At this time of year, with Monday morning looming larger than I’m comfortable with, I am filled with good intentions – ones that I abandon mid-way through September when I am heaped miserably on the floor surrounded by exercise books and reluctantly re-visit in January when resolutions are made by normal people who can wake up at a normal time and buy a coffee on the way in to work. I always look back in August and shake my head at just how naive I was to make them in the first place. But here I am, like a woman who has forgotten the pain of childbirth, making vows again for this coming year at school.
I vow to dress to impress and be the professional I know I can be
You know that you’re a teacher when you have ‘buying new shoes’ scheduled in for the weekend immediately before 1st September. You know that you’ve been a teacher too long when you’ve not only scheduled it in, but researched the specific shoe that you want in advance of the shopping trip. I’d like to pretend that I have only now starting doing this, but I have to confess that’s not true. Every year, I promise myself I will be as smartly dressed as I on the first day back, but every year, I catch myself falling into decline. The tailored dress has been abandoned in favour of the slouchy trouser and the coffee stains on my lanyard are almost pleasing to the eye, if you like modern art. The morning internal dialogue becomes fascinating because those new shoes inevitably hurt like *snitches* (even though you are still convinced the leather will give at some point) and you end up debating whether anyone will notice you’re wearing trainers. You examine your trainers to see whether you can claim that they are orthopaedic and therefore entirely essential for you to do your job. I say ‘you’ like this is something that many teachers do, but I think, in this case, it might just be me.
I solemnly swear not to get wound up by news headlines about English teaching or to utter the words “It’s all Michael Gove’s fault”.
It’s coming to the official end of open season on teachers and exams in the news, although I have noticed a disturbing trend over the past few years that suggests that open season has been somewhat extended. News headlines about teachers and teaching seem to be prevalent throughout the year; from what I can gather, if there is a social ill, you can rest assured that The Telegraph will point a bony, accusing finger at the nearest teacher, and follow it up with an ill-advised column by La Birbalsingh or Toby Young. I heard somewhere that teachers are about to be blamed for Syria. Get in line, Ban-Ki Moon, we’re still busy being blamed for domestic issues like obesity and riots. It’s all Michael Gove’s fault.
I promise to stay on top of my marking and do it diligently and without complaint
Now that Speaking and Listening has been abandoned as a concept at KS4 by the powers that be, I am sure that the volume of written responses from my students will increase and in this case, I must be better at marking – as must we all. This means that I must attempt to cover my exercise books in meaningful red/green pen (let’s not go there) and not have that sinking, guilty feeling when I think about my Year 7 books. Every year I implement what I like to call a ‘system’. This ‘system’ usually involves various pieces of coloured paper that track progress in exercise books (last year I downgraded and just used white paper – it was liberating) and scheduling in ‘marking parties’ with others who have my unfortunate habit of ignoring the call of mock exam papers and homework until it is absolutely necessary to deal with them. Dealing with the marking is better than having to answer to Year 10 asking when their work will be finished ‘being moderated’. And yes, they say it sarcastically, because they’re not stupid, most of them.
I declare that I will get around the problem of it being ‘too late to go to the gym’ when I’ve finished work
As far as I can see, this one is only going to be solved by learning to incorporate gym based activities into my lessons. Forget Brain Gym, it’s Actual Gym and I’m probably going to be the only one doing it in the room, but I shrug nonchalantly in the face of embarrassment. Mine or anyone else’s. Yes, kids, two squats before I lean in to assess your work, a star jump or three when you get something right and some seated glute compressions when you’re doing controlled assessment. I’m quite amused at the thought of this resolution. I have visions of myself using the time spent handing out worksheets for sprinting around the classroom. It’s not quite the same thing as described in Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’ in that it doesn’t create a marginal gain for the children – but it does create a marginal gain for the teacher. Every bit counts, folks. For anyone who is thinking of adopting my resolutions, this is one you may want to miss out. You can achieve the same effect by just joining a gym that opens late and actually going.
