Category Archives: Improving Practice

Tips for Avoiding Burnout

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It’s that time again as teachers up and down the country begin to cast their eyes and their minds back towards the classroom. For some it means a fresh start after a restful break, but for most it can be a daunting prospect. It is easy to throw yourself back into the hectic school system but it is important not to initiate a routine which is impossible and unrealistic to sustain. It is shocking how many teachers, myself included, work themselves to the point of burning out. With this in mind it was important to recognise the warning signs and put in place strategies to avoid burn out. Below are some tips which may help to alleviate the stress of the classroom.

 

Decide what is important and let things slide. Enough is enough!

Teaching, as a career, is all consuming. It will absorb every spare second you are willing to commit to it and you will never, ever be done; you will forever be chasing that carrot on the end of the stick. Worse still, many teachers see themselves as great martyrs for the cause who simply cannot stop until another resource is made, box is ticked or book is marked. Before long you find yourself working from dusk til dawn, sat on the sofa with a laptop and a set of books beside you. Remember that your family and friends are at the very least equally as important as your pupils and should not be neglected. More importantly still is your own health, well-being and happiness. Decide what is important and what can slip and know when to call it quits on work. Put the books down, walk away and reclaim your life outside of school. It’s okay to give up for the evening.

 

Do things outside of school

Find something that you enjoy doing and make it part of your routine: Go to the pub with friends, watch that movie in the cinema you’ve seen advertised, get out for a walk, pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of tea, call round to your friends, visit relatives, join the gym. Look back and ask yourself ‘What have I done this week?’ for a month or two. If the answer always centres around school and work, you may want to reconsider your routine.

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Sleep, arrive early and be well prepared

Get into a regular and healthy sleeping pattern. It is important to recharge the batteries. Try to ensure that you get a minimum of 7-8 hours sleep a night and allow yourself time to get ready in the mornings at your own pace. Avoid rushing around in a last minute dart to get to school on time. In fact, plan to arrive early in the mornings. Set up your lessons and resources in a calm and organised fashion. Go through your lessons mentally once so that you feel mentally prepared and have covered all bases. Have the resources at hand and ready to deploy during lessons. Then sit down and relax for the final ten minutes before collecting the kids. This can make all the difference to how your morning feels.

 

Incorporate humour into your classroom

Keep it light. The worst thing you can do as an educator is to allow the pressure on you to be passed on to the pupils you teach. Humour is a great alleviator of the stress placed upon you from all around. Seek opportunities to have a laugh. The difference between shouting at a class for silence and making a joke that meets the same end is remarkable. The atmosphere in your class will change significantly, it will keep you sane and it will increase your pupils enjoyment of lessons (even if half of the jokes go over their heads!).

 

Forget about scores, focus on learning

This is easier said than done when you have the SLT breathing down your neck and the weight of the world placed upon your shoulders, but ask yourself, ‘Is this why I came into the profession?’ When I decided to be a teacher it was because I wanted to help children learn, not to ensure a percentage make a certain level of progress in any given time frame. The data doesn’t always represent the learning that has taken place, but the pupil will always be better for it. There are elements of the education system we cannot change, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t put a bigger emphasis on our pupil’s achievements. Keep a positive attitude towards what your pupils can do and celebrate their successes. Never allow the pressure placed upon you to be passed on to the pupils you teach.

 

Believe in yourself

Believe me when I say I have doubted my ability more over the past few years than I really ought to have. As a profession, we often do. I suppose when you hear the government bash you enough times, and you teach within a culture of accountability and fear, it is only natural that you begin to question everything you do. This, however, is ridiculous. You are a professional. You have years of training and experience to draw upon. You have evidence to fall back on. You take your job seriously, probably too seriously, and care for your pupils dearly. Missing a statistical target, teaching a bad lesson or being on the receiving end of a tongue-bashing from a parent doesn’t make you a bad teacher. Believe in yourself. You’ll probably never get to hear the amazing things staff, parents and pupils say about you!

