Friday, 1 June 2018

Why are we all so broke?

It's no secret that education is bankrupt financially. And we really need a solution. Teachers are leaving in droves, resources are stretched thinner than the morals of those who sell them on TESonline, and everywhere you look someone is whining about it. Well, I ask you, if we're constantly financially bankrupt, isn't it time to explore the obvious option to solve the situation. Principals and principees, isn't it about time that we started exploiting and monetizing (z intentional, and to be pronounced 'zee').

Kids, let's start going morally bankrupt and get ourselves out of this hole.

So here's my starters guide to leaching every available penny out of your ailing school. Put your ethics in your junk mail folder and get yourself ready for your invite to the ceremony for your peerage.

1: Don't sell off your school fields. Repurpose them instead:

Why sell them off when they can be used for far more long term investment opportunities? One school I work with as a consultant is reaping (quite literally) the benefits of their new 6-acre graveyard facility. Kids don't play sport anymore, everyone knows that.

Or if you're a little bit queasy about all those dead bodies, what about kennels, or building a factory. Possibly, a factory producing school uniform that you could make mandatory for your students. It's kickback city!

2:  14 weeks off a year? More like 14 weeks of opportunity!

Think of all those days when your school is empty of the money-sucking bastards that you have to educate. If the Natural History Museum can host sleepovers then surely your school can host unlicensed raves! You've got dingy classrooms full of graffiti, bathrooms that look like something out of Trainspotting and a massive school hall; it's just like that time I saw someone die in a drum and bass club in East Berlin. And during the day you can host post-apolocalyptic themed paintball games. With the colours of your classroom walls, it's not like anyone's going to notice, and at least they'll get their first lick of paint in twenty years.

3: Who needs teachers, when they can just google it instead.

I mean, why not just download the BTEC spec and give the kids it. They can just sit on the school's aging computer network and google all the answers. They'll be fine.

Or, maybe you could sell your teachers to other schools. Franchised teaching; it's the new way. The teachers can livestream their lessons to other schools for a pretty penny in the school's coffers. And while they're at it, maybe they can get involved with the next idea:

4: Corporate sponsorship. Simple and effective, just like Dirtaway, the busy people's kitchen cleaner.

Big Ideas, Big Logos, Big Money. Everyone wants to access the youth market now, and why waste money trying to reach them, through MySpace or Hi5 when you can put the item straight in their grubby hands using someone they trust as the vector. Got a new pair of designer trainers you want to sell, well who better to sell it straight to the kids than the teachers they adore and respect? Everyone knows that students idolise teachers and wish to look exactly like them? What else could explain the current socks and sandals epidemic? Vinyl? Hipsters? Surely the product of teachers during the 90s. Truefact: Every hipster secretly aspires to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets' Society. Why not exploit that. And Parents evenings? What a gift! Parents shopping evenings more like!

5: Sell to kids, or sell the kids!

No, I'm not suggesting anything as barbaric as actually selling the children (you'd never get away with it), but perhaps those children could get a few extra vaccines each year. And by a few, I mean a lot. And by vaccines, I mean any unlicensed drug whose manufacturer is morally questionable enough to test it on children. And that questionable morality means big monies for you.

These are just five of the many ideas you could deploy to truly monetize your site and staff, but with the right employment of a vastly overpaid set of non-teaching staff I'm sure that you can bluesky up your own out-of-the-box-in-the-box radical cost-saving, cash-building methods. Why not just shorten the school day for instance, or cut all of the arts subjects. No, perhaps those two are far too radical to be accepted. No-one will truly accept stripping the curriculum down to it's barest of bare bones and then firing all but a skeleton crew of teachers and plugging the gaps with long-term cover, overstretched LSAs and unprepared NQTs.


- Calamity.

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.

Monday, 22 February 2016

What Makes a Great English Teacher

 This was originally a question I answered on Quora that really got me thinking. We are inviting applications at the moment, and it's my first time recruiting. I'm genuinely excited about it, but it's made me think long and hard about who I want to work with. So, after much deliberation, here is my own guide to what makes a good English teacher.
I am in an interesting position at the moment which makes me quite relevant to answer this question; I am about to hire an English teacher to join me as the Second in Department at the school that I teach at. What this means is that I can tell you what I will be looking for in a few weeks time when I come to interview to hire.

