This much I know about…why we must pay our NHS staff properly

This much I know about why we must pay our NHS staff properly.

‘Tis now Spring, and all the pleasures of it displease me; every other tree blossoms, and I wither: I grow older, and not better; my strength diminisheth, and my load grows heavier.
John Donne

I will begin from the ground up.

I have bad circulation in my feet. On a winter’s day, they go cold and bloodless up through my calves. My right foot pronates oddly, an old running injury, which has caused my right ankle to ache a bit all year round. Both knees have had the cartilages cleaned up through key-hole surgery. After the last operation, the surgeon told me I would need a new left knee when I was 60; I was due to go cycling today, but the knee popped out again yesterday afternoon (the third time this year) and so I have cancelled. My lack of exercise due to my knees has contributed to being, for the first time in my life, officially overweight on the BMI scale. I have an inoperable varicose vein. My hips are asymmetrically aligned, which means my right leg seems longer than my left; my wife nags me for dragging my foot when I walk. I am on my second pacemaker; since I was 43 my sinoatrial node has been faulty which means my heart stops beating six times a day and without a pacemaker, I would collapse/die. I have three lumps growing around finger joints in my left hand; I took my wedding ring off at the beginning of the pandemic to increase the effectiveness of my hand-washing, and now, due to one of the lumps being located on the middle joint of my wedding ring finger, I cannot get the ring back on. My bad circulation does not stop with my toes; I have Reynaud’s disease, where my fingers go white as the blood seeps away from them unannounced. I have a gap in my teeth where the dentist and I both agreed some 24 years ago, post-extraction, that my rotted tooth wasn’t worth replacing with an implant. The enamel on several of my teeth is wearing away and the teeth are increasingly sensitive to hot drinks. On the side of my nose is a red patch which no GP has been able to diagnose. On a bad day I can look like I have been on the whisky a little too much. I have two liver spots on my forehead, which have materialised as if my magic. My neck aches frequently, the lingering whiplash legacy of a head-on car crash at university. I need to visit the opticians as my varifocals do not seem to be working any longer; it’s all a bit of a blur beyond the tip of my (ruddy) nose. My hair is more white than grey and, after a 20-year hiatus, has been receding rapidly recently. I feel like I am becoming increasingly forgetful; this week I spent two days completing a crucial “reopening of school” staff briefing, finished it on Friday lunchtime, but forgot to email it to anyone – it sat in my inbox for 18 hours until I remembered with a start early yesterday morning, having been unable to sleep.

All this, and I consider myself to be fairly fit and healthy! As Atul Gawande says, “[As] medicine carries out its maintenance measures and patch jobs…the curve of life is a long, slow fade”.

I don’t want much from what time is left to me. If all goes well, I hope to have a couple more decades on this earth. I want to see my sons grow up into full-fledged adults. I want to holiday in Scotland at Easter again, with Louise and the boys and our mates the Davises. I want to experience the blossoming of the daffodils as spring arrives in all its yellow majesty. I want to go fishing.

But I won’t make twenty more years without the National Health Service’s dedicated, indefatigable, expert staff. As inflation rises inexorably over the next few months – as every economic forecaster predicts – it will mean that the 1% pay award to nurses will morph into a real terms pay cut.

So, Rishi Sunak, pay all our health workers properly, or there will be no-one around to stitch me together, just when I will need them the most.

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This much I know about…what it feels like when you are criticised about your remote teaching

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 it feels like when you are criticised about your remote teaching.

We don’t mine coal. We don’t perform lifesaving surgery. We don’t walk the London underground tunnels litter-picking in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, teaching is a challenging job. This quotation by Lee Shulman captures the complexity of teaching 30 students of different socio-economic backgrounds, experiences, and parents, all at the same time in a single room in a state comprehensive school:

“After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching…is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.”

So, changing our mode of practice, pretty much overnight, from face-to-face in the classroom to teaching remotely online, has proven difficult for many, even traumatic for some.

And teaching is intensely personal. In no other profession are personality and practice so inextricably interwoven as they are in teaching. So that criticism of you as a teacher feels like criticism of you as a person.

Throughout my career I have always taught. And I have always shared my classroom trials and tribulations. My desire to show such reciprocal vulnerability comes from never wanting to ask people I lead to do something I would not do myself. Beyond that personal resolution, three people’s writing and research evidence explain clearly why reciprocal vulnerability is a good thing:

Viviane Robinson: Direct involvement in professional learning “enables leaders to learn in detail about the challenges the teacher-learners face and the conditions teachers require to succeed”. According to Robinson, this enables the school leader to ensure that any obstacles to creating those conditions for learning can be removed more readily.

