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.

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.

Are Your Students Remotely Learning?

Remote Learning

The move to remote learning has been a limited success, but it also carries a great risk, both to students and to teachers, unless we focus on the right things.

Remote learning was and is a noble idea. It promises flexibility, independence and encourages resilient learners. Remote learning has also forced teachers to update their technological skills, enabling them to share, collaborate and use content in a much more efficient way.

This, surely, bodes well for the future of education and it prepares students for the real world, where companies increasingly encourage remote-working arrangements.

But, let’s be honest here. It’s not working, is it?

Consider all of the hours you put in: uploading new content, making sure your tasks are both classroom and home-friendly, checking homework, looking to see who the latest self-isolating students are, not to mention the CONSTANT emails/comments/messages from students and parents.

We can add to that, the fact that this increase in workload, coupled with the idea in the back of your mind that a parent could be “observing” you teach, can be panic-inducing and exhausting.

Then, there’s the additional pressure of student progress. Students who are at home tend to fall behind. That’s quite natural. After all, they haven’t had face-to-face lessons with their teacher. Joining in from home on some sort of “live link” just isn’t the same.

Not to mention the fact that they’ve had to share the family laptop with all of their siblings, who also need it for their own lessons. (Of course, this also assumes a best-case scenario, where there IS a family laptop.)

I’ll not even go into the problem of healthy, but self-isolating students who fail to attend morning lessons, simply because they’re still in bed.

So what can we do about it?

In complex situations like this, I find it useful to go back to first principles.

What is it that we truly value?

For many of us (and in no particular order, before this starts an #edutwitter pile-on) it is:

  1. The health, wellbeing and education of our students.
  2. Our own health, wellbeing and development, not just as teachers, but as human beings.

Simplifying our teaching, to address these two areas, can narrow the range of choices we need to make and will help us eliminate activities that take us further away from these values.

What should we prioritise?

  • Pastoral care of our students
  • Developing students’ subject knowledge, as far as we can, given today’s constraints

What should we not do?

  • Expect our students to be independent enough to cope without our help
  • Hold ourselves to unrealistic standards

This period won’t last forever. One day we might even look back on it like we do when we had that amazing “snow week” back in 2010.

Back then, we were cold, worried about our safety, we hadn’t seen our parents for a little while and we were more than a bit concerned about the panic-buyers in the shops.

Now, we just say “Remember when we had that snow week? That was weird, wasn’t it?”

So…

Stick to what you value: Keep yourself healthy and teach as well as you can.

Remember: You aren’t in the same situation as you were in last year, so be kind to yourself and try not to compare your current teaching to how you used to do it or how you would like to. You can’t control everything (and you’re not meant to).

Some students aren’t remotely learning right now. We can help them by breaking down some of those barriers to learning, but we can’t force it to happen.

You are right to be optimistic though.

Teachers are good at optimism. It’s what drives us.

Just don’t let it drive you round the bend.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Leave a comment or send me a message @guruteaching on Twitter.

Andy

Why “Teaching” Should Only Be Priority Number 2 When Schools Return

wellbeing

Our students are as worried as we are that they are falling behind in their studies, especially those who have public examinations to take next year. Those who aren’t worried soon will be, as the clock runs down and the pressure builds. You would think that this means we need to prioritise interventions, extra classes and a raft of homework tasks to mitigate the time spent away from the classroom.

But the lack of subject knowledge isn’t the issue we need to address first. What matters is that our students’ wellbeing is taken seriously. Not in an “Are you all ok? Right, let’s crack on then!” kind of way, but with a much greater emphasis put on deep and meaningful pastoral care.

The children, whether in Reception or Sixth Form will have a lot of questions. Some of those questions will appear fairly straightforward, but they could be masking much deeper fears. Students who ask you “When will we be going over (topic X)?” Might not really care about what time or date you give them. What they might really be concerned about is “Will we finish the course in time, as I’m trying to get into a top university to study Medicine and my grades matter a heck of a lot”. Others might smirk and brag that they just played X-Box all day long (students, not staff, contrary to what some in the press might want the public to believe). But deep down, it’s just a show of bravado and they really don’t want the embarrassment of falling behind their peers, who managed to complete their remote-learning tasks during lockdown.

Again though, this is only a snapshot of the fears playing on students’ minds. Some will need far more support. Ann Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner is extremely concerned that the early warning system that schools provide has removed a safety net for the vulnerable. In her recent report, We’re all in this together? (April 2020) she details just how students are at risk and how the usual and extensive support offered by schools is severely lacking in the current climate.

