Redesigning the KS3 Curriculum: Stage One

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How and Why?

I will be going into my new school tomorrow for my first full day. I already know that one of the things I’ll be working on this term is redesigning the KS3 curriculum to help ensure that more students make better progress in English.  I’m very excited to be offered up this blank canvas but there is also a natural anxiety about knowing where to start:  Do I get some colour onto the canvas first in broad sweeping strokes? Do I pencil in my design and then start painting in the details? Or do I start, as the mood takes me, at one corner and then progress to filling in the rest of the picture when I’m ready?

I had to start somewhere. Whilst I am yet to set foot into my new school (as an employee) I thought it best to start redesigning the curriculum by first thinking very carefully, and in some depth, what my values were. How do I think the KS3 curriculum should be taught? Why? I guess, to extend the painting analogy, this is me thinking through my composition before I even touch the canvas. To help me with the thinking process, I put out a Twitter call. Picture1 I had a range of responses (thank you all). I also discussed some ideas in my first #dojochateu about use of gain time on the 20th May. Here were some of the suggestions: @nesswaters@stephanootis@mrclarkeenglish

David Didau suggested that a good place to start was with his blog post, Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum. And so it was, not least because it sparked a whole breadth of reading that has enabled me to decide how I want English to be taught at KS3 and why. Didau’s underlying principles are outlined below and I’ve stolen them as the basis for my redesign because, frankly, I’ve been completely convinced by them.

Principle 1: Education should enrich students’ cultural capital

The English literary canon is made up of a wealth of great works from Austen to Auden; Blake to the Bronte sisters and Chaucer to Conrad. It is a sad indictment of the way English is taught in some schools that there are students out there who would not know who these authors were much less have read their work. And why haven’t they engaged with these great works? Perhaps because they aren’t considered engaging, accessible or relevant enough for our 11-14 year olds. It might be preferable (easier?) to teach year 9s Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ than explore the dystopia of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.

Didau argues that, ‘There are those who claim it is elitist and the preserve of posh kids in private schools, and that ‘kids like these’ should be given a diet of transient but appealing modern texts because that is what is most relevant to their foreshortened little lives. This is unbelievably patronising, selfish and short-sighted. If we allow the canon to be the preserve of the elite we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.’ The short-term gain of teaching an ‘appealing modern text’ is to the long-term detriment of our students. They’ll be entering the world without the cultural capital of their more fortunate contemporaries. I can see why students might struggle with Hardy but that isn’t a bad thing (see more about desirable difficulties in another blog post by Didau here). Just because it’s Hard(y) doesn’t mean it isn’t right for ‘our’ kids. I don’t want to patronise my students.

In his blog post, How to Choose Study Texts in English: Part Two, James Theo says that we have the opportunity to, ‘Give pupils access to texts that will be referenced throughout their lives. Texts that have endured and seeped into public consciousness will offer us touchstones and reference points that help us contribute to and understand the conversation of mankind. They supply us with a shorthand to use and understand throughout every stage of our lives.’ As an example he demonstrates the referencing of Golding’s ‘The Lord of the Flies’ in films such as ‘Hook’ and ‘Anchorman’ to the TV series ‘Lost’. Yes students can still engage with popular culture without understanding these literary references but they’re clearly missing out on something. I don’t want my students to be engaging with the ‘conversation of mankind’ with ear plugs in their ears and cotton wool in their mouths.

And it’s not just about ‘getting’ literary references, in his blog post A New English Curriculum, Alex Quigley says that, ‘Knowledge of the literary canon is fundamentally empowering. Just as highly functional literacy is equally as empowering. Those adults among us who read texts, newspapers, social media threads, television documentaries, novels and non-fiction with the ease of an expert are all deploying their canonical knowledge instinctively. Of course, we should not deny this opportunity to any of our students.’ I want my students to be empowered.

Principle 2: Knowledge of grammar is foundational and transformative

Didau argues that having knowledge of grammar is powerful because it’s fundamental to our ability to think and communicate. I, like him, was not taught much explicitly at school with regards to knowledge about grammar. I could make a good judgement implicitly about if a sentence worked or not but I wasn’t informed about why. Thankfully, through teaching explicit grammar skills, I’ve learnt a lot and I agree that it is foundational and transformative.

Didau refers to Daisy Christodoulou’s argument that the best way to teach grammar is through decontextualised drill and his suggestion is that it would be worth having a discrete grammar lesson. This will definitely be something I explore. I’m not a new convert to the idea of decontextualised grammar teaching,  I was lucky enough to work in Geoff Barton’s school for the first 5 years of my teaching career and also ‘happen’ to own a copy of his, ‘Grammar Survival: A Teacher’s Toolkit’. In it, Barton suggests using a series of starters, not linked to the main part of the lesson, to reinforce grammar knowledge and skills.