Philippa Cordingley: “[a core characteristic of effective professional learning is] the enabling of sustained peer support and reciprocal vulnerability which increases ownership, commitment and a willingness to take risks and to unlearn established assumptions and habits and to develop new understandings and practices.”

Serafin Dillon: “[Colleagues] will trust you if you can demonstrate you can share with them moments of vulnerability, moments of humanity. They will see you as a human first and a leader second. If you can achieve this harmonious way of being with your team, you have a greater chance of staff coming to you when they have a problem.”

To teach you need to feel worthy. Too many of us can lose our sense of self-worth when it comes to doing that incredibly complex thing called teaching.

So, five weeks into a cold, wet and seemingly never-ending lockdown, I wanted to reassure my teaching colleagues that I know what it feels like, just a little bit, when you are teaching remotely and you get criticised.

I sent them this email on Friday afternoon. I soon received many expressions of relief and thanks. Moreover, there were replies from teachers in one department who had encountered genuine problems with our remote learning feedback policy. We were able to change the policy swiftly to support the teachers, but also to help the parents and students who are also finding things hard during this lockdown.

Such are the rewards when school leaders teach and they demonstrate reciprocal vulnerability.

Dear Colleagues

I hope it has been quiet for you these past seven days, and that TEAMS has worked swimmingly well (?!).

It has been a weird week for me, and I just want to recount for you a short tale…

I taught my Year 8 English class on Thursday afternoon. I have no need to tell you about how relatively rubbish it is to teach into the void that is TEAMS. We will look back on TEAMS the same way we (people of a certain age…) look back on BBC computers – that is, appalled/amazed at how basic and clunky they were.

Anyway, I eventually convinced a couple of students to speak (speaking students are gold dust, aren’t they?); one of them had not done her homework and I joshed – as I would do if we were in a classroom – about how, as a punishment, she was going to have to answer every question for the next hour.

Halfway through the lesson, I did actually go to that student to answer a question and one of the other speakers in the group said that she had left the virtual lesson (I hadn’t damned well seen that because I was showing slides). I thought no more of it until I was sent a message by the office explaining that her mum had rung to say that she had taken her out of the lesson because I was picking on her, and she wanted to speak to me.

I rang mum but it rang out. I rang again and the mobile was off. I had work to do but was worried. I started to wonder what on earth I did say. And I had, predictably, forgotten to record the lesson. I couldn’t settle. I tried mum again. I started to imagine my final months at Huntington overshadowed by a complaint about me to the governors.

It wasn’t until 20 sweaty, workless minutes later that mum rang back and we had an amicable chat. She was just worried about her daughter who had been struggling and to whom I apologised. I have since sorted her out with a Chromebook and headphones because she had been using her mobile and could not access the homework.

The tale is such a great lesson learned for me. The news that the student’s mum had rung to complain gnawed away at me, the head teacher. The experience made me appreciate even more sharply what you are doing, sometimes for five lessons a day.

I am not sure that people appreciate quite how well we have completely changed our way of working overnight. I am in awe of what all of you are doing – at home, in school – teachers and support staff alike.

Thanks for doing such a great job. I miss being amongst colleagues and students. I hope you are getting out and about for walks and keeping healthy. If you need a chat or a moan or anything, please do not hesitate to contact me. If I can help, I will.

Thank you so much for all you do.

Take good care –

Sincerely

John

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This much I know about…when it is time to move on

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 when it is time to move on.

One of Huntington’s most notable alumni, Oliver Burkeman, after a decade writing for The Guardian, concluded his last column – entitled “Eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life” – with this final secret:

So, like Oliver, I am moving on from my post as Huntington School’s headteacher at the end of the year. I have lots of other things I want to do in the years ahead – like working with my mate Tom Sherrington again, handing the baton on to a new generation of school leaders – and I am both excited and terrified by the prospect of leaving a job, my colleagues and the school I love. I know I will miss being a part of the Huntington community; as Joe Strummer said, “Without people, you’re nothing”.

Our boys are young adults making their own way in the world and my wife is still working. After 33 years of teaching, with 18 of those as headteacher, there are some things I want to do before I shuffle off this mortal coil, and now is the time to do them before my knees go completely!

