worth asking if you can do some temporary room swaps with colleagues to keep movement to a minimum.
  5. Get a wheelie trolley! I had one of these already, but it has become a real lifesaver recently because I struggle even to carry a set of books in my arms at this stage!
  6. Morning Sickness. All pregnancies are very different, but morning sickness can be very disruptive to your teaching day. I was lucky and clear by about 14 weeks, but for some people it lasts much longer. I would recommend confiding in a couple of key co-workers and probably your TA (if you have one), so that you can be covered if you need to make a quick getaway!
  7. Plan your food! Once morning sickness is over, you will need to make sure you’re planning your food so that you don’t get dizzy during the day. I eat before I set off in the morning, then again before school starts, then again at morning break, at lunch and finally late in the afternoon. If I don’t have food in school, I get anxious about feeling hungry or dizzy. I tend to stock up on healthy things like fruit and cereal bars, as well as high sugar treats like chocolate (a medical necessity…).
  8. Keep hydrated. I go through about 3 litres of water or squash during the school day, plus any decaf coffee or tea I manage to get my hands on. It’s really important to drink, even if that means more frequent trips to the loo…
  9. Train your students! My Y11 class are now totally trained; two or three students come to our workroom before the start of every lesson and ask if they can take things upstairs to the classroom for me. The students we teach are amazing, and generally feel such loyalty to their teachers that they want to look after you! I regularly get spontaneous guards of honour from even the naughtiest Y9 boys when I’m walking through the corridor, “move out of the way, pregnant lady coming.”
  10. Clothes. Wear literally whatever you want. I have experiemented with lots of different maternity clothes, and have found that some days I am happy in a tighter fitting maternity dress, whereas on others I wish I could wear a cunning fashioned sack. Don’t even bother buying special maternity shoes (waste of money) – I can recommend stocking up on a few pairs of comfy flat sandals or cheap wide-fit pumps.

I feel like I’m on a perpetual emotional roller-coaster and, having talked to some other expectant mums in teaching, I know I’m not alone in feeling like this. One of the main problems is that we feel that the moment we become pregnant, we are supposed to be giving off some life-affirming, loved-up, Earth-mother, barefoot vision of maternal bliss. We feel that we should be constantly happy and in a state of doe-eyed wonder at the impending arrival. It is, therefore, rather disturbing when you are hit with the reality of it all and, while pregnancy really is wonderful, it is also hard; pregnant women have some pretty serious stuff to work through.

In the interests of dispelling some of the doe-eyed myths, here is an honest list of some of the crazy (and sometimes dark) things I have worried about in my pregnancy so far…

  • Am I a bad mum because I have worried more about Y11 exams than about labour? Is this pattern going to continue as my son gets older, or am I going to get my priorities straight?!
  • Will I cope with maternity leave? Spending the whole summer with my husband (also a teacher) and our new arrival is going to be blissful. But what happens when he goes back to work in September and it’s just me and the baby? I like to think I’ll go all super-mum but, in all seriousness, what if I go totally nuts without some adult conversation? Somehow I can’t see myself becoming one of those women who gets really interested in baby yoga and the intricacies of sleep training…
  • As a new head of department, the idea of leaving my team for 9 months is terrifying. They are going to be brilliantly led by one of my colleagues, but this doesn’t stop me from being neurotic…what if they forget me? What if I come back and I’m just not needed?! What if I come back and I’ve forgotten how to teach?!
  • Returning to work. I don’t know whether this will be a manageable and welcome change, or the worst thing I ever have to do. Even worse, if I DO find it bearable, does that make me a bad parent?! If it does break my heart to leave my child in a nursery, will that make me a worse teacher?
  • I have cried about the most ridiculous things:

Not being able to eat a fish hot dog I saw on a TV advert at 11:30pm

Not being able to find my keys

Thinking I’d lost a bra (one I hadn’t even worn in about 2 years…)

Hearing someone ask a beautifully phrased question on Radio 4 Gardener’s Question Time (in my defence, it WAS about Begonias…)

Not being able to stop laughing at a joke during an A level lesson (yes, I laughed for about 5 minutes, and then had a good cry about it. Good thing my A Level students are so cool…)

The EU referendum

The Eurovision Song Contest

A TV advert for a bank (it had a baby in it…)

I feel like now, at the end of May, I am through the worst of the work-related anxiety. Coursework is posted, exams are underway and all I have to think about now is teaching the classes I have left after Y11 and Y13 have gone, and putting things in place for next year. It is a strange thing to plan a calendar when you know you won’t be there, or write a SOL when you know you won’t teach it. I have five working weeks left until I go on maternity leave, and I am making a pledge now to let go of as much of this baggage as I can. Students will still learn, teachers will still teach, and I will be back so quickly that I will lament ANY time that is not spent on cuddles, half-gurgled conversations and watching my baby sleep.

