Discussion: Teaching Outside Your Comfort Zone

“You don’t have to answer me now, just think about what I am about to say to you and come back to me with an answer when you’re ready. You completed your induction year in Year 5, and have worked really well in the two years since in Year 4. We have been really pleased with your progress, and want to help you gain as much experience as you can. How do you feel about moving to Year 2?”

 

I’m a man. To a certain extent, there is a stigma that comes along with that when working in a primary school. People tend to make assumptions when they think of males in the primary school. Often men have the Physical Education curriculum thrust upon them, are expected to be expert disciplinarians and tend to find themselves working with the older pupils in the school. To a certain extent, when training I had fit the mould of this description and upon taking up my position at my current school I was happy to slip into Year 5 and take on sporting extra-curricular activities. This was very much within my comfort zone. KS1 had never really been on my periphory, it might as well have been in another world. After completing the obligatory KS1 placement on the first of four years of my initial teacher training, schools were keen to see me complete my other placements in the upper reaches of KS2. As my placements grew in length, I found myself placed in Year 4, Year 5 and finally Year 6. Even in the pressure cooker of Year 6 SATs, I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing and felt largely comfortable. This ensured that in my short career in KS2, I have been developing well within my comfort zone. And so, seemingly from absolutely nowhere…

 

“How do you feel about working in Year 2?”

My bubble burst.

 

I suppose, rather selfishly, my first thoughts were of my own progression and how helpful such a move would be to my own career. Having already had one eye on a possible future in school leadership and knowing that my headteacher supports me fully in this (it was her idea and she is guiding me down that road), experience in KS1 will undoubtedly stand me in good stead for the future. It will also force me to learn how to teach phonics and adapt my practice to meet the needs of a much younger and more demanding group of pupils. I will learn new skills and teaching strategies that will make me a much better teacher in years to come. Both in terms of my professional development, and my future aspirations, there is the potential for great growth in the coming years due to such a move. When I allowed myself time to mull it over, I then began to consider what it would mean for the pupils. For them, they will have their first experience of working with a male. I cannot recall the last time (if ever) a male has taught in KS1 in my school. There is no reason to believe that the pupils wont react positively to working with a man, and I actively do what I can to ensure that I am positive role model for all the pupils who I work with. They will also have a young(ish), (relatively) energetic and hard-working teacher who will do all he can to ensure they develop to the best of their ability.

 

So what is the problem? Well, there are SATs. There are children much smaller and more immature than I have ever taught before. There are parent’s who, during their experience, have never had a male teach in the infant section of their school before and may come with preconceived attitudes towards me. There is no time to settle in, as in Year 2 results are expected from the get go and excuses matter little and there is the fear of being completely out of my depth.

 

I firmly believe that teachers should remove themselves from their comfort zones once in a while in order to stay fresh and to ensure they don’t fall into the pit of routine and becoming stuck in a year group. I had made my decision before leaving the room that day, and agreed to the move almost instantly. Upon seeking reassurance that I had made the right choice, a good friend of mine advised me that there is no growth in comfort, and I agree with that sentiment hugely. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have apprehensions about the road again and so I ask for your advice. Have you moved to teach outside your comfort zone? Do you have any dos/don’ts? How can you help enable a smooth progression for yourself? Do I have anything to be worried about? Is there anything I can do to minimise disruption to routines or structures?

 

Thanks in advance,

Secret Teacher

 

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Discussion: Should we fine parents who holiday during term time?

In September 2013 a new rule came into effect which prevented schools from granting pupils time off school, except for in ‘exceptional circumstances’. As such, parents who make the decision to remove their children from school to take them on holiday are doing so in a manner inconsistent with the law of the land and risk a penalty. Previously pupils could have been granted up to ten days leave without ramifications; however that is no longer the case. As a result, the number of parents being fined for taking term time holidays has increased by over 70%. Surely, this seems resonable. You break the law, you get fined.

