This much I know about…Heaney, Hughes, Cook, fishing and me!

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about Heaney, Hughes, Cook, fishing and me!

By 9 am this morning six friends had sent me links to the emerging news that a previously undiscovered archive of writing and art by Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Barrie Cook has been made public. What made the link that much more apposite for me, is that the triumvirate’s friendship was founded upon fishing. If we were playing Tomsett-Bingo, that is pretty much a Full House!

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have just published a book about fishing. As the University of Lancaster’s Professor Simon Bainbridge remarks in his testimonial, An Angler’s Journal ‘isn’t just about fishing…it’s a book about friendship, family and finding meaning through a lifetime’s obsession with “the fish landed and the fish lost”‘.  Even if I say so myself, at a tenner a throw it will make a perfect stocking filler for the angler in your life!

In this tale of friendship, family and fishing, the piscine spirit of Ted Hughes makes an appearance…

Manor Pond

One of my clear memories of growing up was living with the fact that my dad had chronic angina. As a postman, dad’s heart condition meant he was given his own post van and a single round through the country lanes of Palehouse Common, near Uckfield, the Sussex town where we lived. It took the pressure off him walking and having to carry a heavy bag of post. What it afforded him was the chance to forge strong, life-enriching relationships with the men and women to whom he delivered letters.

One of dad’s friendships from which I benefitted directly was with Norman and Guy, the two housekeepers at Arches Manor, a gorgeous eight bedroom, 16th century mansion. Hugh Vaughan-Thomas, Glamorgan cricketer and brother of the BBC radio presenter Wynford, owned Arches but was rarely there. It was typical of such residences, in that it had a decent pond which, back in the day, would have provided the manor house’s inhabitants with many a decent meal.

Norman and Guy loved my dad and allowed me to fish the carp pool whilst the three of them drank wine and danced to Dolly Parton singing “Stand By Your Man”. When I first started, I was a bit rubbish at the fishing, thinking that the bigger the fish – and there were some monster carp in that pond – the bigger the bait required. The tennis balls of bread I used as bait were completely inconsumable.

One evening, Jim and his dad came along. Jim brought his specialist carp rod with him. Jim knew a thing or two about how to fish. Unable to tempt a carp, I had lost interest and been reduced to catching tiny roach and rudd on maggots. Jim had set up a leger rig just to my right. He had a sophisticated bite detection system – a red washing up bottle top between the first and second guide, which he kept tight to the ground with a twig lodged in the lawn. It was a thing of beauty, especially when it rattled hard against his rod. I turned round to see him strike and the carp rod bend more than I thought possible.

What happened next amazed us all. Instead of Jim engaging in a protracted battle with a double figure carp, this huge eel came tail-walking across the surface of the pond, straight at us, like an Arabian Knight’s whirling scimitar. Jim reeled in frenziedly. The eel thumped into the bank below, span round, snapped the line and, before we knew it, vanished back into the mud of Arches Manor pond.

I spent the rest of the session, as darkness fell, sitting stock still, Ted Hughes-like, with the “hair frozen on my head” for what I might catch, for what might be staring up at me from the ancient depths.

Illustration by Marvin Huggins: instagram.com/marvs.artwork

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This much I know about…seven basic tips which might help NQTs teach from the front

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about seven basic tips which might help NQTs teach from the front.

It is hard to support NQTs this year as observing lessons is not easy. At Huntington we are fortunate to have the IRIS video system. Here are extracts from one of my lessons I recorded for an NQT who wanted to watch other people teaching.

This is a Year 9 English lesson taught to 30 mixed prior attainment students. I teach the class once a week. I am teaching the principles of rhetoric through Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

I have lots of advantages being a head teacher. That said, I still have to work hard at my practice. Here are six features of my teaching in this lesson which I have identified that might be helpful for NQTs:

1. I never accept an instant “don’t know” response to a question.

 

2. I use students’ names relentlessly as this helps classroom management no end…this was my third lesson with this group.

 

3. I am always scanning who is paying attention (and I do not tolerate slouching in chairs…).

 

4. I go over the speech again when Ella said she did not understand some of the words, even though it was not in my plan.

