This much I know about…why, more surely than ever, I think it is essential for school leaders to teach

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about why, more surely than ever, I think it is essential for school leaders to teach.

What a difference a year makes! I’m back teaching Economics A Level after a year spent teaching General Studies and English instead. I had the whole of this summer to prep for the Economics teaching but I had other stuff to do and I needed a break. I knew it was a reformed A level but I calculated that it couldn’t really be THAT different – Economics is Economics, I reasoned. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Oh my goodness! The increase in both the volume and depth of content is remarkable. This tiny comparison between the old OCR-endorsed Economics A Level text book and the new one exemplifies the ramping up of the academic challenge for our students. In the old text book, the mathematical explanation of the Harrod-Domar model of savings and investment ends with an explicit message to students that they don’t really need to know, use or master the mathematics at all:

In the new OCR A level Economics specification the mathematics matters, a lot. In the new text book there are pages and pages referring to the Harrod-Domar model and a worked mathematical example, because the students may well have to execute these calculations in the final examination:

Different, eh? And every topic I taught on the old specification has been transformed like this on the new one. I have found the shock seismic.

So, whilst as head teacher I had heard colleagues discussing the more challenging GCSEs and A levels and whilst I had taught some (cherry-picked by me) elements of the new English Language GCSE, I had no genuine understanding of the challenge my colleagues have grappled with these past two years or more. We had allocated as much time as we could to planning for the new specifications, but it was, clearly, nowhere near enough. Hours of their own time has been spent in preparation for teaching the new GCSEs and A Levels. And I can only, retrospectively and with a huge dose of humility, tip my hat to my brilliant colleagues for doing such a tremendous job in both prepping so well and helping our students secure some excellent results in this summer’s examinations.

More surely than ever, I think it is essential for school leaders to teach. Teaching school leaders can only, genuinely, understand the challenges of the classroom teacher if they teach themselves.

BTW, instead of attending researchED 2017 today, I am planning my Economics lessons for the rest of this half-term…

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This much I know about…the folly of valuing effort over outcomes

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about the folly of valuing effort over outcomes.

What do we value most in teachers, effort or outcomes? I might be enveloped in a full-blown mid-life crisis, but I cannot see the point any more in doing anything at work which is not having a direct and weighty impact upon students’ learning. Listening to a Huntington School alumni, one Oliver Burkeman, on Radio 4 this week, I was reminded of Jo Facer’s brilliant blog on effective feedback and how, at Michaela School, there is a culture of doing what has most impact, not what the rest of the educational world expects. Consequently, Jo largely gave up marking and gives whole class feedback instead; her students learn more and she has her workload lightened.

In his new series, Burkeman is exploring how we have come to fetishise busyness. It is an enlightening listen. In preparation for our first day of the autumn term, I have prepared this short audio extract to play to my colleagues.

On Monday in my briefing to staff, I will exhort my colleagues to do what works. If they want to adopt whole class marking as policy, then do it – just rewrite the departmental marking policy accordingly. If they find a new way of working which improves outcomes, just crack on! I don’t mind if they go home early if they have the last period of the day free – I just want them to work as effectively as possible. Accountability is about outcomes, not how hard you work.

Don’t feel guilty if your workload eases, just make sure that the evidence says that what you are doing improves students’ learning – then we will all be happy…

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This much I know about…a eulogy for my sister on her 60th birthday

Beverley Ann Refoy, 23 August 1957 – 5 July 2017

“Bev” was the first word I ever said. Bev was six when I was born and I must have been an absolute gift to my big sister. Imagine it. A dolly to play with that had real tears and real nappies; a dolly she could feed with a real baby’s bottle.

Bev was the pioneer for the five of us. She worked hard and was bright.

For me she was so important, because she was the first one to have a stab at taking A levels. I can remember the pain-staking attention to detail of her project on the Abolition of Slavery. I can still see the drawing on the project’s front cover in my mind’s eye.

