Pressure Poll

It is really no stress at all to find an image to feature in a blog on ‘teacher stress’. Many of them are clearly posed (why the need?), images of people who probably aren’t teachers at all because, if they were, their skin would not look this good.

Reducing-teacher-stress-and-burnout[1]

I recently conducted a Twitter poll asking the question,

“If you think that stress at school is too much, what’s causing it?”

I did it mainly because I had never conducted a Twitter poll before and I wanted to work out how to do it. I did it also because, as of Easter, I am no longer working at school (apart from popping in on Wednesdays to tide my A level students over until their exams): I am suddenly a lot less stressed than I used to be, so have the time to witter on twitter.

Here is the poll:

For all my researchy friends, I self-defensively point out some of the caveats to this sort of enquiry:

  • The question ‘leads’, by the very mention of stress. (Although, I did give an opt out.)
  • Only those teachers browsing Twitter could come across it.
  • Only those who follow me on Twitter, or following the 25 who retweeted it, could come across it.
  • I didn’t offer an explanation of ‘boss’ in the first option, and in the second what did I mean by ‘etc.’?

But, setting all those reservations aside, I was quite interested in what it threw up. (And 593 responses over one weekend was a lot more than I anticipated.)

If this had been a general election, we would have had a hung parliament with ‘Cuts’ being given the first opportunity to form a government. No single option was a clear winner; indeed, as the weekend unfolded, each option spent some time in the lead. If I had allowed four days, and not three, ‘I’m not stressed’ might easily have topped the poll. In my question, I tried to allow for the fact that stress is bound to exist – what I was interested in was too much of it. Nonetheless, over a quarter of my self-selecting sample aren’t feeling the burn.

Many were kind enough to add their comments. Several of these may have opted for number one or two, given that they cited the many and various pressures of the job. Here are a selection:

 

The ever-shifting demands, the fact that sometimes these run counter to our own values, or are imposed upon us by external forces such as inspectorates or the media: these are familiar themes and intractable so long as teacher agency is compromised.

Although cuts leading to additional burdens was the commonest answer, it drew fewer comments.

Thanks to everyone who took the time, despite their stress, to respond. I do wonder whether, for some of us, Twitter is a pressure valve allowing us to relieve a little stress in the evening. Perhaps I will conduct another poll…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I said Goodbye

This day last week, I had one week to go. I pondered on my reasons for leaving teaching, after 22 years, on what I had learned, and on what I should say to my colleagues as I left. I wanted them to still feel fired up about teaching, despite the pressures there are and despite the signal I could not avoid giving off by my own resignation. I wrote my speech out, knowing that I could turn a better phrase on paper than I could ‘live’, but in the event I was hijacked. I read my speech out OK, but barely: I kept expecting someone to ask me to speak up. As my words expanded, my voice lost volume.

I should call it the ‘humble-mumble’: the things they said about me before I got a chance to stand up left me feeling unworthy of the moment… I didn’t deserve it, and the words I had ready would not rise to the occasion either.

Please Stand Up

Because this (above) is what they said. Each stood up on behalf of the group mentioned on the left, leaving me sitting nearly alone. Orchestrated by Barbara Terziyski, it was a roll call of some of the most fabulous people I know; to have been associated with them was my luck and my privilege. It would take a much better person than I to deserve their applause.

So this was the speech I mumbled. I have adjusted it slightly, to better suit a public rather than the original private audience.

26 years ago I made a decision. I’d graduated from Queen’s in Belfast, had spent a year in the Students’ Union and I had a range of great postgrads I could do, or apply to join the trainee journalism programme I had been promising myself. I had choices. 

Instead I did a crazy thing: I bought a rucksack and a sailor’s trunk, packed them and got on a bus to Poland. There I became a teacher and I have been one ever since. 

In February I did another crazy thing: I applied for a job at the IOE and today, one way or another, I stop being a teacher. 

