My teachers don’t help me

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One of the most common complaints made by pupils in schools, especially when trying to justify poor behavioural choices, is ‘I didn’t understand the work and the teacher didn’t help me.’

This can feel like a devastatingly logical line of argument. After all, how can a child do work if they don’t understand it? And if they don’t understand it, isn’t it a teacher’s job to make sure they can?

But things, as they never are in schools, are not so simple.

Asking pupils who use this argument how they would like their teachers to help them is revealing. Very often, their understanding of help is very specific. Frequently, what they mean by ‘help’ is individual one-to-one support. They mean that they think their teacher should sit down next to them to explain each task, and how it should be successfully completed. They believe if teachers do not do this, they are not helping, which makes any poor behaviour, for example shouting out, justified, as in “I asked for help loads of times but Sir ignored me.”

Logistically, for most teachers in most schools, this is just not practical. I think teachers, certainly in most subjects in secondary schools, should spend most of their time instructing the class as a whole. Any time they spend in one-to-one support is time they cannot spend explaining content to everyone. When it is not necessary, as it often isn’t, one-to-one tuition in lessons is an inefficient use of time.

For pupils who have, for whatever reason, internalised the idea that help has to be one-to-one support, any whole class teaching must seem very frustrating. “Sir is talking to everyone again! He’s not helping me!” This can mean that they switch off and stop listening, which means they miss out on the material they need to complete the tasks they then think they need help with later on.They are then more likely to demand personal help and so create a vicious cycle of slow progress, poor behaviour and confrontation.

This is such a shame. Pupils whose understanding of help is limited to one-to-one tuition miss the truth; their teachers are helping them all the time. When a teacher explains something new to the whole class, they are helping. When a teacher goes through a worked example or model answer, they are helping. When a teacher tells their pupils common errors made on a test and corrects them, they are helping. When a teacher tells a pupil to stop lollygagging out of the window and look at the board, they are helping. Pupils who do not recognise this as help miss all of it, which means that when it is time to complete tasks, it is inevitable they will not understand.

All of this is not to say that teachers should never help pupils individually. When appropriate they absolutely should. But a teacher finding themselves having to do this regularly for an individual child should consider the possibility that the help the pupil needs is actually in engaging with what they are saying to the whole class. Regrettably, I think in the past some pupils have been so individually helped they have come to believe that they actually aren’t capable of understanding anything unless there is an adult available to translate for them. For some pupils this might be true but I am sure for most it is not.

This learned helplessness is dangerous because it robs children of the ability to learn in any other way. We must fight this and push our most vulnerable young people past the idea they need someone with them at all times in order achieve anything.

All of this means, as I’ve written about here, that schools, whether they do this through SLANT or something else, must teach children how to listen. They must insist that pupils know that in order to get individual help from their teacher they must first keep their side of the deal by engaging with support in its very widest sense.

Of course, unfortunately and inevitably there will be times when whole class instruction, whether through a teacher’s inexperience or something else, isn’t helpful. This does need to be dealt with. But the way to do this isn’t to say that the teacher should stop talking to the whole class and help each child individually instead. Such classrooms are chaotic which makes everything harder to do.

Anyone uneasy about what I’ve written here, and I think there may be some, should be clear that all I’m really saying is that I think children should listen while their teachers talks, whether it is to them individually or to them as part of a class, and that pupils understand that whenever a teacher is teaching, they are also helping.

Surely this isn’t controversial?

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First do no harm.

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It is really hard to picture a lesson in which there isn’t any feedback. Just try. No questioning to see if children understand before moving on. No scanning the room to see if everyone is paying attention. No walking between desks to see if everyone is on the right question and has made a good start. No watching faces for signs of bafflement or indifference. No stopping to redo something as a class when it becomes clear lots of children are lost. No showing pupils a model answer before or after they’ve completed their own. No crouching down quickly next to a child to whisper a short correction. The closest I can get is the “anyone, anyone” economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s school.

Feedback is a component of teaching. Not the butter on the bread, but the bread itself. Without feedback whatever we are doing, we aren’t teaching.

Systemically we seem to have a problem understanding this. Perhaps because of an overly simplistic interpretation of Hattie’s work and perhaps because of insidious accountability audit culture we’ve decoupled feedback from teaching, and often treat them as if they were different things that can be measured separately.

For a while feedback became a synonym for marking. Feedback was good, the more of it the better. This meant marking was good, so the more of this the better too. A storm of green pens, highlighters and stick in sheets fetishised the form and we lost sight of what all of it was for. The emergence of helpful research which showed written marking had no discernible impact on pupil learning, and Ofsted’s laudable endorsement of this research, prompted by Alex Ford, has helped matters but triple-marking and other onerous time consuming policies stagger on. With the evidence so clearly stacked against them, and in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis at least partially due to workload why is this?

Firstly, I think, we are still struggling to shake off an audit culture in which compliance to a policy set by a school’s SLT is regarded as evidence of strong leadership, with some afraid to let go of their vice-like grips on the reins, perhaps out of a prideful fear of admitting they may have got things wrong in the past. Ofsted hasn’t helped, so often the tail that wags the dog, with a major focus of its most recent frameworks seemingly being how consistently teachers adhere to a school’s policy regardless of efficacy. This may go some way to explaining why some schools are so obsessed with everyone doing the same thing, but doesn’t explain why their leaders would interpret this to mean that teachers should very visibly mark, in depth, all the work produced by their pupils.