Principle 3: Study of English should be based on the ‘threshold concepts’ of the subject

Before reading Didau’s Principled curriculum blog post I had never heard of ‘threshold concepts’ but they are, it seems, a bit like stepping through the looking glass. Once you’ve passed through you can never see things quite the same way again. He gives an example, ‘Before you learn to decode writing is just funny squiggles.  But once decoding is learned, you will only be able to see letters.’ In his blog post, Designing a New Curriculum – What Are Your ‘Big Ideas’?, Alex Quigley refers to Meyer and Land’s definition of a ‘threshold concept’ as: transformative, troublesome, irreversible and integrative and he gives some suggestions about ‘threshold concepts’ in English.

I, however, like Didau’s suggestion that, ‘Maybe there aren’t any real threshold concepts in English; maybe there are only ways of thinking and practising’ and he suggests the following for our subject: structure and coherence; spelling, punctuation and grammar; awareness of impact; understanding context; using evidence and analysing technique. He goes on to say that, ‘It makes little sense to divide these concepts into reading and writing – better, I think, to interleave their study so that pupils are unaware where reading blurs into writing and the twin strands of creativity and analysis are experienced holistically.’ In an earlier post, Redesigning a curriculum, Didau includes an image of a learning loop using these concepts to teach reading non-fiction, persuasive writing, analysing poetry and creative writing. It’s certainly given me a lot to think about for my re-design and I’m going to do some more reading about threshold concepts.

Principle 4: Knowledge of literature should be sequentially introduced

This was something I had never considered before. I’ve never questioned why I might teach ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ followed by a Shakespeare play followed by WW1 poetry. Why haven’t I questioned this?

Didau argues that, ‘If every text pupils study related back the text they’ve studied previously then they will be able to make strong relational links between the text and its context. They will have an understanding of what writers would have known and they will begin to be able to piece together the story of literature from its classical roots, through the medieval, renaissance, Victorian and modern periods.’

In his blog post, What makes a great school curriculum?, Joe Kirby asserts that, ‘Powerful chronological and contextual knowledge deepens understanding and accelerates students’ interpretations of texts’. He puts forward a convincing argument for the sequential teaching of texts and suggests students begin in year 7 by studying Epic Greek Myths / ‘The Odyssey’ and move on to study a Greek play, analyse Roman speeches, come back to England with ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and end the year with Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’.  It’s clear to see how each subsequent text links back to the previous one and how that would deepen students’ understanding. His suggestions also clearly meet the cultural capital principle.

Principle 5: Sustained progress is preferable to rapid progress

A culture of assessment, accountability and fear of Ofsted has had the opposite effect to the one I presume was intended: it decreases the quality of learning. As teachers we are judged on our ability to ‘perform’ in a single lesson. But ‘perform’ is the right word. We all know teachers who can pull a good lesson out of the bag when they’re being observed but are they a ‘Good’ or better teacher all the time? We can see from this example that performance in a single lesson is not indicative of ability and the same is true for students. They might be able to perform and recall what you’ve just taught them but can they recall it the next lesson, week or month? Several of David Didau’s blog posts are dedicated to this subject – I would definitely suggest having a read of this, this and this – and I’m convinced that when I redesign the KS3 curriculum I need to prioritise long term learning.

What now?

With a half term filled with reading (alongside going to Radio One’s Big Weekend, visiting family, entertaining my boys and camping in the rain) I feel ready to go into my new school tomorrow with a good idea about how I want to approach this redesign and why. The next step will be putting pen to paper (or paintbrush to blank canvas) to start addressing the questions of what, when and who. I will let you know how I get on…   

See how I got on with my post on Stage Two here.

Why I pay to teach…

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The background story

When I started my teaching career in September 2007, my only ambition was to be the best teacher I could be. I had no plans to progress into leadership and if I were to have been asked where I saw myself in 5 years I’d have imagined myself taking a career break to be a full time mum. The best laid plans…

Within a year I’d been appointed as Coordinator of Teacher Induction and then in September 2009 I became Second in English. As it turned out, I was more ambitious than I’d realised. I wanted to have an impact beyond the students that I taught. Being Second allowed me to have a significant input into decisions that affected the whole department and I soon started considering the idea of pursuing a Head of Department role.

Then in September 2011, after relocating to London over the summer, my first son was born. I’d left a school that I loved and was thriving in, moved somewhere new and had a baby – I didn’t know what was going to happen next with my career. What I did know fairly swiftly was that being a full time mum was not for me. Thankfully I managed to secure a part-time post for September 2012 which allowed me to get back into teaching but also allowed me to dedicate time to the very important job of raising my son.

