This article first appeared in the September 2021 Edition of HWRK Magazine.
I may not look like it, but I love running. When I’m at my “peak” fitness level (which is not only rare, but also far less impressive than it sounds) I’m able to get myself up at 5:30am, throw on my running gear and do a reasonable 5k. This lasts about two or three weeks, then I run out of steam. I make excuses to miss the odd day, which quickly spirals into a string of missed days. Right now, my non-running streak is at the several month mark. I desperately want to run though, so why on earth can’t I stick to my routine?
Well, I do have a theory. I can’t prove it, but whenever I tell someone, it seems to resonate with them. It’s got something to do with biscuits.
My running “routine” (if you can call it that) involves a lot of thinking about not running, then talking myself into running, then forcing myself to actually do it. If there are any obstacles in my way, like having to do something else urgently (or even not urgently), or if I’ve had a heavy meal beforehand, or if I’m tired, then I justify to myself that I don’t need to do it this time. I’ll just do it tomorrow and everything will be fine.
But, it’s not fine and it gets much worse. My routine is easily destroyed if I do something simple, like eating a biscuit. This might seem like a small thing to you, but what eating a lovely little biscuit does is signal to me that “you know what? Running isn’t that important. You can just eat biscuits. Nobody will mind”. It’s a seductive voice. Think M&S Christmas food advert voice. In the end, the biscuit always wins and I’ve found the perfect excuse to stop running. If I’m eating biscuits, then I’m already not being healthy, so I might as well quit exercising too. Game Over.
What’s this got to do with teaching though? Well, in September, we all like to start with a clean slate and embed good habits and routines, both for ourselves and our students. These take a little getting used to, but with a bit of effort, they stick and after a couple of weeks, you might even think “I’ve nailed it”. Cue, the biscuits.
Once you think you’ve embedded your routines, like setting frequent retrieval tasks, enforcing a behaviour management strategy, or keeping on top of your emails, you will inevitably hit a point where you think, “I’ll just not do it this time. I’m… too busy. Plus, I’ve already stopped doing that other Very Important Thing that I was supposed to be doing. I’m only human and sometimes I need a break… That’s it, I deserve a break” But at this point in the year, it’s a trap. It’s the M&S Christmas food advert voice again. And it really isn’t on your side.
Once you miss a day or two, or a week, or longer, your routine will naturally fall by the wayside. But worse, it will then be harder to resurrect it than it was to start it from scratch. It’s tainted by “failure” now. You’ve lost your streak. It doesn’t have that special shiny new object feel that it had, back in that first week in September, that felt so motivating.
Fear not though, there’s something I’ve found helpful in exactly this situation: Plan for the inevitable breakdown of your routine.
Make a decision, ahead of time, about what steps you will take when your routine goes to pot. Think about how you’ll feel when it happens and also what your lack of routine will do to your day. Then, make a To Do List which deals with those issues. Keep it brief, actionable and realistic. Then have it ready for when the inevitable happens. You’ll thank yourself.
Tonight, before I wrote this, I enacted my own To Do List: I laid out my t-shirt, shorts, socks and trainers. I’ve set my alarm for 5:30am and, in a rare stroke of genius, I even set the timer for the coffee machine to come on. I am going to run. There’s nothing to get in my way. I’ve removed the metaphorical biscuits.
Then, tomorrow night, I’ll just lay out my gear again. It’s much easier to get back into my running routine (and stick to it) once I’ve greased the wheels a little by taking the effort out of the period where I’ll be at my most vulnerable to giving up, i.e. bleary-eyed at 5:30am.
So, grease your wheels too. Automate and schedule your recall tasks in Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, or whatever platform you use. Have a handy phrase that sums up the behaviour principle you need to keep remembering and repeating. Display it on your classroom wall so neither you nor the students can miss it. Set aside a time of day where you are undisturbed and ONLY allowed to deal with emails. Remove those biscuits.
But most importantly, when it goes wrong, just remember: If I can get back into running (and hopefully one day soon my favourite work trousers), then you can get back into your good routines. After all, you chose them for their usefulness in reducing your workload, or because they help students make more progress. They may even serve an important moral purpose. To thrive in this job, you need your good routines to stick and you really can do it.
Best of luck (and don’t forget about the biscuits).
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 Edition of HWRK Magazine. You can read this article here. This article contains affiliate links.
With so many edu-books released this year, where should you begin? Here are three of the most impactful that I’ve read this year.
A new teaching book seems to be released every other week at the moment. Maybe that’s just because of all the free time teachers suddenly had during lockdown, since the schools were shut?
I still have no idea how some teachers find the time to write so much and so well. But with limited time to be able to devour all of these new books, where should you start? Here are three that I seriously recommend, both for the short-term impact in your classroom tomorrow, but also for the way in which they will help you to develop as a teacher over the long term.
If, like me, you want your students to be able to remember more of the curriculum that you teach, then this is an absolute must-read. Kate Jones has written extensively on the theme of retrieval practice (this being the sequel to her first book, Retrieval Practice: Research and Resources for Every Classroom). The book itself strikes a careful balance between what educational research can tell us and also what it can’t, alongside real-world examples from the classroom practice of teachers. This is where some pedagogical books go wrong, but where Retrieval Practice 2 excels. From the outset, the educational research is presented with clarity, for novices, but with further references for those who want to dive in even further. If retrieval practice is something you intend to focus on in your department or in your school, then there really is no better author that I would trust, to guide you along the way.
