Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Teachers Love Learning Too

Should it come as a surprise that teachers love to learn? 

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” - Dylan William

It's clear by the way teachers sign themselves up for evening TeachMeets, weekend debates, Pedagoo events, ResearchEd, T&L Takeovers and Education Festivals that many of us care deeply about our jobs and are always keen to improve. I ran a Twitter poll that 120 teachers responded to: 43% had given up 1-3 Saturdays for CPD, 13% had given up 4-6 and 5% over 7. It does weigh heavily upon me that I have organised, and presented at events on so many Saturdays this year - should teachers really be doing this after a long working week? Shouldn't they be with their family and friends? 

Many of the above events focus on pedagogy or general teaching related ideas. When we began planning our first RE Hub conference in 2014, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to focus on subject knowledge and how to get it into the classroom. Saturday 16th April saw the second annual London RE Hub conference, an event that I am still recovering from and trying to contextualise.

RE teachers can be a strange breed, particularly as there are some real fundamental things we don't all agree on (approaches, the name of the subject, the place of spirituality, the definition of theology...). Our subject covers a board range of topics, and has been colonised by British Values, the Community Cohesion agenda, PHSE and SMSC. There is also the divide between schools with a religious character and community schools, now made more diverse by the academisation process.

I think that I first fully realised how much we as a community loved learning when I attended the 2nd Teach First conference and managed to sneak into John Moffat SJ's session on Grace. Here was a Catholic priest, giving an in-depth lecture on a difficult Christian theological concept. The room was in awe. How much of what John said could I take back to the classroom? I'm not sure; I even work in a Catholic school!

Reading the feedback from the London RE Hub conference, people loved the day as they got to learn. They heard experts explain their beliefs, answer questions on the core concepts of their faith, and ask some difficult questions. We went beyond GCSE level, sometimes beyond A-Level - while primary and secondary colleagues share the room. We tried to build in parts of the sessions where teachers tried to explain how to take these ideas back to the classroom, but in many cases the teachers simply wanted more input, more knowledge, more insight.

Hattie (2012) suggested that teacher knowledge did need to be secure, but that it shouldn't create an empathy gap between student and teacher. Yet we know it is something that students value... many students have said they believe I must be a good teacher as I have a Religious Studies degree from Cambridge; it makes them feel secure. Students want to know if their teacher is, quite simply, good enough. 

The Sutton Trust (2014) made clear (and is highlighted in an excellent RISE blog <here>):

“The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to student;’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teacher must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify common misconception.”

RE teachers often recognise that they have these gaps, and want to fill them. In a subject where we are often struggling for subject specialists, and often see the subject being taught by non-specialists, even at examination level, this is a great concern for the RE community. 

Fighting for subject knowledge CPD is tough, and it will continue to get tougher. Schools are struggling with budgets, and as someone told me on Twitter, such study days are "self indulgent". I politely, and respectfully disagree. The fruits of the conference continue to grow, those who studied together on that today build networks of support and exchange. Despite my worries about 'stealing teachers Saturdays', I know I am willing to do it myself (and make up the time to my wife and young son!), and will continue to do so. The most humbling thing for me, was that teachers travelled from all over the UK to attend our day; thank you from the bottom of my heart.    

Some further questions:
How can we create opportunities for staff to develope their subject knowledge? (I love the idea of one INSET day being given over to subject study - for RE teachers, visiting places of worship etc)
How can we encourage a community of learning in schools alongside the current demands and stresses?
How can staff best share their learning with students if it doesn't quite fit the curriculum?

I am proud to be part of something that values subject knowledge, and is trying to improve it. The London RE Hub team 2016: 

The London RE Hub website will soon be updated with all resources from the 2016 Conference. Please get in touch via TheLondonREHub@gmail.com if you would be interested in helping run the 2017 Conference.

  • Hattie and Yates (2012) Visible Learning and The Science of How we Learn
  • Sutton Trust report into Great Teaching (2014)

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

"The Best That You Can Do" - Y11's Golden Mean

Jim Bianco is a US-based singer-songwriter who is sadly little known in the UK;  I'm a big fan. I had a YouTube playlist on as I did some marking, when on came, 'The Best You Can Do'. I am absolutely sure this song is not about taking GCSE exams, however I later found myself quoting the song lines in a meeting with a parent and student. 

Finding compromise with students can always be challenging. Many Y11 students still fall into the "You need to be working harder." category. Yet there is a surprisingly high number that fall into the "Please ease up on yourself and your workload.".

