Back to School

It’s that time of the year again. The long holidays are winding to an end and preparations beginning in earnest for the new school year ahead. I logged in to Twitter today and found loads of posts, mainly from NQTs, stressing about whether they had set up their classroom well enough or prepared adequate resources.

Even experienced teachers are feeling nervous, and having strange school-related dreams. It’s like a new theatre production about to have its first night. The actors have practised their lines, the costumes and sets have been finalised, and everybody is holding their breath to see how it will go.

There’s a lot of that performance anxiety in teaching. It’s probably always been this way, though I wouldn’t know for sure. Some people relish the tension and anticipation. Some are less able to cope with it. I’m glad I’m not an NQT this year, as I was supposed to be. In fact, more and more, I’m glad not to be a teacher.

I will be going back to school this September, but as a TA in a new primary school (new to me at least). It seems like a pleasant, well-run ship, with well behaved pupils. I’m looking forward to meeting the children and getting stuck in. I’m glad though, that I don’t have to worry about setting up my classroom, doing data drops or any of the accountability measures that teachers face. I will clock in, do my bit, earn some money, then go home, well in time to pick up my boy from his school without him having to go to after-school care. He won’t have to go to before-school care either. What a blessing!

Of course there are some downsides. I will be earning less than I was last year and less than I could be earning as an NQT. That’s a slightly bitter pill to swallow but in all honesty, I’m lucky enough not to need the extra cash. For a few  hundred pounds a month more, I would have to do exponentially more work, a lot of it of the unpleasant admin/accountability variety, as well as work far longer hours. Also, being able to have my evenings and weekends to myself allows me to develop other side projects, most notably the writing of my history booklets – to be found on LearningForMemory.com.

Another downside is that I will have less responsibility and be given more menial work at times. I will be at the bottom of the school hierarchy. And yet… I will still be teaching. Everytime I sit with a child and read with them, or help them with their writing or their numbers, I will be teaching. There is still much scope for job satisfaction and usefulness. It’s not what I had hoped my teaching career would be, but in the present climate, this is the best compromise I can come up with. It turns out that when it comes to work/life balance, quality of family life trumps everything – in my case at least. I suspect I would have been more willing to do the long hours at work if I had felt they were being well spent. Inputting data into spreadsheets, attending pointless CPD and endless meetings – these felt like a waste of my time when I could have been picking my son up from school and asking him about his day. And the straw that broke the camel’s back was behaviour. Having to deal with surly, rude and disrespectful teenagers on a daily basis was not the recipe for a happy working life.

So this is my conundrum. I love teaching. I love lesson planning. I love working with kids. I’m good at explaining things. But I could not be a teacher today, in the current schools climate. I think that’s a pity, not just for me but for the teaching profession as a whole, which can’t really afford to lose talent like mine. Perhaps the profession needs to take a long hard look at itself. Perhaps senior leadership teams should start to question the sacred cows that have been the orthodoxy for so long. Just because something has been done a particular way for ages doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right thing to do.

I recently started looking into potential new schools for my son, as we are hoping to relocate in a year or two, move away from the rat run of London for somewhere more laid back and picturesque. In the process, I signed up with the Good Schools Guide, and started reading up their reviews of some schools. I was struck by the number of times teachers in these reviews were described as willing to ‘go the extra mile’. And struck by this quote from a headteacher, who:

Has high expectations of his staff and spells out the commitment at interview; ‘I pin them down, no woolly promises to help will do. This job is a vocation.’ He is scornful of phrases such as ‘work-life balance’, believing that, in term time, successful teachers must be prepared to involve themselves far beyond the classroom itself, including meetings at odd times; ‘Ten o’clock in the evening is not unheard of.’

I wonder what kind of teacher turnover this head has at his school. I wouldn’t be surprised if, after earning their spurs for a few years, many of his teachers decided to look for greener pastures. He is, unfortunately, not alone in having this kind of attitude towards teaching. I remember on my first teacher training seminar being told that teaching was not a profession where you could just clock in and out, and that we needed to be prepared to work long hours, sometimes until 10 pm on some, if not all nights.

By no means do I denigrate the idea that teaching is a vocation for some people and that many such people thrive on totally immersing themselves in school life. These people are often the ones most likely to progress on to headships – because they are willing to go the extra mile. However, I don’t think we can build a school system on the proclivities of a minority of people. Most of us want to have a life outside of school, and to be able to leave school concerns behind us when we walk out of the school gates at the end of the day. For many people, it is a job, not a vocation.

