The Benefit of High Expectations

One of the main threads in my time at my school has been student behaviour and expectation. There is a belief amongst some staff that it is important to give students their say, their time and to just enjoys school, that imposing clear cut expectations and routines would diminish this. Students don’t like being told what to do so they then won’t like school.

The other belief is that through clear top down expectations on all staff and students, we get the environment you seek while students get a clear and consistent message.

In my experience children don’t hate being told what to do, they hate being told inconsistently what to do. They dislike the teachers who set an expectation about walking in lines because their classroom teacher doesn’t make them. They dislike the teacher who tells students to be on time because their classroom teacher doesn’t make a fuss about it.

If you and your school create an environment where every student and staff member clearly knows the expectations, worthwhile expectations, it creates a far more harmonious environment to work in.

No more students bouncing from teacher to teacher until they get the answer they want. Students will quickly realise that their aren’t teachers who will let them get away with behaviours while the ‘strict’ teachers will pull them up.

But the best part of being a teacher in a school with clear expectations, routines and consequences for ignoring these is that you do not have to feel authoritarian.

You and your class can start to have some of those jokes and build that strong relationship. They know that you’re supportive of them and the class and at the very least they can rely on you to be consistent.

Students know when they’ve crossed a line, sometimes literally, and know that if there is a consequence, that it isn’t coming from you. You no longer feel like the bad guy and students understand far quicker. After all, there are consequences in real life for not following an outlines routine or expectation.

I have seen this in an external environment where students form all different locations spend a week together with no teacher from their school. They were clearly told what was expected, they had consequences for ignoring them. And guess what? It was the best experience of their lives. Do you think they disliked a single one of those adults? No. All they could do was rave about how friendly they were, the great friends they made and how they wish they could do it all again. Hardly and authoritative , totalitarian environment that crushed the spirit of the students.

As with anything there are those extreme outliers that are an exception to this. These need to be dealt with and monitored on a case by case basis. Don’t build whole school expectations on children that are 1 in 1000.

As a school, build clear expectations and routines of your staff and students. It might be hard work early but in the end they will all be thankful for it.


Nonsense Ways to Reduce Workload #1

I’m a UK Primary School teacher and also a parent Governor at another local Primary school.

In my role as Governor last term, I was involved in interviewing candidates for a new teaching job. In the course of this, one of the candidates spoke about something his current school called ‘Wednesday Table Maths’. As a class teacher I’ve reflected on this and see it more and more as a ridiculous strategy to try to reduce workload.

I’ll try to explain ‘Wednesday Table Maths’ as faithfully as I can, as it was described to me(anything in brackets is my own commentary):

At the candidate’s school, the making policy states that all work will be marked before books are given back to the children in the following lesson, for them to act on the marking comments (not especially uncommon in Primary school’s, in my experience). On Tuesday’s, the school holds a staff meeting after school. As this impacts on the time available to mark, the Maths lesson on Wednesday (and possibly other lessons but the candidate only talked about Maths) is a ‘Table Lesson’. This involves some kind of practical activity which does not need recording in a child’s book. The candidate gave examples of work involving sorting 2D and 3D shapes, using place value counters, Cuisenaire rods, measuring using tape measures/metre sticks… that sort of thing… This gives teachers the chance to catch up with marking from Tuesday’s lesson and return their books fully marked again on Thursday with no additional marking generated from Wednesday.

Firstly, I can see that the school in question recognises that the marking workload on teachers is great and that an after school meeting doesn’t help. Secondly, none of the activities described by the candidate, or lessons generally involving equipment or manipulatives, or those which don’t need any formal recording in books, are inherently bad ideas.

It’s just that… rather than actually tackling the real demands of workload by reviewing and updating the policy, the school puts a sticking plaster over the problem and introduces ‘Wednesday Table Maths’. As I said, I didn’t have a particular issue with any of the activities described, but they are only useful as part of  a teaching sequence when they can enhance and develop children’s Maths knowledge, not just ‘because it’s Wednesday’!