 

The stress we put ourselves under nowadays is surreal. The expectations we set for ourselves and the mountains of work we aim to tackle mean that burnout is an all too real possibility. It is vitally important that we recognise the warning signs, both in ourselves and those around us. An ill temper and shortness with pupils or loved ones, an unexpected tearful moment, exhaustion, irregular sleep patterns; they are all real signs. Pretending otherwise is unhealthy and unwise. Should they arise, I hope this is helpful.

 

Secret Teacher

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The Importance of Effective Middle Leadership

For the last twenty years or so, the means by which a school’s capabilities are judged has been on a perpetual pendulum of change. In 1992, under a government which (largely speaking) had been privately educated and had no real trust or respect for the state school system, OfSTED was given the task of externally assessing a school and so the pendulum made a great stride to the right. Then the more liberal Labour government came about, a government that initially did place a great deal of trust in schools. They placed more emphasis on Local Authorities and school’s being responsible for their own judgements and development (although OfSTED was always used parallel to this) and so the pendulum swung back to the left. These Local Authorities had teams who would observe practice, develop staff and lead school improvement. Such teams are rarer than the ill-fated Dodo these days. Eventually Gove came along and pushed the pendulum so far right that it entered space that had previously been unknown to exist. A distrust of teachers and a climate of fear has hung over the education system in this country like a sullen mist ever since. And so, a year before the next general election, the only proverbial clogs of the pendulum that have remained unchanged since it first began swinging continue to churn out students and strive to provide the best learning opportunities for their pupils.

This is all well and good, but what has it got to do with middle leadership I hear you ask? Although OfSTED have the right to inspect schools under Section 5 of the Education Act of 2005, they very rarely do. They claim to carry out an ‘idependant external evaluation’ of a school’s effectiveness and state that their judgements are based upon a national framework. Such a framework might ensure that the information provided to parents and the Secretary of State for Education was consistent and reliable, and based on this OfSTED have a reputable place amongst the mindset of parents the width and breadth of the country. However, those who work in the education system know that this is a facade. Beyond the smoke screen, OfSTED are a much more haphazard, ill-informed and inconsistent group of self-employed ‘experts’ than is generally stated. OfSTED has carved up the country into six large zones, each sub-let to an independent and privately run company which carries out inspections on behalf of OfSTED. These companies work independently of each other, but are nonetheless expected to follow the guidance on how to inspect schools. The problem is that most of the inspectors are retired or have left the profession and have, at best, failed to read the guidance and subsequent updates and, at worst, simply ignore it. Whatever their reasons, OfSted are anything but reliable, consistent or reputable. More often any Tom, Dick or Harry subcontracted to a shady contractor shows up to inspect your school whatever way they see fit. If you’re lucky, you will have a well-informed, professional team who are understanding and know what to consider when making judgements that will impact upon every person in the school. If you aren’t, it’s time for your leadership team to earn their pay… and that is when it pays to have a strong middle leadership team.

In order to see off any OfSTED team, but more importantly to improve the opportunities of the children in the school, the self evaluation process cannot be overemphasised. A strong leadership team will ensure that the school has a strong vision and that staff are united in their determination to reach the aims which are set out in order to achieve this. The school will then need to gather evidence to support any judgements it makes, identifying areas of strengths and areas to be developed. This will then be fed forward to the Senior Leadership Team which shall decide upon the school action plan to move the school forwards. Middle Leaders are pivotal the to self-evaluation and evidence gathering elements of this process. Through strong management and gaining an accurate picture of where they are up to with their area of the school or curriculum, middle leaders can gather the evidence needed to ensure the school continues to improve. The best schools in the country develop their middle leaders and afford them time to get to grips with their responsibilities. They also utilise them effectively and develop them professionally so that the school ultimately isn’t being led from the headteachers office only. A strong headteacher, although responsible overall for the running of the school, will have the ability to delegate responsibilities and develop staff whose judgements are dependable and constructive.