 

That is, of course, until you consider why parents choose to take holidays during term times. Of course there are some parents whose holidays are previously prescribed to them or who simply cannot take time off at any other period of the year, but for the vast majority the decision is a financial one. Peak holiday demand drives up prices for flights and accommodation and many argue that the only way they can afford a family holiday is to take one during off peak periods, such as term time.A trip to Disneyland in Paris costs almost £400 more during school holidays for example, while a trip to Centre Parks last year would have cost you £890 more during the summer break. Such savings may be unlikely to deter you from the possibility of a £60 fine per child.

 

The fine, however, is not the only cost we should really we counting up. Despite the argument that holidays are for a relatively short period of time, a child who misses one week of school for holidays each year would miss at least 70 days over their years in education, amounting to three months of school. The DfE have stated how damaging poor attendance can be and pointed out that pupils who attend school regularly are nearly four times more likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs than those who are regularly absent. They also closely monitor school’s attendance figures and put pressures on head teachers to ensure that these figures remain high.

 

When the issue was debated by MPs, not one member supported the call to put pricing caps on holiday firms cashing in on the school holidays. In balance, such a cap would be incredibly difficult to enforce and may result in further difficulties booking holidays. It is, after all, a simple case of supply and demand. The solution put forward by MPs was to give schools the power to stagger their holidays. I remain unconvinced, however, that this is a viable suggestion. Certain times of the year are always going to need holidays placed around them: Christmas, Easter, a portion of the summer etc. Furthermore, a family with pupils at different stages of their education will still require all the schools their children attend to be on holiday at the same time for such a solution to work. If schools decide their holiday dates independently, this may not be the result.

 

For me, the solution lies with the schools and those who run them. In my school, this problem of holidays is minute compared to the amount of regular absentees and late pupils. These issues seriously impair the education a child receives. In my primary school, if a child is an hour late two times a week, they will miss 40% of their maths provision. If this is a regular occurrence, it has a significant impact on that child’s progression. In such cases, I fully support bringing fines or legal action against the parents who persistently fail their children, which borders on neglect. I believe the decision on holidays should have a more ‘common sense’ approach. Perhaps if the child’s attendance is above a certain percentage, for example 97% for the previous academic year, and the family wish to take their child on a holiday realising that this is not a luxury to be afforded to them annually, I believe the school should have the authority to authorise that on a one off basis.

 

There are no easy answers in this debate. It is possible for a parent to receive a criminal record for taking their children on holidays. However, for some, a ban on term time holidays means a ban on holidays altogether. Is a holiday a basic right? Should schools have the authority to fine parents for taking a holiday during term time? Does the solution lie in changing term times? How far behind will a child fall in a week or two? Do the skills acquired on a holiday potentially outweigh the lessons missed in class? Should children be allowed to holiday during term times?

 

Secret Teacher

The Unions are Defeating Themselves

I suppose you would have to have lived under a rock for the past few years to be unaware of Michael Gove and his mission to shake up the education system. Indeed, few Secretaries of State for education have managed to be just as controversial as this one which, if we look back at those figures who have previously held the office, is a statement in itself. As I’ve stated before, the education system here seems to be perpetually floating on a sea of change. However, this statement seems to have renewed vigour since Gove took office and began to impliment his vision.

 

Yet, despite the fact that the vast majority of those working within education are united in their opposition to Gove and his policies, the unions’ apathy towards each other is seriously impeding their ability to resist policy change in any meaningful way. Instead of embracing the anger and frustration of the workforce in order to channel this energy into a significant strategy to oppose the Secretary of State and show him that we will not accept such demeaning and damaging alterations to our education system, the unions are playing a political power game against each other to promote their own interests and make personal professional progressions. Gove can’t believe his luck. We can read a great deal into how seriously he takes the unions through the fact that neither he, nor David Laws, sees fit to sit down with them personally.

