Month 3- Leading a department

I came into middle leadership knowing that it wasn’t all going to be about my vision. I wasn’t naive and I feel that’s an important point to make. However, a lot more of it has been about building a clear vision for this context than I realised. I felt I was ready to deliver a vision and yet quickly realised the vision I had in my mind was, in fact,  solutions to problems that I felt existed in my previous school. So my vision has changed and adapted. For one, I’ve had to consider how the units we create as a department, and to a lesser extent how we teach those units, actually builds the character of our students. I inherited a curriculum that largely didn’t achieve the schools moral principles and so I had to adapt.

Another thing I’ve learnt is the importance of building a consensus amongst my colleagues. Even though I have a very clear vision of how things should look and where we should be heading, actually getting my team to buy into that vision is a fairly challenging task.  Sitting down with them one on one and unpicking their vision and edging it towards mine is one option, but actually listening to them and questioning their beliefs develops both of us. So far, it’s made for a much more cohesive department. I had pictured leadership as being a lot more about aggressive, dare I say it, macho powering through of resistance and creating change. However, this way is much more enjoyable for me and my team.

Which leads me to my final revelation of the month….Managing a department is administrative. God is it administrative! But, it is managing humans. Humans who have pre-conceived ideas of what their jobs are and how they are perceived within the school. They arrive with their own hang-ups, about themselves and you, and managing those is a mixture of interpersonal skills and honesty. How we alter those beliefs is a complete mystery to me at the moment and one that I hope the management course i’m about to undertake will help me with. I’ve always felt that management courses were pure snake oil, but as I now begin to reflect on my management of adults, I must admit I am interested to start a leadership course.

I am excited by this new role, and really enjoying the challenges as I meet them.

 

 

 

 

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Month 2: Leading a department.

Below is the start of my thinking for a department policy.

As you will tell, we are on a journey and probably, in truth, we are a little behind where we should be. However, this is what I feel we need to form a solid base to move forward.

Criticism/comment welcome. I’m new to this leading a department stuff!

 

English Department Policy (draft.)

 

Teaching policy.

In English we utilize six key principles of teaching (Rosenshine) and ensure that our lessons adhere to these principles so that pupils make good progress.

 

  1. Challenge

We select challenging texts and tasks so that students have high expectations of what they can achieve. This means placing the learning just out of reach and expecting students to achieve it.

 

  1. Explanation

We use metaphors, images and carefully considered language so that students can acquire new knowledge (both procedural and declarative.)

 

  1. Modelling

We use carefully planned modelling sequences so that students know how to apply their knowledge (including explicit modelling of procedural knowledge in action and talk through our thinking processes so that students are able to gain insight into the thinking of the expert.) We aim to remove this and all scaffolding over time so that students become independent learners.

 

  1. Questioning

We use questioning so that students are made to think hard with breadth, depth and accuracy.  Students are taught how to store and retrieve knowledge using learning strategies such as retrieval practice and spaced practice. But also, to consider deeper meanings of texts taught and the impact of literature on the reader.

 

  1. Purposeful practice

We provide opportunities for students to write in the three styles of the subject (analytical, creative and transactional) so that students improve their use of these styles. We aim for students to think deeply analytically and eventually achieve fluency in the language. We also aim for them to be able to express themselves in the world through narrative and transactional means.

 

  1. Feedback

We provide students with fortnightly responses to their extended writing so that students can improve on previous performance and deepen learning. We also utilize tick marking to check declarative knowledge and live marking to deal with common problems within lessons.

English Lessons.

Our lessons are structured and patterned so that students grow to recognize the likely learning sequence.

 

Reading Lessons

Reading lessons serve one of several purposes: to check comprehension of a piece of text, to use a piece of text as a model, to increase vocabulary or grammatical understanding, to inform future analytical writing or to open a wider thematic discussion. All of this will support long-term reading for pleasure and some lessons may well be dedicated to reading for pleasure, however this is not the primary purpose of English teaching.

 

  • Reading lesson structure one.

 

  1. Prime students about the text to help understand.
  2. Give students vocabulary support.
  3. Read the text.
  4. Respond to some questions about the text in writing.

 

  • Reading lesson structure two.

 

  1. Recap key events of a previously read text.
  2. Break down the text and begin to analyse it.
  3. Annotate the texts in books (whole class/groups/paired/individual.)
  4. Use these annotations to form a part of analysis.

 

Writing Lessons.

Writing lessons are those in which students practice writing analytical writing, creative writing or transactional writing.

 

  • Analytical lesson structure.

 

  1. Students make/use annotations about quote(s) from an extract.
  2. Students are presented with an essay question which these quotes could be used to answer.
  3. Teacher models paragraph writing in the way that they see fit.
  4. Paragraph writing- Support may come from scaffolding, paired work and/or modelling but every students book must have evidence of extended writing.

