Friday, 27 May 2016

Is It Love?

When I asked colleagues on Twitter whether they used the word love in school, it generated a range of responses:
  • No - Nope. Nooope,
  • No - *Shivers*
  • Yes - "I would love it if you'd leave me alone" and "You will never find love looking like that"
  • No - It is inappropriate and would be a safeguarding issue
  • Yes - "... and I mean this with love", "much as I love you all", "here's a bit of love"
  • No - "If a teacher had done that to me at school, I'd have thought they were a bit of a ***."
The consensus was generally one of no, and that it was not appropriate. However I was then surprised that so many had not really understood my context. Firstly, I do not mean sitting a student down and saying, "I love you". That would be creepy, weird, unprofessional and a big issue. Secondly, I think CS Lewis' Four Loves is an excellent start point, and I'd suggest until you know what they are, it is pointless to engage in the debate:
  • Storge - empathy bond, affection, enjoying something þ
  • Philia - friend bond, companionship, shared interests ý
  • Eros - erotic bond, romantic, being 'in love' ý
  • Agape - unconditional 'God' love, charity, selflessness þ
Read a summary of the book <here>
Why not Philia?

Students often need a friend, how ever this is not the role of teachers. Don't confuse this with pastoral care, that's important, but it is not friendship. I do not subscribe to the age-old 'don't smile before Christmas' mantra, but being liked, being seen as a 'mate' or 'cool' is not something a teacher, new or established, should be trying to do:

"Many new teachers start off wanting to be really kind and friendly to their pupils. They believe they will win them over with the power of love.” That usually doesn’t happen.
Tom Bennett -  <link>

Why not Eros?

No explanation needed really. However, is this the very reason why some people are so afraid of using the word love in schools? Is this why schools have policies based on a fear of misinterpretation? Some schools have explicit 'no touch' policies - can staff not be trusted to use correct judgement? Someone told me that a Primary deputy head didn't want to hug a child (nursery age) in assembly, in a room full of adults, even though the child was upset and scared. Do emotionally secure adults need complete coldness? Is it wrong to straighten a tie? Obviously there needs to be different boundaries in different contexts and different key stages; I know as Head of Y11, I wouldn't hug a female student.

Why Storge?

That empathy bond we need with those in which we work in community. If we don't care about our colleagues, our school community will quickly come tumbling down. It's hard to work in isolation in schools, actions have consequences.

You don't need to call them friends, you don't need to hang out with them, you don't need to even really like them. However, there should be a love that means you work together to create a pleasant working environment. SLT should be supporting the NQT, the Head of Department looking after their team... we need to operate in an atmosphere of kindness and compassion. Challenge remains a part of this. It is not kind, or compassionate, to the community to allow teachers to not work at their potential. This challenge needs to be reasonable, and supported; this is love.

Some schools, consider themselves family like - that's Storge too. It's what parents naturally feel for their children, and members of a family share together. It is a form of unconditional love, which accepts faults, and provides opportunities for reconciliation. It involves commitment, but results in a secure, comfortable and safe environment - this sounds like a good school to work in.

Why Agape?

This for me is why we have rules, enforce them and often say no - because we love our students and we want the very best for them, and for the school community. Some things are non-negotiable - unless students are behaving in lessons, there is unlikely to be much learning going on. The setting and enforcing of boundaries plays a key part in this. Again, in Twitter discussion, Tom Bennett came up, people referenced the term he uses, “setting boundaries with love”. (<link>). 

This is the pinnacle of unconditional love: the relentless, consistent, universal, enforcing of the rules.

Catholic Schools

I work in a Catholic school, and I think there is certain things that Catholic schools do well. Talking openly about love, is one of them. 

I was reading through Kelly Leonard's blog about Middle Leadership where she referenced a former HoD who said, "These students are all someone’s son or daughter, they are all God’s children and we’ve got to love them all because it might be the only love they get." (<link>). This is such a key driver in many faith schools, certainly Catholic ones. That universality of creation, that 'made in God's image', which is not dependent on behaviour or situations... I heard a colleague say once, "I may not like what you are doing, and I'm going to stop you, and help you not do it again. This is because I love you and I want you to be a better person... and I find it really annoying!"

Jonathan Doyle says something similar in his blog about 'what Catholic teachers need to know':

"At the heart of your mission is the call to see in every student and every colleague in your staff room the person of Christ. Think of the student or colleague you like the least. Christ died for them. God willed them into existence. Your teaching will be as effective as your ability to see God in each person and every student." (<link>)

This reflection on the use of love, or fear of using love, came from a blog discussing the benefits of faith schools. I read West-Burnham extensively during my MA in Catholic School Leadership and thought that his point here was important in our current climate:

"I had the opportunity of listening to Professor John West-Burnham speak at a diocesan conference a few years ago. What an inspirational man. He spoke of ‘love’ in an educational context. I don’t believe that ‘love’ is a word that has been used much in educational discourse.