Keep it simple

Another blog I wrote way back in November last year but never published. Just clearing the backlog, this is the last one! This discusses why I prefer to explain concepts explicitly rather than let students flounder by trying to work it out for themselves.

I have been mulling lately over the idea, so prevalent in teaching today, that it is better to let children work something out for themselves than to directly explain it to them. I know many people take umbrage at Michaela school’s slogan of ‘just tell-em’ as authoritarian and retrograde. I don’t think that is the case, and I will explain why, through a look at my own lesson planning experience.

First of all, is it really the case that children will understand something less if it is told to them rather than if they discover it for themselves? Let me give a few examples here which I think refute this idea. How many instances are there in schools where direct instructions are given to children outside of the teaching curriculum? Let’s see. We might instruct children in the classroom rules of conduct. We might instruct them on what to do if someone is bullying them. We might instruct them to follow a one-way system around the school or to enter the refectory in a particular way or at a particular time. All these instructions are likely to be verbal, whether made by a school leader at assembly, or a form tutor or teacher in the classroom. They might employ visual aids, such as PowerPoint slides or paper handouts, to reinforce the message. There is no expectation, however, that the children need to actually work these things out for themselves, or experience them kinaesthetically in order to understand the instructions. Language is a powerful communicator.

If we expect children to understand us when we talk to them, why then does this understanding stop when we use the same form of communication to explain a new concept to be learned? From primary school onwards, children are used to having stories read out to them. Through the power of the spoken word, as well as the intonation and expression of the teacher, children are introduced to new ideas and allowed to visualise the story in their minds.

If you have young children, then you know that they are always full of questions. If your child were to ask you a question such as ‘What happens to grown-ups if they do something bad?’ my guess is you would answer them directly with an explanation such as ‘It depends what bad thing the grown-up does, but if for example this person has stolen something from a shop or attacked somebody, the police would come after them and arrest them.’ You might go on to explain the matter further, talking about the legal system and jails. What you would probably not do, is bounce their question back at them and ask them to work it out for themselves, maybe by giving them a few hints, and only once they’ve struggled for some time on their own, would you supply them with the answer. The reason why you would most probably answer them directly the first time around, is that it is more time efficient. We are all busy people, and children ask a lot of questions. It is simply more efficient to give a clear and explicit answer, than to play obstacle course and encourage the children to find out for themselves.

In my lesson planning, I have met with this same dilemma. Learning time is limited and I want to make best use of it in the lesson. I also know, however, that there is an expectation that I should not just tell, but ask lots of questions to guide the students to the right conclusion themselves. Say for instance, the lesson is about the use of propaganda posters in the Second World War. The first thing you would do in such a lesson, is ensure that students understand the meaning of the word ‘propaganda’. The ‘just tell-em’ way would be to give the students a definition of the word right at the start, get them to write it down, and explain it with a few examples. You might then maybe display three posters on the board, and ask which one of them is not a work of propaganda, to check for understanding. At most, this process would take about five minutes of lesson time.

Many in education would frown at such a didactic approach. The alternative is to plant lots of clues and ask searching questions that will eventually get the student to the desired destination (we hope). This could be by putting up some propaganda posters on the board and asking students to work out what all these posters might have in common. Eventually, after much prompting, you might get to ‘they are trying to make people think or act in a certain way’ and eventually that ‘they are trying to influence people’. You might then introduce the word propaganda to them as what they have just described, and then task them with writing, in their own words, a definition of ‘propaganda’. You would then do an AFL task, perhaps putting up a false definition on the board and then using RAG cards to see if they agree with it or not. You might question certain students on the RAG card they have chosen, and ask them to elaborate. Finally, you might then display the correct definition of the word and get the students to write it down. Length of this activity? At least 15 minutes.

It does not make sense to me, to spend a triple amount of time to teach something to students, when the direct, explicit method can achieve the same in a fraction of that time. Sometimes, the simplest way is the best. This is just one of many examples where I think teaching is made needlessly overcomplicated. Tom Sherrington says it so well in his excellent blog: ‘Just Teach!’

Liberation

I wrote this last November but didn’t feel able to publish it. Here it is now, unedited, my words exactly from nine months ago.

I have been on a roller coaster journey this year, and I have fallen down to earth with a bump. Without going into too many details, I have resigned from my school and it feels like a weight has been taken off my shoulders. My heart is singing with liberation. I should be feeling crushed but instead I’m empowered.