This would not be unusual for some of my year group:
  • Wake at: 6.30am
  • Study on bus: 7.30-8am
  • Study in school: 8-8.30am
  • Lessons: 9.05am-12.45pm
  • Revision Session: 1-1.45pm
  • Lessons: 1.50-3.30pm
  • Revision Session: 3.30-5pm
  • Study on bus: 5-5.30pm
  • Homework: 5.30-6.30pm
  • Revision: 7-11pm - or later. Some tell me they work until 1 or 2am.
Failure to do this, in their mind, is to not do what is required. As such, I have had to introduce a 'balance' list for some students for their current well-being. On it I suggest:
  • Have one lunch time per week with your friends
  • Go home at 3.30pm on one night a week
  • Don't discuss school / GCSEs / revision at the dinner table
  • Have one night during the week with no revision
  • Do 30mins of exercise at least 3 times a week
  • Go to bed at 10pm as often as you can
  • Put your phone in a different room for at least an hour a night
As for all humans, well-being often gets ignored in pursuit of some 'greater' goal - in this case GCSE exams. As I have pointed out, usually grades aren't gained or lost in the final two weeks of school; odd marks maybe. Grades are really achieved through two years of hard work, and for many of these students in danger of burning themselves out, they have done just this.

I have introduced The Philosopher (Aristotle) to some Y11s. The Golden Mean is the desirable middle-ground that falls between two extremes: the one of excess and the other of deficiency:

Courtesy of La Audacia de Aquiles

For Aristotle, the balance are seen as 'virtues', which are essential for achieving the ultimate goal, happiness. Sadly, Nicomachean Ethics never quite gets to the section on GCSE revision. If it did, what would it have said? What is our Golden Mean for final exam preparation? 

Returning to Jim Bianco, I think what I hope for, is that every single Y11 that arrives to pick up their results envelop in August can say, "I did my best". Whatever results have been achieved, no one can ask for any more. 

an uppercut a right
you punch with all your might
you hope they throw the fight 
before the bell stops ringing
your face is stinging, the crowd is singing
go out swinging...

do the best that you can do
and hope you make it through [lyrics]

Image courtesy of BMI

Sunday, 17 April 2016

A Great Week - Thank You!

The last week has been surreal. Great, humbling, but odd.

It began on Tuesday with the arrival of the proof of my textbook. This has been a labour of love over the last year. Dozens of Word documents that had become very untidy with edits, redrafts and amendments all of a sudden became a textbook. The designers have done an amazing job and it is something that I feel really proud to be have been involved in. Now I need to get reading, with my red pen, to really make it as good as it can possibly be. Read more about it <here>.

On Wednesday, I then got an email to say I was shortlisted in the TES Teacher blogger of the year. I was initially pleased enough that Andrew Old recommended me as potential nominee on his blog (see <here>), but to be shortlisted was a very pleasant surprise. There has been a lot of Twitter conversations about tickets, prices etc. I'm going to make an effort to go, as to be honest, I doubt I'll get invited again any time soon! See more <here>

Saturday was then the second London RE Hub conference. Using the power of social media, we had an event attended by around 120 people. There was a great buzz in the hall of the London Muslim Centre / East London Mosque as we discussed key subject knowledge. I'm genuinely amazed that people would give up their Saturday, and some pay out of their own pocket, to come to an event I've organised! None of it would be possible without such a great team; huge thanks to [L to R] Claire, Deborah, Kate and Julia. We were still smiling at the end of the day:

While I was at the conference, post arrived, which I only opened on Sunday - my invite to Buckingham Palace! The CES nominated me for my work in Catholic education and I was put forward by the DfE too attend. Mobile phones need to be switched off, so no live tweeting the event or selfies with Liz!

I think as teachers, when recognition and praise comes your way, it can feel a little awkward.

I know I am not the greatest of teachers, although I'd hope that most of my lessons are informative and useful for my students. I know there are areas I still need to work on, and improve on. I also know my priorities have shifted somewhat since becoming a dad last October. I also know there are lots of teachers working at capacity who never get a word of thanks or recognition on a daily basis; that's not right.

I'd like to say a big thank you to all those who put faith in me or put me forward for these things; it means more than you could ever imagine - teachers thrive on praise just as much as students do! Thank you.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

#TMLondon - The Aftermath

It is a great privilege for me to be involved in #TMLondon. For the second time, I have been working behind the scenes organising sponsorship, goodies and prizes for the evening. On the day, I was largely running around setting up and checking the competitions and managing the Twitter account. The only downside is that I don't get to hear all the speakers, nor say hello to everyone! 

