Protecting work-life balance: what can we do?

This week’s Sec Ed front page was a depressing but inevitable result of the TIMSS report released last week that found that teachers in England are working longer hours for less comparable pay than similarly qualified peers in other professions. It’s no surprise that significantly less than 50% of the workforce has over 10 years’ experience or that if classroom teachers are working long hours they are leaving for less stressful professions.

I felt for my NQT a couple of weeks ago when she received her first qualified teacher pay packet and worked out that she was being paid just over £4 per hour. I tried to sweeten the bitter pill by pointing out that in five years she’d be earning over £30,000, but by her reckoning she’d still only be on about six quid an hour. I haven’t dared work my own hourly rate out!

It’s crucially important that those of us in leadership positions or who have been in the profession a while model a healthy work-life balance for our less-experienced colleagues. We must not let them believe the message that the job is never done or that they should be working every waking hour planning lessons or assessing work. It is true that in reality the job is never finished – there’s always something else that you could do in this line of work – marking a few more books, designing another resource, planning another lesson, tweaking a display, ringing another parent; the list goes on. But we have to be brutal with our work and put it down to ensure we do actually have a life outside of work.

So what can leaders do to minimise overwork and ensure that our colleagues are not burning themselves out before they’ve even begun to get within two (or even three) decades of retirement age? There are a few things that, to my mind, all leaders should be compelled to do to ensure teachers stay sane, happy and, above all, teachers.

  1. Be nice
  2. Everyone works better in a pleasant environment where people are friendly. This is particularly important when we are often dealing with a small minority of students that set out to be unfriendly towards teaching staff – you don’t need this from colleagues as well. A smile and a natter go a long way.
  3. Trust and support colleagues
  4. Very few teachers set out in this job to make a dog’s dinner of it. Trust and support teachers, empower them to make their own decisions, and remove the feeling that they’re constantly under the microscope. Yes, we have to monitor colleagues’ performance, but there’s no reason we can’t do it in a pleasant and supportive manner.
  5. Don’t create unnecessary work
  6. The subheading says it all – if something doesn’t need doing, don’t ask people to do it. Avoid the urge to create more documents for teachers to fill in which will add to the workload. Make sure systems (for data collection etc.) are streamlined and minimal.
  7. Lead by example
  8. Senior Leaders must lead by example. Fair enough, arrive early if that’s when you best work is done. But leave in good time too. Let teachers see that you go home at a reasonable time every day, talk about the non-work related things you’ve done at the weekend, and encourage colleagues not to work evenings and weekends. If they’re having to do that then the system isn’t working.
  9. Share the message

Make it common knowledge that you value work-life balance. This is practically the same as point 4 above, but we have to be explicit about our expectations, both in what we do expect, and what we don’t e.g. marking books at the weekend or staying up till the small hours creating lessons.

  1. Give useful advice

I encourage my colleagues to avoid writing copious amounts of feedback on students’ work or making PowerPoints for every lesson (personally, I never, ever use PowerPoint – it constrains the organic development of a lesson in my opinion). Share the tricks that you use to save time and encourage your less-experienced colleagues to use them too.

Clearly this list isn’t exhaustive and I’m not trying to tell everybody that this is what they must do to cut workload, but these are the pillars I live by to keep myself and (I hope) my faculty sane. It’s not rocket science; teachers with their own lives who can keep work in perspective do a better job, are happier and are more likely to stay the course. Persecution, blame and a punitive culture in any organisation helps no-one.


