Sunday, 16 July 2017

On stickability and completing a year as a Senior Leader

This year has been my first as a member of a Senior Leadership Team. I don’t blog much anymore but I’ve managed to signpost it with blogs at the start, in the middle, and now this one at the end.

I’m proud to say the year is ending with a move to a new school as Assistant Headteacher. But it hasn’t all been success and there’s a deep sense of sadness that I’m leaving my school with the oxymoronic Ofsted judgement of a ‘Good’ Sixth Form and ‘Inadequate’ overall.

Looking at my blog written in February there’s a heart-wrenching naivety in the line I wrote in regards to the English Faculty specifically: “For the first time, I feel we’ve entered a point in our development where we can now secure and anchor the changes we’ve put in place.” Special Measures triggers wholesales change in a way you can’t imagine until you’re deep inside it.

However, this isn’t going to be a blog about The Framework and the mismatch between an Inspectorate and a body that supports school improvement. This term I met Justine Greening MP who did at least seem to ‘get’ that our current punitive system must change if we are going to finally warms up those cold spots.

This blog is not about that as I won’t let it be the defining memory of either this year or my time at my school. My school deserves better than that and I deserve better than that. No, this is a blog about stickability.

When I became a teacher there wasn’t a backup plan for me. I’ve never wanted to do something else ‘when I’m older’ and to be honest my only thought when I hear teachers say they would like to do something else is: ‘Do it now. Life is too short!’

I went into the job full force and there still seems something wholly right to me about being in a school and devoting a big fat chunk of my life to learning. Side note: I have never been scared of the word ‘vocation’.

It’s only now I realise how powerfully this relates to being a Senior Leader. If you intend to be in this profession until you retire then you do things differently. Workload truly matters as it’s the only way you create sustainable practices that let people have long, happy and healthy careers in education.

Similarly, if you genuinely believe that teachers get better with experience - alongside continual reflection on improving their practice – then, again, you do things differently. You’re wary of rapid promotion and value the point of view of more experienced colleagues even when they’re different from yours. You recognise you are still learning. You value career progression and opportunities for colleagues at all stages of their career.

If you recognise we are all playing the long game then you believe that - even with a sense of urgency - real change happens over time and in a way that shifts whole school culture. This means you do things differently. You don’t idolise schools that have quick turn arounds but instead seek out schools and school leaders that have sustained outstanding student outcomes for many years. You realise that if it seems too good to be true then it probably is.

Excellent school leadership isn’t pizzazz, it’s hard graft. It’s not about soundbites and plaudits, celebrating your own arrogance or putting others down. It is about communities, working tirelessly to put young people first, and compassion for all. It’s not big words. It’s having one too many coffees, laughing at yourself, and finding spiders in your office. And I love it.

I know one day I’ll return to my current school and I find reassurance that many of the same faces will still be there. Come what may as the Ofsted winds blow there’s commitment and loyalty in our staff body and a gritty determination to serve and learn and improve. Even if they don’t use the word, our teachers know that it is our stickability that our communities and our profession deserve.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Teaching ideas: what has worked for me recently?

I've been pretty rubbish at blogging about practical teaching strategies for a while now. Perhaps it's my new role this year or starting to write for TES, but squeezing blog writing into my schedule has become a bit of an impossible task. Luckily, the seconds it takes to quickly take a photo and write a tweet has meant I haven't stopped documenting much of what works in my classroom.

For a while I've been meaning to pull all of this together so that people can find it without having to try to navigate the search function on Twitter. Finally, thanks to the joys of the bank holiday I've done it. So, here goes: an attempt to sum up what has worked for me recently in my English classroom...

Notes: I've only included things that I think are originally my ideas or were inspired by the work of the brilliant teachers in my Faculty. If you are at all concerned I've not credited or have incorrectly included someone else's idea please do just give me a shout! I've also hyperlinked to the original tweet as in many cases people have gone away and produced something better in their own schools as a result.