The pendulum is ever-changing and out of the mess of the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, things looks to be getting worse for teachers in this country. Despite most of the schools involved being part of Gove’s pet project of Free Schools/Academies and therefore out of Local Authority control, Gove has seen fit to say that there is an epidemic problem in schools. Although the minutes of their governors meetings should have been forwarded to Michael Gove himself, and although Gove was in a position to send two advisors to the academies to prevent this mess (perhaps even resulting in Gove being guilty of dereliction of duty, you might conclude), he has managed to spin the situation so that we are ever closer to no notice inspections; a concept that drives fear into the hearts of teachers everywhere. Whether or not they ever arrive, the pendulum has a chance of swinging back over the next year as Gove seeks pastures new and we seek any other government on offer to us. Regardless, we will still have an OfSTED force who are very inconsistent. To give yourself the best chance of fighting your corner, and indeed to truly improve your school, the development of middle leaders is pivotal.

 

Besides all of this, we are in the midst of a headteacher crisis. You may just find that by the time you next reach work, your head will have jumped ship! Middle leaders are going to be headteachers very soon. Within years we are going to have the youngest set of headteachers this country has ever known, many of whom are middle leaders now. If we want the education system to continue to flourish, we have to prepare them adequately now.

 

Secret Teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Revisited: My Reluctant Writer

Nearly two months ago I posted this blog about my reluctant writer. With young Ben, I was really struggling to get his ideas onto the paper. His work was scruffy and of insignificant quantity to even begin to consider its’ quality. I was struggling to provide evidence to show that he was making sufficient progression under my instruction and his engagement with tasks was bordering on non-existence. In desperate need of help, I turned to Twitter.

Luckily for me a lot of people responded and provided me with helpful advice and instruction that I could use as I sought to engage and develop Ben’s interest in writing. I have used several strategies over the past two months which have seen a tremendously remarkable improvement in the quantity and quality (although not the presentation) of young Benjamin’s work. The examples below are testament to the improvement that Ben has shown in lessons

Example of work after 30-40 mins

Example of work across two 25 min sessions

Example of work across two 25 min sessions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last piece of advice I received from Tim Taylor was to put the child in charge then support, encourage and review. And so, in order, this is what I did with my reluctant writer.

The Talk

The first thing I did was to sit down with Ben, one to one, and discuss his work. Perhaps, on refelction, my negativety towards insufficient work was not best practice and I can see now that it didn’t help. It was no surprise to Ben then that I wasn’t very impressed with the quantity of his work and perhaps that is why he had his answers for me already. He suggested that he often forgets his ideas before he has time to write them all down. We decided that it was best to have a whiteboard on hand in all lessons and Ben could bullet point his ideas as they came to him and return to them in the lesson. We decided that each day we would set a target on the page that we wanted Ben to write past. Ben decided this each day and told me; he was setting his own targets in terms of quantity. Slowly we would build up targets together to improve the quality. The next day Ben’s work had a small but significant improvement.

Praise

This improvement was praised to the hilt. I threw house points at him; I showed the whole class his work; I sent him to his old teacher; I sent him to the year group above us; I sent him to the headteacher; I told his mum and dad; I made him ‘star of the week’ and the impact was instant. He was so proud of himself. I kept praising him in every lesson for anything he did well. I didn’t praise absolutely everything, as I needed him to feel like the praise was genuine and deserved, but I sought out opportunities to build his confidence. After about three weeks he told me he had really enjoyed the lesson. I had just told him he had worked really well, which he had, when he said something that nearly made me jump for joy. “My writing is really good, isn’t it sir. Just look at the openers and I’ve used the word plethora right.” He was starting to believe in himself and this was seeping through into his writing.

Lend Me Your Literacy

As the quality of his writing improved, I used the Lend Me Your Literacy website to give Benjamin a wider audience. Within a week his work had been viewed over 100 times, and commented on four times, by people from all over the world. He was amazed that people from so far away could read his work and be so impressed with it. Now it wasn’t just his teacher or his parents who thought his work was great, but also strangers from across the globe, and his confidence went through the roof. Suddenly he wasn’t afraid to put his ideas to paper. They weren’t all cohesive or grammatically correct, but this allowed us to develop his redrafting and editing skills. Before we knew it, we had a confident and eager young writer on our hands. He wasn’t the strongest writer I’d ever taught, he was far from even being the strongest in the class, but he was willing and engaged to a level I wouldn’t have thought possible in January.