I believe that this school’s leaders had the very best of intentions but the thought process which identifies, “Our marking policy is unmanageable; let’s change Wednesday’s Maths lesson”, rather than, “Our marking policy is unmanageable; let’s change the policy,” seems to highlight the fear/paralysis/lack of thought/knowledge of effective feedback/things have to look good culture which is endemic in our education system.

Would be interested to know what you think. Is ‘Wednesday Table Maths’ actually a good idea? Are there other nonsense ways to reduce workload in other schools? Perhaps this could be the first in a series of posts with the same title…?


What could I be doing better?

I have recently moved to an international school in Spain after completing my NQT year in London. I will definitely admit that working in London during my NQT year was the biggest challenge I had ever faced. I had quite a challenging class and I had never taught the British curriculum. However, I was extremely fortunate to have been in a tremendous school with very supportive staff. Once my year was complete, I felt like a brand new teacher. I had picked up hundreds of new ideas and strategies and I was implementing them daily. I set up a teacher twitter account and was interacting and sharing with others on a daily basis. As my year started to come to a close I was already thinking about next September in my new school. I had display ideas, class management strategies and many more methods to bring to my new school.
However, here I am in January and I feel like I have fallen off the wagon. I have become lazy in my approach to teaching. I make excuses, try and think on my feet and get quickly frustrated with the kids in my class when I know it’s me who is the problem. It is not that I feel stressed at work however I definitely feel like I’m not on top off things I should easily be. I have joined a wonderful school in Spain. They have taken a lot from the British curriculum and implemented their own methods. They’ve provided lots of support and at the same time given me so much freedom to teach and plan. I personally feel I have taken advantage of this freedom given to the teachers and I haven’t ran with it at all.
That is why my aim for 2018 is to regenerate my enthusiasm for teaching and become a more efficient worker. Here are some ideas I hope to follow;
  • Do the important stuff everyday. I work in an international school with young kids. Right now what is important to them is reading (phonics)and writing. I will ensure this is planned and do it every day (even if it is a 5 minute sound game).
  • Plan early for the week and reflect often. I have been doing a lot of planning on my feet and it’s obvious it has not been working. I am going to set aside every Friday morning to reflect and plan for the following week.
  • Make better use of my time in and out of the classroom. I love the quote by Tim Ferriss “Am I hunting antelope or field mice?” I will try and ask myself this every day in school and hopefully I will start to realise what is important and what is unnecessary. For example when the children are quietly colouring, do I need to be tidying my class or could I take a small reading group for ten minutes? It’s obvious which one is more beneficial.
  • Implement a strict routine. This is for myself and my kids. To make my week run smoother I need to know what I should be doing and when. Once these become a habit I won’t have to think about the actions themselves. For example, every Monday swap reading books or every morning in class we start with sentence building on mini whiteboards.
I am sure I am not the only teacher who feels like this at this time of year. With the new term starting now it’s a wonderful time to change and try a few new things. It could your routine, organisation or teaching style. Trial and error is key.
Thanks for taking the time to read.

An Apology to Mrs Stephens

Dear Mrs Stephens,

You may not remember me, but I was the fresh-faced, wide-eyed, enthusiastic NQT who taught in the Yr3 classroom next to your Yr5 class just over 20 years ago. I was full of great ideas about how to change the world one child at a time and prepare and shape young minds for the up-coming 21st century.

I looked at you and saw the past. I thought you and your lessons were boring. I thought you were irrelevant. I thought there was nothing I could learn from you. I was wrong and I want to say I’m sorry.

Your classroom had tables facing the front and, every time I looked in, children were working quietly and independently or you were talking to them from the front. My class were sitting in groups; constantly sharing, collaborating, discussing, learning from each other – I wasn’t going to ‘lecture’ at them but facilitate this discovery from each other.

Your classroom had a few token posters on the wall and some examples of children’s best work. I’d spend half the holidays putting up engaging, lively, interactive displays. You enjoyed being part of a choir and did lots of craft activities (knitting and sewing groups; I think you did some pottery too).