 

5. I trust Eva, the teaching assistant, completely. She is excellent. I communicate with her before each lesson, so she knows what I have planned.

 

6. I was pleased about how much I look like I am enjoying it. I have a lot on as head teacher right now – the classroom is a pleasant escape from track and trace! We have two Dylans in the room and one has been dubbed Dylanus the Plumber and the other is Dylanus the Baker, two Roman citizens. There is an Ethanus too, as well as a Lucianus…

 

The seventh thing to note is that I concentrate for the whole lesson. Relentlessly I am monitoring students’ attention levels, checking what is going on, anticipating what I need to do – Who’s not paying attention? Are the windows open? How many minutes of the lesson left?

Finally, watching myself teach from the perspective of a 13 year old child is sobering. There are times when I think I look like Joe Biden when he runs onto the stage, attempting to seem youthful…

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This much I know about…how we can make our schools feel more social for colleagues during the pandemic

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about how we can make our schools feel more social for colleagues during the pandemic.

One of my biggest fears about the new academic year was that school would no longer be a social place for staff, that some of the joy would disappear from the job.

That fear has been realised.

We have strict Year group bubbles. Students remain rooted in their chained-off section of the building whilst staff commute. I see my colleagues rush from one side of campus to another between lessons, trolley-baskets in tow, with barely time to say hello, let alone share a coffee or have a communal lunch.

Offices have strict limits on the number of people allowed inside at any one time. There is no such thing as a staff room or a department work room. Colleagues eat lunch with the students in their period 3 teaching class. We don’t have Friday briefings, or whole staff gatherings. Subject meetings are socially-distanced affairs.

And teaching behind the two-metre tape means we cannot adequately support our students as they struggle beyond our reach. Behaviour management is so much more difficult. With windows open, classrooms are cold and likely to get colder.

Live streaming lessons to those students self-isolating at home has added a whole new layer of complexity to an already complex job.

We are faced with being unable to do our jobs as well as we want to, as well as we used to do pre-lockdown.

Over 1,700 people gather every day at our school, under one roof. In classrooms and corridors – some of which are a metre wide – social distancing from students is impossible. We all live with a nagging fear of contracting the virus. We are constantly steering clear of each other, repelled like two same pole magnets.

Despite all this, my colleagues have shown remarkable resilience. Our short-term absence rates have never been lower. No-one wants to have to self-isolate as a Covid-19 “contact”. Every single colleague – and there are 212 of them – is demonstrating a dedication to our students’ education way beyond anything I could have possibly expected. We are united by a common moral purpose.

My colleagues made it to half-term. I tell them regularly that we are lucky. We are not working down a coal mine. We do not face being furloughed. We have been paid all the way through lockdown. We have jobs.

But they are horribly tired. They are working harder than they ever have done, as we educate our students in – as far as we can make it – a Covid-safe environment.

And my SLT colleagues average 20+ duties a week. Our single priority is to remove every barrier which gets in the way of teachers teaching. Indeed, teachers’ wellbeing is surely best supported by senior colleagues intervening when students misbehave in class; after-school yoga classes are an irritating irrelevance.

At least that is what I have always thought. But not any longer.

We always intervene when behaviour is poor; that is a given. But the thing is, school is a lonelier place now. The weather is closing in. The second national lockdown has been announced; a traditional family Christmas looks increasingly threatened. In these pandemic times, as we all feel ever more isolated, there is, perhaps, a role for school leaders in helping overcome a growing sense of loneliness.

Since 1997 the number of people living alone in the UK increased by over 16% to 7.7 million. A 2019 ONS report found that “one-person households have the lowest well-being of all household types”. A recent Danish study found that, “men and women who feel lonely had a two to three times higher risk of reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression, and they had a significantly poorer quality of life compared with those who did not feel lonely”.

So many of our younger colleagues, along with those in their fifties, live alone. School is a social experience for staff, and in normal circumstances that sociability helps us get through the toughest of days. It makes us all feel less alone.