 

  • Creative Writing & Transactional writing (careful consideration of genre must be made.)

 

  1. Students are told about an explicit writing technique, often at sentence level.
  2. Teachers model that writing technique.
  3. Students attempt the writing technique and receive feedback.
  4. Teachers provide stimulus and scaffolding for student to use that technique in an extending piece of writing.

 

 

Grammar.

 

Grammar lessons happen on a Sunday and are tested on a Thursday. All students are to be taught these lessons and tested on the material. This year we will centralise the tests on an online assessment so that students’ results can be tracked over time.

 

Feedback policy.

 

 

Student work Extended writing based on final assessment. Other class work. Grammar quizzes Low stakes quizzes on previous learning. Verbal ideas in lessons End of unit assessment
Method of feedback T Targets- WWW & EBI Live marking and verbal feedback. Peer assessment (guided) or Teacher ticking – as decided by teacher Verbal feedback and/or tick marking Verbal feedback T Targets- WWW & EBI
Time period Once every two weeks for every class. Every lesson. Weekly Most lessons Every lesson. End of unit.

 

 

 

 

The Scan: Losing.

I’ve never shared my own writing on this blog before. However, this writing is a little bit different and I’ve wanted to share it for a while but not known how or where. I don’t think me share the details is appropriate, but the context for this piece of writing is …. (well, first of all bloody hard to type) it was a miscarriage. My wife/we had a miscarriage. I nearly lost my wife in the aftermath- as a result of blood loss. For a long time I lost myself. I want to emphasize that I wrote this in the weeks after…..Maybe I come across as selfish. Maybe I don’t focus enough on my wife’s pain. I didn’t write this for anyone else, I’m sharing it as an after-thought. Maybe a man’s point of view isn’t appropriate ….I really don’t know, but what I do know is that I’ve felt compelled to share my experience. SO HERE IT IS….All 655 rambling words of it. Before anyone says… yes, I know a lot of people go through worse. Much worse. 

For some unknown reason the room already knows. And it signals this to you, so that you could no more deny the fact than deny yourself oxygen. So you look at each other, you hold your breath and fake hope for what the monitor will say and… Then, there it is – the nothing you knew. You curse the room for its honesty.

When milestones pass you look at the other person, who you have shared everything with, and you wonder do they remember what this date would mean. And of course, they do but don’t speak. So you watch the wall or television, same difference, and you wait for something new. Even inactivity begins to feel futile.

Then you think about what could have happened, and it is the wrong time and the wrong place and so you stop yourself but you stop yourself stopping yourself and think…I should just scream the truth to the whole room. But you don’t. So you allow yourself the thought, but not the tear…and then you drift towards the thought that maybe the little mess of cells (because it is, no was a mess not a mass, at least in your head) that was your hope suffered in its death. You reassure yourself it was probably never alive, but you don’t quite believe yourself. Suddenly, it is running around a garden that you imagine future you will own and playing games with neighbouring children. The whole things look like an advert for Adderall or United Colours of Benetton and so you strike it from your consciousness.

You drift to work, and people understand but don’t understand. Everything is strange. Time moves rapidly, yet you notice it all. People talk differently to you, and yet you wish they’d say more or nothing at all. You begin to notice the hue of the carpet and how it is grey and not blue after all. Time moves slowly, and yet you’ve been aware of nothing for the last few hours.

You go home, but it’s filled with reminders: she collapsed there, I cried in that seat while she was in surgery, and I slept on the floor (self-flagellation.)  Everything feels like the Truman show. You imagine owning a dog that knows an adorable trick. How would you have the space or time for that? So it goes on, all as normal. A disappointment others would say, but that is the shortfall of empathy – a connection to something so disparate from your own experience. Those who do truly understand raise their heads rarely and you don’t want to share it with them anyway. Many people who have no known reason for knowing of your loss. Arrive with stories of cousins, nieces or nephews, brothers, sisters in law, mothers, lovers…..all of whom suffered the same fate, but are all YES ALL, miraculously absolutely bloody fine now! Life moves on. Yet, somehow you don’t.

A deadline at work is missed by a day or two and your boss reminds you that these deadlines are important. You catch the train home and you try to rationalise sitting still in the chair until the place you call home is called. Finally, you look your wife in the eye and you do the performance of being a man. The matinee show of this façade that your life now is.

Some concerns around the focus on lesson objectives.

One of my major concerns with learning objective and in particular ‘All, Most, Some’ objectives is that they are a form differentiation by outcome, identifying this inevitability is not all that useful. It may be better to start off with the desired outcome for all and try to scaffold and support in a way which avoids as many students as possible falling short. In addition to this they also, as Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison point out in ‘Making Every Lesson Count’, encourage students to not take the risk of failure. “Why risk failure and humiliation in front of my peers by attempting the other ones and getting them wrong?” It breeds a culture of teaching to the bottom and of low expectations.

