I've been following Jamie Oliver's 'Dream School' programme to see what kind of conclusions he reaches. At first I was sceptical: would this be simply another TV personality telling us how simple it was to engage young people, if only you tried a bit harder or had an inspirational personality? But to give Jamie his due, he understands and acknowledges the complexities of good teaching, and just how complicated handling damaged young people can be. He's also commented several times about how much he admires regular teachers for what they do. Equally, he's been clear that this kind of experiment is simply not possible in mainstream schools because of all the constraints that teachers are under. Of course, it's all a bit unreal, in that made for TV, emphasise the dramatic potential, kind of way. But despite all the usual TV fluff, there are some valid points being made and some interesting questions being asked.
In last week's show, the financial guru Alvin Hall was brought in to teach Maths. His take on the situation was rational, dry, droll, and, at times, very insightful. He was clear that one key skill most of these students lacked was that of self discipline. They were (a wonderful phrase) 'emotionally incontinent'. They simply could not hold their emotional reactions in check, or see the point of pushing themselves merely for their own satisfaction and success. Everything had to be reduced until it was about them and satisfying their immediate needs; nothing could be about the wider context or to do with contributing to a larger society.
From my perspective as a teacher trainer, the most interesting thing of all was when Alvin Hall worked out how to engage these students with his maths lesson. If everything has to be about them, he figured, then show them how maths is indeed all about them. He was teaching percentages, and he started by showing them how he spent each day - this percentage asleep, this percentage working, this percentage eating, plus 1% for his 'dirty little secret' (they especially liked that idea!) Having told them his story, he then asked them to tell him their story, using a pie chart of percentages - how much time did they spend sleeping and working, and so on. Through modelling the learning by relating it to his own life, he encouraged them to apply the mathematical technique to theirs.
I've never set it out for myself consciously before, but this is exactly what I do at my training days in schools. I take an observation I've made about my teaching, or about how I relate to young people, or how my emotions take over when I'm in class, or how frustrated I get about this or that aspect of teaching. And then I find a way for other teachers to place their own stories within a similar framework, in the hope that this will illuminate some key aspect of teaching for them.
To give one example: when we're exploring how sanctions work, I ask the teachers about themselves as drivers. 'You're driving along the motorway - how fast are you going?' 'Now you spot a police car, what happens to your behaviour?' 'Now it's started to pour with rain, do you slow down at all?' 'And finally, you're driving past a primary school, children spilling onto the pavements on all sides. What happens to your behaviour now?' They soon realise that they are just as likely to break the rules as their students. Working out why that might be is key to understanding how sanctions really work.
Make it real. Make it relevant. Make it topical. And bring it to life for your students.
First, let me make a confession. Whilst I'm not a complete technophobe, I do have my limitations when it comes to new technology. After all, when I left school many years ago at the age of 16, the 'personal computer' as we now know it had not even come onto the mass market. I'm old enough to be able to tell my children about when 'playing a computer game' meant moving two blips backwards and forwards on a screen. Having said that, over the years I've got to grips with quite a few bits and pieces of ICT - I've created several websites, including this one you're looking at right now.
In the past I've had my concerns about the over use of technology in education - where the teacher relies too heavily on that electronic whiteboard, and forgets to get the children hands on with actual, living things. Equally, I've wondered how schools are going to come to terms with the dilemma of the mobile phone. That is to say: your school policy says confiscate the evil items on sight, but actually if you do that, you're denying the huge potential for learning that these new web enabled gadgets offer.
Well, this week I've been convinced of the educational merits of one particular technological advance - the one with which I'm talking to you right now - yes, the humble Blog. It makes sense, really - as a writer, the Blog offers a whole new way of communicating with readers. Anyway, I was doing some training last week for some new teachers, and one of them got in touch with me afterwards, and said 'do look at our class blog, to see how we've been using some of your techniques'. Well, knock me down with a feather - it was wonderful! There were photos, film clips, writing, examples of the children's work. And all there, for the parents to see (and indeed the world to see, as well).