You had a bookshelf full of textbooks and folders of organised and catalogued worksheets that you used in your lessons. I used my weekends to design fun activities which involved children cutting, sticking, sorting and colouring which they loved doing. You told me once that I was welcome to have a look through your resources and I politely said that I would when I had some time but I never intended to and I never did.

It was the time when the Literacy and Numeracy hour were being implemented and I embraced this new initiative, organising carousels of activities, differentiating for different groups with 5 activities and always leaving 10 minutes at the end of a lesson for a plenary. You kept quiet, but I saw you occasionally roll your eyes during the training.

I realise now I was being a disrespectful, obnoxious little ****. I realise now that your years of experience had led you to focus on what was important.

You knew that in order to learn, classrooms need to be calm and organised and a place where children can focus and concentrate without distraction. You knew that children need to practise basic skills regularly and over time. You knew that you were the most valuable and knowledgeable person in the room and that by teaching and explaining clearly, to everyone, they could all benefit. You knew that it was important to have a life outside of the classroom.

I know these things now too, but it has taken me a long time to get there. I wish that, 20 years ago, I could have seen and valued what was really happening in your classroom. I wish I had looked at you shelves of books and resources – I bet it was was full of purposeful, deliberate practice. I wish I had sat and talked to you about your career and found out more about your approach to teaching and learning. It would have saved a lot of time.

In short, I apologise Mrs Stephens. You were a great teacher and I’m sorry I didn’t realise it sooner. Sadly, I don’t know where you are or what you are doing now but I wish you a very happy new year.

Footnote: If you are new to the profession, go and seek out the member of staff who has been teaching for the longest in your school (they may be the grumpy, curmudgeonly one in the corner of the staff room). Don’t dismiss them as a dinosaur. Talk to them, visit their lessons, learn from them – I promise you, they have a lot to offer.

My Teaching Philosophy Philosophy

Education has come a long way in the last few centuries and the classrooms of today would be almost unrecognisable to teachers of previous centuries. Classrooms are now bright, colourful and covered in student’s work with electronic screens in most rooms for children to observe.

There is an emphasis on everything being interactive for the student as with an increase in technology attention spans, we have been told repeatedly, are getting shorter. We need to work in short sharp bursts where students get a say on their learning. We must create digital native students for the 21st century, give them skills for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Collaboration and creative and critical thinking are educational dispositions that are vital to creating life long learners.

In reality teaching hasn’t changed that much. Reading, Writing and Mathematics remain core to every day life. A student’s failure to grasp all three by the time they leave school, greatly harms their chances of full time employment in their after school life.

One thing that has changed is a move from an industry to individual teacher philosophy. Every teacher has their own philosophy of why they became a teacher. They may not differ too much from teacher to teacher but it is a set of ideals an educator wishes for their career and for the students they teach. It could be independent or it could be linked to the school they’re employed at.

This philosophy will influence everything they do in the classroom. A teacher whose philosophy is about assisting students from low socioeconomic status would likely choose to work in areas where this is the majority of students. Teachers who have a passion for students with intellectual disabilities would find themselves working with students in integration.

A teacher’s philosophy will also influence how they see their students in the classroom. Teachers will undertake observational bias and attribute student learning and gains to the teaching approach they use and could equally attribute students who don’t grasp a topic or skill, to a learning difficulty or one of the most dangerous comments that I’ve been guilty of “They’re just not ready for it yet, they’ll get there.”

What separates a good teaching philosophy from a great teaching philosophy is flexibility.

Teachers are all noble. They all share the same desire to do the best for their students and that should be admired by all. In order to do the best for those students, teachers cannot allow their philosophy to be fixed.

I still remember my Year 12 novel, Romulus My Father. In that book there is a reference to Raimond Gaita’s father’s friend Hora. Raimond says that Hora would approach each conversation with an open mind, open to the possibility that his opinion could be altered. This has stuck with me and guided not only my teaching philosophy but my philosophy on life.