I also feel that the way many schools use lesson objective is damaging for high start point students. Many schools use a lesson objectives approach which utilises Bloom’s taxonomy for their command words. For the high start point students this involves asking them to create something original. This assumes that originality is the key purpose of learning, in many cases this is not the case and in fact is not even desirable for novices.  It is highly unlikely that any student will create something that is original, this is if we even assume that originality is desirable for novices given that their breadth of knowledge is highly unlikely to actually enable them to produce something of a requisite quality to be considered original. Far better is for a teacher to teach with an exemplar in mind and show the process to create this.

Further to this, teachers using command words to identify the progress of learning is again muddled in its assumptions. First of all, not every lesson will result in students reaching the stage of analysis. It may be more meaningful to spend an entire unit simply understanding and remembering- especially if you don’t know anything. Remembering is, in many ways, a serious pursuit of obtaining the most crucial ideas that man has to offer. The idea that a 14-year-old may be able to deconstruct and reassemble these ideas or critique them is at best misguided. It will likely lead to extremely poor lessons as a good chunk of time will be given over to sending students into ‘the wilderness of unknowing.’ To cut a long story short a generic approach to learning is likely at the detriment to the mass of subject specific declarative and procedural knowledge required for mastery.

Another concern would be the amount of teacher time spent of creating these objectives and delivering them to students. A teacher can spend five to ten minutes on creating these headings and that time can be used far better on developing their own expertise. In English this may look like writing a model answer on the poem themselves and looking at likely errors students may make. Delivering objectives to students, by contrast, is highly unlikely to lead to them knowing anything other than what their objective is.

The idea of returning to these objectives as a meaningful task may also be flawed, looking at a slide which tells you the journey you are on is not a particularly useful way of progressing on that journey. To draw an analogy with map reading one would rarely pull the car over and look at the map in order to remind yourself you are heading towards Copenhagen. It is however useful to have a guide sat next to you who knows the exact route. Though any metaphor can break under duress, this one seems particularly useful in the case of Bloom’s orientated less objectives. While it is unquestionably the case that a teacher needs to know the end point and how to guide students there, it is not clear that lesson objectives help students know this route. It may in fact, at least in English be more useful to have them remember a series of scaffolded sentences to support analytical writing, for instance. It is worth pointing out that Bloom’s considers remembering a low-level skill.

Perhaps a more useful way of presenting student progress back to them is by quizzing the knowledge which teachers consider to be pre-requisites or by deconstructing an example of the desired outcome. In English this may mean stopping to show the students an exemplar paragraph before and identifying why it is successful, this can then be used to support student’s self-assessment and further their metacognitive process.

My final concern is that they assume that the lesson is a unit of learning, this can feed into an attitude of performance over learning. For instance, we could teach a lesson in which students are asked at the start of the lesson- what is the capital of Azerbaijan? When they don’t know, we tell them. At the end of the lesson we ask them again, magically they know that it is Baku. However, this knowledge is purely temporary (see, forgetting curve etc.) and so we have in fact observed only performance. This, unfortunately, plays into a confirmation bias which is a prevalent issue in education. We want the students to learn and therefore when they show the performance we want to see we assume they have learnt. This makes us feel good because we feel our teaching is successful and the student is given the gratification of having met your expectation and pleased you.

Month 1- Leading a department

This month has seen me undertake my first middle leadership role and I have to start first by apologising to every middle leader I’ve ever worked with. How on earth any of you put up with me while doing this job I will never know? If someone came to me right now as I typed this and bounded in excited about Comparitive Judgement, Knowledge Organisers, podcasts for the kids, snapchat revision posts, 80/20 revision guides, teaching narrative using Jungian archetype or the countless other ideas I’ve ranted in a frenzied excitement at you….I honestly think I’d hide in a cupboard.

For the most part my former HoD’s have listened and smiled! You absolute legends, how did you do that!?!

Now, about the actual experience. I feel it’s necessary to state that I had no intention of becoming Head of Department just yet, it was something I wanted to do in the next five years. I knew I was going to do it… I don’t believe in the law of attraction or some other such nonsense but I knew that I wouldn’t stop until I was competent enough to deserve the role. When I arrived at my current school ready to be second in department I was expecting a challenging but exciting new role. Within a week of being at the school it became necessary for a whole host of reasons for me to step up. I won’t go into that here as it involves personal matters that are not for me to share. I was ready to be second and to be mentored by someone. I was excited. Then in a single meeting I was in at the deep end and petrified.

I made a ‘to-do’ list, it seemed the only sensible thing to do. It was long but I told myself that I’d just reduce the time frame and complete the job one task at a time. What I hadn’t anticipated was the constant dropping in and colleagues asking for support. I’m not very good at saying no and maybe I’ll need to work on this, but it became evident very quickly that there were lots of problems.