 

 

When the National Union of Teachers went on strike in March, they did so on their own. Their allies from the previous strike had chosen to withdraw their threat of walking out as they felt Michael Gove had made reasonable concessions towards them (that is to say he agreed to meet with them to discuss the implementation of his changes and not to discuss whether the changes should actually be implemented). Many of their members supported not only the right of NUT members to strike, but also their decision to do so. Many (although admittedly not all) of those who I spoke to had iterated their desire to take strike action which was obviously impeded by Christine Keates’ (NASUWT General Secretary) decision not to allow them. I have been informed, for example, that the North West division of NASUWT unanimously voted to take strike action only to be overruled by Keates.

 

Now, Christine Keates is within her rights to act in such a way and withdraw from this round of industrial action if she feels that that is what she needs to do. However, her statements which were leaked to the media the evening before the strike were not only damaging, but also very revealing. It was no surprise that ministers such as David Laws were speaking out against the action, but to hear what Keates had sent her members greatly shocked me. She spoke of an NUT campaign of aggressive accusations, intimidation and suggested that the NASUWT need not feel obliged in any way to ensure that the strike action is a success. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, strongly denied any wrongdoing and accused NASUWT of game playing by announcing a free membership campaign as the NUT announced strike action. This pathetic, point-scoring immaturity goes on and on.

 

The unions that were once united, representing 85% of teachers in the country, now seem bitterly divided (although they would be at pains to deny this). As a result, it undermines everything they seek to achieve. People stood on the side of the road and applauded those on strike action marching through cities. On the television, the general public supported teacher’s right to take strike action. There was a general feeling that the public may just be on the teacher’s side in this dispute. Yet, as the NUT were on strike, all other unions were in the classroom delivering lessons. This completely breaks the back of any action that was taken, and the responsibility for this should be laid squarely on those in charge of ALL unions. Until they are united, their members will be divided.

Initially, there was a bitterness within me towards those who opposed the strike action, those who were members of others unions or those who were generally unable to actively support it. I spoke with colleagues and couldn’t understand their rationale. Luckily I took a moment to reflect and remembered that we actually agree on the fundamentals of what we oppose, and more importantly, what we want for education. However so long as the unions are at each other’s throats or floating along anonymously outside the main dispute, teachers will never be taken seriously and any action taken will be redundant.

 

In a dream world we would have only one teaching union but realistically that will never happen; so how do we win? The two Christines need to put personal rivalries and delusions of grandeur behind them. They need to find a way to sit down with all of the unions and find a way to present a united front to oppose Michael Gove and his policies. They need to find a way to show the public that their children’s education system is under serious threat. Until they do this, the unions are defeating themselves.

 

Secret Teacher

 

Discussion: Would You Recommend Teaching?

As a new feature on this blog, I wish to generate an educational topic to discuss on a fortnightly basis. Readers can then feel free to add comments to the discussion at any time and we can gain a general consensus on the issue. To kickstart this process, I would like to ask you: would you recommend teaching?

 

Last week I was in the company of old friends when we found ourselves discussing our chosen professions. A younger sibling of a friend chose this time to tell me that she was thinking of embarking on a career in education and asked me a simple question; would you recommend teaching? I must admit, I stood looking at her for an awkwardly long time as my face made an expression that suggested I’d bitten a lemon and my eyes looked as though they were searching for the moon on the ceiling before I came to an answer. ‘Yes’ I eventually replied, ‘but only if you know what you’re letting yourself in for’. For the next half-hour or so I explained my thought process to her.

 

Remembering back to when I was in that position, all the teachers I spoke to warned me away from the profession. I recall thinking it must be some kind of ‘insider’ teacher joke. I thought maybe one day, when I was a teacher too, I would get it. And in many ways now I do, except of course I realise now they weren’t joking. There are many reasons to avoid teaching. Firstly, there is the simple fact that a lot of those who consider teaching simply aren’t cut out for the job. Either they lack the social skills to talk to and not at kids, the determination, focus, drive, resilience, hard skin or reliability. You must also consider the fact that it is more so a vocation than an occupation. You must be determined to sacrifice a great deal of time, work and energy to simply get by (especially early on in the profession) and understand that there will be times where you work until you sleep, get up and repeat the process; there will be holidays where you work everyday; there will be periods of exhaustion and emotional turmoil and there will be times when personal relationships are forced to take a back seat (and this is just your teacher training; the NQT year will knock you for six!).