The most important reason for this is an ill-judged obsession with ‘visible learning’. For whatever reason, some of us have come to believe that a pupil’s work should be a map or download of their brain, or a sort of livestream of the lesson itself. If pupils have received feedback then there must be evidence of this, because this proves it happened. If there isn’t evidence of it, then it didn’t happen. Sadly, this sort of thinking, as I wrote about here, is even infecting the verbal feedback movement, which is becoming muddied and corrupted by standardised forms and other generic formats.

All of this is nonsense.

Learning is invisible. Regardless of how many times a pupil has redrafted a paragraph, or corrected a spelling mistake in green pen, or written down a ‘target’, it is impossible to know if they have really improved or just mechanistically and slavishly followed the directions of a teacher working through the ‘non negotiables’ of their school’s policy. If we define learning as ‘a change in long term memory’, as Ofsted is now doing, then we probably can’t judge whether or not they have really got better until long after the lesson or sequence of lessons in which they received the feedback, and even then we still would not be able to pin down any improvement a pupil made to it given all the other factors (e. g a supportive, educated family) that may have had an impact too.

An even more serious effect of prescriptive policies, however onerous or not, is that they force teachers into believing this written feedback is a separate and more important thing than other types. If we conduct quality assurance on books, folders and tests as if these existed as separate to day-to-day teaching we imply that all the other things mentioned in my first paragraph aren’t as valuable, and lead teachers away from focusing on them. When marking policies are very time consuming we exhaust teachers and may make them worse at these things even if they understand just how important they are. Finally, we should be humble and accept that, certainly outside our own subject specialisms, we are unlikely to be able to judge whether or not a pupil is getting better as a result of feedback, or indeed whether or not they are getting better at all.

Audit culture has also had wider unintended and unforeseen consequences. When teachers are told how to teach or give feedback, they are effectively absolved of the responsibility of working out whether their practice is effective or not. Their job becomes to simply follow the rules. In such contexts their feedback is very unlikely to be as good as it could be because they are responding primarily to top-down edicts and not the needs of their classes and individual pupils. If a teachers’ job is to mark books twice a week, and they do, then they have done their job regardless or not of whether the feedback was appropriate or effective. For schools still hanging on to performance related pay, it may also be worth considering how fair this is if they have limited the freedom of their teachers. Accountability without autonomy can only be defended if those who set tight policies can prove, beyond all doubt, that the methods they insist on are effective. This is impossible.

At the root of all this is the understandable but erroneous desire to know things with a degree of certainty we just can’t. The only way we could really know, with any degree of confidence, whether or the teachers in our schools are really all giving effective feedback would be to replicate Graham Nuthall’s methods and kit out every classroom with cameras and microphones. We’d then need to employ a team of subject experts to carefully watch all the videos and listen to all the recordings before cross-referencing them with the test scripts pupils did months or even years after the initial teaching. This, for a thousand and one reasons is impossible, and even if it were we still wouldn’t really know whether pupils had learned what they had because of the feedback they got or because of a something else that happened outside their classroom that we are completely unaware of. We can’t be sure, and just shouting “I know whether good feedback is taking place” louder and louder won’t help win any reasoned arguments.

This, for school leaders, may seem depressing. But it is only depressing if we assume that teachers are incompetent, remain incompetent without rigid rules and don’t want their pupils to get better. As Mark Enser has so often pointed out (and, I believe, has a book out soon that I hope will make the point even clearer), when schools create cultures in which working to continually improve is a key component of professionalism, teachers placed in charge of their own development generally, with the right training, support, agency and respect, will eventually arrive at effective methods that work in their own context.

This is not to say there are no bad apples. There are some lazy teachers just as there are lazy and careless people in all walks of life. But the solution to this is not to introduce policies designed primarily to make feedback visible to an external observer. Lazy teachers will pay the loosest lip service they can get away with while the conscientious and talented will find themselves hamstrung.

We could do worse than take instruction from the Hippocratic Oath; first do no harm. The purpose of this Oath, created a time in which medical science was in its infancy, was sensible. If you aren’t sure what you think is right, then the first thing you should be sure of is that what you do doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t make any sense to direct teachers in schools to follow tight, prescriptive marking policies if you aren’t certain (and you can’t be) that they actually accelerate learning, especially if you do know they have negative effects on things like classroom practice or the workload of your staff. Much better is to have a loose policy that says something like ‘Feedback takes many forms. Here are some. You may see some, all or none of these if you visit our school. The only thing we can guarantee is you will see feedback.”

As scary as it may seem, at some point you have to trust teachers. The danger of not doing so is cargo cultism, oppressive accountability, exhausted, resentful staff and pupils who learn no more than if you’d had no policy at all.

Please. First do no harm.

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It’s not about me. It’s about maths.

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Earlier this week I was part of a conversation about the successful start Steve, our new Head of Maths has made with his teaching classes. When someone asked him how he’d done it his reply, delivered with a shrug and in a typically blunt and no-nonsense manner, was “just act like I’ve always been here. Sometimes I forget to introduce myself until half way through the lesson. Doesn’t matter though, does it? It’s not about me, it’s about maths.

I thought this was wise so I tweeted it. At the time of writing this post the tweet has been ‘liked’ 380 times, which suggests quite a lot of you think so too.

While of course I was pleased, I was also surprised by how much approval the tweet got. It does not fit comfortably with popular societal tropes of charismatic classroom mavericks who are remembered by their charges for the rest of their lives. It does not fit with the popular philosophy captured in the phrase “I teach children not subjects,” which holds that the first duty of teachers is to build relationships with their pupils.