I first set about making a department improvement plan, but I didn’t know all of the problems. I set about conquering metacognition within our department. Now, I’m not saying this isn’t important and , in fact, it is a whole school focus but for us as a department we cannot focus on this until we have a concrete sense of the focus of our work. For instance, there can be no focus on procedural knowledge checks if several members of the team do not know what the outcomes should look like. In short, there is no point creating a unified approach to analytical writing, if several members of the team do not know what is meant by analytical writing and are not in the habit of teaching it. So we started with our shaky foundations. I told the team we would be teaching 3 main styles of writing – transactional, narrative and analytical. It’s a reductive approach but we have to start somewhere. With our first CPD session I asked them to write a story, at the end of the process we clarified some procedural points and likely difficulties students might face. It’s a small step on a long road but we will get there.

But hold on, let me go back one huge and important step…. I had to tell my team that the adversity we found ourselves in was good. No wait, I had to tell myself that it was good and bloody believe it. I had to remind myself that finding myself in the role of HoD in a situation that an experienced leader would find tough was going to make me a better leader in the future. I told my team that we loved adversity, that it was our wheelhouse and that we would fight for each other and the students. I believed it and for now this is a motto of sorts for us. We aren’t quite a team yet, rather several fractions but there is no point forcing that…we will be brought together by our adversity and our success. By the end of the year, we will be held up by the school as a model of excellence. To me this seems inevitable, we will manifest it into reality.

Right, let me change gear here…you’ll notice I’ve a lot to talk about on this! Some things that have surprised me. I wanted to be Head of Department because I thought the role was leading a vision of English through your team. Clearly the word through is wrong there, but actually as one of my colleagues observed the other day my role is much more about delivering bad news in a way that people don’t hate too much. That is probably the best summary I’ve heard! Also the role isn’t so much leading. It’s a listening role! I listen to my team, I think carefully about what has been said and I adapt my idea. Sometimes I have to tell them they are simply wrong, but at other points in time I have to concede that I’ve not considered a very important thing. In his book ‘Leading’, Alex Ferguson says “you have two ears and one mouth” it’s more true for leaders than anyone else. The most inspirational head I’ve worked for doesn’t dress like a car salesman and spout grandiose narratives, she listens carefully and questions people. After ten minutes or so, I’m told, she might stop whoever is speaking and decide she’s heard enough before summarising the change (or lack of change)  in direction. This has been my most valuable weapon. Not my big mouth and big ego, or my hours spent reading research!

That being said, having worked in a team full of killers, as I have been known to call them, my competency has given me respect amongst my colleagues. I was fortunate enough to work for a good few years with the most argumentative and competent bunch of English teachers I can imagine have ever been assembled. At our best our arguments were combative and thought provoking but they were always well intentioned, they always had the kids in mind. I don’t have that in my current department because I realise that this takes time to grow but working in that team of killers means I’ve very few ideas left to be questioned. I’ve argued my ideas out countless times, and come up short countless times. I’ve borrowed the best ideas and formulated a vision. Implement that it turns out, is just a bit trickery than bombarding your Head of Department with it.

I have to end really simply though by saying, I am absolutely loving it and I just want to keep on getting better and better at it.

 

 

How to make your classroom more efficient. Clue-you don’t have to be a brain surgeon.

 

“The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably.” Atul Gawande, ‘The Checklist Manifesto.’

 

Teachers make on average between 1000 and 1500 decisions a day [Good and Brophy (2008) and Murray (1986)]. Each day we process an overwhelming amount of data and we process it to make more decisions than brain surgeons. Our working lives are increasingly complex and as a result we all make many small, but incremental mistakes or oversights. These oversights slow lessons and cause inefficiency, yet teachers (myself included are incredibly resistant to any support which we feels removes our professional status. Most likely because this status feels precarious in the current climate. Yet, I recently read a book that made me challenge my view on an area I did not believe could be challenged.

This comparison to doctors is a useful one, especially given that the book was written by surgeon, Atul Gawande. If Atul makes an error, for instance forgetting to wash his hands, he puts a patient’s life in jeopardy. The research told him that these small avoidable oversights occur more than 75,000 times a year in operating rooms. Worst still they cause avoidable deaths. Gawande’s found a surprisingly simple tool to resolve this issue, the checklist. When surgeons and nurses  in his hospital started using checklists before surgery deaths reduced by 47 percent. This shouldn’t be surprising other industries, such as construction, have a human error rate of  around 0.00002%

Resistance to Checklists

So why the resistance. Well, Atul explains that for himself and his fellow surgeons checklists somehow feel “beneath us ….an embarrassment.” It ran counter to their vision of themselves, “The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists” he explains. Yet, lives were being lost and so something needed to change “Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”

My old hero BJ Fogg can help in overcoming the resistance of using checklists. Fogg’s work on habits tells us that the checklists will need to be efficient and effective. The more efficient, the more likely it’ll  be used. It needs to be easy enough, and effective enough that no arguments can be presented against it. And yet, it should never be finished as a document, for fear that people stop questioning it. John Wolstenholme, a highly respected teacher who is somewhat of an institution at my current school, once said, “you can never take their behaviour for granted.” That seems to be at the core of the purpose of the checklist. Never sleeping on the fundamentals.

