Will We Ever Have It Cracked?

This article first appeared in HWRK Magazine in May 2022

Right now, I’m knee-deep in curriculum planning for next year. I already have a well-thought-out plan, but I’m still not happy with it. The sequence of topics needs to be tweaked again. Actually no, the topics are fine, but I do need to make sure to include more extended writing. Hang on though, will they know enough by that point to be able to write well enough on that topic? I’d better make sure they’ve got enough facts behind them first. No, actually, they need to engage with some real-world issues first to hook them and see the relevance of what they’re learning. But… but…

As Mary Myatt has already mentioned before, curriculum is a never-ending story. But it’s not the only one. Schools have a habit of pursuing more and more, no matter what has just been achieved. 

It’s a noble aim and I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to refining and reiterating everything to try to make it as good as it could be. Our students deserve it and I, like most teachers, see teaching not just as a job but as a vocation. We’re drawn to trying our hardest for others. 

But at what point do we say to ourselves “actually this is really good, let’s just keep doing this. It doesn’t need to be improved”?

After all, there is a cost to everything we try to implement. We have limits on curriculum time, planning time, staffing, school budgets and quite simply the number of hours in a day. Add to that the fact that teachers deserve as much of a break as anyone else. We can’t just keep adding more and more to our to-do lists. Something has to give. But what? 

Here’s a list to choose from. It’s not an easy task for you, but give it a go anyway. Assuming nothing else changes in the education system, which of these would you personally ignore for two years straight, in your own school setting, giving you time to focus on all of the rest properly? 

  • Pastoral care?
  • Quality of teaching?
  • A well-sequenced curriculum?
  • Staff wellbeing?
  • Examinations?

It isn’t easy. I’d even go so far as to say that if any one of these goes missing (even if just for two years), then like a house of cards, the rest will come crashing down too.

So, we keep them all. But if we keep them and they are less than perfect, they could have a negative impact on the other pieces of the puzzle. There’s a moral imperative then to do everything we can, within our power and within the constraints of time and space, to ensure that everything is as good as it could be.

It’s a balancing act though. At this end of the year, staff are exhausted, have one eye on the summer holidays and in many cases are up to the eyeballs in exams and last-minute revision classes.  

I’d bet that your middle leaders have many of the answers though. They’re the ones on the ground who have implemented this year’s new policies and procedures, identified the crunch points when it comes to assessment data windows, parents’ evenings and deadlines for everything in between. 

Ask middle leaders what they would keep, what they would bin and what they would adapt. It probably won’t lead to wholesale change (and it probably doesn’t need to), but it might just be enough to ensure that the wheels keep turning as we journey onwards, as we’ll be in a better position than we were this time last year.

We’ll never have it cracked, but that’s ok. We’re always going to be chasing perfection, whatever that means to us, because we aren’t doing it for us, we’re doing it for our students. It does take its toll, both physically and mentally, but it’s also why we do the job.

It’s All About Culture

This article first appeared in HWRK Magazine in March 2022.

Schools can be frustrating places for staff and students alike. Everyone is busy ALL OF THE TIME and that busyness doesn’t always lead to the right place. Sometimes it’s just busyness. But great schools make that busyness work. They do it by having a relentless dual-focus on prioritising the students while also developing staff. They do this by building and maintaining an authentic school culture: one where everyone is treated as though they are incredibly valuable members of the same team. And that team is on a journey.

What is school culture?

School culture isn’t something you can define or write about easily. It doesn’t sit neatly in a folder waiting for the inspectors to arrive. It isn’t something you can always put your finger on when observing a lesson, when flicking through books, or when analysing exam results in the summer. But it is tangible. You hear it in the corridors between lessons. You see it in interactions between teachers and students. It’s something you feel when you walk around the school building for the first time.

But how do we create the right school culture? What does the “right culture” look and feel like? And why, ultimately, should we prioritise it?

Do the right work

There are always lots of things we can do when trying to improve the status quo. But which option should we choose? A good rule of thumb is to weigh up the answers to the following three questions and to do only the things you can justify: Is there robust evidence that it will work? Do we have to ditch another valuable thing in order to do this (and is it worth the trade-off)? Is it sustainable over the long-term?

Many shiny new things that schools routinely try out don’t meet these criteria and they are often the things that inevitably lead to burnout and to staff-retention issues. Ignore them at your peril.