Review

This week we looked back at his work since the turn of the year. The transformation in the book has been quite remarkable. To be able to flick through a book and see such evident progression fills both Ben and I with a great sense of pride. Now that we have quantity, and an improved quality, we can begin to hone in on the skills that he needs to develop. Truth be told, his handwriting throughout the process has become atrocious. At times it is barely decodable (the example below shows that), but I was reluctant to discourage him in any way. I know now that praise and encouragement works for Ben, and so the carrot on the stick to tackle this issue is going to be the elusive pen licence and I will encourage him all the way until he is awarded this.

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“As I stared at what was in front of me I wriggled out of my skin. The horidness was bursting out with activities. In front of me was a pen full of: fluffy sheep, hairy horses, clucking chickens and roosters watching everyone up. By the pen were some different carts the odour of gruesome rotting pigs trotters and flesh.”

Two months ago I had a reluctant writer. Now, I don’t. The steps I have just outlined will not work for every child and for many of you they may just seem like common sense or normal practice. The handwriting in the piece above is horrendous and it isn’t grammatically correct, but the basis on which to build and mould Ben into a great writer is clear and I can’t wait to see the work we will be producing by the end of the year. The curious case of Benjamin Button has been solved.

Secret Teacher

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: My Reluctant Writer

OK, I suppose I should start by admitting that if you are expecting to read anything about Brad Pitt or a movie you may or may not have watched around about the year 2008, you are going to be bitterly disappointed as this post has will have no further mention of either. In fact, the subject of this blog probably (definitely) isn’t even called Benjamin Button, but he could be, and this is certainly a curious case for me.

On Wednesday evening I mentioned during the #primedchat on Twitter that I was struggling with a reluctant writer. This young boy ,for arguments sake lets call him Ben (tenuous link to the film, I know!), just would not write. Now, Ben could speak for England. For a 9 year old Year 4, he is a relatively intelligent, lively and likable young student. He actively takes part in class discussions and practical activities. In fact, he is often even my banker (you know; that child you can always go to for the answer you’re looking for)! However, if you were to check his books you wouldn’t know this, as his ideas seldom see the lines of a page and years of this have had their effect on the level of his writing.

Examples of work after 30-40 mins

Examples of work after 30-40 mins

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For a while I had labelled him as lazy. In my mind it was simple; he could do it, he just wouldn’t. This was certainly the assessment I was delivered by his parents. I considered if he simply harnessed a loathing of writing. During class discussions, he was ever reliable. However, during independent tasks he resembled a child mesmerised by imaginary thoughts floating in front of his eyes. If you tried to encourage him to work, he would try to engage in conversation to put off picking up a pencil. The frustration bubbled inside me on many occasions threatening to flood over into the classroom in the form of negativity and anger. Thankfully, I usually managed to suppress this as the last thing I wanted to do was disengage him further.

I tried many methods of encourage him to write:

  • I chose topics that interested him.
  • I set targets for him to meet in lessons.
  • I told him that I expected more and knew he was able.
  • I marked where I wanted him to write to on the page.
  • I gave him a time limit to do work by and told him I would be back to check.
  • I let him write on a computer.
  • I started up an after school blogging club (with Ben in mind) and wrote about things that he wanted to write about.
  • I tried to use Lend Me Your Literacy to give him an incentive and potential audience.
  • I bribed him with money and power. (This one might be a lie)

Nothing worked. Everyday he would sit at play time and the beginning of lunch with me and quickly finish up. He would receive a pep talk, make promises and leave. Then the next day we would do it again. Every lesson that involved recording things ended the same way, including maths! Desperately needing advice, I turned to Twitter. In no time at all I had heaps of helpful advice rolling in.

The one piece of advice that stuck out for me came from Tim Taylor when he said:

I considered this. Although I sit with him most days, we only tend to discuss getting the work done. I had never really had an open chat with him, so I realised what I had to do.