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Posted in Personal Reflection, Teaching Ideas

The Dyslexic English Teacher

dyslexic_fun_bigIt was only after I had got through GCSEs, A Levels, an English Degree and my PGCE year that I discovered I am dyslexic. My particular brand of dyslexia manifests itself in letter, number and colour recognition. In other words, I misread words, struggle to recognise spelling errors (including my own), read more slowly than average, and have struggled for years with my handwriting. The fact that I am an English teacher just adds to the fun.

Now, I am not a SENCO, and apart from my own experiences and observations, I have no formal training or expertise in dyslexia. However, I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on how my dyslexia has impacted on my teaching, and the many things I’ve learned from working with dyslexic students. Dyslexia is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ problem: it manifests itself in many ways, and something that works for one person may not work for another. It’s also important to recognise that dyslexia is a sliding scale; some people are only very mildly dyslexic, and this may not really impact on their everyday lives, whereas some people with very severe dyslexia need to make adjustments to almost everything they do, particularly in an educational environment. There is a multitude of dyslexics in between these two extremes, and they are all unique.

This post will not be revolutionary – nothing is new, and there are far more informative sources out there about the condition, the science, and best practice. I hope that what is here might simply provide some insight into what life is like for ONE dyslexic, and some strategies which work for me in a real classroom setting.

  1. Good days and bad days

ME

I am worse when I’m tired, so I try to work when I’m fresh (early morning or late at night after a nap…). Every day is different – sometimes I am really efficient and ‘with it,’ but others I work very slowly and get frustrated. On days like this, I put my marking aside, and try to do something less text or paper based.

THEM

Dyslexic students have good and bad days too (though this is true for most teenagers to some extent!). I have regular conversations with the dyslexic students I teach, and we talk about being able to identify those times when we are not feeling at our best. If a student is having a difficult time on a day I teach them, I try to find alternative ways for them to work. A student I taught a few years ago, we’ll call her Anna, used to find it easier to do ‘free note taking’ on those days, where you record the lesson in ways other than writing extended passages (i.e. illustrations, mind-mapping, short notes etc.) She would then take her work home and complete it at a time when she was feeling more lucid. I’ve had other students who record sections of the lesson on a dictaphone (or more recently, their mobile phone) so that they can write up what I’ve said later.

I have found that helping students to recognise their own patterns and the things which work best for them is a really effective way to prevent anxiety and issues with engagement.

2. IRLENS

ME

I use a rose pink overlay (IRLENS) when reading, and a notebook with pink paper – I’ve timed myself reading and this increases my speed by about 20%, and definitely improves my endurance!

THEM

A number of my students are diagnosed as needing IRLENS, but all of them benefit from paper and whiteboard backgrounds which are not stark white. I try to use a range of paper colours to colour code activities and provide a softer background to support reading extended passages. Experimenting with different fonts, sizes and line spacing can also be an important way to help students engage with texts. I use Comic Sans on my powerpoints, and when I print texts for students I make sure they are at least 1.5 spaced, size 12-14. Anything we can do to make reading more accessible has to be worthwhile!

3. Handwriting

ME

My handwriting is abysmal, so much so that two Summers ago I tried to completely relearn cursive script. I’ve had some success with this, but it’s still pretty wobbly, and when I’m in a rush (when are teachers not?!), I revert to my illiterate teenage scrawl. This is a major issue with marking books and essays, but my students know that I’m trying my best, and it’s OK to tell me they can’t read my writing!

During lessons, I very rarely write on the board; I even tend to put dates and titles onto a powerpoint rather than subject the kids to my scrawl!

THEM

In many ways, I think that being so honest about my issues with handwriting has helped some of my students who also have poor handwriting. In teenagers, this often leads to a real lack of confidence, so I think it’s important for teachers to acknowledge how difficult handwriting can be, and that poor handwriting does not make WHAT you write any less valid or interesting. The rule in my classroom is, if it’s legible and you have tried your best, it is good enough.