I strongly believe I can schedule in time to see family and friends
So, the last time I visited my mother in term time was, let me think, when I was school myself and went home at the end of the day. Seeing people is hard when you’re a teacher. You can’t see people who are not teachers because they say that thing about 9-3 and long holidays which makes me want to stick a fork in their eye and play Taylor Mali’s ‘What Teachers Make’ like water torture until they stop speaking. I have to confess that I become victim to a vague sort of martyrdom during term time that involves me feeling hideously sorry for myself for working ridiculous hours and needing the weekend to myself to recover. This inevitably means that I promise to see people that I actually like and admire, but cancelling because I can’t shift myself out of bed by 4pm on a Saturday and then it’s too late to do anything, isn’t it? I am resolving to schedule in my Life. There, I said it. I will see people and I will not be too tired or too grumpy or tell too many stories about what happened in form time. Friends, you may hold me to this.
I intend to like all my students without fail
Okay, I won’t use bad words about them. I promise. Does it count if I adapt the bad words or use euphemisms? While 99.9% of the students are lovely in some way, there’s always that child that you just can’t abide. It’s usually not the child’s fault; it’s something in you that is triggered by a facet of their personality, which results in a relationship that can, euphemistically, be described as ‘poopy’. They don’t even know they’re winding you up. I intend to give them the benefit of the doubt and to be compassionate about their character flaws. I know I can do it. This year I am stronger.
If you have any resolutions as a teacher, take a moment to affirm them. While I am about as far removed from a self-help guru as a human being can be without being in space, breathe in and let the air flow out, leaving the year you’ve just had behind. Feel the Vitamin D stored in your skin from the holiday you’ve just returned from and savour that feeling of being refreshed and resolute.
It won’t last long, my lovelies. Have a great year.
It was with a considerably arched brow that I read recently about how The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) have issued guidelines to parents on managing problematic behaviours in their children. As a teacher, I have long been an advocate of collaborating with parents, not only on the ins and outs of academic success, but also in terms of behaviour management and developing resilient and characterful children.
It is absolutely clear that success in education does not just come from parental understanding of the finer points of an English APP grid. Quite often, schools approach parental collaboration with a half hearted nod towards sharing academic resources and fulfilling statutory requirements to keep them informed as to how access the Ofsted Data Dashboard. I have heard conversations in the last ten years that start with a moan about how if only teachers could get parents to manage their own children and end with the inevitable: “but I don’t have time to set up a parental engagement session in which we discuss how to set boundaries and encourage co-operation!”
We can’t have it both ways. If we are going to comment on parental engagement as teachers, we have to be willing to have an open dialogue about what children – students – need to become successful adults. This means biting the proverbial bullet and dealing with the fact that this dialogue can be painfully awkward. As a teacher, I am allowed to say “your child is not behaving in a respectful or productive way” or “I am setting a sanction for undesirable behaviours” but when it comes to providing advice to parents on what I think they should do, that is when the awkwardness begins.
Fundamentally, the fact that I am not a parent works against me and in conversations with parents, I have faced that knowing smile (slightly sad, perhaps even pitying) that says: how can you possibly know what it is like to raise a child and all the difficulties that brings?
My response, never spoken aloud, is always the same. All I do is raise children. They come to my classroom as eleven year olds and they leave as eighteen years olds and for that time, I am partly responsible for their upbringing. Not only do I see them through their silly seasons, their traumas, their successes, I see each and every one of them standing next to other children with other parents. The full range.
I think if teachers had just one opportunity to stand up to the nation and give advice to parents, they would probably all say very similar things. There are many parents out there who are brilliant at doing all those things – this is not intended to generalise about parents’ ability to raise their offspring. So, in the spirit of sharing and dispelling the awkwardness and to start a dialogue, this is what I want to say to parents.
Talk with your child
It is not easy maintaining dialogue with a teenager. I, too, have seen sulking and unresponsive stares. As an English teacher, I see that the most literate children – the ones who go on to achieve the highest grades, are the ones whose parent/s talk with them. I say ‘with’ deliberately, because I have also seen a lot of talking ‘at’ and that doesn’t necessarily work if it used all the time. Children switch off and become immune to lectures, they are much more responsive to carefully considered questions. Suffice to say that the talking must begin early. All the research shows that modelling speech and conversation at an early age leads to more literate and successful children. Shouting parents almost always lead to shouting children.
