Thursday, 31 May 2018

Three Years On


Well. That was dramatic.

It's been a while since I've written a blog post on here. I had actually nearly forgotten about this place. This funny little place where an odd history of my teaching lives. I can sum it up, somewhat: I started teaching, I left teaching, I came back to teaching to open a new school, I stopped writing blog posts because I was sort of, well, happy. Other things happened in my life around this central point, but they are, in a way, unimportant right now. Suffice to say though that, elsewhere, I am very happy.

My Principal reminded me of this little folly of a location. He reminded me because he sent a couple of my articles to another head to explain what we do at the school. And then he said something a little sad: 'We are not as exciting as we used to be'. Why was that sad? Because he was right.

We are not as exciting as we used to be.

(I go back on my earlier statement. It is not a little sad. It is very sad. I worry. A Lot. I returned from work one day and told my long-suffering partner that I was going to resign because we were losing what the school is meant to be. It is that sad for me.) 

We are aware of this. And so, to use that terrible word that seems the panacea proposal of any SLT meeting, it's possibly time to Unpick the reasons why. So, in a method from any piece of teenage girls' fiction, to understand this, we need to go back a bit. We need to go back three years, when I wasn't just a unpopular teacher in a swanky new-build school.

Three years ago, I was an unpopular cover teacher in a school I hated, secretly writing my Master's dissertation during lessons. (One day I broke up three fights in the same lesson. (In hindsight I should've let the first one run to it's bloody conclusion; it would've prevented the other two and given me a better chance of finishing the paragraph I was working on.)). I had a job lined up for September: I was going to be Head of English at a brand new, tiny little school. The principal was someone I knew was fantastic, and I was good friends with two of the other teachers. I knew that it was going to be an excellent team. I was all geared up. It was going to be fantastic, amazing, stunning, fun, wonderful, brilliant.

And, well, It was.

We played at being a school. Every day we played. We taught the lessons we wanted to teach, the sports we loved, the games we adored. We broke out of lessons all the time to teach little things. We spent time in each others lessons learning their subjects too. It was beautiful. You can read about it here.

And so what has happened? Why is it not like that anymore? The short answer is that I don't really know. But I can grab some reasons like mayflies out of the air. I have been thinking about this a lot, the way that time has become the greatest enemy because it moves so fast that you don't have an opportunity to get any perspective and then, when you do, it is definitely not the perspective that you wanted. Here, then, like some sort of horrendous parody of Top of the Pops, are my thoughts on how we lost a bit of the spark. It is to be restated, despite being only in the sentence before, that these are MY thoughts. I am not the sole perspective on this, nor shall I ever be, and a number of these comments and musings may well cause arguments. This, however, are some of the reasons our spark has dwindled.

1: Novelties wear off: New things are fun, right? But the enemy of fun is often that the fun thing stops being new. I know, there are those people who've ridden the same rollercoaster a hundred times and still think that it's the most fun thing that's ever happened, but I bet if you painted that bastard Blue they'd be over the moon with kiddie joy. Every new policy I've ever seen in a school has been fantastic at first. From IRIS to PBL and every acronym in between, from Museum Schools to Silent Hallways, even the cane was probably met with glee the first time it came out.

Imagine this with an entire school. Pretty soon all the little things that were fun started being work. They started changing from the stuff we really wanted to do to the stuff we had to do because the students expected it. The students, too, started to become jaded by opportunity. We made little rods for their backs. (actually we did this. Paper Rod Chairs. Fantastic project.) We made bigger rods for our own, then started beating ourselves with them.

2: Smallness doesn't last forever: We started the school in a rented temporary building. We opened with 70 students and a handfull of staff. The whole school buzzed with the excitement of smallness. We would, and never will, be that small again. Our year 10s are now year 12s and they remember the halcyon days of smallness, when teachers really knew them. We have well over doubled in size now. We are in a bigger, purpose-built site that echoes in the wind. We have more kids and so we know them less. We have more staff, from lots of different systems, who don't necessarily buy into the ideals we opened with. We have lost staff - not many - but mainstays of the ideal. Proponents of fun. It is difficult to have fun when you don't even know their names.

