On Teachers Walking Away

Teacher Leaving

A Guest Post by Ele Crovato

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.

Ele Crovato

Science Teacher and #TeamTransition Science Lead

On Twitter as @Illwriteitdown

With special thanks to Hannah for her patience and honesty, to Towers for being an awesome school, and to Andy McHugh for bravely hosting this blog.

Effective Remote Learning Strategies

Effective Remote Learning Strategies

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.

  1. Synchronous, where the lessons are being taught “live”
  2. 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.

  1. 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!)
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.

Some of the myths that Ofsted have worked to dispel about remote education

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.

  1. Structure

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.)

  1. Questioning

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.

  1. Modelling

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. 

  1. Collaborative learning

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.

  1. Assessment

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:

  1. Re-use this resource with different classes
  2. Share it with as many students as I like at the click of a button
  3. Easily edit the questions
  4. Randomise the order of the questions to help prevent cheating
  5. Collect and analyse data automatically – it is self-marking
  6. Give feedback automatically, or at a set time in the future
  7. 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?

  1. 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.
  1. 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!

Recommended Reading:

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.

Teaching in the Online Classroom – Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal by Doug Lemov

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.

Just buy the book. You can thank me later.

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

P.S. Here is a copy of the slides that accompany this talk. Fair warning though, some of them might not make much sense without me talking through them!

Mentoring Trainee Teachers: A Practical Guide

Mentoring

Six strategies for getting the best out of trainee teachers and their mentors

This article first appeared in HWRK Magazine in December 2020.

I love mentoring trainee teachers. It’s one of the greatest joys and privileges in education, as it’s my greatest opportunity to influence the future of our profession. But this isn’t the only upside. Mentoring trainee teachers makes me a better teacher too.

If you’ve mentored trainees before, you’ll know that the demands of the role can push us to the limits of our patience, workload and resilience. So it’s vital that, as a mentor, I have an effective strategy in place to head off problems before they occur and to make the training process as efficient as possible.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve developed over the years, to help me to mentor trainee teachers more effectively.

1. Build their subject knowledge

Imagine completing a degree in English, only to find that none of the books you studied are used by your placement school. Or that having covered particular time periods in your History degree, it still doesn’t help you with your Year 9 lesson planning. You might not be familiar with the latest way to teach phonics or long division. And your understanding of different sports might not help at all when teaching quidditch for the first time (I’m joking about that last one).

Setting aside time to help your student teacher learn new subject knowledge is therefore vital. Your role is to help to move them from novice towards expert, not only because it will help them teach to a higher standard, but it also instils confidence in them, a quality they will rely on when things invariably go wrong, somewhere down the line.

Also, savvy students can see through a teacher who doesn’t really know their stuff. This can bring with it a whole host of problems, both behavioural and academic. Prevention is better than the cure on this one. Let’s equip our trainees with knowledge.

2. Teach effective classroom routines

Effective classroom routines can make all the difference to the nature of the lesson. Students do appear to prefer routines, as they know where they stand with them and once embedded, they will pretty much stick to them (with the odd exception).

One particularly powerful routine that I find especially useful is used at the end of lessons.

Students have a sixth sense for when the bell is about to go, or the lesson change-over is about to begin. Despite you being the teacher, your instructions are often ignored, or at best forgotten by a large proportion of well-meaning students. They’re far too busy thinking about and doing the “next thing”. You then get annoyed, stressed and end up calling out the bad behaviour of the students, who then feel unfairly treated, as they thought they were doing what they were supposed to do.

We can avoid this, however, by starting our instructions with the behavioural cues we want to see. For example, instead of giving out your instructions, then adding in your command for good behaviour at the end, you should begin with a clear behavioural cue first:

“Nobody pack away. Before you do anything else, you need to write down your answer to this question from the board, on your paper and then place it on my desk. Only once you have completed all of that, may you pack away quietly. Now, write your answer.”

By setting out your expectations, or parameters for the conduct of students, before they begin the task, you ensure a higher level of compliance with the behaviours you want to see. You will encounter fewer behavioural issues, have to answer fewer logistical questions about what Doug Lemov calls the “means of participation” and your focus can remain on the learning, rather than on the behaviour management of the class.