Pause Point

Every checklist must have a clear trigger – a location or routine action that reminds you to pause and complete the checklist. See Fogg’s work on habit for more on this.

Speedy

The books advises that a checklist should take less than 60 seconds to complete – any longer and you’ll start taking shortcuts. It should have no more than 10 items, in the book these are referred to as ‘killer’ items, if missed these cause poor quality and catastrophic inefficiency. In short, they have adverse effects on other people. Each item on a checklist should be a short and concise reminder of a routine that you are familiar with. For example, a pre-surgery checklist includes: “verify reserve blood.” This item description is sufficient for surgeons and so it should be the same for yourself, or your team.

Here’s an example of my first draft of my own checklist.

  • ALL resources ready
  • PowerPoint loaded
  • Any absent last lesson- support?
  • Whiteboard clean? If not, purpose?
  • Tidy room?
  • Lesson reviewed (compared to when last taught/planned/similar lesson.
  • Required knowledge for this lesson.
  • Revisiting – retrieval knowledge.
  • Journey understood – next steps for student progress
  • Classroom for removed students.

All of this might be different for colleagues at different points in their journey. Some of them are debatable and remember this is just my initial draft. However, it is important to remember these are just my initial draft and even completing this 30 or so word list has given me room for reflection.

Your thoughts.

What would be in your list?

Which ones of mine are pointless/needless?

 

 

 

Praise: How do we deal with orchids and dandelions? 

Imagine two twins. They are in the front garden playing happily on a summer’s day; their mother has just nipped in to get some lemonade, she is confident that her child is completely safe. They live in a very quiet neighbourhood. One of the twins has walked over towards the play house near the swing and has snuggled in to the seat inside, this twin is preparing for an afternoon nap. The other twin is walking towards the gate of the house, she has seen a furry creature and has decided to pet it. All of a sudden the creature turns around, it is a fully grown Irish Wolfhound, all 8 foot of it. Curious and excited, she pulls its tail and within the blink of an eye the dog has turned on her. It pushes it’s full height up against the gate and barks loudly. The mother inside doesn’t hear a thing. The dog owner turns sharply and drags the pet away, he thinks it is in a very excitable mood and takes it to the field for a good run. The little girl cries at the gate, unsure as to what her mistake was and petrified. When the mother comes out she sees one child crying and the other asleep and decides that they are both over-tired and need their beds. She carries them both up and turns off the light.

Many years later, when these two attend school, teachers will note the marked difference in their ability to stick with challenging tasks or respond with appropriate emotions. Child A, the sleepy twin, is seen as what some called a ‘Dandelion’ a tough flower which can survive any circumstances; whereas Child B, the curious tail puller, is seen as an ‘Orchid’ a flower which needs all conditions to be perfect to flourish.

It is possible that just such an incident could prove to be damaging for the second twin for the rest of their lives. In difficult lessons (and situations in general) they feel a terrible fear and stress ruins all their best efforts. The first twin, the napping twin, thrives in all aspects of school life. Perhaps this seems ridiculous, but studies of identical twins, where one twin has been exposed to trauma stressor but the other twin has not, have shown roughly an overall heritability of a form of stress disorder ranging from 32-38% (Southwick and Chandey, 2012.) Genetics do play a role in our ability to be resilient but that they are only part of the story.

From a teacher’s point of view this is fantastic, asked recently by a friend what I thought made successful students I stated four key factors- focus, obsession, curiosity and resilience. I don’t have space here to unpack all of them but the last of the four in many ways seems to be the most important. I think we have all taught students who need support with resilience, but often it can feel like something we don’t have any involvement in this area. However, recent research seems to show this to be not true.  There are specific interventions that can be done as a whole school, but more importantly many of the lessons learnt from the study seem extremely applicable to our classrooms and in particular how we praise and manage behaviour.
In America university researchers  initiated a program where they monitored high-risk children in schools and across communities and provide timely intervention to help them learn how to deal with stress

A study by Belsky et al was carried out on nearly 1,000 four-year-olds with behavioural problems or issues around stress and anxiety. They were put through a 10-year intervention program which taught them social skills and coping mechanisms. Their parents attended behaviour-management training programs. In addition, the study all provided, home visits and peer coaching sessions.
The findings were remarkable, it was found that those individuals who went through the interventional program reported lower instances of violent criminal behaviour and drug-crime convictions and higher well-being index later in life than those “orchid” children who did not go through the program. The earlier it was started the better (Bierman et al, 2015.)