Feedback is often misunderstood, conflated with marking and overly laborious. Michael Chiles aims to put an end to this in The Feedback Pendulum, which is his follow-up book to the also excellent C.R.A.F.T. of Assessment. In The Feedback Pendulum, Chiles takes us through not just how we could assess better, but also the wider issues that are sometimes overlooked. One such issue that Chiles deals with masterfully is the culture of assessment within schools and individual classrooms. Using Chiles’ advice, Middle and Senior Leaders can identify underlying problems across the school and with other stakeholders such as parents, that undermine attempts at effective assessment. Feedback is a highly complex concept and to do it well, you need to understand the nuances of it. This book is just that. Nuanced, practical and will stand the test of time.
Haili Hughes has created an exceptionally useful guide to mentoring, in her book Mentoring In Schools. In fact, when I read it, I felt as though I was being mentored by Haili herself. The chapters are designed to fit with the Teachers’ Standards and so this gem of a book can be read from cover to cover (as I did), or you can dip in and out of the parts that are most relevant to you at the time, as a Mentor. What Haili does particularly well is to include not just her own extensive experience, but also that of others, including a wide range of voices. Those voices do not just offer insight, but they offer a breadth of practical strategies and questions to ponder. Reading this book will make you a better Mentor, that’s for certain. But it will probably make you a better teacher in general too, as many of the strategies discussed and the issues raised are as important for teaching pupils as they are for mentoring new teachers.
This article was first published in May 2021 in Sec Ed. You can find the link to the original article here.
Since lockdown ended and we all returned to our classrooms, I have noticed that things are different. I did not expect them to remain completely the same, but what I have been surprised by is just how much my teaching has changed since March 2020.
During lockdown, I could not wait to leave it all behind and I counted the days until I could return to my physical classroom. I was particularly tired of looking at rows of initials instead of faces. But now I am back, I realise something: the technology that I have struggled with and the new strategies I have had to adopt will be sorely missed if we abandon them now. As much as I can’t stand the phrase…
…we’re in a ‘new normal’
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to get all misty-eyed about tech-filled 21st-century schools being some utopian wonderland. Fundamentally, I don’t think teaching and learning will change that much, no matter how much tech we throw at it.
What I do believe, however, is that we have crossed the Rubicon. We are not experts in it yet, but enough of us are now good enough at using certain technology for us to embed features of it into our permanent everyday practice.
The tech and strategies that will stand the test of time will be those that help to improve access and attainment for students, and which reduce workload for teachers.
With that said, here are a few of the remote learning strategies (and the tech that underpins them) that I believe are here to stay:
Marking using comment banks.
Setting and collecting all classwork/homework assignments online.
Collaborative working, using shared docs.
The importance of making routines explicit.
Marking work is a repetitive and laborious exercise. Thankfully, it is something that does not necessarily have to be done by a human, at least, not in the traditional sense.
By designing multiple-choice quizzes, using software such as Google Forms, you can reclaim your time. Google Forms allows you to assign the requisite number of marks for each answer. But you can go much further than that, by setting out what feedback the student will receive when they answer correctly or incorrectly.
One of the most useful feedback tactics I have used is directing students to online videos of worked examples, or websites containing explanations of complex concepts. This takes the pressure off teachers to provide those same details themselves, especially if it relates to a common error.
A set of quizzes that might once have taken me two hours to mark, or which might have taken 20 minutes of my lesson when peer-assessed, now takes less than a minute, including the time it takes to record the results, as you can instantly import them into your spreadsheet.
We have found a way to streamline the feedback mechanism for longer and more complex answers. Platforms such as Google Classroom allow for the creation of comment banks. Teachers can use these by dragging and dropping the appropriate comment onto the required section of the page. By doing this, you avoid having to rewrite the same sort of comments over and over again when they are common to many pieces of work.
The positive impact on your time can be amplified further if you use comments that are particular to a specific exam skill that you give feedback on.
The comment bank can work for a broad range of questions of a particular style, rather than for only one specific question. For example, in a GCSE “describe” question, you can use the exam board descriptors as your comments, making them usable for all future “describe” questions, thereby cutting future workload beyond this one task you are marking.
In reality, you might only need to spend 30 minutes to create four brief comment banks for an entire GCSE course, if there are only four types of question on the exam. That is a lot of time saved, both in the short and long term.
Setting and collecting online work
Setting work for your class is usually straightforward. But having learning materials ready and available for students who are ill, isolating, or elsewhere has always been a pain point for teachers.
Students might not pick up the worksheet, or you might forget to send that email. By setting the work online, everyone can access it in both our classroom and at home.
However, what makes this even more valuable as a strategy, is that it prevents students from falling behind when they inevitably lose bits of their work during the year, reducing the potential for gaps in their folders and (by extension) their knowledge. Just direct your students to the section on Google Classroom, for example, and they will have everything they need.
I have always found it difficult in my own lessons and for homework to get students to collaborate effectively on tasks. Even with the best will in the world, it can become a less effective use of time compared to working independently, especially if those collaborating are in different locations.
With the use of online software, students can both work on the same document at the same time, allowing one another to see what their peers are producing in real time.
