Sunday, 29 December 2013


So here is my contribution to #Nuture1314 where teacher bloggers give their 13 highlights of 2013 and 14 hopes for 2014:

13 from 2013 (in no particular order):

TeachMeets - I have presented at TMLondon, TMEssex, TMEast, TeachTweet and TeachMeetRE over the last year. Attending these events has put me in touch with some wonderful people who have been an ongoing source of inspiration and friendship. I also hope I was able to give something back... See some of my presentations <here>. - Putting together a permanent home and base for my ever growing collection of online activities - including those of my students. My TalkingDonkeyRE blog has had nearly 100,000 visits in the last two years and I have since started blogging as a teacher too. I've also got my students blogging and using wikis... It's been a big digital year!

Edmodo - This website has revolutionised my teaching and marking, as well as my students learning. My GCSE and AS/A2 students are now fully engaging and submitting work rather than it just being a glorified Dropbox as it was last year.

Culham St Gabriel's RE Leaders Weekend - I got to meet lots of people I've spoken to online and have since got involved in lots of other things. It's an amazing weekend where passionate RE teachers give up a weekend to share, listen, learn and network. 

Being Invited to the DfE - I got an email inviting me to a small workshop looking at EBT (Evidence Based Teaching) as a result of the fact I had completed MA-level research. This actually excited me rather than frustrated me, however I await to see 'what happens next'. I got to chat to David Laws MP, rather than being letting loose on Gove! Read the link at the start of this post to find a brief summary.

Family Learning Project (Part 2)- I single handedly ran this new project in my school, inspired by Tom's project at KEGS. It was an amazing amount of hard work but the results were fantastic. Everyone (staff, students, older students) were so positive about it and it's outcomes. Hopefully next year a few colleagues will help me out...

CCRS - I completed my Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies. This was a qualification that I knew that I needed, and it was a case of jumping through a few hoops. I knew my stuff (I do have an MA in Catholic School Leadership, a theology degree and 8 years of Catholic RE teaching... ), but needed 5 essays to prove it. Job done.

#RCDropBox - After a few frustrating conversations with the CES (Catholic Education Service), I launched this. It's had a bit of interest so far and I hope it will continue to grow over the next year.

Survivng OFSTED - I got Outstanding for my Citzenship/PHSE lesson, but 'only' Good for my RE lesson... Thankfully our school got graded Outstanding for the 3rd time running.

A-Level - Completing my first cohort of A-Level teaching with some excellent results; none more so than 4 of the 13 going on to study Philosophy at degree level. Hopefully they'll forgive me.

Colleagues - Just generally! But particularly those who have got on board with my ideas, read my blog, followed me on Twitter and listened to what I have to say. That 'close to home' audience is sometimes the hardest to win over.

Work-Life Balance - I managed to undertake the role of captain for my hockey team, our club's youth development team. This requires a good few hours work during the week as well as giving up most of my Saturday. I also managed to visit friends and family and rarely said 'no' due to work, at weekends. Those weekday nights will never be free!

Getting engaged and planning a wedding - Say no more!

14 for 2014 (in no particular order):

Getting married in February half term! - The social event of the year in my school, given it's the first staff wedding; the girls are very excited too. We need to maintain our ability to 'switch off' from school life and ensure we actually stop working some evenings. However, equally, it's fantastic to have someone who fully 'get's it' after a tough day (although OFSTED wasn't fun!). Thankfully we share a love of travelling which makes every holiday something to look forward to; a big plus for marrying a fellow teacher. I can't wait for the big day!

TMHavering - Being organised by @aknill and I, with the help of @ICTMagic - please please please come!

TMEssexRE - Being organised by a group of RE teachers based in Havering including me - if you are an RE teacher please please please come to this too!

NPQML - I am undertaking this qualification 'in a Catholic context' and have already begun my project which will be based on Independent Learning. We're one of the first cohorts and I've struggled with The National College, but it will be passed.

Section 5 Inspection - This will arrive early in 2014 and with my school being rated by OFSTED as Outstanding, I hope that our RE department will be able to match. I am fairly confident that we will be okay, but not through complacency, more through our long-standing hard work in the department and wider school.

Career Progression - Or promotion, to recognise what I do inside and out of classroom. I'm in my third year as Assistant Subject Leader, which has been great, and I've learnt so much from my inspirational Subject Leader. I hope it doesn't involve moving schools, but I must be open to the reality that it might. I always remember my former colleague saying to me: "Have the faith of a child, what will be will be."

EBT - Since my visit to the DfE, I've become more interested and committed to 'Evidence Based Teaching'. This involves questioning, experimenting, documenting and exploring new ideas. We can't say 'yes' to everything, but nor can we say 'no' - how do we select? I'm trying to get staff to do some small scale research based on the Marginal Gains philosophy. Even blogging about it raises, and potentially answers, questions.

Writing - To reflect, to inspire, to cope! Since starting to blog, I've found a real release, a channel to express myself. Until I blogged about my frustrating OFSTED experience, I didn't feel it was over. Now I hope the quality, and possibly quantity, of my writing will improve so I contribute further to educational discussion. The first book is a way off yet...

