Your may or may not be old enough to remember Billy Dane but his story is one which needs to be told. A child of the mid-twentieth century, Billy came to possess great powers when he wore the football boots of a past England hero. It is a tale of subterfuge and deception, a tale which, while on the surface inspiring, is sobering for all of us. You see, Billy fell for the oldest trick in the book. He adopted a strategy which, while allowing him to excel at his job, became the story of his life. He forgot that it was only a strategy and allowed it define him as a player. Without it he was nothing, he thought. It was the boots wot done it.
I was reminded of the deluded Billy the other day during a conversation with ‘another teacher’. This ‘other teacher’ claimed that a particular strategy had completely changed her classroom practice and they couldn’t recommend it enough. Having attempted to adopt the same strategy in my own classroom some time ago, I was, to say the least, sceptical. I tried to make the point that the strategy worked for ‘this teacher’ because ‘this teacher’ was an excellent teacher and, perhaps, not everyone could do what they did but, no, the strategy was the key. It saddened me to think that this teacher was disguising their true ability behind their very own ‘Billy’s Boots’.
I suppose the point I’m making is that if any of these strategies were so wonderful then we’d all be doing them hugely successfully. But they’re not and we’re not. Great teachers are great teachers because they do great things in classrooms. They may well adapt new fangled strategies better than most but they do that because they are excellent practitioners. It’s not the other way around. When we hang all of our successes around someone else’s ‘great invention’ then we begin to forget our own hard work and abilities in the classroom. It is no wonder our teaching profession becomes demoralised and demotivated when we can’t even recognise our own strengths without passing credit to some greater hidden power.
The constant search for the Holy Grail of answers in teaching might be laudable but there is a danger here. Co-operative learning, or Accelerated Reader or Class Dojo may sell themselves as being super duper effective ways of engaging children but, in my experience, they are merely tools to cover over supposed cracks. Excellent classroom teachers can enable high quality group work no matter what you call it. Ditto, classroom management which shouldn’t need or even expect rewards. As for Accelerated Reader, don’t start me. I refer my esteemed reader to so many previous posts on reading.
There comes a time when we have to change the dialogue to one where the Teacher is central to pupils achieving outcomes and that we recognise our skills and abilities in the classroom. After all, when Billy Dane misplaced his boots he was generally useless. Stripping your classroom of the fancy strategy surely can’t mean the same thing, can it?
In all of my fourteen years of teaching I’ve never known a time when workload was such an issue for me. Perhaps it’s an age thing; perhaps I just don’t have the energy to cope with what I used to be able to do. More than likely though it is the increased expectations of a new curriculum, with new courses to adapt, when nothing else appears to be slipping from the table. So at no other time has Professional Development been more important for a workforce which, at times, seems to be approaching breaking point. But, what exactly makes effective CPD?
It is not often the expert who schools buy in at considerable expense to speak to whole staff gatherings. I have listened to some wonderful speakers on Education over the years – and some not so wonderful – who have both entertained and moved me with stories of effective strategies and wonderfully inspiring classroom experiences. But, though I often leave feeling much better about myself, I am no further forward in implementing whatever they we’re supposed to be talking about in the first place. Transference is a hugely difficult thing to achieve. There are so many factors to contemplate when we adapt change in the classroom.
It is not often the Local Authority ‘official’, chosen to attend an In-service Day to impart the latest wisdom on LA target setting. Sitting on uncomfortable chairs for an hour, watching someone talk me through every word of a Powerpoint Presentation rarely teaches me what they want me to learn. I generally become more understanding of the way we expect our pupils to learn, though, and can comprehend exactly why we can bore them with uninspiring delivery. Perhaps if they convinced us why it is important rather than simply telling us that it is, we may reap more benefits from days like these.
I would even go as far as to say that it is not often the ‘course from the catalogue’ which we decide might interest and inspire us when we get back to class. We can all remember the time when we’ve sat in a seminar on something incredibly inspiring, determined to go home that night and construct a series of lessons around it immediately. More often than not the reality of our day-to-day business results in that folder going on a pile of folders we may never get to. In time, that great feeling is forgotten and you can’t remember what you were thinking about in the first place. So what might work then?
