On reflection: September approaches

Like some kind of Game of Thrones season finale, four weeks of the summer holiday have passed: it is coming. Together with teaching colleagues across the world currently on a summer break, I am filled with the usual mix of anxiety, foreboding and excitement. What will the new school year bring? Will it be as horrendous as my worst nightmares predict? What opportunities could the year entail?

Again, as like so many colleagues, I have a to-do list so long and labour-intensive that only a demob happy teacher in July, dragging themselves to the end of year and simply relieved to have survived another 39-weeker, would ever consider realistic. I have two schemes of work to review as, for a third year running, we try to get a grasp on curriculum change and really try to hit the high standards we’re aspiring to but haven’t yet had the amount of time we’d like to really nail all the right notes. Sitting in a friend’s porch whilst I stay for a summer break, I have a new KS3 textbook in my suitcase, waiting to inspire me. So far I have preferred to read the hardbacks I brought with me – The World As It Is, about the Obama White House from the perspective of his staffer Ben Rhodes, and Smoke and Ashes, the third book by Abir Mukherjee set in Colonial India. I have just started Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, having picked it up following his talk at the Hay Festival back in June. I’m just on the first chapter where he’s defining the concept of a bullshit job and, at the particular section I’m at, distinguishing between a ‘bullshit job’ and just a ‘shit job’. I’ve yet to meaningfully use his typology with reference to the teaching profession; although from what little I’ve read so far it appears it would not be considered a bullshit job, but maybe at times a shit one.

Whilst not necessarily a deliberate act of procrastination, I seem to be finding many  more links via Facebook, Twitter and the web in general which are proving interesting reads. In particular, Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli seem to be doing their level best to distract me and make me think about all manner of educational topics, whilst I should be getting on with some planning for September. I appreciate that their incredibly wise words and visuals are designed to help me at this very time of planning and preparing for the new school year. Yet I am sure I’m not alone in feeling that I’d need to delay the start of term for another six weeks off (err, turkey voting for Christmas?) in order to digest the sheer volume of useful information which is now out there for teachers.

A few items in particular stand out from these two gentlemen’s venerable arsenals of educational know-how:

  • 10 essential discussions to have in any teacher team (Tom Sherrington) This is amazing. As a middle leader with time to plan with my department on INSET day, let alone throughout the year, this was such a good summary of the key discussions to be had and decisions which need to be reached through those discussions. I’ve already clipped it to my Evernote and will be plotting how to get through the different aspects over the first days and weeks of the new year.
  • Oliver Caviglioli’s posters Wow, I know I’m not the only one impressed by this growing collection of visually captivating and content-rich posters which summarise an expanding range of all the best thinking in education, but what a great resource.
  • Evidence-Informed Ideas Every Teacher Should Know About  (Tom Sherrington) I guess as a response to the problem that I (and many other teachers) set out about having time, Tom has produced a masterful summary of educational ideas, presented clearly and succinctly but with more references and links than you could shake a stick at. All the documents he references, and more, are gathered here for your convenience, just to add to your guilt for watching another episode of The Crown on Netflix whilst you could be reading Rosenshine.

So this is my ‘relaxing’ (with a little work) holiday, having done my ‘doing’ holiday. Spending a week touring some of the landmarks and memorials from the First and Second World Wars was at once humbling, harrowing and thought-provoking. Yet the trip came as a reaction to a school trip to France earlier in the year when we visited Bayeux, even the Tapestry museum’s gift shop, but I didn’t have the chance to see the historic artefact. What started as a joke that I’d go back to France to see it was combined with an interest I’ve had, for a number of years now, to revisit some of the WW1 battlefields that I’d first seen as a student on a school trip back in 2001.

This time, we’d do some of the same things – attending the Menin Gate ceremony or visiting Thiepval are things which never cease to register – whilst also taking in some new places, not least the D-Day beaches of Normandy which would be completely new to me. Arriving in Dunkirk, it was chilling to put some sense of dimensions and scale to the famous evacuation. Then within the next five days we visited Ypres, Tyne Cot, Langemarck, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, Notre Dame de Lorette, Arras, Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval and Peronne. All of these places – some new and some revisited, a mixture of cemeteries, museums and battlefield memorials – collectively gave a sense of the scale of the loss and the tragedy. They spoke of the futility facing the soldiers in the trenches and of a military and political hierarchy that was out of kilter with technological and social progress; 19th century tactics were trying to direct 20th century technology. It was little wonder that the war contributed to so much economic, political and social change around the world, including votes for women, a revolution in Russia and a rebalancing of the international order with the USA moving to its apex. Yet for the resultant changes, some of which were undeniably positive, walking along kilometres of lines of graves makes you question how on earth so much could be lost for so little.

In contrast to the death and unnecessary loss of the First World War, the story told along the D-Day beaches struck a different note. What in Flanders’ fields had been needless loss was now more noble sacrifice. The American Cemetery above Omaha Beach is both spectacular and sad. The loss of life was terrible, especially at Omaha compared to the other beaches, but at least there was some clarity about why so many young men gave their lives on the beaches and throughout the Second World War. What is remarkable is that the full extent of the Nazi regime’s evil was unknown at that time to the men who approached Normandy, by boat or by plane, as was the horror that awaited them on the beaches. Still they fought with bravery, often with little regard for their own safety, their only thought being to their comrades and their mission. Alongside the bravery of the men, the scale of the operation and the planning and technological innovation which underpinned it is astonishing. Visiting Arromanche, seeing the remains of the Mulberry harbour which would supply the Battle of Normandy is staggering. Also staggering was a speech by General Eisenhower, the text displayed in the museum at the American Cemetery, which he wrote on the eve of D-Day. It outlined that despite detailed planning and immense bravery, the landings had failed and the troops withdrawn. Eisenhower praised all those involved and took full and sole responsibility. Thankfully he never had to give that speech; the fact that he wrote it offers some insight into his exceptional leadership and character.