So it was that I created a Blog in a similar vein for our little village preschool, to counter parent comments about 'not knowing what my child does while he is at preschool'. That Blog will let us communicate, instantly, with any parent who has access to the internet. What a wonderful web indeed!
It's a pretty much universally accepted fact that there's too much paperwork in teaching. There's this belief amongst managers, inspectors and government bodies that, if something's written down on paper, it is automatically a positive thing. And, if said piece of paper exists, someone will actually find the time to read it, follow it, deal with it, review it, update it.
In my books I've constantly railed against the idea that the 'best' or most 'outstanding' lesson is always the one that was written out in triplicate ahead of time. As most teachers will attest, the best lessons are often those where you deviate from your carefully planned out lesson, in response to something a child has said or done. That beautifully planned lesson is no use at all to you, if you can't adapt it during the heat and motion of the average lesson. Just as that 100 booklet of policies is not worth the paper it's written on, if no one actually reads it or follows it.
When I run training sessions I will often ask for a show of hands, as to how many teachers have actually read the school behaviour policy. Because let's be frank, you can't expect them to apply it, if they haven't actually read what it says. And do you know what? In the average school, about a third of the hands go up in the air. In some instances, it's hardly surprising that they haven't read it, because it runs to 20 or 30 pages or more.
Hot on the heels of excessive policy making and over long planning documents comes the current obsession with evidence. More and more, teachers are asked to collect (usually paper based) bits of evidence to prove what progress their students are making. In other words, we don't trust teachers to use their professionalism, to know, understand and adapt for each child as an individual. We need to see the evidence that the child has achieved this point or that point on the scale.
My vote is for a return to an instinctive feel for 'where your kids are at', for lessons that are scribbled on the back of a fag packet moments before the lesson begins, for teaching inspired by the kids in front of you and maybe a really cool resource, rather than a long list of 'success criteria' and 'learning outcomes'.
Better stop there, before I start railing against the acronyms and abbreviations which blight our noble profession. Because that's material for another post entirely ...
I've been doing some writing today about the teacher as a role model, and it's got me thinking about what does make for a good role model in the classroom, and what doesn't.
As ever, I find myself thinking back to my own school days for material, delving into my own experiences to work out what I think. What was it that made a few of my teachers stand out from the rest? Why did those ones inspire me, whilst others made me hate a lesson, or a subject, or made me feel that I was no good at it? (And, indeed, what about those teachers who failed to provoke any reaction at all. The ones who left absolutely no indent on my youthful self: perhaps the very worst of all possible fates for a teacher?)
At my junior school, there was one teacher I actively disliked (perhaps despised might not be too strong a word for how I feel about that teacher when I look back on that period of my life). The problem was, I was downright terrified of her. She scared me, and the rest of the class, into submission. We behaved because we were too scared not to. Funnily enough, although that teacher was certainly not a role model of how you should teach, she have provided me with plenty of material for when I'm considering how you shouldn't do it. The year I had that teacher, I became what is now known as a 'school refuser'.
When I'm asked whether I think that behaviour has deteriorated in the last decade or two, I think back to that teacher before I reply. Yes, I say, modern day students are far more willing to stand up to their teachers and question what happens in the classroom. Yes, I say, they are all too willing to tell you about their 'rights', their 'choices', about how they deserve 'respect' (often without understanding what any of that stuff actually means). But equally, I point out, they are no longer willing to put up with a teacher who terrifies them into submission. These days, you have to do it with your skill as a teacher, and not with the so-called 'authority' that used to be the trump card of those in professional roles.
Enough of the bad role models - what about the good ones - what was it that made them so special? Let me tell you about two - both English teachers - both inspirational to me - but totally different in almost every other way. 'Miss X' was one of my English teachers at secondary school. As a role model, she offered a sweet nature, a willingness to let us explore a subject or topic that we loved, a positive manner that never seemed to trip over into sarcasm or negativity. She was beautiful too, which I should imagine helped her in managing the boys' behaviour. Then there was 'Miss Y'. She helped me pass my English A Level, after I'd left school. As a role model, she offered a fervent belief in my ability, a willingness to listen to my most outlandish ideas, and she was also passionate about her subject - she adored those poets that we discussed, and inspired me to adore them too.