This has been invaluable during lockdown, as one of the major drawbacks for students has been the anxiety produced by not knowing whether or not they are keeping pace with their peers. Collaboration using a Google Doc, for example, alongside a live video or text chat function, where students can discuss the work, allows them to create something as if they were side-by-side in the same room. They can “see” each other typing, allowing for a better connection between students working together.
Our routines have changed. We have had to adopt new phrases, employ new transitions between tasks and find new ways of moderating the behaviour of our students. Doing these new things during lockdown, after being comfortable with my own long-established in-person routines, was a bit of a shock to my system.
Since coming back to the physical classroom, I’ve become much more explicit in my instructions to students. Prior to lockdown, I relied much more on my “personality”, for want of a better word, to monitor and influence student behaviour.
I have rephrased my behaviour instructions in a very specific way. This is because during remote learning, I could not be a physical presence in the room and could not detect as easily when students were struggling, or were off-task, so I had to adapt my instructions to remove unnecessary barriers to their understanding of the task, such as the behavioural cues.
Previously I could intervene in an ad hoc way. But in the remote lesson I could not, so I had to set up students better in the first place.
My instructions in the physical class now begin with a behavioural cue, e.g. “While discussing…”, “On your own…”, “Using your sheet…”, etc. This means that students are less likely to begin doing something in the wrong way, so that less intervention is required from me to correct their course of action.
This might seem obvious, but the effectiveness of the instruction often stems from where the behavioural cue occurs in the instruction. If you place it at the beginning, students absorb it much more than if it is placed at the end, when they are too busy still thinking about what you said at the start.
It has been a memorable year in education (so far) and not always for the best reasons. But it is one that has truly revolutionised how we think about our teaching. Now we are all back in the physical classroom, it is time to capitalise on what we have learnt and build upon it for the future.
DISCLAIMER: This blog is a personal stance on a much-discussed topic; I don’t speak for anyone but myself and those that I have quoted where appropriate.
The following is taken from page 9 of Briefing Paper 7222, 16 December 2019, available from The House of Commons Library:
“22.5% of newly qualified entrants to the sector in 2016 were not recorded as working in the state sector two years later. The five year out-of-service rate for 2013 entrants was 32.3%, the highest on the current series, which dates back to 1997. The rate has been between 25.4% and 32.3% in each year over this period. The ten year out-of-service rate for 2009 entrants was 38%. It has been between 40.3% and 34.4% in each year since 1997.
DfE commissioned research on factors affecting teacher retention
Following a survey targeted at former teachers in January to March 2017, the DfE commissioned in-depth qualitative research into why teachers leave the profession and what would encourage them to remain in teaching. The report of this research was published in March 2018: Factors Affecting Teacher Retention: Qualitative Investigation.
Amongst the findings of the research were:
Workload was the most important factor influencing teachers’ decisions to leave the profession and most suggested solutions to addressing retention were linked to workload in some way.
Decisions to leave the profession were “generally driven by the accumulation of a number of factors, over a sustained period of time”, but for some, there had been a specific ‘trigger’ point.
Suggested solutions for retention offered by teachers included: improving in-school support for teachers, increasing focus on progression opportunities, reducing workload, improving working conditions (flexible working was viewed positively; pay was not a driver for most but it was stated that pay levels were not reflective of the role), professional recognition and greater autonomy.”
Roughly, one in three new teachers don’t stay beyond those infamous first five years of service; I don’t have any numbers to prove it at this point, but I’m not convinced that the teaching profession is so much different from other sectors.
In the good old days of me having jobs before teaching, staying with one employer or in one sector for a long time was no longer an expectation, even if you had been offered a permanent job; the truth is, I think, at least partially, that becoming a teacher is still seen as one of those jobs that clearly carry the ‘vocation’ label and therefore, once in, you’re in, and commitment is commitment.
In other words, you’re expected to stay no matter what (I’m being very generic here, I know) and leaving is seen as a huge deal.
I live most of my teaching life in the very limited world of EduTwitter, but I know that every time someone posts about making that big decision of leaving teaching, the post leaves ripples. I’m guessing this is normal for a number of reasons (we’re losing one of ‘our own’, if you like) and we know that retention is hard work, so I do sympathise with the upset; goodness knows that we need all the good teachers we can get. I genuinely understand why a seasoned teacher would be an overall loss to the profession.
I’ve yet to encounter a leaving tweet that speaks of dreadful children, horrible colleagues (again, being generic here), and the hate of working in a school being the reason people leave; no, let’s be honest here, people leave because teaching is a relentless job which you don’t step away from: the workload in far too many schools is horrendous, the demands on time are absurd and, quite frankly, nowhere near worthy of the money we get.
Of course I know that no one gets into teaching for the money – if that was the case we’d have no teachers to speak of – but sure enough it has to be considered at some point; and, while the bursaries for training in certain subjects look very nice, they’re also very deceiving: going from 30K as a physics trainee to circa 24K as an NQT doesn’t bode very well, does it?
In view of all of the above, it comes to no surprise that the latest input from Gavin Williamson regarding teacher retention was seen by some as gaslighting (see this TES article for details). Thing is, Mr Williamson, while we could argue that some ITT providers are better than others at their job, you know and we know that training has nothing to do with teachers staying or leaving; statistics have shown, over and over again, that workload is pretty much the bugbear here and often one of the deciding factors in choosing the school you work at.
