Friday, 24 October 2014

Dying for Half Term?

First I was dying to finish high school and start college.
And then I was dying to finish college and start working.
And then I was dying to marry and have children.
And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough
 for school so I could return to work.
And then I was dying to retire.
And now, I am dying... and suddenly I realise I forgot to live.

This powerful reflection reminds me of the John Lennon quote, "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.". I am one of countless teachers desperate for that bell to go at 3.30pm today. We're low on energy, patience and enthusiasm.

I love my job, I really do and I can't imagine doing any thing else. The young people I work with are incredible, wonderful and amazing. However, like many other teachers, I find myself wishing away the term; when's the next holiday?

The last ten years of teaching have gone past very quickly. I remember graduating in 2005 and starting my great teaching adventure with a PGCE and my first job in July 2006. I remember exactly how badly I did some things, and the horrific mistakes I made with classes I taught and colleagues I worked with. If I am honest, I still do some things badly now, and I still make plenty of mistakes... I just can't hide behind my NQT folder!

However, is it really possible to live for the moment in schools? I'm pretty sure we do at times. Sometimes I stand back in my classroom and remind myself how lucky I am and what a great job it is. I even allow a smug smile and an imaginary self pat on the back.

Yet too often we don't. We are rushing, missing deadlines, wishing we had more time, thinking 'if only?'. Then all of a sudden the next half term holiday comes, the summer arrives and it's another year of teaching chalked up. I used to keep all my old planners and diaries as a stark reminder of how many years had passed. Then I got my pension slip and saw SIXTY SEVEN; that'd be 45 planners. I'm sure those years will still go surprisingly quickly.

Finding time to live as a teacher is hard. However the classroom does still makes me feel alive (apart from maybe p6 on a Friday) in a  way that I struggle to see how an office would; I know I would find it hard to give up.

It seems workload is going to be the new teacher vote winner (the irony of spending time filling in more paperwork to air your views on this does not escape me) as Morgan, Hunt and Clegg announce they will reduce it if elected.

Some stuff we do is crap, but a lot of the extra stuff we do does make us better teachers. Maybe I'm lucky in my school and its not as bad as in others? I'm pretty sure some of my teachers at school didn't have clue what grades I was supposed to get, and it didn't make a blind bit of difference what my final results were. They cared, but did they get the best out of everyone? Do we get the best out of more students now? I really hope so, or it really is in vain.

So how to live and not spend our lives counting down to the next holidays? I'm not sure. I'm just glad that there always is another holiday as that means in the not too distant future there will be another new term and we can start afresh again with renewed energy, enthusiasm and patience for the weeks ahead.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Science Teachers & RE Teachers

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window 'Education' (1890) - courtesy of Wikipedia

I absolutely love teaching and studying science and religion. I regularly do battle with students who claim it has to be either just science or just religion. The look of surprise on their face is often as dramatic as it is concerning for me personally. A faith never questioned, investigated or tested is no faith at all.

I am Catholic and I teach in a Catholic school. This obviously shapes some of my thoughts and ideas on this topic.

Some would claim that God can only be eschatologically verified; could proved true (at some future point) but could never be proved false. See John Hick's allegory of a quest to a Celestial City for more on this:

In this parable, a theist and an atheist are both walking down the same road. The theist believes there is a destination, the atheist believes there is not. If they reach the destination, the theist will have been proven right, however if there is no destination on an endless road, this can never be verified. This is an attempt to explain how a theist expects some form of life or existence after death and an atheist does not. They both have separate belief systems and live life accordingly, but logically one is right and the other is not. If the theist is right, he will be proven so when he arrives in the afterlife. However, if the atheist is right, they will simply both be dead and nothing will be verified. (From Wikipedia)

I disagree that Maths and Science are the same at school. Maths doesn't change, but Science can and does. However I obviously wouldn't go as far as one of my school teachers who claimed, "Pah! Science, all just based on assumption.". I do love (A-Level standard and not beyond!) logic and it's use in philosophy. 

It could be argued that Science teachers don't want to be troubled by the inconvenience of religion. It could cause, I'd imagine, a lot of distraction and potential confusion. However religion exists (that much is verifiable), and can be of great significance to students and their families. Is it right to say, "No place for that, go ask your RE teacher."?

The Research Review in Academies Weekly has highlighted some of the findings of a project looking at "Secondary school teachers’ perspectives on teaching about topics that bridge science and religion". It begins by stating a universally held view:

"We know some students dislike science because they perceive it as hostile to their religious views. We know that some dismiss religious studies, believing that science and religion are inherently in competition, and that science has emphatically won."