Looking back on my teaching career, I'd like to think that I've been able to inspire the occasional student as well, to be a role model for them in the same way that these teachers were role models for me. And once in a while, I get the hint that I might just have managed it. The unexpected email from a student I once worked with, updating me on their progress out in the real world. I'm not sure there are any strategies that I can give you to help you become a better role model for your students. But what I do know, is that if you love learning, love your subject and like kids too, that will come through in the way that you present yourself to your class. And they'll remember you for it, look back on you fondly over the years.
You will, in the phrase beloved of government adverts, have 'made a difference'.
When it comes to education (and children’s behaviour in particular), it seems that society is desperate for a ‘magic wand’. A neat, perfectly formed, and preferably instant solution that will solve all our problems overnight. Often, the magic solution will come couched in mysterious, esoteric language (I’m thinking ‘Transactional Analysis’ - huh, what that?) or it will have a registered trademark (Brain Gym® I’m looking at you with your fancy circled R).
A forthcoming programme in the BBC Two Schools Series (‘The Classroom Experiment’) shows ‘radical techniques’ being used. Hummm … radical, did you say? The Professor bans the children from putting up their hands and uses a random system (lollipop sticks in this instance) to decide who answers instead. Ah, I see, you mean the ‘anyone answers’ technique? I’ve heard that idea bandied about for at least the last five years (more interestingly, using a pack of playing cards rather than a set of lollipop sticks). And yes, it’s great in some situations, but it’s also completely hopeless in others. If I’m working with a bottom set full of disaffected teenage boys, they’re as likely to tell me where I can insert the lollipop stick as they are to answer my randomly asked question.
Centre stage in this ‘I’ve got a radical solution to solve all your problems’ approach comes the youthful Gareth Malone. Yes, the camera loves him. Yes, his ideas are great in theory. Yes, he seems like an awfully nice boy. But once again, this is not some radical new solution that will solve all our problems. And once again, there is no radical new solution that will do that for us anyway. I (and many other authors/trainers/teachers) have been advocating active learning, taking children out of the classroom, making lessons dramatic and engaging, bringing learning to life, for years. And the vast majority of teachers I meet already aim to do this, when they can, within the constraints of our education system.
The thing is, though, there is no magic wand and who would want one anyway? Classroom are messy, complex places, full of those strange, unique, magical beings called children. What works for one teacher, on one day, in one school, with one child, will often have little or no relation to what works for another teacher, on another day, in another school, for an entirely different child. Teaching and learning, behaviour management, classroom control: these things are about a hugely complex range of different strategies and approaches, rather than one single, unique solution. And thank goodness for that! I rather like it messy, you know.
I'm really fascinated at the moment by the notion of risk in the learning environment: how we control it, how far we should control it, how we can possibly find the right balance? As a society, we're becoming more and more risk averse - the threat that 'someone might sue' has lead to organisations slavishly following the 'rules', and forgetting that common sense is often the best yard stick of all. In the snow earlier this year, vast numbers of schools closed because of the risk that children or parents might slip over. But all this did was encourage those same children to head off to break their bones sledging down the nearest hill. Those of us who work in education have, to my mind, a duty to teach children how to be careful, how to calculate risks. And we can only do that if we allow them to take risks in the first place. Of course, these must be calculated risks. The other morning the children at my local preschool were using some real life cups and saucers, made of proper pottery, for their tea party. This was in the spirit of the Montessori approach, where you teach children to handle proper stuff, rather than all those plastic toys that are so risk free. But it was a calculated risk - the staff supervised them closely, and we didn't hand them a load of wafer thin champagne glasses and some sharp carving knives as well.