With collegiality a victim of our bubble-rigid, socially distanced school, over the next few weeks and months we plan to respond in a number of ways. We have begun already by giving every single member of staff a small gift, individually wrapped by SLT, to mark the achievement of reaching the autumn half-term holidays.

Furthermore, we provided flapjacks to begin last week and breakfast bacon sandwiches to end it. A local deli offered luxury cream teas at a knock-down price for people to take home for the weekend.

With the blessing of our governing body, we have committed a significant budget to staff wellbeing for this year. Immediately after the holiday, our Assistant Head Teacher who leads our Workload Monitoring and Wellbeing Team will be asking our whole staff what would make their working lives more bearable. She has a number of ideas already, including:

  • a subscription to HeadSpace;
  • subsidised subscriptions to online fitness classes;
  • a virtual Christmas get together instead of the usual 120-strong staff party;
  • free flu jabs;
  • cover for “catch-up on my to-do list” lessons;
  • a session with a resilience professor on how to find the resilience to accept that, in these odd times, things beyond your control are preventing you from doing your job as well as you want to do it;
  • sessions on how to sleep effectively;
  • cut-price offers to Huntington staff from local businesses;
  • and, importantly, a range of career development opportunities, because this too shall pass.

The current effort to keep schools operating feels unsustainable. School runs well when the right teachers are in front of the right classes at the right time. It is difficult enough staffing school when we have so many Covid-19 related absences. We can, perhaps, avoid non-pandemic absence by looking after our colleagues with compassionate wisdom.

We need to rediscover the joy of the job. If our students are going to benefit from being educated face-to-face in school, then we have to go out of our way to make our colleagues feel more valued than ever; at Huntington we want all our colleagues to feel truly special.

Indeed, mid-pandemic, there has never been a more important time for school leaders to put their staff first.

Posted in Mental Health in Schools, Other stuff, School Leadership | 5 Comments

This much I know about…my dad’s legacy

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about my dad’s legacy.

My dad was born 93 years ago today. And he married my mother on his 29th birthday, some 64 years ago today.

In the very first tale from my new book, An Angler’s Journal, I describe watching my dad catch a fish. I have been a fisherman ever since.

Apprentice

Abbey’s Lake was a young boy’s delight. It is where I learnt to fish. Deep in the remnants of the Sussex Weald forest, its nearest village, Maresfield, was famous for its role in iron production for centuries. In the streams and paths that wound through the surrounding woods, you could find literally tons of iron ore waste with its shiny, crazed surface of greys and purples.

If you walked beyond Abbey’s and its Powder Mill House, towards Piltdown through Park Wood, you crossed Batt’s Bridge stream. The narrowing of this rivulet through the small culvert’s tunnel transformed this brook into a decent sized pool, with a strong central current and substantial eddies. It was crouching at the edge of this pool that my angling career began. That afternoon in the late 1960s, I can remember as a five year old watching my dad stalk a chub for nearly an hour before he caught it. He was a study in patient persistence.

Dad was born a few miles away, at Sharpsbridge. He had fished the Sussex Ouse, just yards from his house, his entire childhood. His olive skin and affinity for the natural world were born on the banks of that river. So, coaxing a chub from the large pool on Batt’s Bridge stream should have been no trouble at all.

All he had was a six-foot yellow fibreglass rod with a green, fixed centre-pin reel. It was a cheap piece of kit. The grayling-style float was bright red above and bare cork below. Three BB. Size 8 hook. And, fresh from our manure pile at the bottom of the garden, a brandling worm. I watched as dad baited up in front of my nose and the worm emitted a yellow liquid as it squirmed apoplectically.

I looked on, the apprentice to the expert. Dad flung the tackle out into the current at the head of the pool. The float flipped up and settled. It slowed naturally. He held the rod tip as high as he could to keep the line off the surface of the water. It glided into the near eddy, shook and then slid away at speed. Strike! He missed. His hook came up wormless. The water was so clear he could see the fish take the bait. He then spent the next forty-odd minutes varying his approach, to no effect. Fishless, he came up the bank, put down the rod, took out a penknife and said, “Come on. I’ve got an idea.”

