Just how much practice do they need?

As you know, when I first joined the education profession pretty much everything seemed bizarre; all the wisdom and what I would consider ‘normal’ ways to teach (based on common sense, efficiency and old-fashioned parenting) were like dirty words and I found myself putting my foot in my mouth so many times! Primary education is still very progressive, despite what many say in terms of trying to deny this situation, and I’ve learned to keep my beliefs to myself, longing for a time when I can just ‘come out’.  In the meantime, let’s keep up with the blogging! This blog post is about the importance of practice and why I don’t think children get anywhere near enough practice of, well, anything really. Except chatting. So much chatting….

I like subjecting my own brain to continued improvement; it’s like I want to be frustrated or something. For example one year I decided, for a laugh, to learn Mandarin Chinese and I did actually manage to accumulate knowledge of about 800 characters (I daren’t retest myself today). When I woke up this morning I decided to teach myself a piece of music on the piano just because. And I don’t even play piano (I’m a violinist). After 2 hours of intense focus I’m now able to hammer out some Einaldi. Am I just ‘one of those people’ who is naturally able to do this kind of thing? No. I’m nothing special, seriously. In fact, I’m hopelessly flawed; I’m terrible at multi-tasking, for example, needing to be hyper-organised to get through life with ballsing up too much. I just know how to break knowledge and skills into bits and dwell on each bit, not giving up.

This kind of habit does have its benefits because it seems that I can accumulate knowledge and skills at quite a fast rate and I’d love for more children to be like that too. As a teacher, I want to train children to be more focused and to achieve well so that when they get to secondary school, they are not only fabulous mathematicians and writers for example, equipped with that important foundation of knowledge, they are able to knuckle down and concentrate intensely on the subject matter before them. I don’t think this aspect of maturity happens naturally or is some kind of gift bestowed upon fortunate people; I think it is the result of deliberate training and a belief in the intrinsic benefits of practice. We are the adults and it is our job to make sure the next generation are able to concentrate. I also think that leaving this aspect of training till later childhood years does not do children any favours.

My own ‘training’ was pretty extreme to be fair. One of the schools I attended had a lot of silent, individual study and I don’t think it is coincidental that this time was also when I experienced the steepest trajectory of learning. I couldn’t have done it without the expectation of intense, silent study, reading and practice being enforced by the teachers at that school and I owe them my ability to answer a sheet of multiplication questions in seconds instead of the minutes that my current class take (which is improving). My opinion on what it takes to be truly fluent at, say, recall of multiplication facts is incredibly different to what most people in primary education seem to think is needed. Textbooks or worksheets will typically have just 10 questions per learning outcome and those who concede the importance of the evil p-word will offer that, as an extreme, maybe 20-30 questions would need to be done. Me? Maybe 100 questions of increasing difficulty worked through alone and the opportunity to return at frequent intervals, with regular testing would just about do it. You can see why I dislike the general assumption that young children should be able to chat while working because this situation trains children to not concentrate and I think many primary teachers don’t fully appreciate this because they are not subject specialists; I think subject specialists are more likely to appreciate the need for intense focus. I think children struggle with problem solving in maths for example is not just because they lack the reading fluency and personal vocabulary bank to actually decipher a question, but also because they lack the ability to concentrate enough to work out the steps or what to do. Think about this: do you remember chatting constantly while learning to drive, while doing Duolingo this morning or when trying to follow a new recipe? No.

Unlike many teachers, I don’t think that the answer to this situation is to just accept the fact that children cannot (and sometimes refuse to) concentrate these days. The general advice to primary teachers to break the lesson into 5 minute chunks with various activities, the more ‘active’ the better, would arguably make the situation worse. I’m a big fan of old-fashioned practice, whether it be simply reading, or arithmetic, in longer and longer periods of silence, not because of the silence itself, but because silence is what happens when humans choose to think instead of speak or wave their arms around. Yes, social interaction is important, incredibly important, and I certainly wouldn’t think a whole day of silence is what we should aim for (because there are benefits to sharing ideas), but I do think that children, especially those that aren’t being helped to concentrate at home, could do with forming early habits of concentration and practice in school.

So, practice makes perfect. It also makes you a better person.

Who’s with me?

More responsibility for less pay?

Has anyone else had this quandary? I’m writing this blog post to ask you all for some advice really.