Amidst the stories of sacrifice and sorrow, I did get my chance to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Walking its length, having the story and context explained to me via audioguide, it was in some ways fitting to set this artefact alongside the memorials we’d be visiting from more recent wars. Like those memorials of stone, this tapestry was marking an historic moment. Like those memorials, it told a certain version of the events and yet, like those memorials, it still did something to capture the brutality of war and did not gloss over that for the pursuit of power and the practice of politics, ordinary people are caught up with their lives inexorably changed or even ended, for reasons which they may not know, at the time or forever. When I visit museums or historic sites, I always try to do two things – establish the wider context, to place this particular exhibit or site, and then appreciate the individual stories involved. So in my trip, which covered episodes across 1,000 years of European and global history, it was interesting to see that that interplay between power and ordinary people has been consistently recorded and that some things – the brutality of war, the maelstrom which ordinary people are thrown into by decisions taken far away from them, both geographically and socially, and the human desire to record our stories, our history – do not change.

Place Studies (Work in progress)

As part of the new A-Level course, my class are studying ‘Changing Places’. It is refreshing and daunting to be teaching the quite challenging concepts involved with place. A further novel aspect of the new topic is the requirement of developing ‘place studies’ of a ‘local’ and ‘distant’ place.

Four themes to explore:

  • Similarity
  • Difference
  • Continuity
  • Change

Local place: WARRINGTON TOWN CENTRE

Settling on a local place is more challenging that you’d expect. It has to be somewhere which students have direct experience of, yet it also has to be a relatively small place (the suggested population being in the 10,000-20,000 range). Add to this the need for a range of quantitative and qualitative sources to be available on the place and it became clear that we’d have to choose Warrington town centre. It is important to distinguish that it is the town centre and not the whole town. In actual fact, it is the electoral ward of Bewsey & Whitecross, which covers the town centre, with some reference to neighbouring wards.

Luckily in the age of Google, a huge amount of information is available digitally, not least from Warrington Borough Council. The plethora of quantitative data could be expected though. What is quite amazing, when doing the research, is the amount of articles, poems, stories, songs, photographs and paintings all about Warrington. So much so that it is quite a joy to piece all of the information together in a kind of geographical tapestry that shows a range of forces causing change over time.

Warrington Borough Council provides population facts and figures, including information about specific wards and population change. They also have a document about Warrington’s 2011 Census data.

There is a host of information about people, places, pubs and poetry to do with Warrington on All Things Warrington.

Distant place: SPITALFIELDS & BANGLATOWN

The idea of using Spitalfields as the distant place came as I was visiting London and stayed nearby, but still in Tower Hamlets. Visiting the British Library I saw Dan Cruickshank’s book on Spitalfields. With a little more research, it became clear that there was a plethora of information available to support a place study on Spitalfields and ‘Banglatown’, which would encompass Brick Lane.

A wonderful resource has been the Spitalfields Life blog, which has thousands of articles covering all aspects of place and incorporating a range of other visual and textual resources.

There are also websites about retail in Spitalfields – Spitalfields and Old Spitalfields Market, giving an insight into the local economy and also examples of representation of place.

Another useful website is the Spitalfields Forum – a group of residents trying to create a neighbourhood plan and protect Spitalfields from development. There are lots of useful resources, including videos and maps.

Statistics about Spitalfields and Banglatown are available from Tower Hamlets Borough Council and the Greater London Authority.

How change happens – some initial thoughts

Last Thursday, I took some sixth formers along to Chester University to hear Duncan Green launch his new book, How Change Happens. Having heard Duncan speak at a Geographical Association conference a few years ago and having dipped into his previous book From Poverty to Power (as with so many books I buy, I have never read it from cover to cover, but enjoy the idea that I still could one day), I was really looking forward to the lecture. In fact, taking the students was an excuse to go. I would’ve probably made excuses if it was just down to me to go, but an external commitment made it a reality!

Anyway, this isn’t a review of the book – I haven’t read it yet! I have read the introduction. Rather, this is a reflection of Duncan’s talk. He is a really engaging speaker and something of a (self-acknowledged) lucky sod. He has the job which many people would like. He literally has a job that,  by his own admission (though I’m sure with a little exaggeration) he makes up as he goes along. A significant amount of his time is reading, researching and reflecting upon ideas which are of interest to him. Wow. Who wouldn’t like that job? I digress though; what did Duncan have to say?

Well, first of all, he made clear that the book was written with development as a backdrop, but the concepts included – about how change happens – are much more widely applicable. Indeed throughout the lecture I thought at a number of times how it applies to my work as a teacher and a local politician. This is really interesting – to have a generic theory of change, of achieving change, in whatever field we are working. How does this change actually happen then?

If only it were so simple to say how change happens. Green spent much of his time talking about how current and prevalent theories of change aren’t actually that useful. Most people acknowledge that they operate, at whatever scale, in a complex world/system. Yet, when we try to enact change, we often try a ‘linear’ approach. He likened this to making ‘the cake’: we assemble ingredients, get a recipe and buy an oven. We try to do a ‘project’. Sometimes this works, but how do we know this? How can we quantify or qualify the impact of a stimulus on a complex system? Yet we seek out a positive change and then attribute it to the project – ‘development professionals learn to lie’. This is equally true of professionals in any number of fields who try to attribute success to their intervention, ignoring the complex web of factors at work.

Rather than change being the result of a linear project model, Green suggests, quite persuasively, that change is:

  • Unpredictable and unattributable
  • Often resulting from large critical junctures (or ‘shocks’)
  • Path dependent and context specific – i.e. one size does not fit all. Each system is unique but we come to it with ‘kits’ and ‘plans’.

Instead, Green suggests that to work out how to make change happen, we need to analyse where power lies within a given system. For this, Green refers to the ‘4 powers’ model of Rowlands. This involves power within –  people acknowledging their own power, sometimes requiring a ‘lightbulb moment’; power with – the power of collaborating and organising; power to – the ability to influence decisions; and finally power over – control over decisions and systems.  We need to analyse the ‘ecosystem of power’ to work out who we need to get on board and how we can effect change. This was all fascinating, because it seemed to universally applicable, way beyond development issues. Power analysis wasn’t the most interesting aspect of Green’s talk however, because he also talked about how we need to approach change ourselves.