First, though, a caveat borne of experience: I once went for an interview at a very good, very traditional school. I was well qualified for the post and when I was rejected for the role I was told that I simply didn't fit the school. I had thought that all the other candidates where quite boring, quite dull people who were overly entrenched in the past. The thing is that the school were absolutely right to reject me. I would've been a terrible fit. I would've fought against the school and they against me. So the caveat is that an outstanding English teacher in one school may well be awful in another, and vice versa.

To continue, then: In a few weeks I will sit across from some candidates and talk to them and what I will be looking for are people who:
Know their stuff: I want staff with great subject knowledge. I want our students to see that their teachers live their subjects.
Care about their subject: I want my students to receive up-to-date and exciting information. I want them to be able to get into deep discussions with teachers that truly care about what they're saying.
Are Interesting: Students deserve staff who lead interesting lives outside the classroom and can share elements of those lives. I want sportspeople, model-makers, musicians, chefs, readers, writers, readers, journalists, historians, film-buffs, artists, critics, nerds, geeks, gamers, because all this enriches the experience of teaching the most wonderful subject there is. Even if it doesn't seem important right now, it will be important at some point.
And then, I am likely to watch them teach a lesson and what I want to see is a lesson where the teacher:
Is Passionate: I want to see how much they care about what they're teaching. Students should be hung on every word because the teacher clearly wants to share their love and interest.
Has very high standards: Students deserve to be pushed and so I expect teachers to speak properly, press students' vocabularies, teach difficult texts and topics and correct students when they use unacceptable language or give simplistic answers.
Has a sense of humour and sense of perspective: You can also read this as 'Doesn't take themselves too seriously.' Schools should be lighthearted, fun places, and expect teachers to reflect this. They should also be able to recognise when a student has done something wrong by accident (as opposed to with malice), and how to deal with this is a way that is appropriate.
So that is my checklist for what I think makes a great teacher, but one last thing. I always want to work in an environment where teachers and students are pushing themselves forward. I think the best trait a teacher can have is to always be learning and questioning. I want to work with people that are unafraid of failure, and embrace criticism and move forward constantly. And if you've got to the end of this, and you live in London and are a teacher and are thinking 'This sounds like me!' then why not apply: Space Studio West London

Saturday, 23 January 2016

You work until when?

Hello everyone.

This is hard for me to say.

I am a teacher.

And I work until Five.

Shock, Gasp, Horror.

Oh. Wait. You ONLY work until five?

Yes. I only work until five. in fact, I stay at school until five, and then, give or take, I go home. What makes this particular situation slightly more unusual is that I teach until five. Every day, except for Fridays (where we pack up at 3:40) I get into school about and have a working day all the way through until five, at which point, almost simultaneously, the entire staff of the school legs it. And when I get home, what do I do? The same things that the rest of my school's staff do:

Spend time with their family.
Go to the gym.
Watch a bit of sport.
Play with the dog.
Watch the collected works of Wes Anderson.

You get the picture, and the picture doesn't include any work whatsoever. My school specifically has a 'don't take work home' policy. HA! I hear you cry from the future, but what if you HAVE to get that marking done. Well, if it isn't done in PPA time then the marking isn't efficient enough. And what about planning then? If it isn't done in PPA time then it's overplanning, not planning at all.

I know that this is beginning to come across as a sort of vague utopian satire, that in a second I will wake up from my little long-houred school but, actually, there is no volta here, no reveal. This is a piece of writing in defence of a few small things, and promoting a few small things. I live in an idyll, as far as education is concerned. A state-funded, non-selective idyll; A studio school.

By Tuesday, every week, I have taught every student in the school. All 80-odd of them will have passed into my judgement and out again. Now, yes, we are in our first year of opening, and so we are at half capacity, but the entire size of the secondary school will never exceed 300 for years 10-13. I know every child in our school's name, and they know mine. And I talk to them, every day. I spend time with students.