Why Learning Shouldn’t Be Equated With Fun

Should learning be fun? Well should it?
Many teachers bend over backwards to create “fun” lessons because that’s the way to “engage” our young people; the “youth of today” simply can’t be trusted to engage for any length of time with difficult, serious and challenging topics. These young people are brought up on a diet of multiple devices simultaneously vying to entertain them with the zippiest, fastest, most colourful bit of time-wasting mulch that can be designed. With this in mind, how can it be fair to expect their brains to grapple with a single, challenging academic problem? But the solution is simple – let’s make learning fun!
Let’s design multi-sensory, noisy lessons in which students can discover for themselves just how the slippery concepts of synecdoche and metonymy can be understood, differentiated, analysed and evaluated (thanks for the ready example from your blog this week @mr_englishteach). Let’s allow those students that want to try and understand the nuances of metaphorical language through the building of a tower of paperclips to do just that, whilst others who prefer to crack out the tablets to find an app that lets them play a game about metaphors get on with it, and our more “auditory” charges attempt to write a rap entitled “Synecdoche and Metonymy”. Imagine the fun they could have, and all the while a reasonably well-paid subject expert plays the “guide on the side”, gently nudging them towards the understanding they need. Hours of learning fun for all.
Hang on. I’ve got an idea. What if, instead of doing that, the “guide on the side” took the proverbial bull by the horns, stopped pussyfooting around and just taught the bloody concept? The teacher could stand in front of the class, display a couple of examples, explain and tease out the differences between types of metaphor, and then give students the time to identify and analyse other examples and maybe even create their own, all in a nice, calm, quiet classroom in which everyone’s engaged doing the same challenging but fascinating and rewarding task? Now I think I may just be onto something here. I think I’ll set up my own consultancy in which I peddle my idea around education conferences charging exorbitant fees to share my revolutionary new ideas. I might call it “Teaching That Works” or something.
You see, all this talk of “fun” in the classroom gets my goat. Fun is frivolous and pointless, a great way to unwind but, let’s make no mistake, no way to improve the mind and develop wisdom. It’s irresponsible to equate learning with fun – learning is hard work, challenging and difficult, but, and this is the point teachers need to get across, both intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding (intrinsically in the glow of satisfaction one achieves when the penny drops, extrinsically in the kudos one receives when peers and teachers recognise the excellence achieved in a piece of work). Learning should never ever be equated with “fun”; to do so is to lessen its worth, undermine its importance, and make it the same as a trip to the fair. Learning is far more important than that.

What Really Matters: let’s do what works.

This is my third year at what I still think of as my “new school”. After a couple of challenging years involving long-term staff absence, some very dodgy supply teachers (a couple of really good ones too I should add), and a lot of help from a retired member of staff, I’m now happy that we have a fantastic team in English that will achieve great things with our students. We had some very pleasing results in the department in August and I’m confident that the only way is up (baby).

It’s also my first time starting the year as an Assistant Head. This wasn’t a job that I was looking for when I joined the school as Head of English and MFL (AKA the Faculty of Communication) two years ago, but a new Head meant a restructure of leadership and I’ve (fortuitously) ended up with whole school responsibility for Teaching and Learning. This couldn’t be better for me; I get to watch lots of my colleagues doing marvellous things in many different subjects that I can then synthesise and share with others. It’s a serious privilege to be able to do this and to have influence over the school’s direction in this area.

Unsurprisingly, the key aspect of this role is shaping the school’s T+L approach. Last Monday, on our Training Day, I had the opportunity to deliver a 30 minute presentation to staff on T+L expectations and then to run a T+L workshop with new staff. The best bit of this was to be able to say that, although SLT would be dropping into lessons as much as possible, nobody would be pulled-up for not taking “learning styles” into account when planning lessons, or for speaking at length to a class, or for having a class working in silence.  And (I’m not ashamed to confess) I beamed when I told them that there is no target to ensure that 90% of the talk in lessons is carried out by students, or to have “busy”, noisy classrooms. Talk to them – you’re the expert; tell them what they need to know.

In fact, all I want to see is curious students working hard in interesting and challenging lessons where what they do is assessed regularly and accurately by subject experts so that they can achieve the best results possible. I will definitely NOT be looking for different students in the same class carrying out different activities; I’d rather see them all working towards the same very challenging goal and being given the supporting nudges they need to get there. I won’t be scouring Schemes for PLTS and SEAL and all that fuzzy nonsense (in fact, if it’s there I’ll probably politely suggest it’s removed). Just ensure your lessons are challenging and fascinating for all our students and you won’t go far wrong.

