Wednesday, 23 March 2016

#TMLondon: My Great Form Tutor

Photo by @benniskara

As well as arranging the competitions, prizes and thanking our sponsors I managed a 2 min presentation at TM London:

A short reflection as a current Head of Year, former Form Tutor (something I really miss) and member of Athens 1995 to 2000.

I remember how he was there on there on day one to make us smile and feel relaxed. He told us all the vital information that noone else did. The toilets are there… Lunch is at 12.30pm… Make sure you get a parent to sign your planner for Thursday.

I never felt like we were an afterthought or an inconvenience in his busy day. In fact, he got to the form room 5 minutes early at PM registration if we wanted a chat. I knew he would be able to help any issue that I had. Academic, social or even personal. He was someone who I could really trust.

He checked our uniform twice a day. In the end, we just knew to be smart. At the end of registration we always stood behind our chairs, went silent and he wished us a good morning or good afternoon.

If our form tutor wasn’t there, we always knew what to do. Wednesday was always silent reading day. Cover teachers were always amazed that we got our books out and started reading automatically. Our tutor used to read his book during this time too.

He checked if we had a pen in the morning. If we didn’t, he’d lend us one. We had to spend 15 minutes doing ‘community service’ at lunch to make amends though.

On a Friday, we had a form assembly. He used to insist that we included 3 bits of news: local, national and international. Someone then played their favourite song on his cassette deck, we all listened, even if we didn’t really like the music choice.

We used to get ALL the school news. Other forms came to find out from us. Everything was read out and went on the notice board. We all got involved in lots of extra curricular activities.

Our tutor had his purple folder, he called it the Bible (he wasn’t religious, but said it was the most important book he had). He kept track of everything to do with us in it: letters, detentions, merits...

Lots of other forms didn’t enjoy PHSE lessons, we did. It was clear our tutor knew what he was talking about it; it was like any other lesson. Sometimes better.

We didn’t want to get in trouble, it was like letting the form down. Our tutor wouldn’t shout if we did, but he always suggested we apologised to the teacher we had upset and make amends.

He wasn’t our friend, but he was special to us. We belonged to him, and him to us. We used to laugh when he told us jokes, and we all got very sad when his mum died.

Fast Forward 20 years…

My great form tutor is the front line, she picks up on everything. She is my ears, eyes and heart in 11X. She is the adult the students see twice a day, she always notices first if something is not right.

She knows which students are doing well, and in what subjects, she also knows where there is a cause for concern, and she always lets me know. She has great relationships with the students, and many of the parents.

It may be chance that absence is less of an issue in her form, but she follows up notes straight away and always finds out why they weren’t in school. Her form are always the most involved in every inter-house competition and charity event, even in Year 11.

She has helped every student plan their revision, and discusses stress relieving techniques with them on a regular basis. She also always has an activity up her sleeve: a quiz, a puzzle and thinking game.

Her form never leave registration noisily, they are always ready to work in Period 1 and 5.

She has really high expectations, of everyone, all the time! One student said, “She’s like our school mum”.

Being a form tutor is one of the most human parts of being a teacher.

Great form tutors make it easier for everyone to teach, and everyone to learn.

Form groups are often when the happiest memories are formed, and everyone remembers a great form tutor.

What kind of form tutor are you?

This isn't a true story sadly. It's a mixture of what I experienced at school, what I wanted at school, what I've tried to do, and what I encourage others to try and do. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

#TFREConference 2016: Core Knowledge & RE

A grey and misty Saturday morning saw an early start in London for the second Teach First RE Conference, this one entitled REthinking the Curriculum. I was leading a session on Core Curriculum including the work of ED Hirsch and the possibilities it meant for RE.

I will be writing more extensively about this soon, but in the mean time, feel free to see my presentation:

Big thanks to Frances and Caroline for yet again organising such a great day in a wonderful location:

Friday, 4 March 2016

If we want them to revise...

Wednesday was a 6 period day with a working lunch. It was really hard work and I then spent over an hour catching up on the day (ah... emails!), before heading home shattered around 5pm. I had some work to do on my textbook and naturally wanted to spend some time with my wife and young son. I know I would find this an impossible way to work day in and day out.