It seems to me that the way we ensure our development has impact – and surely that much mean better learning for the pupils in our classrooms – then we need to be convinced that it will have impact. We need to recognise the shortfalls in the abilities of our pupils and, as a result, recognise the deficiencies in our own teaching. Then, perhaps, Professional Development will achieve the sort of outcomes we’ve been missing. I can look back on countless hours of wasted development time and would weep if I wasn’t so busy. We need to remember that Development Days are not merely a day out of the classroom. They are Development Days. What exactly are they developing?
In the absence of a post this week, here’s a link to my interview on Radio Edutalk this week.
Since I started blogging almost three years ago there seems to have been an explosion of new blogs on Education. Surely that can only be a good thing. Really? I was drawn to blogging – and Twitter for that matter – more as an escape from the negativity of the staffroom and the relentless crushing of spirit I was often faced with. I’ve written before on how I found a new life on here, invigorated by the possibilities and free from the weight of defeatism I experienced at times. However, like the stereotypical Frankenstein’s monster, the very voices I was trying to get away from eventually caught up with me on here.
The success of Twitter as an educational force is a double-edged sword in many ways. Others have been encouraged to join in the conversation. But there has also been a shift away from blogs which offer strategies and advice to blogs which attempt to badger and harangue; blogs which lecture and criticize; blogs which offer academic theories on what we are all doing wrong. Fair enough. I think this could be the perfect place for those. I just wonder how much those blogs encourage others to do so.
Until now, academic research has, in many ways, been blocked off from teachers. From current experience, as I try to find Educational Journals even with a University pass, I am discovering a world unknown to me, one which should be open to all teachers. But I digress. My point is that I don’t think blogging about that is particularly helpful to all teachers. I started blogging because I had been reading some excellent blogs from practicing teachers who shared their every day thoughts. I’m not sure I would have done so if I came across academic critiques of thousands of words.
I try to keep my posts to five hundred words or less. Short(ish) and sweet(ish). The process of writing is a reflection on my own thoughts and that is my reward. It is a blog to focus on things and clarify things rattling around in my head. If people read them, so be it. If not, so be it. Like Woody Allen, I never go back and reread them after I’ve written them. My work has been done. I like to think that the simplicity of that is what may encourage others to blog too. You don’t have to be Professor Highbrow to write stuff. You just have to have an opinion.
I don’t disapprove of any of the blogs I read. Some I don’t bother with because I neither have the time or inclination to engage with them. I want to read the thoughts of others who are in similar situations to me. Teachers who want to share and think and just simply join in a conversation. I can get a lecture every day in school. I just believe that if we are to see a real impact, and a wide impact, then our blogs need to offer a space for teachers to believe that they can blog too. We are teachers. All of us.
I found some old university notes recently. Reading through some of the things a much younger me had written, I couldn’t help but sit back in awe at the intelligence I once had. One paper in particular stood out: a critique of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work from the 1820’s. Emerson was part of the Transcendentalist movement which, it seemed to me, attempted to remove all traces of their former colonial masters. Britain that is. Writers sought to start all again, to begin an American literature from square one, without any nod to the past. Well, that was my take, anyway.
Like Emerson, sitting naked in the middle of the forest, I often wonder what that might feel like. That attempt to wipe out everything you’ve done in the past and start again. What if everything you thought you knew about teaching and what goes on in your classroom was wrong and you had the opportunity to start again? What if you had an opportunity to erase all of the bad habits you have developed, all of the poor decisions which still cause you to wake up in a cold sweat, all of the dreadful lessons which haunt you? Would you take it?
Think about it. It could be the opportunity to really address a workload problem. Perhaps we can erase all of things which are irrelevant but we find difficult to kick because we’ve always done them. Perhaps we could focus on all of the truly effective practices we’ve developed instead of holding on to old ones like comfort blankets. Very often when I start to feel the pressure of workload – more often than not November and February are particularly bad – then it is the new strategies which slip off the table for a while. What if I concentrated solely on those instead?