3: OFSTED: OFSTED was barely ever mentioned in year one. It was a flicker in the corner of a room, a nothing found under a desk, a mention from another school. In the second year it started creeping in at the edges of conversations like a slow-growing moss, beginning to be in every room, just sat there, waiting, growing. By the start of the third year it had morphed into a man and he stood in the corner of a room with a clipboard and asked question and any time you said something he just said 'okay' and tapped his pen on the clipboard. We actually did pretty well in OFSTED. We were never going to be Outstanding, and so the Good we received was, well, Good. We did, however, pay a price for this.What OFSTED is, and what you think OFSTED is are two totally separate things. We were actually there. We were doing good things, but then we overlayed our own fears on top of ourselves. Perhaps we just shouldn't of cared. We got told things by other schools and I, personally, let myself believe them in places. I may have outwardly told people to go away, but I didn't fully exercise the spirit of their words.

4: Post-OFSTED: What OFSTED left was as bad as what OFSTED came with. They left suggestions, and areas where improvement could be made. Not so much ultimatums but fairly enforced things. They left us with targets. But what are targets to a school meant to change education? They should be nothing, they should be wrapped up in a carpet and dumped in the nearest canal. We should be iconoclastic. Unfortunately, realism strikes, and it is easy in this day of the stark unreal, to take the written real very seriously indeed. OFSTED left us with little scars all over the place. Proveables. Systems. Each and every one of these things is a distraction from the big core beliefs that built the school as an engaging and enjoyable place to be.

5: Exams Happen: Ah. Exams. Those bastards that creep up on you unawares in May because you haven't thought about them all year. Except that's not what happens. In our first year we had no exam groups. We had none of the May-centric madness that we are currently in the sweaty folds of. In the second year exams infected the school. We went from having barely referenced their existence to building huge tracking sheets and identifying key groups. Before that we taught. We taught lessons that we enjoyed, because it was fun for all of us; students and teacher alike. I taught lessons in the first year that I haven't taught since and i'm not sure why. That opening year 10 group still got fantastic results. We didn't fail them because the school was more fun, but somehow we got caught up after that. Our current year 11s, who started in the second year of the school, are far more exam focused than their predecessors. I wonder whether that was actually down to a systemic paradigm shift as opposed to a year-group zeitgeist.

6: Results Happen: It seems that, increasingly, results are no longer answers; they are questions. Immediately following results being posted there is normally some hush-hush heads of department meeting where people are meant to account for every grade. This, in a manner as obvious as being punched in the face, changes attitudes. As soon as results are scrutinized, questioned and, fundamentally, made to be accounted for, we clam up, close our office doors and hide ourselves from the spectre of modernity. We want to be seen to be doing something, and what that is is normally derived from 'successful' mainstream schools. That is not really right. We have had huge successes, and most of the areas where we have been successful are the areas where we have taught in an exploratory, emotion-driven way. We must have confidence in ourselves.

7: : Us: There really is no way around it. It is an inevitable conclusion of everything that comes before it. We did this. At the very least we let this happen, let the extraordinary slip a little from our grasp. We let things go, moment by moment, little by little, and allowed them to be overwritten. Schools are palimpsests, and it is far to easy for one system to overwrite another. We didn't stop the writing quickly enough. A lot of the reasons I've given have been external or semi-external, but I hope you can see that this is actually a process of introspection. The big questions here are 'what could we have done differently?' and 'How can we get some thing back?'.

So lets talk about some solutions. You can't solve everything. And Everything doesn't actually need to be solved. What We can do, though, is take ownership of things. We can be the advocates of our own systems. And, sort of sadly, but also quite happily, I guess it starts with working really fucking hard.

1: Systems Aren't Novelties. Attitudes Make Systems Last: Every new system that's ever failed in a school has failed because people thought it wasn't worthwhile anymore. So they stopped caring and stopped bothering. They suddenly didn't have time or didn't care and so it dropped down the list until that IRIS kit took up permanent residency next to the phonics boards and underneath the shelves full of Accelerated Reader books. The difference for us should be that we're not buying in a system. We're building one from the ground up and we need to keep doing it. It's easier to do this if everyone cares equally about it, but we have to stop ourselves being victims of our own novelty. We have to keep up the impetus and make sure that the impetus is our normality. The more we cared to start with, the more we must continue to care. If we don't, we're just another promised revolution that never happens.