What advice did I gleam from these studies and what can we do to help orchid students?

  • Use duty time and corridors to correct social mistakes.
  • Praise students for their hard work and resilience. Notice when they overcome difficulty.
  • Manage behaviour from a positive place- explain that you believe in the students and that is why you are checking their behaviour.
  • Provide scaffold for specific students- those who we struggle to manage their stress in times of challenge.
  • Take responsibility for students learning explicitly- if anxious students are nervous to start explain that you have provided a structure and that if the outcomes isn’t the right one, then you can adjust the scaffold.
  • Create a classroom culture which emphasises learning and not outcomes.

Albert, D., Belsky, D., Crowley, D., Latendresse, S., Aliev, F., Riley, B., , ., Dick, D., & Dodge, K. (2015). Can Genetics Predict Response to Complex Behavioral Interventions? Evidence from a Genetic Analysis of the Fast Track Randomized Control Trial Journal of Policy Analysis and Management DOI: 10.1002/pam.21811
Dodge, K., Bierman, K., Coie, J., Greenberg, M., Lochman, J., McMahon, R., Pinderhughes, E., & , . (2015). Impact of Early Intervention on Psychopathology, Crime, and Well-Being at Age 25 American Journal of Psychiatry, 172 (1), 59-70 DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13060786

A prospective teacher visits an ‘outstanding’ school.

Recently a friend of mine, who I’ve been trying to persuade to join the teaching profession since we first met, went to observe at an ‘outstanding’ school in their area. For obvious reasons I will not be naming this area, but I will say that my friend does not live near where I am from or where I currently live.  The experience has left them feeling like avoiding teaching forever, and I can’t blame them. The following is their experience in their own words, some details are changed for the purposes of anonymity.

Striding towards the industrial tower block building that houses this ‘outstanding school, I am awe struck by the behaviour of the students. Beneath the bridge that takes students under the road and towards the school building, many of them are openly smoking yards away from teachers. Their flash mobile phones read the same as mine, but while I pick up the pace to ensure I don’t miss the agreed meeting time with Mrs Brown; these boys light up another loosely rolled cigarette moments before the bell. The scent of nicotine still glued to my jacket, and the sound of shrill screaming ringing in my ear, I ask at reception if Mrs Brown has arrived to take me on my tour. She has not. She is dealing with an incident. Nobody seems to have been made aware that I was even coming. Not only is this building nothing like the one my own education occurred in, but the attitude of its students is also so far detached from my personal experience that I do not know where to look. I shrink into myself.

I have been persuaded to arrive at this building by a long-term friend. We no longer live in the same city, but we inhabit the same beliefs. We both attended fairly robust schools, mine in particular was prison-like and my fellow prisoners were at times cruel beyond belief. We both grew up in poverty, mine arguably more extreme. Regardless, we are both obsessed by social justice. He argues his work is a daily commitment to this, while mine is  a hollow purposeless pursuit of wealth. He tells me of his school where rules matter, and where children achieve excellence as a result. He tells me of students, who despite the challenges in their lives, some of which shock even me, go on to achieve phenomenal success. For many of you reading this, and for the majority of my friends with children of school age, this success may be more what you would identify with you children’s school. But it is most definitely not what this school is offering.

I believe that education is the only way to secure a functioning democracy, and it is because of that I am considering a career in teaching. It is because of that, that I feel schools must set meaningful rules and stick to them. It is because of that, that I know transmitting knowledge to students without fear is the best chance for social mobility, justice and equality.

Perhaps you are one of those people who argue that ‘poor kids’ have a hard enough time without teachers getting on their back, and I’m not disputing that some children have tough lives. But, I am disputing whether that is a kind action. I’m not coming into this starry eyed, but apparently there are those who believe that being ‘kind’ means being ‘lenient’ with certain students. That this is the only way to truly increase equality. I couldn’t disagree more. When people fail in my current role, we support them but we certainly don’t shift the goal posts. If anything we help them to see more is possible.

I wonder what to tell my friend. That I would go into teaching if it wasn’t like this? That I had a lovely time but it’s not for me? That I would like to see his school instead? None of it seems sufficient. I decided to tell him simply that I feel the sector is not for me. He will surely ask for details, but I don’t want to tell him about the boy who nonchalantly screwed up his work as he left Science, or about the girl who spent a whole English lesson moving her pen but not writing a single word. I decide not to tell him about the deputy-head who told me that the only thing that matters are GCSE results. I decide to simply tell him the story of my day. The bleak lessons, in the bleak building will sufficiently fill in the blanks.