Do it the right way

You’re all on the same team, so make sure you leave nobody behind. Leadership is always a delicate balance between pushing on to new things, in pursuit of improvement, while balancing the needs of staff who may not share your own values or priorities. This is why prioritising these things makes sense. They make a difference to staff buy-in and impact. But they also demonstrate the culture you want to build, in a highly visible sense. Nothing says “I don’t value our teachers” like the heavy-handed implementation of a new policy that doesn’t consider teachers at all.

If you want to build a culture of mutual respect and trust, you need to consistently demonstrate it in your actions, especially when it is hard. Otherwise, your mission statement, your website headlines and your wellbeing policy mean nothing. Your actions are the only things that matter. Words are cheap.

Do it for the right reason

If you want your school to thrive, you need your staff to have the energy and enthusiasm to make that happen. You might get away with ignoring culture for a while, as teachers are naturally wonderful people who try to do their best for the students. But you can’t rely purely on the goodness of teachers over the long-term without building a positive school culture where those teachers can grow.

We’re in this job to prepare our students for the world. But the world doesn’t begin when they leave school. They are part of it while they are with us. So we also need to model a good culture, setting it as the norm and enabling them to contribute to it, while giving them the confidence to replicate it beyond the school gates.

As Muhammad Ali famously said, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

In schools, that’s what it boils down to. Successful schools build a culture where constant attention to improvement over time is paramount, for staff and students. It’s about the things you do when nobody is looking, not ticking boxes for an observer. Reliance on the fool’s errand of using gimmicks or trying to game the system is to be avoided at all costs. Building the right culture is your best bet.

It’s all about doing the right work, in the right way and for the right reasons. When everyone in your school has this principle foremost in their minds and in their actions, there’s your culture.

Who Are We Doing This For?

Marking

This article originally appeared in HWRK Magazine in January 2022.

As we begin a new year, it’s useful to reflect on the previous one and try to learn something from it. In many cases, the lesson to be learned is to slow down, cut out what doesn’t matter and do what is best for our students. Now, you might think this is obvious, or even condescending, after all, what teacher sets out to do their second-best, or who enjoys giving themselves more to do than is necessary? But the problem is, as a profession, we often do. There’s a pandemic alright, but I’m not talking about Covid-19, it’s the tragedy of toxic school policies that lead to burnout. And it affects us all.

Workload policies have begun to creep into schools over the past year or two and rightly so. Workload is an enormous factor in the decision-making of teachers who choose to leave the profession every year. But policies alone don’t seem to have solved the problem. This is partly because they are sometimes used to make a “challenging” workload appear more palatable, at least to the casual observer. But in the main, I believe that they simply aren’t ambitious enough. Tinkering around the edges by cutting the odd meeting, putting fruit in the staffroom, or adding a “wellbeing day” is genuinely nice, welcome even. But, like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, it doesn’t really make a difference.

It comes down to the “big stuff”, the things that many school leaders, often led by Ofsted (apologies for mentioning them this early in the term) are often wedded to out of habit, or perhaps even out of fear. And the biggest of them is feedback.

Let me say this, for those of you with worse hearing than mine at the back: FEEDBACK IS NOT MARKING.

But we often treat them as if they are synonymous. They aren’t. Marking is one form of feedback. But its effectiveness is highly dubious. Add in the fact that it consumes a ridiculous amount of time and energy, with so little return on that investment and you can see why so many teachers hate it.

Fortunately, the tide is turning, with more and more schools relying *exclusively* on other methods to ensure students make continuous progress. Whole class feedback, for example, is a complete game-changer. When planned thoroughly and then implemented thoughtfully in the classroom, it has far-reaching consequences for the students, especially when you give your students time, then and there, to respond to that feedback. It can address whole-class issues, or errors and misconceptions made by single individuals. But it only takes a few minutes to plan and execute, not hours and hours of writing the same comments over and over, only for the students to glance at those comments and do little about them next time they complete their work.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand why some teachers love to write individualised comments on every student’s work. We like to think that every student will take on board those carefully crafted messages and that they matter as much to the students as they do to the person who wrote them.

However, apart from the odd outlier, I don’t see much evidence of that. Most comments aren’t unique to a single student, many comments are largely irrelevant by the time they’re read and some of them make no sense at all to the student, without the teacher also talking about them at length. They might as well not have been written and I think, deep down, many of us resent how true that is. We’ve just gone along with it. It’s policy.

So, if your students aren’t benefitting from it, who are we doing it for? If your answer is “for SLT” or “for Ofsted”, then you might want to reconsider what you’re here for too, because you’re not solving anyone’s problem.