Reading - I have a pile of books I want to read, teaching and non-teaching. It's growing, not depleting. Trouble is, I struggle to read in the evening due to a minor eye condition. I need to make better use of my time at weekends and holidays to make some progress on this stack. There is so much I could be reading to help me be a better teacher, as well keeping up my John Steinbeck and Bruce Springsteen obsessions.

Networking - If I can maintain the online and real life relationships made in 2013, plus continue to make new ones, my PLN will become even more effective. The very best CPD comes from colleagues sharing what they do and what they think, it's free, it's high quality and it's plentiful. Thank you!

Get Fitter - Unfortunately running and gym time during the week often get sacrificed. I have PT sessions and I want to further build on this to get fitter... and maybe even slimmer! A healthy body helps maintain an active brain and sustain the physically demanding work of teaching.

Home - Since buying a house, I've realised I've got lots of new things to learn: DIY and gardening to name two. These are whole new skills sets which I need to work out how best to teach myself. I don't want to be rubbish at either, but don't always know where to start.

Big 3-0 - In March, I leave my twenties behind for good. This has always filled me with fear, but I'm trying to find ways that will put my new found maturity and wisdom to use. Or maybe it won't feel too different from 29!?

Keep Smiling - I have the best job in the world... Tom's recent blog post summed it up well <here>.

Drawn for me by a homeless guest at Crisis who actually had a broken arm! My inspiration for this year.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

A Visit From OFSTED

This is a personal experience of a recent OFSTED visit; these are my personal reflections on what I experienced. They are not the schools' view, I'm simply 2nd in the RE department, not SLT or anyone who had more than 'front line teacher' experience of the inspection.

The call came on Wednesday afternoon and an 'emergency' staff meeting was called. Usual stuff, OFSTED will be in at 8.30am tomorrow, assembly to inform students at 3.20pm. I'll be honest, I think this timescale is probably the best. Enough to print off data sheets, polish the lesson and wear your best tie. I can't understand staff who need to not sleep in such situations... it begs the question, what were you originally planning to do that was SO bad? Any longer and they won't see the school 'at normal'. Turning up unannounced, 'dawn raid' style risks a lot of time wasting as SLT try to find documents and data, classes doing tests, controlled assessments et cetera.

I teach in a Catholic school, and so the Section 5 triggers a Diocese-lead Section 48. As such, everyone kept saying, "I don't know what you are worrying about, they won't see you.". There is a legendary story from  many years ago of an RE teacher not allowing an inspector in to her room on the grounds that she was teaching RE. I kept trying to reassure them that of course they could, and that I had exactly the same mentality as them - to be Outstanding in everything I was doing.

I did have one major problem. In the RE Department, we dedicate one lesson with each class to making a shoebox for Samaritan's Purse (see more <here>). It is our 'faith in action'; what's the point in being a Catholic school unless we 'walk the walk' too? The very last class in the school to do this were on the Thursday afternoon, in my lesson. The boxes were being collected on the Friday morning... I had a few choices with this Y9 class, who can be a challenge at times with low-level disruption, chat and focus:
  • Abandon the shoe box lesson, tell the students we had no choice as OFSTED were in, risk my relationship with them (as the inspectors would no doubt not visit and the students would not fully understand why it was cancelled) plus allow Samaritan's Purse, and ultimately children in developing countries, miss out on a further 32 boxes.
  • Do the shoebox lesson, risk the wrath of SLT, plus be ready to get a '4' from an inspector.
I spoke to my line manager and said I still wanted to do it; it was a decision of conscience, and she supported me. We agreed that we can't say our school is Outstanding partly due to our charity work and spirit of community, and then drop such an important part of our charitable giving for Wilshaw's buddies coming in. Having also visited Ethiopia a few years back, I know the real difference things like the Shoebox Appeal make to each individual child. Yes we had 500 boxes, but to discard a further 30 seemed wrong, that would be 30 children missing out.

In the assembly to students, I told my Y9s that the shoebox lesson would still go ahead. I got a few raised eyebrows from staff, and was told that I was either brave or foolish. I told the head, who was naturally a little worried, that I was happy for it to be totally on my head and that I would form a lesson on discipleship around it.

By the next day it had got on the list of things going on around school that were 'off timetable' alongside a Prize Giving rehearsal for a large number of students involving the SLT over two lessons. This gave me a little breathing space, and I appreciated that the head had allowed me to go ahead; I know there would be lots who would have not done so. Our head also decided to go ahead with Friday's non-uniform for CAFOD's Philippines emergency appeal, with staff actively encroached to join in.

There was the usual OFSTED 'buzz' around school... "Have you been seen?", "What did you get?", "How did it go?". Staff rallied around the chocolates provided by SLT in the staffroom and people were genuinely supportive and encouraging to one another.

I got my first visit during CP (Citizenship and PHSE). I have a Year 13 form who have spent every previous CP lesson this year completing UCAS forms and writing personal statements. We were doing a lesson on the changing jobs market and started with the Shift Happens video before starting some really good discussion. A number of the students were in the Prize Giving rehearsal so we had an optimum number of students for our small room and for some quality discussion.