Follow through with sanctions
If your child does do something you do not approve of, or is misbehaving at school and you set a sanction, it is imperative that you follow through with that sanction. Sitting in a meeting with your child’s teacher and saying that you will take away the X-Box/ground them for a week/stop them watching TV and then caving at the first tantrum or sulk just means they will keep on with the negative behaviour. There is nothing more frustrating than when a teacher has a meeting with parents and is told about the sanctions that will be put in place, only to find that student gloating about how they have not had any consequences at home. Teachers are told constantly to be consistent and firm with behaviour and sanctions; it would be brilliant if this could happen at home too.
Don’t give up
There is an oppressive sense of despair when I hear the words: “I can’t do anything with them – they won’t listen to me anymore – I give up” from a parent. The simple fact is that if you as a parent have given up, then there is very little hope that I am going to be able to turn things around, at school or indeed, at home. I want to be able to work with you to ensure the best outcome for the child – and yes, I can help to make things better, but if a parent washes his/her hands of a child, we may as well go for that early bath. The thing is, I also know that even though the words are said, it is very rare that a parent actually does wash their hands of their child. But the damage often comes from a child hearing those words. It offers carte blanche to a child to continue behaving in the way they are, whether that be not completing homework, or arguing with teachers.
It’s not about success, it’s about effort
Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller from Columbia University conducted a large-scale programme of research into the psychology of praise. The findings were incredibly clear – children who were praised for effort outperformed those who were praised for success. The day in, day out praise from a parent needs to be focused not on how clever the child is, but on how hard they work. This is something my colleagues and I are starting to recognise and see the results of – children who are praised for effort become more resilient and are more likely to pick themselves back up from failure. The biggest issue I see with my teenagers is the fear of failure; it often manifests itself in the child not even attempting to start something that is perceived as difficult, because that is easier than failing and trying again. Parents can help their children to overcome this fear by praising their effort and showing them that hard work is more important than success. Until it comes to the final examinations, of course.
Don’t blame me
The most divisive and destructive thing a child can see is a parent publicly blaming the school or an individual teacher for any problem that has occurred. When I call parents in for a meeting, chances are I have to squeeze it into a busy day. I am not there because I have some sort of antipathy for that particular child – I want to move forward. If a child sees a parent criticise a teacher, that division is set. By all means, disagree with me and my methods – tell me you think I am wrong, but not in front of the student. You will remove any respect that student has for me and if that is the case, how can I be expected to maintain the performance of that child and to ensure that rules and regulations are kept? In many ways, it is exactly the same thing as criticising your spouse’s interaction with your child in front of them. One parent attacking the other’s ability to parent in front of the children is seen as destructive; it is just as much so when you make it clear to your child that you do not respect that teacher enough to speak to them privately.
Get involved with the school
My biggest hope is that more parents feel they can become involved with the school their child attends. Lots of research has shown that parental engagement and involvement means different things to schools and parents. Fathers often feel marginalised as parent activities in schools can be perceived as being geared towards women, some parents do not feel they can access services the school offers for parents for fear of stigmatisation. One of the most difficult barriers in engaging parents is often their own experience of education. I firmly believe that schools have to find ways to engage with parents productively, as studies show that children of parents who are involved with the school not only outperform other students, but also have better attendance and behaviour.
If your school has a parents’ association, try to join it. Be proactive about contacting teachers – show that the dialogue is open. Attend school events, where you can, with your children. It is not easy; working hours often mean that parents find it incredibly difficult to attend evening events. I have a lot of respect for working parents who manage to get into the school for concerts and parents’ evenings alike.
There, I’ve started the conversation. I look forward to working with you.
What do misbehaving students, a bus crash in Coventry, the Tottenham riots and our current government have in common?
The concept of empathy is one I have long been interested in. Differences between students can often be attributed to varying levels of empathy – persistent low level misbehaviour speaks volumes about that particular child’s lack of empathy for students around him or her. Generally speaking, the more empathetic a student is, the better their relationship with their peers and the adults around them; it comes as no surprise that these students often achieve more highly than less empathetic students.