In fifteen years of teaching English I’ve learned so much about reading and writing, much of it wrong, but no more so than in the last two or three years. If I could erase all that went before I may be able to work more intelligently on things that had more impact without considering it a huge shift in my practice; and it is that perception which I think deters us from change. The fear of the increased workload, the fear of trying something new, the fear of getting in too deep. It is a perceived fear which is hand-cuffing our progress.
I suppose the bottom line is that I’d like to tackle my workload issues not by working less but by working smarter. Removing the things which, ultimately, have little impact on my teaching but I convince myself are impossible to give up might be a start. I’ve waited long enough for management to help me with my workload. It isn’t going to happen. So it’s time to do it myself. Life is too short too wait for permission. As old Emerson said ‘Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.’ I’m off to sit down in the forest and find some peace.
Bear with me as I wobble, like a Scooby Doo dream sequence, into an imaginary world. It is a world where our schools genuinely become the heart of a community; where NO parent is resentful of their own school experiences and sees a visit to school as a normal part of their week; where the local press regularly mention schools for positive reasons and advertise and support activities occurring every week. A world where a school building being ignored as a community hub is unheard of. However, in reality, while there are some great examples of this around the country, it is a dream which seems far, far away.
Some of us work in huge buildings which, to all intents and purposes, close to the public at four o’clock every day. These buildings have corridors filled with computer classrooms, twenty PCs in each. They have classrooms designed for cookery, with equipment in spades. They have music rooms with pianos, guitars, you name it. You’ll find Science Labs, a library, gymnasium – often with up-to-date exercise gear, Drama studios, Art Studios. Not to mention classrooms aplenty. And all of these, while being utilised all day are, in effect, closed to the public at about four o’clock. There is something wrong about that.
So, in this imaginary world school buildings are in use until ten every night. Adult learners are becoming proficient in cooking and baking after developing interest through a current TV contest. They go home and cook healthy meals for their families.The Technical department is in full flow as parents are being taught how to create wonderful things with wood, which they give as Christmas gifts to relatives. We can hear a Gareth Malone-style choir full of parents rehearsing for the end-of-year concert. A computer suite has a CV writing class; a creative writing class; a basic computing skills class. The community is alive in a community building.
Of course, many changes had to be made to come to this place. More teachers were trained and paid for. Some teachers work from two until ten for a couple of weeks every month. Kids still leave at four but, after an hour of cleaning and tidying, people start arriving for the evenings work. Parents can see their child’s classroom, perhaps chat to teachers, look at the work being done. Parents Evenings, occurring once a year, are a thing of the past. It took a huge culture shift and commitment from everyone but we all got there in the end…
However, like all episodes of Scooby Doo, the dream sequence ends and we unmask the real culprit. The biggest block to progressing to the sort of scenario I’ve outlined here is cost. It certainly would cost money. It certainly would involve a lot of commitment and dedication from a lot of people. But think of the investment in community. Think of the rise in literacy and numeracy levels, the health and fitness of the community, the parental involvement. Think of the fabulous community use of a building which had been under-utilised. It’s not a case of asking how could we afford it. How can we afford not to?
‘Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music.’ (attributed to Nietzsche which makes me sound intelligent but it probably wasn’t him. Sorry)
You become so accustomed to the dance of school, the sways and sashays of the day, that you can feel the change coming. A faint buzzing from somewhere else and the shifting and scratching of chairs suggests that things are about to happen. Your first, perhaps second, coffee of the day has kicked in; you’ve even had a second, final email click just to ensure you miss nothing; a whiteboard check, even though it seems perfect; visit to the loo, straighten the tie. The music of school is about to kick off.
You are ready. The desks have class jotters, ready to go. Each book has a pencil on top. You can do that with this class because, as luck would have it, you are never teaching just before you see them. It avoids the serial sharpeners; those whose pencil is never sharp enough or too sharp to avoid breaking. You head them off at the pass. You also have a rubber and a small ruler for each. Oh, the time this saves. You take the time to sit in a chair at the back. You want to see the board from there. ‘Is my writing too small, too untidy, too difficult?’ You sit and take in the view from the chair of one who has difficulty in your class. All looks good.