‘Teacher’ is a great word: everyone knows what it means; everyone has a favourite, one whom they hated or who inspired them. We hold teachers to higher standards than normal people. Teachers have a vocation, we are trusted in loco parentis, under certain circumstances we can give a child a paracetamol. We can tell right from wrong, trainers from school shoes; we can read any child’s handwriting,  and when we can’t we can deep mark it anyway. We can take the origins of the universe and explain it in 50 minutes to a room full of 30 kids, each with their own special need.  We solve simultaneous equations while simultaneously taking a register on Progresso … with one leg in the corridor and one in the classroom, minding both. On a Tuesday evening we sit in teams to work out what types of questions will help students think more deeply in history, or geography or art. Teachers walk down corridors at break time without turning a blind eye or a deaf ear. We stop <insert child’s name> from doing stuff, or we try to, or we beat ourselves up when we can’t. We help kids who don’t have friends to make friends, and separate others from their friends so they might get some work done. We mark, plan, teach. We think, pair, share. We speak in triplets because that’s more persuasive. We perform a highly complex task in front of a hundred or more sometimes sceptical schoolchildren every single day, without getting stage fright. We bend young people to our will, making them work sometimes in spite of themselves, then we send them home after putting extra stuff on Show My Homework. Because of us they learn to design, experiment, differentiate and integrate, to compose, summarise, decline and conjugate, to overhead clear, gain a perspective and arrive at a conclusion. Many learn a lot, a lot learn less, and some learn at a pace different from the one we set.

Teachers – we … you … are the best a society produces; and we… you are the best hope for it.

 

Perhaps it takes tough times to really find out how good a person is, or how good a team is. This is a tough time for the education system, it’s tough being a teacher nowadays and certainly we have had hard days here. Over the last few years, when I have been doing my work outside Chace, I have been to schools and worked with staff and school leaders there. I meet some impressive people, hard working clever people. But I don’t meet better people than the ones I see here. I can’t thank now all those who deserve my thanks – I have tried to do that during this week. But I have to thank the people in the 3 teams that every day make my job a joy. The SLT continue to protect us from many of the worst excesses of government policy, and I want you to appreciate that that is a daily battle. Our headteacher does the toughest job in the world, he does it with a grace and humour I could never find, and I am genuinely proud to have served him. The Humanities crowd are loyal to each other and generous to others. My 2 heads of department – Dalga and Hugh – mean much more to me than their titles suggest. They give me credit where none is due. I wish I could have been better for you, but please know not all your efforts were in vain.

This year has been hard, but getting to spend it in the office with the CLT team (and Phil) has been extraordinary. Louise, Dan, Ethan: you have blown me away with your commitment and skill. We are a more confident, research-informed, better bunch of teachers because of you. And Barbara. As Hof and CLT, I have line-managed her every day of the 9 years I have been here. Frankly for most of that time it has been trying to get out of her way, so that the force that is Terziyski can get on with it.

Then they gave me gifts of alcohol and books, chocolates and pickled vegetables. And a cherry blossom tree. Similar to the one that stood for years at the front of the school, from today it stands at the front of my house.

Planting cherry blossom

22 Years on the Clock

22 on the clock

With one term gratis for good behaviour, I have 22 years on my teaching clock. That’s about 880 weeks. I have not counted the number of students I have taught, or teachers I have trained, or NQTs I have inducted. I struggle to recall the numerous A level and GCSE specs I have ploughed through; parents’ evenings I reckon I have endured about a hundred of. The only other significant number I have left is 1. I have one week left as a teacher.

I haven’t written my speech yet. I have penned cards to some of my closest colleagues, utterly failing to convey the quantity and quality of my admiration for them. I’ve signed them off ‘Love, Mark.’ When, with another person, you go through difficult times, you share a tough job but you smile your way through it because there is mutual support and trust – then, there is a sort of love. We have achieved things together none of us could have achieved alone: we have made teachers, we have made some great teachers, and those teachers have achieved even greater things with their own students. Maybe I will make a speech out of that.