Working three days a week has worked really well for me over the past three years. To begin with, the pay covered the cost of putting my son in nursery with a little bit left over (this is in part due to the fact we live in London but I work out of London so don’t get the additional pay). However, with the arrival of my second son in January 2014 I had to make the decision whether I was going to stay at home full time or lose the household a few hundred pound a month to go to work. It wasn’t a difficult decision for me and so, for the past year, I’ve been paying to teach.

It hasn’t been easy. With a mortgage and two children under 4 in nursery it has been a real stretch but I don’t regret the decision.

So why do I pay to teach?

I am a teacher

I’ve realised that a huge part of my identity is that I am a teacher. This isn’t just a job for me; it is who I am. If I were to draw a diagram of the components of myself, the teacher portion would be pretty big. Therefore, not teaching really doesn’t make much sense to me. Who would I be?

I had a year out with my first son and, in all honesty, I felt a bit lost. I’d been previewing the film of me as a mother for many years. Cue a montage of scenes: me prancing about in my Cath Kidston apron making up batches of delicious cupcakes with my son sitting, and playing happily stacking cups, on the floor; coffee mornings with other mums; picnics in the park… [insert other super mum, idealistic visions].

The reality, of course, was rather different. Finding the time to finish a cup of tea was a challenge let alone home baking. Having told my mum that I’d become one of those women who’d iron her bedsheets, I barely even managed to iron what I wanted to wear. For some reason my son didn’t get the concept of sitting still and, being a tinker, would gleefully climb the furniture, empty cupboards and swipe entire contents off shelves. It was relentlessly demanding and that is to say nothing of the sleep deprivation and the challenge parenting places on seemingly simple tasks like getting out of the house. If I was to pick a soundtrack for that year it’d be a compilation of ‘In the Night Garden’ songs. On repeat. “Yes – my name is Igglepiggle , Igglepiggle, niggle, wiggle, diggle!”

Not only was the film of my life not playing out quite how I’d imagined, how, I wondered, was looking after one tiny human more of a challenge than a room full of 30 hormonal teenagers?

The answer, I think, is that full time parenting just isn’t for me. I could feel guilty about that but I’m a pragmatist. For some, becoming a parent is a revelation and they find what they’re meant to be doing. They’re natural mothers or fathers and being a full time parent suits them. My full time parenting friends are inspirational and I never cease to be impressed with the fantastic job they do. But it’s not for me in the same way that being a teacher isn’t for everybody. I found what I’m meant to be doing when I trained to be a teacher. It’s who I am.

I enjoy my job

I love being in school – it makes me happy. For me, teaching is a vocation. I enjoy the variety, the challenge and the interaction with teenagers (see my post here about how I’d describe the job of teaching teenagers). That’s not to say my boys don’t make me happy, they do, but I need that fulfilment I get from being in the classroom. That may sound incredibly selfish but I happen to think that being happy makes me a better mother and teaching makes me happy.

It’s an investment

My ambition and drive rather took me by surprise but now that I’ve embraced it, I want to progress. My boys won’t be in nursery forever so paying to work for this short period of time is an investment in that progression. If I had taken a career break it not only would have delayed things but I wouldn’t have learnt everything I’ve learnt over the past few years.

Furthermore, I see it as an investment in my children’s development. Their nursery is absolutely fantastic in every single way and they are very happy there. I don’t even let them play with Play Doh inside the house anymore (if you’ve tried getting it out of carpets you’d understand) so there’s no way I’d be allowing them to do the kind of messy things they get up to at nursery (playing with shaving foam, rolling around in big buckets of spaghetti, water fun). They’ve had the opportunity to watch eggs hatch into chicks and caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies. They’ve socialised with other little ones their age and have interacted with a range of responsible adults. I’m confident that they’ve got an awful lot out of being at nursery. It’s worth every penny.

I want to make a difference

Cheesy, I know, but true. I remember saying this when I went for my PGCE interview in response to the question, ‘Why do you want to be a teacher?’ I want to help young people achieve the very best that they can.

What now?

After a year of paying to teach, things are about to change. I’ve been appointed as a Lead Practitioner in a new school and will be working full time from September. It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity but I won’t deny that I’m nervous about moving away from part-time teaching, perhaps forever, into the demands of a promotion and working full-time. I am, however, relieved that it should mean that we’re breaking even on the childcare cost front.

