This much I know about…my modest proposal for grading GCSEs and A Levels this summer

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 modest proposal for grading GCSEs and A Levels this summer.

A level results Day 2020 was the worst day of my professional career, and I have had some bad ones in 33 years as a teacher.

We usually have a handful of disappointed A level students to support, but that day we saw 73 out of a cohort of 140. It was distressing for everyone.

I never want to go through such an experience again. That is why I was so bitterly disappointed when the government announced that GCSE and A level examinations were not to go ahead as normal this year.

And, as seems to be the MO of this administration, the media have been briefed and are speculating as to how we will establish grades for our students this summer. All the proposals I have seen so far raise more questions than they answer.

We face some challenges around consistency that are insurmountable. The impact of the pandemic will have affected schools and individual students differently. Each subject team in each school will have covered the specification content in a different order. Each school will have collected different assessment data at different times.

We have to acknowledge that this year we will just have to accept those inconsistencies, for the sake of our students. All we can do is strive to minimise the unfairness of it all.

What caused such controversy last year was the revelation to the wider world that grades are determined by algorithms. It has always been thus. The trouble was, the grade distributions were kept from schools until after the results were published.

There was no opportunity to challenge the outcome of the algorithm until it was too late. That is why I ended up in a stuffy office for nine hours on 13 August 2020, trying to console student after distressed student.

But we are where we are, as the saying goes. Moaning gets us nowhere. At our school our assistant head teacher, Mike Bruce, has a cunning plan for grading this summer, and it goes something like this…

February: working with Ofqual, the examination boards establish, based on historic data for the school and for the individual students in each school, a quota for each grade for each subject at GCSE and A Level for each subject at each school. This sounds like a huge task, but it is doable. Our vaccination programme has shown that miracles can happen.

March/April: examination boards publish the grade quotas to each school. Schools can challenge allocations and come to a final position, which errs on the generous side, reflecting the DfE announcement that grading in 2021 would be as generous as in 2020.

January-April: students prepare for examinations, which, importantly, individual schools create with support from the examination boards, so that they assess students on what they have been taught. Students know what general areas of the specification they will be assessed on. Boards agree the papers.

May: student sit the examinations.

June: schools mark and moderate the assessments. All outcomes are in terms of a percentage. Individual departments within individual schools rank order the students according to the students’ examination performance. Where students attain the same percentage, other defined teacher assessments decide the final rank order.

July: schools match the rank order against the grade quotas and look for anomalies. They send the final grades to the examination boards.

August: grades are published to students.

This modest proposal has its flaws, but far fewer than anything else I have seen. It seems pointless to argue that these examination outcomes will not be comparable to previous and future years. The comparability boat has sailed. People need to get over that one. We are in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, remember…

Such a model for grading, published swiftly, would calm nerves, establish some certainty and give us all something to work towards. It would have the advantage of utter transparency compared to the opaque practices of last summer.

Importantly, it would allow our students to progress onto the next phase of their lives with the minimum of distress. They deserve the adults to get their acts together quickly. We have had a long time to sort out a grading process for summer 2021.

And it might, just might, prevent all of us from enduring another results day from hell.

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | 3 Comments

This much I know about…leading a school during a 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 leading a school during a pandemic.

Put staff first: Having the right people in front of the right classes at the right time is the most important thing you can do for your students, so do everything you can to protect your colleagues from catching the virus. As someone who teaches 6 lessons a fortnight, I am nowhere near as important as members of the 44/50 club.

Support staff matter: I know you know I know this, but this pandemic has emphasised to every teacher I know just how crucial our support staff colleagues are to our endeavours.

Don’t become a contact: This mantra has resounded around our school. Treat everyone as if they have the virus and there is less chance of catching Covid-19.

Be more visible than ever: Our SLT average 20+ duties a week. Every time a colleague sees you in the corridor, it makes a positive difference to their day.

Poor student behaviour is unacceptable: Our students need to step up during the pandemic to support their teachers; deliberate classroom disruption has to be dealt with swiftly and decisively by SLT.

The soft stuff matters: Whilst being there to support colleagues when they face poor student behaviour remains the best wellbeing intervention, looking after them with some of the soft stuff – like a mini bottle of prosecco and a pack of four Ferrero Rocher individually wrapped by SLT for every single member of the 212 strong staff team – is more important than it has ever been.

You are running a microcosm of society: Amongst your staff, student and parent communities you will have individuals who are beyond terrified by the virus and others who deny its existence. Every policy decision needs to take into account this diversity of viewpoints.