So, in essence, if Mr Williamson continues to come up with pearls of wisdom like the one above, I fear he will manage to create an unsurmountable divide between government and the very people a Secretary of State Education is supposed to work with and for.
Yet, I’m making what is potentially an even more controversial claim here: while it might be true that retention is an issue, it makes no sense how big a fuss we make of it. Now, before you get the pitchforks out, I’ve thought about this long and hard and I hope that you can too; for one reason or another, I’m not as insular (some detractors would say ‘institutionalised’) as other, more experienced teachers. Also, the fact that I’ve come to teaching after doing loads of other stuff might actually help me see the profession in a different way as most people that have been teaching for a far longer time than me, do.
In my school we currently have a number of Teach First trainees. I had never heard of TF before getting onto Twitter, and I’ll admit that their reputation – not always positive – precedes them. So far I’ve heard that TF trainees are trained for SLT, are trained to leave, are trained to go into bigger and better things, with the overall feeling that they basically don’t stay in teaching.
This might or might not be true and I’m not interested in the TF rumours being proven or otherwise because I’m sure that, one way or another, the organisation reflects the variety of outcomes of all ITT providers out there. So, for example, while I stayed on as a teacher after my training, one of my fellow trainees decided it wasn’t for her; once again, the overall reaction to her decision (from me included) was one of commiseration but of recognition of her bravery. Believe me when I tell you that, when I left my job as a team manager at Esso, no one made a fuss and told me how brave my decision was.
But back to TF.
One of the trainees we have is in my science department and this is her second year with us; this is obviously not the norm as we’re used to trainees coming and going as they move on through placements. The TF trainee and I have some wonderful conversations about all sorts of stuff; I’ll call her Hannah just to respect her privacy, even though she’s fully aware of me using her as an example for this blog.
Hannah and I spend some of our PPA time debating and discussing education stuff, anything from making resources to abandoning PPT for booklets to the best cake for tedious meetings. Recently she talked to me about her future plans post QTS and I was not surprised to find out that she wishes to go on a gap year but I was actually surprised to find out she doesn’t intend to return to the teaching profession after that.
As you can expect, my reaction was the usual one of commiserations and of mourning the loss of a really decent teacher. Of course, I probed a bit more and she was happy to discuss her views of the teaching profession as it stands; a further disclaimer should go here and I should remind anyone reading this that I’m relaying Hannah’s personal views, but she definitely found me in agreement with many of her points.
Hannah mainly mentioned the well-known retention factors that we all know about: unrealistic workload, as well as demands on time that go well beyond the school hours and lack of support from some SLT. She recognises that the way we do things in our school is much different from other schools, and what I mean is that, as teachers, our workload is the absolute minimum, we don’t mark books, we have centralised detentions, we don’t chase parents nor children, we are consistently supported by a lovely and very visible SLT, and that makes a huge difference. However, both Hannah and I know very well that this is not always the norm, at least not at this point, and we appreciate that changing schools might also mean giving up some or all of the nice stuff we have at our own school.
Hannah also bemoans the unrealistic expectation of having to find new resources to teach with, indeed of not having some sort of centralised database for each topic which we can access and use at leisure; she finds the lack of a more standardised approach to running a school just as baffling; she cannot quite fathom the fact that some schools are criticised for being strict with behaviour expectations, something which was basically a given among her peers during her schooling (she’s in her 20s).
In short, she has found too many negatives in her day-to-day teaching job to want to come back as a qualified teacher; she knows that demands will possibly get worse once she’s an NQT and beyond and therefore she’s stepping away from the profession altogether. When I asked her if she would consider returning she said no, not unless considerable changes and improvements were in place.
As she was speaking about all this, I found myself nodding along in agreement a lot; because of a number of reasons, this is my fourth year in the classroom and I’ve seen some wonderful schools and some terrible schools, so I really do know what is out there.
Yet, the thing that struck me the most was her reaction to the responses she gets when she says she will not continue teaching: she doesn’t get the sympathy nor the commiserations, and she doesn’t get why it’s a big deal. She got me thinking and you know what? She has a point. Hear me out.
In every other profession or job I’ve ever been in, leaving is not a big deal. I mean, sure, if you’ve been in a job for a long time and you have some lovely colleagues they’re bound to miss you and you miss them. However, I’ve lost count of the times in which I’ve seen a post about a teacher fully leaving teaching and being told that changing schools might help (yes, I’m also guilty of this, I will do better): why? Why do we say this? Instead of saying something encouraging, we sort of turn the tables. Look, I know this is the kind of comment made with the best intentions, I do. But it still sounds odd, somehow. Put it in the context of any other form of employment and you’ll see what I mean.
Every job in the world carries a probation period, however long, and teaching is no exception; to be brutally honest, I’ll go one more and say that teacher training, as it stands now, is misleading; the most you teach is about 70% of a full timetable and the responsibility of the classes you teach ultimately rests with the actual teacher so yes, I think misleading is a fair assessment. No, I don’t have a solution and I fully understand why ITT courses are setup the way they are, but they are nevertheless unrealistic. Many people told me that my NQT year would be so much easier than my training year but that was definitely not true for me, or rather, that was far too simplistic a way to put it.