In our timetable, SLT have been really careful to place enough time for staff to do all their work on site. Right now, I am in the 2-hour PPA period that I have first thing in the morning 4 days a week. I get a lot of stuff done in these periods, not least all my marking, planning, and then have a wander around the school, watching other teachers teach. Often, I just sit in the back of other teacher's classrooms and do my marking, or I just watch their lessons and learn something. I am not a mathematician, but I am getting better, purely by the amount of maths lessons I now watch. Because, once again, I have time.

There is, of course, a flipside that some are already guessing. If you keep the kids until 5, when do they do their homework? Here. They do it here. They have timetabled independent study periods where they have to do their work. They get it done on site, in periods supervised by teachers, which means that students can ask their teachers for help. Then, at the end of the day, the students get to go home, and not do homework, and not panic about not understanding their homework. Parents don't have to panic about not being able to help their students. Then, inadvertently, arguably, and even more adverbially, the best result is that students' books are kept at school, in big boxes. All of them. It is next to impossible for a child to lose their book, or 'leave an essay at home' because the book should never have been there in the first place. We have so much control here, and that enables us to do amazing things like taking kids on trips, and getting in outside speakers every single week.

What we are learning is that above everything else,  If teachers have time, have space, fell valued, feel supported and are therefore happy, then amazing things happen. Most importantly, the experience for the students is unique and incredible.

We Need to Talk about Thursday

We need to talk about Thursday. Why do we need to talk about Thursday? Because I'm pretty sure that it was the best teaching day of my life.

I haven't been writing much recently. Well, not here anyway. I have actually been working on a novel. It has nothing to do with teaching and everything to do with it at the same time, but that is an aside that hasn't quite linked up yet, so we will leave it, comparatively, untouched.

The writing has dried up somewhat because I am a little bit too happy. It is easier to complain in a wild, emotional abandon than to exalt with any sort of integrity. I have learned that it is difficult to write good news, which explains the Daily Mail, I guess.

So, Thursday, I'm sorry. Thursday was the best day of my teaching life, and part of that was because it wasn't atypical of my current working life. I cycled in and arrived about 8, and I cycled home when I finished teaching just after 5. But, then what else?

I started the working day with breakfast, bought from home, sat around in the canteen with the other teaching staff while the students sorted themselves and their gossips out for the day. Then I had English timetabled with year 10.

I teach both halves of year Ten, or, looking at it another way, all of year Ten. We have about 48 students in year ten, and a shade under thirty kids in year twelve and that's our entire school. We're a studio school and we only opened in September. Next year we'll have years 10-13, giving up a shade under 200 students for the entire school. For now, we are minute, and not in that disappointing steak kind of way.

This diminutive structure has a vast number of advantages, but that's not the direct reason why Thursday was incredible. I taught a lesson. I taught the same lesson twice in fact. It was a lesson I'd been thinking of for a while. The first half of it was relatively mundane; the students wrote letters to each other, as if we were fifteen years in the future and they were getting in touch with their former classmates. They've been doing this quite a bit. They get a letter, anonymously, from someone else, read it and send a reply. The next week they get the replies and send another. it's working as an ongoing project. They enjoy it. Each of them, in 45 minutes, writes and observant letter. It's a nice thing. After that, the students studied two different manifestos and then wrote their own revolutionary manifestos. Some of them needed a bit of quiet space so used some of the other rooms in the school. I put some Billy Bragg on as well, just to set the mood.

After four hours of English teaching I hopped on the school bus with 12 Year 10s and drove about fifteen minutes down the road to go Ice Skating for the third time in two weeks. (third time, a third of year ten, sort of fits, right?). It became ice clear as soon as blades touched clear ice that many of these students were new to the slippery stuff. I love seeing students out of their comfort zones, and out of the school environment, so it's good that our school has developed an informal motto: Every week, someone goes somewhere. We're actually far exceeding this: Last week something like 8 trips went out and we had 3 outside speakers. We work hard to provide unique experiences, and in return our students are good as platinum.