It is interesting to note that the GCSE subjects that perform the best in our school are the ones in which teachers use more traditional pedagogical approaches. MFL, Geography, PE, English and Science are all subjects in which around 75%+ of students make expected progress and around 45% make better than expected progress. They’re also the subjects that students say they enjoy the most, feel they’re best supported, and respect the teachers the most highly. In those lessons they behave well and strive to achieve the best they can. They like the fact that their teachers give them exactly what they need to acquire the keys that allow them to move successfully on to the next stage of their lives.

In the last two years I’ve begun to see a pattern emerging: teachers that teach students well, create great teacher-student relationships, and make challenging, academic topics accessible and fascinating get the best out of the students in front of them. Who’d have thunk it?

Oh, Where Have All The Sandpits Gone?

This week we interviewed four potential new English teachers with the aim that one of them would join our department. It was a brilliant day with excellent candidates and the final decision required lots of hard thought and discussion.

As is usually the case, the candidates were all required to deliver a full hour long lesson. I know that many schools prefer a 25 or 30 minute lesson, but I honestly think that a full hour is the best way to see how potential recruits perform under pressure: anybody can pack an engaging 25 minutes in with a class they’ve never met, but the full hour can give a much clearer picture when trying to differentiate between candidates and tests a wider range of skills, including time management, ability to maintain pace and momentum, and the strength to hold their nerve.

I thoroughly enjoyed observing the lessons. The task was to prepare a mixed ability KS4 class for the “describe” question in Section B of the English Language paper. I felt this was open-ended enough to allow creativity and originality whilst compelling careful thought and application in differentiating across the full range of abilities. A few years ago, I’d have expected to see unusual props brought in to “engage” (entertain?) our more “kinaesthetic learners”, with all kinds of gimmicky tricks that would shock and awe them into devoting their full attention.

Refreshingly, this wasn’t the case.

Without exception, all the lessons involved careful teacher modelling and explanation, clear success criteria, whole class discussion with a range of questioning strategies to elicit understanding, silent thinking, planning and writing time, and time for self or peer assessment. Some also included the study of literary examples in the preparation stage.

I can’t overstate just how pleased I was about this. It used to make me furious back in the noughties when I’d be observed by people who insisted on lessons that contained bizarre and “creative” ways to engage students. I remember once succumbing to this pressure for an observation and bringing in a guitar and trying to get the kids to sing a song I’d written about subordinate clauses; it was absolutely awful because it wasn’t my normal way of doing things – the kids felt uncomfortable, the observer (now a close friend) had all on not to burst into hysterics, and I felt a complete prat. She very kindly gave me a “satisfactory” for the lesson, more out of consideration for my self-esteem than anything else and the students barely learnt a thing (we still have a good laugh about it now).

It was one of my current colleagues who coined the term “sandpits”, which we now use as a catch-all term for those lessons that are fun, busy and practical but have no real application in developing students’ learning. She remembers a colleague actually bringing a full sandpit into a lesson during an Ofsted visit; this wasn’t her typical teaching style and even if it had been she’d have burnt out in two years. As nice as these lessons are for entertaining the students and keeping them happy (and avoiding the job at hand), they are generally a waste of time (English is an academic subject that requires excellent reading, writing and verbal skills, not the ability to build a tower of paper-clips). Our energies should be put into planning great lessons that build these skills up and that feed into what our students need to be able to do to succeed both in life after school and in their exams. The interview lessons that I saw on Friday restored some of my faith in the way that teacher training and teaching generally has fortunately moved over the last five years.

Oh, where have all the sandpits gone? (Condemned to the dustbin of educational history with any luck).

Coming Back After Christmas: why I’m glad I teach English.

The first week back after Christmas is, to my mind, one of the toughest of the year. There’s the mental build-up that begins a few days before New Year, that niggling voice at the back of your mind that keeps trying to remind you of all the things you haven’t done. Then there’s the realisation that you feel seriously unhealthy after all the alcohol, meats, cheeses, takeaways, caffeine and sofa-time. Then there’s the turning on of the alarm for the first time in a couple of weeks, the sleepless Sunday night and the inevitable groggy start on Monday. Add to that the appalling weather we’ve suffered and the knowledge that you’ll be seeing little, if any daylight, for a good few weeks yet, plus the possibility of a month without booze, and there’s no wonder January is so tough (a friend of mine always waits until February for a dry month, claiming that January is depressing enough as it is. It seems a great idea, particularly because it’s the shortest month!).