However, to be part of such an exciting and dynamic event that provides really genuine and authentic CPD for those who attended is a really great thing. I'd like to thank Ross for the opportunity. Here are a few ways to find out what happened:
On to the exciting stuff...


Jonathan Peel was our winner of the M&S hamper courtesy of edukit. Read his blog <here>
There were lots of great blogs on Staffrm, read them all <here> - The Staffrm team picked their best blog which belonged to Jaz Ampaw-Farr, read it <here>

EduKit is a social enterprise part funded by the DfE putting people before profit, we want to help all schools find the relevant support for their students, we have built a FREE online platform that can connect schools to external organisations that offer student programmes to help with all types of issues your students may face. We have over 800 organisations registered and more joining everyday! 30% of our programmes are FREE. It is completely FREE to register and use and all staff are welcome! Feel free to sign up and have a look https://www.edukit.org.uk/register/



ClassCharts have offered to pay for dinner for two! This will be at a restaurant of your choice. In order to win this, you need to write a blog about #TMLondon - What Happened Next? You could blog about an idea that you used in your classroom, or an idea you share with collegaues. Have you been inspired to run your own TeachMeet, or have you made a new network connection. The deadline for this is Thursday 21st April 2016. The #TMLondon team will pick a winner. Please email all entries to TeachMeetLondon@gmail.com 

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Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Y11 Survival: Me or Them?

Surviving the last few weeks as a Head of Year 11 is tougher than I thought. I'm in my second year as a HoY taking the cohort up from Y10 to Y11 in my all girls comprehensive. It feels close the great climax... A mountain climbed? Or am I on cliff edge? Bit of both?

Since the start of March, I've noticed my pastoral workload has become incredibly demanding. Any time in school seems to be taken up by these pastoral issues and lunch is generally taken while 'on the go'. It has taken my full 10 years of teaching experience to manage some of the situations, and there are still more where I look back and still wonder if I made the right choice in handling a student, parent or colleague.

As HoY, you are rarely perceived to get the balance right... Some will say you are too hard, others too soft. I know I have high standards and expectations of my year group, but equally I think I know (most of the time) when and where to put that pressure on. 

Some people have been amazed that I have maintained that detentions take priority (revision sessions are a privilege to be earned). They still receive sanctions for uniform, lateness, mobile phone usage etc. I've sometimes rearranged the detentions to ensure they have the minimum impact on colleagues plans, but the students need to take responsibility for their actions regardless of their pending exams; I have been unapologetic when I maintain that Y11 still need to follow the school rules. 

The following have all been a major feature of the last 4 to 6 school weeks, and will no doubt continue for the next 4. The RE exam on the 16th May is a major date in my diary as both subject teacher AND HoY. Study leave will have begun!

  • Tears
  • Fights
  • Rudeness to staff
  • Friendship Issues
  • Poor Physical Health
  • Over Tiredness (falling asleep in lessons)
  • Mental Health Issues

Knowing all this, rarely have I felt so conflicted, especially as I have my own Y11 GCSE RE class. Homework, revision classes, additional exam papers... and I am just one of 9 or 10 subjects. 

The trouble is, staff are also at a point where they are over stressed (and pre Easter, over tired). When you only have a few lessons to go and you haven't finished the syllabus, you - perhaps quite rightly - have very little tolerance for students doing anything even remotely short of your expectations. Equally, when you know pay progression depends on these students achieving their target, it's understandable you want the class in front of you firing all cylinders.

Perhaps my problem is that I do try to help, and intervene, and find ways forward and devise strategies for both the staff and students. I always try to say something more than "thanks for letting me know". I think it's part of the problem of pastoral leadership for many, it's not just a TLR but a vocation. However it does mean my inbox keeps going 'ping' and if I venture into the staff room I need my notebook and pen (being organised and recording everything in your own little systems is the only way to cope with pastoral leadership).

Being pro-active seems to be the best approach at the moment. Trying to keep my eyes open and ears to the ground. Anticipating the problem before it happens. Thankfully I have some excellent tutors to help; they are the front-line in many respects. I have managed to develop enough positive relationships that I can usually get to the bottom of 'the issue' quite quickly. 

It's been a real eye opener for me. I used to be the first to complain when a Y11 didn't do my homework or pay 100% attention in my lessons at this stage. But now when I sit down and have a chat with a tearful 16 year old and discuss what's going on at home, in Maths, in after school Science revision, on social media and with their boyfriend, I understand a little better. Some of that is nothing to do with me, but as a child, it can be hard to draw the distinctions. All of it can seem unsurpassable.