The bell rings and things begin to happen. Like one of those horror ‘B’ movies, things begin to spill out into the corridor. One boy, then two. A girl, her friends. The chaos. Before too long there is an ocean of heads, all coming towards you, it seems, only you. But they start to fall off, into other classrooms. You take a breath, prepare for the onslaught. The school comes alive in those few moments.
Slowly, like the young ‘uns from ‘Lord of the Flies’ appearing from the forest, you start to make out small faces. Yep. Your lot. They smile, which is a good sign, and make their way towards you. As they enter you make sure you speak to every single one, every day. Even the resisters. A ‘good morning’ or a ‘Hi’ to everyone. You even stand in their way until they reply. It is important to you: and to them although they won’t admit it. You are talking to them. It is what good people do. They all know the drill, the routine.
As the last one enters, you share appreciative nods with your colleagues. Yes, we are all in this together. It is where we all want to be. Here and now. The corridor is now empty again and you turn inwards. ‘By the time I reach my computer, pick up my book and start the stopwatch we will all be reading.’ Most of them already are, knowing that their time is limited. Some need silent reminders, a mime of opening a book. Walking towards your desk you have a look around to see thirty eleven year olds all engrossed in their books, to varying degrees. It is not a bad job, is it? You sit down, open up your book and start the clock.
And so the dance begins.
There was definitely a moment when I knew I was losing them but perhaps not the moment I first thought. Not when I felt my heart racing or my face flushing; not when my voice seemed to go up a notch more than usual: not when I started to overreact to little things I usually ignored. No. If I’m honest with myself I’d started losing them weeks ago. And the hardest thing to grasp is that I knew it and did nothing about it; couldn’t do anything about it. I’d had ages to nail the problem and, for reasons totally alien to me, I was paralysed.
In the past I may have reacted differently and earlier. I may have stopped the lesson in mid-disaster, insisting on total silence for the rest of the period, quietly harumphing at my desk. I may have lost it and screamed at the nearest victim, the next kid who asked me a daft question, one I’d already answered. When we are new to these experiences it is very easy to react in ways which not only enflame the situation but are completely avoidable. Like the experienced driver when we have been through a variety of situations, including the odd bump or two, we recognise our own behaviours more clearly than others.
This situation was strange though. Although I could feel myself losing it on the inside I quickly became aware of it and took a deep breath. That calm reaction soon began to travel round the room as the more ‘onside’ pupils began to quieten down and pass it on. The class did calm very quickly and all eyes turned to me. At this point I had choices: thank them for their attention and get back to the lesson; express my displeasure at their lack of co-operation and ask them to get on with the lesson; or ignore their behaviour, return to the lesson outcomes and ensure they had enough information to continue quietly. I chose the last one.
Before you castigate me for ignoring bad behaviour please hear me out. I took that decision because in the long run I expect them to realise how their behaviour affects the class dynamic by being less ‘matey’ with them. I will be more aware of the ‘abilities’ of this class for the next few weeks and able to plan for them accordingly. The long term learning of the class is far more important than whether they like me or not. We have all heard the ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ advice and of course it is nonsense. But, do you know, sometimes a class might need that. Sorry. I know that’s not a very popular opinion but it’s not about us. It’s about the learning of the class.
Being a teacher is difficult because sometimes you need to be the bad guy. When I entered teaching I wanted them to like me. I still do but I’ve learned along the way that that is impossible in real life, never mind in class. When I am more honest with myself about the mistakes I make then perhaps that helps me to deal better with the mistakes of others. And kids make mistakes all the time. An awareness of my own behaviour helps me to deal with them.
This is my classroom. This is the place where I work. This is how I choose to lay it out: the desks in threes, all facing me, all facing the front of the class, all facing the white board. It hasn’t always been like this. But I like it now. I have a poster of Yoda on the wall to the right. To the left there is a wall display explaining how to critique. Above me, pupils will read the words. ‘Stuck? Then it was worth coming in today.’ This is my classroom. This is the place where I work.