And off the back of her education she was one of the youngest trainee managers at Tesco’s. She was certainly one of the very few female trainee managers in the late 1970s. For me and the rest of us in the family, she was the first one who thought there might be something more to life beyond our council house on School Hill.

We were always so very proud of her.

When Bev left primary school she was awarded the The Maresfield Bonner’s Bible for industry and diligence. Back in 2013 she made the bible a gift to Chloe, her god daughter. She loved all children, but especially her nephews and nieces. It’s no surprise the NSPCC is her chosen charity. When Chloe secured a new job Bev wrote this on her Facebook page in tribute: “I am so proud of my god daughter, Chloe West. She is to start her new primary school teaching post in September. Lucky children of Buxted. Chloe, I am sending lots of love and hugs, you little minx! By the way, I must apologise to our neighbours for our musical celebrations!” Bev certainly liked her music loud…

In this Bible, she cites the maxim, “Diligence is the mother of good luck”. She never shied away from hard work. She was gutsy. As she was dying, she began writing an account of her life. It captures her kindness and her work ethic. If Bev was anything, she was diligent. At her best she was profoundly kind. She wrote:

“Everything I have worked for I did with pleasure – there is no better feeling than knowing how hard you have worked. The feeling of achievement and to be proud to have that feeling is really good. Self-motivation and high self-esteem spur you on to the next stage of your life. I have enjoyed my life and I am surprised how quickly it has passed – my working enabled me to meet many different people, some of whom I am still in contact with. I have played many roles from management to cleaning old ladies’ bottoms – I found working in an old people’s home the most rewarding – (and I think this final line says a lot about Bev, about someone who struggled, really struggled, at certain times in her life) everyone will be old one day and need someone to simply give them a smile and treat them with respect regardless of their situation… someone to simply give them a smile and treat them with respect regardless of their situation…”

But there her account of her life stopped. It was cut short. Not everyone gets to be old Bevvy.

Bev really loved our dad. When I was writing about dad a couple of years ago, she wrote to me about him and I just want to read to you what she wrote, because, somehow, it is hard today to talk about Bev without talking about our dad. This is what Bev wrote:

“Dad was always there for each of us as we grew up. He took Dave and me for long walks in the country and knew everything about nature. He helped me with my stoolball, helped me ice and decorate my Christmas cake, and even tried to teach me how to hit a golf ball!

“Luckily for all of us his job did not interfere with home life. Once he clocked off he’d finished until the alarm went off the next morning. He was able to enjoy his post round out in the countryside, and was a valuable member of that community. He helped feed the lambs at the farm, took an old lady flowers and eggs, posted her letters and was the only human contact that she had.

“Every March he would pick the first primroses of the year and send them to Auntie Nancy. He was out in the fresh air every day, observing all four seasons, not confined to four brick walls like the majority of us are.

“I see dad in his own way as a teacher. He was not well-educated – through no fault of his own – but he taught us right from wrong. He showed us how to respect the countryside, kindness, honesty, stoicism, love and gratitude. Above all he was able to give each of us his time, a gift more precious than status or money. He was a very wise man.”

On one of the occasions I came down to Weymouth to see her recently, she gave me this, a small shield that she was awarded for taking six catches in a game of stoolball.  She had played for the women’s team when she was only 14. Stoolball’s a traditional Sussex game played by women, which is a bit like cricket, with the same positions for fielding. The shield is in perfect condition and she treasured it for well over 40 years. As she lay there in great discomfort unable to move on her hospital bed, she told me about how she won it, how our dad had come to collect her at the end of the game and how Rose Groves, the team captain, had said to dad, “here she is Harry, Miss Sticky Fingers”. The joy in her voice was as fresh as it was on that evening, all those years ago, when she was a winner.

On the way back to York on the train that evening, I wrote a sonnet for Bev and her stoolballing exploits.

 

 

And that’s how I will choose to remember Bev. I will look at this shield and imagine her, deep in the Sussex countryside, running around the stoolball pitch, taking catches in the late evening’s summer sunshine, her face lighting up as she shows our dad her trophy. A smiling free spirit, with everything to live for, and not a care in the world.