I don’t know if I’m the only teacher out there whose been paying to work (I’d be interested to hear from anybody else who’s been in a similar position) but I don’t regret it for a moment. For me it has been absolutely the right decision. It’s also got to say something about how brilliant teaching is, hasn’t it, that somebody’s willing to pay to do it? Take all those negative press stories about the state of teaching with a pinch of salt. Yes it’s a challenging role but maybe that’s why it’s so rewarding.

Is it brave to teach teenagers?

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Here’s how a typical conversation goes when somebody asks me what I do for a living:

Stranger: What do you do?

Me: I’m a teacher.

Stranger: What age do you teach?

Me: 11-18 year olds.

Stranger: [Sharp intake of breath] Oooh you’re brave!

Am I brave? I wouldn’t say so and I’m not sure I’d describe my colleagues as such – or, if I were to, it wouldn’t be because they taught teenagers. We’re teachers, not lion tamers. I think, though, that lots of people don’t see much of a difference. In the public psyche the lion embodies teenagers’ potential for danger and disorder. A wild cat that’s roar is quite probably not as bad as its bite. We teachers, the lion tamer, need to be on guard. The whip is the threat of punishment used to keep the lion in check and the chair a distraction which keeps the beast focused instead of tearing us to pieces (I’m not sure what the top hat and red coat represent but I wouldn’t mind jazzing up my work wear…).

If teenagers were a cat, they wouldn’t be a lion they’d be a kitten. A fluffy, playful and occasionally naughty kitten. I’m not denying that there are a few teenagers who can be dangerous and violent but these are the exception not the rule. I wouldn’t describe being a teacher as brave because I’m not afraid of teenagers and nor should we be. Teenagers are not an unfortunate hazard of the job – they are oftentimes the thing that keeps teachers teaching in spite of all the pressures. Despite the bad press they get, the secret is that teenagers are hilarious and I don’t think we say enough about how brilliant they are to work with.

If I were to use just one adjective to describe working with teenagers it’d be: fun. I don’t have the data (shame on me) but I can say with some confidence that I have laughed out loud at least once every day that I’ve been teaching. Whether it’s laughing at a fashion faux pas, being asked the most bizarre questions or being given a ridiculous excuse, there’s always something to smile about. They are a genuinely funny lot.

As a recent example to illustrate my point, here’s the exam advice one of my friend’s students gave to their year 10 classmates before they embarked on a timed exam practice:

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So if you’re thinking about becoming a teacher, don’t believe all you hear about teenagers. Remember that you used to be one and I’m sure you weren’t that bad. They might be more tech savvy, and certainly more socially connected than ever before, but they’re essentially the same. If anything you might pity them. At least when you went to school on a bad hair day (I was a teenager in the bleak times before hair straighteners) there wasn’t a picture of it plastered all over Facebook.

If you are a teacher, what one word would you use to describe teaching?

 

 

What I learnt from building a tower out of newspaper…

Two days ago I attended the first workshop, focused on how to lead a team, of my NPQML course. Amongst other things we were reminded of Bruce Tuckman’s team-development model (Forming Storming Performing Normning) and did some role play *cringe* of difficult conversations (if any of my NPQML buddies are reading this, see the following blog posts for advice on having difficult conversations: @TeacherToolkit’s here; @ICTEvangelist’s here or @katie_s_ashford here).

After lunch we were asked to get into groups of three with people we hadn’t yet had a chance to talk to throughout the day. Whilst one would be observing, the other two team members were tasked with the job of building a tower using newspaper and masking tape. The tower had to be as tall as possible and needed to support a Freddo. I understand that this is not an uncommon task to set groups on team-building days but it wasn’t something I’ve done before and, being competitive and enjoying a challenge, I was pretty excited to get stuck in as a builder.

We were told that we would have 10 minutes to complete the challenge. Before the time started, Tom (my fellow builder) asked me if I wanted to construct something resembling the Eiffel Tower or St Paul’s Cathedral. Thinking he was joking I suggested, instead, that we aim for the Taj Mahal. At this point he seemed to think through how that could be achieved with the materials at hand and I quietly bemoaned my proposal.

The countdown started and I initially attempted to agree a plan with Tom. It became apparent, however, that Tom had already settled on creating a tripod-like homage to the Eiffel Tower. I was still debating how were going to be able to support a Freddo on top of one of those, and wondered what scrunching paper up might achieve, when he started rolling sheets of newspaper. Tom suggested I got on with scrunching to see what came out of it. As a natural strategist I’d have preferred to talk things through first but, buoyed by his action, I got stuck in.

With Tom rolling and me scrunching it was clear that, if we were going to be successful, we could not continue on these divergent paths. It would be like trying to make a tasty cocktail by combining milk with beer (I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t work). My scrunching efforts were clearly not meeting the requirements of height, I think I had a croquembouche vision but not enough time to scrunch sufficient paper profiteroles, so I decided to defer to Tom’s plan.