As I leave the building, the bell still ringing in my ears, a boy turns to his friend and says “who is he?” I turn around. The other boy replies, “probably just some supply teacher who can’t hack this place.” I debate confronting them, but nothing I can think to say will change how they feel about their school or themselves and that, is all that matters. The grim and grey building stretches far up into the bleak clouds above. I am an educator, but I am not a teacher.

I’ve been trying to persuade Teacher A to join the profession for nearly six years, when they went to visit their local secondary I was convinced they’d catch the bug. The fact that they had not been put off by all the negative press or financial implications, suggested to me that they had finally ‘come round’ ….I guess the above is living proof that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Their experience is what makes pulls me towards teaching, but I can understand how it would pushing some away too.

Reflection: our most powerful tool and how it can stop us from being idiots (hose, in different area codes.)

During the summer holidays I was fortunate enough to stay in a friend of a friends villa in the south of France. What was lovely about it was that I was in a genuine environment and not the cold veneer of comfort which hotels often smack of.

I would get out of bed, set up the cafetière and then walk for a pastry. It was simple and idyllic. In the afternoon there were some jobs around the house- which I completed with varying degrees of success. One of these jobs was to water the plants using a hose, seems simple enough. Except some days it was not. Some days the hose would splutter. Fortunately, I found the solution; you simply needed to turn the connector at the bottom and bang back to full power. Except it didn’t always work. Some days it simply carried on spluttering. This inconsistency in outcomes was infuriating.

A few days into this problem I noticed a latch of sorts attached near the handle. It was lodged hard against the lever, I popped it back into position and the spluttering stopped.

The point here is, what I thought was the solution was actually not. Sometimes unscrewing the connector released the latch, sometimes it didn’t. Yet, I was so convinced that the first method worked simply because it had worked once. This led me to thinking about teaching, what else could I be still doing repeatedly because it had worked once? Have I ever blamed the ‘equipment’ while using the wrong method? Have I stepped back often enough and really thought about the process I’m applying?

So as I stood staring at a hose in Provence- I found myself questioning my practice. But most importantly I found myself questioning my mentality. How often as professionals do we submit to the possibility that we might have it all wrong? Obviously we don’t have it all wrong, but it is a useful question to ask yourself all the same. In a role which can be incredibly challenging we could be forgiven for not asking ourselves such debilitating questions. But what if your teaching could be made simpler, easier and more (consistently) successful by once in a while annoying yourself with a series of difficult questions about your habits and biases.

Questions to probe:

  • What if the method I use in situation X is wrong?
  • How would I explain my process to a naïve observer?
  • How would I justify my process to my harshest critic?
  • Why did I think that process would work?
  • What if I made this too simple?
  • How would I plan tomorrow’s lesson if it had to be a cover lesson?
  • What do my students think the process is?
  • Which three pieces of knowledge would transform these students performance/learning?
  • What if the student failed because of me?
  • What biases do I carry about learning/teaching my subject?
  • How is my own experience of learning this subject biasing my approach?
  • What if I did the opposite for 24 hours?
  • Who else is being successful? Are any of these people outliers in their approach?

Final thought.

I think it is important that we question everything we do, we owe that much to our students. However, I also think its about time we stop beating ourselves up for our errors. So many teachers take to twitter after having had a bad day at work, they chastise themselves and I think it’s idiotic. Achieving excellence is never about avoiding failure. It is about looking at the ‘black box’ and seeing why you crashed, then doing something about it. We need to get out of our heads (not in that way) as a profession, we need to be kinder to ourselves and we need to reflect with a level of self-care and detachment.

Vocabulary: My new approach.

A few years ago I played football with a very handsome young man, he was an actor and a model. On the surface his life was very simple, it basically involved being paid for being himself. He rarely got acting jobs where he was asked to do anything other than be himself, and his modelling relied on his looks and his natural athleticism. One day he was asked to attend an audition for a national soap opera; he couldn’t believe his luck. They’d head hunted him and they’d created a role for him. He couldn’t lose, or so he thought. Dressed in an expensive brand of clothing comping he’d recently modeled for he strode into the audition. It started out simple enough, “Dave (not his real name), we need to run you through a couple of bits to see how you take direction” -this, I’m reassured is fairly standard audition process. O.K he thinks, I’ve been doing this for the last ten years: light work! Then the dreaded words, “OK Dave, could you just be bashful.” He was stumped, expletives ran through his brain, but no definition and at that he froze. His reaction was nothing short of comical. He marched up and down singing ‘Heigh ho! Heigh ho’ …. “No, no,” says the director charitably, “not be Bashful, be bashful.” Next he tries, ‘bashing’ things. “Thanks Dave, that’s great” Needless to say, you’ve not heard of this friend of mine and you never will, well not through soap operas anyway. My point is simple, vocabulary is very important!