I went to a outdoor play meeting a while back, where someone from the Children's Society gave a fascinating talk about the Forest Schools in Denmark. What really caught my attention was the slide of a dead animal. The idea is that children are encouraged to bring in anything they find, and that includes roadkill, which they study and handle and just generally explore. The initial response from the group was 'ugghhh' and 'did they wear gloves?' (no they didn't was the answer). The next response was 'what on earth would Ofsted say?'. I have to admit, though, my over-riding thought was 'Why on earth didn't I think of that earlier?' Because a few months ago, there was a dead hedgehog on the lane just outside the little pre-school where I volunteer. I watched fascinated as day by day it attracted flies, which laid their eggs, which hatched into maggots, until the hedgehog eventually melted away into the ground. Now I'm kicking myself - what a missed opportunity! And how much learning our children would have got out of studying that lovely creature and its very sad demise!
During the course of my career in education, I've taken a good few risks. Sometimes they paid off, other times they didn't, but I've always aimed to give the children a measure of trust. Sometimes it works and they repay the trust you've shown them, sometimes it doesn't and things go wrong, students let you down. But that's no excuse for not doing it, because if they never get the trust, they never get the chance to prove themselves worthy. I guess the story of Flour Babies illustrates this point perfectly (go to the Lessons page on my website for details). The first time I did this activity was in a London school, with your typical mix of London kids. And they treated those bags of flour as though they were their own, real babies, taking the greatest of care of them for the entire week. Those babies had faces painted on them, cuddly toys, blankets, names. The students did me proud. The second time I tried the activity was in a school overseas, where the students came from much more privileged backgrounds. Within a few hours of handing out the bags of flour, there was a line of sobbing girls at my door, complaining that 'the boys have kidnapped our babies'. Hot on their heels was the caretaker, not looking best pleased. 'Come into the playground now please, Miss Cowley', he said. I rushed outside, only to find the flour baby massacre taking place. But I'd do that activity again, in a heartbeat (in fact I do it again at most of the training courses I deliver - you'd be amazed at how the teachers respond to the idea - not always good but definitely always interesting.)
I was looking for some quotes yesterday, about being brave and taking risks, to add into a keynote speech I'm giving shortly about transformational learning. There was a quote from T.S. Eliot which really struck a bell: "You have to risk going too far to discover how far you can really go." Yes it might go wrong/you might look stupid/the kids might think you're weird/someone might bang themselves/your classroom could get trashed (delete as appropriate) but be brave, dear reader. As Shakespeare memorably wrote, 'screw your courage to the sticking-place and we'll not fail'.
Yes, I admit it, I just couldn't resist any longer: this Blog entry is going to be about Ofsted. (For those of you outside the UK, this is the Office for Standards in Education; for those of you teaching in the UK, this is the Office for Stress and Eternal Damnation). Now, here's the thing: I've always felt rather sorry for Ofsted inspectors. Let's face it, it's not the kind of job you set out to do when you're a child. Imagine, you're ten years old, and you're thinking of a vocation, a career choice, a major life decision about where you want to go and what you want to do. Shall I be a doctor, a nurse, a vet, a teacher, a fire fighter, an astronaut? No, I know, I've got it, I think I'll be ... an Ofsted inspector. That way I get to be really popular and teachers will be ever so grateful when I tell them how to do their job.
And here's another thing: the poor loves never get to see all those magical moments that happen so unexpectedly when you're working with children. That lesson you planned on the back of a fag packet, which weirdly captures their imagination and suddenly they're running with it, flying with it, finally grasping that tricky concept you've spent so long trying to get across. Those magical moments that never seem to happen in your carefully planned lesson, with its five pages of explanatory notes, its finely tuned starter activity, its deliberately chosen and lovingly differentiated resources. Or, in other words, those dull, safe lessons that teachers do when there happens to be an inspector in the room, because they're terrified of taking risks, of making mistakes.