Try using the 'literally' (what's actually happening), 'metaphorically' (the deeper meaning, often feelings) and 'symbolically' (what it's teaching us about all people/life) as a way of encouraging students to explore meanings in literary texts.

Aim high and introduce GCSE students to critical theory using my postcards. If you search 'critical postcards' on Twitter you'll see a million adaptations for different texts.

Use circles to scaffold analysis instead of sentence starters. This is the work of Lauren Hucknall (@HucknallL) who's in my Faculty. You should all follow her as she's a ridiculously brilliant teacher who I've nicked heaps from this year.

Students often struggle to explain the effect on the reader or the impact on language beyond happy/sad. Create a word bank at the start of the lesson by getting them to label emojis.

Give your students these terminology flash cards to improve their critical vocabulary.

Try limiting the ways GCSE short story writing can be structured using these three approaches. Free rein is rarely successfully in my experience...

Or, teach them to write from unusual narrative perspectives.


Give students a vocabulary help sheet - not just analytical terms - when approaching a literary text.

Try synonym links as a quick task to build vocabulary. Ask students to consider the impact of each word choice. Note this was nicked from a member of my Faculty who's not on Twitter.

Use 'Would I lie to you?' to introduce new vocabulary. In this examples the words were taken from short story students were about to read.

Use sticky labels to help students organise their revision work

Label your resources by number for ease of reference. Make '0' the SoW and any pre-reading you want teachers to complete.

We write on the cover of books when we do work scrutiny and moderation so students, parents, and senior leaders can see that we have high expectations and are checking.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sage and student: mid-way through a year as a member of SLT

It’s February half term, that most emblematic of school holidays. It signals to teachers up and down our fair land that the crucial halfway point has been breached. From here on out, days will lengthen, but exam pressure will correlatively increase.

For me, this week marks midway between the start and end of my SLT secondment: the perfect time to update the post I wrote just four weeks in.

As Director of English and Associate Senior Leader, having a foot in both camps hasn’t always been a comfortable straddling. I’ve royally cocked up by stepping on our wonderful HoD’s toes more than once (sorry, Greg) and if I’m brutally honest I’ve also let my gaze drift from my specific area of responsibility, Key Stage 3, more than I should’ve at times. However, being removed even in part from Faculty leadership has allowed me to truly appreciate some of the areas where, I feel, we have got it wholly right.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched English teachers new to the profession grow into strong and brilliant professionals. We’ve retained teachers who inspire our students to love our subject every single day when it would’ve been easier in so many ways for them to go elsewhere (I’m looking at you, Fry). We teach exciting - new and impressively old - books and we have a library (@libraryatTHS) that is a shining beacon of good practice.

As an English team, we’ve pursued a curriculum and approach to teaching built on principle and not gaming – arguably sometimes to the detriment of headline figures. We’re a diverse and feisty bunch in so many ways which can lead to the clanging of heads, but I’m ultimately proud when I walk into our superbly messy work room. School improvement is a wiggly line, but all in all our kids get a damn good deal: if you don’t believe me then the 25% rise in core English expected progress at the end of Key Stage 4 tells me we must be doing something right.

For the first time, I feel we’ve entered a point in our development where we can now secure and anchor the changes we’ve put in place. It’s not about wholescale rewriting, but refinement and confidence in our own practices – holding firm on the tiller despite the choppy waters of an upcoming Ofsted - which feels bloody wonderful.

More personally, I’ve also realised that six years in one school can develop a powerful sense of security. I know my context: our community, our students, and our staff. I don’t take for granted that I also feel a sincere love for the peculiarities and unique brilliance of my pad. Come to teach in our school and be warned that if you ask for volunteers to read aloud you’ll get at least 50% of the class enthusiastically waving their hands in the air. Our students have humour, honesty (OK, perhaps too much at times), modesty (or a lack of understanding of their own capabilities), and they soak up vocabulary and ideas like sponges. Our teachers are wry, warm, and defiant despite the external forces that make their job so very challenging.