It was years before I had any control over how my room was set up. As a new teacher you can consider yourself very lucky to have your own classroom. Usually you have to cart a box about between rooms before you finally arrive home. So I started with pairs of desks in three rows, all facing the teacher. This worked well but made transitions into group tasks very complicated and potentially disastrous. I moved from having groups of six, to groups of four when that proved difficult to handle, than back to six when I was more experienced, before settling on the plan you see above.
I’ve made many mistakes on my way to this point. Deluded into thinking that pupils work best in groups – sorry but it ain’t always true- I stuck to a pattern, hoping that I would be right in the end. Why group work fails for me is because it is very difficult to assess how every member of the group is working effectively and, more importantly, learning from the experience. But, sorry, this is not meant to be a rant against group work. Just the way I’ve done it. I’ve yet to come across a situation where three wasn’t enough for some proper peer collaboration.
This might not be the most popular thing I’ve ever said in my blog but there are times when, as an English teacher, I need to lecture. I need to have students listening to me, looking at me, writing down what I want them to write down. This is not a strategy for control, a strategy to avoid distractions and misbehaviour; it is a conscious choice to ensure that they listen to what I am teaching them. They spend a lot of time working in threes on peer critique and peer assessment and there is the odd occasion when they turn backwards into a group of six. But, at times, I need them to listen and learn.
Of course I want my pupils to be part of this space; I want them, perhaps, to take ownership of wall space at times, displaying their work for all to see. But it is my space. They turn up for fifty minutes a day and I have to make that work with five different classes. I need to be master of my domain and in order to do that my class is set up the way I work best. And the way I work best is the best way for my pupils to work best. If you are a new teacher keep that in mind. This is my classroom. This is the place where I work. And where pupils learn.
There’ll no doubt be student teachers wandering around your school at the moment, or very soon, looking terrified and lost. It’s an intimidating experience to be hurtled back to what was, for me anyway, the scene of a particularly traumatic time in one’s life. One of my teaching placements was in the school I attended and it hadn’t changed much. I felt sick going back there and that feeling didn’t go away. I wandered the corridors expecting ghosts at every turn. So I feel a little bit of sympathy for the new guys starting out on what could be a long and challenging career.
I stopped to chat and began to realise that the corridors are often excellent, but undervalued, places for informal learning in schools. During a five minute conversation I was able to introduce this particular student to four members of staff, none of whom I see as often as I’d like. Each spoke of projects in which they were involved or extra-curricular clubs they were running that week. That the student teacher was a bit overawed with all of the information he had to take in merely reminded me what an incredibly complex learning environment a school is and how the corridors are the areas which connect us.
The school staff room is a much missed phenomenon in some schools in Scotland. New buildings went up without them, instead providing us with Departmental staff bases. Conspiracy theorists might say that was deliberate as part of a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy but I couldn’t possibly comment. What is clear from speaking to those in new buildings is that staff moral and ethos have never been the same. Stolen moments in the corridor are as much as I see of members of staff to whom I used to be very close. There just isn’t the time anymore, is there?
I do often take a walk around the school when I have a spare ten minutes, which isn’t as often as I’d like. It’s a great way of seeing pupils out of the classroom environment: recognising them and being recognised by them; chatting to pupils from previous years, perhaps ones I’ve never taught; developing those relationships which we count on so much when we get back to class. I see fantastic wall displays in other departments, news of extra-curricular activities. I meet the occasional member of the Senior Management Team. I feel much more a part of the school and that’s a good thing to pass on to student teachers. Informal learning is essential in finding your way in a school.
If you are a student teacher reading this them make sure you take the time, probably every day, to go for a walk through the corridors. It may surprise you how much that connection to other parts of the school informs and helps you become a teacher. As for me, well I may complain about litter and corridor indiscipline at times but taking a walk on the wild side might just mean I begin to do something about it. Perhaps we all should.