Together Tom and I rolled newspaper into cones and brought them together. Keen for my scrunching efforts not to go to waste, Tom suggested we might try and incorporate it as the platform upon which to rest the Freddo. We somehow managed to tape the scrunched ball thing on top of our tripod of cones and here is the fruit of our labour…
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Sadly we didn’t win but we did create something that was both tall(ish) and supported a Freddo. Hurrah.

What did I learn?

The first thing I learnt from this activity was the power of the plenary. It was through the debrief of the activity, with skilful questioning from the facilitators, that I understood the range of things I could take away from such a seemingly simple activity. I could have dismissed it as a bit of nonsense but the fact that I’m still thinking about it two days later is largely down to the reflection I was led through.

I learnt that it is important to have a clear vision and a plan of how to achieve it. Yes we did meet the goal but if the towers in the room were in a league table ours would be sitting somewhere in the middle. We all know what lies in store for coasting schools… Neither of us had a vision of a spike topped with a ball but that’s what we ended up achieving. Even if I didn’t agree with Tom’s Eiffel Tower vision, or he my croquembouche, it would have been better to commit to one or the other from the start. I think this highlights the power of planning backwards – thinking first about what you want to achieve (and what that looks like), sharing this clearly with your team and then working together to achieve it.

I learnt that you need to agree on the ‘how’ as well as the ‘where’. Tom and I were both working towards the same goal, something tall and supportive, but we had different ideas about how to achieve it (roll vs. scrunch). We didn’t achieve the best results because we didn’t have an agreed strategy and therefore there was every chance that the first few minutes’ worth of my scrunching would all have been for naught. We shouldn’t be in the business of wasting, or allowing people to waste their own, time. If you have a shared strategy this can be avoided and you won’t have team members wasting their efforts on things that will eventually be discarded.  ‘You can only spend time once; spend it wisely’ (@LeadingLearner).

I learnt that it is worth looking around you. Had I done this sooner I would have seen a very sturdy, and tall, tower being built by rolling whole newspapers up before stacking them one on top of the other. Being the magpie that I am I would have seen that team’s success and stolen their shiny idea. Why not? In the teaching world it seems very sensible to me to see what successful teams are doing, or what research is telling us works, and cherry pick the ideas that will work in our own contexts.

I learnt that to achieve a goal you have to be able to deal with curve balls. Some teams didn’t get to the resources table quick enough and therefore either didn’t get their hands on enough paper or didn’t have masking tape. They had two choices: give up and sit eating their Freddo or try to achieve the goal despite the challenges they faced. These teams managed by borrowing from others and making the most of the resources they had. We’re a resilient and adaptable bunch, us teachers, and we need to be able to work with what we’ve got and what gets thrown at us. Whether that’s a change in the curriculum, a team member on long term sick or a lack of resources, a successful team will find a way to work through it.

I learnt that for long term success you need to achieve things that can built upon. The tallest tower in the room managed to stay up long enough to win first place. Well done that team. But, applause finished, it very soon tumbled. If we’re measuring our success by reaching the finishing line first, but then collapsing, who are we benefiting? We should keep thinking about how to reinforce and build upon our ideas so that they have long term impact rather than achieving quick hits. It’s all very well and good throwing everything at getting one cohort of students the best grades possible but if that’s not going to lead to life-long learning or success for subsequent groups of students is that what we want? Is that really success? (I’m not just saying this to suggest that really my team won because ours remained standing for longer – I promise!)

Finally, I learnt that CPD is what you make it. I could have enjoyed the activity, eaten my Freddo and moved on. If you see CPD as a day off teaching with the possibility of a decent lunch you’re missing a trick. If, instead, you take the time to reflect on your learning you might just come away having learnt something useful.

How to be a Happy Teacher: Tip #2

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Ring-fence some time

It is a truth universally accepted that the job of a teacher is never done. Trying to get to a stage where there is absolutely nothing more you could do for your students, your department or your school is an exercise in futility. If you let it, school work will seep into all of your evenings, your weekends and even your dreams. If you want to be a happy teacher, do yourself a favour and ring-fence some time for you.

What do I mean by ring-fencing? Essentially you protect a portion of time and treat it as sacred. No matter how busy school is, no matter how long your to do list, that time is for you to spend doing whatever it is you like to do to unwind (according to this piece in the Guardian, that might be anything from collecting shopping lists to sculpting but I rate sleeping pretty highly). Over the years I’ve tweaked the arrangement a bit but generally speaking I ring-fence one evening in the week and a whole day at the weekend. Maybe that’s why I’m still enjoying my career nearly a decade in. I love teaching but I have a life beyond the limits of my classroom.