So, my predicament is that I already have a subject leadership role (music), and I have recently been given another one (science). I am also a full time class teacher of a rambunctious class and I am mostly exhausted! Music takes up a lot of extra time because you need to network to get those musicians in the school, teach the lunchtime and after school clubs, arrange bits of differentiated music etc. If anything, I feel that I don’t have enough time or energy to do the music leadership thing as well as I would like because so many ideas and plans remain just ideas and plans due to my time and energy taken up with multi-coloured marking (everything), assessing, admin, target tracker, constantly updating wall displays, pupil progress meetings, SEN paperwork, general meetings etc. It doesn’t help that various factors like groupwork, group seating etc also make the day more wearing for all. I’m also trying to do my own CPD of course because as a maths specialist I eventually want to lead maths. I guess that’s just the way things are.

I was handed science because I had made it clear that while I am in my late thirties and therefore an ‘older’ teacher, I need to be taking on extra responsibility at an accelerated rate; if I were to ‘move on’ for example, and it seems to be frowned upon to not ‘move on’ at regular intervals I guess because the system relies on a high turnover of young employees (I predict this wouldn’t be the norm at places like MCS), I need to be making myself a worthwhile investment for future employers who tend to prefer younger and responsibility-free NQTs/RQTs with the ability to dedicate a huge volume of hours. Also I like science (my degree is Natural Sciences). Naturally, I was flattered to be considered and I have already made headway in terms of kicking off various science projects. The problem is that there aren’t enough hours and although my HT has said that I am welcome to come in during the weekend (initially my suggestion to be fair) and can ask for a couple of adhoc hours for bigger projects, I feel that the extra time would not be quality time due to the fact that I am exhausted. I am worried that SLT might also look my way and think, ‘Well she’s clearly not putting in the effort in those roles. Look at her: where is the enthusiasm and passion?’

It’s not just about me either. I feel that the general drain on time and energy is also weakening valuable bonds between colleagues and that sense of ‘We’re in it together’. For example, all of us KS2 staff run our own lunchtime ‘detentions’, interventions and catch up sessions now, so the staffroom is mostly empty these days. I am conscious that I am not putting in the time needed to form good relationships with my colleagues and it actually makes me a little bit sad that I cannot provide a shoulder to lean on for younger NQTs (whom I know are very stressed right now); I really enjoy being there for advice, support, just being a non-judgemental listener even who can say, ‘It is ok to be you.’

So here’s the thing: I am considering, like most of my colleagues (I am a rare full timer), asking for a 4 day week which would mean a hefty pay cut, so that I can do my job effectively. I really feel that I need a day a week to do all the admin/leadership stuff when I am not physically exhausted because during the evenings and weekends I have, you know, a ‘life’ and also need to recuperate, indulge my own hobbies (investigating Shanghai maths and writing blogs being one of them) and spend time with my family and partner. The trouble is I can’t afford it and also I think this situation is a bit weird. This must be part of the reason why the profession is mainly made up of wealthier, middle class teachers who can afford to do this sort of thing?

Any advice?

Groupwork: like life, but not in the way you think

In this blogpost, I’m going to argue for less class groupwork and more individual responsibility. Why? Because I think more individual responsibility in the classroom would, ironically, lead to better groupwork out there in the Big Wide World.

When I first joined the teaching profession, I was immersed in all things ‘modern teaching’ and we were told that one of the staples of classroom practice should be the use of groupwork. As we all know, Ofsted still allude to it in their reports and many teachers are expected to incorporate it if not in most lessons then in a smattering in the name of ‘variety’. In addition to the usual rhetoric about improving children’s ability to collaborate, we were told that groupwork essentially reflects the modern workplace and this is where, during my SCITT year, I had to silently disagree. You see, I have found that groupwork in schools is like life but not in a good way, and I know first hand that ‘groupwork’ in the workplace is subtly different (but vastly better) to groupwork in classrooms.

Firstly, let me clear up any possible confusion and define what I understand to be ‘groupwork’. Basically, I think we’re all agreed that it is an activity that may be about consolidation of learning, or discovery learning, but with ownership of that learning being with a group of children, rather than between the individual child and a teacher. A task will be given to a group of (usually) mixed-ability children and they are expected to work together to deliver an outcome, whether it be answering questions, problem solving or investigating and coming up with new knowledge/skills, for example.