4. Reading and performing under pressure

ME

I struggle, especially when I am tired, to read out loud fluently. If I need to read extended passages out loud to or with the class, I practice beforehand so that I don’t trip up and ruin the flow: this especially applies to poetry and novel extracts. I tell the students that I’ve prepared it, because I think it’s important for them to recognise that performance, even if it’s just reading out a few paragraphs of Dickens, is an art in itself and deserves some real thought!

THEM

I always give my dyslexic students prior warning if I’m going to ask them to read something to the group. I might approach them before the lesson and give them something to look at overnight, or give them 5 minutes in a lesson just to go over it to themselves before sharing with the class. This can be an effective approach for all students, but it’s particularly important that dyslexics are given the time and space to feel comfortable when faced with a page full of words!

5. Spellings

ME

This is the thing which most frequently affects my teaching day. All of my classes are trained to tell me if they think I’ve spelled something wrong, and they know I won’t be offended. On a good day, I can spell anything they like off the top of my head. On a bad day, I have to write it down a few different ways in my notebook and then look it up, just to be certain!

All my life I’ve struggled with spellings, and I try to teach myself mnemonics, songs and other strategies to overcome my issues. I now use these with my students wherever possible – I once had an A Level class who liked them so much that they wrote a song which incorporated all of their key sophisticated Literature vocabulary!

THEM

Spellings are one of the biggest barriers for students who are lacking confidence in their writing, and this generally leads to disengagement with the task and the subject. Being honest with students about our own barriers to learning is really important. My students are trained to do a number of things:

  • When proof reading work, circle any words you are not certain you have spelled correctly (or used correctly), so I will know you were unsure when I mark your book.
  • When writing, if you have used a dictionary to check a spelling, underline the word and write ‘checked’ in the margin, so that you know it’s right and can look back in your book next time you need to use it.
  • They are NEVER too old to do a spelling test, or use ‘look, cover, write, check’!
  • Remember that poor spelling does NOT make you a bad English student, it just means you have to be more aware of what you are doing. I would far rather see you use advanced vocabulary spelled wrong, than read something boring because you were too scared to use it!

 

Other useful strategies:

  • Help students to access texts easier:

Breaking up or ‘chunking’ the text – do you need to give them the whole thing at once? Could you edit their copy to take out some of the superfluous bits? Could you give it to them in a few smaller chunks so that it’s easier to digest?

Highlighting (not underlining…) key sections, words or phrases before giving the student a passage. This will help them to focus on what’s really important.

Give students a list of key words or phrases to look for in a passage so that they have something to anchor them while reading.

  • Help students to plan writing

Provide planning proformas for paragraphing or essay writing, which you can gradually take away or make simpler as they become more confident.

Explicitly teach sentence starters and key phrases which can start a piece, link sections and end pieces. Students can then repeat these to themselves so that they are embedded. and they can write more confidently.

  • General skills

Handwriting practice books are very cheap, and your SENCO might be able to provide them for you. Getting students to do 15 minutes a night as homework can be really powerful, especially if you give them something to copy out which is related to their academic work!

Help them to organise their time/revision/homework etc by showing them how to prioritise their time. Making a ‘to do’ list and highligting the items which they know will take them longer (extended writing etc.) so that they can plan their time better

I hope this is somewhat useful, and that some other teachers out there can make use of the strategies above (or just have reconfirmed something they already do!).

I’d love to hear your own strategies: @funkypedagogy

Posted in Personal Reflection

Things I wish I’d known before my first week in teaching…

I am just about to start my sixth year as a teacher, and was having a chat with a family friend who is about to start his NQT year. As he picked my brains over coffee and told me all of the things he was worrying about already, I realised how much I wish I’d known when I had started five years ago. This is pretty simple stuff, but is not intended to be patronising –  in my first week on the job, I struggled to see past my own fear and focus on the things I could control. I hope some of these ideas are useful…

The first week – no need for bells and whistles:

Scott-660x330Don’t dwell too much on overly complicated lessons with 8 parts and all-singing, all-dancing resources. There is no way you’ll get through what you think you will, and you will exhaust yourself with planning before you even start. Just make sure that each first lesson with a new class is solid, and that you give them a chance to get to know you and what you expect in your classroom. Make sure that you have some sort of conversation, no matter how brief, with everyone in the room; if they feel that they have connected with you, they will be more likely to work well for you. Over the first few lessons with a group, you will begin to get a sense of how they work, what they need, and what they will respond to, which will make your ‘bells and whistles’ lessons even better when you do them later on.