It also does not fit with common advice given to trainees, NQTs and those struggling to make headway with difficult classes, which is often to spend time going through rules and expectations, and then to focus on getting pupils to like them.

Despite all this, I can’t think of a better description of the proper role of most teachers in secondary schools. We are not employed as generic ‘teachers’ but almost always as teachers of discrete subjects and it is on these subjects emphasis should be placed.

This is easier to do in some contexts than in others. Our Head of Maths has the advantage of working in a school in which behaviour is good and disruption rare, and benefits from a system which removes the responsibility of day-to-day classroom management from teachers. This means he is able to get straight on with teaching maths. In some schools which abdicate disciplinary responsibility to teachers this just isn’t possible and those working in such places may feel they have no choice but to sacrifice subject content, at least to some degree, in order to create a superficially orderly environment through force of personality. Some, particularly the extrovert and charismatic, may be successful which can create the damaging impression that they are examples that can and should be emulated by all. In reality, the best that anyone can achieve in such contexts is, as Katherine Birbalsingh has put so eloquently, “a warlord in a failed state.”

I think striving to be remembered by pupils for the rest of their lives is egotistical and a little creepy. To want to be remembered as being exceptional means we are sort of hoping that others in a child’s life will have let them down. While I would not go as far as to say I object to pupils remembering me at all, if they do I hope it is because I have successfully shared my love of history. I’d far rather a child remembered the story of 1066 than what colour ties I wore or any motivational speeches I gave. I don’t want my pupils to watch a documentary or visit a museum exhibition and think “Mr Newmark taught me this, wasn’t he funny!” Instead I want them to go “Oh! I wonder why they’ve missed out the Battle of Fulford?” I don’t want them to think “Mr Newmark was the only teacher who believed in me” because I want them in a school that makes it clear every adult in the building does.

As years go by and pupils turn into adults, it is natural that memories of us fade. What is left should be what we taught them. I don’t remember the names of my geography teachers but I do know how to spot a glaciated landscape. I don’t remember the names of any of my RE teachers but I know what a minaret is and what Ganesh looks like. I can’t remember who taught me Lord of the Flies in English, but I do know whoever did must have done a good job, because the first time I read of Heart of Darkness I heard the echoes.

This is not to say that we should be ashamed of the times when, because of systemic failures, we have gone beyond our core roles to support a child. I wrote about one such instance in my own career here.

But events like this are human not professional triumphs and should be rare. And even in the midst of them, it is still wrong for our aim to be the child remembering us, even if in the end they do.

So I’m with Steve, apart from what he said in a sentence I’ve taken nearly 1000 words to write.

“It’s not about me. It’s about history.”

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Why is teaching making you so poorly?

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I’ve been a teacher for two years now. Since starting I’ve put on a stone and a half, have stopped all exercise in term time and am eating far too much junk food. I’m also worried that I’m drinking too much. I feel sluggish all the time and sometimes get out of breath just walking between classrooms. I don’t sleep well and often feel worryingly anxious. Every term I seem to get ill and struggle on until the holidays when I collapse. Some weekend days I can barely bring myself to go out of the house. I’ve invested a lot in teaching and don’t want to give it up, but I am seriously worried about my long term physical and mental health.

Teachers, as recently acknowledged by Damien Hinds, work long hours and these eat into time that could be spent doing things that contribute to good health. Anyone starting work at seven in the morning and working through to seven in the evening, or later, will struggle to find time to cook proper meals. Eating high-fat ready meals or takeaways, snacking on sugar and finding bursts of energy in caffeine can quickly create a pattern of peaks and troughs that is hard to break. Even if people working this long can summon the willpower to exercise, it is likely they’ll find workouts comparatively unsatisfying, which affects motivation in the longer term. All this damages quality sleep, which means the high-sugar, high-fat and high-caffeine diets feel necessary to push through the day. For teachers in this situation, alcohol, or indeed any other addictive substance, can be very tempting because it provides a short cut to altered consciousness, which gives the illusion of switching off. For most people though, drinking immoderately takes far more than it gives and contribute to the issues that started problems in the first place.

All that said, the truth is certainly more subtle than long hours cause bad health. Plenty of people in all sorts of jobs, including teaching, work very long hours and thrive. Some people who work comparatively few hours suffer from lifestyle health problems too, which means things must be more complicated.

To understand why some thrive and some don’t, whatever context they are in, it might be helpful to begin by considering what it is that makes some people quite able to cope with a large volume of work and the long hours required to complete it. First, it is important to recognise that people who feel they are being successful and making progress at things they care about are typically far happier with high workloads than those who feel they are failing at things they don’t think important. When things are going well and we can see a direct benefit of what we’re doing, we don’t mind working very hard and may even find ourselves energised. While we may know our hours are excessive, and be mindful of the impact this is having on those close to us, we are less likely to find the time spent working stressful in itself. Teachers perceived to be doing a good job working in high performing schools with autonomy to plan, teach and assess in the way they think best are probably less likely to find long hours stressful, because there is a pay off to self-esteem, career prospects and perhaps even their own finances.