Whilst not quoting Gandhi, Green’s discussion of how we need to approach the issue of change did remind me that ‘all the tendencies present in our world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.’ I know you were expecting ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, but Just Googled that (who needs teachers?) and discovered this must be one of the greatest misquotes ever! Anyway, I have digressed again, the point Green was making – without misquoting Gandhi – is that we could change our own approach in order to analyse power effectively and bring about change. Green suggests four qualities which people need to embody:

  • Curiosity – we should ‘learn to dance with the system’ and always be asking questions.
  • Humility – we must embrace ambiguity and uncertainty.
  • Reflexivity – we must be conscious of our role, include multiple perspectives, look at the unusual suspect an be open to different ways of seeing the world.

In terms of those questions:

  • What kind of change are we looking at? Policy, practice, or social norms.
  • What precedents can we learn from?
  • What kinds of power are at work? How could it be redistributed?
  • How will we know if change is happening?

Having analysed power, we then need to act with fast feedback and response, changing our approach as we go in the face of complexity. As I said, all very transferable to most aspects of life. Refreshing thinking, but how do we get this thinking happening more widely. That is a change in itself!

I hope you’ll agree, all very interesting. All very transferable. Indeed, I am doing a course with work as I am a new ‘middle leader’. I can already see how some of Green’s ideas could influence my school improvement project that forms a key part of that course. I’ll hopefully blog again, both about implementation in an educational system and once I’ve digested the book properly – if I ever get around to reading it!

Good life, good politics

At the start of 2015 I wrote a post about progress. At the time, I’d been reading some work by US psychologist and educational Howard Gardner and looked at notions of social progress and the role of education within this. Since then, I have naturally but not deliberately continued on something of an intellectual journey in which the notion of progress has always been there, not always in the foreground, but there nonetheless. Around about June 2015, I read a really interesting piece by Jonathan Rowson of the RSA. Rowson re-examines the notion of progress and suggests a spiritual quality, relating to personal and political transformation. I found this really provocative and a useful counterweight to John Gray’s dismissal of the notion of social progress, where he argues that scientific and technological progress does not necessarily transfer into other aspects of society.

Obviously in 2016, notions of progress have been shook to the core by Brexit and Trump, to name just two events. Much is said about Brexit and Trump. That they represent discontent in society; a growing feeling that some people who, for a range of reasons, had become disenfranchised. As a result they opted for electoral choices that fly in the face of values held by many people. It must be remembered, though this is an aside, that in the case of Brexit, a majority, and in the case of Trump, almost half of voters, actually wanted the option that others found abhorrent.

Does this signal a breakdown in liberal politics? This is the suggestion of John Gray. His argument features plenty of food for thought. Globalisation, both economic and political, has left many behind and in a range of ways. There are economic losers, whose jobs disappeared to newly emerging economies or whose wages have been under downward pressure due to foreign-made products. Of course, this is not purely an economic story. Communities and ways of life had their foundations shattered as factories and collieries closed down. This is just part of the wider issue that people do not feel that liberal politics, broadly defined, does not serve them anymore (if they ever did). Free trade, open borders, foreign intervention, even political correctness. Both domestically and abroad, people see what liberal governments offer and do not like what they see. At home, people want to see their job projected see traditional institutions, such as marriage, protected. Abroad, the great question of whether the Western model of democracy and human rights, labelled as universal by the West, could be successfully introduced to societies not familiar with them. Not only does this see backlashes abroad, as witnessed in post-invasion Afghanistan and Iraq, but also leaves people at home questioning the cost of such interventions, both human and financial. The sense that the UK and USA should put their own people first was a major thread of campaign narratives for both Brexit and Trump.

If you accept that these, to some extent, are failings in liberal politics, then one questions what the response of liberal politics might be. Here, Gray suggests that liberals simply suggest more of the same, just to even greater levels. I can see his point and don’t believe that moving to the extreme is a good response to another extreme, in the shape of populism or nationalism. Nick Clegg, in his memoir, supports the notion of acting from the centre-ground. I’m not sure if this is quite the same as what Gray advocates in suggesting that the political class need to re-address some of the values which underpin their countries. This itself is a key point which Gray makes – the future of politics is national, not global. Further acceptance of unrestrained, neoliberal globalisation does not seem viable.

So what is the way forward? What, if anything, can be identified as a common lesson from studying the victories of Brexit, Trump, the suggested death of liberalism and Nick Clegg’s call for centrism? I think it requires us -not just politicians, but everybody – to re-assess our answers to some deep questions. These questions can roughly be boiled down to what does ‘the good life’ mean?

I first came across this question in that book mentioned earlier, by Howard Gardner. Gardner, having moving on from multiple intelligences, now believes that the core purpose of education and society more widely, should be about truth, beauty and goodness. It should be about empowering people to lead fulfilling lives. Some would say that this amounts broadly to the ideals of progressive politics. I think it would be more productive to avoid anybody trying to take ownership of such a fundamental notion as how to lead a good life. Rather than suggesting ideologies address this notion, why not instead ask those deep questions such as: what should schools teach? What is the point of work? What should the role of the state be in people’s lives?

There is a growing interest, both academic and popular, amongst people, in happiness and wellbeing. Paul Dolan writes about happiness being down to choices, about a balance between pleasure and meaning. Simon Sinek talks about the importance of purpose and how living and working ‘together is better‘. These are just two of many thinkers on these important issues. Such interest acknowledges that many people don’t currently have the same opportunities either in terms of pleasure or meaning.

Paying attention to people’s lives, in a holistic way concerned with happiness and wellbeing, is not only about guiding policy choices for politicians, it is also about narrative. Clegg is not the first politician to recognise the importance of narrative. A narrative serves two purposes. It threads a link through a suite of policies, allowing people to see their collective impact and choose a clear future direction. It also allows people to understand their own lives.  Focusing on the ‘good life’ and the importance of ‘good work’ sounds like a powerful idea to me. People will feel recognised by politicians and in turn will recognise how their lives can change.