As the review states, "the study is exploratory; illustrating issues rather than describing large-scale patterns." however it gives an interesting first point of reflection for our own school experiences.

Many of the science teachers didn't want to discuss science and religion as they saw it as too controversial and didn't want parental complaint. I guess this is in some ways the opposite of RE teachers who will go out of their way to address controversial topics... I've no idea if there are stats on parental complaints, but I am pretty sure one way or another RE would come pretty high up. I love that fact.

However two of the teachers did not actively shut down such conversations, one seeing it as compatible, the other realising that "it was such an important part of his students’ lives".

The author of the review said that she believed 'respect' for religion in science lessons would manifest in a variety of different ways (with naturally everything in between):
  • “this is nonsense, but I don’t want a dozen parents complaining”
  • “this is nonsense, but my students have the right to diverse views”
  • “I’m personally not religious, but my students are and I think that’s very valuable”

The RE teachers had a different view, and like me, actively tried to develop and challenge students views, especially the polar ones. The study (unlike my own experience, perhaps due to my faith school experience, where some students verge on the creationist) found many students taking the view that "religion was no longer credible or that science trumped religious explanations". We do also have this commonly in a Catholic school too, for the record.

For good RE, it is vital that we can move beyond one or the other, there are a lot of views in between.; not least the Vatican's and my own! Like other teachers in the study, and despite my best intentions and degree level Science and Religion study, sometimes I know enough science to respond well to student questions.

The study highlighted the issues of guidance: "Science teachers have little guidance or help on how to address science and religion, and so are negotiating their own way through this difficult territory. Similarly, where can RE teachers go for help on answering the science questions relevant to religion?"

For me, one of the great sources of guidance is the Faraday Institute (see <here>) and I'd particularly recommend their really really excellent resource Test of Faith (see <here>). It gives a great introduction and is useful for KS4 and 5. However I have used a few bits with Y8 too.

Interestingly no science teachers in the study had considered inviting a scientist of faith to speak to students (I often use Francis Collins videos in lesson, see <here>). I am tempted to try and find one to bring to a General RE session with 6th form.

As the review concludes, this research "offers a description of the status quo, but also a challenge to break the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture surrounding religion in science lessons."

I am looking forward to reading the article in full, and finding out more about this complex relationship that exists within our schools between the science and RE departments. To be continued...

Read the review in Academies Weekly: <here>
Read the full research article: <here> 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

No Tech Day? When PCs Go Wrong.

Image courtesy of Phaidon Club

Today the school network went down. This has happened a few times recently as we install various upgrades to software and hardware, but today was a little different. Usually by Lesson 2 latest they are back on. Signs weren't good when the engineer was scratching his head and requesting backup support. 

Normally I like this excitement injected into the usual routine. Staff glance around at one another, who will be able to cope? Older staff remind younger ones, "This is how it used to be". Some scrabble around in their pencil case, "Do I actually own a white board pen?"

You realise that teachers don't have it the worst as the lady who arranges the cover via SIMS goes into panic mode and the other office admin staff begin to wonder exactly how they will cope with a day filled only with sick children and no emails, letters or any of the other endlessly amazing things they manage to produce in ridiculously small time scales.

"Ah-ha! The photcopier is still working! Although with a long queue. Oh, but the sheet I need is on the PC..."

It does mean the days lesson plans need to go slightly 'off-piste', but that can be fun. Sometimes my best lessons come from such 'emergencies'.

Y9, first up. We're about to start a unit on the Gospels. I wanted to refresh their Bible skills... I know I have a great fun animal quiz (of course featuring the Talking Donkey) that my Y7 class have already done. Grab one of their exercise books, grab some prizes... here goes!

The result is a great fun lesson that involves an activity filled, high energy lesson with students getting themselves genuinely excited about refreshing their Bible skills. We have some great discussion about various parts of the Bible. We look up some of the students names that come from the Old Testament. We learn the story of Balaam and the Talking Donkey. We agree to check out the RE blog when we get home and follow the Twitter account. The students leave saying how great it was and I smile. 

Y11. Ah textbooks. The saviour. Glad we didn't bin them all like some schools did years ago. Everything on a tablet? That would have been useless.

It was possibly one of the most tranquil and peaceful lessons in a long time as students discovered what we mean by 'The Church': priests, bishops, deacons ("My mum likes them!" "I think that's Deacon Blue...") and the laity. Brilliantly detailed A3 spider-diagrams produced as I sat in the middle of the room, on a spare students chair, answering questions and discussing the work. The discussion lead to the Synod in Rome, something I was pleasantly surprised about their knowledge about. Ironically on a non-tech day, they had seen my tweets.

