Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Spinning Plates

When we see colleagues, perhaps via social media or from stories in the staff room, everything can seem to be great for them. They are uploading resources to TES, emailing people their newly written SoWs, offering to help moderate essays via email,... plus they have a few young kids, a partner, they still go on holiday, they knit, they volunteer at the weekend.  While you feel frazzled, unable to plan your next lesson or mark that set of Year 9 books.

Workload is the issue that won't go away, perhaps quite rightly so, it is not sorted.

As teachers, and leaders, we are plate spinners. However, we sometimes need to work out what plates we can afford to drop. This is perhaps the single most important question that all of us should be asking - if I don't do this, what will happen?

Some nuggets of information you don't forget, and David Cameron's quip at Northern Rocks 2015 has stayed with me - How do we sort our IKEA from our Wedgewood? Do you even have a clue which plates you can, and maybe even should, drop?

I began a new role in September 2016, as Assistant Headteacher / Director of RE - part of this was leading the RE department as subject leader. The first few weeks, as a new member of SLT, in a new school, and leading a big department (9 of us taught RE last year), was chaos. There was so many plates I was trying to spin. I was also looking around at some of the plates I was dropping from day one... 

One of the key jobs of leaders in schools is to be 'sh*t umbrella'. SLT need to umbrella, rather than funnel, things from external sources - DfE, Ofsted etc. Middle Leaders need to umbrella things from SLT. As a TLR holder you are expected to deal with certain things, working out what to ask you team to do, and what to shoulder yourself. Any leadership role in school requires expert plate spinning skills.

The DfE and Ofsted are always giving more and more plates to spin - as are the media (apparently they have cited 90+ new things that schools 'should be teaching' so far in 2017). Schools are often already working at capacity - so what gives? If SLT keep giving more plates to spin to their Middle Leaders and other staff, something will give at some point. 

So how do we preempt this? We need to ask honest, sometimes difficult, questions of ourselves, our polices and our expectations.

  • If you just stopped doing it:
    • Who would notice first? Students, colleagues, SLT, parents?  
    • Would they be concerned? For what reasons?
    • What would the consequences be? Primarily, for learning.
    • How do you know? Can you measure time/impact?
    • Could you rationally justify your actions?

This is obviously not a suggestion to just go breaking school policy! These may be small things, historical department policy etc. They may be initiatives (fads?) started years ago, that have just outlived their natural lifespan. 

A few suggestions I got from colleagues via Twitter that may be worth asking:

  • Is our marking cycle making best use of time?
    • 2 week marking cycle - each set of books marked approx 15 times per year - if you teach 200 pupils like many RE teachers... 3000 books marked per academic year - if you spend 3 mins on each book that's 150 hours a year - 5 hours per week minimum
    • 3 week - 10 times per year, 200 pupils, 3 mins - 100 hours - 3.5 hours per week minimum
    • 4 week - 7 times per year, 200 pupils, 3 mins - 70 hours - 2.5 hours per week minimum
    • If you had an extra 2.5 hours a week to plan - would this be more or less beneficial to learning in your classroom? [Worth reading Tom Bennett's stats on marking <here>]
  • How many formal observations per year?
    • Preparation, planning, stress...
    • What is the consistency? How many people get 2 similar and 1 vastly different? Or do most people get 3 within a similar threshold (grading or otherwise)? If so, why 3? 
  • What is the best way to deliver CPD?
    • Does anyone know if there has actually been any improvement after attending a session?
    • Is it used to genuinely improve, or to 'get my hours up'? If it is the latter, are we simply wasting everyone's time?
    • Does it look good on paper, or in reality?
  • Do we need that meeting?
    • Are meetings the best spent time in schools? 
    • However, are typing up long documents of information effective?
    • Key question is about effective communication - are we using our time wisely? 
  • Is that paperwork really necessary?
    • Who is it for? Will anyone every read it? What will come from it? How will it improve the learning of the students in my class?

Asking ourselves about best use of time is hard, and sometimes awkward. Teachers can be a strange breed. They can have strong beliefs on things, and can be quite immovable. Can we have an honest conversation about our time, our plates?

What is most effective use of my time?

What is not an effective use of my time? 

  • What can I stop doing?
  • What is using a disproportionate amount of my time?
  • What could I be doing instead?