Maybe this is a way forward to getting people to re-engage with a less extreme and populist kind of politics. It could help to call out those extremists and populists and expose the gap between their rhetoric and the reality of their proposals. Maybe it could also help people to re-identify with liberal values and politics. It should also bring the scale of politics down from the global and even the national, making it about people, their families and their communities. Maybe politics could genuinely be about the good life, for everyone.

Getting ahead

Shortly after being appointed as Head of Geography at my new school, I drafted a post with the intention of sharing my experience with those who may be looking at making their steps towards similar promotions. I deliberately didn’t post it at the time as contracts and such like were confirmed. Having rediscovered the draft, I have tried to tidy up the tenses to publish it now – my apologies if I have missed any and suggested some kind of time travel!

As a child my mother used to tell me that I was always trying to run before I could walk. In truth, I did progress from slithering around to walking, albeit clumsily, very quickly. Given such a mindset it comes as little surprise that I have harboured desires for promotion since I was training to be a teacher. This ambition had been tempered a little in recent years by the comfort of working in a school which I enjoyed being a part of, making me happier to wait a little longer for that internal opportunity, rather than scouting the job adverts constantly in search of new horizons.

Whilst not actively looking for jobs, I would have the occasional look just to see what was happening, as much out of curiosity as anything else. I supposed that if something jumped out at me then that may change things. Well in January, a job did jump out at me: Head of Geography at the school which I did my first teacher training placement at. I always thought that I’d like to work there and what harm would there be to apply and test the water? Then on a temporary TLR and having fallen short of an internal pastoral appointment, it would be informative if nothing else, to see how I benchmarked against other candidates.

So apply I did and having always been capable of putting in a really good covering letter, I wasn’t overly surprised to be shortlisted for interview. The nerves commenced. Naturally I did some thinking about the role and prepared some ideas for how I would fulfil it. Despite training at the school, I arranged to visit and try and fill in what has happened since I left. As chance would have it, it was an Assistant Headteacher who I’d trained with who gave the tour. The vibes were good and the department had great potential; it could be a really good challenge.

In the process of applying I discovered that a really good friend who I’d trained with was also applying and he had also been shortlisted. Come the day of the interview it transpired that we were the only two attending. Knowing just how good he was, it did nothing for the nerves. At least, I thought, I knew that if I was unsuccessful that the job had gone to somebody I rate really highly.

A day of reckoning

The school was really welcoming and the Headteacher made a point of introducing herself before the formal process began. The first task was to prepare a presentation which you would give at the start of the formal interview. The subject of the presentation was your vision and priorities as Head of Geography. Given the preparation I’d done, I was well-placed and confident to do this. I might even go so far to say that I enjoyed it.

Next up was the lesson, which I always worry about most. I appreciate that as a middle leader one needs to have a reasonably clear view on outstanding teaching and learning, but I can’t help but believe that it is still highly subjective, especially when you don’t restrict your view of teaching purely to that defined by Ofsted. I very much wanted to keep things simple as I only had 25-minutes. I think you need to show thoughtful planning, clear delivery and the ability to build excellent relationships with learners. Engagement and pace are also critical, but the trickiest part is how you tackle the issue of demonstrating progress. In my planning I made it very clear that this would be assessed through questioning, debriefing and the completed worksheets. Indeed during the interview, which I will turn to shortly, I stuck my neck on the line by stating my views on demonstrating progress, making my views clear about learners somehow being able to accurately rate their own progress after twenty-five minutes through some form of traffic lights, or level ladder, or thumbs up/down. I think it is important to have clear principles that guide you and I certainly made mine clear!

With the lesson out of the way, it was just the interview left. As I said, I felt that I was well-prepared and that I would be able to communicate what I was all about clearly. I gave my presentation, which seemed to be well received by the panel. I don’t think its appropriate to share exact questions that I was asked after the presentation, nor can I remember all of them anyway, but here are some of the topics which arose:

  • How my teaching career has developed and how I would define it – I said that I placed an emphasis on relationships, with learners and colleagues, looking to ensure that they find geography engaging and enjoyable.
  • What I consider my leadership style to be – providing support and direction, collaborating with people and leading by example.
  • An example of my leadership – I talked about a successful school exchange trip which I had led, which involved the complexity of meeting the needs of a range of stakeholders including learners, colleagues, senior management, support staff, parents and other schools. It also required careful planning. Ultimately again it was about building positive relationships to ensure everything ran smoothly.
  • What my priorities would be as head of department – I said that my first priority, which was continuous, was building a strong and successful team; my short-term priority was introducing the new exam specifications successfully; my longer term challenges were helping to meet English Baccalaureate recruitment whilst making Geography accessible, ensuring KS3 engages learners and supports future success, and building external links to support learners and staff.
  • How I would respond and manage the challenge of the new specifications for Geography at GCSE and A-level – working collaboratively, within the department and beyond the school was essential. I pointed to my experience of delivering Sociology as a new A-level to me and Government & Politics as a brand new A-level at my current school, as evidence that I could take the challenge on intellectually and practically.
  • How I would assure the quality of my department – I discussed methods such as lesson observation and book scrutiny. I said that the most important thing was instilling a culture that such activities were intended to be supportive and not intrusive.
  • What was my view on moving to setting classes by ability – I said that I had experience of setting and mixed-ability classes and could see the benefits and drawbacks of each. Knowing that setting was something the school was looking towards, I said that I would be happy to go with setting so long as there was flexibility to meet the specific needs of individual learners in terms of support, behaviour and so on.
  • How would I deal with an underperforming member of staff I said that this was again a question of leadership style and of ensuring that staff are given the support that they need. When asked what would happen if the support didn’t work, I answered that it would be an issue to escalate to senior leadership.
  • What kind of CPD would I need – the fact that this question was being asked at interview was interesting in itself. At a time when some schools are cutting back on CPD, it was refreshing to know that resources would be available. I said that I wasn’t huge fan of the day-long training course as some kind of silver bullet, preferring instead CPD opportunities which emphasised implementing new initiatives and building a network of support which can be drawn on into the future.