I got back to school at 3:40, just in time for the last lesson of the day, which in my case was the current Core Project: Flight. Every group is pursuing the project from their own unique angle. Their only outcome is they must build a model and produce a display board explaining a concept of flight. One group decided they wanted to work with clay, so we got them some clay and I spent a good half hour modelling with them. I built an eagle's head of my own and they started on their own project. I had to leave them, though, to teach a masterclass. We offer these every Core Project session. They're optional little mini classes on these that the teacher is interested in or wants to research. This one was on advances in aircraft technology from WW2 to the current day. It's an area I really like talking about.

And that's it, actually. I don't know whether you've noticed the running theme. I love letter writing, I love manifestos, especially modernist ones, love Ice Skating, love craft and modelling, love planes and most of all I love teaching about things I love. There is no force in teaching more powerful than passion. I am not an exceptional teacher; I am a teacher who took a chance on a school that didn't exist when I applied to it, and I have used that chance, as have the rest of the staff I work with, to foster an environment where we enjoy every single day. We regularly say to each other that 'this doesn't feel like work'  because it doesn't. We don't have hideous numbers of emails; we talk to each other. We don't have reams of pointless paperwork; we get on with stuff, and to all the naysayers about accountability and OFSTED? Our vice principal is an inspector.

So we need to talk about Thursday, because Thursday felt like a school should; exciting, stretching, passionate and fun. It's just a little sad that it also feels like no other school I have ever been in.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Teaching and Watching

So it's the summer, right? And you're already bored, right? And it's inevitably going to rain, because it's England, and that's what it does, right? So, get yourself on Amazon and order up a load of DVDs, and being a teacher, or that should possibly be being a Teacher (it comes capitalised with your NUT membership) you inevitably can't leave your job behind, so why not take a hint from the Calamity Teacher Brand (tm pending) guide to what to watch when you miss school a little too much, but don't want to get off the sofa/out of bed. I have included OFSTED-sanctioned summaries of every film so that you're absolutely sure of what you've learned from the experience before you even begin.

1: Dead Poets' Society
A man breaks every rule in the staff handbook then encourages students to go against their parents' wishes until one of them commits suicide. Hilarity ensues. 

2: History Boys
Overweight paedophile teaches young student the value of their holistic education while indoctrinating an NQT into his own way of thinking. Lovable paedo gets caught fondling a student and is saved from a disgraceful dismissal by his untimely death. Hilarity ensues. Also on the AQA reading list so it's like doing homework.

3: The Breakfast Club
Five bad boys with the power to rock you students demonstrate their diversity through the medium of forced ubiquitous punishment. They are badly supervised and this causes negative behaviour to propagate. In the end no-one learns anything. There is also a musical montage.

4: Coach Carter
Inspirational educator is accidentally hired as a sports coach instead of a Principal. School sport is presented as being unfathomably important and this is why Ashanti ends up pregnant.

5: Harry Potter
A consistently failing and dangerous independent school is followed in a unprecedented 7-year study where the school consistently resists academisation by a clearly more organised and benevolent power. A student council raises its own private army in fierce defiance of Voldemort the DfE. IN THE LAST FILM THE SCHOOL IS TURNED INTO AN ACADEMY AND EVERYTHING IS OKAY THERE IS NO NEED TO WATCH THE LAST FILM. NO NEED AT ALL. GO BACK TO SLEEP. EVERYTHING IS OKAY.

6: Teachers
Precursor to Educating Essex makes a household name out of Andrew Lincoln. longitudinal study shows why Labour was always wrong about education. Always.

7: Donnie Darko
 Parallel universe parable demonstrates why teachers should always STICK TO THE CURRICULUM; a number of teachers go off-curriculum to teach dangerous texts and non state-sanctioned theories. This torrid arrogance leads to deaths and destruction. There's another paedophile in this one, too.

8: Perks of Being a Wallflower
Boy deals with worrying relapses in mental state by studying extra-curricular core subjects. Quality teaching

9: Summer Heights High
A drama teacher, a independent school exchange student and a youth delinquent are the centre of this reality-tv expose of the failures of an Australian school system that doesn't have the EBACC.

10: The Inbetweeners
Series follows four sixth formers who are consistently supported by an excellent head of sixth form and a supportive, enriching, school experience and all go on to excellent post-18 opportunities in the worlds of work and university. Hilarity is abundant in this riotous coming-of-age drama. There is also a paedophile because, well, of course there is. 