Why am I usually at the front or simply patrolling? This works. [Note: I do sit down amoung the students quite a bit, but not enough]

Head of Y10 hat on. Guest speaker? With a PowerPoint. Will he understand? 

Thankfully I came up with a solution as we got a standalone laptop connected to the projector. If you are a pastoral leader, I urge you to get Paul Hannaford in to speak to your students. He gives a hard-hitting, graphic account of his life of drugs and gangs. He tells his audience about the dangers of these and about the decisions young people need to make; he is also the dad to a girl who was in my form last year, their reconciliation bringing a tear to even the hardened eye.. He is based in Romford but travels all over the UK, find him <here>.

The afternoon. Still no PCs. Lots of little jobs to follow up on. I need to see these people, about these issues... time for a walk.

I can see how email has saved us so much time. I get around 40 emails a day with around 60-70% being pastoral-role related. I am forever emailing around with some information about a student, or requesting information. Today I realised that to deal with incidents in person, face to face, takes far longer. However, in each conversation I had today, I found out far more information than I would have done via email, most of it positive about the girls in my year group. Maybe this is how it used to be? Yet sadly, there is physically not time to do it. Something has been lost.

I was then sat in a department meeting and my school email came through to my iPhone. Phew. Maybe.

I then sat waiting in the barber's sending and receiving all my emails, ready for tomorrow when we go back to normal. 

I love technology and I fully embrace it. I couldn't live without my devices. If it can be done by tech, I often do. Yet there is a slightly mischievous, playful part of me that loves it when it all goes wrong. I had some amazing, lovely lessons today... students learnt just as much too. I had fun; perhaps the adrenalin/fear?  

Dear computer network,
Next time you are going to fail, please give me at least 1 hours notice? I can then get myself psyched and ready. Plus print off that worksheet.

Although one of Assistant Heads (who incidentally doesn't teach) joked to me today, "You've heard of no pens day, this is it, no computers day!". I think he was on to something...

Maybe the ICT department will veto.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Rewards & Sanctions: Starting Points

Image courtesy of SSF

Behaviour is perhaps the single most important item on any teachers' agenda; poor behaviour leads to an incredibly stressful working day, with a big impact on learning. It should also be high on the agenda of any middle or senior leader; it may not be a big priority for you, but no doubt it is for someone on your team. Tom Bennett and Andrew Old have written extensively on the topic and Tom Sherrington has recently added his vision of 'Impeccable Behaviour'.

I did my MA dissertation on rewards and sanctions, Rewards and Sanctions: A Positive Behaviour Model Based on Gospel Values, which came to the clear conclusion that "creating an environment based on reward and praise" was desirable. However this this does present many challenges for leadership. My focus was particular to Catholic schools which often prided themselves on excellent behaviour enforced by many rules, many of which are not written down. Often praise systems do not match sanctions.

In any school, there should be "a shared ownership and commitment to the common beliefs and goals of a community, and these should be made clear in policy and lived out by the stakeholders as they will hopefully reap the benefits.". Perhaps the two most key stakeholders are students, who need to feel safe and able to learn, and staff who need to teach without the distraction and stress of poor beahviour. 

In a school utopia, a set of simple rules would be sufficient, however that is rarely the case. Many students feel disengaged with systems in schools,"whereby they feel they miss out on all rewards and receive disproportionate sanctions, or feel they work hard with little recognition. Additionally due to the way in which they often receive both the rewards and sanctions, they feel detached from their actual work and behaviour. A student may be pleased with a certificate received at the end of term, but maybe unaware exactly what they are being rewarded for. In a similar fashion, to receive a detention a week after an event has taken place, or due to a number of smaller indiscretions that build up, unbeknownst over the week."

The key thing with any rewards and sanction systems is the shared responsibility involved;"Teachers need to be empowered as leaders, recognising their individual responsibility within the classroom. If this is not taking place, senior leaders need to offer support, but also challenge so that this does take place. 

The classrooms are the 'battleground' [cf Andrew Old] between teacher and student: "If rewards are happening regularly in written, visual and aural forms, an environment of praise can be created engaging students and enabling them to work to their best of their ability and fulfilling their potential as individuals and images of God [RC context]. Likewise if lower-level sanctioning takes place in this often intimate and more immediate environment, students can be offered greater guidance as to how to seek reconciliation and improve their behaviour in future."