What do I know now that I didn’t know when I started? Have I made 22 years’ progress? I’m a lot less certain than I used to be. Now I realise that learning is slow, possibly invisible, and unlikely ever to be accurately captured in a lesson or a test. Now I know that I don’t truly understand what I am looking at when I sit at the back of someone else’s classroom, or skim through their exercise books, even though I will be asked to make a judgement or offer feedback: if learning is intangible, then the processes involved in teaching are mind-blowingly complex, conditional upon an unknowable balance between what we call ‘relationships’ and what we call ‘subject knowledge’. I think I mark work better now, and that I give better guidance about how students can improve their writing, and that some students whose behaviour would have given me trouble before no longer does. That’s my progress. I might get a speech out of that.

I’ve got some funny stories – that always goes down well in a speech. There is the time when I left my passport at home on a trip abroad, and the other when my colleague left the kids’ passports in the hotel safe. Colleagues will remember the open evening when, after a fire alarm we left some of the parents at the bottom of the field in the dark. But I’m not a comedian and stories are only funny to those people who already know them.

There is the option to make the speech that many other teachers across the country will be making this Easter, or summer: the one about why they are leaving. Students, and their parents, don’t have the respect for teachers that they used to. Workload is impossible because we have to cater for every learning need, stretching the highly able, supporting the lower starters while somehow narrowing the gaps between the two. ‘Those who can’t’ seem to have decided that among the things they cannot do is teach, because the job does not pay well enough for the stress you have to endure. DIRTy green pens! I won’t be making that speech, cocking my snook at all the poor sods still sitting in the staffroom. I don’t buy it anyway: I’m leaving a great profession, not a terrible one. If the golden age of high teacher regard occurred at any point within the past 22 years, if the job used to be a breeze, if we were ever well-remunerated for sitting on our arses – if any of that happened, it didn’t happen in the schools I ploughed my furrow. Schools were always skint, respect always had to be earned, and piles of marking always resembled the New York skyline. Sure, I’m tired but I ain’t moaning.

Place me in a cube with 30 kids and I can still be transported. Training H to stay in his seat, when really he wants to run the corridors; responding to R’s quizzical look, as he politely expresses some doubt about my latest pearl; getting everyone to hang on J’s stumbling, unconfident word; realising that there is no history homework that S will do that cannot be improved with a teabag stain; watching R master English and my subject within two years of entering the country; building W’s self-esteem so that he edges his way from an F, to an E to a C. These are my victories. These are the wins that allow me to live with the fact that S cuts my worksheet into confetti, that R thinks I don’t like her, and that K has bust his knee again so will miss weeks more of school. The gains do outweigh the losses, for me they always have. There is a speech in that. But the speech could darken: just because I have given a convincing display as a competent teacher for the past 22 years is no guarantee that I could keep it up. It takes a lot of personality to keep going – by that, I mean that I have to dig deep into my inner resources to stay good at what I do, to achieve more gains on my ledger than losses. If teaching has changed in my time, I might note that being good has got harder – harder for schools, their headteachers, their classroom staff. The bar went up on being OK, and it’s going up on being good. That’s a bit scary for a young fogey like me.

The speech-that-gives-thanks is both the safe and the right one to give. It’s a pity somehow that I can only thank those in the school I am at now, and not also those from the other schools that made me the teacher I will soon no longer be. My primary school teacher, who kept me reading when I wanted to run away. My A level German teacher, who was the one who suggested I might give this game a go in Poland. Chris Husbands who trained me at UEA, and Andy Buck who was one of my first headteachers. Simon, my first head of department; Shirley the Head of 6th form I was assistant to, and Jen who was assistant to me in the same role. The role call of gratitude is just too long: teachers are the best people in the world and I have been surrounded by some of the best of them. (That’s definitely in the speech.)

By the way, I still have some mileage left in me, or hours on my clock – or whatever the metaphor was that I began with all those years ago. There will be another blog for that, ready for the summer term. By then, I will have adjusted my standfirst, my little self-description – those few words in which I proudly pronounce myself a teacher.

#Nuture1617 Goodbye, Hello

When we have experienced something we rather hadn’t we describe it as ‘forgettable’. Odd that. The nasty, the regrettable, the unwished-for – these are the experiences that tend to stick in the memory, regardless of our preference to forget. 2016 was replete with such unforgettables. But, for all the bad, bad was not what the year was all about.