3. Be specific about what you expect trainees to demonstrate

Trainees need to demonstrate a lot of skills and attributes, as evidence that they are meeting the Teachers’ Standards. This isn’t necessarily a problem, after all, we’ve all been through that training ourselves and the Teachers’ Standards are vital in upholding the professionalism of teachers. However, it can be difficult for trainees to know what they should prioritise at various points in their training year.

I recommend setting a focus on specific points for the trainee to work on, each week. This can be as a pre-planned schedule, or in a more responsive way, depending on how the training is going. After all, some trainees may need to focus more in a particular term, on their lesson planning, the quality of their questioning, or their behaviour management. This should also be reflected in the focus of their lesson observations and in the feedback they receive.

Setting a focus for questioning in an observed lesson, for example, allows the observer to devote much more time analysing and reflecting on that one thing, so they can give much more deep and useful feedback, than someone who spreads themselves too thinly and tries to respond to twenty different pedagogical aspects.

4. Plan for “professional conversations”

Trainee teachers will make mistakes and they will fall below the standard you would expect of a qualified teacher from time to time. It is a natural part of the learning process and it is why they have you, their mentor. So you need to anticipate where these mistakes could occur, so that you can prevent, mitigate or address them in the right way and at the right time.

To hold these “professional conversations” (I hate calling them “difficult conversations”), it can be helpful to frame the issues you want to discuss in the right way.

This requires two things: clear evidence to support your claim regarding any perceived underperformance and also a separation of the trainee as a person and their actions.

By focusing on the “issue”, e.g. “there was no SEND provision in that lesson”, or “the level of challenge was too low for Year 7”, you can remain largely objective in your assessment. Furthermore, it becomes about a feature of the lesson, rather than the quality of the teacher.

By doing this, you remove an incentive for the trainee to react defensively, as you aren’t calling their character or effort into question. Just remember, to follow up with a practical solution, otherwise they may not know what to do to improve next time.

5. Keeping an eye on wellbeing

Teacher training can be a gruelling slog at times and we sometimes forget that as we gain experience. We need to remember to check in with our trainees regarding their general mental and physical wellbeing. We take a lot of our skills for granted, but our trainees struggle (as we did) to gain those skills and it can leave trainees feeling drained. We wouldn’t want our own children to be taught by someone who couldn’t provide a high-quality education because they themselves weren’t coping. Check in on them.

Building a good relationship with them so that you can ask them whether they are getting enough sleep, or to see if they are finding time to unwind at the weekend can be invaluable. After all, if the answers to these sorts of questions flag any issues, it’s likely that  performance in the classroom will suffer at some point.

The recruitment and retention issue in education is well-known and we do have at least some ability to prevent it from worsening.

Just because our trainees are independent adults, it doesn’t mean they don’t need us to look after them from time to time.

6. Show them their journey

Finally, it helps for our trainees to see not just where they are going, but also where they have been. It’s too easy for them to be uber-busy, planning lessons, dealing with behaviour incidents, giving feedback and learning new subject knowledge for tomorrow’s lesson. Sometimes,  they simply can’t see the progress that they’re making. Set aside some time to step back with them and with a smile on your face, show them how they have grown since the beginning of the course.

They’ll appreciate it and it might just be the one thing that helps them through that next tricky practical lesson, period 5 on a windy Friday afternoon in January.

New Year, New You?

New Year, New You

Forget setting goals. Cultivate good habits instead.

This article was first published in HWRK Magazine in December 2020 and contains affiliate links.

I’m a huge fan of New Year. Not because of the celebrations (as if we’ll be doing much of that this year), but because they give us an opportunity to sit back and take stock. I like to use this time to think about how I can improve my teaching, so that the following year I can look back and see how I’ve developed. The key to this though seems counterintuitive.

I don’t set goals.

For me, goals are an unwelcome pressure and distraction. Worst case scenario, I don’t meet them and I feel like a failure. Best case scenario, I achieve them, feel great for a split second and then I worry about the next goal, as if the previous one doesn’t matter anymore.

For me, goals are a lose-lose situation and nobody needs that in their life.

So, instead of setting goals, I cultivate habits. In doing so, I don’t need to worry about hitting a certain target, or even measuring anything at all. It’s easy(ish). Last year I decided I would use more retrieval tasks during my lessons, after reading Kate Jones’ fantastic book, Retrieval Practice. I didn’t decide to put a retrieval task in every one of my lessons, or use it in a particular way, or to standardise the ways I would use them. I just decided to do it more often. No pressure, no worries.