Enjoy your summer kiddies, because I'm watching films.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

There will be a story there.

I have always assumed that the birth of a school followed a secular immaculate conception. That schools just sprang up, or had always been there. I find it hard, still, to work out where one finds the space to place a fully formed school in a town, or village, or extra-urban part of Hounslow.

When I left teaching last year, I wasn't sure of when I would return, but I told myself that I would only come back to do something that I could really get behind. I had one ill-fated interview at a very prestigious school, but it didn't feel right, and they didn't like me, so the choice on that one was very much taken out of my hands. But then something came up.

When I left my last school, another teacher (among many) left at the same time. This teacher was also taking a break from classroom teaching (although he did little of that in his role as a director) but he wasn't off to study, he was off to plan. Plan and build. He was off to put a school where there had previously been no school. But, more than that, he was off to answer a question that we all think from time to time; 'What would I do if I was in charge?'. And his, most wonderful of answers?

'We're going to change education.'

I offer my insincere apologies here for the mixed pronouns, but it was necessary to facilitate some inconsequential gravitas. 'We're going to change education.' it's a wonderful phrase. It's brave, it's possibly stupid, but it's all that is right. As you can probably imagine, that sort of statement sought me out from my high-brow literary malaise. I was convinced. I wanted to be part of this, or, at least, I wanted to find out what 'this' was. Turns out 'This' was the 'that' that I wanted the 'this' to be.

In short order, I had an interview, I got the job, I started becoming something. I started co-writing a story. Others were involved. Others are involved. We are becoming something and that thing feels gorgeous. A lot of what we're doing in September isn't totally defined. A lot of it isn't set in stone, or fleshed out or down on paper, but that is so wonderfully exciting. There is no set way of doing things yet, so the teachers get to define how things are done We are not encumbered by history. When we looked at the options for what to teach, we decided on what we wanted to teach. As in, what interested us. When I chose set texts for GCSE, I made a conscious decision to choose what excited me, not what was easy. I chose texts specifically for their wider ramifications; the opportunities to teach off-field. Off-spec. Off-kilter.

Going away from the teach-to-the-test rubric is the point of the school. The point is to teach. to actually teach. Not to check boxes in ever-decreasing circles, but to take steps in ever-increasing bounds. We want to engender a culture of wanting to learn. Not being tricked into it. We seem to have an obsession with 'tricking' children into learning, and that we have to 'complete' sections of education. The education is something that can be 'finished'. Screw that. Lets change the ethic. We're trying to change the ethic.

There is a lot of top down dictum in education. A lot of people making their own decisions and a lot of people below them just 'doing their best' is spite of this. Is it your best? Is it the version of you that you want to be? Be your own hero. We are. We are trying to change education one student at a time, one school at a time. Part of it, though, is who we are surrounding ourselves with; Passionate people who believe in themselves and their causes. People who question the status quo and value their own learning as much as their students. This might sound horribly arrogant, but I am starting to realise that teachers easily become very negative. It is very easy in staffrooms for teachers to enter spirals of negativity that effect our working lives. Instead of being proud of what we do, we surround ourselves with people who bring us down. The school that I have been temping at as a cover supervisor is quite close to the new school, and I have been innundated with negative energy about what we are trying to do in September. We are seen as a threat and a risk and a group of people playing at education. It has worn me down at times and given me undue doubts, but then the moment I have conversations with the other September teachers I am instantly filled with excitement. It's been fiercely dichotomous. I have found myself feeling displaced from both. But then I started to ponder, then wonder, then with enlightened wonderment filled myself with hope. Then I realised it wasn't hope. It was the feeling I should have.

I Love This Job.

I have missed it, and being a cover teacher has just entrenched this by showing me a pale imitation of what teaching is. I want to be around other people who aren't curbed by some underhand need to whine. Now I whine a lot, I know, but I will never tell anyone that I don't love my job. And, I reckon most of you do, too. You are reading blogs about teaching. You are on Twitter. You care. And most of you seen to want to change teaching so that it is more teaching, and less bullshit. So get the people around you who believe in what you believe in and start changing what you want to change at the ground level, and make sure people know what you're doing and how you're doing it. Don't suffer dictum in silence. Build narratives between teachers and other teachers, between teachers and students, between students and students. Make your own environment. Talk to each other. Come out of your classrooms and share practice. Don't be afraid of being observed by your peers, or of collaborating with other subjects or other schools. Don't be afraid to take ownership of yourself.