However, lower-level sanctions are not always enough, and to believe that exclusion (from a lesson, from lunchtime, permanently) is not required is both naive and dangerous: "The question of exclusion is a recurring problem for school leaders. Sometimes it can be essential for the greater good of the school community. The open and welcoming gestures modelled by Jesus need to be evident in the Catholic school. There must be a demonstration of forgiveness and reconciliation evident; no student must leave feeling excluded as a member of the Kingdom of God. Even if excluded, the student should have felt the love of the community and be given opportunities to repent. However, if these are rejected by the student, then the school is given little opportunity, like the Rich Young Man who walked away from Jesus and the opportunity offered to him."

Crucially the balance of rewards and sanctions is vital; they must be varied in scope, awarded frequently, but not too frequently and affect as greater number as possible of the students. This is potentially hard to achieve: "Leaders should be suggesting targets to staff if there is to be a culture of reward rather than sanction. It can be easier to focus on punishing students in order to create academic excellence and high standards of behaviour, yet as seen in this study students can end up feeling excluded and disengaged. They want rewards, and even those students regularly in detention appreciated and felt guided by rewards offered to them for their good behaviour. Additionally recognising that students are not ‘all bad’ and that even students who are often poorly behaved do do praiseworthy work and actions on occasion."

There were several recommendations made to the case study school (not my current employer), and these still effect my thoughts on rewards and sanctions:
  • The School Discipline and Pupil Behaviour Policy must reflect the distinctive Catholic ethos of the school. It is important that this policy, like all within the Catholic school, is a direct reflection of the schools’ Mission Statement. As such these policy documents will reflect a vision for all leaders in the school; one which must be focused on Gospel-values and the model of Christ.
  • All staff must take their responsibility for leadership seriously with the support and challenge from senior school leaders. Rewards can create an environment of praise in the classroom and lower-level, immediate sanctions can be more appropriate and useful to the students. 
  • Reviewing the number and frequency of rewards and sanctions awarded needs to continue, as does the recording and reporting structure. The current system does not work for students, parents or staff.
  • Leaders need to ensure students are provided with enough guidance to ensure that high standards are maintained in all areas of school life. Greater consistency and fairness must be strived for, and leaders must do their uttermost best to ensure this.
  • Constant opportunities for students to make amends for their indiscretions must be offered, both in a sacramental and practical sense. These opportunities must be provided, promoted and monitored by school leaders. A true spirit of reconciliation must be evident and explicit to students in order to feel a meaningful connection to their school community.

And it is with revisiting all of these, I return to my task of reviewing our current school sanction policy with the rest of our Heads of Year team. We currently have several documents in circulation and we need one, concise clear point of reference for students, staff and parents. This is where we are at the moment (see below), but there is more work to do. Any suggestions always gratefully received. If you want a copy of my MA dissertation, drop me an email.

Click to enlarge

Further Reading:

Tom Sherrington: Towards Impeccable Behaviour

Andrew Old
What Makes A School Discipline System Work?: 
Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System: 
The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”): 
Why Most Behaviour Management Advice Doesn’t Work: 

Tom Bennett
Shoot the elephant: The Ofsted report into low-level disruption: 
Bennett's tenets: My behaviour guides for going back to school: 

Two schools bad, one school good: Ideas for improving school behaviour: 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Sweet Dreams Diary 2015

Twitter throws up some interesting invitations and opportunities. One such came from Dr Carol Webb... Somehow she has managed to coordinate 43 teachers to produce a high quality diary to raise funds for the Family Holiday Association... I am Mr Easter Monday!

Over two million children live in families who cannot afford a day trip to the seaside - far less than a simple holiday! The Family Holiday Association works to help disadvantaged families get that much needed break away from home.

The diary is A5 spiral bound, 62 pages, month to a page and follows the theme of 'A Dream Holiday', with each teacher posing to camera with a backdrop of their dream holiday.

Diaries are available to order NOW in return for a donation of £10 (including postage and packing).

You can purchase them using Paypal via <here>

If you would rather just make a donation, you can do that via JustGiving <here>

Friday, 3 October 2014

#UKEdMag - The 10 Commandments of Tweets with Students

My third artcile for UKEdMag appears in the October edition. It features something I have written about a number of times and presented about at TeachMeets too. I hope it is useful to those who are trying to see how Twitter can be of use for learning.

Read my article in full <here>. There is also an abridged version on UKEdMag's website <here>

Image courtesy of UKEdMag

TMHavering also gets a mention <here> and Don't Change The Lightbulbs gets a mention too <here>

As always, feedback always welcome!

Find out more about UKEdMag <here> - you can now order printed copies!