As difficult and demanding as it is, this job still feels like a privilege. You get an insight into the real world of the teenager, and it's a pretty tough place. Knowing all this can only make me a better teacher, right?

I used to think every student needed a champion, but now I realise that every student needs positive relationships. For some it's a champion, for others a listening ear, others an uncompromising disciplinarian. Amazingly most seem to appreciate it; I even get the odd 'thank you'!

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Monday, 11 April 2016

Mr Tony Ward RIP

On Tuesday 22nd March, I was contacted by various former colleagues asking for prayers for Tony Ward, Head of Geography at my former school, St John Payne. The day before, he had been leading a Y12 field trip in Wales before suffering a stroke. The students acted immediately and Tony was taken to a nearby hospital. Over the following days, there were various updates... one minute good news, the next a turn for the worst. I think we all believed that if anyone would pull through it would be Tony. Sadly on April 5th 2016, after various complications, Tony passed away.

As well as a colleague, it was a pleasure to call Tony a friend. I joined St John Payne, as a fresh faced 22 year old in the summer of 2006. The RE department were situated in Middle School, alongside the Geography department. As such, this meant not only invites to Fionnuala Long's room for break, but also the school ski trip and meals to Prezzo. The expertise and experience shared over a cup of tea was invaluable to my professional development and at times the best CPD you could get!

The thing that will always remain with me about Tony, was his absolute love of his teaching subject. For him, it was one of the most important things about the job. Indeed, his room (more like his own annex!) was one of the best resourced and stocked teaching spaces you could ever dream of. Most of this was down to Tony's hard work, relentless recording of relevant TV programs and collection of maps, posters and diagrams. It must have been an inspiring place for students to work; I'm still jealous now!

The way the students admired him, loved him and fought loyally for him clearly demonstrated what an amazing teacher he was. If you spoke to former students, they would frequently ask, "How's Wardy?". Hearing some of their stories about the things Tony did for them while in his class or tutor group show exactly the kind of teacher, and man, he was.

Perhaps foolishly, he never said no to a student wanting to do his subject at A-Level, even if it meant taking a class of 40. He would work long into the night ensuring their work was marked, this after being the last one to leave the school building each night. Up and down the country, and probably beyond, there is an army of Geography teachers inspired by Tony. Each one of them will carry on his legacy. 

He would sometimes ask me what my career ambitions were. At that stage, I didn't really know where I wanted to end up (not sure I do now!). He was always sure to remind me that there was nothing wrong with staying in the classroom for your whole career; "THAT is success", he would tell me. He would laugh as he told stories of being asked to apply for SLT jobs and how he always politely but firmly always said "no way!".

Tony warned me to watch out for the "bullsh*t" and "sh*te" that would keep coming at me for my whole career, he told me to ignore it and only do what was best for the students. I think only now I am realising what sense he spoke, and I am grateful that it has stuck with me. In a world of education that only gets crazier, he was always that voice of reason. Crucially, it always involved putting students first.

His high expectations for students were something for everyone to aspire to. He was uncompromising, in the best possible way. It was just unacceptable to not try your best at all times. This related to academic work, standards of behaviour and uniform. He would always give of his best, and expected nothing less of those around him. 

I am also grateful that Tony took the time, two full days in fact, to teach me to ski. He noticed that I was struggling in ski school with the kids and took me out to give me some one to one. His trips were always amazing, and so many great memories were formed with colleagues who became friends. I got to go skiing five times at SJP, and sadly not since; I doubt I could organise a trip that could measure up to his! Piancavallo will always be a special place.

Prezzo in Chelmsford was our favourite meeting place where Tony would organise meals for all the staff of Middle School past and present. He used to remember everyone, and ensure to invite them on each occasion - even trusting us to pay our £20 deposit on the night! Christmas meals, end of the year meals... and of course his 60th birthday meal.

If I ever come even close to being remembered as fondly as Tony is by students, parents and colleagues, I will have done well. His family describe him as "the special one", and indeed he was. Phrases such as inspiration and legendary can be overused, but somehow don't seem adequate for Tony. He will live on in corridors and classrooms, not only at SJP, but up and down the country. Thank you for everything Tony, you will be sorely missed. I doubt there will be another teacher quite like 'Wardy' along anytime soon...
  • Some of Tony's former students have set up a page which will be used by the family to commemorate and remember his life. Reading the comments demonstrates how much Tony meant to his students: https://crowdfunding.justgiving.com/Tonyward 
  • Further details of events commorating Tony's life are being posted on the school website: www.sjp.essex.sch.uk 
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, 
and let perpetual light shine upon him. 
May he rest in peace.

Image courtesy of Paul Williams