 

Frustratingly there are also the politics, bureaucracy and blue tape which ensure that at least half of your time working will be without a child in sight. There is no way of looking back at my first two years in teaching without conceding that I lost two years of my life. Not so much the weekends and the nights out, but from Sunday afternoon until Friday evening I was working. I wonder sometimes if I was mature enough to enter the profession when I did, but also am thankful that I didn’t have a wife or young family to distract me. My sole purpose in life at that time was to jump through hoops and become the teacher people wanted me to be. It was far from easy and my time was anything but my own. I was so busy I often met myself coming backwards and this was simply to scrape by achieve the bare minimum standards expected of a teacher. The prospect of a life in the profession was a daunting one indeed.

 

Yet, if you are prepared to accept that some degree of what is written above will become reality (at least initially), then the juice is worth the squeeze. It is cliché to say that no two days are the same, but it has only become cliché because it is true. The pupils will challenge and motivate you in a way which inspires you to do the same for them. The positive relationships you build with pupils and the influence you have on their development is truly incredible. Life in the classroom is a rollercoaster but I have yet to wake in the morning dreading the day ahead. No matter what, at the end of the day you know you are having a positive impact on somebodies life and that is why I teach. Most people make a living, teachers make a difference.

 

So, back to the question. I would recommend teaching but only if the candidate is coming into the process with their eyes open, fully aware of what’s to come if they are to successfully embark on a career in education. It’s tough, but there are few better or more important jobs out there.

 

Do you agree with me? Are there any important points I have left out? Should teachers wait until a certain age to enter the profession? Is teaching a career to turn to later in life? Was my experience of induction extreme or perhaps you still work in that way deep into your career? Is teaching a career to turn to later in life?

Please feel free to share your thoughts below.

 

 

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.

IMG_0848

“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

Now! That’s Primary Blogging Volume Eight

Now! That’s Primary Blogging Volume Eight

prawnseyeblog

This week’s mix tape of primary and primary-related blogs.
1. Cut down on workload with Live Planning, via @prawnseye: http://t.co/r1FzIFrFB2
2. Why every child has the capacity to be a mathematician, via @emmaannhardy: http://t.co/bo37iNGNRi
3. How best do we manage other adults in the classroom, via @teacher_mummy: http://t.co/ykzfbLMoZ5
4. Standing up for education so that teachers are taught well and teachers are treated fairly, via @diankenny: http://t.co/y6GGiNAkq3
5. Three posts via @ChrisChivers2:
Schools’ responsibilty to make quality first SEND provision: http://t.co/YvpNTyhUcx
How SEN reform alone will not change outcomes for children: http://t.co/fYHXdMOqpy
Background reading to SEN reforms: http://t.co/eIBz5rDuhW
6. Alternatives to standard practices in primary assessment, via @ChrisWaterworth: http://t.co/iBYzBMFeck
7. Planning your school offer in readiness for the 2014 SEN reforms, via @Mishwood1: http://t.co/tXvfXCmeUB
8. Taking the art of lesson observations further by taking away judgements, via @primaryhead1: https://twitter.com/PrimaryHead1
9. Accountability: driving improvement or driving teachers away from the profession?…

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The Secret Parent: How I realised that I’m part of the problem

I was recently contacted anonymously by a parent who asked if I would host a blog post for them. When this piece came through to me I felt obliged to post it. I suspect a lot of parents out there will be familiar with this scenario, as will countless teachers. The following entry has been supplied by the Secret Parent.

 

Let me introduce myself – I’m one of the “nice” parents. I support and trust teachers, and there are teachers in my family, one of the reasons why I know I could never do the job myself. I’m involved with the school, and do what I can to support it. So how could I possibly be part of the problem? Well, it’s like this.