Find out on your first day:

  1. How do you do photocopying/printing?
  2. How do you get in/out of the building at different times of the day?
  3. What is the absence procedure/phone number?
  4. How do teas and coffees work? Is there a machine? Do you have to bring your own?
  5. Is there a water fountain somewhere? Or drinking water in the staff room?
  6. How do you pay for food in the canteen (if you need to)? Cash? Fingerprint?!
  7. If you don’t have your own classroom – which rooms are you teaching in? Are they all on the same floor? Will you need a plan for getting yourself and your resources from one room to the next in between lessons?!
  8. Who do you speak to if you have any IT malfunctions, or SIMS issues which affect registers?

Marking is just as important as planning (if not more…):

Once students have completed work, the most powerful thing you can do is give meaningful, personalised feedback, and give them time to improve in a future lesson (for an excellent discussion on this, see this post from David Didau ‘What’s the point of marking books?’).

Marking is incredibly important, but do not strive for perfection – set a time limit per book, decide on a marking focus (i.e. whatever the objectives or success criteria were for that piece of work), and don’t get de-railed!

If you get behind with you marking, SAY SOMETHING! Everyone gets overwhelmed by the workload at some point, but if you ask for help from your NQT mentor or HOD, they will help you find some practical strategies to get through it all.

Avoid endless ‘to do’ lists:

These can become huge and unfocused, and soon stop becoming the organisational tools they should be. Use an important/not important, urgent/non urgent grid.

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Unfortunately, the things you want to start with usually come under the not important/non urgent column, but organising things like this will help you prioritise the right things!

Be realistic about what you can achieve in the time you have – highlight two or three things to complete each day, but do them WELL!

Switch off:

Teaching is all consuming and can get overwhelming at certain points in the year. Find something to do outside of school time which is going to stop you from thinking about work. If you find yourself going in early to work, then staying late to work, then going home and working some more, then you need to rethink! I go in early every day (though this doesn’t work for everyone), then my rule is, if I stay late to work, I do NOT take work home. If I leave at 5pm, I take something home with me, but something manageable which won’t take me more than a couple of hours (NOT a whole set of books, but maybe 15 instead…). I also have at least 1 night a week where I do no work at all, and one whole day on the weekend which is work free.

Kids have short memories:

941349Don’t be too devastated if you have a dramatic incident with a student. When I first started teaching, I always felt as though because of my poor classroom management, I had destroyed my relationship with a student FOREVER. This is crazy. Yes, my behaviour management was still developing then (and still is!), but you have to accept that we are all human and we make errors in judgement. Better still, if you give that student a clean slate at the start of the next lesson, they will forgive YOU very quickly.

Love the kids, but manage the behaviour:

Don’t let a child be defined by their behaviour – it is not who they are. Kids will work for you if they feel that you like and care about them. Sometimes it is difficult to feel that bond with them in the face of all their crazy teenage outpourings of rage (especially when this is directed at us personally), but if you can see past that, you can see value in who they are underneath the anger. Ask how their weekend was, how their baby sister is, what food they like, and even share something of your own experiences with them. 9 times out of 10, if you have some sort of appreciation of who they are, separate from their behaviour, those issues will fix themselves. If you just see them as a ‘naughty’ kid, then they will sense that and do their best to live up to the label.

A boy I taught a couple of years ago, let’s call him Sam, called me a c*** on my second day in the job. He was vile in my lessons and incredibly disruptive for no reason I could see. However, during our detentions, after his initial telling off for whatever he’d done that time, we would talk about other things (all the anger aside, because I had clearly and calmly dealt with his behaviour already) It turned out that I had just become addicted to a video game he had recently completed. He told me how to kill the boss on my current level and from that point on, even though he regularly slipped up, he made much more of an effort in my lessons. Even more importantly, his slip-ups were far less damaging, because he knew I would deal with them in isolation, and that they would not damage my opinion of him.