Yes, there is something to be said for having some kind of inspection system. It can help parents make a choice about which school they would prefer their child to go to (I'll be dealing with this notion of 'choice' in an entry very soon). It can help struggling schools get more support, and it acknowledges the dedication of those staff who do things well. But if you're new to teaching don't be fooled - hard to believe I know, but there was an inspection system in place before Ofsted. Except it was a mostly supportive approach run by locally based inspectors, who knew their local schools and the circumstances in their local area. What really concerns me about the current system is the total lack of trust in education staff as professionals. The balance seems to have tilted so far in the direction of mistrusting us, that you have to have evidence to prove every last aspect of what has happened in your classroom. Instead of just focusing on helping children to learn and develop, spending time with them and enjoying the job, you have to record every last detail of what you've done. Because that way someone has the evidence they need to make a judgement about you. Yes, the ever present threat of Ofsted does help to keep schools and other settings on their toes. But just look at the quantity of paperwork and stress required to achieve it.
I'm currently involved really closely with my local pre-school on a voluntary basis. And as I watch the staff playing with the children, who absolutely adore them, it really warms my heart. But what's this? Suddenly they stop playing with the kids. They dash off to grab a camera and take a photo; or find a sticky label and write a few notes. That way they can grab that vital evidence they need to prove that they're doing their job, to fill out those profiles that record every step of a child's progress. "Please!" I want to scream, "Don't stop playing with that child to document the fact that you're playing with her and something great happened. Just play. Just enjoy the moment. Just do what you think is best. I believe you. I believe in you. You honestly don't have to prove it."
But they do. And it's partly my fault. I've never been in a management position before. I've never had to worry too much about what Ofsted did or didn't say. I'd always rejected the promotion ladder as an option, because I wanted to stay in the classroom. But now I find myself in the very odd position of actually caring. Because as Chair of the Committee, I want us to get a good Ofsted report next time round. Now, most of what I do at our lovely little preschool is motivated by wanting to improve things for the children and the staff, rather than trying to improve our inspection grade. But in the back of my mind, I want us to get that public approval, that 'good' or (whisper it) 'outstanding' that makes parents sit up and take notice. I hang my head in shame for even thinking that way, I'm drowning in paperwork to provide proof of all the great things we do, but there it is: I actually care what Ofsted think.
And for that, Ofsted, for that, Government Education Departments of every hue, I curse you and your lack of trust.
Ah, consistency, the Holy Grail of senior management. The notion's a great one, one that I agree with wholeheartedly - indeed one that I refer to in every book I've ever written about behaviour. The idea is that every member of staff should greet the same behaviour with the same response, whenever or wherever it happens in the school, and whoever the person is doing it. Clearly, it's a good idea in theory - it creates a sense of fairness, an ethos of equality, an atmosphere of respect. So why is it that the management can't get those pesky teachers to be consistent? What issues do we need to overcome as individual teachers, to help ourselves be that bit better at it? After many many hours of pondering this perennial question, here are some of my thoughts.
All of us are equal, it's just that some of us are more equal than others: Problem number one in ensuring consistency is that often the management don't expect it to apply to them. Swear at the class teacher? Quick ticking off, don't do it again, you naughty child. Swear at the head teacher? Ah, now you're talking. Instant suspension, horrified phone call to parents, much grovelling required before you get back into my school, sonny. If you want your staff to treat behaviour in a consistent way, make sure your policy protects them as well as you.
I am not Robo-Teacher, I am a human being: Here's a quick test for you. Think of the most irritating child you've ever worked with. One who really gets on your nerves. One whose absence from class makes your day. Next think of a lovely child. One who's hard working, always behaves well, you know the type. Okay, now imagine those two children in the same class, both of them chatting to their neighbour when they're meant to be working. You go over to lovely child and whisper 'C'mon sweetie, let's have a bit of hush and see you doing some work.' Now you stomp across to irritating child and scream, 'WHY AREN'T YOU WORKING, WHY ARE YOU TALKING, WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS TALKING, I DON'T KNOW WHY YOU EVEN BOTHER COMING TO MY LESSON!!!' Yep, me too, been there, done that, worn the hat, bought the t-shirt.