I have done my bit: the pressure as a head teacher of 36 results days, setting 18 budgets, leading through a pandemic…

I feel way too young to be drawing my pension, but come September I will be 57, almost exactly the same age as my poor old dad when he passed away, and I would hate to have regrets about things I did not do.

I just feel hugely grateful that I can make such a decision, and that come the week beginning 1 September 2021, I will be salmon fishing on the River Tweed…

That’s not to decry my teaching career in any way. If I had the opportunity to go back 34 years and contemplate a different career, I would still choose teaching. I cannot say it is the best job in the world, because I haven’t experienced every job in the world – I reckon head whisky-taster at the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye wouldn’t be a bad gig – but I have loved being a teacher. I would recommend it to any graduate, without hesitation. From novice teacher all the way through to long-serving head teacher, it has been a blast.

Teaching has been a career where, importantly, I have been able to be myself at every stage. A round peg in a round hole.

And what I love about teaching most is the teaching; how students in my current Year 13 Economics class – my last examination class in 33 years of teaching – are sending me practice paragraphs to look at this very day, a gloomy Saturday in late pandemic January.

I am looking forward to exploring “fresh woods, and pastures new”. Working on exciting projects with the likes of Tom, Stephen Tierney, Mary Myatt, Jonny Uttley and colleagues at the NCE, will be great fun. And then to have time to read and write and fish, and just be.

To be honest, this is a bit of a moment for me, but I have always understood with utter clarity how organisations carry on regardless; that no one is indispensable. It won’t take long before staff at Huntington will be saying, “What was his name? Was it…Tom, or John…maybe it was Ron? Anyway, that bloke who used to be headteacher…grey hair, big nose…you know, what’s his name…he liked primroses, or was it daffodils…and insisted we had shortbread on training days…mmm, it might have been flapjack… anyway, him – ”

Posted in Other stuff, School Leadership | 13 Comments

This much I know about…where you can find school leadership wisdom in a challenging world

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 where you can find school leadership wisdom in a challenging world.

I am up early on a Saturday finishing my slides for next Tuesday night’s National College  of Education Senior Leadership Masters “Turning Theory into Practice” session on the inner-landscape of leadership. I love this work. It has prompted me and my co-tutor, Stephen Tierney (@leadinglearner) to bundle up what we have learnt in over 60 years of teaching and leading in schools, ready to hand over to the next generation of school leaders.

I wish such leadership programmes had been available to me 29 years ago when I first became a member of SLT. I have largely learnt my leadership skills by reading (about leadership), doing (leadership roles) and watching (colleagues and learning from them). My NPQH, completed in 2000, was functionally pretty average, to be honest.

Something like the new suite of NCE leadership courses would have been perfect. Throughout my career I have learnt things retrospectively: Michael Fullan’s Six Secrets of Change, for instance, helped me see that what I had learnt haphazardly as a head teacher through trial and error was pretty much spot on. But it took a great deal of errorwith the accompanied personal turmoil errors of leadership bring – for me to learn what Fullan already knew. If only I had had the wisdom of a mentor like Fullan two decades ago to guide me as I began my journey into headship.

But, as we know, The past is a foreign countrythey do things differently there. Presently, our school leaders need more guidance than ever.

“Some are born to lead, some achieve leadership, and others have leadership thrust upon them.” Lots of you will have had leadership thrust upon you in the past 12 months. As we re-position our schools at the centre of our communities to support our most vulnerable to re-engage with learning, school leaders at all levels also need support, support from the most experienced amongst us.

Going forward, we will all have to work beyond our experience and capacity in the wake of the pandemic. The worst thing would be for school leaders to have to scrabble around for advice, like I did all those years ago. Instead, in the shape of the NCE leadership programmes, such advice is available, and often for free through the Apprenticeship Levy.

It follows, then, that the investment in leadership represented by the NCE suite of leadership programmes could not have been developed at a more opportune time.

Along with a number of highly experienced and successful school leaders and academics, Stephen Tierney (@leadinglearner) and I are tutors on the Level 7 Masters programme.

We also hope to have tutor groups on the self-funded MAs in Leadership in Education and Science of Learning.  For the current cohort of learners we deliver a series of sixteen Tuesday evening seminars to extend the excellent programme materials by setting them in the context of day-to-day school leadership. That is why I am up at silly o’clock on a Saturday!

If you are responsible for the professional development of staff – at a school, multi-academy trust or local authority level – and would like a discussion with Stephen or me about establishing a cohesive leadership professional development programme, please email me at jtomsett@hotmail.com.

