My #TeachingHighlights

Well, I’m going to jump on this bandwagon without hesitation. I have the luxury or the challenge of 17 years of experience. I’m going to limit myself to six examples.

1. Summer 2001. PGL, South of France. Two exhausted teachers (we played and worked hard, were underweight and undernourished and bordering on workaholism) and fourteen young people. Nine of them had Special Needs of some kind. Most had never left the London area. We effectively lived outside for two weeks – from tents to the beach and back again. We all tried things we’d never tried. Kayaking, banana boating, windsurfing. We did market-challenges in French, tried all the local food. It was the best tonic ever for all of us. I’ve kept track of almost all of the students. One is in prison, one has attained celebrity status, one died of leukemia, one has a teenager of her own now, one is a successful intellectual, one is, what #eddiekayshun referred to beautifully the other day as my ‘lost sheep.’

France, 2004

2. Lost sheep is looking for his lost mother. Nobody knows quite where she is. It’s been a difficult time, and he hasn’t been living with her. We trace her to a possible hostel in a certain area of London. It’s her 40th birthday and he wants to send his love and birthday greeting. We spend until 6 p.m at school, calling around all the hostels in the area and we find one that’s heard of her. It’s as far as we get. I hope she got the message – neither of us were ever sure. The power of those teacher-student bonds, though, can’t be underestimated. He’s still rather lost, but he and his friends surprised me by travelling up the M1 to be at my own 40th birthday party a few months ago, and it was a delight. Here they are:

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3. Same vein – sorry for morbid context, but it’s 7/11. I have 25 missed calls from my husband. We are 3 miles north of the bomb in the bus. Many of our students have parents working in the area. We batten down the hatches and those of us who can, who don’t have our own families to rush home to, stay, until the last child is picked up and the last parent and sibling accounted for. It’s unquestioning and automatic. Our ‘precious resource’ deserves no less.

4. Different school. 15 years into my career, I get one of Those Classes. Wildly unpredictable. Provocative. Volatile. One moment loving, the next moment almost unteachable. The most lovingly planned lesson falls flat on its face. The least expected detour in a lesson is a huge success. No set of factors determine one way or another. There are sleepless nights. There are, dear reader, tears (no, it never quite ends!). Fourteen months later, I leave the school. They’re indisputably the hardest class to leave. One of the quietest girls runs up to me with a bunch of roses and bursts into tears.

5. Leaving, and the absolutely wonderful send-off I was given by staff and students. There was an exam upstairs, so they couldn’t clap, so I got clapped at in sign language – over 100 people waving frantically at me.

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6. Knowing, within hours (minutes?) that the students I’ve moved to work with are people I feel privileged to work with – having 2 blissful weeks to visit lessons and chat to Year 11s studying for exams. Listening, listening – telling them, yes, I’m staying! Asking them for their honest opinions on how to improve the school and taking it all on board.

There you go. A taster, but it’s cheered my evening no-end!

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Growth Mindset – The bleedin’ obvious or something rather more complex?

For those who haven’t come across the concept of Growth Mindset, this blog, by classteaching, offers a succinct overview.

http://classteaching.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/growth-mindset-attributes/

I was quite late to the party, first coming across the concept of Growth Mindset in preparation for an interview nine months ago (for a job I narrowly missed out on – a lucky escape, and a story for another time!). On starting to read, I cheered inwardly at seeing my educational philosophy in writing. My teaching gradually turned to toe-tapping frustrating. Well, of course I ensure students see mistakes as part of the journey. Of course a low mark would never allow me to let one of my students feel a failure. I love a challenge and encourage my students to do the same. In fact, I had a memorable argument with a colleague in which I argued that EVERYONE thrives on challenge and that those who are restless or unhappy probably need more of it.

As a school leader, I have come to value resilience and reflectiveness above most other qualities. We all make mistakes – of course we do! We’re human. It’s more worrying to work with people who believe in their infallibility than with those who are willing to put their hands up. apologise and move on. ‘What have we learned from this?’ was a line used by a line manager once, in response to what frequently felt like the biggest catastrophes. And we DID learn. And by learning, we grew and we became better teachers, better role models, and better leaders.

In the classroom, I am lively and frequently spontaneous. Sometimes I am hasty and I rush. My own inevitable mistakes become part of the fabric of the lesson – the ability to spot them and explain them is hailed and praised. If I start the lesson I’ve planned and it doesn’t work out, I’m  no longer afraid to be honest with myself and my students and take a different tack. My lesson plans look more like flow-charts than organised lists, usually planned with at least 3 different possible scenarios in mind. As a teacher of languages, the exuberant chatterboxes are praised at parents’ evening for their ability to ‘have a go’ and ‘get the message across’ without worrying too much about making mistakes.

I tell my students about initial catastrophic attempts to struggle with  new concepts for my Doctorate. About how I had NO IDEA how to begin designing a survey or manipulating an Excel spreadsheet six months previously. About the piece of work I was smugly happy with, which came back with red ‘track changes’ all over it… and not a single positive or encouraging comment. About dusting myself down, stepping back, and then having another go. So why on earth do I need to read 200+ pages on Growth Mindset, when I live and breathe it as a teacher, a leader and most recently, a Doctoral student myself, would I need to read about Growth Mindset?