Side note: in my school I have always felt cared for, valued and invested in. If you don’t feel like that then know that there are places where you can teach and feel like this. This isn’t the same as saying the job hasn’t been impossibly hard and downright maddening. But my tears have always been met with genuine care and empathy, as well as a willingness to find a speedy solution.

Even frustrations I once felt when some teachers work in a different way to me, I’ve realised can be assets when approached in the right way. It was something my Head said that has stuck with me. You don’t have to be all types of leader. You just have to know someone who is what you need and then to find ways to work with and deploy them.

But as this confidence has grown, so has a certain nagging awareness of my own deficiencies. At SLT meetings there have been times I’ve felt searingly aware of having the squealing ignorance of a new born. Attendance protocols and the law surrounding parental fines. Safer Recruitment training and the measures for checking the credentials of interview candidates. The Science curriculum. I am sharply aware of how much there is I still need to know.

I’m in so many ways the student again and the mountain that needs to be climbed at times has felt overwhelming.

What I didn’t expect has been the way that this self-reflection has even permeated back into my classroom practice. It doesn’t matter how many time ‘pace’ has popped up as an area for improvement on my lesson observations, the real lightbulb moment this year came from a Y10 lad called Ben: “Miss, seriously, just SLOW DOWN. Take a breath.” I finally have confronted the fact that in my eagerness to ‘crack on’ I speak far too quickly and in a way that can leave students behind.

In my mind this new found self-awareness is not entirely unrelated from my feelings of ignorance around the SLT table. I’ve learned to be more prepared to accept that I just don’t know and that I need to learn how.

Scrap that: I’ve learned to accept I’ll never know everything. I will always be learning as a teacher and a leader. I will often have to seek out someone who knows more than me and rely on the knowledge and understanding they have and I don’t. In the case of my lessons, this could well be a 15 year old student.

I’m not religious, but I do like yoga and there is something of the yogi in the realisation that I’m going to be both perpetually at the start of the path and also well on my way.

So where does this path lead? What is the next step? As I near the end of at least this part of my journey, I’ll be asking whether I’ve done what I set out to: improve outcomes for the students in our care and maintain the relentless focus required for school improvement, even when the headwinds have been strong and the gales have blown from the north. It’s only by doing this I’ll know what I’ve really achieved. For self-realisation and ‘stuff done’ is not the same as impact.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Nurture 2016/17

Three positives for 2016
1. Our GCSE results improved. 
This one of course needs couching with 'They're still not good enough', but for once I felt like the improvements I've seen in my school over the last five years were borne out by external verification.

2. I become part of the Senior Leadership team.
And it was ace. Honestly, being challenged in totally new and different ways has renewed my absolute love of this daft job. I sincerely hope I can do my school and Head teacher proud in this role as we face Ofsted in the next term. 

3. I started to write for TES.
To echo @Positivateach, I have no doubt that many an English teacher secretly harbours a dream of writing professionally. For me, it was always a vague wish to produce surrealist feminist fiction in the vein of Angie C. Never non-fiction. That's perhaps why I'm still so crap at writing the type of data and research driven blog post that the likes of @LadyBarkBark produce so effortlessly. Anyway, to be asked to contribute to a magazine I grew up with has been wonderful. Nerdily, I think I've also learned more about how to write for commission which has fed back into the way I teach GCSE writing to show a viewpoint. Double win.

Three hopes for 2017
1. My new Withings fitness tracker stays on my wrist.
I am the cliched New Year gym bunny who collapses on the sofa and doesn't move from it a fortnight in. I'll never be a marathon runner - or 5k runner for that matter - but it'd be nice to think my commitment to not getting out of breath jogging to repro and back sees out the year.

2. To keep doing things that scare me a little bit.
To clarify, I'm not talking bungie jumping. I mean more speaking at conferences, applying for stuff like the DfE Teacher Reference, or volunteering to lead assemblies. On the inside of my wedding ring is the word 'Adventure' and I intend to live up to that mission statement from now until my dotage.