I did get a little shock as the inspector was one of my former teachers, but she didn't recognise me! It did take me aback somewhat, but we had some good discussion and I pinged questions around the room using the PPPB technique. The inspector laughed at my jokes and the girls were amazing. The feedback I got was as positive as could be possible, highlighting my relationship with the students and the skilled questioning I demonstrated. It was also great to catch up with my old teacher who said she recognised me but couldn't place me!

I was told an inspector would be visiting my Shoebox lesson and so unlike the usual chaos that ensues with glue, wrapping paper, scissors flying about, it was done with military precision. I kept telling them that no-one could ever be stood still doing nothing! Despite being told by 3 different people I would definitely get a visit, I didn't.

There was lots of rumours running around the staff room about the possibilities that could let us down... and late that evening we got an email from the head saying they would be visiting lessons on Friday morning looking specifically for Outstanding. Interestingly, they didn't go to see teachers that the school rated as Outstanding - instead for looking for Good teachers who could produce Outstanding lessons for their observation.

As I had my Friday morning assembly with my form, I saw the Deputy Head outside. I feared another visit, so 'upped' my assembly and kept it going longer... it turned out he was waiting to tell me I was getting a visit Period 2!

I'm not still not sure I liked this, I'd much rather have an unannounced visit, rather than know and spend my PPA in Period 1 fretting, especially as I knew what they were looking for... I can't remember a time when I felt so much pressure. In the meantime, I was asked for a Literacy Policy for the Department which got produced in 10 minutes flat.

The Year 7s who I was teaching would be delightful, that much I was confident of. The lesson went well; I pointed things out, involved the inspector in the lesson and carried on largely as normal. Disappointingly, I was only awarded Good. I could just about accept this, 32 mixed ability Y7s who like to ask questions and wait for my help despite my insistence of 3B4MR. However I then got the feedback and was told it was nearly Requires Improvement, this I was shocked about. As she explained why, I got increasingly annoyed:
  • I had not let Y7 work out in pairs what "a Messiah" was. I gave them a definition instead (a translation from Hebrew, and its equivalent in Greek, as well as a very brief explanation of what anointed meant). I pointed out that this was their first lesson on the concept of the Messiah and I considered this a theological term that was necessary to define; I added that as Catholics we believe in Jesus as 'The Messiah' rather than a vague notion of 'a Messiah'.
  • I used my G&T students as 'experts' who when they had finished one of the tasks, and I had marked it, went around helping, explaining, reinforcing and correcting other students. Apparently this is a poor use of their time and they needed to be doing something else to maintain progress. This is was what nearly took it down from grading 2 to 3. The most annoying thing about this was two other inspectors had cited this very technique as being the reason lessons they had watched moved from Good to Outstanding; massive inconsistency even within one inspection team. I do this very successfully on a regular basis, and will continue to do so; everyone is desperate to be an 'expert' - if this isn't a good thing, I don't know what is?
  • Thirdly, the task of matching Isaiah's prophecy of the Messiah to Mathew's perceived fulfilment was not challenging enough. This is something I have had GCSE students struggle with and we only used to do with Y9 previously. Our new syllabus puts it in Y7 and in one lesson all students went from not even knowing what 'THE Messiah' was to writing a letter explaining why some people believed Jesus was the Messiah and were called Christians and explaining why some people didn't believe that he was the Messiah and were called Jews - I see this as rapid progress with difficult concepts. Could you match: “He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4) to "Many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick." (Matthew 8:17)? This was one of the easier ones...
I walked away completely disillusioned and despondent that actually I didn't have a chance to help my school achieve an overall Outstanding. I also would question whether the criticism was of the activies or of the lesson content? The latter is something for Section 48 inspectors to judge and highlighted non-specialists problems with judging lessons. I actually taught a very similar lesson to Y9 on a previous Section 48 inspection (co-incidence rather than me simply delivering 'my OFSTED lesson') which was graded as Outstanding and was considered 'very challenging' by the former Head of RE inspector.

During Period 3, the van arrived to collect the shoeboxes and a team of 6th Formers spent best part of an hour in a human chain loading the van. The sight of over 500 presents in our entrance hall must have impressed the inspectors!

Overall it seemed there was a lot of inconsistency with teachers' feedback. I see this as a major failing of OFSTED. My colleagues and I want to be Outstanding, and want to know if our lesson aren't, how we could have made it so. As per usual, there was a real lack of this guidance available. Even teachers graded Outstanding wanted to know what it was that they did, so could build upon this for the future. In my model of OFSTED, inspectors would allow staff to watch them teach (probably on video), to show their credentials. Feedback and guidance would also be absolutely central.

Somehow we then pulled off Prize Giving (not our slickest) before heading down to the pub en mass. A text message confirmed the good news that we had retained Outstanding for the 3rd time... despite my personal experience, we can have little complaint. I wrote an email to my head to explain my 'Good' to get it off my chest, I guess I am doing the same here.

Roll on January and the Section 48 Inspection!

See us in the news <here>

As an aside, I have requested my lesson observation notes. I used the advice <here> to do so... maybe I'll share when they arrive!