I need to prioritise. Or ... err why exactly do we have this rule?: In some schools it's easy to sort out uniform infringements, because pretty much everything else is sorted. The kids turn up on time, behave themselves, do the work, and are generally rather amenable. In other schools, when the hardest kid in the class turns up (yes, actually turns up, I know it's rare) fifteen minutes late, wearing trainers, a hoody, with a scowl on his face and a nasty cut on his cheek, storms into the room, slumps down in his chair and puts his feet up on the desk, perhaps getting him to sort his uniform is not top of your list? (A thought, though: funnily enough, it can sometimes be that focusing on something as simple as uniform can help you make headway in the toughest of teaching situations.)
Yes, I admit it, I'm just knackered: Monday first lesson, gum gets into bins, ties get re-tied. Friday last lesson, you know what, I CAN'T BE BOVVERED.
I hesitate to say this, for fear of causing offence, but as a teacher your personality is a key factor in your chances of success. Think about it: when you were at school, I'd guess there were some teachers that you found downright unpleasant. And their very unpleasantness meant you treated them differently, whether it was messing around in their lessons, or refusing to do any work for them. Perhaps he was overly aggressive, or he spat at you when he talked; maybe she spent every lesson nagging the class, or her voice was really screechy and unpleasant. Whatever the negatives in your personality, children will pounce on them in a Lord of the Flies-esque frenzy. Children don't know how to fudge the truth like adults do. They haven't learnt to tell those white lies that smooth the course of civilised society. They just say it as they see it, and if they don't like what they see, they'll let you know. I'm not saying this is always right, and if their 'honesty' is abusive or prejudiced, then we challenge them about it. But we have to accept that they have the right to an opinion about whether they find you appealing/interesting or not.
Teaching isn't like most other jobs. You're not sat in an office, being judged by your peers for the quality of the work you produce. You're stood in your classroom, and whilst your peers might check on you occasionally (Ofsted, Senior Management - we'll come to them another time), the judgement that really counts is that of your students. I've used this metaphor before, but it stands repetition - to a great extent, a teacher is an actor standing in front of the audience of his or her students. The character you play needs to be interesting, engaging, unusual, inspiring, someone who the children respect and respond to, or at the very least someone they view as an authority on a subject.
Hot on the heels of the 'your personality matters' elephant is another slightly smaller one, a baby elephant if you like. And if I hesitated to write the first two paragraphs of this blog, then I'm quaking in my boots right now. The truth is, as well as having an appealing personality, it also helps if you look good too. Now, this one's a bit more flexible, in that the kids can still respect and work for you even if you're ugly as sin. But let's be honest, if you look cute, or stunning, or fit, it's gonna help at least a bit. When I think back to my own school days, I can remember a beautiful, auburn haired English teacher with the sweetest face you'd ever seen and these amazing bluey-green eyes. And we all, boys and girls alike, worked our socks off for her. We loved her, in the purest sense of the word. And there was mass devastation in that class when she announced that she was leaving to get married.
Your personality doesn't have to be appealing to work, though, it just needs to be interesting. There are many highly successful teachers with what might politely be termed 'unusual' personalities. Kids respond to a whole plethora of different types of teacher. You can be eccentric, you can be bizarre, you can be comic, you can be zen-like, you can be on the edge of madness (my preferred approach). But watch out if you're negative, a whinger, a nagger, desperately shy, or incredibly irritating - the kids will pounce. And if you do have one of these personality types, perhaps you should be considering a different career path, for your own sake, as well as theirs?
Of course, you can't really change your personality to any great extent. And let's face it, none of us are going to admit (to ourselves or to anyone else) that we have an unattractive personality, are we? I'm great; I bet you are too?
Elephants in the Classroom
You know that saying, about there being an 'elephant in the room': something everyone knows is there, but no one wants to mention? In teaching, there isn't just one elephant in the classroom, there's a whole herd of them, rampaging through the room. In this blog I plan to turn a spotlight on some of the unspoken and sometimes unpalatable truths about our noble profession (and the good stuff too). Because if we can't be honest about what makes a good learning experience, an effective school, or a good teacher, and equally what makes a bad one, then everyone loses.