It worked. Not only that, but I naturally began to do it more often as time went on. It became part of how I operated as a teacher, as I slowly found my own way of doing it. Now, I can look back on how my teaching has developed and I can confidently say that it’s in a much better place now than it was a year ago.

As far as departmental curriculum planning goes, there are ways you can encourage similar habits in your colleagues. Each teacher in your department could work on a particular strategy, tactic, use of resource, or whatever. Keep it simple though. For example, you could agree to try out some sort of questioning technique or behaviour management method more often. Or, you could ask students to complete a particular type of task more often, that appears to have made a positive impact in the past.

Your new habit doesn’t have to be tracked and it certainly doesn’t have to be observed or even checked at all by anyone else. The whole point is that by trying out a new habit, the teacher is free to take their time with it and do it in their own way and at their own pace. In doing so, any “data” (and I use this term VERY loosely) gained will be useful.

If you want, then any feedback on your and your colleagues’ new habits can then be discussed in a much more open and less formal setting than your typical Appraisal meeting, where there might be incentives to give a more “polished” version of reality than you otherwise would do. Avoiding untruthful versions of how it went can then lead to much more helpful conversations about how to implement any positives discovered across the whole department. You might also come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work, which brings me to my next point.

One thing to bear in mind, is the impact that any additional habit has on your existing ones. Every time I hear about teachers being asked to do extra things in their lessons, without dropping other things they’re already doing, I despair. You only have a finite amount of time and energy. We can’t afford to waste either one of them.

So, to help make space for any new habits, I’d like to offer you one piece of advice. You can take it or leave it, but for the last couple of years, it’s worked brilliantly for me.

Conduct a brief past year review. It’s simple and doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes.

Think back over the types of activities, resources, procedures, etc that you have worked with over the past year and ask yourself these five questions:

1. Which ones caused you the most stress?

2. Which ones didn’t seem like they were worth the effort?

3. Which ones did students do badly?

4. Which ones did you do badly?

5. Which ones could easily be replaced, improved or completely dropped?

If you can think of anything you’ve done in the past year that answers at least two of these questions then think about dropping it. If you can think of anything that fits three or more, then (if you can) you should probably drop it now.

Pro Tip: Getting your whole department to conduct the past year review might be a useful exercise to make your departmental operating procedures run a little smoother. But approach this with caution and try not to take it too personally if it’s your own pet project that everyone else wants to scrap. Nobody gets it right 100% of the time. Be ok with that.

So remember: Your time is precious. You have better things to do than to waste your time on things that cause more problems than they solve. You should do those instead. Setting goals might motivate some people, but we teachers have plenty of those in our lives already. Let’s just cultivate some better habits. They matter more.

How To Teach Students To Write Better Conclusions

Writing Better Conclusions

Writing better conclusions is a very specific skill that requires explicit teaching

You are reading this because you want your students to write better conclusions. I want my students to do so too. Not because they can’t write well already, but because writing conclusions for essays is a very specific skill that requires explicit instruction. The improvement in quality that I’ve seen from my own students’ essays so far has been huge. By teaching this specific skill, you will raise the attainment of your own students too. Here’s how to do it.

N.B. This has taken years of constant reflection and refinement and some of these tips might seem counterintuitive, or even go against the way that you have taught writing conclusions to your own students. They may also work better in some subjects rather than others, especially if exam board criteria specifies a preferred style of writing. So tailor these tips to your own context.

What should a conclusion include?

Conclusions should make a clear judgement

The whole point of a conclusion is to make a judgement. Your students need to make sure, therefore, that they make that judgement clearly, in their conclusion. This doesn’t mean that an extreme position has to be taken though. Obviously, there will also be times where a judgement will involve a certain degree of nuance and balance. However, the judgement should still be obvious to the reader. Using a short sentence to highlight the decision that has been reached is often a useful way to aid clarity. E.g. “Friar Lawrence was to blame for the death of Romeo”, or “The Second World War was unavoidable, after the decisions made at Versailles”. Once your student has written this short sentence, they can then unpack the reasoning for it. This structure helps the reader to identify the rationale for the decisions that have been made.

Using a short sentence to highlight the decision that has been reached is often a useful way to aid clarity.