Back to my teacher roots: the languages classroom. Every year, I share with my – bemused, slightly revolted and occasionally amused – students the true story about how I didn’t have a bath for ten days on my first French exchange visit. I knew the word for bath. I also knew it wasn’t ‘avoir un bain’ and couldn’t think of the correct verb. So I didn’t ask. And I didn’t bathe.

Forward again to our customary holiday with dear family and friends this summer. The children are getting bigger, and our holidays a bit more adventurous. First stop: Go-Karting. ‘I can’t possibly do that!’ is my first reaction. Day 3: Kayaking. ‘No way. I’ve got no co-ordination.’ Then, caves. ‘Arghh. I’m claustrophobic!’ Cooking fresh lovely French food? My husband and friends are so much better. I’ll do the washing up. Not much point trying, as I’m likely to end up flapping pathetically and it won’t taste any good anyway.

Back to school. One of the perks of my job is the endless learning walk. Dipping in and out of classrooms, cajoling reluctant learners, joining in with learning concepts, celebrating nuggets of excellence and squirrelling away excellent ideas to share and use. Last week, I came face-to-face with a sewing machine. The terror I felt was visceral. The memory of grappling with expensive felt and making an utter dog’s dinner of my wall-hanging. My needles were ‘like cars on the M25′, the teacher said. For the second year in a row, much to my parents’ amusement, I line-manage Science. ‘Not a natural Physicist’, said Mr Wingfield in 1986. Art? I got a D- for my first ever homework. Can’t do it!

I was brought up in 1980s Buckinghamshire, where you took at exam at 11 to decide on the rest of your schooling. You either ‘passed’ or you ‘failed’. Grammar school for the ‘passes’. Secondary moderns for the ‘failures’. Pretty barbaric, yes? Well, no. The system is still alive and kicking. In fact, were we to wish to, we could put our own daughters through the same exam. Were we to want to, we could take up the offers of ‘tutoring’ advertising outside our daughter’s pre-school two years ago, when she was three. I was a competent musician. Note, ‘competent’ rather than ‘gifted’. I worked hard. We went through competitions and were given points from the age of 9 (many younger than me). I remember being told my ‘intonation was all over the place’ at 10. My Mum reminded me I won a competition once – I’d forgotten that bit. With the freedom of university, I put my instruments down, and it was years before I rediscovered the joy of uncensored music-making.

Back to my current classroom. I’ve never pretended languages weren’t hard. It’s one of the ‘selling points’. But for some students, it’s terrifying. To get a C when your partner gets an A is the biggest kick in the teeth. To speak French, recorded, in a tiny exam room for 6 minutes? The ultimate torture! ‘Feeling a failure’ is prevalent, particularly amongst bright teenage girls. A million miles from my ethos?

I remember vividly the feeling of inadequacy and uselessness when I got a B- when my best friend, A, got an A – for a piece of work I was SO proud of. I ‘took the initiative’ and decided NOT to apply to Oxbridge because I really didn’t want to go there anyway. Hindsight: I was probably right, but was there an element of the Year 10 boy who’ll do anything – ANYTHING! – but attempt that piece of writing, from needing the loo to chucking a pen to picking a fight with his partner? Was there a tiny bit – or maybe even more – of Vic Goddard’s NAF student. Never. Accept. Failure. By not risking rejection or risking defeat?

Perhaps I owe more to Growth Mindset that I realised. I wonder if it’s a bit like the truism of authoritarian parents raising libertarian children, before the cycle continues? In any case, something that is never far from my consciousness, as a mother, a friend and a teacher.

POSTCRIPT

Summer, 2014. Urged by my husband, I actually drove the go-kart. It was massively exhilarating, I can still smell the petrol and feel the force of just making it around the corner. My daughter was proud of me. The caves were fine in the end – much wider and more open than I’d imagined. Once I stopped worrying, I even managed the narrow passageways. Best of all, I kayaked! First time around, I flapped and fussed and let my confident partner take a lead. Second time, I took a place in a kayak with a tearful child and a shaken-up friend after they capsized and he lost his glasses. No time for flapping and squawking. I had to pull it together, be calm, look ahead, communicate, and keep talking. And guess what? We survived. And I loved it.

As to cooking… Sigh. Maybe one day.

Intelligent Accountability: Remembering Why We Teach

‘Let us never forget what a precious resource we are working with.’

These were the words to staff, at briefing, from our Head at the time, the morning after the Beslan massacre of 2004. As a man not normally given to public expressions of emotion, and one, if I remember rightly, with his own children around the same ages, the words have stayed with me through my career.

I stormed into Twitter two years ago, propelled by my research on teacher well-being. I was – and still am – privileged to become a mouthpiece on the issue of how we balance teaching and parenthood, and overwhelmed by the flood of responses to my research. The sea of research out there on the importance of looking after ourselves – and one another – in a job which requires such a level of emotional investment, risk and vulnerability, forms the bedrock of my ongoing research.