Teachers working in less happy contexts are far more likely to suffer mentally and physically. For those under the cosh, whether it is because of questions around their own competence or concerns about the perceived quality of the schools in which they work, perpetual anxiety can quickly make long hours feel unbearable. In an unfortunate double-whammy, teachers working in environments like this are those least likely to be given professional freedom, which makes work feel even more like drudgery. If results do not improve, which they may well not given the limited influence teachers have, all tasks come to feel pointless, which can quickly create a demotivating sense of futility and senselessness. The frustrations of working like this for hours and hours, day in and day out, can very quickly spill into other areas of life; even if you have the time, it’s hard to find the energy to go for a run or cook a proper meal from scratch when you’ve spent your day in a state of low-level panic about the length of your to-do list. It is far easier to drink half a bottle of wine, eat a pizza and try to forget you’re likely to wake at 4am saucer-eyed and too nauseous to eat anything before the breaktime doughnut you haven’t the willpower to resist.

Unfortunately schools can buy into the inevitability of this, whether consciously or unconsciously, by creating cultures that endorse and even validate it. In some schools Heads begin the count down to the next holiday on the first day back after the last one. This, while superficially a positive example of in-it-together camaraderie (“Just twenty-seven get-ups until Christmas, guys!”), actually sends a rather negative message because it is an admission that the coming term will be relentlessly brutal, and that the best way to get through is to remind yourself at some point in the future it will end. This feast and famine approach to life makes developing consistent, healthy patterns really difficult. Motivating yourself to exercise or eat better for seven days, after six weeks of inactivity and sugar can be so hard it doesn’t feel worth bothering, especially as those who do make changes are unlikely to see any benefits in such a short space of time.

Some schools go further by normalising the binge-eating of biscuits, cake, confectionary and sweets during term time. The stressful, pressurised nature of the job can mean it conveniently assumed that eating poorly is simply unavoidable and providing sugary treats seen as a duty of those chairing meetings. Those choosing not to tuck in can find themselves, good naturedly but persuasively, pressured into ‘having just a slice.’ While saying there is never a place for such indulgences would be going too far, it is just as important to accept that it is harder to stay healthy if snacking is made a regular feature of day-to-day professional interaction.

Some teachers, concerned about relative inactivity and poor nutrition, fall victim to the myth that teaching in itself is such a physically demanding profession that it compensates for a lack of purposeful exercise and a problematic diet. This, on the face of it, is not a stupid thing to believe. Teaching is, of course, more active than many jobs, particularly those based predominantly in offices. Typical teachers do move a fair amount and even the act of standing in front of a class and explaining something burns more calories than working on a computer. Unfortunately though, making a simple comparison like this is flawed. Firstly work for most teachers is not as active as many believe it to be. Those who teach in one classroom and move no further than the staffroom are unlikely to be burning very many more calories than an office worker. Of course, PE teachers and those with responsibilities that take them over a large school site will expend more energy but even these, unless they are getting out-of-breath fairly regularly, are probably not exercising as much as they should.

Secondly, those with more sedentary jobs at all concerned about their health are likely to be acutely aware they aren’t getting enough exercise and so, sometimes literally, take steps to compensate. Increasingly, flexible working arrangements mean office-based workers make time in their day, even at lunch, to do some form of physical activity. In schools such flexibility is rare. This, added to punishingly long hours, which make working through break and lunch common, makes it much harder for teachers to do the same.

Many schools do recognise the unhealthy lifestyles of their staff as an issue and run well-meaning initiatives, typically called things like ‘healthy schools’ to address it. These usually involve a focus on better eating and may include stress-busting programmes like mindfulness, sports clubs for staff and Yoga. While the thinking is admirable, such policies can never have more than a limited impact if they deal only with the symptoms of poor health while ignoring the causes. It is all very well offering beautician appointments in non-contact time, or a running club at 3.30, but if workloads are too high for people to spare the time to attend them then they will not be beneficial to most teachers. Indeed, it is even possible they can make things worse because they can lead school staff at all levels to feel poor lifestyles are actually the fault of individuals for not taking advantage of school provision, which means less focus on changing negative aspects of the overall environment itself.

Some things, admittedly, schools can do very little about. Teachers are more prone to illness than those in many other professions because the nature of their work exposes them to more germs. Schools are full of people, both children and adults, and can act as vectors for coughs, colds, flu and stomach bugs. There is a fairly direct correlation between standing in front of a class of spluttering children and becoming poorly yourself. That children as a whole are not a demographic typified by high standard of personal hygiene makes the situation worse and means those who work in schools are more likely to get an illness than those working in offices. It probably isn’t fair to pin all the blame for this on students though; very busy, time-pressured working environments make us all, at times, less fastidious about things like hand washing and dirty tissues than we know we should be. Remembering this can help us avoid falling for the narrative that our various ailments are inevitably caused by stress and unhealthy lifestyles. While, of course, these do play a role in lowering immune systems they alone are not the cause of the end-of-term flu.

Finally, it is again worth examining the harmful but pervasive belief that good teachers are always busy and stressed. This silliness and easily lead schools and teachers to the conclusion that unbalanced, unhealthy lifestyles are inherent to teaching and there is no place in the profession for those who are either unable or unwilling to accept them. Teachers simply must reject such thinking. Those that do not, victims of a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, are contributors to the sort of culture in which bad health can seem an occupational hazard and becomes normalised, so hiding the true extent of the problem.

What can I do about it?

 

Anyone who has ever been on an aeroplane knows that the pre-flight safety briefing says they should put on their own air mask before helping a child. This is always quite jarring to hear. Our instincts tell us that when it counts the most our first responsibility is to those we care most about, not ourselves. To understand why we get this advice it is important to remember that the airline is not making a judgement about whose life is more valuable. It is a recognition that if, for whatever reason, an adult becomes incapacitated then they are no longer in a position to provide help to anyone at all.