The reality of being in a classroom, in charge of – on a typical five-period day – about 140 or so kids is terrifying and a huge responsibility! And the truth is that we don’t know what that is actually like until we’re well into our NQT year. And the even more obvious truth that sometimes we ignore is that it takes time to try out a job, any job, but especially a complex one as teaching; complex not necessarily because of what we do, which of course is not rocket science as such, but complex because of the constant plate spinning that comes with the job. Someone once compared the skills you need when teaching to the ones you need when driving a car, which is fair enough, except the car is on fire and you’re driving on two wheels on the edge of a precipice. While I can agree that in time things get better, this is true of some aspects of the job, but not all of them; in fact, my argument here is that some get worse as responsibility increases: eventually something has to give to restore balance.
So, with all the respect I might have for Mr Williamson, he’s once again off the mark and appears to operate in a parallel universe where teachers have no lives outside school, no families to worry about, no agency, no voice; quite frankly, no amount of training will ever solve the number of ludicrous loops we make teachers jump through.
While I’d agree that the vast majority of people hold teachers in high esteem – despite all attempts to convince them otherwise from far too many sources – it’s really important that, for at least once, you read the room, Gavin, seriously. If not the room then read the reports the government you belong to commissions. Honestly, we deserve someone who knows what they’re doing.
But, and this is a sizeable but, to me it seems also true that we make a rod for our own back in the way that we view those who choose to leave the profession, for whatever reason. We might not do it willingly or in a way meant to cast doubt, but we still do it and I think we should stop; we should consider the kind of implicit message we might be sending to others who are doubtful of their place in the classroom.
Overall, it feels like we’re very good at recognising the things that make us want to leave teaching, but we often fail to accept that teaching is just like any other job and we should be able to come and go, so to speak, even if training is hard work, even if we give it a proper try but still it doesn’t work out, even if we take as much as two years (as in Hannah’s case) to actually make a decision about it.
We should be able to just leave it or take it as with any other job without the burden of guilt hanging over us because we are left feeling that we didn’t try hard enough.
This article is a transcript of a training session on Effective Remote Learning Strategies, which I delivered to Religious Education PGCE students at the University of Sunderland on 28 Jan 2021.
[Article contains affiliate links]
The Nature of Remote Learning: How Different Is It?
Remote learning, remote teaching, remote schools. It’s all different. As much as we can try to emulate what we ordinarily do in the classroom, there is something distinctly different about teaching via a screen.
We can’t see each other a lot of the time. Either the video isn’t working, or someone’s got their camera turned off. Maybe our students don’t want everyone to be able to see into their homes. Maybe we don’t either!
But the upshot of it is that we don’t have that crucial interaction with other people, seeing their facial expressions, watching to see when their attention span might be dipping. Seeing whether Tyler is copying again, or doing his own work this week. We also can’t tell whether or not Sarah is sleeping during her lesson, or whether she’s slept at all for the past couple of days.
What we do as teachers, when trying to educate our students is incredibly complex. You will be focused on developing your pedagogy, your behaviour management, your understanding of assessment and so on this year and rightly so!
But what the Teachers’ Standards don’t adequately assess is our ability to spot and react to the tiny details that we pick up on when having a conversation. It can be a word, a look, a shiftiness, a lack of care and attention to detail, a short temper. All of these things tell us how to adapt our practice and we do it unconsciously a lot of the time.
Remote learning often prevents us from being able to do this well, or even at all.
So, one of the greatest challenges teachers are facing right now is not in their teaching. We have adapted our practices pretty well this year, refined our curriculum, changed our modes of assessment and they work. The challenge we face is in not knowing how our students are doing, from a Pastoral point of view, at least not without further investigation. In the normal classroom, we could have a quiet word in a students ear, or ask them to step into the corridor for a quick chat about something that’s clearly bothering them. This often nips the problem in the bud or at least lets the student know that their problem is on the way to being dealt with.
The remote lesson is often not a good place for similar investigations to take place. After all, would you want your teacher broadcasting to the class their questions about your personal life? Or even worse, in the private chat function? NO THANKS! Aside from it being a Safeguarding minefield, it just doesn’t work like a normal human interaction. This makes things a lot trickier for a teacher on their own to tackle.
However, I’m not going to spend further time on that issue, as it needs a session of its own and someone with greater Pastoral expertise than mine to deal with it.
Finally, there are two different types of remote teaching or remote learning that take place.
Synchronous, where the lessons are being taught “live”
Asynchronous, where the lessons are pre-recorded, or tasks are set to be completed online, but not necessarily at a set time.
There are good reasons why a school or Multi Academy Trust would opt for one or the other of these modes of teaching. Most schools that I’m aware of employ a combination of both.
Where I teach, we are expected to incorporate a live element to the lesson, but it doesn’t have to be for the full lesson. Maybe you would have a live introduction, before setting the students off on tasks for a period of time. You could then rejoin them later in the lesson to go through answers, or to set the next set of tasks.
Or, you might be “live” throughout the lesson, breaking the lesson down into lots of short chunks and asking students lots of questions, verbally, during the session, while being “there” for the whole time.
Or, the students themselves might even take on more of a presenting role during the lesson, with the teacher being the listener, rather than the speaker.
There are lots of different approaches to teaching remotely and I would highly recommend varying your style of lesson now and again, to prevent (a) boredom and (b) burnout. I’ll be going through a couple of ways to do this when we look at some of the types of tasks that are useful when I teach remotely myself.
If “live lessons” are so useful then why don’t we all do them all the time? (I hear Gavin Williamson ask).