Here’s a New Year resolution for you to consider then: Let’s get rid of marking.

Nobody can say we didn’t give it a good go and that our motives weren’t pure. It just wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Why Making Sense Of Mock Results Isn’t Easy

Mock Exams

This article first appeared in HWRK Magazine in November 2021. You can read the article on the HWRK Magazine website here.

“Correlation is not causation”.

I’ve been thinking of using this as a mantra. Far too often, even those of us who are aware of its truth can fall prey to this logical trap. After all, how many times have you tried out a new teaching technique, with students seemingly succeeding as a result, only to find out later on that they only really made progress because of your newfound enthusiasm, rather than the clever new strategy you used?

The key question is, how do we separate the truth from the noise? We need to ask the same question about mock exam results.

As we move into “mock season”, we should be especially mindful of the correlation/causation problem. The whole point of Autumn mocks is to find out what students do or don’t know, what they can or can’t do and to work out what I need to do next, in response to their performance.

Making Valid Inferences is the name of this game and it’s a lot harder than it seems.

Just imagine this: a student answers a “describe” question with a one-line response, when they should be writing a detailed paragraph or two. What should we make of that as their teacher?

  • Have they misunderstood the amount of detail required?
  • Do they have gaps in knowledge?
  • Is their understanding accurate, but shallow?
  • Did they merely guess the answer correctly without actually knowing it?
  • Is their response just a regurgitation from a revision sheet?

Without an accurate answer to these questions (and more besides), our next move may not have any impact. So what should we do?

Well, let’s look at the responses from the whole class:

  • Do many other students struggle similarly on that question?
  • Are other students having issues with that same exam “skill”, e.g. do they evaluate instead of describe?
  • Did they all run out of time?

Or is it actually more complex than that?

Sometimes there’s a mixed response from different students across the class. Do students from one group perform better or worse than others? A change in seating arrangements might help. But then again, it might not.

Maybe it was the weather that day. Did a wasp fly into the room during your explanation? Were your students in a bit of a rush after being late from PE? Was there a funny smell from the farmer’s field next door that students kept getting distracted by? Did you (without a hint of irony) forget to set a recall homework task on the topic where they underperformed?

In other words, did the problem occur during the teaching, rather than during the exam?

A Question Level Analysis can be helpful, but it won’t always provide the answers that we as teachers need. A good QLA can still only give you a limited amount of information. The information you actually need often comes from your memory of teaching that topic at the time.

What was it that helped or hindered your teaching? This might be a resource issue, a timetabling one, a staffing conundrum, or something on a whole school level, largely beyond the control of the class teacher or Head of Department.

It might even be that your own knowledge just wasn’t strong enough on that topic. That’s an uncomfortable thought, isn’t it? Well, it shouldn’t be. And we can address it without stigma, shame or professional embarrassment. In fact, I’d argue that if we are teaching a challenging curriculum, then from time to time we should fully expect it and actually embrace it in our practice, both individually and as a department. Think back to when you taught that topic: how strong was your subject-knowledge? And are you the best judge of that?

To tackle post-mock issues then should be a collaborative effort, not siloed off for a Head of Department or a Key Stage Coordinator to deal with alone. As a departmental team, it is worth discussing not just “how well did they answer question 8”? but also “how well did we teach the students to be able to answer question 8?” By posing the question in this way, we are much less likely to make assumptions about the student’s answer and much more likely to find the true reason for their response. We should discuss and model our own in-class explanations, how we scaffold and how we assess as we teach, checking for misconceptions and encouraging detail and nuance in students’ responses.

Having these discussions also stops us from letting ourselves off the hook. Much of a student’s attainment is down to things that occur beyond the walls of our classrooms and this is why holding teachers solely accountable for exam results is highly problematic. But we are responsible for how we teach and this impacts student responses in exams in arguably the most significant way. If we have taught it well, the students will typically perform well in assessments.

There are schools across the country, whose cohorts are classed as “disadvantaged” in various ways, but who also routinely outperform other schools whose students “have it easier” (at least on paper). This comes down to the teaching.

As Dylan Wiliam puts it, “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

So, scrap “correlation is not causation”. My mantra should simply be “Keep improving my teaching”. Everything else is just noise.

You can read more posts like this in HWRK Magazine | The Essential Magazine For Teachers

On Routines, Running, Greasing the Wheels and (Crucially) Biscuits

man running on side of road

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).

Read the latest edition of HWRK Magazine here!

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