However that's what many staff are expecting of Y11 students at the moment. Thankfully no one wanted the pre-school slots, but visit the form rooms at 8am and there are many in working. They then attend lunchtime and after school revision sessions.  Some then head to various areas to work on coursework or other controlled assessments. They then leave when the bells signal it's time to go home at 5.40pm.

They then have homework to do, and of course revision. They also need to get the bus, or maybe two.

Is it any wonder that, as Head of Y11, I have parents calling me worried about their daughter? Students crying with the pressure? Reports of students falling asleep in lessons? Teachers complaining students are not doing the extra exam papers they set? Mental health issues are on the rise, while the services that help with our care of these young people face severe cuts.

The pressures internally and externally are creating a 'perfect storm' of pressure - and both students and staff are starting to really feel it. We must do something to combat it. We must play our part in trying to ease this situation. League tables, OFSTED, Performance Related Pay, EBacc... is everything really in the interest of the students? If not, maybe we need a different perspective.

I've written about the effectiveness of revision sessions before (see here), but I genuinely feel the culture is becoming unsustainable for all concerned. I also don't think it is helpful, in the long run, for our students. Particularly at GCSE, we can be very guilty of 'spoon feeding': providing revision guides, revision sessions where we do 'a unit in 30mins', Easter holiday 'catchup'.

Yet students then begin A-Levels thinking the same way. However it's far harder to provide similar 'get out of jail free' cards. There is confusion from students. Sometimes the realisation that they need to do it for themselves (and should have been doing all year long) comes too late.

If we removed this expectation (implicit or explicit?) of revision sessions, maybe we'd take away 'comfort blanket' that students feel... my teachers will work in overdrive to help me pass my exams. I sometimes ask my Y11 cohort - who is working harder right now? You or your teacher? Often the answer is the latter.

We need to make students realise that after 18 months of failing to work, last minute revision sessions won't solve their problems. If you have attended over 200 hours of English lessons, will 5 hour-long revision sessions make any difference? 

Schools have become obsessed by interventions, a buzz word that's become every day usage in education, which often means teachers should be able to demonstrate and document that they have gone above and beyond with students. Where does good teaching end and intervention begin? I'm all for identifying the underachievers and trying to get to the bottom of why they are underperforming, and teachers are well aware of their responsibilities to get the best grades possible. What's intervention? What's revision? What's just teaching?

I really enjoyed Shaun Allison's blog on "What to do with Y11?" (see <here>) and shared it with all staff. I really think that teachers should be putting all their energy and time into delivering the best possible lessons: "the people who will make the real difference between now and the exams are the teachers that see Y11, day in and day out.". The advice that Shaun then provided about effective learning and revision was excellent - read it, share it widely!

It's my first time as Head of Y11 and it has been a steep learning curve. In my somewhat limited experience, what would I do differently?
  • Abolish the 'official' revision timetable (sadly staff don't stick to it anyway and we end up with staff competing and undermining one another).
  • Discourage all revision sessions.
  • Encourage staff to plan for learning throughout their syllabus (principles of metacognition and effective learning) so revision doesn't become such high stakes.
  • Create effective work spaces for Y11 at lunchtime (i.e. a rota for the four form rooms for lunchtime: silent work / quiet work / 2x social - and enforce it!)
  • Maintain detentions for work, homework and behaviour issues - these expectations must remain at the core of effective learning.
  • Generate a culture of greater independence, self-reliance, determination and consequence - if you do not work, there will be repercussions (and it won't be a teacher reteaching you after school and in the holidays!).
I believe that this will help in some way create less dependent and teacher-reliant GCSE students. It will also be beneficial for the mental and emotional health of both staff and students, taking off some of the high stakes pressure.

I fully admit some of the students in my care have not woken up to the fact that their exams are coming up very quickly. This is a separate issue, that needs to be addressed in a separate way. 

John Tomsett wrote in his blog:

“All I can ask is that, on results day in August, we can truthfully say to ourselves that we did the very best we could without damaging our own mental health or the mental health of our students. We must not push for even better examination results at the cost of our well-being.” <see here>

My Y11 students, come August, will always be more than a set of grades. I also want them to be healthy (physically and mentally), happy, knowing that they can go out and change the world for the better in many, many different ways.

Images courtesy of PixabayWikipedia and Pixabay

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Vocations in the Classroom

I was asked to present some ideas on priestly vocation for the chaplains of Brentwood Diocese. View and download my presentation here:

Image courtesy of Holy Cross Vocations