Simon Baron-Cohen’s brilliant and precise ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty’ had me thinking about the links between empathy and student behaviour. His assertion that certain people exhibit “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or adolescence, and continues into adulthood” may seem only to apply on the surface to those with diagnosed pathological conditions and yet, as teachers, particularly in urban, deprived areas, do we not see these behaviours exhibited by our poorest behaved students on daily basis? These students turn into the adults of the future, sometimes taking their low empathy levels with them. Some of them become inconsiderate drivers, noisy neighbours, litter-droppers, looters and muggers.
Whose responsibility is it to teach people to consider others, to be more empathetic?
The curriculum (when we have one coherent one) ignores this life skill – it is overlooked by those who design the curriculum, perhaps out of a mistaken belief that it is not a teacher’s responsibility to develop levels in empathy in children. We don’t explicitly teach empathy; it is a by-product of studying History, Literature, PSHE and RE but it is not something that is taught as a life skill that can mean the difference between success and failure. It doesn’t fit onto a league table. It would look odd nestled in the data outlining A*-C grades including English and Maths. And yet, in our society – one that is struggling against a ‘me-first’ culture highlighted most horrifically by the Tottenham riots – we can’t afford to ignore the impact of ignoring this most human of skills.
Recently, in Coventry (a town blighted by the German bombing and then by some shockingly poor architectural choices), a bus carrying passengers crashed into a pawn shop, scattering the gold in the window display. I would like to think that if I was on a bus and this had happened, my fellow passengers’ first instincts would be to check on each other, to make sure that everyone was safe, out of danger and uninjured. But no: many of the passengers and onlookers began looting the gold, scrabbling in the debris for what they could gather up. They left the scene with their pickings. When reading this story, I couldn’t help but associate it with other instances of disintegrating empathy. Only someone with very low levels of empathy could set fire to buildings that may be occupied during the Tottenham riots; only someone with very low levels of empathy could assault a Malaysian student and pretend to be helping him. Lack of compassion has been very much in the news in the last few weeks – a recent study by the journal Psychological Science suggested this week that the less compassionate you are, the less moral you become.
Where, then, does a decreased ability to display empathetic behaviour come from? Have we always been this way? In a lesson with Year 11 students, we were discussing Hamlet. In analysing the line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, my students made the link between the quality and style of leadership and the knock-on effects on state and society. Claudius, the ‘king’, is rotten and therefore, the country is too. We don’t have to travel too far to see the parallels in our own society. Empathy is not a feature associated with the Coalition government, or those appointed by it. Sir Michael Wilshaw’s statement almost sums up my argument: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you know you are doing something right”. When you’ve finished being astounded by the sheer bullishness of the line, it is hard to find an iota of empathy in that sentence. The sacking of Downhills Primary governing body by Michael Gove can be seen as yet another nail in the coffin of empathy. The act in itself is the result of complex wranglings influenced by the need to demonstrate total control over a system that is powered, ultimately, by human beings with human feelings. Whatever our opinions on school underachievement, the end result leaves onlookers asking uncomfortable questions about the methodology of improvement on such a public scale.
Combine Sir Michael Wilshaw with Michael Gove, add in cuts to services such as domestic violence support charities, whisk in a whole host of measures that adversely affect women and ethnic minorities, and sprinkle liberally with a reduction in public sector pay in the poorest areas and you’re left with a potent mix that may account for the unease in communities. It’s a recipe that lacks one vital ingredient: empathy.
The inevitable consequence of a right-wing government that is more interested in the stick than the carrot and nothing in between can only lead to a society that reflects their own lack of empathy. Society is a mirror of leadership. I don’t imagine the Coalition government sees itself in the Tottenham riots, or the bus passengers that looted the pawn shop – but maybe it should. Maybe it should.
Of course I watched it. I promised myself I wouldn’t, but ended up breaking my own cardinal rule (‘don’t watch school related TV programmes, they’ll only make you angry’) because of staffroom banter, most of which was fairly positive. Educating Essex, a warts and all documentary based in an Essex comprehensive, is compelling viewing and, as I thought it might, it has polarised opinions in the most predictable way.