I followed him as he scoured the forest floor. He found a decent twig, six inches long, whittled it down and two rubber float caps later it was floating through the pool with a new brandling suspended six feet below. A minute more, we had a 6oz chub on the bank. To me it was a silver leviathan.

And from that moment on, I was always going to be an angler.

Illustration by Marvin Huggins: instagram.com/marvs.artwork

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This much I know about…managing my mental health

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about managing my mental health.

I have just finished Alastair Campbell’s book Living Better: how I learned to survive depression. I found it to be a great read; Stephen Fry’s testimonial, that the book “could save lives” seems to me wholly plausible.

In his quest to find the root cause of his depression, Campbell finds salvation in a jam-jar. In an earlier post, I explained his jam-jar revelation and why it has helped him.

In essence, to manage your mental health you need to identify a number of activities you enjoy doing which nourish you, so that you can better cope when your life feels like it is imploding. Those activities make your own mental health jam-jar taller, and the extra space you create prevents you from falling apart when life gets tough.

Back in May last year, my list of nourishing activities were simple enough:

  • Prioritise Louise, Joe and Olly (Good progress since May last year)
  • Reading (Good)
  • Writing (Good)
  • Fishing (Good)
  • Golf (Poor)
  • Do more housework (Poor)
  • Exercise (Average)
  • Save some money (Good)
  • Pare down material possessions (Good)
  • Make decisions about my future (Good)
  • Breathing exercises (Poor)
  • Find time to reflect on my behaviours (Good)
  • Recondition old fishing rods (Poor)

One of them – writing – has combined with another – fishing – to produce a book, which is available on Amazon from tomorrow, Monday 26 October. The book is not just about fishing. As Professor Simon Bainbridge says in his testimonial, ‘it’s a book about friendship, family and finding meaning through a lifetime’s obsession with “the fish landed and the fish lost”’.

In this tale from An Angler’s Journal, I explain how taking myself off to the river bank helps me to gain some perspective when things seem to be overwhelming.

Alone

Fishing is therapeutic. It calms the heart and salves the soul. To get away from the world when “I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood” – as the American poet Robert Frost wrote in his wonderful poem “Birches” – I will grab my rod and some basic kit and take myself off to a river bank.

And so it was one winter’s day, when I was under horrible pressure at work and the house was full, that I thought it time I tried out my recently renovated Gamages of London six foot long split cane spinning rod. At least a decade older than me, it was the real thing, with a lustrous yacht varnish finish on the cane, near perfect cork handle, and the original porcelain guides.

Antique split cane rods are vulnerable things. They can appear stunning, whilst inside the cane has rotted to dust. The best test of a split caner is to push the rod tip into your front room ceiling at home and bend it double. If its core is decayed, you will soon know as your head is showered in splinters.

The Rye was swollen but the river level was falling. The sediment was settling and I thought it possible that a fish would be able to see a large red and white, deep-diving plug, if I could drag it past its snout. That said, I wasn’t bothered about catching. It was just good to be out. I fished hard, covering the swim systematically. Back and forth, back and forth. The rhythm of the afternoon wore on. I lost myself in the unthinking nature of the task.

The relentless casting and recasting helped me clarify the challenges facing me at work until I could park them in a mental metal box and strap the lid down. My arms ached with the effort. Back and forth, back and forth. The rod was straining just with the demands of retrieving the lure against the formidable current.

I cast again, right across to the far bank, and reeled swiftly to get the lure down to the riverbed and thought for a second I had snagged on the bottom. It was not the usual take of a pike. As I exerted some force the snag began to move across the river. There was nothing spectacular about the fight. It was a grim battle as a decent fish resisted my pressure with the help of the swollen river’s flow. As the rod bent double I thought there was something about it that seemed ever so slightly odd.

I kept the strain on and just as the fish rolled into the net, the top length of cane snapped at the ferrule. I was left with a magnificent 12lb pike, a clear mind, and the task of stripping down my Gamages spinning rod for spares.

 

Illustration by Marvin Huggins: instagram.com/marvs.artwork

Posted in General educational issues, Mental Health in Schools, School Leadership | 1 Comment

This much I know about…what students remember most about their school days

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about what students remember most about their school days.