In May, my school was Ofsteded and was judged as Requires Improvement. ‘RI’ can sometimes feel like ‘Rather Indigestible’, as we felt that the inspectors missed what we truly are as a school. It has been hard to adjust to our new ranking: we simultaneously lost our lead school status for School Direct; we faced tougher questions from prospective parents at our open evening; some staff have chosen this moment to move on and recruitment in certain areas has been hard to achieve. We haven’t stood still. We have rebooted our approach to ensuring high quality teaching, while remaining firm with our principles that it is about Improving, not just proving. Undeniably, however, it’s been tough.

ri

‘Requires Improvement’

I’ve had a few great headteachers in my time, and none that I did not admire, but this year saw the retirement of one truly inspirational head: Sue Warrington. She would not want me to recount her life’s work here, so I won’t, short of remarking that this Yorkshirewoman devoted her entire teaching career to the young people and teachers of London. I would invite her to speak to every fresh cohort of student teachers (so that would have been 16 batches) and, although I knew her spiel well, I never tired of hearing it again. She was the greatest advocate of inclusive, comprehensive education I ever met, believing that every young person deserved the same high quality experience of learning as any found in the selective or independent sectors. She devoted her life to achieving this and, in the end, Ofsted told her she had failed. She didn’t fail.

My Dad died this year. In a year such as this one, to report a death seems humdrum. You have not heard of my Dad. He didn’t write a book, or release albums, or appear in films. Mainly he did what dads are meant to do, as in he worked every day and provided for his wife and sons. He didn’t get the education his intelligence warranted, so his pride would have been tinged with a little envy the day this photo was taken in 1990.

queens-graduation-with-dad

My graduation from Queen’s University Belfast, with Dad.

He had wanted me to study law, not history. He thought I should follow a profession (believing that teaching was not one.) We never quite found a language we could communicate comfortably together in. It took me to this year to work out that that struggle was the thing itself: he wanted to show me he loved me, and I wanted to do the same for him. And, if we could not quite say it, wanting to say it is still something.

Struggling to say the right thing, trying but failing to report accurately the way things actually were: these are the themes of my novel that continue to resonate with me and my family in the weeks following its publication. Those who knew its subject, Dan, the best have liked it the least. They have not enjoyed how I chose to fictionalise his life, and I understand why. I am sorry about that, because I wanted to honour the man and that part of my family. It has been a failure of my writing, and perhaps also of my character: I thought I could meld the factual and the fictional and achieve a new truth. I thought I could do that! But, ‘wanting to say it is still something.’ I have been wanting to ‘say’ this book for nearly two decades, and I am not ashamed of my pride in having it published. I received my author copy and it went on online sale on the day that would have been my Dad’s birthday. 2016 was not all goodbyes.

2017 may contain a few, but I look forward to it positively. My son will sit his GCSEs and, whatever happens, he will do us proud. I will approach the end of my 22nd year teaching in schools, knowing that I am just beginning to know what I am doing. I will write more, some of it fiction and some more stuff like this. And, all being well, 2017 will be more memorable than forgettable.

It’s good to talk: improving teaching through dialogue

dialogue

This week our senior leaders and heads of faculty met to thrash out a new Protocol for hosting a Development Dialogue. This follows work we have done recently to achieve a common understanding of great teaching at Chace, described here. Since being badged RI by Ofsted last summer, we have endeavoured to both improve and prove our practice.We are determined to be both research-informed and grounded in the current needs of our school.

Underlying principles

The business of the school is to improve the outcomes for students. We know that high quality teaching is the best way to improve these outcomes. And we know that investment in teacher development is the surest way to improve the quality of teaching. It follows therefore that the underlying purpose of lesson observation and work scrutiny must be to support teachers to become even better teachers.

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam.