They are most likely at home, often exposed to a cocktail of secondary risks – a lack of food in the house, sofa-surfing or cramped living conditions, neglect, or experiencing acute difficulties due to parental domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. Many will be caring for parents or siblings themselves in these incredibly difficult circumstances.

Ann Longfield (Children’s Commissioner), We’re all in this together? [April 2020]

Students also have fears about returning to school before it is actually safe to do so. As much as they want to catch up with their friends, they also don’t want to catch the coronavirusor pass it onto their loved ones at home, many of whom are extremely vulnerable. To expect students under this amount of worry to complete academic tasks to a high level of quality is misguided. Over time, students won’t deal well with this pressure and many will be at genuine risk of serious mental health issues, which would have a much more devastating effect on their future than if they had just gone a bit easier when returning to school.

We need to be careful.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir on this one. Most teachers I encounter, both in real life and online have the students’ best interests at heart – it’s why we took the job. But let’s also not pretend that pressure won’t creep in to boost assessment scores, or to plug knowledge gaps with a barrage of extra tasks, making it impossible for students to breathe and process what is going on.

This is one of those times where we need to slow down, discuss, plan and then watch and respond. It might seem like a good idea to get out of the blocks quickly, but there will be a lot of students who simply want us to be there. Not to do anything. Just to be there.

Let’s prioritise talking to our students about how they are. Let’s check on their families. Let’s focus on alleviating their paralysing fears before we start trying to embed new subject content.

We’re teachers though. We have superpowers. We’ve got this.

So, You Didn’t Get That Teaching Job?

Teaching Job Journey

What to do if you didn’t get that teaching job…

I’m sorry to inform you that you weren’t successful this time. Thank you for applying, we really enjoyed meeting you.”

If you’ve been on the receiving end of such a message, in person or over the phone, you know how devastating it can feel. After all, its likely that you’ve spent hours and hours crafting your application, redrafting covering letters and rehearsing answers to interview questions for that teaching job. Not only that, but you’ve bared your soul, both on the page and in person, when asked questions like “So, why are you a teacher?” and “Tell me about a time when you overcame a challenge”. The feeling of rejection can be powerful and paralysing.

So, where should you go from there?

Well, after a couple of days of naval-gazing, you could be forgiven for throwing in the towel and saying “Oh, stuff them. I didn’t want that job anyway!”

But, you did. And you will again, when you next see a similar opportunity. So how can you prepare yourself to bounce back and improve your chances?

Well, speaking as someone who has been “unsuccessful” on a number of occasions, I can tell you what works (and is working) for me. It might not be to everyone’s tastes and it takes time to put into place, time that you might not have if a teaching job pops up at short-notice. However, I have faith in my methods. It’s a long-game, this teaching malarkey, so I want to take the time to get it right. Otherwise, I could end up in a role that I don’t enjoy, just because I was too short-sighted to choose something that was truly worthwhile for me personally.

I wrote myself some rules…

10 Rules For Staying Sane

#1 Don’t take rejection personally

#2 Ask for feedback

#3 Respond to feedback

#4 No sudden movements

#5 Reflect on the journey more than the destination

#6 Decide what job you want

#7 Start accruing useful and interesting experiences

#8 Build your network

#9 Improve your knowledge and skills

#10 Do things that others aren’t doing

So, why am I writing this?

This list has kept me sane for the last couple of years. 

There have been so many times when I’ve either been within touching distance of teaching jobs, or where I’ve been shortlisted against candidates whose qualifications and experience far surpass my own. But in both sets of cases, having a solid hold onto those ten rules has helped me deal with the pressure and the (inevitable) disappointment.

Some might say I should perhaps get some new rules. After all, I haven’t succeeded at an interview for a long time! But, in reality, I don’t need to.

Rather than looking for greener pastures elsewhere, I’ve instead worked on creating my own ideal role where I already work. It doesn’t come with a footballer’s salary, or a lighter timetable. But I’m good at it and, ultimately, it makes me happy. I now lead a small and successful Law Department, co-run the EPQ and I’ve recently been given the (huge) responsibility for taking our NQTs through their Induction Year. This combination of leading a department whilst developing new staff is exactly what I had always worked towards.

I’m not sure that such a teaching job even exists on the TES, or anywhere else for that matter. And if I have my way, it never will.

So, just take your time and enjoy your journey. If I can do it, so can you.

Andy

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