There are lessons in this to those in danger of burning themselves out. When we are not healthy, we do everything worse. Detailed planning may well be done, but its quality is likely to be questionable. Teaching exhausted is a recipe for disaster. Marking and assessing may fulfil all the requirements of a policy but is far less likely to address the most pertinent areas. Even teachers who are able to compartmentalise so well their pupils don’t notice a difference are very unlikely to be able to keep it up forever. Teachers who leave the profession because their health becomes so poor they cannot continue deprive future generations of pupils of an experienced, competent practitioner, which means even an apparent short term victory can result in a far-reaching and more important defeat.

To be fair on ourselves and our pupils we must begin by accepting that our first priority must be our own health and well-being. Only when this is assured can we properly prioritise the needs of those we are responsible for.

Of course, this is much easier said than done.

Exercise is a good place to start because, done regularly, it can provide a structure on which to hang other things too. While meaningfully training for a marathon might be unrealistic for many teachers, especially who those who feel they often don’t have time to go to the toilet, even a very small amount can improve wellbeing. Committing to a brisk twenty minute walk three times a week, preferably at set times, and sticking to it come hell, highwater or Ofsted can be a really positive step towards restoring balance because it makes physical activity a feature of a properly structured week. It also makes increasing volume and intensity of exercise later easier; going from nothing to hard workouts feels like an intimidatingly huge step whereas establishing even a very low level of basic fitness makes doing a bit more feel more achievable.

Those wiling and able to push themselves a bit harder are likely to get more benefits. Being out-of-breath and sweaty can have a meditative effect because it focuses attention. It is actually quite difficult to be anxious about an impending lesson observation or deadline when your mind is set on getting up a hill without stopping or bench-pressing a weight right at the top end of your capability. While the effect is of course only temporary there are longer-term benefits to clearing your mind completely a few times a week, because it provides a sense of perspective that may make it easier to switch off at other times when it is helpful to. Finally, when work is at its worst and it feels like we’re making no progress at all, improving at something else, whether getting faster, stronger or just generally fitter can give a greater sense of control and help reinforce self-esteem, which has a beneficial knock-on effect. While, for most people, exercise has perhaps the greatest overall benefit it is also worth noting that other hobbies can help too; while playing a musical instrument or painting a picture won’t reduce weight or make those doing them fitter, the act of purposeful attention on something other than work has benefits too.

Another benefit of physical activity is that it can provide more motivation to eat better because it makes the effects of not doing so much more obvious.  While eating badly is even more damaging without exercise, the impact of it often isn’t immediately clear because those who aren’t pushing themselves are far less likely to notice until they’re in a really bad state. It is generally easier to resist wall-to-wall cake or three beers every evening if you know regularly indulging will mean you’re less able to run your twice-weekly 5k without stopping for a rest half way through. Once again it is worth emphasising the importance of following through on a commitment to exercise because otherwise good intentions can act as an excuse for not making changes to diet. It is all too easy to succumb to the biscuit tin by thinking ‘I’ll burn this off in the holidays’, and then finding other reasons not to exercise when they finally arrive.

Those who find them either unable to exercise at all, or do much less than they are used to will have to make changes to their eating habits if they don’t want to put on weight. It would probably be a mistake to go into this in too much detail as what works is very individual beyond some basic well-established rules; eat three meals and don’t skip breakfast, watch portion size and make sure that calorie intake does not exceed what’s burnt. Some teachers find it helpful to bring in everything they eat into schools, including snacks, which makes substitutions easier. While it is always difficult to resist cake when everyone else is eating it, it’s easier if you have chunks of pineapple or even just an apple to eat instead. It’s also worth remembering that what seems a craving for alcohol is often actually hunger, which means eating sensibly and regularly can lead to a reduction in high calorie wine, beer or spirits in the evening.

An empty fridge makes stopping at a takeaway or a rushed trip to the supermarket for a ready meal tempting. Planning meals on Saturday or Sunday can also help teachers avoid their good intentions evaporating the following week, as well as helping save money. For those teachers who have time to do it, batch-cooking meals can be even more helpful because heating these up can take less time and be less hassle than even ordering a takeaway. For those who struggle to do this, but do cook sometimes, just making double or more of the amount you usually eat and freezing the rest can be just as easy.

Before finishing up on diet, it is important to acknowledge that a few teachers find losing too much weight more of a problem. Those who find this happening to them must, of course, take action too. These people simply must make sure they eat healthily and regularly to avoid further problems.

A lot of teachers who take steps to increase exercise and eat properly will find they sleep better without doing anything else at all. Establishing a set of patterns and routines creates a reassuring sense of order and regularity that makes falling and staying asleep less of a struggle. However, even those who adopt a sensible, balanced lifestyle can still experience problems.

Tolerating less sleep in the week and trying to compensate with lie-ins at the weekend is usually a mistake. Firstly, this doesn’t really work because it makes establishing regularity impossible. Those that sleep in late on Saturday and Sunday are likely to find it difficult to get to sleep early on Sunday night, which means they won’t have had enough when the alarm rings on Monday. This deficit can make caffeine and sugar feel necessary to stay alert throughout the day, making it more difficult to drop off at an appropriate time. Many teachers don’t actually recognise this as a problem because they are working late into the evenings anyway but this pattern, of course, creates further issues.  While it does require some discipline to do it, especially for those who enjoy late nights at the weekend, getting up and going to bed at the same time each day is more sensible for most people.