Below there are five programmes that may be either fully or partly funded using the Apprenticeship Levy and below that two Masters programmes that may be school/self-funded.

The following five programmes may all be funded by the Apprenticeship Levy.  The Instructional Coaching, Education Management & Senior Leaders Masters are fully funded with the MBA in Educational Management being part funded.  The training element of the Graduate Teacher Programme may be funded from the Apprenticeship Levy.  If you are interested in any of these programmes please register your interest by completing the Google Form at the bottom of this page.

Instructional Coaching Programme (Level 4 Assessor/Coach)
This new fifteen month is designed for Early Career Framework & NQT mentors; ITT Leads and Leadership/ Teaching & Learning coaches.  It brings together the highly regarded Basic Coaching (Andy Buck) and Walkthrus (Tom Sherrington & Oliver Caviglioli) programmes.  For schools, academies and Trusts seeking to establish a coaching culture it will provide the necessary professional coaching framework, standards and practice.  The programme itself consists of twelve online professional learning sessions.  More information is available in the PDF below.
Level 4 – Instructional Coaching Programme (Apprenticeship Levy Funded)

Education Management Programme (Level 5 Departmental/Operations Manager)
This popular eighteen month programme is available to middle leaders and aspiring senior leaders.  These colleagues are the powerhouse of every school; implementing policy at a departmental, phase or year group level.  The programme is built upon the Leadership Matters programme (Andy Buck) with its focus on servant leadership, coaching and performance achievement.  It consists of five key modules, deliver via professional learning days and twilight seminars, and a school leadership project.  More information is available in the PDF below.
Level 5 – Education Managament Programme (Apprenticeship Levy Funded)

Senior Leadership Programme (Level 7 Senior Leader & MA in School Leadership & Management)
The L7 Masters combined with Apprenticeship has been a qualification of unique genius, in that it combines course content full of relevant theory from both education and the business world, with the doing-it-for-real element of applying what is learnt to what is happening in the delegates’ schools right now. The fact that the L7 Masters is fully funded by the Apprenticeship Levy is just an added bonus. The main thing is the high quality teaching and learning that is taking place, which is grounded in research evidence and delivered by some of the best practitioners in the country.

This is a highly regarded and increasingly influential two year programme for senior leaders, including headteachers, which also covers all the new National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH).  The programme consists of five core modules – Learning to Lead; Operations Management; Strategic Leadership; Innovation & Change and Leadership in Education – and a whole school change project.  More information is available in the PDF below.
Level 7 – Masters Senior Leadership Programme (Apprenticeship Levy Funded)

There are two other programmes that may be part-funded from the Apprenticeship Levy:

MBA in Education Management
This is an “invitation only” programme for system leaders; people with responsibility for leading a group of schools.  If you would like your name to be put forward for the programme and hear a little bit more about it please select the “MBA in Education Management” option when completing the form below.  More information is available in the PDF below.
MBA in Education Management (Part-funded by Apprenticeship Levy)

Graduate Teacher Programme
With teacher training bursaries slashed for 2021/22 many schools are looking at innovative ways to train graduates.  The Graduate Teacher Programme has many similarities to the Salaried Direct route that schools may be more familiar with.  More information is available in the PDF below.
Graduate Teacher Programme (Part-funded by Apprenticeship Levy)

School or Self-Funded Programmes
If you are interested in studying a school/ self-funded Masters then two MAs are available via the National College of Education: an MA in Leadership in Education and a MA in the Science of Learning.

Leadership in Education Masters
This is a twelve month programme for colleagues with four of more years leadership experience.  The programme delivers a research-based MA in Education with an intensive taught course on the key elements of leading a school.  It consists of five core modules – Learning to Lead; Operations Management; Strategic Leadership; Innovation & Change and Research Methodologies and Masters Writing.  More information is available in the PDF below.
Masters in Education – Leadership in Education (School or self-funded)

Leadership in Education Masters Handbook.pdf

Science of Learning Masters
This is a twelve month programme which seeks to develop teaching expertise through evidence-based research and promotes the scholarship required to reflect deeply and improve your own professional practice, and that of others.  It consists of five core modules – Curriculum; Neuroscience & Psychology of Learning; Literature Review – Contemporary Issues in Education; Assessment and Research Methodologies and Masters Writing.  More information is available in the PDF below.
Masters in Education – Science of Learning (School or self-funded)

 

 

 

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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…

Posted in Teaching and Learning | Leave a comment

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