There were also questions about difficult parents and the usual safeguarding questions together with questions on diversity and equal opportunities. I wasn’t sure how long it lasted but wasn’t feeling too beaten up by the end of it.

My friend and I had agreed to have a quick post-match drink after we’d both finished, which we did, although the nerves of waiting for a phone call didn’t make it the easiest of social occasions. I have never enjoyed waiting for anything, but I wasn’t expecting a phone call quite so soon. In fact I was driving on the motorway and luckily was able to take the call on speaker phone, having to apologise if it sounded like I was shouting! It was then a case of trying to maintain lane discipline as I was told that I had been successful and that the job was mine. To make the ending of the story even happier, a week or so later I found out that my friend had been successful as getting his own Head of Department role at another school.

What lies ahead?

Having had something of a ‘smorgasbord’ job that developed over the past four years, including teaching two new subjects at A-level and a responsibility for Geography at Key Stage 3, it is interesting to focus entirely on Geography once again in the new job. There’s plenty of work to do, but there is an opportunity to make a real impact by ensuring that in a period of substantial change, learners can still enjoy and achieve in geography and colleagues can feel supported and successful.

Bittersweet success

I had a good vibe about the school and this was only enhanced by the interview day. I had been looking forward to the new challenge since my appointment and have really enjoyed the role since September. That said I was in the position that I was very happy at my current school, I enjoyed working with the vast majority of the pupils and I continue have so many great friends amongst the staff. I had some amazing opportunities such as the opportunity to teach Sociology (unsought-after but enjoyable) and Government & Politics (strived for and relished); trips to Martha’s Vineyard, Italy and New York; the chance to coach a football team; getting involved in staff training; mentoring PGCE students and hosting numerous performing arts showcases. It would have been easy, perhaps too easy to have stayed, but sometimes you need a change to help shake things up.  I like to think that I left on a high and am keeping in touch with people, both professionally and personally.

A Tale of Three Lessons

Around the start of this school year, I posted a Facebook status commenting on the upcoming year being my fifth as a teacher, which is something of a landmark as a high percentage of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. I remember speaking to somebody I trained with about this and we were discussing what it was that made us hooked on teaching. I had been meaning to put something into a blog for a while, but I hadn’t had the spark until today…

Wednesday is normally a reasonable day – three lessons of geography: top-set Year 8, bottom-set Year 8 and then lower-set Year 10. I am making a much more conscious effort with my feedback and marking this year and am trying to work on the basis of ‘marking is planning’. My Year 10 books were marked and I had pretty much a full lesson revolving around feedback from marking, improvement time and then moving the learning on whilst embedding the skills which I had looked at in their books. That was yesterday’s after school job, which left me with my top-set Year 8 books to mark this morning before I started teaching. Unfortunately I realised I was going to run out of time. No fear I thought though, as I was going to be giving some general feedback and I figured that even those students whose books I hadn’t got around to yet could still make improvements to their work having done some ‘guided self-assessment’. Good idea I thought, in fact if it worked I may even do it deliberately in future.

Anyway, I realised that dedicated improvement and reflection time (DIRT) isn’t something that the kids are used to doing in my lessons, so I had to appropriately introduce it to them so that they engaged with it properly. This made me think of the idea of excellence, or rather Ron Berger’s ‘ethic of excellence’. Whilst I haven’t read Berger’s work (yet), it has been mentioned in a number of other things that I’ve read and I am intrigued by the idea. Of greater relevance for me this morning though, as I was putting the finishing touches to my lesson plan (which I was doing on the basis of my marking), I thought it would really work with my Year 8 top-set. So I had a slide with ‘excellence’ and a definition on. When the lesson started I talked about what the word meant and that these kids in particular had real potential to be excellent (I know that every pupil does, but I was working to my audience!). To become excellent though, I emphasised that the kids had to put the work in. I couldn’t make them excellent, I could only help them to become excellent themselves. Indeed, each pupil has more time and energy to spend reviewing and improving their work than I do, because I have thirty books to read when I am marking, whereas they only need to dedicate their time to their own work, maybe a friend’s too. With this introduction, I went through some of the common issues I’d identified and the pupils got to work checking and improving. The quality of the work was superb; pupils were discussing my feedback, with each other and with me. The buzz in the room was great. Everybody was making progress; for some it might have just been practising a spelling error, whereas for others they were redrafting sections of work, adding new ideas to tables or polishing their sentence structure.

After the DIRT section, I then launched into some individual enquiry. I’ve done lots of enquiry-related work before, drawing on the superb work of Margaret Roberts amongst others. This was the best I think I’ve ever managed it though. At the beginning of our topic, on world sport, I asked the pupil to generate their own questions on sport. It took me ages to type them all up – they were superb. I grouped them into themes, linking them to existing lessons on the scheme of work where possible. I have tried to return to the questions every lesson. For this lesson, there was a glut of questions on factors influencing sporting participation, which we don’t really explore on the scheme of work, so I thought it was an ideal opportunity to go off piste. I displayed the question and got the pupils into pairs or threes. They had to decide which question or questions they would investigate with a view to giving a micro-presentation to the whole class, contributing towards the overall question ‘what are the factors influencing sporting participation’. I got the pupils to plan their investigation and then allowed them to do some research on their phones. The buzz was again superb. Their homework was to do some further research and the intention is to go into the library to continue the investigation next time. Whilst all this was going on, I was also able to mark the remaining books, discussing the feedback with the pupils as I did it. I left the lesson feeling as though I’d done a reasonable job as a teacher. Off to break I want thinking that I deserved my bacon butty.