Embrace the support staff:

Caretakers, cleaners, catering staff, duty staff, admin staff, finance staff, gardeners, bus drivers, teaching assistants, IT technicians – whoever they are, these people know more about education than many of the teachers, and especially more than any fresh faced NQT could ever know. These people are key to your survival when you first start teaching, and I would urge any NQT to step outside the teaching staff bubble and make friends with the whole staff body. Partly, this will help you settle in quickly and feel part of the school, but also, there is nothing like knowing the caretakers well when you realise you have left your car key in the building after hours! In my first year, a reprographics lady called Janet was like my school mum! She regularly helped me create resources last minute, gave me advice when I’d made one of my many mistakes, and yes, gave me the odd hug when I felt like I couldn’t cope! The site manager at my current school is ex army, and has happily had conversations with some of my students when they are struggling to cope with authority – he is brilliant.

I won’t call them ‘non-teaching colleagues’, because I believe that all support staff teach the kids in a multitude of ways, even though they are not in the classroom, but they do have a whole different slant on the students, and a refreshing perspective on teaching which can help you put things in perspective.

I’d be really grateful to hear any other reflections or advice to new teachers starting out! Get in touch @funkypedagogy or funkypedagogy@gmail.com

Posted in Personal Reflection

What I’ve learned from spending a year in the right school…

Young teachers are leaving our profession in droves; between 40-50% have left the classroom by their fifth year. I am just finishing my fifth year in teaching and, despite some monumental challenges over the past 12 months, I am loving my job. I hope this doesn’t come across as a sickening, self-congratulatory blog about how much I love my job, and I am not expecting a pat on the back; I just wonder whether my experience this year could help those 40-50% who are on the edge and struggling to find their motivation again.

This time last year, I wrote a post: What I learned from spending a year in the wrong school. It was a therapeutic experience; I wrote in order to shed some bad memories and find the positives in what had been a very difficult year both professionally and personally. At Easter 2014 I took a job at my current school. It is a 3-18 academy in Bradford, which is officially rated a 3, but which feels like a 2 (you know, one of those places with a heart, which Ofsted refuses to recognise has more to offer than statistics). In the past 15 months I have dramatically changed my role in school, learned a raft of new skills, run complex projects and taught my socks off. But the most surprising thing about this year is that, for the first time ever, I have NOT made myself ill or had two weeks off with fatigue in the summer term!

The reasons for this, I think, are here:

  • I have rules (agreed with my partner). 1. No emails after 6pm on a week night. No emails on a Saturday. No emails outside the hours of 3-6pm on a Sunday. 2. Make time for lunch EVERY DAY. 3. Do something for pleasure every day – have made a LOT more time for reading this year.
  • I have focused on learning something new. I started playing the cello – it is wonderful, and has made me realise that it is ok to be the worst in the room at something! There is something liberating about being told what to do, and putting yourself completely in the hands of an expert.
  • I have an EXCELLENT head of department, who knows exactly how to get the best out of me. She gives me the freedom to do what I love, but tells me to stop when it is too much. She has helped me to become a better leader, and shown me that it is OK to rely on someone else – I have genuinely never been able to let go and trust other people to do a good job, but I know her standards are just as high as mine, and we make a pretty strong team!
  • I have learned that being a leader means letting go of the minutiae of school life, and looking at the bigger picture; if I help my colleagues to be the best they can be, then THEY will look after the students.
  • My school invests in a life coach/therapist, and our HR manager arranged for me to speak with her. Aside from the fact that I love talking about myself for an hour every few weeks, it is really helpful to talk through my stresses with someone who is completely removed. I’ve also learned some practical strategies for sleeping better, organising my work, and confronting things head on.
  • My Head and VP have worked very hard to recognise the things I do, validate my feelings about work, and put in place the things I need. They are supporting my ambitions, and for the first time, I feel like I’m being taken seriously.
  • I’ve realised that I am not the font of all creativity, and that being part of a strong team is far better than being the Jenny Show all by myself…

I won’t apologise for the gushy-ness of the above; it’s all true. I feel that there is so much negativity surrounding schools at the moment, that sharing something which is working, at least for me, is important.

So, this is the right school for me. Their mantra is that they put the kids first. Other schools I have worked at have said this too, but what they really meant was that they put the RESULTS first, and the knock on effect would be that the kids would have a better life. Obviously, I’m not going to argue against this – better results lead to better options and more opportunities. However, schools which focus only on academic success are in danger; their only intervention is based on whether the data paints the right picture, not on what is needed by a child. At my school, we know our kids. We know what makes them tick, and we go the extra mile to support them, regardless of their academic targets or attainment. This is how it should be. I have realised that, although I have been incredibly stressed and busy this year, it has been bearable because I believe in what the school is doing. In the past, I have had little faith in my school’s mission, but in my current school I am on board, and that’s the difference.