This tale comes from my forthcoming book, An Angler’s Journal. a perfect Christmas present if you have an angler in the house!

Disorganised Chaos explains, hopefully, why, despite the pandemic-related restrictions in our schools, we should at least try to provide educational experiences for our students beyond the classroom walls. We all need bread, but we need roses too…

Illustration by Marvin Huggins: instagram.com/marvs.artwork

 

Disorganised Chaos

I cannot recall whose idea it was to suspend the school timetable for an activities day, but I saw it as a golden opportunity to run a fishing trip. This was no ordinary fishing trip, however, this was an outing to a well-stocked coarse fishery for my small group of 14 year olds who followed the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (COPE) course instead of a GCSE.

If you think back to your school days, instantly forgettable lesson after instantly forgettable lesson must have floated by because it is very difficult to recall any but a mere handful. The ones you can recollect are the ones in which an extraordinary event occurred, usually involving a moment of particularly poor student behaviour and an especially traumatised teacher.

What you do remember, however, beyond the occasional lesson, are the school trips, the sporting events, the annual musicals. That is why I generally give in when a member of staff asks if we can have an activities day.

So, along with Gev, one of our wonderful teaching assistants, ten students and I set off in a minibus, packed with as much borrowed kit as I could muster, for a sunny afternoon’s fishing. No one on board had fished before, bar me and a lad who was a highly proficient angler. It was fascinating to see his behaviour transformed; usually one of the most disruptive characters in school, he was suddenly the epitome of responsibility. He clearly felt valued as the senior member of the group and behaved accordingly. He went on to catch tench and carp all afternoon. His dad came along to watch, much to his obvious delight. His swim was an oasis of calm amidst the storm.

I set up rods and had the students fishing in pairs in five adjacent pegs. It was disorganised chaos. Teaching just one pair how to cast was a challenge, but to keep track of five rods, in the hands of complete beginners, was almost too much. If I’d asked them to get their tackle in a mess on purpose, I’m not sure they would have done a better job than the tangles they were generating by accident. It struck me that, as they mature as anglers, people become increasingly blind to all the tiny checks they make to ensure that their kit is working well. Total novices have yet to learn that unconscious competence of the seasoned angler.

But we caught lots of silvers, everyone notched, Ella got a booter – much to her peers’ amusement – and we returned to school a happy bunch.

A full decade later, in a local supermarket, I chanced upon one of the intrepid COPE crew stacking shelves. I stopped to have a chat. The first thing she recalled? Our activities day out fishing. Of course it was! It had all been worth it. Mission accomplished.

Posted in General educational issues, Other stuff | 1 Comment

This much I know about…why now, more than ever, teachers need their headteachers to teach (if they possibly can)

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about why now, more than ever, teachers need their headteachers to teach (if they possibly can).

This post comes with the important acknowledgement that fellow school leaders are under pressure like they have never been under pressure before. It is also worth pointing out that we have not yet had a positive test result for Covid-19 amongst our school community, and how I am aware that my headteacher life will become significantly more demanding when we do…

My first book was originally going to be called “Why headteachers have to be the best teacher in their schools”. It was a good decision to call the book “Love over Fear” instead, for myriad reasons, but that original title contained a grain of truth. If you are a teaching headteacher you get to learn, first hand, what is impeding your colleagues from teaching as well as they possibly can. As Viviane Robinson so rightly asserts in her book, “Student-Centred Leadership”, a teaching headteacher learns, “in detail about the challenges the learners face and the conditions teachers require to succeed”.