Break passed by and into bottom-set Year 8 I go. First unexpected twist comes in the form of an unannounced trainee teacher arriving on a pupil trail. Actually I realise that I may have seen a SIMS message about this, but it mustn’t have registered. Launch into the lesson with a first task, drawing on learning from previous lessons. Throw in some atlases for good measure. Second twist comes when pupil leaves the room unexpectedly. Upon investigation I discover than some unkind remarks had been exchanged, so I spend the next five minutes in the corridor discussing this with victim and perpetrators. Whilst in the corridor, a third twist comes in the form of the cover supervisor in the next room asking me to remove a pupil from their class who was refusing to leave. So I spend the next few minutes removing said pupil and doing a Ferguson-esque hairdryer on the class next door, which I then make a point of returning to every ten minutes or so for the rest of the lesson. Sadly the trading of unkind remarks had not been stemmed by my earlier interventions so I was again in and out, following the pretty good PIP & RIP mantra (praise in public but reprimand in private). Come the end of the lesson and I was left wondering what achievement anybody, including myself as a manager of behaviour, had during the lesson. Gone was the glow of break time, but I could hopefully pull it back with my Year 10s.

I change sites on the minibus, really looking forward to getting the class in the right frame of mind for some DIRT. I had some good tasks planned and had the resources in my briefcase. Had a little chat on the bus and it was only as I stepped down off the bus that it dawned on me – Year 10s books are in the boot of my car; my car is still on the lower school car park. The best laid plans were suddenly going to waste. Not to worry though, as by my fifth year of teaching I have developed a modicum of competence in ‘threshold planning’ or ‘three-step planning’ – my lesson was finalised, or in this case amended, in my final three steps across the threshold of my classroom door. Luckily, I had the sheets for the tasks. We had been working on a six-mark exam question and I wanted to really emphasise the importance of getting them right, so I had written an exemplar answer which I wanted the pupils to assess. I got some red pens and we got into it. As chance would have it, a colleague had given me a spare interactive whiteboard pen yesterday so I could debrief the class’ thoughts on screen. They did a really good job, picking out errors, improving the choice of language and adding additional detail. As far as salvaging the lesson was concerned, so far, so good. Then I wanted them to have a go at writing a model answer. ‘Write this on paper’, I said. ‘But sir,’ one boy asks, ‘can’t we just do it in our books?’. ‘No, no, some of you have already got an answer to this question,’ I replied with all my educational wisdom, ‘I want this model answer to be original and not just a rehash of what you did last time’. They seemed to buy that. Indeed, I marked one of the boy’s answers and used this to emphasise to everybody the importance of proof-reading and constantly looking to improve our own work. I had some lovely stuff on feedback being a gift as a way into our DIRT lesson, but that would have to wait until tomorrow. A quick recap of carboniferous limestone, which was planned anyway, and I had managed to make it a productive lesson. As some small bonus, I also have a good chunk of the next lesson planned now…as long as I remember their books then!

So in three lessons I had managed to enjoy pretty much the full spectrum of experience as a teacher. I had enjoyed the pleasure of working with motivated students. I faced the challenge of difficult behaviour. I grimaced and overcame one of those (dis)organisational nightmares, which afflict some of us more frequently than others. I left one lesson feeling the planning and delivery was great and left another wondering whether planning could have made any difference. I had also been through another attempt of continuously improving how I do things in the classroom, of trying to make my teaching and the kid’s learning better than before. For me, this last point leads me back to the allure of teaching. It is that sense of incompleteness, of unfinished business, of unpredictable outcomes and of constantly feeling challenged to push on to the next level. It is a realisation that teaching seems impossible and that as a teacher you seem inadequate – for all the efforts, there always seems to be something more to do, something keeping you from achieving perfection. For some I can understand this to be soul-destroying and yet I think this is what draw many of us, perhaps the sadists amongst us, going strong and with ever-increasing determination. A big reason which drives me as a teacher is the moral duty, the potential to make a difference to people’s lives. I’d like to say that is the only reason, or even the main reason. In truth though, being an obstinate git, a big part of what keeps me coming back every day is that I’m a competitive bugger and I don’t want to admit defeat. I won’t be happy with being just good enough, I’ll do as much as I can to be the best I can. Lots of people say that teaching is the best job in the world and after a day like today (which ended with a 5-0 defeat for my Year 8 football team), I can only smile and agree.

From the archive: Not far from anywhere

Before starting this new blog at the turn of the year, I used to have another blog which dated back to before I started teaching. I was looking through my old posts, some of which are sat offline, and I found one which I really enjoyed. It is about walking, it is geographical and it is about London…

I may look out from my flat window and see the London Eye and the skyscrapers of central London in the distance, but it’s really not that big a city is it? As a visitor to the city, before I moved down permanently, I only ever saw dots of the city; those few hundred square yards around the exit of a Tube station. It’s only since moving down to London that I’ve been able to play dot-to-dot, often by accident, through going on random walks across the city and happening across familiar street-scapes and being able to make those physical and psychological connections across London.

On one of my first days after arriving in London as a resident, I took a stroll from Victoria station, via Parliament and Trafalgar Squares, along the Strand and ending up at St Paul’s cathedral. The first time I’d been to Victoria was arriving in the city – for only the second time in my life – on a National Express coach, en route to the Martin Keown testimonial at Arsenal’s old Highbury Stadium. It was on my very first visit to London that I first went to Chancery Lane, walked past Sainsbury’s headquarters (an odd memory to have of one’s first visit to their nation’s capital I know, but there you go) and saw a sign for Fleet Street. Chance rather than intention lead me to walk past the Sainsbury’s headquarters a first time, but in walking along that route I saw St Paul’s cathedral for the first time (a much more impressive building to remember I’m sure you’ll agree, unless you’re Justin King that is). The walk took about two hours at a gentle pace and took me past Parliament which is something of a would-be career destination and which I’d also glimpsed for the first time on that trip down for the Arsenal game.