Firstly, I’ve not reached the end of my teaching career. Not in the least. On my last day at school, I taught three good lessons on my terms. No VAK, no starter, no cloying AFL trying to evidence the learning (which is next to impossible to evidence anyway). We had a quick retrieval practice quiz, then went on to a short booklet on Harold Hardraada that I had written. We read it aloud together, I explained, and then I set some questions. Simple and yet so effective. I taught well that day. I came away knowing what the last few months had started to make me doubt. I am a good teacher.

Later that day, I happened to encounter one of my students in the ICT room, sitting at a computer doing homework. He greeted me with a happy smile when he saw me, then turned to his friend sitting next to him and said, with a note of pride in his voice: ‘That’s my history teacher!’ That gave me a warm glow. I will miss those kids. My one regret in this whole story is that I won’t get to see them anymore.

So this is not the end of my teaching career. But it is the end of my teaching in an environment that does not share my values. I am in no rush to find another teaching job or to apply for further teacher training. Call me philosophical or mystical, but I just know that if I am meant to teach, then it will happen.

In the meantime, I have plenty to keep me busy. The first order of the day is to spend quality time with my son and be the kind of mum I want to be. It has tugged at my heart strings lately, having him in school from 8am to after 5pm some days. I’m going to enjoy being there for him at the end of his school day. Those years are precious, and they don’t last forever. In another two years or so, he will be able to make his own way to school and back.

I’m also going to take better care of my health. I have not stepped on the bathroom scales yet for fear of what they will tell me. The mirror and my clothes know that I have been piling on the pounds, stress eating. That will change.

I’m going to have more time to read the many books piled on my book shelf. The one thing I have discovered (or rather re-discovered) in my short time as a teacher, is just how much I still don’t know. I will remedy that. Schools should be places of knowledge, filled with teachers who know their subject inside out (not just the exam spec). Don’t get me wrong, I know an awful lot. Just not enough to confidently call myself an expert.

I will embark on what I have been longing to do but not had the time to. I’m going to write the first of a series of KS3 history textbooks and digital resources. There are many out there already, of course, but none that pleases me 100%. I have many ideas and a vision for what I want to achieve. There’s work to be done.

Lastly, I will campaign more vocally than ever for the kind of education I believe in. I’m not sure what form that will take, though undoubtedly this blog will have centre stage. I will continue to write and confront the beliefs and practices that I think are disadvantaging our already disadvantaged children. I summarise these below:

  • Poor children find it harder to behave and we must therefore make accommodations for them (and lower our expectations).
  • It is more important to show progress and value added than to actually achieve a high standard of education, especially when it comes to socially disadvantaged children.
  • Strict behaviour policies are authoritarian and damaging to children.
  • Strict behaviour policies have a negative impact on children with SEND.
  • A knowledge curriculum entrenches the power of the (white) elites.
  • Children will not learn something unless they discover it for themselves and it is made relevant and engaging to them.
  • Schools suck the natural and innate creativity out of children (you don’t need me to tell you who keeps harping on about that).
  • A lesson must contain multiple activities (usually in the form of a starter, main and plenary) in which children are seen to be doing ‘tasks’. These activities then need to be followed by an AFL (Assessment for Learning) task to evidence the learning.
  • It is essential to display the learning objectives on the board at the beginning of each lesson.
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy is integral to good lessons, which should focus on letting students progress from the less important lower order domain of knowledge and comprehension to the higher order skills of evaluation and creative thinking.
  • Knowledge doesn’t matter so much in modern times because we can just look things up on Google. It’s more important to teach transferrable skills, such as problem solving and creative thinking.
  • Children don’t have the capacity or imagination to understand concepts explained and modelled to them by the teacher, and therefore need kinaesthetic activities and role play to truly understand.
  • If a teacher is talking, a child is not learning.
  • Lower set children who are behind in their learning need to have easier work, less reading and more pictures and videos.
  • Schools need to prepare children for 21st century skills and jobs of the future that don’t yet exist.

You’d be surprised (or not) how many of the above beliefs are still prevalent in schools today. I believe every single one of them entrenches the disadvantage poor children start off with. And (unless I have a significant change of mind in future) I refuse to ever work in a school that subscribes to them. Who’s with me? (Sorry, I nicked that one off Quirky Teacher)