My job, in the world of Year Group bubbles, social distancing and hand sanitiser, is to ensure that I eradicate anything that is making life unnecessarily difficult for Huntington’s teachers. At the moment I only teach a period of Year 9 English, last lesson on Wednesday, and a double period of Year 13 Economics A Level on a Thursday morning. That smidgeon of teaching has, however, been illuminating. Here are six things I have learnt about what has faced teachers at our school these past few weeks:

  1. In the current circumstances – where you might have, for the fourth or fifth time that day, walked 250 metres across the school site, pulling your mobile resource unit (aka, a store box on wheels) into a classroom where the students have already sat down and, once again, you have had to summon up the energy to reclaim your authority over the room – the tiniest thing, which normally you would take in your stride, can tip you over the edge. In my first Year 9 lesson of the year (the previous lesson, immediately after being on lunch duty, I had stepped in, with literally one minute’s notice, to cover a lesson for a colleague who needed some time out), a student, who was just fiddling with his pencil case in the front row, received a stern rebuke from me, the force of which was completely unwarranted and for which I apologised at the end of the lesson.
  2. Remembering to leave enough time at the end of the lesson to allow students to wipe the desks with antibacterial spray, disposable cloths and rubber gloves, is a challenge. I had a couple of MCQs ready to test the recall of my Economics students, when I realised that the last seven minutes of the lesson were needed for ensuring the students had completed the cleaning rather than checking if they had advanced their learning.
  3. It is damned cold teaching with the windows open. We initially decided that students could wear coats “if they felt cold”. I ruined one or two colleagues’ lessons early in the term (sincere apologies Faye) by sticking my oar in and insisting all students removed their coats because it was 25°C outside. I only learnt the stupidity of the “if they felt cold” policy when I taught my first Year 9 lesson and faced ten students, out of the class of thirty, with their coats on. If a student is wearing a Stone Island jacket, you can be sure he will be freezing all day, whatever the weather! Policy change klaxon…
  4. The instinct to walk around the room is hard to resist. In my Economics lessons I have to literally duck out of the way of the board because I am hemmed in by Year 13 students and I keep blocking their view. Ensuring the two-metre distancing is making rooms even smaller.
  5. Uploading work for remote learners is best done at the end of the day, because you never know how much you will get through in the lesson. In my first lesson of the year, I got less than a third done of what I had planned. Lessons are like that sometimes. A colleague also emailed me to say that the end of the day was better because it would be less pressured, a view which influenced my decision to set work from day two of absence for students self-isolating at home.
  6. The ICT glitch which meant that PC screens kept freezing was damned annoying. In my first four lessons the screen froze three times and the only solution was to restart the PC. Hard enough when you are the headteacher and all the advantages that designation brings – imagine if you are a Modern Foreign Languages NQT, who did not finish his/her teaching practice, who hasn’t been in front of a class for over six months, who is teaching behind a strip of black and yellow tape two-metres from the nearest student in a Design Technology room, who teaches a class of 33 Year 7s straight after wet lunch, and just as you had settled the class down and you were halfway through taking the register, the PC screen freezes. So, I had to get that fixed and we think, finally, the corrupt driver, which was part of the new build on the PCs we had reconfigured over the summer, is at fault. By Wednesday it will be sorted.

Beyond walking the corridors and being on duty more times a day than any headteacher thought possible, getting in classrooms to teach, so that we know what faces our teachers and students, is incredibly helpful. It allows us to be more understanding of – and consequently more humane towards – our colleagues who are busting a gut to meet the new demands of teaching, sometimes teaching 15 lessons or more on the bounce without a PPA hour, and commuting between every single one.

And, of course, sorting out the ICT glitch becomes far more pressing when it is disrupting your own teaching…

Posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 3 Comments

This much I know about…fully reopening school, why we all now need a garden and my angling addiction

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about fully reopening school, why we all now need a garden and my angling addiction.

It is the Saturday morning before we reopen Huntington School fully. I am sitting in a caravan watching the sunrise. Whitby Abbey is all but visible to my left and I have just kidded myself that, through the binoculars, I have spotted a pod of dolphins out in the North Sea. The sky is cloudless and sunlight is piercing through the windows. A small fishing boat is returning to the harbour with its catch. My coffee tastes great.

I am not sure I have felt so calm for a long, long time.

School is all but ready for the most extraordinary start to the school year. My colleagues have been remarkable, constantly thinking and rethinking how we can set the site up to balance the two competing priorities: to teach our young people well, whilst minimising the risk of contracting the virus.