“Ben,” I started, “we need to discuss your work. You have fantastic ideas but we find ourselves sat in this position every day.”

“Have I ever told you about the day my dad fell in the muck in the forest?” he interjected.

Not today, Ben, not today!

We chatted for a while about his work before I asked him why he thought he rarely got his ideas on paper. He didn’t have to think long before explaining that he finds himself to be forgetful. By the time he has come to write, he has completely forgotten his ideas. If I’m honest, I don’t think this is the main problem but I clung to it. We discussed how we could record the ideas to prevent them disappearing. We discussed what he wants to accomplish. We set achievable, short-term goals, and then we had a breakthrough. For the first time in months, perhaps ever in my classroom, with minimal persuasion he produced a piece of work in a short piece of time that had both quantity and decent quality. Then after lunch, the quantity of work was again significantly improved and my praise really began to flow.

Today was a step in the right direction for Benjamin and I, and although I know we will no doubt encounter bumps on the road, I know now that we will get there eventually. The way forward seems, for now at least, a little clearer:

Secret Teacher

This much I know about…being coached to improve my body language!

More on Video Recordings…

johntomsett

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about being coached to improve my body language!

You get what you give. I once gave my colleague Zoë Parker a poster of the first Clash album. When she left for Australia she bought me this poster in return. Brecht’s gaze now arrests everyone entering my office.

brecht-a1-poster2s

How do you move from good to truly great? As @HuntingEnglish has discussed, this autumn, as part of our drive to improve teaching even further, we have launched a three-year coaching programme whereby six times a year we work in designated coaching trios on the elements of our practice we want to develop as individuals.

I keep on working at being a better teacher. My post back in March, about my dismay at the lesson observation feedback I was…

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Using Recordings to Improve Practice

Technology in the Classroom

When I went to school a tablet was something the doctor prescribed when you were ill. Nowadays children have a plethora of new technology at their fingertips and teachers are beginning to realise how valuable it can be in engaging pupils and developing knowledge and understanding. Educational Apps and iPads seem to be the new ‘fad’ in most schools; mine is no different. Should I wish, I can book a class set of iPads and use them to teach with and the kids absolutely love it. If you wish to find advice on using iPads in the classroom, you need only complete a simple google search or follow the right people on twitter. What these iPads also have is a camera. Using a camera, I have significantly improved both my own reflections and my teaching practice.

Evaluating Video Recordings of Lessons

Teachers are constantly encouraged to be reflective practitioners. As such, following lessons we will often consider what went well and what could be improved. Much of the time however, such reflection is shallow and merely skims the surface of what has taken place. A popular new trend in improving schools which is being utilised to great effect is using video recordings to analyse practice. What evaluating a video recording of your lesson enables you to do is evaluate your session in detail. It offers you the opportunity to replay events, examine parts of your practice in depth, slow down the lesson, focus on specific areas and check just how engaged your pupils really were. This allows you to identify real strengths and areas for development in a way that is truly reflective and supportive.

How to Begin

Start small! Nobody wants to take on something new and spend hours doing it. Set the camera at the back of the room or have a TA record you. Record an input to a lesson, or a plenary, or a mini plenary, or a focus group, or any 10-15 minute section of a lesson that you feel genuinely reflects normal practice. Don’t make an ‘all singing, all dancing’ lesson for the sake of the recording. The more honest a reflection it is of your daily practice, the more you will serve to benefit from this process.

Next, you may want to make a brew or pour a glass of wine. Seal yourself in a secluded place and hit the dreaded ‘play’ button. I guarantee the first time you watch it back you won’t notice the kids. You won’t even concentrate on your teaching. You will sit and say things like “I don’t sound like that, do I?”, or “Who is this exuberant person at the top of my class? When did they appear?” The first time you see or hear yourself can be shocking. I didn’t think it would be, but it was. Bite that bullet and get over it.