As a parent of teenagers I do reserve the right to quiz my own children, and their friends, on how they feel about groupwork. No child has ever said anything positive about groupwork to me. Here is an example of comments that bombard me as soon as I say, ‘So, groupwork? What do you think?’

  • “I hate it. Everyone messes about and then right at the end they ask me for all the answers.”
  • “One person ends up doing all the thinking and hard work, while others fight to do the colouring in or something.”
  • “It causes so many arguments and I hate that some kids basically get to sit back and chat.”
  • “It sucks. I’d rather that the teacher actually taught me something.”
  • “It can be fun, but let’s be honest, it’s basically a time filler and you don’t really learn anything.”

Please note that these comments have been changed, mainly because the originals contained rather more fruity language. To be fair, my children and their friends are very academic and their answers may be biased; I do know that some children find it useful when their friends help them, but is this situation right? Let’s examine the consequences.

I read Anthony Radice’s blogpost about differentiation recently and the penultimate paragraph really struck a chord with me (and prompted this blogpost). He describes how some may simply have to work harder to attain the same level of knowledge, but differentiation, although well-meaning, essentially teaches a child that it is OK to not put in that required effort and instead accept a lower level of achievement. It really made me think about that old saying told to us by our parents, “Well! Life’s not fair!” When the children on the T-Rex table see that they are given a cartoon-decorated worksheet with only 10 questions, each requiring fewer steps, at the same time as seeing the children on the Stegosaurus table being given a cartoon-free worksheet with 20 questions requiring many steps, they will surely internalise that in life it should be accepted that some people just can’t put in as much concentration or effort, no? I think this also filters into the groupwork situation with children accepting that within this mini-society they can be carried because they have an ‘excuse’ not to put in the effort required to contribute at the same rate. Children have a strong sense of social justice and the same internal injustice felt at being made to carry others, as if higher achievers should be grateful they can work hard and concentrate and therefore be punished by doing other people’s work for them has parallels with the sense of injustice felt by many adults who work hard, save, plan and contribute (whether it be to society through caring, or to the economy through doing paid work) when they see that they have to carry many who have internalised an excuse to opt out of all personal responsibility.

The reality of children’s groupwork described above and how it seems to reflect Western society compares badly to how educators imagine groupwork to be reflective of the ‘modern’ workplace. In the workplace, yes, it is common for a project to be collaborative, but who gets to work on this project? It’s not lazy Barry from accounts and it’s not loud and obnoxious Sally from marketing. The people who are chosen will have specialised but complimentary talents and they will all be committed to the project, each working very hard and taking turns to listen to each other. They can do this because they have proved themselves to be hard-working and trustworthy. Also, there will be a proscribed heirarchy, with one or two people being responsible for the overall project and of course The Boss will be regularly requiring feedback on progress. Educators often choose to forget this reality, instead they believe that somehow everyone in that workplace project is equal, like the workplace is a hippy commune or something. What is also ignored is the fact that, in the workplace, there is no notion of colleagues being expected to carry or do the work for others. Furthermore, adults working on a project will not sit together ‘working together’ for the entire duration as is expected in the classroom version of groupwork; they will meet, plan, assign jobs and then go off and work on their own, coming back together at regular intervals. It is also worth noting that collaborative projects are quite rare and most office workers have their own area of work to do as an individual, occasionally attending meetings or producing reports for others. Anyone who would think, ‘Oh I can’t do as much or put in as much effort as Harry, therefore she should do more than me’ would be given some extra paperwork commonly known as a P45.

If you look at other societies, this whole notion of having a plethora of excuses to opt out or put in less effort just doesn’t exist. Everyone is expected to work very hard indeed doing whatever they can, each having personal responsibility and self-respect, knowing they are contributing not just to promote the survival and success of their tribe or family, but also that of their nation. This is why parents, traditionally, make their children do chores at home in order to teach them that their status of ‘child’ is no excuse to opt out or put in less effort, but educators undermine that development of personal responsibility when they embed groupwork in the classroom and inadvertently send the message that free-riding is normal and to be tolerated or embraced.

So what’s the answer? If we want children to do well then they need to work hard on their own, be held accountable for their own progress, sometimes putting in the extra effort to keep up with the class and so that the class, as a whole, can achieve great things together.

Who’s with me?