Those that do work right up to bedtime typically find it harder to get drowsy and then fall asleep because they are likely to be still thinking about the things they were working on. This is even tougher for those anxious about how this work will be judged, which is another reason to be wary of schools with extensive and punitive quality assurance measures. Teachers, like everyone else, should make time to unwind and relax before trying to go to sleep. To avoid sitting around and worrying, which is no more productive than just doing the work, it is important to do something else and to fully focus on it. Playing a musical instrument, having a conversation about something other than teaching, drawing, reading a novel or even doing something as simple as properly watching a film or TV program works so long as attention is fully on them. At all costs avoid trying to do any of these things at the same time as working because it isn’t unwinding at all. Anything done like this will be of lower quality and will take longer anyway, negating any of the perceived benefits. It should go without saying that email and social media is also a considerable danger, especially if messages and notifications are school related; it’s very hard to not think about school when your phone is constantly reminding you of it. If you can get away with it, don’t have work email on your phone and switch if off, or at least on silent in another room, when preparing to sleep.

Drinking less also has benefits to sleep. While the effects of alcohol can, superficially at least, soothe anxiety and help some people feel calmer, this is usually only temporary. Not drinking at all, in the week at least, is probably a good idea but any reduction will have some benefits. If stopping altogether feels unrealistic, switching to lower-unit drinks, which are increasingly easy to find, can be beneficial to those too habituated to cease indulging altogether.

The changes described so far are likely to make it easier to fall asleep in the first place, but some unlucky teachers will still find they wake in the middle of the night, sometimes for hours at a time. This is truly miserable; turning over and switching on a light to see the clock says three or four in the morning can be unimaginably depressing, especially when it happens regularly. This is far more common for those feeling generally anxious. If this happens, tossing and turning in bed is usually not the answer, but nor is getting up and doing work or, as I have done before, even going in to school only to find it dark and locked up. It is better to leave the bedroom and do something intellectually undemanding for half an hour or so, before trying again. In the midst of this all it can also be helpful to try and retain perspective; in the small hours insomnia can be anxiety inducing in itself with the prospect of the day ahead, already demanding, seeming truly horrific. If this happens to you remind yourself that fatigue in itself is not life threatening. Like driving for most of us, many of the processes of teaching are automated and, while of course unpleasant, most of us are able to get through a working day on very little sleep. That said, it is a serious problem and those experiencing this regularly should get professional help.

It would not be honest to finish this chapter without acknowledging that, as with almost everything in teaching, context is of huge importance. Some schools do make living a healthy lifestyle impossible and teachers working in these should feel no guilt in moving on to more enlightened institutions. Once again it is worth remembering that careers should be long; marathons and not sprints. While martyring yourself can seem noble if, as it is very likely to do, this results in a departure from teaching altogether then the overall, potentially multi-decade, cost is much, much too high.

Looking after yourself does not make you weak. It marks you out as a true professional.

 

 

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Are we really assessing learning?

exam

My favourite definition of learning is “a change in long term memory”, which means that something has been learned and then remembered permanently.

On the face of it this seems like common sense but the way in which school assessment systems are set up often works against this as an objective

The problem is that many schools confuse performance with learning. If learning can be defined as a permanent change, we can define performance as as a change that doesn’t last. The confusion is compounded by the fact that performance is an important part of a process that might, so long as it is accompanied by other strategies, eventually lead to durable learning.

In a school which confuses performance with learning, the progress of pupils is often measured by what they can do at best the end of the unit, and at worst at the end of a single lesson (or indeed after twenty minutes for those who remember the dreaded mini-plenary). This means that the data going into spreadsheets will only reflect what they have remembered over a short period of time. This can create a misleadingly optimistic picture which suggests that children are doing far better than they actually are. This is because, as we all do, pupils forget over time; just because someone can do something after a day doesn’t mean they will be able to do it a year later, especially if they have been given intensive support to get to that point in the first place.

Schools operating systems which are focused on performance incentivise the prioritisation of the short term over the long. This can mean too much emphasis on one off lesson observations and the progress pupils make in one hour. Teachers working in such systems might quite naturally concentrate on making sure pupils do well on tests focused on what has been covered most recently and may not spend time going back to make sure that topics covered in the past have been remembered.

This, in a context in which almost all Y11 outcomes are based on a set of terminal exams sat at the end of the course, can be a disaster. If KS4 lasts three years (9-11) as it does in many schools, pupils may not be supported to revise content they studied at the beginning of the course until right at the end. This means, of course, that many will have completely forgotten what they were taught three years before. It also means that pupils are not required or expected to revise large amounts of content until the stakes are terrifyingly high; far better would be to help pupils develop effective revision strategies earlier in their school lives so they are well embedded before Y11.

The most impactful way to do this is to make sure that all assessments are tests of everything that has been covered up to the point the pupils sit it. The table below, derived from an example shared by Michael Fordham a couple of years ago, shows how this might be done over one year in any subject.

Test 1 2 3 4 5 6
Content 1

 

1+2 1+2+3 1+2+3+4 1+2+3+4+5 1+2+3+4+5+6

This simple model means that teachers will be much more likely to focus on re-teaching and re-visiting the whole curriculum because if they do not, their pupils are likely to perform increasingly poorly on tests. It also makes it more likely that when pupils study at home, they will need to study the entire curriculum, which makes it more likely they will remember more of it.

In schools that follow this model teachers are much more likely to interleave and expose their pupils to more retrieval practice. This means that pupils are much more likely to remember more of what they are taught for longer.