Just as the insouciant and strangely indomitable Mr Drew, deputy head of Passmores, predicted in episode 1, people who still work in schools have recognised the daily ebb and flow of working in school and have had a fairly warm reaction to the frank portrayal of behaviour, routines and behind the scenes camaraderie. Those who don’t, including the more right of centre press, have focused not on the school’s relentless drive to build self esteem and effective relationships, but rather on the occasional footage of teachers calling their students “scumbags” and behaving in what they consider to be a frivolous fashion behind the scenes. The Daily Mail is particularly outraged.
Is the show a realistic and useful presentation of comprehensives in the 21st century, or, as some colleagues have pointed out, a final nail in the coffin for any respectability the comprehensive system may have remaining? My own reaction has been surprisingly gentle. I have watched two episodes now with the sincere hope that people see the school for what I believe it to be – a happy place, where children are allowed to be children and where the pressures of society are not only acknowledged, but dealt with by people with years of experience, who genuinely care about young people and their futures.
The ‘backstage’ humour, the conversations that staff have with each other are all immediately familiar. Is it even fair to criticise the staff for maintaining a sense of fun in what they do? Since when did having a bit of a laugh and a joke at work become such an issue? I have visions of teachers and I know and love maintaining their teacher personas in the staffroom at break time. “Miss Kara, do you intend to drink that coffee or are you going go let it go cold?” An pointed enquiring stare at the cup, and a look that instructs me to drink up as I have very little time left of break. It would be ludicrous because we know, those of us who teach, that the teacher persona is simply that, a persona that is created for the benefit of children and cannot be maintained indefinitely.
Critics have argued that allowing the backstage to be seen, by raising the curtain on the banter and relationships, the show inadvertently or otherwise, influences children to behave in a similar way. And I should hope so. I hope that children grow up to work in environments where they can socialise with their peers, make bad jokes – perhaps even rude ones – because that’s what people do. As this issue has caused the most controversy, I asked my students what they thought. We watched extracts from the show, including some of the silliness by the staff. The response was pretty unanimous. One child, a Year 10 student, said: “I’d love to go to that school.” When I asked why, he said: “Because they look happy.” I showed them the footage of the teacher dismissing a class, calling them “scumbags”. My students dismissed this immediately. “If he didn’t have a good relationship with them, they wouldn’t let him call them that,” they explained. “you’d probably see them kicking off or swearing or something.” Fair enough, I thought, a good point. I remember a teacher affectionately calling us “nuisances” when I was at primary school. I don’t remember being that bothered, to be honest.
If anything, Educating Essex shows the broader public the human side of teaching; in the current political climate, this can only be a good thing. People need to know that even schools designated as ‘outstanding’ are run by real people who face real dilemmas and who deal with them with a combination of seriousness and humour. People need to see that their own experiences of school, in some cases as parents and as people who went to school a long time ago, are entirely different from today. The show allows people to see the daily struggle to educate children who are individuals and not just categories – Free School Meals, ethnic minority, boy, girl, literate, middle class, deprived. It also allows teachers and their students, those who experience the education system first hand, to have a voice.
I’m sure there are other arguments as to why Educating Essex is a terrible idea – inevitably, the viewing public will disagree about editing decisions, the personalities, the school’s discipline system – a whole host of things. The fact remains that Passmores shows teachers who care about their students, regardless of their behaviour or their background. They get good results and they believe in what they are doing. Why else would they have allowed the documentary to be made? This isn’t a whistle blowing operation by disgruntled supply teachers looking for vengeance. This is pride in achievement and an unbending belief that Passmores provides quality education and support.
We should be celebrating them, if only because not many of us would be brave enough to do the same. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
The average number of words used in response to a question asked by a teacher in some classrooms? Four, I was told. Now, I know what you must be thinking when you read this statement masquerading as a statistic – teenagers have always been surly and unresponsive, right? Teenagers aren’t supposed to actually talk to adults – look at Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’ caricature. That’s pretty close to reality, right? We don’t need to worry about this issue.