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This much I know about…writing, the limits of language and catching a sea trout

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about writing, the limits of language and catching a sea trout.

Any representation of an experience is never going to rival the immediacy and the sensations of the real-life event itself. Faithfully recreating the intensity of an experience in words is, arguably, an impossible challenge. So many times words fail us. How often do you hear people say, There are no words to describe what happened?

Despite the impossibility of the challenge, this summer I set myself the task of writing a description of catching my first ever sea trout. Now, on reading this, the majority of readers will be reaching for the mouse to close this tab. But, essentially, this post is about the process of writing and the limits of language, not fishing.

To help me write about catching my sea trout I read for the umpteenth time George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, in particular for the detailed description of the elephant as it is dying. Even when I had done that and set out to write the piece, I could not find the form I needed. And then I began reading Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, a novel written in a single sentence and surely a favourite for making the Mann-Booker Prize shortlist. Both texts were key in shaping what I have written…all art is theft.

So, here is my description of catching my first ever sea trout. I have held every single word and every piece of punctuation up to the light for scrutiny before confirming its inclusion. And when it comes to representing the thrill of catching a sea trout, these 450 words fall short, as they were always destined to do…

Catching a Sea Trout

One fruitless cast, slightly short of perfect, is followed by another where the lure flirts with the overhanging branches at the pool end and then sinks out of sight before the slow, deliberate retrieve begins, and then a knock and then, a nanosecond later, a whacking thump and the spectacle begins as my brain computes what is happening, as the moment I have anticipated since dawn, a dozen hours earlier, arrives, but still, when it happens, my senses are scrambled by the shock of it and my arms and hands fumble to establish control of the rod and reel which are near ripped from my grasp as the fish understands, more acutely than me, that the fight is on and summons all the energy it possesses as it makes for the depths, lunging downwards to the river bed as I resist its frantic dash, striking hard, setting the treble hooks, rod arcing towards the river, the reel’s drag screeching, but no sooner I think I know where it’s gone than it changes tack and surfaces, skittering across the pool and I marvel for an instant at its wild, thrashing, tail-walking, gymnastic frenzy, then, before I realise it, the fish plummets down and down only to turn tail and hurtle skywards at a rattling rate, emerging from the water in a fleeting leap for freedom, an awesome, ephemeral display of powerful, piscine aerobatics which ends abruptly when it dives again, lurching one way then the other and I’m scanning this way and that for where it will appear next and suddenly it’s just a few yards away, surging into the river’s edge, seeking sanctuary amongst the tree roots, and my pumping heart tells me this is the decisive moment, this is when I can lose it all, where the fish swaps itself for something gnarled and immovable, and the gamble begins because not enough force and it’s lost in the roots, too much and the hooks rip from its jaw, so I hold my nerve, pressing my elbow that little bit harder on the rod butt, tightening the line, increasing the strain, ramping up the pressure and for those crucial seconds the dipping, plunging rod tip telegraphs down the line the news that we’re still connected, the hooks are secure and now the balance of power shifts as I ease the fish, slowly, back into the current and the struggle resumes but this time I’m in control when, without warning, the rod bend eases, it surrenders and suddenly I see the silver broadside ripple across the water, it’s under my boots and in the net, hoisted high above the river’s flow, trophy-like, a three pound sea trout –

 

Click on the image below to hear an audio representation of me catching my first sea trout…

 

 

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This much I know about…how our colleagues are first and foremost people

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of (nearly) 53, this much I know about how our colleagues are first and foremost people.

If I have learnt anything in my time as a head teacher, it has been the value of chatting with my colleagues about things other than work. We all have a life going on beyond school, a life which is more important and which is often emotionally demanding. I am amazed, on a regular basis, at how colleagues keep doing a great job when they are living through difficult times outside of school.