While this model of assessment is a strong one it is not without its issues.

The first of these is that unless a school dramatically increases the amount of time it spends on assessment, each test will only be able to cover an increasingly small sample of what has been taught. Those feeling uneasy about this (as I was originally), may find it helpful to consider what exactly they are assessing. If we are testing true learning then we are actually assessing more, because we are drawing from everything that has ever been covered. This is also much fairer on pupils too, because a pupil can gain marks from a wider domain of knowledge and won’t be unduly punished for struggling on a single unit.

For once, exam accountability is helpful. Testing in the way I’ve outlined is authentic to GCSEs which sample from a wide domain in a deliberately unpredictable fashion; covering a topic does not guarantee that it will come up on the exam, which is why good pupils prepare for everything.

Assessments in history for pupils in my MAT, informed by the principles of learning I’ve outlined now look increasingly like this:

 

SECTION A: (50% of marks)

Short answer and multiple choice questions based on the entire domain of knowledge taught that year.

SECTION B: (15%) of marks)

One short extended writing question (a paragraph or two) based on the topic covered most recently.

SECTION C: (35% of marks)

One longer extended writing question from a choice of essay questions drawn from the entire domain of knowledge taught that year.

 

This, I feel, offers a reasonable balance between testing what has been covered most recently, and everything else that has been covered too.

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How to teach using a booklet and visualiser

booklet

Early in my career I was part of a teaching paradigm shift, caused by the installation of electronic whiteboards in almost every classroom in English schools.

Before the arrival of these (enormously expensive) pieces of technology PowerPoint was rarely used, and when it was it tended to be for staff training and not day-to-day teaching. Schemes of work at my first school were held in a library of folders in departmental offices, which were followed and contributed to by teams working collaboratively. While, of course, there was some deviation from these (mine were usually unwise!), this centralisation of planning meant curriculum was coherent and departmental heads had oversight of it.

Interactive whiteboards, or just MASSIVE SCREENS as they were much more commonly used as, changed everything. Lessons became PowerPoint presentations with material that would once have been found in textbooks now projected above the heads of the pupils. This coincided with the strange belief that textbooks shouldn’t be used at all and that They Who Must Not Be Named would raze to the ground any school in which they saw them.

One of the effects of this was a decentralisation of curriculum. Teachers began creating their own lessons. In some contexts Schemes of Work became a hotchpotch of directionless standalone lessons. With lessons saved to personal memory devices and private areas it became more and more difficult for anyone to know exactly what was going on in each lesson. While the strongest departments continued to share and work collaboratively, the result was that in many contexts planning became atomised. Personal relationships and internal politics sometimes complicated this still further with some teachers reluctant to share their work with others. All of this increased workload for everyone, because everyone was now expected to plan their lessons effectively from scratch.

Fifteen years into my career, in my school and in others, we are seeing another paradigm shift. This time though, it is much healthier one.

Booklets and visualisers are changing everything.

For those still unclear on the terminology, as I was until fairly recently, a booklet is really just a personal textbook that contains the material pupils will need alongside the tasks they need to complete. This, in effect, is an embodiment of the Lemovian principle of ‘everything in one place’, which results in less time being wasted on transitions between different resources and activities.

In our Trust, in each subject, each booklet is drawn from a planned and sequenced curriculum that covers the entirety of the five years pupils are at secondary school. Each pupil in each year gets the booklet at the same time, which means that assessments can be genuinely standardised. As the pupils keep these booklets with them it makes setting homework very simple, as it is usually something as easy as ‘learn what we covered on pages 3-4 for a test in your next lesson’, or ‘answer question 6 on page 7’.

Writing the booklets is a task shared out among all the history teachers in the MAT (working at a larger scale does make this much easier), which means no one teacher is overly burdened. There is no getting around the fact that doing this well does take a long time, with most of our booklets (that last roughly a half term each) coming in at between 30 and 50 pages. Regardless, we’re finding most teachers don’t mind. Having ownership of an entire unit of work that will be taught to hundreds of pupils is an inspiring responsibility and very different to frantically typing text onto PowerPoint slides in time for P4 after lunch. The greatest advantage of this approach is that it means that everyone then benefits from really high quality work from the rest of the team – instead of spreading out the work thinly and producing lots of lower quality resources, the more focused booklet strategy means overall standards are much higher. It also offers opportunity for further professional development – some members of our MAT history team asked to write booklets on topics they knew little about so they could improve their own subject knowledge. It is also important to remember that the big effort is only at the beginning. Assuming the booklets are of a decent standard, work the following years is really just editing them based on the feedback of the teachers who’ve used them.

Having these booklets radically changes planning. Freed from time consuming resource creation teachers can concentrate all of their efforts on effective delivery. For most this means annotating their own copy of the booklet with the words they’ll need to teach, scripted explanations, diagrams and the questions they plan to ask. Most teachers at my school now also keep their own exercise book in which they model tasks and project onto the board using a visualiser (more on this later).

Teaching using the booklets is very straightforward. Much of most lessons is spent on teachers reading the booklet with pupils, elaborating on the material through explanation and checking understanding through questioning. Page, and even better, line numbers make it really easy to keep pupils on track and to refocus those who have for whatever reason lost their place (“Lucy, page 3 line 26, please”). For pupils who have been absent it is now much easier to catch up – read the pages in the booklet you missed and then just ask the teacher about what you didn’t understand.

Assessment is much fairer; because pupils take booklets home with them they always have what they need to study from. No more trawling the internet for vague ‘revision’ websites and fairer for those pupils who might not have books at home to help them.