2: Have Confidence in What We Are Doing: One exam series doesn't make a school. Neither does one OFSTED. Nor does one internal inspection, or one week, or one lesson. We have to be confident in ourselves. We also have to be honest insofar as we accept that things will change with time. Education changes, government changes, parents and children change. We have to be confident that we are still doing our best to provide an excellent alternative education, and that when students buy into it that there is something to buy into. Most of our kids turn up in year 10 totally disillusioned with education and it's our job to give them something that shows them that education is not just something they hate. We have to keep true to ourselves in defiance of those that spurn, and criticise, and begin statements with 'I'm just saying this but...'. They have a right to do that, and we have passed an OFSTED, so we can now move forward knowing that we have three years until that appears again, and in those three years we can make the school somewhere even more fantastic, not just pander to 'suggestions'. By the time our next OFSTED comes around the goalposts will have been moved, then taken down, turned into a non-competitive activity space and then sold to a developer.

3: Keep Promises: Keeping promises is hard. Really hard. We promised some huge things and some of them simply weren't feasible in the long term. We've definitely lost some of those promises, and most of them have come from allowing ourselves to be the victims of time. We let ourselves be panicked, and rushed, and not have enough time to do things. The time we had in the first year doesn't seem to exist any more and it really should. We should be able to have the lovely relaxed atmosphere that we had, but we seem to not have time for it any more. We don't run as many trips, or activities, and a lot of those were things we promised. We still haven't built a plane. It is the easiest thing in the world to not do anything. History has recounted that to us so many times you would think that we'd have learnt that by now. The problem is that knowing this doesn't necessarily make it any less true. I know, firmly in my tiny bionic heart, that we can be incredible as a school. We talk a great game. We just don't follow through. We need to chase ourselves up without being defensive about the reasons why we haven't done things. We just need to get on with it. All the time. Not just in post-exam gained time when it's easy; not just in September when it's fresh and new and lively; but all year.

4: Broadcast The Values We Hold Dear:  Namely, that we believe that our staff and students are capable of being incredible. That doesn't mean OSTED outstanding. They-who-must-not-be-named can stay the hell away from this. I mean that we trust students to be amazing. That we encourage, and believe that staff can be fantastic. But also that if we expect things of staff we expect it of students and vice versa. I'm not sure we do that. I'm not sure I do that. I'm not sure that I uphold standards that I believe in. Is this laziness? Probably Yes. Do I think that has a detrimental effect on student. Probably Yes Again. Could I be better? Yes. And just thinking that other schools, or others teachers are worse doesn't make me any better. That's important because I think it's easy to paint a name on yourself and forget that you have to live up to that name. We don't do enough that we expect of students, especially when it comes to learning. We don't broadcast as much teacherlearning as we could. We don't broadcast enough enthusiasm. When we tell kids that exams aren't the most important thing in learning do we actually make that point explicit? No. Absolutely not. Perhaps that is, then, an honesty question. Are we honest with students. Do we fail to keep promises or do we make dishonest promises? I have certainly told students something that just isn't feasible and probably knew that at the time. Had I thought about things earlier, I probably would've promised something else.

Teaching, in the end (although there are many sentences that start that way and don't end the way mine is going to) is about an assumption of honesty. Students assume that, as a teacher, you are honest. Over time that relationship can change quite a bit. I talk to students about their last schools; schools that they have consciously left, and one of their regular criticisms is that the school was dishonest. It said things and didn't do them. I would hate for that criticism to be leveled at us but I can also see how it could. It can be leveled at me at times. An attitude of openness needs to prevail. About what we are going to do and how that reflects what the school is meant to be. We are meant to be unique so we need to stay unique.

I guess that not many of you have got to the end of this rambling mess of a post. I'm not sure how relevant it actually is to anything anymore. It has, however, been very cathartic to have gotten a lot of these ideas down on (virtual) paper. And it's been good to be back writing again. I adore teaching, and I actually adore talking about teaching; I am appalling company at dinner parties. We can be fantastic. We just need to keep a little faith and see that faith through.

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