A while back, our school had a big Ofsted inspection. The report said lots encouraging things, and we were very pleased with it in general. One passage in particular immediately jumped out at me when I read it – a glowing report of one specific lesson. Knowing that class as I do, my instant reaction was to laugh – it was abundantly clear that the ridiculously bright child in that class had “just happened” to be participating a lot under the inspector’s nose, and impressing him with his advanced development.

The blatant nature of this event encouraged me to share the anecdote, both for humour and because it supported my long-standing belief that flying inspections don’t tell you the full story about a school, and are open to manipulation and prejudicial distortion. My epiphany came when my amusing Ofsted anecdote bombed with a couple of friends. Um yeah, they said, everyone does that. It’s just playing the system.

I had no idea! I know teachers are under a stupid amount of pressure, and inspected to within an inch of their life, but I naively assumed that inspections wouldn’t be easily swayed just by a single child’s precocity. I certainly hadn’t expected that something like this would be any more than a desperate measure in extremis. To discover that anyone would consider it routine was more than a little unsettling.

Following that uncomfortable taste of the red pill, I started to look deeper – what else could I do? I read accounts by teachers explaining how the treadmill of inspection and evaluation was dragging them, their teaching and their whole class down. I became more aware of pressures to produce “acceptable” data and discovered the concept of “up levelling” children in order to meet arbitrary performance targets. I was horrified. And then I started to think about it.

When my eldest was starting school, I was a little worried by his first report. Once I’d got my head around the strange alphabet soup of letters and numbers which looked as if it had been deliberately encrypted to ensure that no one of school age would be able to understand it, I read that he was around average for his age, maybe slightly below. I was surprised and slightly concerned – he’d always seemed very bright. Was something going wrong? Why was he “only” average? I raised it with his teacher the next day.

Fast forward a year or two, and he was doing much better. Clearly bright and ahead of the curve, I was happy to see this improvement and made no effort to discuss it with anyone. His teacher remained unmolested, but what had objectively changed? Nothing to do with the quality of teaching – my inclination to ask difficult questions was entirely dependent on a subjective assessment of his abilities, and whether it was higher or lower than my own finger-in-the-air judgement.

Looking back from a distance, it seems blindingly obvious – his teachers are in the best position to know how he’s doing, but the lower their assessment, the more queries, hassle and even outright hostility they’re likely to get from parents. I’ve even heard parents talk about moving to another school, purely based on a teacher’s evaluation of their child’s progress. We want the best for our kids, so we obsess over every data point. In that context, who wouldn’t bump the odd child up where there’s any doubt?

The uncomfortable truth is that the overbearing and unsustainable inspection regime being inflicted on teachers and schools is giving parents what we want. We want data – we love data. All parents, supportive of teachers or not, want to know that our children are doing well. We even choose schools based on their previous exam results, as if that magically makes our children brighter. We are all part of the problem.

Let me be clear – I despise everything Gove and countless generations of education secretaries before him have done to education in this country, but I’m afraid that as parents, voraciously devouring every last scrap of data, we’ve got the regime we deserve. By questioning teachers who don’t share our belief in our children’s brilliance, choosing schools by their results, or even constantly demanding better performance, we are feeding the monster.

So I’m trying to fight back – the least I can do for all those hassled, frazzled teachers. My only question is, how? I want to be involved, and I want to help if my children aren’t meeting their apparent potential. Does it help to be pushing just as hard when they’re doing well? Do I really want to become “that pushy parent” always making demands on teachers’ already overstretched time? Do teachers want that? And if I don’t, doesn’t it continue to reward that pernicious “up levelling” approach?

Please, tell me what I can do. I’m heartbroken at what’s happened to our education system, but I don’t know how to break the cycle and make life easier for those hardy souls who continue to stick at it. What can be done so that parents can be interested and involved in their children’s education without supporting this destructive obsession with holding teachers responsible for children’s performance?

Any suggestions are very welcome.

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