Of course you have to be good at compartmentalising for this to work. If you spend all of your ring-fenced time worrying about the work you’re not doing, it’s all been for nothing. I’ll let you into a secret that might help you to let go and enjoy this work-free time… Giving yourself time to relax, and therefore less time to work, can actually make you more productive and efficient in the time that you do dedicate to working. Instead of feeling perpetually tired, and possibly resentful, you’re more likely to have a fresh head and a bit of enthusiasm.

All too often I see teachers burning themselves out. The received wisdom seems to be that it’s OK to work like a mad thing during term time because we’re all looking at the carrot dangling from the stick on the horizon – half term, Christmas, Easter, Summer  – and deferring our rest and recuperation*. The problem with this is that teachers often make themselves ill, and if not ill then miserable, by the end of the 6, 7 or even 8 weeks of term (Autumn Term is a killer). I certainly don’t want to spend my half term cradling a mug of Lemsip and waving my fists in the air at the injustice of it all. Attempting to get a work-life balance during term time will make you a happier, and healthier, teacher.

* A teacher at a school I taught at would, at the full staff meeting at start of every term, faithfully tell us how many teaching days we had left until the next break.

See Tip #1.

See Tip #3.

How to be a Happy Teacher: Tip #1

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Smile

Teaching is an inherently stressful profession. It’s a lot like spinning plates. You’ll have one spinning beautifully but there’s no time to enjoy its mesmerising whirl because you have the others to attend to. Before you know it, you’re dashing maniacally up and down a line of plates on sticks desperately trying to avoid losing control – nobody wants to drop a plate and be left with the broken crockery of inadequate spinning.

I understand that all of the plates are important and that you are a very busy bee. You’re masterfully spinning: the behaviour plate; the half termly reports plate; the differentiation plate; the performance management plate… (I could go on). But if you want to be a happy teacher you need to somehow try and do it all with a smile on your face.

I don’t know when you last saw somebody actually spinning plates (have a look at Erich Brenn) but, the chances are, they were smiling. Part of that is probably the smugness of doing the practically impossible but part of it is because they’re entertainers. It’s not a new analogy but we teachers are performers too. If we want people to have confidence in us then we need to show that we have confidence in ourselves by smiling whilst we manage the very challenging role of being educators.

You might well now be asking how smiling through it all will make you a happy teacher. Good question. We know that when we’re happy we smile but does smiling make you happy? According to research the answer is yes.

In 2012 a study entitled, ‘Grin and Bear It: The Influence of Positive Facial Expression on the Stress Response’ was published in the Journal Psychological Science. A group of 170 participants were asked to complete stressful tasks whilst holding chopsticks in their mouths that either produced a Duchenne smile (think smiling eyes and mouth), a standard smile or a neutral expression. When participants were recovering from the stress they’d been put under, the smiley lot had (regardless of whether they were aware of smiling) lower heart rates, especially the Duchenne group. The study found that there were both physiological and psychological benefits to maintaining a positive facial expression during stress. Smiling is good for you.

So, if you’ve been feeling stressed – especially in the run up to exams – why not give smiling more a whirl. Even if you’re feeling like it’s the last thing in the world you want to do, smile. It might just make you a happier teacher.

See Tip #2.

See Tip #3.

An Open Letter to Nicky Morgan

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Dear Nicky Morgan,

I should probably start by confessing that I’m not a Conservative voter – not even one of those ‘shy Tories’ I’ve heard a lot about these past few days. Since the results were announced on Friday of the much anticipated #GE2015, I have worked through feelings of denial and anger. I’m probably somewhere in the depression stage but I know I need to move on to acceptance or else the next five years could be really quite bleak.

So, Nicky, I accept we have a problem (you probably don’t see it is a problem but to me the problem is that we have a Conservative majority government). I, along with the rest of the country, have to accept that this is the way things are and will be until 2020. We’d better try and make the best of it. In that spirit I decided that I’d start by writing you this letter.

The entire teaching profession were so busy celebrating Gove’s departure last July that I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t really think all that much about his replacement. Anybody, surely, was better than Gove? Furthermore, with the election looming, we didn’t know whether to settle in with you. But you’ve been doing the job of Education Secretary for 10 months and therefore your re-appointment by Cameron yesterday makes sense.