Here is what I’ve learned from spending a year in the RIGHT school:

1. If you believe in what the school is doing, you can cope with a LOT.

2. A change in role or direction is fine, as long as someone above you understands where you want to go in the end…

3. A good team is built on mutual respect; celebrate each others’ individual talents AND take time to appreciate the collective power of a department.

4. It is OK to manage your time, work and stress in your own way; don’t try to be like other people or worry how you will look if you go home before 4pm.

5. Trust and professional respect is about always doing exactly what you said you would do. Every time you walk the walk, that is money in the bank.

6. Approach new tasks and the development of new skills with enthusiasm and a fresh eye, but never be slow to ask for help.

I like to think that in a year’s time I will be reflecting on a less hectic, more stable year at school, but I know things will always feel crazy. I look forward to being in the same school for a long time; I want to consolidate, build, and invest properly in the young people who come through our doors.

Posted in Personal Reflection

Apparently, I will do anything for a nice pen…

When I was approached by @Pen_Heaven about the #backtobasics challenge, I’ll be honest, at the words, “we will send you a free fountain pen”, I was pretty much sold. Abiding closely to the girly, female English teacher stereotype, I am a lover of all things stationery, and have wasted a LOT of time drooling over things in Paperchase which I literally cannot live without.

I am dyslexic, and have always struggled with my own handwriting. For years students have found my scrawl difficult to read, and so over the summer holidays this year, I tasked myself with re-training myself to write so that my script is both legible and vaguely attractive. Switching to a good quality fountain pen over the last week has noticeably accelerated my progress, making my script more fluent and smooth.

In terms of my day to day teaching, by far the most hand writing I do is marking student work. Marking is incredibly time consuming and, while it is invaluable to student engagement and progress, it is not something I look forward to! I’ve noticed that, with my new pen, I’ve been far keener to mark students’ work because of greater levels of comfort and fluidity when writing. I’m not sure how much of this is due to the novelty factor or not (I am easily excited by fads…), but anything which makes marking more bearable is fine by me!

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In the past I have always favoured an erasable pen when marking in English, partly because, because of my dyslexia, I often misread work and need to correct myself. I’ve had to be far more careful using a non-erasable pen, and part of me wonders whether I have been sloppy in the past because I have been able to correct myself easily; this week I have marked more slowly initially, but have not had to waste time going back to fix my own errors, because my initial marking was far more considered and accurate. One small issue has been that sometimes I have smudged my writing in students’ books because the ink doesn’t dry as quickly as I work!

I believe that a good quality pen really changes the comfort, neatness and attitude of the writer. I wonder whether a pilot scheme, giving better pens to a group of students and following their progress, might have value. In the past, I have taught in a private school where students were obliged to write in blue fountain pen – there was a higher quality of handwriting here, but I cannot say how far this was due to a different economic background and education system. At the other extreme, the school equipment which is aimed at ow income families is generally incredibly cheap and of low quality. Pencils, pens, rubbers, sharpeners etc. tend to break very easily, and I am sure this has an impact on student attitudes to work. I wonder whether better quality equipment would change the quality of student presentation in exercise books, and their general sense of pride about their work?

In conclusion, I will certainly be using this pen (the Diplomat Esteem Lapis Fountain Pen in black) for the foreseeable future – I have enjoyed the whole physical process of writing with a better quality pen, and I think my marking looks better. As a Lead Practitioner, my marking is sometimes used as a model for other staff – I now have a script to be (slightly) proud of! I remain intrigued to know how writing equipment might impact on student attitudes to work; this might form part of some action research in my classroom in the near future…

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Click here to see other teachers’ stories on the the full @Pen_Heaven #backtobasics blog post!

Posted in Personal Reflection

What I learned from spending a year in the wrong school…

Teaching is my vocation. I love my job and the challenges it brings, but in the past year I have questioned my planning, decision making, relationships and my worth as a teacher. This post is not going to be a rant about the school or an attempt to air my grievances; I’m not angry, and that would be neither helpful nor interesting to anybody. This post is an attempt to think through some of the lessons I’ve learned about school environments and the importance of finding the right match for the right teacher.