We will, of course, have made mistakes in our exhaustive preparations. Some of the measures we have implemented are destined to require a tweak or two. But I know we will be respectful, honest and kind to each other as we work through this coming week. We are at that point when we just want to get on with it. And I trust our young people to return to school impeccably. We have all been away far too long.

Driving here the scenic route from York, across the North Yorkshire Moors, it was not hard to grasp why the new series of All Creatures Great and Small on Channel 5 has been such a hit. As the Telegraph review says, the programme “has returned to soothe us in these chaotic times”. Post-pandemic, people have a yearning for the countryside. The most important feature of a new house? Where before it was central heating, now it is a garden.

On the way home from the caravan on Sunday, I will stop for an hour and fish my beloved Yorkshire Esk. This desire for a simpler life, closer to the natural world, is something I reflect upon in a tale from my new book, An Angler’s Journal (if you have an angler in your life and you are looking for a Christmas stocking filler, you can pre-order a copy here!).

In “Addicted” I capture the moment when I became hooked on game fishing and explore why capitalism as an economic system is faltering.

Addicted

I have valued experiences over possessions for a long time now. People come to realise that material things really do not matter at different times in their lives. I reached that moment when I was relatively young. I suppose growing up in a family where it was all we could do to make ends meet explains why I have never really worried about accumulating stuff.

Shopping is not a hobby. Something inside me shrivels up and dies if I have to visit the local designer outlet. So, when it comes to my birthday, my family face the enduring question: What do you buy the person who has everything? Or, more precisely, what do you buy the person who doesn’t want any thing.

I all but gave up fishing for a couple of years in my mid-teens when I attempted to become a golf professional, but took it up again in my 20s, focusing upon coarse fishing whilst enjoying the odd foray on the sea. Then, in my early 30s, my wife bought me a full day fly-fishing lesson with Bill, an assistant at the Arnfield fishery, near Glossop in Derbyshire. Because I had fished before and had a decent grasp of what to do, I picked it up quite quickly. That said, I spent the first hour fruitlessly thrashing the rod back and forth; the more effort I made the more often the fly line curled down feebly, just beyond the boat’s prow. Bill was a patient expert. He talked about rhythm and timing. He demonstrated how to cast effortlessly.

I do love being a learner, especially when the teacher is as good as Bill; always listen and don’t be shy to ask for advice. He knew we would catch on a black gnat pattern fished on the surface. I was briefed on the merit of Gink to keep the dry fly afloat.

In time, I managed to cast a decent enough distance. The black gnat was visible amidst the cut on the water. I thought it was like watching a float, or a piece of bread crust. Without warning, a swirl. The line ran out and I struck like I was trying to drive the hook home into the bony mouth of a double figure pike. Nothing. Bill mentored me gently: “No need to strike, just lift up and away from the fish. Do that and the hook will be set.” So that is what I did. Three hefty rainbow trout later, I was addicted to game fishing.

A day’s fishing is the best of birthday treats. The Covid-19 pandemic has helped people realise that a world built on capitalism – which depends upon people purchasing stuff they do not need – is not a sustainable model. Many people now know that they can survive quite nicely without visiting the shops. And a silver lining to the pandemic cloud has been a huge spike in fishing licence purchases.

Long may it continue.

Illustrations © Marvin Huggins
https://www.instagram.com/marvs.artwork/

 

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This much I know about…why teachers need to have interests away from work

I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about why teachers need to have interests away from work.

I have just had my pacemaker replaced. It was a brutal affair; I know that because I was wide awake throughout. Ripping the old one out, after 12 years of fibrous growth had embedded it in my chest, took some doing. There is nothing quite like listening from behind your Covid-19 protective sheet to the surgeon muttering “bugger” and “crikey” to make you feel the full force of your mortality. At one point my legs began to shake involuntarily when he told me he was trying to avoid puncturing my lung. I was in the best place if he did, I was reassuringly informed.

The experience made me glad that I don’t spend all my time worrying about work any longer. That said, since 20 March I don’t think I have worked quite so hard or worried quite so much about school. I have merely chosen to not be overwhelmed by the responsibility of leading Huntington, and my operation has only reinforced the wisdom of that choice.