Weigh up multiple sides

Conclusions that weigh up multiples sides to a debate show balance and a clear consideration of views. By doing so, you avoid the criticism that the conclusion is too one-sided, or lacks breadth of study. Show your students worked examples that pick out opposing views within the conclusion, before selecting one of them as being more persuasive.

Show “how far” you agree or disagree with a particular viewpoint

Conclusions should reflect the complexity of the arguments presented. If the subject matter is complex, then this should be highlighted in the reasoning given in the conclusion. A simple conclusion will naturally follow, therefore, from simpler chains of reasoning. So, make sure your students write down to what extent they agree or disagree with a particular viewpoint.

Explain why the main reason matters more than the others

Some reasons are more convincing than others. This might be because they make more logical sense, or they are supported by more empirical evidence. They may suffer from fewer or weaker criticisms, or they may just reflect specific values deeply held by the writer. Students should make sure that they show why their main reason is the most important one. Otherwise, their reason will look like it has not been thought through properly.

Explore further consequences, or even offer warnings!

Sometimes the conclusion reached could point to consequences further down the line, or even serve as a warning. Take the reader beyond the bounds of the question and show that the broader context has been considered. E.g. “The current European law on the right to privacy are not sufficient to counter the power of the free press to publish what they like. But not only that, the situation is quickly worsening, as social media allows anyone with internet access to publish what they like, in full knowledge that the authorities can do little to stop them. This will inevitably lead to the erosion of the rule of law and democracy itself.”

Take the reader beyond the bounds of the question and show that the broader context has been considered

Consider the logic of the arguments presented

Where a chain of reasoning is weak, this should be reflected in the evaluative decisions made in the conclusion. One easy way to point out logical weakness is by identifying any assumptions that the argument relies on. This could be in evidence that seems to go unchallenged, or in a particular interpretation of a word or phrase. Points such as these are often overlooked, but can be used to demonstrate close attention to fine detail.

Consider the limits of the conclusion

Sometimes there are conclusions you can draw, but with particular limitations in their scope. The criticisms that your student points out might only weaken rather than destroy an argument. They might only criticise the classical form of an argument, but not other, more modern forms. A conclusion might only be able to make comment on specific areas that cannot be extrapolated from. Warnings about the future, as mentioned earlier, might not be sustained by the reasoning presented by your students. It can be tempting to make a provocative statement in the conclusion, giving it a controversial edge. However, some exam boards penalise students when their conclusions aren’t supported by sufficient evidence.

Use evaluative language

If you want your students to come across as evaluative, then they should use language that reflects the weighing up of arguments and evidence. Using phrases like “Despite the fact that”, or “this is a devastating criticism” can be very useful in helping the reader (or examiner) to see what sorts of judgement your student is attempting to make. The use of adverbs when setting out judgements can aid students in presenting with clarity the extent of their decisions, e.g. “Dawkins’ arguments from the Selfish Gene significantly weaken the theist’s position on a designer God”.

The use of adverbs when setting out judgements can aid students in presenting with clarity the extent of their decisions

Mention specific scholars, events, quotes, theories…

The conclusion should also point out specific scholars, theories, quotes, events, etc that form a major part of the reasoning. In doing so, the evidential basis for your student’s argument will be stronger and the decision itself is more likely to be seen as well thought out.

Create a sense of closure

By the end of the conclusion, the reader shouldn’t have any questions about why that conclusion was reached. By using the words of the question in the final paragraph of the essay and by setting out the extent of the scope of their judgement, students can directly address the central issue while giving the impression that they have covered all of the necessary angles.

What should you avoid when writing a conclusion?

Summaries of previously-made points

Writing a summary of the main points in your conclusion is normally a waste of time. Essays that do this typically end up looking repetitive. Focus instead on selecting the main reason and writing why it matters more than the other arguments.

New ideas that should have their own paragraph earlier on

It’s tempting to add into your conclusion a new argument that you haven’t mentioned earlier. This is a big red flag to many examiners. The general rule is that if it is good enough to be in your conclusion, then it probably deserves a paragraph of its own earlier on, where you can deal with it in much more detail. Whatever is in your conclusion must flow from the arguments presented and should be based on those arguments.

I hope you find this useful. Teaching your students how to write better conclusions will not only make them a better writer, but, hopefully, it will consolidate and clarify their understanding too.

Let me know if you have any other tips by leaving a comment below.

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching.

Andy

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