For me, Monday was a real toughie. I had to lead staff training in the morning, which I knew would be hard. The last thing staff want when they get back is to be given a load of ideas and strategies to use; they just want to be left to get on with it. And who can blame them? Fortunately we had the luxury of an afternoon in departments to “put into planning and practice” what we’d covered in the morning. This was great as it gave us the opportunity to rejig our KS4 long term plan and to revise our vision of how the course would evolve.  We all left that meeting with a sense of purpose and a clearer vision of where we are headed. Windows of time to discuss big issues are so important as, despite best intentions, once the term gets underway we all get bogged down in dealing with the day-to- day issues of teaching and running the school.

The start of Tuesday was also difficult. Seeing the students for the first time since the heady giddiness of the week before Christmas is like watching a stag party emerging the day after the party is over. You try to rally and chivvy them, but they know that it’s dark, cold and wet, and there’s not much to immediately look forward to. I was worried that this would be the shape of things to come over the next few weeks (experience should have told me otherwise), and I prepared to batten down the hatches against the imminent onslaught of those twin enemies of teachers, apathy and lethargy.

But I was wrong. I should have realised I would be wrong. Why? Because, luckily for me, I’m an English teacher. This week I’ve begun Macbeth with my Year 10s (lots of witchcraft, treachery, murder and intrigue afoot) and An Inspector Calls (always an old favourite) with a Year 11 group I’ve inherited due to a colleague changing her hours. I’ve been studying English Renaissance Poetry with Year 9, Orwell with Year 8, and Ted Hughes with Year 7. Quite honestly, the week has just got better as it’s gone on. I couldn’t imagine teaching any other subject and being able to go back with such an arsenal of exciting study material – I have pity for any English  teacher who can’t make the first week back a cracker with that little lot.

And therein lays the rub. The holidays are great, and the longer they are the more distanced we become from work, which is what holidays are for after all. But the whole “coming back” fear is, for me, all in the mind. As English teachers, we are perched on top of an incredible legacy of amazing work that we can draw on to inspire and motivate our students, regardless of age and ability. And that’s why, when you teach this subject, coming back is never as bad as it seems.

The New English GCSEs: a pleasure, not a chore.

There seems to be an awful lot of flapping and worrying about teaching the new GCSEs. I’m not afraid to say that, in our humble little department, we’re quite enjoying it. We’ve had a long term plan since a couple of terms before we started delivering it to our (now Year 10) students after February half term, and both teachers and students are getting to grips with it nicely.

We’ve structured it in such a way that we’ll have all the Lit texts taught by the end of year 10, so that we can interleave fortnightly study blocks of each topic in year 11. We studied Lord of the Flies over the summer term, six poems from the cluster during the first half of the autumn term, and we’re just finishing off A Christmas Carol as we speak. After Christmas we’ll study four more poems, spend the best part of a term studying Macbeth and then finish the remainder of the poems off as we gently meander our way to the end of the year. Mock exams in June will mean an interlude to revise exam topics and practice exam skills, but this should be a fairly painless experience as our students practice the kind of skills they’ll need every week anyway.

The main reason for this is that (as I noted in a previous post, “The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives”) all our lessons are now framed by a big learning question that students write an extended, exam style answer to at the end of the learning episode (it might take one or many more lessons to get students in a position where they can write an excellent answer). Our learning questions tend to use question stems from the new GCSE English papers or the questions are phrased in such a way that the questions naturally compel students to engage with skills and concepts required by the papers. For example, over the last three weeks, my year 10s have prepared for and answered the following questions:

  • How does Dickens develop Scrooge’s character in Stave 2?
  • How does Dickens use the Cratchit family?
  • Why is The Ghost of Christmas Present so important?
  • What effective structural features are apparent in Stave 3?
  • How does Dickens make The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come so sinister?
  • Why is Stave 5 such an effective ending?