I’m going to start this blog with the assumption that you’ve picked 20 or so words that you want to teach your students this half term, and instead I’m going to focus on how best to explain these new words to your students.

It’s fair to say that memory and, how we access our students long term memory is a pretty complex process. The landscape seems to be constantly shifting and the more we learn the less simplistic it all appears to be. On a fundamental level there are some basic principles which we can focus on. Namely, timing (when  we repeat information-retrieval practice) and explanation (how we present the information.) Timing is to big an issue to cover at the same time, so let me narrow down to the ‘how.’

For many years I assumed that the best way to explain a new piece of vocabulary was to present it using an unusual example. If the word was ruthless for instance, I would first give the students a definition – “Ruthless boys and girls means ‘having or showing no pity or compassion for others’ and an example of this would be….” I would then give a frankly bonkers example of being ruthless. They usually involved sharks, old ladies and mafia bosses riding elephants. “Oh! How creative and wacky I am” I would say to myself.  I’m such a great teacher, they love the stories about ruthless Grandma’s attacking mafia bosses for treating the elephant cruelly.

On some level I should have been nervous about this approach. I enjoyed creating these examples and the patterns became a bit of an in joke, a form of rapport building. However, there is clearly far too much interference. The words are memorable because they are useful, everything else is white noise. The use of the same series of odd images made this even worse, there was nothing for the students to distinguish between the example for ruthless and exploit. The mafia boss had exploited the elephant…blah,blah, blah.

In their work on memory aids Einstein, MacDonald & Lackey (1989) discuss how different approaches may be more useful for different information. For example, a mnemonic which uses an exciting (and original) image may be useful (Bower, 1980) ; however, for vocabulary this images, become clustered. What is required, they suggest, is multiple exposure in the context the language is required and so I’ve adjusted my approach.

Recently, and somewhat unsuccessfully, I shared a document which I believe if we all pushed forward could revolutionise our teaching of vocabulary. My strategy now is simple, and four pronged. First I explain what the words mean, always with different examples, usually relating to their lives or texts I know they’ve previously studied, this builds on solid foundation. Next the students match the definition to the new word, I make a point of them over-learning these definitions. I’ve decided that the sweet spot is when they are bored of the task (more on that some other time.)

Next I give them cloze sentences, these are associated with the text we are studying. For example, “In his cruel and brutal beating of his native butler, Dr Roylott shows his _______________ nature.” One issue I’ve found in creating these examples is that words like ‘cruel’ and ‘brutal’ must also be understood and I always over estimate what the students can do. Once a student is comfortable with these examples I move away from the context and come up with more unique examples. It is worth mentioning that an example like, “Jose Mourinho’s treatment of Luke Shaw could be seen as ___________ ” is not a good example. Yes, the students understand this and it is relevant to many of their lives, but Donald Trump, Jose Mourinho or whoever else you care to mention will not be relevant in two decades time. In fact, Mourinho seems to be treating Shaw a little nicer these days and so the example is already dated. Your examples must be universal and so archetypal characters may be much more useful – “The stingy boss was __________ when he sacked all his staff so that he could keep his bonus.”ruthless.jpg

Your next step is to get the students to match synonyms/antonyms to the words. I would suggest doing these as a multiple choice question, for the simple reason that this gives you the chance to tease out what is different about the word ruthless compared to, say, ‘cruel’ or ‘unsympathetic.’ A great question to ask students at this point is, which word is most similar to ‘ruthless’ and why. This will clearly show you any misunderstandings the students have. Creating multiple choice questions is arduous to say the least, but you will definitely be able to use these next year and the year after, so stick with it.

Finally, and unfortunately this is the one which requires the most marking, you will need to get the students to come up with their own example of the word in a sentence. These will need to show clear understanding of the word. My personal rule is that I should not be able to ask “How was the person ‘ruthless’?” and that the word should obviously be used correctly. If you’ve given the students good enough examples they shouldn’t find this too challenging. This is the most important step, a student remembering that their teacher believes Roylott to be ruthless is not learning. It is a temporary state. It will not get them through a job interview (should the interviewer ask a question requiring the vocabulary you picked) or even enable them to analyse a spikey Portuguese football manager down the pub with their mates.

The task of making all these resources for each unit is not easy, but it is worth now “heigh ho! heigh ho! it’s off to work on our vocabulary resources we go.”

Links to my resources for this can be found here and the spreadsheet you can help add to is here.

After thought.

A fantastic way of revisiting these words is to give them an image of a ‘ruthless’ looking figure and ask them to describe the figure. I’ve only just started playing with this, but the responses so far have been great. Students throw all the words they’ve learnt at the image, and then have to justify for example how the individual is ‘malevolent’ et cetera.