My first duty as a head teacher was to attend a funeral of a new colleague whose husband had died in his mid-forties during the last week of August. She had gone to bed and left him watching the telly. When she woke up the next morning she went downstairs to find him dead on the sofa.

Everyone has a backstory. Our colleagues are first and foremost people, something school leaders like me do well to remember.

My big sister, Bev, was six years old when I was born. Imagine! Mother brought home to Bev her very own baby dolly, but it was for real, with real tears, real nappies and a real feeding bottle. I doubt she ever left me alone. No wonder the first word I ever said was, ‘Bev’. Here she is with my elder brother David, just about managing to keep my top heavy self on her knee.

Over the last two months I have journeyed to Weymouth and back every other weekend to see Bev. She has been slowly dying of cancer. A couple of weekends ago she gave me one of her most prized possessions, a mini-trophy for taking six catches at a Stoolball tournament when she was in her teens. On the train home I wrote this unrhymed sonnet; the rhymes are there but not at the ends of the lines, reflecting the sense of dislocation I felt as she went into decline.

Early yesterday evening Bev died. She was just 59 years old.

In his final interview before he died at the age of 61, Philip Gould, Tony Blair’s close adviser, said this to Andrew Marr and I have had it pinned on my office wall ever since: ‘What would have been better for me would have been to have said, “I’ll do what I can do, which I do quite well” and then just push it back a little bit’.

Gould’s insight came too late for him, but it isn’t too late for me or you.

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This much I know about…how curriculum, assessment and teaching & learning are so inextricably linked

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of (nearly) 53, this much I know about how curriculum, assessment and teaching & learning are so inextricably linked.

If one of the purposes of education is to introduce our children to the best that has been thought and said, then I believe that all students should know and understand the dynamics of the sonnet as a poetic form and how the form has evolved over the centuries.

If I were to design a scheme for teaching the sonnet…

  • I would want students to know and understand the main sonnet forms – Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean – and how the sonnet has been developed beyond those definitive forms.
  • I would want the students to know the historical contexts within which the sonnet form developed.
  • I would want students to know and understand the following in order to appreciate the dynamics of the sonnet’s poetic form:
    • key vocabulary central to the sonnet form: octave, sestet, quatrain, rhyming couplet;
    • iambic pentameter;
    • the role of the volta;
    • the different rhyme schemes and how to notate rhyme;
    • why poets use rhyme and the impact of rhyme and its relationship to a poem’s meaning.
  • I would want students to be able to write a critical analysis of a sonnet, using a good range of literary criticism terms.
  • I would want the students to learn a sonnet by heart.
  • I would want students to write their own sonnets.

I would introduce a number of sonnets to the students:

  • Visions (Being at my window all alone) – Petrarch
  • Whoso list to hunt – Wyatt
  • On his blindness – Milton
  • What guile is this – Spenser
  • Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 130 – Shakespeare
  • Ozymandias – Shelley
  • How do I love thee – Browning
  • Anthem for Doomed Youth – Owen
  • Clearances III – Heaney
  • Tony Harrison – Long Distance II
  • Anne Hathaway – Duffy
  • Simon Armitage – I am very bothered

So, how are curriculum, assessment and teaching & learning so inextricably linked? Well, students need to be taught some core knowledge before they can understand the concept of a sonnet (curriculum content). I could, for instance, give students a deliberately chosen range of sonnets which exemplify the different forms within the form, and let students work in pairs to identify similarities and differences. They could classify the different sonnets and find there are three main forms with some oddities. I could then tell them directly what the three main forms are called, illustrate the forms with new examples and label for the students the elements of each form that make them distinctive. Or I could teach all that directly from the front (two different approaches to teaching). I could then check to see if the students had learnt how to identify the different forms by a whiteboard quiz – I show a sonnet on the board and they write down Petrarchan, Shakespearean or Spenserian or other –  an exercise which also reinforces corrrect spellings (checking learning through formative assessment). The mode of formative assessment depends upon the taught curriculum content I want to check has been learnt. What I teach next depends upon the outcome of my formative assessment; if the students have not learnt what I have taught them, I will have to go back and teach the content in a different way. In order to embed the learning, I could begin each lesson with a new sonnet, read the sonnet and challenge the students to identify to which of the main sonnet forms it belongs. And I will revisit this content anyway because, as Nuttall claims, 80% of students will have moved new knowledge and understanding from their short to long term memories if they have encountered that knowledge at least three times (my A level students know the Nuttall 3 times claim better than they know the economics theory I am supposed to have taught them…).