Be a heroine. Be a hero. Be the teacher you want to be. Don't be afraid to be positive about things you believe in because, you know what? You believe in them. Be the most positive person you can be about what you want to be positive about. This process of preparing to open a new school has taught me to be proud of my ideas and proud to be positive. It's a strange thing, but I feel like much of the education system, both as a profession and a public service, rewards a lack of ingenuity. I want to stop that. I am with other people who want to stop that, and we're stepping up to the plate. Fancy going up to your own?

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Planning backwards

I read this blog post this week, and I thought about one of the major points, that is, planning backwards from A-level. In September, I am going to be Lead Teacher of English at a new school where I am the only English teacher (Department nights out are going to be wild (or, alternatively, just me, in the pub, on my own, crying, into a half drunk pint of absinthe.))

Anyway. I like this idea of planning back from A-level, but I also thought about planning forward from A-level. As in, I want to plan the student that I want to leave my department, so I sat down and started to think about that student. I asked myself a very simple question: How will I describe the eighteen year old student graduating my school? Specifically, a student with an A-level in English. I jotted down a few traits before a reasonably important realisation:

The Student:
  • Well Read 
  • Respectfully Outspoken
  • Creative
  • Pragmatic
  • Confident
  • Respectfully Cynical
  • Able to Find Perspective
  • Positive.
I thought, not a bad list. The student would be able to stand up for what they believe in, and root their beliefs in an appreciation of others. They would be calm and confidant, speak well, but not try and overly control others. A great, and it was here that I found a word that has fallen a little out of fashion recently, citizen. A Great Citizen. An Ideal. My Ideal,yes, and therefore fallible and imperfect, but an ideal adult, to an extent.

This is not, then, planning back from the qualification, this is planning back from the person. This is end-result holistic planning. Notice how many of those goals are achievable in English. Go on, have a look, I'll wait.

Back? Good, let's begin.

Planning has become an exercise in filling time. Or times maybe (S operative.). It is an exercise in picking out nice neat little Lego blocks and lining them up to make a perfect shape. But that isn't really planning at all. What that is is filing. Filing children away. Planning in order to place children from the future through the present and into the past. That is not, though, how things really work.

The child that turns up in September is just a version of a later adult. That later adult exists in a plural form and is irrevocably linked to the child. It will be affected by a million unforeseeable circumstances, but if it is guided by an expectation of it being exceptional then the negative versions of itself will slide away. When was the last time you thought about the potential adult that your lesson was effecting? When was the last time you really thought about long term planning in the real long term? A lot of schools are happy to paint words like 'Success' and 'Resilience' about their doors, or write it under the crests on their blazers, but how much does that influence the actual teaching? And what does that mean? I would think that for most schools success means something that arrives in an envelope in a few weeks time, not a moment of clarity in thirty years.

Planning is not about lessons, not about blocks of time. Think of it more as painting a model. When you paint a model you have to lay down the basecoat, and it has to be right. If it doesn't quite stick or is the wrong shade then later the model will be a mess. As you go on the areas of work become smaller and smaller until you are dotting the eyes with a brush with a single hair. The thing is, that all the way through you are painting the same model, and working with the same ideal, it is just that you do the basic things first and work towards an end result that is incredibly complex. Planning is this. Plan for the best adult, and the student will become that.


It's all in the name

I am an 'Outstanding' teacher, in an 'Outstanding' school, and I am being bullied, day after day, by a group of year seven students.

When I ask them to do something, they ignore me.
When I ask them again, they ask me why?
When explain, they tell me that they don't have to.
When I tell them they do, they tell me they don't.
When I threaten them with detention, they tell me they won't turn up.
When I tell them to move seats, or leave the classroom, they laugh in my face.
When I send for on-call, they are suddenly silent, obedient. The on-call teachers, for the most part, look at me as if I'm mad. They look as if I have no idea what I'm doing. I ask for detentions; no-one turns up. I ask for sanctions; nothing happens.