As a senior leader, I aim to be approachable to staff – and students. I talk openly about my own experiences and mistakes, and feel honoured when others feel they can trust me with a triumph in the classroom or vent after a difficult day; those ‘days which chew you up and spit you out’, in the words of a former colleague. I ensure I ‘never forgetting a five lesson day’ (courtesy of Vic Goddard). I value the creative and the unorthodox, and I would never condone a one-size-fits all agenda.

A couple of years ago, I rushed in frustration to my line-manager after a colleague dragged herself, grey-faced and on the brink of tears, into work for the third day running, when everything about her screamed that she needed rest. ‘In a way, though, I admire her,’ he said. At the time I was somewhat taken-aback. Today, I’m starting to see what he meant.

Another former Head used to talk about the importance of ‘doing up your own seatbelt’ before you look after others. And those of us who’ve been sleep-deprived, nutrition-deprived and struggled to give our loved ones a fraction of the attention they deserve for weeks on end know that, in the words of a wise and frank lady at the Teacher Support Network, in that state, we’re ‘no good to anyone’. We have to look after ourselves.

In answer to the question: ‘what is teacher well-being’, which I’m asked a lot in various forums, I will continue to give the answer, ‘it’s about being proud of, and fulfilled in, the work you do’. Well-being is not about going into teaching expecting it to be easy, believing you know it all already (regardless of your life experience) or waiting it out for the holidays. As leaders and experienced teachers, when we remember our early days, do we not all remember the steepest learning curve of our lives? (Aside, perhaps, from early parenthood?). The struggle to find, and constantly redefine, our classroom identity through different contexts and life experiences continues. Do we not still have lessons where we are bitterly disappointed with the outcomes, and spend nights worrying about how we can put it right?

Recognition for a job well-done, gratitude for when teachers go above-and-beyond, as so many so frequently do, TLC after a difficult incident in the classroom, respect for background, ethos and values… These are non-negotiables, and every member of a school community has a right to these. I would never shy from standing up to bullying or ill-treatment of staff, any more than I would tolerate it when directed at students.

But seeing an NQT – or indeed a member of SLT! – in tears after the class that went horribly wrong will never send me into panic or despair. The tears, the frustration, are a sign of how much we care. They are symptomatic of an ongoing, and frequently difficult, reflective process. A recognition of the enormity of the role we play in young people’s lives. This job is bigger than our own concerns, our own egos, our own pursuit of excellent.

So, whilst I will champion a teacher’s right to be happy, recognised and respected, I will never apologise for challenging those who are not giving the students the quality they deserve. Our students are entitled to well-planned, thoughtful lessons, which have been planned with each unique member of each unique class in mind. Our students are entitled to regular feedback on their week. These, again, are non-negotiables. There can be no excuses for delivering a resource planned by someone else, with no forethought. There can be no excuses for a book left unmarked for weeks on end.

We all make mistakes. We can all be disorganised or remiss. I’m reminded of berating myself for shouting at my 2 year old for the fourth time in a day. A friend’s hugely reassuring response was: ‘they have to learn that we have limits. Don’t beat yourself up.’ In my third lesson with my new GCSE class, in an attempt to start a written dialogue in books, I asked students to highlight triumphs, areas for development, and a question for me. ‘When are you going to mark my book?’ asked C. in Year 10. Last week, as I went through her assessment preparation in detail, she said, ‘see, this is why it’s so brilliant when you go through our work with us!’ She made me rightly jump to action on the first occasion, and justifiably proud of having done a good job on the second. She was right to hold me account.

It is our job to mark our students’ work and plan their lessons well, evaluating and adapting my delivery according to their response. It is not our job to follow a rigidly planned lesson-by-lesson Scheme of Work. Not often I write in praise of OFSTED, but the emphasis on ‘effective over time’ (rather than singing, dancing outstanding-ness for show) and on ‘mastery’ rather than content overload (thanks to Mary Myatt for the insights) should make us all stop on think.

So again, I will not apologise for challenging a teacher who has not marked their books. I will not apologise for asking for evidence of planning if the delivery is below what our students deserve – I may even ask for it in advance! In return, I will offer training, coaching, teachers to see, students to talk to, and as much of my own time as necessary help things get better. I will offer you a chance to vent, and be honest with me about your frustrations, and then I will sit with you and help to find solutions, and ways forward – where there is a will, there is always a way.

The TeachMeet mantra is, ‘leave your ego at the door’. Perhaps it should be the mantra for the whole profession. Teachers are often passionate, driven people. There will be personality clashes, and frustrations and inadvertent belittlings and mistakes. We’d be silly to expect otherwise. But humility is all. The job is bigger than we are. And with a sometimes overwhelming weight of responsibility and a justified desire for respect and recognition, it is vital that we recognise how privileged we are to be influencing young people, day in and day out. Ill-treatment and lack of support of colleagues do happen – luckily not in places where I’ve worked -and should bring shame to us all. These anomalies aside (and I do believe they are unusual), if the weight of responsibility is greater than your sense of enjoyment, determination and fulfilment in the job then there are times, regrettably, when it may be time to move on from teaching.

Because it is our duty – and our privilege – as educators to continue to step up and give them the best we possibly can – day in, and day out.