That broadly West-East transect was the first time I’d realised how distance and space are relative, dependent on the experience of the individual which gives them context to the place that they’re in. A few week’s after that first wander, I set out from my flat on a glorious sunny day-0ff from work, heading off down Putney Hill and, again on a whim, I decided I’d continue on into central London. I didn’t really know the route I would take, my intention was to make use of the generously distributed signposts (an advantage of urban living). So I headed down Fulham Road, along past Stamford Bridge and meandered through the streets till I hit Sloane Square. It was here I had my first celebrity spotting in London as I brushed shoulders with Stephen Tomkinson, not quite an Oscar-winner or soap star, but I remember Ballykisangel. Fumbling my way on, I came up at the back of the Royal Mews and then Victoria Station (I only realised in hindsight that this involved coming back on myself, but it didn’t feel like it at the time). From then on it was like retracing steps, down Victoria and into Parliament. At least now though, I could say, across two trips, I’d made my way from my flat to the steps of St Paul’s.

This penchant for urban hiking had taken a hiatus, I occasionally happened across new routes from one pocket of the city to another, which I had been familiar with independently without knowing a way between. That was until today, when, after the end of an early kickoff match at Arsenal (a fabulous 6-2 win over Blackburn Rovers, who I’ve watched Arsenal play more than any other team). With nothing to get back to, I set off through the villa-lined streets of Highbury and walked through Highbury Fields. This again brought back memories: the last time I’d been to Highbury Fields was as my father and I searched for Highbury Stadium, walking in quite the wrong and yet more scenic direction. From Highbury Fields I continued to retrace my footsteps of that first visit to watch Arsenal, except rather than boarding the Tube at Highbury & Islington I decided to carry on. Islington reminded me of Hampstead; full of restaurants, bars and other services to entertain the new yuppie population of North London. Continuing down Upper Road I was very much enjoying the late Sunday afternoon sun, which I found strangely in character for Britain in October. Happening across a cross-roads I wondered where to turn next. Looking at the street signs I saw Pentonville Road, which seemed to ring a bell, for some reason I seemed to remember it headed to Kings Cross. I was right. About twenty minutes later I saw the station in the distance. I felt quite chuffed. Was I to board a train here? No. I was having far too much fun.

I’d walked between Euston Road and central London only once before and had a few forays into the streets between the two north-bound stations. It didn’t feel at all new though as many of the place-names were familiar. I spotted the Generator youth-hostel where I’d spent a traumatic night a few years earlier on another of my infrequent visits to the capital. I walked across Bloomsbury Square and there before me was the British Museum. I’d been here before, but only walked between the Museum and the Tube. Pressing on I spotted Shaftesbury – I must have hit theatre district. Turning down one street and then another, I spotted a white-rooftop in the distance, a familiar-looking building, then I realised where I was: Seven Dials. I’d randomly walked from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium to one of my favourite Indian restaurants! Standing at the centre of the seven-roads, I looked around, appreciating it more fully. I spotted Belgos down one of the shoots – another one of those eateries I’d been to before but couldn’t remember where it was. I was joining dots at an increasingly rapid rate now, I spotted the Duke of York’s theatre and realised that all the times I’d walked across the city, often with a destination in mind, I was oblivious to all the other places I was walking past. Then I was in Trafalgar Square. My walk felt complete; it felt more complete once I’d polished off a frappucino on the Strand.

So in an hour and a half I’d walked from the Emirates, which I’d only ever got to and from via Tube before, to the very heart of London. Moreover, in three separate legs, I could now lay claim to the feat that I’d walked from the door of my flat to my seat at Arsenal. This thought gave me some satisfaction and also helped me realise that with a little free time and a spirit for exploration, you can develop a deeper knowledge of the city and strengthen your sense of place.

Since writing this post in 2o09, I have come across a lot of material on psychogeography and urban hiking, not least Will Self’s columns in the New Statesman. It is funny that just yesterday in one of the fantastic independent bookstores in Vineyard Haven, I saw a book called ‘The Walkable City’, which talks about the interface between urban studies and walking. As I originally tried to demonstrate in this post, it is a small world.

This much I know…about John Tomsett’s book on teaching

I am 28 years old, I have been teaching for five years and this much I know about John Tomsett’s book on teaching.

John Tomsett is the headteacher of a large comprehensive school in York. He has been blogging about his experiences on teaching and school leadership for a number of years, leading to him drawing together his thoughts in this book This Much I Know about Love Over Fear: Creating a culture of truly great teaching. Tomsett states his intended audience to be school leaders, but as a classroom teacher myself (albeit with possible leadership aspirations) I found the book truly remarkable and inspiring.

Tomsett stresses the importance of cultures and values. He points out that the single most important factor to all teachers improving their practice is the school culture (p29). This struck a chord with me personally as I have always believed that if you put the correct cultures in place, the rest will follow. Previously I had perhaps looked at the need for a strong culture from a pupil perspective, but it is of course equally important to teachers. We must feel that we can improve, that we will be critically but constructively guided and, most importantly, that we want to improve.

In emphasising a focus on school culture, Tomsett is not naive and readily identifies the potential risks. Two risks in particular stand out: firstly, the risk that you don’t appear to be following the Ofsted model, which many would see as a precarious approach in the current political climate and secondly, that such an approach takes time and therefore the patience of stakeholders, neither of which seem to be abundant in said political climate.

To create a culture for truly great teaching, Tomsett talks about getting the conditions for growth right. This is something he has borrowed from Ken Robinson, who talks about taking an ‘agricultural model of education’ rather than a factory model (p90 and 188). Tomsett discusses the prevalence of fear in many aspects of the educational community at the moment, but recognises that fear destroys workplace culture like nothing else (p89). A key part of a positive school culture is about teachers’ relationships with students and that by improving those relationships, you improve teaching and learning (p97).

Instead of a climate of fear, Tomsett has tried to create a culture of reflective practice. To do this he explains that in his school, they make the subtle but incredibly powerful distinction that the emphasis needs to be on teaching and not on teachers – it is not about the person, but what they are doing (p12). This depersonalises all conversations about improvement and avoids people taking offence. In another point which perhaps goes against the prevailing wind in education at the moment, Tomsett discusses how comment-only feedback is recognised as a powerful tool for students and goes on to question why this is not the case for teachers.