That’s not to say I approach each conversation and seesaw back and forth. That is, in my opinion, worse than a fixed opinion and philosophy.

Teachers are consistently provided with advice on how to steer their philosophy and various different practices are promoted.

Whole language and inquiry learning are two such approaches. They enjoy an armchair ride into the psyche of most Australian teachers during their training at universities. They are promoted as the best methods of teaching and student independence of their own learning the ultimate goal. Doesn’t that sound impressive?Doesn’t that make sense?

No it doesn’t.

The reason it doesn’t is because of three recently adapted rules to my guide on teaching philosophy. I will still be willing to change my opinion on education with any teacher or parent on the condition that they can first answer these three questions:
1. Is there any evidence to support this?
2. Is it best practice?
3. Is it what’s best for the students?
Question three is by far the most important but becomes irrelevant if question one and two cannot be answered.

If we apply these questions to the philosophy of whole language learning, we don’t get past question one. What a time saver!

The question of whole language needs to be asked, if it is so heavily promoted, if it is so widely used, why is there no sound evidence to suggest that it is effective let alone best practice?

Which brings us to the opposite of whole language approach, Systematic Synthetic Phonics. SSP is and evidence program that is shown to be the most effective way to teach children to read. It provides content and structure that allows all students to gain instruction required to be successful. Again, this isn’t opinion, there is evidence to back this up.

Recently people in the field of education have challenged my belief in what I’m doing is best for the education of my students. They sprout that it is not best for all and it is detrimental to the ‘whole student.’ While I disagree that it is not best for all, evidence tells me that at the very least it is best for most and the best way for students who need the most support.

Evidence is the friend of every teacher. It helps to guide us in a direction of high impact. Teachers can gain a platform to challenge teaching ideas and ideals, weed through the jargon and really focus on the true pearls of wisdom. Most importantly, evidence of impact through peer reviewed data doesn’t lie.

Recently I undertook a two day Performance and Development session on leadership. In the session, the instructors spent most of their time focussing on teaching philosophy. To support this, we were provided with a selection of handpicked forewords which reinforced these opinions. I was amazed and frustrated at the lack of teachers who challenged these articles as ‘evidence.’ Forewords are at best opinion articles that require no evidence in order to share opinion.

For any teacher in Australia, I challenge you to question your own philosophy of teaching once in a while. Ask yourself those three questions:
1. Is there any evidence to support this?
2. Is it best practice?
3. Is it what’s best for the students?
If it turns out nothing has changed then great work on staying informed. If you ask those three questions and you realise that you may need to make changes then that’s great too. Nobody has ever or will ever shame a teacher who builds on their understanding of education. We are all only here to do the best by our students.

So do the right thing and challenge your philosophy, use evidence and let’s all work together to promote best practice and enhance student achievement. I did and I wish I had’ve known sooner.

Key Stage 3 reports/data entry in non Eng/Sci/Maths. Accuracy? Value?

Eng/Maths/Science are taught many times per week at KS3 giving (if well timetabled) teachers the opportunity to know student strengths and assess them in depth. However, some subjects get taught once per week so, come data entry time, teachers could be filling in a number of boxes for 300 children – and then the longer reports must be ‘personalised’. Often, due to the timing of data drops vs SOW, grades are pure guesswork (aka professional judgement) and thus, completely pointless. Yet the compliance with idiocy continues, with reasoning voices being told that the data is valuable and needed. We nod silently and get on with it instead of planning cracking lessons or having a useful chat with colleague or student.

Then there is the marking. Again – no parity between subjects for agreed marking schedules. Hours and hours spent per year spent ensuring that not only do students receive good feedback, but that it can be proven when someone picks up a book. Often this is instigated by leaders who teach only a few classes per week and then assure us it is perfectly doable.
When did teaching become about the inspectors and not about the children? How have many of us continued to participate in an openly flawed system where common sense and human relationships must take a back seat. It’s time to evaluate, stop saying the ‘right things’ and tell it as it is.
Agree/disagree? Comments always welcome.