So yes, now you know you really do sound like that and yes, that is how you act in the classroom, it is time to get down to business. This time when you watch it, focus on your teaching. This is  quite a wide scope, and it will need to be narrowed down eventually, but for now watch it and see if anything jumps out at you. Some things you may wish to think about here are:

  • Are the pupils engaged?
  • Do the pupils enjoy the lesson?
  • Are the pupils well behaved?
  • Are behaviour policies being used consistently?
  • Have you asked a range of open and closed questions?
  • Have you asked a range of higher and lower order questions?
  • Are there a range of pupils answering your questions?
  • Are pupils given a chance to explain how they know something?
  • Are the pupils given an opportunity to ask questions?
  • Is there a good balance between teacher/pupil talk?
  • What are the pupils actually doing?
  • Is pupil talk as effective as it could be?
  • Does the lesson give pupils the opportunity to show their progress?
  • How are the higher ability pupils stretched?
  • How are the lower ability pupils supported?

From this activity alone you may find that you have found an area that you need to develop. For example, the first time I watched myself back it became clear to me that I needed to ensure that my questioning was more open in a way which encourages pupils to explain the ‘how and why’ of things. This gave me a far better AfL and enabled me to gain a better understanding of the pupils’ thought processes and how secure their knowledge and understanding of the topic was.

Moving Forward

The next time you record yourself, which can be for a similar amount of time, you may want to have a focus in your head prior to the lesson but again this works best if it is an honest reflection of your daily practice. When you come to evaluate yourself, focus in on a particular aspect. For example, if the focus was questioning, you may wish to make a tally of how many open/closed and higher order/lower order questions you have asked. You may wish to assess if where and when you have used these questions in the lesson has been the most effective time to use them or if they might have been better served earlier/later in the lesson. You may record who answers the questions and how often (you will quickly find out who is your ‘banker’ if you don’t already know). The point is at this stage to have taken an area you have identified for development and to reflect in detail upon your practice.

Moving Forward Still

If you wish to do this on your own, that is all well and good. It can be used to develop your own practice in a way which enables you to take control of your own CPD. However if this is used consistently across a school it has the potential to dramatically improve practice. Once you have evaluated parts of a lesson in detail, you can begin to record longer segments and focus on different areas. If used in a supportive and open way, teachers can work in small groups (2-4 teachers) to share practice and help each other to develop professionally. You may soon find that common themes appear across a year group, or a phase, or a subject area which can then become a group/phase/whole school focus to work upon.

Why Should You Do this?

Lesson observations, which are often used in schools to guide teachers development, can frequently seem intrusive, unsupportive and unnerving. Evaluating lessons is not. It enables you to take control of your own development in a way that is supportive and unobtrusive. It differentiates perception from reality and allows you to reflect upon a lesson in a deep and meaningful way. It enables you to see things in lessons you may have missed, or remember things you had forgotten. It is a sure-fire way to ensure that you improve your practice in a way that supports the needs of the pupils you teach.

Useful Tips

  • Don’t show off for the camera! Ensure the recording is a fair reflection of your classroom.
  • Don’t be discouraged if your first attempt isn’t very clear, or if you feel uncomfortable watching/hearing yourself at first.
  • Begin slow, and build up your use of recorded lessons.
  • Share with colleagues you trust. There is nobody as critical of your teaching as you are! While you are looking for all the things you are doing wrong, your colleagues will point out the great practice displayed in the lesson too!
  • When you have eased yourself in, ensure your evaluations have a real focus.
  • If, like me, this impacts positively upon your practice, share it with other teachers!

So what are you waiting for?

Have a go! Over the past number of years I have gone from training event to training event gathering a multitude of strategies to improve my practice. To date, nothing has had such an immediate and positive effect as evaluating the recordings of my lessons. Working collaboratively in a group with other teachers, we have identified good practice and areas for development in a time effective and supportive manner. My pupils are now challenged in a way which supports their learning and stretches them in a way they weren’t before. For me, this is a way that we develop together and take ownership of our development ensuring our daily practice is as good as it could possibly be.

If you have used anything like this before, please let me know how you used it and how it impacted upon your teaching. If you have any useful tips or guidance, please also share them in the comments section. If you have a go, let us know how you get on.

Secret Teacher

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