My assessment of your first 10 months would be that they were pretty quiet – certainly quieter than the infuriating din of Gove’s time in office. However, you did do something novel and ask for our views (tick) and you’ve said that a priority for you is to continue to work on what teachers told you in the Workload Challenge (double tick). It would have been an even better start, though, if you hadn’t suggested teenagers should steer clear of the arts and humanities…

As you return to your role as Education Secretary, I thought I might offer you some advice.

Listen to teachers

It’s a scary and damning statistic that 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years. This has to stop. Workload is certainly one of the causes, and you’ve made a good start by listening to our ideas on that front, but there are other reasons why teachers are feeling compelled to leave a profession they trained hard to get in to. Get to the bottom of what’s causing the exodus and do something about it. Research has shown that the quality of teaching has the biggest impact on pupil achievement so focus your attention on retaining your best asset – us.

Show that you respect the profession, an informed and passionate lot, by listening to what teachers have to say. Make opportunities to meet with teachers and hear their opinions on your ideas before they become policy and don’t be shy about spreading the news that said policies have been informed by these discussions. We’ll appreciate it.

Get some relevant work experience

Everybody I speak to has an opinion on what we should do to improve education. This opinion is usually largely, or solely, based on personal experience. We’ve all had an education and depending upon what our school experience was like we think we know what makes schooling either good or bad. Truthfully, this isn’t a sound basis for making comments or suggestions about the current system.

A quick look online tells me that you went to a fee paying school. I’m not about to start criticising you for having parents who decided to opt you out of the Comprehensive system but I would dare to suggest that you don’t have much experience of what school life is like for the vast majority of the population. With a career as a corporate lawyer you also don’t have any relevant professional experience but this is not all that unusual for our Education Secretaries (Michael Gove was a journalist; Alan Johnson a postman).

But whilst you can’t change your schooling or your previous career you could do something now to improve your kudos with teachers: get some relevant work experience. Spend some time in schools shadowing pupils and teachers, observing lessons and experiencing the challenges that are facing us first hand: sweeping curriculum changes, workload and spending cuts. I will be so bold as to say that I’d happily have you come and join me for a week or two. I think you’d find it illuminating.

Keep your promises

This seems an obvious one but if you’re going to make promises, stick to them. I’ve been teaching nearly a decade and there hasn’t been a single year without some significant change to which I’ve had to adapt. As a profession we feel that we’re constantly running to catch up with the changes and it is, frankly, exhausting. You’ve now promised a year’s notice for any significant changes to qualifications and the curriculum. Stick to that promise and let us catch our breath.

I hope that you read this letter and I hope that it gives you some pause for thought. I wish you all the best of luck; I think that if you are able to listen to teachers you will be taking a step in the right direction of having a positive impact over the coming years.

Yours Sincerely,

Mrs F.

Blue Blood Bath

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Today I learnt that even the best political commentators can get it spectacularly wrong. I doubt even David Cameron thought he’d today emerge the leader of a majority Conservative Government. Who would have guessed?

So, Mr Cameron, let’s see if you can deliver on the education promises you made in your manifesto. You promised to:

  • Maintain the amount of money that follows each child into school
  • Ensure there is a good primary school place available for every child with zero tolerance for failure
  • Turn every failing and coasting secondary school into an academy
  • Lift the cap on university places
  • Create 3 million new apprenticeships
  • Train an extra 17,500 Maths and Physics teachers
  • Open at least 500 new free schools
  • Commit £18 billion for new school buildings
  • Recruit and keep the best teachers by reducing the time they spend on paperwork

The Conservatives are planning to introduce ‘tough new standards’ for literacy and numeracy in primary schools. They are expecting 11-year-olds to enter secondary school knowing their times table off by heart, able to read a book and able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar. I’d certainly like to see all of my year 7s joining with these skills – what a great foundation upon which to build – but it is not clear how the Tories intend to make this happen. I know that my primary school colleagues are already working flat out trying to ensure that their pupils are leaving primary school with the skills they need for success. The Conservative manifesto suggested that if children do not reach the required standards in their exams at the end of primary school, they will resit them in year 7 to ‘make sure no pupil is left behind’. As if testing students again is the way in which you raise student achievement…

There will be less flexibility for our GCSE students to study the subjects that they want to. The Conservatives will require that secondary school pupils take GCSEs in English, Maths, Science a language and History or Geography. And if schools don’t deliver this? The threat that Ofsted will be unable to award its highest ratings.

The Conservatives will also expect every teacher to be trained in how to deal with low level disruption. I don’t deny that this is an issue in schools (Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw raised this in September) but the number of times I read ‘discipline’ in the manifesto was a concern to me. I think there are other things that would have greater impact on improving achievement: smaller class sizes, investment in quality CPD and more PPA time for a start. In turn these things would reduce low level disruption.