The Rose Review, published in 2006, made clear the links between the ability to speak and listen effectively, stating that “Speaking and Listening, together with reading and writing, are central to children’s intellectual, social and emotional development.” I am aware that the National Literacy Trust, an organisation in which I have absolute faith, has been trying to address the issue of articulacy for years. Their ‘Talk To Your Baby’ campaign was practical and dealt in its entirety with the concept that unless very young children have the ability to express themselves, serious problems will occur later on in their education. In my time as an English teacher, I have seen the skills of speaking and listening dealt with really well and, as you may expect, also really badly. The idea that teaching a child how to be articulate is extremely important isn’t new but it remains an afterthought in some teaching.
For many in education, it comes down to this: can a child give me the answer – in four words or fewer, it doesn’t matter – or can they explain how they got to that answer? In the current climate, league tables create pressure to raise levels of attainment, which means that all too often, the skill of articulating an opinion or thought is left to one side. It is entirely understandable, but incredibly frustrating. We want to develop those skills, but in limited timeframes, with modular exams bearing down on us and changes to coursework now adding to the treadmill of assessment, often the choice has to be made to do things quickly instead of well.
Recently, it has been made horribly clear that you can have a GCSE or two and still not be able to get a job. Sky News interviewed masked youths, apparently involved in looting in London, who said that they had their qualifications and still didn’t have jobs. It seems that both Boris Johnson and I agree on one thing: developing literacy skills is the best tool we have in our belt against the kind of civil unrest we have seen this month. What Boris doesn’t understand is that is not just reading that creates citizens who can engage in society; it is being able to explain what they have read and how that relates to their own experiences. It is the ability to formulate complex sentences in speech and writing. Explicitly teaching the skills of speaking and listening is just as important as delivering front line reading recovery.
In all of this, it can be argued that there is a direct link between the lack of ability to articulate oneself and the perceived lack of opportunity in society. People don’t give jobs to those who can’t construct a sentence, verbally or in writing. People who can express themselves clearly and with reason are listened to, those who shout or stumble over their words, often not – it is a harsh reality, but we would be naive to ignore this uncomfortable truth. If you aren’t confident enough in your own ability to explain your qualifications and skills in an interview, or to interact with colleagues, or to present in public, what are the chances that you are going to try and find a job in the first place?
Over and over again, recently, I have heard the rioter’s refrain: “We’re not being listened to!” and while I imagine that is true, the matter of whether you are listened to or not involves deep-seated ideas about language and speech.
Whether we like it or not, people are judged on their ability to speak and listen effectively, especially in a public forum. The training for a life of being listened to begins in our classrooms. This year, the exam board introduced a spoken language study as part of the English Language GCSE course – and watching students confront their own language idiosyncrasies was fascinating. They understood the superfluous nature of sentence fillers and how that makes you sound unsure, or hesitant in certain situations. They also understood that using conventional – and by that I mean, socially acceptable – language ensures that you can be part of a wider society. Speaking in a highly localised dialect means that you choose to alienate some listeners, who may not understand certain words or phrases used by teenagers speaking what they call ‘Hackney’.
What does this mean for speaking and listening in schools? Unfortunately, the concept is often only dealt with by English Departments, who by the very nature of the curriculum develop those skills – sometimes inadvertently. Then they remember two months before the exam that speaking and listening coursework needs to be completed and artificial scenarios are used to tick that exam board box. The issue becomes speculative because there are very few schools in which there is a real and relentless focus on developing children’s abilities to speak and listen in all contexts, in all subjects and in all situations. What if the expectation was that Science, Maths and IT teachers also taught speaking and listening skills? What if we all said that we wanted more than four words in response to a question? What if we asked better questions that meant that students had to develop responses?
For my students, so much of their confidence is related to whether they feel they can make themselves heard and express what they mean. Inevitably, so many behaviour issues stem from those students’ lack of verbal skills. Schools need to begin questioning themselves as to whether they have a policy on the development of oracy and how it relates to every subject taught. Children are asking to be listened to; let’s give them the skills they need to make themselves heard.