3. To secure an Assistant Head teacher post
My current SLT role is a temporary secondment and I'm already looking ahead to September when it ends with a heavy heart. With the adage 'leaders grow leaders' at the forefront of my mind, I feel now is the right time personally and for our department for me to be wholly hand over the reins to the superb (new) @HeadofEnglish. With one foot still in Faculty leadership, I'm painfully aware I've not always got it right in terms of stepping away from KS4 in particular since September, but I really can say hand on heart I will be passing the English team on to an immensely strong leader who will take our team on to greater heights. Now for the pesky issue of securing myself a new job... Eek.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Can you become nicer?

I’m going to let you into a secret: I’m not a very nice person.

Now, before you start with platitudes and denials, let me elaborate a little. Firstly, I am incredibly lazy. There is not a single shred of me that would rather get up on a Sunday to mark students' work than stay in bed. On break duty, I’d much rather mill around the central courtyard than pace the corridors and my gym kit has wallowed for the last three weeks in the passenger seat of my car (and yet I will loudly tell anyone who listens I’m a devotee of yoga).

But, it gets worse. When I’m tired, I’m mardy*, with my best mates after a glass of wine I’ve been known to make some seriously bitchy comments, and when people like my teaching ideas on Twitter I feel a twinge of hubris which left unchecked could easily develop into full blown narcissism.

Earlier this week a few people weren’t desperately nice to me online. But that didn’t make me feel shocked or surprised. I get it. Because, remember, I’m not nice either.

What does surprise me is that, unlike me, many of these people don’t seem to want to do something about their lack of ‘niceness’.

Now, I’m not talking about being Kate Middleton ‘nice’. God help me. No, my version of nice isn’t Victoria spongecake, Daniel Buble, or a photo of a baby next to one of those bloody annoying ‘2 weeks old today’ cards.

To me, being ‘nice’ first and foremost means being kind. In other words, ensuring whatever you want to say or do doesn’t make others feel less crappy than it really needs to. When my mum was an RE teacher she had twenty versions of the ‘golden rule’ – treat others how you want to be treated – from different religions emblazoned on the walls of her classroom. As a happy atheist, I too think it’s a pretty good marker for whether your actions are kind and decent.

By my definition, being a ‘nice’ person also means trying really damn hard to have empathy with others and then using it to inform your opinions and reactions: particularly when you don’t agree with someone. Part of this has got to mean that the idea of having ‘a decent sense of humour’ is rewritten to mean ‘having a sense of humour with decency’.

So, how do you stop yourself laughing at blonde jokes, Ricky Gervais’ ‘Life’s too short’, or (ahem) the gender pay gap? I think Daniel Goleman has the answer.

When I read Goleman’s work on ‘emotional intelligence’ for the first time last year (the book having been gifted to me by someone who has EQ in bucket loads) it made me see that, rather than being slave to some innate ‘personality’, we have agency and choice when it comes to reactions that we otherwise see as instinctual.

Crucially – and this is also an increasingly important idea for me in my teaching– we can hardwire new impulses through conscious repetition that forms new habits.

In other words, you can make yourself nicer.

Goleman explains that emotional intelligence and the resulting behaviours can be changed by seeking out experiences that allow us to practise the aspect we want to develop and then getting constructive feedback on our progress. It’s arguably why really good friends will tell you when you’ve pissed them off, are blowing your own trumpet, or being a bitch. They want a nice friend and by flagging up when you’re not so nice it’s helping you learn better habits.

Goleman made me see that I may not be a nice person all of the time. But, by seeking out opportunities to be kinder and more empathetic I will steadily grow these aspects of myself. I’d like to think that’s what prompted me to pick up my phone on Tuesday morning when I saw someone not being so kind or showing empathy to 50% of the population.

In conclusion, there’s no excuse not to be ‘nice’ and I wonder if Piers Morgan has any really good friends.**

* Southerners, read ‘moody without good cause’.

** In my defence, I did say I was bitchy after a glass of wine.