Tomsett recognises that a school’s greatest resource is teachers and that teachers greatest resource is time. Therefore he makes sure that professional development is a part of all of his staff’s routine, but that it is worthwhile and not onerous. All of his school’s CPD is in-house, co-ordinated by one of his leadership team whose title is ‘Head of Research’. Tomsett sees the value of research but realises that it must be tailored to his school and staff, so established a role focused on doing just that. He also says that staff must come first, before students, as a well motivated staff is better for students.

Tomsett is clearly a very driven individual and the autobiographical elements of the book give you an appreciation of why. Thanks to his own working class background which Tomsett describes in the book, he is clearly morally driven as a teacher and school leader, with a full appreciation of the role of schools in social mobility. I think my favourite, mantra-like quote in the whole book is ‘a good education allows you to choose your path in life, and I don’t want one single student of mine to ever wonder what they’ve missed because they haven’t had a choice’ (p4). He goes on to say that to be any good at teaching it has to matter to you ‘in your chest’ (p36). This reminded me of the leaving speech of a colleague a few years ago who said that when you realise that your heart is no longer in the classroom, with the kids, then it is time to go because to stay would be unfair to the children.

John Tomsett has written a wonderful book in which he also discusses Dweck’s growth mindset, lesson planning and literacy. It is a wonderful read for anybody involved in education, far beyond current school leaders. Once I had read the book on a transatlantic flight, I leant it to a colleague in America who has worked as a school counsellor for over two decades. She found it an enlightened read, which had so much in common with the very best practice that she had heard about from the best school systems in the USA.

It is one of my favourite books on education. It will have a place on my bookshelf for the rest of my career, except when I am lending it to more colleagues!

Progress

I have been meaning to commit some thoughts to paper on the theme of progress for some time. In part because of time and in part, I think, because of the nature of the theme, that post has not come until now. It has also come with the realisation that it will probably be a series of posts reflecting my ongoing reading and reflection on progress. I approach the topic of progress with an awareness of a number of perspectives, definitions and uses of the word. I will look at those uses first in this post as a starting point for what I hope will be a series of useful posts in finding my own way around the idea of progress.

To take uses of progress first, I think there are three of which I am reasonably aware: progress in the sense of progressive politics, progress in the wider definition of societal development and then the narrow usage of the word in the context of educational attainment. As a result of my work as a teacher and my involvement in politics, I would argue that education should focus on progress in terms of wider societal development rather than the current bastardisation of the word progress that we allow ourselves to be hamstrung by in schools.

Now please don’t mistake be, educational attainment is important of course because education is, in its loosest sense, a journey. Whatever the aims, curriculum or experience, it is essential that a person should finish their education having in some meaningful way changed from how they began. I don’t think our current notion of progress in education is actually helping people make progress in the wider sense of self-improvement or socialisation. In a sense, these two usages of progress are actually at odds with each other.

I would argue that the progress we currently associate with educational attainment is closely associated with criticisms around the reductivist approach to education whereby we obsess with pupils exam performance so much that we forget more fundamental questions about what we are teaching and why. Somehow educators have become quite happy to allow somebody else to make these decisions for them. We allow ourselves as teachers, and therefore allow the pupils in our care, to be participants in a system not of our own design and therefore is it any wonder why we see so many problems in education?

Whilst some could, with some fairness, argue that levels and grades bare some correlation to how good a scientist, mathematician or geographer you are, I think they would find it difficult to argue that those levels and grades are entirely representative of what it means to be an educated person, either in a specific subject or as a whole. Indeed in the case of the latter, the educated whole, I think that there are range of reasons why there is a dangerous lack of holistic thinking in education.

If we were to start with the whole person and to think about what we want them to be able to do by the end of their (formal) education, we need to think about what we teach and those decisions should all be deeply justified. You might argue that this already happens; for instance in the design of the National Curriculum. Now if for a moment we ignore who designs the National Curriculum, we need to question the justification for the decisions involved with the National Curriculum, or any other curriculum for that matter.

Perhaps the curriculum is justified on the grounds of economic competitiveness. Perhaps it is justified on some notion of what is traditionally held to be an educated person. But perhaps it is designed purely to fit other aspects of the educational system. Do we retain a subject-based approach simply because that is how the system currently works? Why do we divide our curriculum into key stages and exam syallabi? Do we, by retaining some of these aspects of the system, lose site of the full range of possibilities for our education system?

Similarly I came across an interesting ideas from Debra Kidd who questions one of the key principles of our current system whereby pupils are expected to progress in a linear fashion and at a similar pace to everybody else. As a result, whilst there is much rhetoric about raising standards or ‘narrowing the gap’, we implicitly accept that not everybody will gain the same education. Now this is not arguing against specialisation, it is challenging how and when pupils specialise. It is also, more importantly, questioning whether we are teaching the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons and, most importantly, ensuring that everybody enjoys the same educational ‘core’.

I would argue that the way we slavishly focus on how many pupils make a certain amount of progress gets in the way of thinking about educating people in a progressive way so that they can contribute to humanity’s progress (which is so much more than economic growth). Howard Gardner’s most recent work includes a plea for education to refocus on truth, beauty and goodness. This puts as much of an emphasis on self-discovery as on discovery of the world around you. Importantly, whilst building knowledge, it also gives learners a sense of what knowledge is, how it is made and how we must challenge it. To this extent, there is some common territory with Michael Young’s work on powerful knowledge. In both cases the definition of an educated person is firmly in mind at the start, rather than starting with the current system and seeing what we can tweak.

So education as an end in itself, with an acknowledgement that such an education should contribute to social progress. Of course, meaningful work (which isn’t necessarily the same as financially rewarding work) is an important aspect of a good life and a strong economy should work in synergy with a good society. With this in mind, there is little surprise that Howard Gardner’s other major research is around the topic of ‘good work’. A progressive education should also foster a sense of community, a desire to contribute to society, an appreciation of creativity, culture, science and identity and also an awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship. If we believe that these things are important for all people, then we also need to think again about whether our educational system can lead to everybody fully benefitting from such an education.

As I said at the start, these thoughts are in a formative phase and I hope to read and reflect further.