Governments seem to have realised that something has gone wrong, and so use words like ‘aspiration’ and ‘resilience’. Schools work to define their visions to inspire staff, students and community with these values, while faith schools already have a firm foundation to build on - and love is at the centre of it." (<link>)

If love is at the centre of our decision making process, we will help make schools better places. John Tomsett has been much applauded, deservedly, for his book 'Love Over Fear'. It seems odd to me that love in a school context is so alien to many. Perhaps because it's meaning has been warped, and that many fear that love is something inappropriate. As much as I think labelling teaching as a 'vocation' has been damaging for the conditions of teachers in some schools (see <here>), I think many would agree teaching is 'not just a job'. And, if we can do what we do with love, we will be better at it. I see a key part of my job to educate is to enable students to love others just that little bit more. The staff often need a little help with that too...

St Augustine's Homily on 1 John 4:4-12:

"Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good."

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Monday, 9 May 2016

All The Small Things

"All the small things
True care, truth brings"
Blink 182

Blink 182 sum up their whole song in the first two lines. Their 1999 hit was written for guitarist Tom DeLonge's wife (as apparently she moaned about him always writing songs about other women!), and it clearly explains the importance of caring about others, and showing them how important they are. Sometimes the "smallest way" can make all the difference in the world to someone. In schools, it is often the small things, that make a big difference too.

Noticing the small things

Some people are solely preoccupied with their teaching. Perhaps they should be; that is our core purpose.

I've heard teachers say, "It is not my responsibility to check uniform." which is unhelpful from a whole school point of view. It's worth remembering that students rarely have too much loyalty and will frequently point out, "Mr X didn't say anything about my nose-stud". Brilliant.

I'd argue that it is the responsibility of all staff to notice the small things, and those who don't, should be challenged. 

Picking up on the small things

It is really hard work constantly picking up on the small things, and carrying them through.
  • What do you do when a student is 5 mins late, but your lesson isn't followed by break or lunch?
  • How do you record who hasn't got a pen or their exercise book, especially when you want to get the lesson started?
  • To what extent do you chase up uniform, especially if they don't have their uniform cards to sign?
  • When do you find the time to chase every piece of missing homework?
  • Do you challenge a student who has an extra earring in, hidden by her hair, if she is behaving well in your lesson (for once!)?
  • You ask a student to see you at lunch for 5mins over a minor issue. They don't turn up. What do you do?
I think, if you do pick up on these small things, you will only need to do it for a while. The greatest thing I had a student say to me was, "You're strict, but at least you are strict all the time... with everyone". However it really is hard work - it is a relentless and tiresome battle, and one that potentially starts again every September.

Yet many would suggest if we allow the small things to persist, unchallenged, then all of a sudden, sometimes without warning, the bigger things will follow. When things slip, and keep slipping, it can be really hard to turn around. This can happen on a small scale, in an individual classroom, or on a much larger scale, whole-school.

My recommendation, is to be organised and put in place systems anticipating the problems. Some staff write down everything in their planner or on SIMs (which is so handy if and when the issues escalate with the student). Schools need systems that are workable for teachers. Rules need to be as clear as possible, with sanctions easy enough to implement, and are followed through. Always. All the small things, true care, truth brings.

Image courtesy of Gigwise

Friday, 6 May 2016

WANTED: Catholic RE Teacher

The view from of our staffroom

We are looking a Catholic RE teacher with a deadline of Tuesday 17 May 2016 - please share this widely with any teachers you feel may be interested. We are a four-form entry, all-girls Catholic comprehensive school with a sixth form.

Here are three reasons that this could be the job for you:
  • The RE Department is small, friendly and supportive: KS3 is well-established and resourced (based on the Way, Truth and Life) and KS4 will be the new GCSE Edexcel Catholic Christianity spec. KS5 teaching involves General RE and A-Level (spec TBC). We are always looking at ways to improve our teaching and look forward to new ideas.
  • Upminster is a fantastic location: we are located just 22 minutes from central London by mainline train (we are also on the underground in Zone 6) or less than 5 minutes off the M25 Junction 29. There is lots to do within a short walk from the school.
  • There is potential for a Chaplaincy TLR. This is a role leading liturgy and the spiritual life of the school. Students enjoy this aspect of school life and are actively involved with chaplaincy activities around school. There are many things in place, but there is a great opportunity for making the role your own.
Read more here:
Read full job advert <here>
Download application forms <here>

If you would like to find out more, feel free to get in touch via <here> or on Twitter @iteachre

Image courtesy of Geograph

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Teaching: A Vocation?