Perhaps I make too much of a job title, but I know this truth to be self-evident: I am a cover supervisor, and for a great swathe of students this very fact obliterates my face and replaces it with a target. Teaching, at its very core, is a balance between behaviour management and the ability to convey information. There are many other factors, but at its core, these are two essential traits. I am not here to talk about conveying information, ideas and skills, for that has become nigh on impossible for me. I am here to talk about when behaviour management becomes impossible. because a single thing is broken: Not hearts, nor minds, (although mine are beginning to unravel) but the facade of repercussions.

You are more than welcome to disagree, but in my opinion behaviour management is based on a lie, and that lie is the the teacher somehow wields a power over the students that is unbreakable. Students fear things. Some fear detentions, or their parents, or being shouted at, but when it all boils down and dries out to the white grainy stuff that really screws up non-stick pans, students wield an overpowering amount of, well, power. Any class is only a smidgen of self-awareness away from breaking the spirit of a teacher. There is a moment when the class becomes the mob. They realise that the teacher is, essentially, powerless; that they cannot stop everyone at once. That, if their transgressions are spread wide enough and loud enough, there is no way that they can be controlled. In short, you can't kick a whole class out.

The cover teacher, then, is an easy victim. They rarely know names, rarely know systems and protocol, and regularly have to deliver boring textbook work. The cover teacher has difficulty building any positive relationships because their job is profoundly to tell students what to do. For students, the pervasive culture is that the cover teacher is a target, and they turn as entire classes towards this. Detentions are hard to set without a classroom, or names, or any knowledge of protocol and escalation. Other staff are too busy with their own work to adopt classes from others and so minor transgressions go ignored and this escalates. The next time a class is covered they ratchet up their behaviour and have no way back. There is no reset button for children gone feral.

So I'm another cover teacher being treated like shit by student after student, day after day, and I just put up with it and do whatever I can to make my life a little easier, all the time knowing that the students' time is being wasted, partly by themselves, and partly by a system which fails to support. But I think what is behind this is a tacit acceptance that a cover lesson is allowed to be wasted. This, surely, is indicative of a pervasive culture; that learning, and work, are only valued and accepted by students when they are told that they are in an environment that they are conditioned to appreciate. How sad is that? That we have engendered a culture in students that they only look to learning in little blocks. I (probably irrationally) blame learning objectives. This is learning, we tattoo on their little faces. This is it. I am the lord of teaching and listen up, we shout at the top of our teaching voices, because I am about to show you measurable learning. Look at my almighty powerpoint, for looking into it's depths will reveal to you the secrets of your future. Now go and write a fucking poem in groups.

And then, all the while this happens, it is children that suffer. Their wonderment is worn down and worn away until their belief is such that value is only placed on these things that they are told are important. And then beyond this they become fixated with the same culture of accountability that we do. They only listen to the people that tell them to listen to them the most. They only do what they think is directly related to their grades. They are being receded into something basic, and ignorant, and unthinking. We feed them only the food that we think they need, and this dry boredom means that any change is feared and becomes the catalyst for real nastiness. The mob only likes the driest of chicken, and if it is not fed it, it will gladly roast piggy, glasses or no.

Perhaps I am over thinking this whole affair. Perhaps I just keep seeing a class that is genuinely nasty. All I know is this; In my former job I pressed the dreaded on call button twice over two years. I the last six months as a cover teacher I have pressed it almost every day.

I am an 'outstanding' teacher in an 'outstanding' school, and I cannot control a group of year sevens and I don't know what to do about that anymore.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Inspire me, I dare you.

It has become the opium of the masses for those who gaze with longing eyes on the pay packet of the Senior Leader. It's perfect little form must fit, must be the right size for the pre-formatted box, or as I am seeing increasingly, it must fit between the windows of the corridor, to be read once by a proud director and then forgotten to the slowly abrasing elbows and shoulder of a thousand rushing, barging, ignoring students. It is that haven of soundbite; the inspirational quotation. It is the Quote of the Week. The appropriated gobbet that holds within its words some pervasive message of peace, of hope, of hard work paid off, but it really just sits still, bathing in the blissful ignorance of one long dead. I told you I was ill, he said.