Students do not know what social-distancing means…which is why the adults have to insist upon being socially distant from students and each other all the time, whilst acknowledging the impossibility of this in primary schools.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate: My weekly up-dates to colleagues and parents have been worth every minute of effort to produce. Fear swiftly occupies a vacuum.

Some people just want to survive: In first week of November I published a paper entitled, Let’s thrive, not just survive, and it went down like the proverbial lead balloon. I learnt that some colleagues are just getting through, and, right now, just getting through is enough.

Some things are better: We have been working as a whole staff to plan for getting back to “normal”. It has been a positive, hope-full activity. There is a list of things which colleagues unanimously want to retain, post-pandemic. Like medical innovations on the battlefields of World War One, in adversity, we have found ways of doing things more effectively.

Kindness rules: If you cannot decide what to do, just do the kindest thing you can. It is a rule of thumb whose time has come.

It’s no-one’s fault: It is all too easy to get frustrated and fed up with what is happening, but it is no-one’s fault. We work in a school where we officially recognise “the fallibility of the human condition”. If kindness rules, forgiveness comes a close second at Huntington.

Spend (even) more time talking to people: Being around the place more than ever, I have had more conversations with colleagues than ever in my career. It has been a joy. And what has struck me is just how, when I have asked colleagues how they are, the most frequent response has been, “Fine. How are you?” In so many ways, we are a closer-knit community.

Standards still matter: Whilst this is maybe 18 months in our career of so many years (33 for me), for our students it is the only shot they have at getting an education and securing the grades which enable them to progress successfully onto the next stage of their lives. We have to maintain the highest possible expectations of our students throughout this pandemic.

Collaboration beats competition: In York, our schools have supported each other like never before. It has been one of many silver linings to the Coronavirus cloud.

Good, old fashioned competence is massively underrated: From being on bus duty to making decisions about how to reopen the nation’s schools, genuine competence is what we need in such uncertain times.

This too will pass: Keep looking forward. Provide your colleagues with a vision of hope for the future. Remain upbeat. The sun will shine again. The next few weeks promise to be challenging, but If Winter’s here, can Spring be far behind?

A Final Day Email to hearten any member of SLT, and one, I suspect, which has been replicated in one form or another in every school across the country:

Dear SLT

I just wanted to say a huge thank you to all of you, both for the very thoughtful gift (the Prosecco is chilling ready for tomorrow), but also for your relentless support for all of us over this term. The thoughtful gestures do make a big difference, as does knowing that if we need support with pupils we will get it – that makes a massive difference. 

All our jobs have been difficult this term, but yours don’t bear thinking about. I hope you get a proper break over Christmas, and that dear Mr. Williamson’s sudden lobbing of a hand grenade into the start of next term doesn’t ruin it for you.

“Wenfell” is a term used by the people of Frat, Ethiopia. It means “when one has problems, we all help”.  I think you have managed to create that spirit in school pretty well, which has probably contributed to morale remaining remarkably high.

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This much I know about why….the Rt. Hon. Kate Green MP is wrong about the curriculum

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 the Rt. Hon. Kate Green MP is wrong about the curriculum.

An edited version of this blog was published online by the TES last in November 2020.

The Rt. Hon. Kate Green MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for Education. Last Thursday, she announced that she was unhappy with the current school curriculum which “has become a bit joyless” as a result of a “narrow” national curriculum, which is “information-heavy and traditionalist”.

I want to explain in clear terms why she is wrong.

I am teaching a module on rhetoric to a Year 9 mixed prior attainment English Language class of 30 students from the full-range of socio-economic backgrounds. We have spent three lessons looking at Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.

Now, we could just watch the film extract of Gary Oldman as Churchill from The Darkest Day, then ask every student to write a speech aimed at persuading the head teacher to get rid of school uniform. We could then spend four lessons listening to students deliver their very average speeches. In the past, that is what I might have done. It would have been an instantly forgettable learning experience, and a waste of their time and mine.

But I am now three lessons into the scheme and I have not even finished what was planned in the scheme for lesson one. That is because the students do not know enough to understand what Churchill was talking about. In a previous lesson, Bella had commented that she did not know what Mark Antony was saying in his “Friends, Roams, Countrymen” speech because she did not understand some of the words. I stopped and we went through the speech again, line-by-line.

In this week’s lesson on Churchill, I decided to stop what we were doing and I gave the students five minutes to identify all the words they did not understand. We then went through the speech annotating it with Eva, our Teaching Assistant, helping me by writing on the whiteboard the definitions of words so I could face the class of 30 and orchestrate things.