Well, Gavin, the fact of the matter is that students might not be able to access the lesson remotely, in the same way that they can access the lesson in a normal school environment.
They might not have their own device. They could be sharing with others in the family. This isn’t a deprivation issue though. I find this hard myself. I teach from home on a laptop. My wife also works from home on her laptop. I have two primary school-age children, each needing the use of a laptop (and supervision!) Oh, and I have a 4-year-old, rightfully wanting to be entertained for the whole day (often popping into my lessons to sing theme tunes from her favourite Netflix shows). Sometimes there just aren’t enough devices to go around! (And that’s without my laptop breaking last week!)
They might not have broadband. Or data on their phone. Or even a phone. Maybe mam’s got a phone, but she’s at work.
There could be SEND issues affecting students’ ability to access the materials. Perhaps they aren’t differentiated or scaffolded as well as they would be in class. The TA that normally sits beside them isn’t there any more to talk them through the task piece by piece.
Parents might not have the knowledge, the time or the patience to help their children, even if they wanted to. Unfortunately for some children, their parents don’t even seem to want to.
Students are left to regulate their own learning. This is hard. They have to take almost complete ownership of it for the first time in their lives. Getting up on time, doing the work without anyone checking if they are doing it and so on. For a lot of students, they struggle with not being told what to do. When we looked at home students performed during and after the first lockdown where most students learnt from home, it helped some of those students become extremely independent. Most students stayed about the same in terms of their independence. But some of them regressed significantly, becoming much less confident in their abilities and required much more extensive support afterwards. And it isn’t always easy to spot which students will fall into each of those three categories. It doesn’t always affect the typical “groups” that you might normally monitor, like PP, SEND, vulnerable, etc. Some of the highest levels of stress were felt by the higher attainers, who were left devastated by the thought that the lockdown might prevent them from getting onto the high-flying career that they were planning for.
Ofsted have also published their own guidance on What’s working well in remote education. You can find it here.
Pedagogy: Is the “teaching” bit really any different?
Now that we’ve dealt with the difference in the nature of remote vs normal teaching, we need to get down to the pedagogy. This is where you have the most amount of control over the situation and can make a real difference and where you should focus the majority of your attention.
There are some simple things you can do to make remote learning work better, but these are strategies you would also use in a normal classroom too. As always, some are more powerful than others, or are more necessary, depending on the school, the group, or the individuals in front of you, virtually or not.
Firstly, make sure that you think about the structure of your lesson. In the normal classroom, you could talk to your students for much longer and have a much more relaxed interaction with the class. The remote classroom is different. Often it might seem as though you are lecturing into the void, with nobody speaking back to you, much like I’m doing now. This is ok, for short bursts, but students won’t hold attention for long.
Pause often. Break the lesson into much shorter chunks than you normally would with a face-to-face lesson. Plan for pauses in the lesson, to give students a chance to digest the information, to discuss it, either using their actual voices or if not, then in the chat box. This is something that Doug Lemov points out in Teaching in the Online Classroom – Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal. (I really do recommend this book as it gives some brilliant practical advice and draws from teachers’ real classroom experiences as well as from research studies.)
Use cold-calling, rather than waiting for the same students to volunteer their answers. A good method to use for your questioning technique is to ask the question, pause for a few seconds, then name the student who you would like the answer from. This has the twin-benefit of keeping everyone on their toes, while also giving students the opportunity to think of an answer before their name is called.
If a student can’t answer, then don’t leave the interaction there. Try rephrasing the question, or giving them a little prompt. If they still can’t answer, then don’t continue to flog a dead horse, as my granny used to say. Instead, tell them that you will come back to them for their answer later on, or for an answer to another question. This lets them and everyone else know that there’s no opt-out. No getting off the hook. It makes it much less likely that students will attempt to dodge questions later on. They know they won’t get away with it.
Make sure you also ask a lot of questions. You might be familiar with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, but in case you aren’t, he suggests that the teachers whose students performed better in the research studies, all other things considered, asked far more questions than their peers. Not only that, but those effective questioners asked a higher proportion of questions about the process of getting to the answer, as well as asking for the answer itself.
This makes sense doesn’t it? After all, a student might guess the answer correctly, or be told the answer secretly by their best friend. But if you probe a little further, asking why that is the answer, any doubt will soon unravel and you will know whether the student truly knows the answer, or whether, like me when I was in Y10, they are just blagging it.
It’s usually not enough to ask students to create an extended answer, without showing them what one looks like first. The problem is that if you show them an image of a completed paragraph, perfectly crafted, using sophisticated terminology, detailed explanations and lucid examples, it will demotivate them. It’s the same as showing you a photo of Duc a l’Orange and then sending you into a kitchen to knock one up (thanks for that analogy go to Matt Pinket (@positivteacha), co-author of the incredible Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity In Schools).
Seeing the end result doesn’t actually show you how to get there. This is where modelling helps.
I like the “I do, we do, you do” approach. It gradually moves responsibility from the teacher to the students. In the remote classroom you can quite easily do this using an online whiteboard like Google’s Jamboard, or whiteboard.fi. Or if you just want a simpler way to do it, create an answer on a blank document or slide, while sharing your screen with the class.
Make sure that as you construct your model answer, you narrate your thinking, so that students understand why you are making the decisions you are making, choosing one word over another, or structuring your paragraph in a certain way.