But alas, If the opium of the masses is the (in)famous quotation, then I am on harder stuff. I am the smoker with the hand-rolled cigar, the craft bear drinker, and I wear a tweed cap. Ironically, of course. I love a quotation, but I can't stand the humdrumery (definitely a real word) of so many of them. They are chosen and presented without thought, without care and without any student consideration. I apologise if this next statement pulls tears into the eyes of some aspiring Ministers for Education, but painting quotations on walls and putting them on boards during form time to sit with little to no acknowledgement doesn't make students cleverer. It doesn't make them more conscientious or aspiring because for the most part the quotations that swill around the hi-tops of students on their diurnal passage look as if they have been saved up from Christmas crackers.

I like quotations that come from unlikely places. I love those that are challenging to preconceptions. I adore those that are unique. Anyone can find a quotation that talks about how hard you have to work to be a great success, or how every child is a unique little butterfly. So how about showing your students a different angle? Perhaps the gravitas of:

  Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. – Arthur C Clark

Or maybe, to counteract "It'll be okay" syndrome:

This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time. – Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club)

 Why not use these moments of un-curriculumed freedom to have a look at events from a alternative perspectives:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another. – Robert Oppenheimer, Inventor of the Atomic Bomb

But these are perhaps too conventional still. How about any of these:

Who was the first man to look at a house full of objects and to immediately assess them only in terms of what he could trade them in for in the market likely to have been? Surely he can only have been a thief. – David Graeber

You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been. – Ursula Le Guin

If you want to watch telly, go watch Scooby Doo. That programme was so cool; every time there was a church with a ghoul, or a ghost in a school, they looked beneath the mask. And what was inside? The janitor, or the dude who ran the water slide. Because throughout history, every mystery, ever solved, has turned out to be not magic. - Tim Minchin

When I went to the Yellow Cab Company I passed the Cancer Building and I remembered that there were worse things than looking for a job you didn't want. – Charles Buckowski

If they give you lined paper, write the other way. – Juan Jimenez (also the preface to Fahrenheit 451)

I think of writing as a sculptural medium. You are not building things. You are removing things, chipping away at language to reveal a living form. – Will Self

Being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch. Like a safecracker, or a pickpocket. – Futurama
My advice is stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked. The truth and the lie are not "sort of" the same thing. And there's no aspect, no facet, no moment in life that can't be improved with pizza. Thank you. – Daria Morgendorffer
I had to look in the dictionary
To find out the meaning of unrequited
While she was giving herself for free
At a party to which I was never invited
- Billy Bragg

1. You can't win. 2. You can't break even. 3. You can't even get out of the game. – Ginsberg’s Theorum

I have never found anywhere, in the domain of art, that you don't have to walk to. (There is quite an array of jets, buses and hacks which you can ride to Success; but that is a different destination.) It is a pretty wild country. There are, of course, roads. Great artists make the roads; good teachers and good companions can point them out. But there ain't no free rides, baby. No hitchhiking. And if you want to strike out in any new direction — you go alone. With a machete in your hand and the fear of God in your heart. – Ursula Le Guin

Most of the wind happens where there are trees. - Paul Muldoon

Look at all those things. Lovely ain't they. But my greatest advice? Find some of your own, from people you respect, and then you can talk about their words to your students. All of the aforementioned will be used from September, along with trucks and trucks of others; an ever changing cloud of words that turn black and rain and snow and then open up to the sun but never fail to have an impact because they are part of a dynamic conversation.I think that the current teaching ethic is one that rewards stasis. Despite its outspoken chagrin of coasting, it rewards systems that stay the same. But ideas that put things in place. Hmmm. Putting things in place. That is a vile little goblin in itself. Stop putting things in place, because that just means that they are to be left. If you paint something on a wall it will be ignored because that is its inevitable function. Talk, change, EXIST AS A CONVERSATION.

Just, in all this quoting and quothing, remember:

A witty saying proves nothing. - Voltaire

Oh, shit. I think that's just formed a paradox.