Despite being advocates of entrusting our children’s education to unqualified teachers, they apparently want teachers to be regarded in the same way as other highly skilled professionals. You might think this would involve better pay for teachers but, instead, they intend to support the creation of an independent College of Teaching to ‘promote the highest standards of teaching and school leadership’.

Time will, of course, tell but I can’t help but feel a little blue (pun intended) at the 2015 General Election results.

#GE2015

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In the run up to one of the least predictable general elections of all time*, I have been learning about the education policies in the manifestos of some of the key parties. It seems unlikely that any one party will have a majority by the time we wake up tomorrow (which leaves some wiggle room for our wily politicians to dump less popular manifesto ‘promises’ in the name of compromise) but it’s interesting to see what ideas these politicians have in mind for our students – and for us their teachers! It will also be interesting to see what policies make it through the delicate negotiations of the next few weeks.

* Does anybody else feel it’s a bit like betting on the Grand National?

So here’s my break down of some of what the parties are telling us about what they want to see happen with education over the next 5 years:

Spending

Spending seems a sensible place to start the comparison. Nick Clegg said in February that the Lib Dems would prioritise education spending, ‘because nothing is more central to creating both a stronger economy and a fairer society’ and his party have promised to spend 2.5bn more than Labour and 5bn more than the Conservatives. Labour says it will increase education spending at least in line with inflation whilst David Cameron has admitted that school spending per pupil could fall in real terms under a Conservative government.

Qualified Teacher Status

I whole-heartedly believe our students have the right to be taught by a qualified teacher. The idea that anybody can do it, without specialised training, undermines one of the most important and influential professions in this country. I’d certainly be questioning my doctor, lawyer or nurse if they told me that they had no specialist qualifications or training. Labour and Green Party are guaranteeing that all teachers in state schools will be qualified as are the Lib Dems with the proviso that some of those teachers might be working toward QTS. There are no such guarantees in the Conservative manifesto but that’s hardly a surprise given their ideas about having unqualified teachers in Academies and Free Schools.

Class Size

If you are a teacher, or training to be one, you will already know the impact that class size has on your ability to offer support and guidance to individual students. Labour’s manifesto promises that they will cap class sizes at strictly no more than 30 pupils whilst the Green Party cut that by a third to 20 in theirs.

Standards

Research shows that the single biggest impact on a student’s achievement is the quality of teaching they receive. How high standards can be achieved and maintained is a contentious issue. Labour have suggested appointing independent Directors of School Standards whilst the Tories threaten to turn every failing and coasting secondary school into an academy (they’ve also promised that at least 500 free schools will be built).

Miscellaneous

There’s some interesting little nuggets in the manifestos that don’t fit into my other four categories. The Greens seem to be promising things lots of teachers would like: the scrapping of Ofsted because they think It causes too much stress for teachers; the abolishment of SATs and league tables and the end of performance-related pay. The Conservatives are keen on a National Citizen Service, the Lib Dems want to extend free school meals to all Primary aged pupils and Labour are keen that all young people study English and Maths to age 18.

I guess only time will tell which policies make it through the final edit and which will be left on the cutting room floor.

I’m half tempted to stay up all night to see what happens but I’m pretty sure it’ll be a few days before we know which parties will form our next government.

Every day is a school day…

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I regularly find myself saying, ‘Every day is a school day’. Perhaps working my entire adult life with teenagers has encouraged a puerile sense of humour but it does amuse me to use this expression whilst I’m actually in school.

However, I think seeing every day as an opportunity to learn something new isn’t a bad way to live a life and I’m learning new stuff all the time. As an example, I set one of my colleagues the challenge to come to each departmental meeting with a new animal fact and consequently I have learned that:

  • A snail can sleep for 3 years – imagine that!
  • Elephants can smell water from up to 12 miles away
  • If you were to shave a tiger you would find that its stripes are also on its skin

I also happen to think that learning is part of the job of being a teacher – we’re trained to reflect on our practice and consider ways in which it could be improved – we are the learning profession. Plus, thanks to a succession of Education Secretaries (and especially the groan-worthy Gove) who seem hell bent on making their mark, we teachers have to be a pretty adaptable bunch. Being a good learner helps you to adapt.

So… ‘Every day is a school day’ seemed like an appropriate tagline for my brand new blog in which I’m hoping to share some of my views, experiences and what I’m learning nearly a decade into my teaching career.

There’s a lot of negative stuff out there about being a teacher – especially about how we’re all drowning in paper work and miserable – but, despite being fully aware of the challenges, I’m an English teacher who still loves this manic, exhausting, hilarious job. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be*.

*Except perhaps a princess or a millionaire or a best-selling writer.