After that, do one together, getting students to suggest what to write, how to edit it as you go, suggesting improvements and revisions. Help them to understand that writing is a messy process and that they don’t need to create an amazing answer on their first attempt. This fear of writing it “wrong” is often paralysing. You can avoid this paralysis by removing the notion of “wrong writing” altogether.
Finally, get students to do their own, without any (or with much less) support. This is where remote learning differs slightly from the normal classroom. You would ordinarily be able to peer over someone’s shoulder to see what they were writing and to offer feedback. To make that possible in a remote setting I’ve found a useful way to emulate this. I use Google Classroom, Docs, Slides, etc but Microsoft has similar functions too.
To do this, share editable documents with your students for them to type their answers into. When they type into it, you can see what they are typing in real-time. So, you can offer real-time advice, rather than waiting for them to submit the final piece, by which point any meaningful in-the-moment feedback will be redundant. You can therefore give timely comments to your students, referring to the models you worked on together previously and keeping that useful advice you narrated earlier in their minds for longer.
When I’ve spoken to my students about how they are finding remote learning, a lot of them miss the fact that they can’t see what their friends are producing. They like to know if they are keeping pace with the rest of the class. It can be very unnerving to not know whether you are doing enough, or too much, or just as expected. By being able to work with their peers, we can avoid this problem too.
I’ve started using shared spreadsheets for some collaborative tasks. What I do is I share a spreadsheet with the whole class. They all have their own column, row or tab that they type their answers into, so that they don’t accidentally overwrite someone else’s work. But what is great is that they can see what each other is typing in real-time.
For some, this gives them a nudge in the right direction if they aren’t pulling their own weight. For others, it can instil a sense of competitiveness, as they want to write something better or quicker or more original than their best friend. Some of them even use this as an opportunity to show off, but in a way that isn’t disruptive, as it doesn’t cause a scene.
This sort of task works best when used in synchronous learning, as the live element enhances the interactions between the students. It also works in asynchronous learning too though, as it gives “absent” students the ability to read the answers that were given in the live lesson, helping them to feel less like they have missed out. They can always add their answers later on.
Unless you think about it carefully and deliberately plan for it, assessment of remote learning can be very difficult. After all, it’s much easier to check for gaps in the learning, or gaps in work completed by taking a quick flick through an exercise book, or scanning the room as you’re doing an in-class test.
Fortunately, there are tools you can use to make the job of remote-assessment much simpler. Google and Microsoft both have similar functionality, but their apps are called different names and the labels on the buttons is often slightly different. For the purposes of this session, I’ll be talking about how I use Google’s platform, but rest assured you can do similar things using Microsoft too.
To capture student data on their knowledge and understanding of a topic, I create quizzes using Google Forms. The benefit of this is that once my Google Forms quizzes are created, I can:
Re-use this resource with different classes
Share it with as many students as I like at the click of a button
Easily edit the questions
Randomise the order of the questions to help prevent cheating
Collect and analyse data automatically – it is self-marking
Give feedback automatically, or at a set time in the future
Easily test for and spot common errors and misconceptions.
The quiz questions themselves can be different styles: multiple choice, short answer, long answer, source-based (comment on the photo), etc. I prefer the multiple choice ones though. They are the easiest to set as a self-marking task and they have the huge advantage of being adaptable for different levels of difficulty. To increase the difficulty, I often increase the number of common misconceptions in the available answers, making it easier for the blagger to make a mistake and reveal themselves. Or I pose questions that only someone who had really learnt the material would be able to answer.
One top tip that will save you further time is that if you often use the same style of form, then you can set up or edit an existing template, rather than you having to edit your Google Form quiz from scratch each time. I only found this out yesterday and I’m far too excited about it. Alice Keeler (@alicekeeler) is unofficially the Queen of Google Classroom. She posts new videos frequently on the different things you can do, so it’s worth scrolling through her feed to see what tips you can pick up.
Another way to easily create and collect an assessment is by giving out an “Assignment”. This is where students would be given a task, where you can specify a time limit. The way I do this is by scheduling the task to appear in my students’ Google Classroom timeline at a specific time of the day and for the deadline to be at a specified time later in the day.
This is ideal for doing timed assessments during a lesson, as you can tell the students that, “At 9:30 your Medical Ethics timed assessment will appear on Google Classroom. You have 30 minutes to complete and hand it in, from the moment the assignment appears. Open the blank Google Doc attached and type your answers directly into it. Click “Hand It In” by 10:00.”
Any student who does not complete the assignment by 10:00 will be automatically logged as late, or that they haven’t handed it in at all if that is the case. This makes chasing students up much easier as you can just send a message on Google straight to those students, with further instructions or feedback.
This type of activity only really works with synchronous learning though, so depending on the nature of your lessons, or the circumstances of your students, it might not always be possible. That being said, I can see this being used much more widely than previously, even once the pandemic is over and all students are back in the school building full time.
6. Giving Feedback
Giving feedback on the work completed via Google Classroom is going to be a method that I’ll continue to use, once we are all back in school too. It’s so much easier than writing on paper the same sorts of comments over and over again. I’ve already been using a whole class feedback approach for most of the feedback that I give anyway for the past couple of years, creating a slide that all students can see on the board with common errors and misconceptions.