Weeks later, after I had taught and formatively assessed all the knowledge and understanding I have detailed above (as well as teaching the students the rigours of how to write a literary criticism essay), the summative assessment – the destination towards which we were always heading – would be something challenging like this:

“Read the following sonnets: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130; Spenser’s What guile is this…; Petrarch’s Visions; Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth and Heaney’s Clearances III. Choose two of the sonnets and compare and contrast how the poets use the sonnet form to communicate their ideas and feelings.”

This essay would summatively assess the extent to which the students know and understand the dynamics of the sonnet as a poetic form and how the form has evolved over the centuries. Over time, as different cohorts of students have been assessed, I would be able to modify the assessment according to its validity and reliability.

Without knowledge you cannot develop students’ analytical skills. How can they analyse sonnets, and write their own, without knowing about Petrarch, Spenser, Shakespeare, et al? Once you have all chosen the content of the curriculum, chunked that content up into learnable chunks so that students can cope with manageable cognitive loads, taught that content, assessed whether they have learnt that content, then they can analyse and evaluate, for instance, Tony Harrison’s Long Distance II, and debate whether it is a sonnet. Can it possibly be a sonnet with 16 lines?

 

Long Distance II

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.

So, you cannot decide how to teach until you know the curriculum content you are teaching and you cannot know whether your students have learnt the curriculum content you have taught them until you have assessed their learning…simply inextricable!

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This much I know about…how for the first 25 years of my teaching career I didn’t really understand what I was doing

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of (nearly) 53, this much I know about how for the first 25 years of my teaching career I didn’t really understand what I was doing.

Enthusiasm and force of personality got me through, pretty successfully, the first quarter of a century of my teaching career. Over that time my students attained good enough examination results. I forged great relationships in the classroom (when it comes to teaching, that’s half the battle, for sure), but I didn’t really understand how my teaching impacted upon students’ learning, because I didn’t really know how children learn. I aped the best pedagogic practices of the teachers who had taught me and, devoid of good CPD, for 25 years I used trial and error to improve my teaching.

My teacher training course was gently ineffectual. I have written about how I learnt to teach here and none of my criticism of those who taught me how to teach is remotely personal. Ultimately, however, the training was irrelevant to my core work as a teacher.

Evidence supplements experience, it doesn’t supplant it. Since the summer of 2013, when I began working with educational researcher Dr Jonathan Sharples from the IEE and the EEF, I have been learning how to teach more effectively. I have been combining the evidence available about how children learn with my years of experience as a teacher and I am, today, as good a teacher as I have ever been. And I now work in a school where every teacher is learning how to teach better, in a deliberate, conscious way.

At Huntington we have stopped guessing about what works. Our budget is getting tighter and tighter; the 8% cut in school budgets through to 2022 has already begun to bite hard. Despite the politicians’ post-election protestations, I doubt the finances will improve. It is even more important, then, that every penny we have left to spend at our school impacts positively upon improving the quality of teaching and our student outcomes. As a Research School we focus relentlessly upon improving our teaching without having to guess if what we are doing works.

A school which has mature systems where evidence supplements experience. At the forthcoming researchED York conference I will be talking about how you can use research evidence to enhance teaching and learning through a systematic approach to support your teachers’ disciplined enquiry. And for any school leader, the added attraction is that what I propose costs absolutely NOTHING!

There are some great speakers at researchED York on 8 July – Professor Becky Francis and Professor Rob Coe to name but two. You can book a ticket by clicking on the icon below and scrolling to the bottom of the linked page:

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