 

What we mean by Dialogue and Development

At Chace, we no longer grade or judge individual lessons. That is because research tells us that about 70 % of the time, two different observers would give two different ratings. More importantly, grading lessons does not improve the quality of teaching. But, when two or more colleagues watch a lesson, discuss what happened in it and commit to implementing some small change: that can seriously improve the long-term performance of all involved. Our ChacePD website has advice on what to do during an observation, and what to say afterwards: slide2

The same applies to work scrutiny. We can all look in a colleague’s books and count the number of times they have given written feedback: it is easy to judge. But our purpose should be greater than that: when two or more teachers meet to discuss work in students’ books, all can learn and develop from the process. ChacePD has prompts for work scrutiny feedback:

book-checking-prompts

 

What to do

Timing

  • Hold the discussion, if possible, within 48 hours of the observation/scrutiny.
  • Allow enough time for meaningful dialogue.
  • When booking the lesson observation, also book the time for the dialogue.
  • Encourage the teacher to write their evaluation of the lesson before the dialogue takes place.

Courtesies

  • Scrutiny and observation is stressful and tends to add to the burden of already overloaded staff. Be mindful of this. Try not to add to the burden.
  • Thank the teacher (and the students) when you have observed them: even if you are their manager, it is still a privilege to see inside someone else’s classroom.
  • Conduct the dialogue in a private space.
  • Share the gems. When you have witnessed something wonderful, get the teacher’s permission to spread the word.
  • Be clear about who else will see the paperwork. The headteacher, the Head of Faculty, the assistant headteacher for staff development: they all need to have an informed view of the overall quality of teaching.
  • If there are serious concerns, make this clear to the teacher and tell them that further action will be taken.

Paperwork

  • The observer will write a narrative and questions as they watch a lesson; and they will comment in the boxes as they scrutinise the books.
  • However, the spaces for recording dialogue should be completed with the teacher, and should properly reflect what was discussed and agreed.
  • Never just fill in the form and put it in their pigeon hole.
  • Plain English is best. The other people who view the paperwork need to understand clearly what it says.
  • The teacher involved should keep a copy of their feedback in their CPDP.

Development

  • Remember that – even with a book scrutiny – you have only seen a snapshot of their practice. Do not judge or generalise. Avoid Ofsted numbers and adjectives.
  • Ask coaching questions first, to see if the teacher can identify their own needs: this will often reveal more than you thought you saw.
  • Sometimes a more direct mentoring approach is required, where a teacher is unable to see their own need. But avoid focussing only on the weaknesses.
  • Link the discussion to their personal professional development. What have they been working on?
  • Two areas of development are plenty: no teacher can work on more than that at one time.
  • These must be within the teacher’s capacity to develop. Think ‘next steps’ they can take, not ‘giant leaps’.
  • Guide them to further support.
    • Encourage them to peer observe another colleague and use one of the planning and observation templates.
    • Urge them to speak to a member of the Chace Lead Teacher team, or other colleague in the school with recognised expertise. This colleague might be teaching in the next room.
    • Perhaps they should sign up for one of the Twilight PD courses?
    • Be observed again, by you or by a peer. Develop an ‘open door’ policy for their classroom.
  • Great teachers also have the right (and responsibility) to get even better. Discuss with them how they can support others by:
    • Planning collaboratively.
    • Modelling a part of their practice at a Faculty Development Time meeting.
    • Inviting a colleague to peer observe.
    • Observing a colleague and hosting a Development Dialogue with them.
    • Referring to the Portrait of Great Teaching portrait-of-great-teaching-and-learning-at-chace

 

 

 

 

Thanks to my old teacher

Mary McEneaney

I February 2014 I posted For what it’s worth: My Patronus Charm. It sat quietly, mostly by itself, at the back of the class: nobody asked it any questions and it never put its hand up. It was there as a reminder, mostly to myself, of why I became a teacher and why, despite the tough days, I keep going back into the classroom. It was about a teacher who, unknown to her, meant a great deal to me. It was a personal story, but, I hoped, also a universal one.

About 6 months ago my cousin Sheila (@Northamptonpod) found my blog on Twitter and asked my permission to share it with friends and our wider family on Facebook. Immediately my piece had been moved to the front of the classroom: people, who knew me well, suddenly knew me a little better. Forty-plus years ago I had been a talkative, plump 6 year old, full of stories and bullied for sounding English. I had also been saved by my teacher.