Clearly this leads to an awful lot of written output by the class and can make marking a terrible headache, but we’ve alleviated this through the careful cultivation of great peer-assessment. Our students now expertly peer-assess each response that is produced and they are encouraged to make sure that they get peer-comments from at least three different students, in order to triangulate, enhance and vary the feedback. When peer-assessing, they are expected to read and taken into account previous comments left so these are not repeated, and they can build upon these if they see fit. Furthermore, the students have been carefully trained to use language from the mark scheme in order to ensure that the feedback they receive is useful, targeted and relevant. This means that our written feedback is pared right back to the minimum, and provide more of a QA for the comments already left.

The vast majority of our Year 10s also seem very pleased with the way we are delivering the new GCSE. (We recently had an LA monitoring review and the Y10 students were very forthright in praising the English provision they receive and the delivery of the new course). There’s a big emphasis on whole class discussion and debate, with group work only really used in the preparation stage when building up ideas to answer the Learning Question. We did a Literature mock with the Year 10s last week and the results were pretty good, which I take as validation of our methods.

Obviously we are not completely clear on what exactly the new grades will look like, but this doesn’t bother us too much as we are confident our understanding isn’t far off and, let’s be honest; everyone is in the same boat.

As with most people, our biggest concern is how we’re going to get the weaker students through these very challenging and lengthy terminal exams. But there is no magic bullet and we can’t beat ourselves up on this point; we just need to make sure they get plenty of practice at answering the sorts of questions they’ll be asked and try to make the texts as enjoyable and memorable as possible (we were told by AQA that it is still possible to get the highest marks through “references to the text” and that quotations weren’t mandatory, which hopefully means these students will be in with a fighting chance providing we can teach them techniques to activate and use their memories effectively).

So, all in all, a positive start to the new GCSEs. No doubt that there will be unforeseen failings and pitfalls as we move through the course, but I’m confident we have the resilience and flexibility to deal with these as they arise. There’s always a slight nagging worry when doing anything new, but hopefully there won’t be any real disasters. Famous last words…

The Great Marking Debate: why marking with colours works.

There seems to have been an awful lot of cyber-palaver over the last few weeks between educationalists debating about marking and the use of different coloured pens. Howls of derision at being given multi-coloured pens by naïve and idiotic HoDs who want to please Ofsted and the SLT without a single thought for real education and real marking have been emitted across cyberspace, drowning out a lot of the other noise.

I remember being at a CPD event a few years ago where I was forced to bite my tongue when somebody began expounding the virtues of the “purple pen of progress”, turning me into a cringing, shaking mess in the corner. Honestly, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the idiocy of this idea.

But, I’m afraid I have to confess, I am a convert. I am that moronic head of department who unthinkingly forces pens of different colours onto my staff. I ask them, nay, force them, to mark in red. I cajole them into making students peer assess in purple. Even worse, I coerce my long-suffering faculty into providing green pens for students when they are responding or improving their work. And, to top it all off (this really does take the biscuit), I make them use blue and yellow highlighters in their marking to highlight effective work and that which needs to be improved.  Why do I do this? Mwaaaaahhahahahhahaha!. Because I can! The buzz I get from asserting my power and the tinge of pleasure I receive from showing our books to LA visitors, Ofsted types and the public in general makes me bristle with self-importance! Or maybe not.

Why do I do it? Because it works, stupid! Since I began adopting this approach four years ago, my students have learnt more and faster. If they can glance back in their books and instantly see what they’ve done well (blue) or what they didn’t do very well (yellow), then this aids their revision. If they want to find my comments quickly, they look for red. If they want to see how they’ve improved something, they look for green. Why do we colour-code anything (hands up if you colour code classes when you get a new timetable)? Because it makes it more efficient, better organised and easier to use. If the students use nothing but one colour and the teacher uses nothing but one other colour, there is no quick way to differentiate between what’s what.

As we gradually embed the new GCSEs, I think this will become even more important. Our students are given a different exercise book for each topic to help with revision,  and those studying the new GCSEs are going to have to become much better at revising than those students who sat previous exams. The use of different coloured pens in their books is, to my mind, going to be a vital aid in helping them to revise more smartly, more efficiently and more thoroughly. They will be able to pick out much more easily what’s going to be more or less useful. So, for us, the coloured pens are here to stay.