Some plates will get dropped by colleagues this year, you will drop a plate or too! Which ones will they be? Ones that you picked to drop? Or ones that you had no control over dropping? If you don't spend time identifying what is IKEA and what is Wedgwood, things may end up out of control.

It is hard when we see a colleague burn out or break down - when all their plates drop. Start thinking about it in September before it's too late.

In the meantime, watch Colin. He will teach you how to spin a plate FOR REAL:

Image courtesy of Movie Muse

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Assumption is the mother of all...

Penn: Ryback's gone, Dane. 
Travis Dane: Did you see the body? Assumption is the mother of all F*&% UPS!
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

It can be easy to assume many things. Doing this in schools, like for those up against Steven Seagal, find out that it generally ends up badly. 

This is one of the reasons I am working towards a more knowledge focused curriculum. Students need to be acutely aware of what they need to know... I firmly believe much of the rest will then come. I want to get Knowledge Organisers published for Year 7s arriving, and then for each KS3 unit. This will then benefit students in KS4. I don't want to just assume they know the right things, I want to identify these things and then ensure that they do know.

It is commonplace to reference something in a lesson and enquire, "You studied this last year?" "No we didn't"

Often they did, and just don't remember (a whole other issue...). However sometimes they have not for a variety of reasons: staff absence, student absence, teacher deviation etc. Gaps end up existing for many students, we have to then try fill them... annoying, time consuming, but vital if we decide that particular knowledge is important. The more we can empower students to fill these gaps, the better.

The more dangerous assumption of knowledge, is that students have certain information already, without us - or indeed anyone else - teaching them. This is part of the rationale behind my Year 6/start of Year 7 Knowledge Organiser (see <here>)

In my GCSE textbook, for one particular spec point, students need to know two pieces of Catholic artwork. I thought long and hard about what to include: 'classics', personal favourites, something a 'bit different'? I settled with the 'classics': the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

I have since had one or two teachers moan that 'other books' (including those for other specs, not just our direct rivals!) pick more contemporary art and artwork more "off the beaten track". This is apparently "more interesting" as they have studied those 'classics' so many times before. To one, I said, "That's a shame as I still think these two have so much to offer..." - the conversation went on and it transpired that actually my critic knew very little about either, particularly The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

Firstly, it's vital to remember we are teachers, and by necessity, we have 'done it all before'. I will teach these two pieces of artwork every year, perhaps to two classes. This is totally unconnected to their religious or cultural value or significance. It is also unconnected to my students knowledge and familiarity of the artworks.

If I had picked two more obscure, but perhaps interesting pieces, would I have been denying students knowledge about two key pieces artwork? These are the kind of questions we don't like - what knowledge do I prioritise? After all, as a teacher, that's what you do. You are not neutral, you are not without bias. 

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper was my third choice (after all, we don't need to teach to the spec, and teaching 3 pieces may be beneficial if time allows... or more if you don't like my textbook choices!). Despite being hugely well known, actually it is more commonly seen in jokes or modified form. How can you understand these if you don't know the original? 

I have to admit, I do have personal investment in these two artworks. The Sistine Chapel is at the heart of the Catholic faith; it is the very room where conclave takes place, and popes are elected. This for me, is a valid reason for it's inclusion. It's also breathtaking, and relatively unusual - my parish church certainly doesn't have a ceiling like it! When I visited the Vatican, this was not even up for discussion on the visiting list.

I have also been fortunate enough to see The Return of the Prodigal Son. When visiting the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, I was walking down one of the the main rooms when I saw this huge painting (2.5m by 2m). I didn't know it was kept there (my ignorance!), nor did I know it was so big - every copy I've seen is A3/A4 in school halls, parish halls etc. I stopped in my tracks. It was also possible to get close enough to study the father's hands for myself!

So what do we do? How dangerous is it to assume students have knowledge of the 'classics'? Does it matter if they don't? There is a typical argument for not studying classic literature - does it really matter? Dickens, Shakespeare, Austin, Bronte.... 

When I have to decide, as I do, what knowledge to impart, I need to be confident I am sharing the best of the best. I can't take risks. I can't assume students know these things already. That's why we picked the Sistine Chapel and Rembrandt's masterpiece.

Oh and of course Casey Ryback wasn't dead - he is Ryback!

Image courtesy of Grantland