VIS-GEN-GVIS-50-2

While booklets on their own have a huge impact, when combined with the use of a visualiser the effects are transformative. Again, for those who have not come across them a visualiser is basically a camera that can project work on a desk up onto the screen at the front of the classroom.

The Nuneaton Academy, where I work, now has visualisers installed in every classroom and it has been really interesting to see, without any particular direction from SLT, how their use has increased and created consistency in practice. While consistency is not, of course, a positive thing in itself I think even Mark Enser would approve of what is going on; teachers are simply, without external direction, moving to the method that works best.

In most lessons this now means the teacher places their own copy of the booklet the class is working from under the visualiser and reads, or asks pupils to read, from the text. The teacher then highlights key passages and annotates them to illuminate and add further layers of meaning and understanding, while talking through their thought processes. Pupils follow along, adding their teacher’s annotations if they are helpful and their own if there is something else they think worth noting down. Some teachers task pupils they know to be good annotators to sit at the visualiser freeing them up to draw on the board or to give more expansive explanations, while providing peer role-modelling for the rest of the class.

The visualiser is even more effective when used by teachers to model work. Putting their own booklet or exercise book under it and then completing the tasks while explaining why they have included the material they have, or how they are linking seemingly disparate points together provides pupils with strong models. The teachers I’ve seen do this best incorporate this into the “We” section of the “I, We, You” teaching sequence by pausing to ask pupils what they think should be included before setting pupils off on independent work.

The efficiency of all of this has meant I’ve had to make some alterations to my teaching and unlearn some internalised habits, but overall the switch has been pretty painless because it has been so intuitive and easy. It all feels very different to the days in which we were frogmarched into training on how to use the IWB for engaging learning games. Already I’m finding I’m clicking the PP icon on my desktop less often and even when I am using it, it’s mainly just to show an image in the booklet on a bigger scale so I can point out the details in it, or to show something that reinforces the material in the booklet.

In some ways seems a shame. A bounty of the Great Stupidity I have banks and banks of PowerPoints, representing probably thousands of hours work, stored in neat folders dating back more than a decade.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever use any of them again. I wish I’d never had to.

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First snow

first-snow-001

The radio tells me for the first time this winter in some places it is snowing. Not heavily. Just a few bright white flakes from a grey sky, too small for anyone to tell each one is perfectly unique.

In the warm I’m tearing up just a little bit.

There is a picture of us last time it snowed, Amber, Bessie and me. If you just looked at the photo without knowing anything about us you wouldn’t know anything was wrong. We are smiling and my mum, dad, brother and my sister in law are there with us. The sky is bright blue and in the next photo we took my brother’s dog is nosing a drift.

But something is wrong. While you’d never know it, that photo was taken two days after our daughter received her diagnosis of Williams Syndrome.

The brittle smiles mask fear. The photo doesn’t show that couple in the photo, who used to be us, had not slept for two nights. The photo in the snow does not show the long dark hours, the weight of dread, the exhaustion of too much fear in too little time, or the stomach flipping nausea caused by a familiar world shifting forever

The photo does not show any of that. Nor does it show what was to come. It doesn’t show the appointments with Speech and Language. It doesn’t show the sleepless nights. It doesn’t show the appointments with the geneticist, or the liver specialist, or the growth specialist, or the Community Nurse, or the paediatrician. It doesn’t show horrible blood tests or nasty cannulas. It doesn’t show scary results, or the two weeks we would spend in hospital. It doesn’t show the fitting of a nasal feeding tube, or the pump and syringes that go with it.

All it shows is a cold moment frozen in time. Two people more scared than they’d ever been but desperately trying to hide it for each other’s sake. Two people who know they have to be brave because the future is sure to be hard. Two adults and a baby too small to know she’s the unknowing, innocent cause of all the worry.

But this fear isn’t why I’m crying. It is relief and release, flushing away the emotional dirt and infection of months of accumulated anxiety.

Things feel different, as if something broken has healed in a way that has strengthened us all.

When I look at the photo of us all in the snow it’s not the difficulties we’ll face but don’t yet know about that make me emotional. It’s the answers to a prayer, which went ‘please help us bear this.”

It’s the kindness and dishevelled warm competence of our paediatrician. It’s the hospital nurses, doctors, cleaners and porters who smothered our daughter in love when we were exhausted and at our lowest. It’s the nursery where her key worker cares so much about her she wept when she heard Bessie was in hospital. It’s the responses of our friends. It’s the overwhelming positivity of everyone in our families. It’s my wife turning into some sort of superhuman, able to work and play and love and care on an hours sleep a night. It’s my parents moving from their home of more than thirty years to live by us without so much a second thought or backward glance.

But more than all this it is Bessie. Bessie of the beating heart and healthy little body. Bessie of the charismatic ‘Ello!’ as she enters a new room. Bessie of the ‘ooh!’ when she sees something she likes. Bessie of the hugs and the kisses. Bessie of the slurping of water and the guzzling of food that tells us her tube won’t be there for very long. Bessie of the determined crawls and the first steps. Bessie who sings in church. Bessie who dialled the police when left to play with a phone at the doctor’s. Our daughter. Our joy, our pride and our everlasting love.

When I look at the photo now I hear a whisper I wasn’t able to hear when it was taken, it’s saying “No you’ve got it wrong! Bessie is not a burden you will bear. She is a gift you have been given.”

I get that now, and it’s all such a relief.

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