What I can do now though, is easily share that as a Google Doc and place it in my students’ timeline, so that when they receive their marks, they can also see most of the mistakes that they made. For any mistakes that aren’t covered by the whole class feedback, I would add a private comment on the student’s work. I’ve created a comment bank to help with this. All I need to do is to click where the comment would apply and type the # key to bring up all of the comments I could select from.
You can also give an assessment back to the students to mark themselves, using a rubric. This is where you prepare a sheet with basic descriptors on it, that students then apply to their own answer. E.g. “⅗ if you have described the concept/object/event/teaching and given one example, but not given a second example in support”. You can then have greater confidence that the students are able to understand what makes their answer better and therefore what they need to do differently next time, or in a redraft of their answers. Dawn Cox (@missdcox), co-author of Making Every RE Lesson Count posted a Twitter thread about her use of rubrics, which you can find here.
The crucial thing to remember about giving feedback though is that it is not just something a teacher does to the student. The purpose is to ensure that the student is in a better position to answer next time. Don’t point out “more detail needed here”. This doesn’t really help the student. If they knew the detail you were on about, then they would probably have written about it. Instead, tell them, or show them what it is you want them to do next time, eg “Mention St Bernadette’s experience in Lourdes here”. This makes it much less likely that the student will flounder when attempting a redraft because they have a clearer understanding of what the answer should look like.
On Google Forms Quizzes, you can easily give feedback, when designing the questions. At the end of the multiple choice answers, there is a section where you can include feedback on whichever answer was given. This is where you can type in the correct answer and the reason(s) why, so that students who answer incorrectly can see why they should have chosen a different answer. Remember, students need to understand not just the answers, but they must have the correct process to get to those answers. If they get the answer right by accident, then they don’t really understand and they will become unstuck on essay questions later on.
Behaviour management and relationships
I can only really speak from my own experience on this topic, but I think behaviour, in general, is better than it was. By better, I only mean what I can see on the surface. There aren’t students shouting out, or pinching each other’s stationery. They might still be avoiding work or being distracted. I just can’t easily see it as obviously.
However, there are some classes whose behaviour stands out from others, in a good way, and I put it down to this: Means of Participation.
This is something I read in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion quite a while back, but I recently read an article by Adam Boxer (@adamboxer1) that mentioned it again and it brought it more sharply in my conscious understanding of how I speak to students in my own lessons.
When you set your instructions for an assignment, but then you aren’t there to keep an eye on what is going on, the students will often not do what you want them to do. This isn’t on purpose, though, they think they are doing what you’ve asked. The problem is that they haven’t really taken on board the “means of participation” or the rules of engagement if you like. Sometimes this is because I have forgotten to explain the parameters of the task, e.g. “You should write roughly 400 words” or “Use three Jewish teachings in your answer”.
Sometimes though, I give out the instructions in the wrong order. Can you spot the difference between these instructions?
In the Google Doc attached, write 500 words explaining the Jewish kosher rules, where they originate and how some Jews might find them difficult to live by.
Write about the Jewish kosher rules, where they originate and how some Jews might find them difficult to live by, in 500 words, using the Google Doc attached.
The nature of the task and the procedure or behaviour expectation are placed opposite ways around. I’ve found that if you place the behavioural expectation, the parameters or means of participation, at the front or at the start of your instructions, then the students are less likely to answer the question in the wrong way. It is even more important to do this when speaking to the class than when it is written down for them, as they can’t easily go back over the words you’ve said, especially if they are busy thinking of the next thing to do.
The last thing I want to say about behaviour management is also a Pastoral thing too. You need to deliberately put effort into maintaining your relationships with students. In class this is easy and comes naturally as you can see and hear each other and have a bit of banter with them. In a remote lesson it’s much harder. If they are learning asynchronously it’s even more difficult. When can you speak to them?
Make sure that you invest some time going out of your way to praise, reward and guide them personally. Mention them by name in your lessons, in written feedback to the class, or even just in an email to them about their progress. Phone calls home or even just emails home to parents can be invaluable, as it reminds students that they haven’t been forgotten about, especially if they aren’t able to be present in lessons.
Practical Tips to Reduce Workload
Encourage the use of cameras if that works in your setting. It’s easier to maintain relationships and to see if students are paying attention.
Almost always choose self-marking over teacher-marking where possible, when assessing to check knowledge.
Set deadlines for tasks, but understand that these need to be much more flexible than in normal times. Sometimes there is no need for a deadline.
Use scheduling to batch your planning. You can set assignments and materials to be uploaded at specific points in the future. This means I can get all of my planning done in one day for the next month. This frees up my time to do other things later on, knowing that students will regularly have work set for them without me having to lift a finger.
Set expectations high for the completion of the work set, just as you would in your normal classroom. Students stay engaged in their education where they see it as challenging. When the challenge drops, they begin to value it less and this can be very demotivating. Once this drops, it’s hard to get it back. Keep them challenged!
If you’ve come this far, then you really should buy the one book that has been a complete game-changer for me and countless other teachers, who began as remote-learning novices, but now have a huge arsenal of effective remote learning strategies to use in their lessons.
In this book, Doug Lemov sets out a series of practical strategies that you can and really should use when teaching your classes remotely. He covers everything you would need and more, including lesson structure, feedback, SEND-specific considerations, explanation and delivery, questioning techniques and interaction/collaboration. I could go on, but I won’t.