When I began defining/exploring the words they did not know, I chose Barry, the recalcitrant boy who thought he was out of reach on the back row, to offer up the first six words and I also tested him at the end of the session with any words I thought he still might not know. “Let’s go to Barry to start…Why not do the next one too Barry…How about a hat-trick Barry!?…and the next word from…Barry! And the next from…I know, Barry! And you’ll never guess, but the next word comes from…Barry!”

Six in a row is a great tactic – who said Barry had to answer just one before I moved on? I make the rules in the class, not custom and practice!

So, here are 22 words the students needed explaining/defining:

boast (line 2) treacherous (9) odious (21)
Napoleon (4) manoeuvre (9) flag (22)
blockading (5) outlandish (10) subjugated (27)
Continental (6) neglected (13) Fleet (28)
novel (7) necessary (16) New World (28)
malice (8) comrades (19) liberation (29)
ingenuity (8) tracts (20)
stratagem (9) Gestapo (21)

Allegedly, according to Alex Quigley, students need to understand 95% of the vocabulary to comprehend a text.[i] Well, 22 words comprise 4.3% of this 508 word text. I think if I had another ten minutes, I would find that the students did not understand “assurances” (11) “searching” (11) and “exercised” (12) along with a host of other words as used contextually by Churchill. And we did not even have time to explore exactly what comprised the British Empire and the French Republic.

My point is simply this: even if they did know 95% of the words they would not have understood the text at a level which was remotely insightful.

If they did not understand the text in an insightful way, how could they discuss with me how Churchill appeals to British patriotism to gain support for the war effort? They could not have analysed the literary techniques he uses, if they did not know the meaning of what he is saying.

My other point, which is key to make, is that the students are really enjoying the lessons. Our lessons are joyful, because the students are learning. A highlight was when a student realised before I did that a tractor is called a tractor because it has the same etymological root as tract. Genius!

And even the trickiest characters cannot help themselves. During the previous lesson, when they had packed up and I was checking their learning as we waited for their staggered slot to end their day, when I asked where Churchill was born, David – a professional chair-sloucher if only I were to allow it – threw his hand-up and said, “Oxfordshire”.

And that was the same lesson where Emma – the same Emma I have had to chastise twice recently, once for spraying water around the top deck of the H1 bus and once for encouraging the non-wearing of masks, much to the distress of the bus driver – brought in her great uncle’s hand-written, yellowing, first-hand account of his escape at Dunkirk. Priceless.

When I read the account to the class, they were transfixed and I could feel a quiver spread from the small of my back to my shoulders and up my neck. Such learning moments live in the memory forever.

I teach largely working class, white students – arguably the most disenfranchised socio-economic group of students in our country. They want to learn, but you have to insist that they learn, until it becomes the norm in your classroom. I rant at them. I tell them what they are getting from me is a high quality education. That they are lucky to have me share what I know with them. I implore them not to revel in not knowing stuff, but to delight in being knowledgeable.

I teach from the front. The students are in rows, facing me. I insist upon eye-contact and 100% attention, 100% of the time. I am relentless in those lessons, because it matters in my soul that the masses are not short-changed with teaching and learning characterised by low expectations.

How can our students gain a “wider understanding of the world which [they] are growing up in” if they do not know and understand the words required to gain that understanding? And the most efficient way for those students to widen their vocabulary is for me to tell them what the words mean in a text. That means that they sit in rows and pay attention.

So, Kate Green, please listen to other voices. As I am no knee-jerk traditionalist (my first book is called Love over Fear, for goodness’ sake!), please don’t you be a knee-jerk progressive. Such binary nonsense is just that. Nonsense. As someone articulated so effectively not that long ago in British history, there is always a third way.

I have spent the last ten years working in classrooms which are more evidence-informed than ever before. As I near the end of my career, I finally understand what works. And what works for the students in our state schools, where we educate the masses at scale, is getting them to know and understand stuff. It is not joyless; rather, it is making sure that children from all socio-economic backgrounds encounter the best that has been thought and said”.

I am all for “cramming [students’] heads full of facts” because only then can they “develop their own faculty for critical thinking, asking questions and interrogating data”.

We both want the same thing Kate, but only I know how to get it.

 

[i] https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2016/11/8181/

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 6 Comments

This much I know about…Heaney, Hughes, Cooke, 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, Cooke, 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 Cooke 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