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

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