In many a staff room, blog or conversation with friends or family, a teacher has claimed, "but it's not just a job, it's a vocation". Recently while out with a friend, and fellow teacher, we discussed the fact that this claim may used as an excuse for poor working conditions (including workload) and expecting people to do things without getting paid for them - or even paying out of their own pocket for resources and CPD.

I like my job. This is much more than many people who simply tolerate their job, or indeed hate their job  There are some aspects that I love, and some moments of absolute joy. However, often I do finish the day frustrated, annoyed or feeling inadequate. Too often I don't feel I can get the job done within the constraints placed upon me.

Some of the key reasons for me going into teaching:
  • The skills I perceived that I had matched the demands of the job
  • The pay would give me reasonable standard of living - certainly better than many others in the UK
  • The holidays were a real bonus - especially with a family
  • My mum was happy as a teacher and many of my own teachers seemed happy and content with their jobs
However is this claim that my job is a vocation why I am sat at the table marking in an evening rather than playing with my son or watching TV with my wife? Does it legitimise the extra hours I put in before school and late at night? Is it why I give up my Saturdays and evenings for CPD and attending conferences without recompense? Do I buy things out my own pocket for school, and for my students, due to this? Am I reluctant to take a day off, even when ill, as a result?

There has been a sentimental rhetoric peddled by the government and their agencies; "no one forgets a good teacher" (Thanks TTA), and more recent TV adverts filled with smiling, energetic teachers and smiling, enthused students (Thanks DfE). Yet, my main memories from school are of the teachers where we messed around. I do also remember some things about the good teachers, but this is not reason alone to go into the job. Is it real romanticism to say teaching is 'a calling', in the way few other jobs are?

Of course, I do try my best to teach my students things (and help them remember this information), while being some kind of marker and guide through their turbulent years. Of course I will be there in their moment of need, pick them up, smile, help them out. However, I think teachers should also realise their limits, their remit, their actual job description. If you are trying to do everything you maybe could, for every student, or for every colleague, quite simply you won't last long. You will burn out. Your vocation could be short lived.

This is not to devalue our jobs; they are important to individuals, and to society. Collectively, we do change lives, we give our students qualifications enabling them to go on and achieve great things, earn a good income and have their own families. Maybe they will even remember our name somewhere down the line. 

Fundamentally I enjoy my job, far more than I think I'd enjoy many other jobs. The children I teach often make me laugh. I love sharing my subject specialism. I thrive from the energy in schools. It feels like a privilege to do this. I'm certainly not on the 'ready to quit' list. Yet I am not naive to say I never would be. In fact, I think the optimum would be 3 days teaching, 1 day doing something education related, but not teaching, and an extra day with my family - I think this would make me a really happy, productive and effective teacher. This would also force me to ditch any TLRs which are often disproportionately low payments for the extra workload.

We must continue to ask "why do people teach?" Don't kid yourself, for many it is a pragmatic and convenient choice. People get made redundant and want a career change, or they have had kids of their own and want something that means they can have holidays with their offspring.

For some it may be a true vocation, they may feel a true calling, but this is not the case for everyone. We certainly can't tell people it is a vocation to make them feel like they should, or could, be doing more. Teaching has been called the 'martyr profession', but just because some teachers like to lay bare their stigmata, it doesn't mean everyone should feel that they should, and it's okay to feel like you have no stigmata at all! 

If we stop labeling teaching as a vocation, could we improve the job in hand? People should be paid for what they put in, rewarded for going above and beyond, and have reduced workload demands so that they are not simply working out of the goodness of their heart (or fear of repercussions).

I'm just not entirely convinced teaching is a vocation in a true sense, and maybe, by doing so, we are contributing to the morale and recruitment crisis. Teaching is not simply being John Keating (Dead Poets Society) or Erin Gruwell (Freedom Writers) every day, and if we sell that as the dream it can only lead to disappointment. Maybe teaching is a vocation, yet because of this, teachers are not getting treated the way they should. If it simply means we get exploited as a result, I'd rather just have a job!

WARNING - this last bit is God related! I am an RE teacher in a Catholic school and vocation always features in discussion about why we teach, and why we work in faith schools. There is potentially a whole other blog to be written here...

How about teaching in a Catholic school, especially RE, surely that is a vocation?

Many do claim that there is a real vocation to working in faith schools. Perhaps staff make sacrifices, such slower promotion due to less opportunities if they want to stay in faith school system? However the dangers still remain, and potentially they are greater. I was once told of a church school where staff were reminded of the evangelical counsels (sometimes known as the counsels of perfection): chastity, poverty and obedience. This is a horrendous message to give to staff.

I do feel a vocation, to be a Christian. My job is a part of that, in as much as all things I do in life are. I try to evangelise through my word and deed, not just in the classroom, but always. I do not proselytise; I do not preach.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia