As the year draws to a close, it seems that it’s an apt time for reflection on the year’s successes and things to look forward to in 2017 (that and I have a sneaky feeling I said to Martyn Reah I’d blog… and that was sometime last term – sorry!). Here’s some reflections and a pledge for next year.
New school and new roles
2016 saw me start a new role as an intervention coordinator at a new school, followed by a lead teacher for Y6-8 English. So far, I’m loving the new challenges of teaching a primary group and am looking forward to working even more closely with primary colleagues next year. It’s also making me even more determined to create engaging KS3 material that builds on the excellent work that children do in primary so they can fly and succeed. KS3 has been something I’ve posted about a lot (challenge, engagement, driving questions for progress, early intervention and why knowledge is empowering) and I’m looking forward to developing my own knowledge of the primary curriculum to support progress at KS3.
As somebody with nowhere near as much experience as others in WomenEd, deciding to be a regional leader was a daunting decision and a year ago I blogged about what WomenEd meant to me. Through an Unconference, residential and amazing network of talented women, I’ve been challenged (personally and professionally) to be 10% braver and supported in a way that has been instrumental in helping me achieve my new posts and refine my long term goals. So many times this year I’ve felt grateful for the wonderful ladies who have been there to chat, give advice and bounce ideas off. Working with WomenEd has given me more clarity of personal ambition and goal than anything else since qualifying as a teacher. Sometimes it can seem that Twitter and maybe education in general becomes a ‘who can shout loudest/work the longest hours’ competition and WomenEd isn’t about that. The message of collaboration and community is something I think education needs more of. WomenEd has reinforced my idea that it is possible to get places by building others up, not through competitive one-up-man(or woman!)-ship. Moving into 2017, I can’t wait to build on some of the connections we’ve made in the North East and work towards developing our amazing network further.
Looking ahead to 2017. A pledge… kind of.
I’m not one for making resolutions just because it’s January. There’s something about making grand pronouncements that’ll be broken by February that seems sort of pointless to me. My aim for 2017 is to keep plugging away slowly on my goals, complete my thesis (justkeepwriting!) and make time for myself, my hobbies and to recharge.
The less time spent making lots of worksheets and single use resources, the more time can be spent on planning, assessment and feedback. I also realised that tidying my office at home that I’m the proud owner of an extensive collection of sticky notes: index markers, A5, square, plastic markers, different colours, different shapes. These are all ideas for the humble post-it note that I’ve collected over the years from other excellent teachers. Feel free to suggest more and I’ll add them and give credit.
Glossary – Students write subject terms and definitions they forget/struggle with on the post it and put it inside their book as a quick reference.
Punctuation checklist – Students write a punctuation check list on the post it and tick off each punctuation mark they’ve used correctly to ensure they have full variety.
Retention – At the end of each logical section, ask weaker readers to write the main idea as a topic sentence and stick it at the side of the section to refer back to.
Vocabulary – Students write synonyms on a post it and read their sentence back with each word in the ‘improved word’ spot before selecting one. Useful for discussing connotations and encouraging the appropriate vocabulary choice, not just any fancy sounding word from a thesaurus.
Stop – Marking work that’s littered with silly mistakes or incomplete.
I dread to think how much marking time is taken up by staff up and down the country writing ‘remember your capital letters’, ‘underline your date and title’ etc. That’s a lot of effort reminding pupils to do things they’ve been taught at primary. Those are also the books that take the longest to mark and for little impact because, let’s be honest, pupils KNOW they should use capital letters for names and a beautifully written reminder is probably just white noise. For this reason (unless there’s a real reason which needs addressing in another way e.g. SEN, literacy) the work is getting sent back to be proof read/completed to a decent standard/getting done again* before I’ll mark it.
This week I read a suggestion on Twitter of pupils writing the homework title at the top of a page and then leaving two pages before starting the lesson work. I’m going to trial that next year to reduce the amount of time I spend flicking through books checking homework.
Introduce – One evening a week set aside specifically for university study: that can’t be swallowed up by a school work to-do list.
Obviously, it takes up a significant proportion of my non-work time, but I quite like the idea of leaving work at 3:30 on a set day, sitting in a coffee shop indulging some reading for an hour before going home and getting a solid few hours writing done.
Having already blogged on why I don’t think ‘whatever it takes‘ is always the best way to view intervention, I presented on preventative intervention strategies at Red House School TeachMeet earlier this week.
We’re in the middle of exam season and there’s a lot of last minute pushes, final revision sessions, drop ins and other inteventions. But it’s also the time of year where teachers can feel flustered and overwhelmed with the amount of last minute things to tick off the list.
But with increased discussion about workload, retention and recruitment as well as shift towards linear exams, it’s an ideal opportunity to consider if the way things have always been done is the most effective: for staff and students.
1. Track data at a student, class and year level. Then do something with it.
There’s no point having data coming our our ears if we don’t do something with it. By recording data and linking it to key skills, AOs or question types intervention lessons/starters can be planned to address the weakness over time so students are confident, independent learners.
2. Add some power to your marking.
Decide on a marking focus each fortnight (e.g. PP, SEND, HA) and place their books at the top. The books will still get marked but your most focused energy is put on a different focus each time.
Or, ask students to place their books onto two piles based on whether they understand/don’t. Mark the students who are unsure first and address any misconceptions they may have through a differentiated starter or a small group input during class time.
Get students to write out their previous target at the start of the next piece of work.
Before students say they’re finished, they have to identify with a highlighter where they’ve acted on their target. For exam classes, students could also label where they’ve hit the assessment objectives.
3. Create a culture of learning from the day students enter your room.
Self service board: Place extension material, catch-up work, wider subject material on a board so students can help themselves.
Drop in time: Rather than extensive revision sessions after school that can become additional lessons, offer 1-1s or small group drop-ins over time.
The language of excellence: Sometimes the language we use can go a long way in creating expectations. e.g. If you think you need to take it away and proof read, then I’m not going to notice if you ‘forget to hand your book in’.
Reading lists: Encourage students to read widely and offer a range of book types.
Independent study packs: Have material available for home study. They can also be useful for students who miss lessons or have alternative education arrangements.
4. And the big one: make KS3 count.
It also goes without saying that this year’s Y7s are the Y11s of the future, so closing progress gaps at KS3 through high-challenge curriculum, early intervention will prevent a significant chunk of the last minute chaos at GCSE. Excellence is a habit. If we intervene early and set a standard of excellence then there’s no reason for staff and students to be exhausted by exam season of Y11.
Finally, the future’s bright if we take time to create it.
On 26th April I was lucky enough to share a platform and discussion space with teachers, researchers and academics discussing some critical issues and conversations in educational leadership at a BELMAS/BERA event at Newcastle University.
Within half and hour it was clear that the concept of ‘critical conversations’ can be interpreted in a range of ways but largely came back to the idea of narratives. There are leadership stories to be told and issues to be raised and discussed. As researchers our challenge is to explore how to best capture these stories.
I used to believe that’whatever it takes‘ was a sign of commitment and high expectations. I don’t any more. ‘Whatever it takes‘ risks increasing teacher workload for limited gain, allows students to abdicate responsibility for their own learning and can promote a culture of low expectations.
It’s important to discuss workload and well-being. It’s also important that it’s discussed in an open and positive way that doesn’t become endless complaining and blaming. This is where I think #Teacher5aday has got it right and their slowchat (#Teacher5adayslowchat) is worth a look to hear how teachers, leaders and schools are working together for happy healthy staff. And it starts now.
One thing that came up this morning was that some people don’t know how to manage their workload or have work-life balance. This surprised me – and partially worried me. Managing time and work is an essential part of most jobs and it’s clear that for some teachers this balance has gone significantly off. Think back to university – most people didn’t work 60+ hours a week on the grounds of ‘there’s always more books to read‘.
Earlier in the chat I suggested that there are (at least) two sets of responsibilities for well-being:
Leaders have a responsibility for promoting realistic expectations, creating effective and manageable policies and having an overall handle on their workforce.
Teachers have a responsibility for prioritising their own well-being, managing their workload and supporting colleagues to do the same.
Now I’m not suggesting that one teacher can take on an entire toxic environment (and it’s clear from speaking to teachers online that they do, sadly, exist). But I hope this (less than original) blog is a starting point for reclaiming balance little steps at a time.
This matrix is a quick way of taking a to-do list and drawing up a set of realistic and manageable priorities.
In an ideal world, you want to be working mainly in the green section: where your work is important but there’s no sense of urgency. It’s unrealistic to work in the green section all the time e.g. an incident occurs and it requires an immediate response (straight in the red box), but if work is always urgent and important then that leads to rising stress levels.
I like to combine three other thinking prompts with the matrix:
Will the added effort have a significant impact on student progress?
Will my managing of this task push another colleague into the red zone?
Do have I have time to complete this optional request to a good enough standard? (If not, the answer is no.)
I’ve already shared some time-saving tips that I’ve collected off a lot of great teachers. So this post will focus on using the matrix to reflect and balance work choices.
1. Data entry/reports etc – important and dates/deadlines are given in advance. Generally should be in the green box, but the reality is that completing them often ends up in the red.
2. Lesson planning – very important, shouldn’t be urgent (green). Now consider what’s being planned. Is it an intricate activity that takes 4 times as long as an alternative? If so, is it needed? Plan lessons to get the maximum impact for the time invested. Try to avoid blue-box planning as a routine expectation (e.g. card-sorts, things that can’t be re-used).
3. Creating lesson resources – not urgent and important (green) but spending hours adding animations and making sparkly Powerpoints is probably more of a blue task. Time spent there is time not being used on things which are genuinely green tasks.
4. Differentiation – Again, important but not urgent. But do you really need 3 single use resources (see #2 lesson resources)? Could you use questioning to differentiate? Could you refine your planning so the lesson is like a ladder with in-built differentiation?
5. Scheme of work writing – I think great schemes are highly important for managing workload. Try to keep that in the green box. Don’t be finishing it off a matter of days before people are meant to be teaching it. When that happens, you’re pushing a colleague into the red box.
6. Emails – delete, respond, deal with later. Think before you send (don’t be the person who sends a whole staff email because little Tom in Y7 has lots his coat – again). Emails can be in almost any of those boxes, depending on how it’s used.
7. Marking and feedback – green box task. But, how much of your marking is having impact? Are you spending time doing marking tasks that look great but have little impact? Is so, you’re in the blue box.
8. Displays – Aside from being on the list of things teachers shouldn’t have to do, we often end up doing them. Displays are one of my favourite blue box tasks, and by favourite I mean I love doing them, but they really aren’t that urgent and in the grand scheme of things not that important (especially if you’re like me and do new ones each term).
9. Photocopying – It links to lesson resources. Spend a week logging everything you photocopy. Then think about the time creating the sheets. Then the time printing. Then the time copying. Point taken. Do students really need a table copying for them and gluing in – or could they just use a ruler!? Do students really need the question printing and gluing in – or could they quickly copy it off the board. Think before you print.
10. Revision sessions – What’s the impact? How does it link to lesson? Are the students getting the most out of each lesson – if the answer is no, why run more revision sessions? A well-planned structured session can work well but how many teachers are unable to get on with other tasks because they’re teaching 3-5 additional lessons a week after school? Could you create a self-study pack with colleagues and take it in turns to ‘host’ independent supervised study? Students can ask questions from staff but the focus is shifted back to the students.
It’s not a perfect solution, but since discovering the matrix in my pre-teaching career I’ve found it a useful way of compartmentalising work and drawing up cut-off points for different tasks.
‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid’
This quotation tends to lend itself to the idea that curriculum, assessment and differentiation should lead us to expect, and accept, different things for different students due to an understanding of individual differences. And there’s a place for that – if every student left school at the same point, somebody’s been failed somewhere along the line. All students have different skills, attributes and talents and it’s reasonable to expect schools to nurture students in a way that enables each student to achieve.
The problem is that this idea can be over-simplified to the ideas in this cartoon.
In practice what can happen is that aspirations are capped because the decision is made ‘you won’t be very good at climbing a tree, so we’ll not introduce you to a tree at all‘. Or because certain students don’t succeed very well in extended writing, or because they’re bottom set, or kinaesthetic learners, we’ll remove the extended writing or highly scaffold it in the name of fairness. As long as all learners feel they’ve achieved then that’s all that matters, whether the achievement is real or not.
I’m a big fan of the #teacher5aday hashtags and discussion of work-life balance on Twitter that I’m always talking about things I’ve seen online or great little ‘tweaks’ that make life just that little bit easier. I’m going to attempt to recap some the great advice I’ve been given for work-life balance (both in person and online). Whilst I’d love to take credit for some of these ideas, they’re just a mix of things I’ve thought about and things I’ve picked up along the way.