When I was an idealistic PGCE student, I took a job in a private school. My staunch Labour family were horrified, and demanded to know why I was ‘betraying my roots’ and ‘working with the enemy’. My answer was simple: ‘all kids are the same, why does it make any difference?’ I was allowed to flourish in this school. Lack of boundaries and guidance suited me; I constantly raided the overflowing stock cupboard and reprographics room, making colourful but wasteful resources and learning from many, many mistakes. I had money for projects, students who would try anything, and the ability to teach the subject I love with a highly academic focus. Sounds wonderful, right? It was. However, that nagging feeling that I was just playing at teaching, that I had stopped challenging myself and that there were a lot of ‘real teachers’ out there teaching ‘real kids’ was getting the best of me. Some of my colleagues from the private school remain some of the best teachers I have ever worked with – they are passionate, creative and hard working. That was the right school for them, and I respected their sense of purpose. After almost 3 years, I left with a strange dichotomy; I had a strong dislike of private education, but a massive respect for my colleagues and a love of the kids I was leaving behind. Great place. Wrong school.

My next move was to an academy which served a very deprived area of the city. This part of Leeds had never had an outstanding school, and the community had been failed generation after generation by poor provision and growing apathy. The new regime in place at this academy stunned me when I first started. We were like cogs in a well oiled machine; there were procedures and forms in place for everything – even the paperwork had paperwork. In the first few months, my lazy habits were rectified – they fixed my marking, made me better at planning and organisation, and my responsibilities meant I was leading my colleagues and taking a strategic role in teaching and learning. My first few months were great, but I hadn’t realised how my behaviour was changing. I had started to desperately defend the decisions being made by SLT, even though no one had challenged me. I had started going home and explaining to my partner that I’d deserved the treatment I’d got that day, because I was ‘bad’, or because I ‘still had to learn’ or because I ‘still had to prove myself’ or because my manner was ‘unprofessional’. After a while this form of self-attack turned into paranoia. I worried about bumping into certain senior members of staff, and spent time analysing my day to find out where I’d made mistakes which might come back to get me.

Let me be clear: I had not done anything wrong. None of these feelings were based in reality – the environment of the school was making me feel like this. A top-down organisation, rigid and unyielding with a clear picture of who is the ‘right’ sort of teacher, and who is not.

I got home from work one day and my partner asked me how I was. I started talking, and didn’t stop. An hour later he said, “you have to get out.” This school was a top-down, formula driven ‘Outstanding’ academy, which was overly commercial and wanted to sell its formula and expand its influence. The wrong school for me.

I have to stop here. My experience has been horrific, and I can’t fully explain why because I don’t want to cross over into unprofessional territory. I told them I was leaving, and I left. My new job excites me; I feel comfortable in a school which fits me, and I have a real drive and desire to move forward with them, not for them.

Here is what I learned about choosing the right school:

1. Do your research. The dirt floats to the surface very quickly. I had friends who advised me not to take a job at the academy in question and I didn’t take their advice or concerns seriously.

2. Read their mission statement. Does it actually chime with your own sense of purpose and reasons for teaching, or do you just want it to?

3. Focus on language. How is the job description phrased? How do they speak to you on your interview day? There were a LOT of clues, over rehearsed language, repeated phrases etc, which I didn’t pick up on.

4. Think about what you really want to get out of a job. I thought I just wanted something different, so I went for the polar opposite of my previous school. What I really needed was somewhere which valued me and shared my ethos. For my current job, I made a list of non-negotiables which I looked for before applying.

The school I have just left is responsible for making me miserable, but also for making me a better teacher. No school is inherently ‘bad’, but in a profession where we work such long hours and put up with such intense mental, emotional and physical strain, we have to find the right fit.

Posted in Personal Reflection, Teaching Ideas

My battle with “teacher talk”, plus tips for winning the skirmishes.

I am, fundamentally, a performer. I thrive when in the lime light and love to entertain my students but, if I’m really honest, I must admit that sometimes I run the risk of it all being about me and not about them. I have been a singer since my dad first took me busking (probably as soon as I could stand independently), and am now a semi-professional soprano. When I first started teaching, I thought this would go in my favour. I thought; I’m confident… surely that makes me a good teacher, right? Wrong.