The message of my blog had been that teachers have an impact on young people whether they know it or not. That impact can be enormously for the good, but rarely will the teacher ever learn about – or be thanked for – the good that they did. And that’s fine. But, having told trainee teachers and my pupils about this teacher of mine, I did want to find out what became of her. Naturally I hadn’t maintained contact with my classmates from then. Google was no help: it turned out I didn’t know how to spell her name. But one cousin, Anne, remembered her as her neighbour from Dungannon, and she was confident she could track her down.

Anne did find her, Mrs McEneaney. She went to her house, took this photograph, let her read my blog. Yesterday I chatted with my old teacher on the phone. She retired a long time ago, having taught children to read and write and do sums for 42 years. She didn’t quite remember me, but I was just one of 1200 kids she taught. She did remember the things I remembered, like the shelf of library books she kept in her room, the books that were my lifeline. She said she had never been thanked for her service, but she wasn’t bitter about that: she spoke instead about her vocation, and about how tough it is for teachers today. She was very pleased that I too am a teacher, and delighted to learn that History is my subject. She has promised to send me a chart for my wall on the Easter 1916 Rising.

Still a teacher.

Talking to the younger me.

PGCE Graduation

Who was this man? And what became of him? Twenty-one years ago, I gained those 4 letters after my name which turned me into a teacher. This was UEA. Graduating on the same sunny day were two people – still dear friends – who would be best man and woman at my wedding; and Annie, the amazing person who would become my wife. It was a good group, that Class of ’95.

I note from the photograph that I am wearing the same suit that I graduated from my first degree in five years earlier. I had spent the intervening period teaching English teachers in Poland, an experience which had left me with a determination to qualify. It had also left me with a mere £40 in my pocket when I landed in Norwich. The picture is of a grateful man: grateful because I had been allowed to follow my dream without having to pay a fee. The country invested in me. Twenty-one years and several thousand students later, I am still at it, so perhaps the country feels it invested wisely.

What were my expectations then? I had by this time already secured my first post, teaching History at Warren Comprehensive in Barking and Dagenham. I had no idea of London geography, and didn’t realise that to get to school from our flat in Hackney would take a cool two hours. Ofsted had only recently been invented, which everyone told me was a ‘bad thing’. (Chris Woodhead, the first Chief Inspector, was certainly known to be a ‘bad thing’.) I had no particular career ambition. The words, ‘I would like one day to become an assistant head, leading professional development and spending hours on twitter’ had not occurred to me. I had some notions of making learning History fun. I think I half thought I might get some time on the side to pursue my other ambition, to write.

Some of my students would say my lessons are fun. I have found some time (though rarely the energy) to write. Promotion came too, but not too hurriedly. I spend much of my time now with teacher-trainees, and I wonder whether if the man I was then had met the man I am now would either think the younger me should become a teacher. Would I have taken on the debt to train? Would I have baulked at the government interference in local education authorities, the imposition of academies, the tearing up of pay and conditions agreements? How would I have responded to an Education Secretary referring to me as the Blob, or labelling to me as coasting, or inadequate? Told I was in for a 50+ hour week, I would have been fine. I would have been prepared for the behaviour, the marking, the shifting demands of the curriculum. I had trained on a blackboard, so I might have looked askance at an interactive whiteboard. If I had shown me Google Images or You Tube, I would have called me a witchdoctor.

I fear I might have walked away. I had other options after all. (All teachers – with their degrees, their life experiences, their idealism – could have been something else.) I didn’t share my tutors’ loathing of first-generation Ofsted: I saw the point of an inspectorate insisting on improving standards. The Tory Secretary of State was Gillian Shephard, who had been a teacher and seemed still to respect them. The National Curriculum was a baby of 7, and there was considerable political consensus when it came to schools. I am not certain I would have joined a profession abused the way it is today. Now it is merely the plaything of ambitious ideologues, politicians bent on hiding them away from parental or local accountability, sacrificing them to carpet salesmen and religious proselytisers. When the best have been allowed to become academies and the weakest have been forced to, then the rest will just be hoovered up aswell. I didn’t sign up for that 21 years ago, and I doubt I would today.

To the young man in the photograph I say, I am proud of what you did. You made the right choice for the right reasons, and along the way you have had a lot of laughs. I hope you can keep smiling.