For the past two years I have managed to find the occasional corner of the weekend to write 500 words of my next book…on fishing! It is called The Anglers’ Diary 2021, to be published in time for anglers’ Christmas stockings! I finished the first draft this very morning. It constitutes 53 short tales from my lifetime of fishing escapades, one for each week of the calendar year; I even have an illustrator, Marvin Huggins, to ensure it’s dual coded!

To give you a taste of the book, here’s a tale where fishing and teaching collided spectacularly…

HOOKED UP!

School assemblies can be tedious affairs. All too often teachers stand in front of students and pontificate sanctimoniously about some moral example they have set in their own lives and how students should emulate them in theirs. Quite often, teachers tell students about something that interests the teachers but which students find fascination-free. I am a particularly good exponent of the latter.

Why I thought our students would be remotely bothered about the art of fly casting, I do not know. But it did not deter me from booking a whole week of September assemblies to give a full fly casting live demo. Yes, you read it right. I had decided that students would watch attentively whilst I demonstrated to them how to cast a fly. In the school hall. Three hundred students, and their tutors.

On the Monday morning I was in early to practise. I put a stool on the stage and on the stool I placed an empty plastic water bottle. There was less space than I had anticipated. A cavernous hall felt more like my front room. It was all a bit tricky. But with some improvisation I was soon knocking the bottle off the stool with a well-aimed cast.

An hour later the hall felt even smaller, rammed full of students. I began with the history of the most famous rod makers, Hardy’s of Alnwick – of some interest to an audience of male pensioners from the north east, perhaps, but maybe not to your average 13 year old.

When it came to the demo, I had to get the first five rows to duck down. It was quite ridiculous. I could see my colleagues looking perplexed. What IS the head up to? The students were bemused. At least they were paying attention. They had clearly never seen anything like this masquerading as an assembly before.

The bright yellow fly line fizzed through the air. My first attempt thumped against the stage wall. The second went wide. The third wobbled the plastic bottle. There were oohs and aahs from my audience. I was enjoying my self-indulgence, confident that the bottle would soon be flying off its perch.

I raised the rod again and the line arced above the students’ heads. I launched my arm out towards the stage and the rod jolted out of my hand. It took me several seconds to compute what had happened. The rod was hanging above the parquet floor, dangling next to me. The students were giggling. My colleagues looked away.

The hall lighting is suspended from the ceiling on a frame of scaffolding poles. The fly line had wrapped itself around one of the poles so securely, it took two caretakers and a ladder to retrieve it at break time.

For the rest of the week’s assemblies I explained how to learn from your mistakes.

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This much I know about…planning for “catch up” when our students return in September

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about planning for “catch up” when our students return in September.

There is so much catastrophising about our students’ return to school in September, I worry that the prophets of doom are fast becoming the biggest threat to our students’ wellbeing. If we tell students they have been irrevocably damaged by their lockdown absence, they will  feel, most probably, irrevocably damaged; conversely, tell them that it is great to have them back and we can make up any lost ground, I bet they will crack on largely unaffected.

And, I have to say, having spoken to our Year 10 and Year 12 students these past couple of weeks, all they want to do is get on with their studies, in school.

In my humble opinion, we should stop prophesising about “a lost generation”, as though students have been completing no school work during lockdown. Instead, the vast majority of our country’s students have been learning whilst they have not been in school. Moreover, it is worth remembering that when they do return in September, students will not have been in school for 3.5% of the total number of school days between Year 1 and Year 11.

Rant over. Our plan for our returning students is very simple. We focus first upon Attendance, because if the students are not in school, they cannot benefit from live teaching. Then we ensure all elements of the Curriculum (content-pedagogy-assessment) have been reviewed ready for classroom conditions in September; and finally, we find pockets of Time for specific cohorts of students to cover essential content they have missed. Attendance-Curriculum-Time.

Here are the bare bones of our ACT plan. It is very simple. It is the product of essentialist thinking. Let us implement one or two things really well for the return of our students in September, rather than overwhelm them with an extraordinary range of half-baked interventions. Life for them recently has been extraordinary enough…

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