As an NQT I was exhausting myself with whizzy lessons which relied on my personality and humour to carry them through. I could be every character in the play, the proposition and opposition, and always prided myself in sending them away buzzing and eager for more. In short, I thought being a performer was being a teacher. It wasn’t until a very wise deputy head observed my lesson and said, “where is their ownership of the lesson?” that I began to realise; they should be doing the work here, not me. We went on to have a number of fantastic discussions where I finally released hold of my lessons and decided to give them up to the students. It was difficult at first; I had to swallow my pride and tell myself, “this isn’t the Jenny show”. That old favourite; ‘leave your ego at the door’, had to apply to me even more than to my rowdy bunch of boys.

I am writing about this now because in the past week, I finally had an observation with aforesaid mentor, where I realised I had kicked the old habit. It has taken a while. After the lesson we both sat down and had nothing to say to each other; it was an incredible feeling. Without wanting to be gushy about it, this was a big deal for me, and I think it’s only right to share some of the things I’ve learned…

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1. PLAN PLAN PLAN

If I don’t plan properly and make it clear where activities and discussions will be ‘student led’, I fall back on bad habits and just talk… and talk… and talk…

2. Silent Lessons

I regularly use silent lesson activities where all instructions are projected on the board and students just get on with it, using their common sense and team working skills to solve problems. This works really well as a whole lesson at the end of a project to test students’ understanding without teacher input, or as a shorter chunk of a lesson. My classes are used to how silent lessons work, so just get on with the task at hand. This gives me the chance to observe individuals and I sometimes stick ‘secret teacher advice’ on post-its if students are writing. The other thing I love about silent lessons is that, if we expect them to follow written instructions in examinations where, if they don’t understand they are on their own, this activity prepares them for independent thinking. My students aren’t scared of a voiceless, merciless exam paper!

3. Student Leaders

This will be common to a LOT of teachers, but it is worth saying again! Anything a teacher can explain to a class, a student can do just as well. If we need to recap the last chapter in the novel, I ask a student to get up, take the board marker and run that part of the lesson, taking ideas from the class and recording them. Of course, I am there to add anything they have forgotten, but it is very rare that they need me at all! I also sometimes ask a student to research something for homework so that they can be the class expert in the next lesson. This means that I don’t need to talk for 5 minutes about the position of women in Victorian England, and I might even get a Speaking and Listening mark out of it! This works particularly well if you choose the weaker students as “experts” as they have already learned about the topic in a way which suits them and so they are ahead of the game before the lesson even starts.

4. Student Lesson Plans

As a plenary activity I often ask the students to write a plan for the following lesson(s) based on their understanding of their targets and our current text or topic. For example, my Year 11 boys have been working on their Literature Controlled Assessment using a marginal gains wheel (look here) and have essentially been planning each subsequent lesson by deciding which of the skills on the wheel to work on next. I have planned activities based on where they want to go and which poems they still want to study.

Another, more structured way to use student lesson planning is to give them a simplified lesson plan and actually get them writing them in groups. We decide as a class which skills need to be covered, then they go an formulate their own Learning Objectives, and create a detailed lesson plan. I then look at them and condense all the best ideas into a plan for the next lesson or series of lessons. They thereby have real ownership of their learning, and, because it has come from them, they are the experts and I don’t need to talk; they just do!

5. THINK: GIVE UP THE POWER…

Finally, I have to constantly remind myself to relinquish power. This is their education, and they will grow more if I make them do more. If they are forced to find enjoyment in my lessons, for themselves, rather than allowed to sit back and be passively entertained, then they will be more fulfilled and challenged. My mantra is, ‘could a kid do this?’

They stick up their hand and say something brilliant. What do I do? I ask them to repeat it and explain it to their peers, I do NOT repeat it for them and go off on a tangential rant of my own.

They ask for clarification. What do I do? I ask another student to explain, I do NOT do it for them (if they didn’t get it when I explained it the first time, they will have much better luck with someone else!).

They share a personal anecdote. What do I do? I thank them for it and see if anyone else wants to elaborate or add their own, I do NOT add yet another story of my own, ultimately showing to them all how fascinating I am and slipping down the slope of egotism…

I hope this has been useful. It has made me feel more at peace with my inner diva who, while she is sometimes handy for waking them up during last lesson on a Friday, is nothing but a barrier to their learning the rest of the time.

P.S. having had some excellent feedback on the above, I feel it is important to add this…

Teacher talk is NOT the evil which I paint it here. It is in fact a vital part of our teaching arsenal and the place where our passion and personality is most exposed to students. To understand my feelings above, you must remember that my personal struggles with teacher talk have not been to eradicate it entirely, but to be less of an attention seeking loon, and more of a ‘proper teacher’!