 

 

What if……. management were a bit more ‘collaborative’?

Don’t worry. I haven’t lost the plot. I just got to thinking about how management styles in education differ so much from my experiences pre-teaching. It seems somewhat ironic that for all the rhetoric about ‘Victorian Factory Model’ education, if anything it is the relationships between managers/SLT and front line teachers in some schools that seem to be based on rather old fashioned values, rather than children’s education. Based on this observation alone I would argue that we need to ensure managers have a bit of life experience and wisdom, and maybe seek to promote those who have other non-public sector experiences of management.

Perhaps it’s a public sector thing and the consequence of high levels of bureaucracy and inefficiency that are common in all areas? Either way, I’d like to put forward the case for more grown up relationships at work; the kind that assumes that colleagues are trustworthy, hard-working professionals who can be brought on side with intelligent conversation rather than children in need of ‘catching out’, and you know that of all the conversations to be had, the most intelligent are based on the eminently sensible approach of a traditional, knowledge-based curriculum! Some tactics like unannounced, iPad-wielding ‘Learning walks’ that are common in most schools are very intimidating and constant increases in workload that mainly compose of additional assessments and reporting also remind teachers that they aren’t really autonomous at all. Last week I had my class cupboard (a bit messy, but mostly organised) photographed on an unannounced learning walk and was reminded to tidy it up. The experience of being suddenly intruded upon and caught off-guard (this must be some primal, territory thing) and then having all walls and crevices of the classroom rifled through made me feel like some prisoner being subjected to a midnight cell inspection. Fair enough, my cupboard was a bit messy, but the situation just didn’t feel right. This situation could’ve been avoided with some grown-up honesty:

  • We’re having another inspection next week! We need your help!
  • Let’s all spend an hour after school doing a bit of a spring clean/update of classroom environments
  • Would anyone like some feedback or advice?
  • Does anyone need some help?

I must admit I do also struggle to keep all the classroom displays ‘fresh’, although I usually manage to keep working walls updated regularly, so the additional shame of having everything photographed at short notice and then feedback given has essentially worked because I’m spending some of the weekend sourcing and planning for the walls of the classroom in time for an adviser’s inspection. Personally, I prefer a more spartan approach to class room decor because I think outsourcing memory to the walls impedes children further on (for example, if they never learn their tables because they can refer to a classroom display) as well as being very distracting, but I obviously comply because my school ethos dictates it. But does this tactic of shaming me into compliance work long term? Perhaps I will be less likely to go the extra mile in the future? The fact is, I am an extremely organised, fastidious and hyper-focused sort of person (I have a spreadsheet for everything) and I know that if something is messy, it is because I am at the edge of coping rather than some slacker.

Teachers work very long hours and are very dedicated, feeling guilty that they are never able to do enough, therefore I don’t believe we have a right to co-opt this internal struggle. Is it really the wisest choice to opt for a management style that treats them like naughty children in need of micro-managing? Yes, we are supposed to have uniform compliance of school policies because it ensures continuity of education for children, but maybe we can be encouraged to comply because we want to rather than because we have been forced to under duress. Also, you’ve got to admit that dictating the minutiae of a cupboard (or marking, or planning) is probably taking the whole management thing a bit too far! Or is it? I am happy to admit I might be wrong here. Perhaps it is me who needs to let go of what could be an irrational feeling?

The upside of all this is that it’s made me think about how important it is to share a vision and have colleagues want to help you achieve a goal. Now, how to do this? I think I’ll leave that for the next blog post.

Differentiation: fractal in nature and therefore logically impossible to do properly.

Yesterday I wrote about how the simplicity and common sense approach of a traditional, academic education could be the key to helping young people from all kinds of backgrounds achieve well and have genuine choices in life, but overnight these thoughts were crowded out by the worries of my current day job. It has occurred to me that the very education I advocate for could also be the key to reversing this trend of burned out souls leaving the profession in droves. One aspect of trad-ed that I advocate for is whole-class teaching and then extra teaching for those who are behind rather than having more and more differentiation within the class (as advocated by progressive/child-centred, teacher-as-follower and facilitator approach). I really think this would cut down on a lot of extra workload and worry for teachers.

As you know, my class is difficult and we teachers are currently experiencing a constant increase in workload that has got to the point where even I worry about losing the plot. All the recent increases in workload were introduced with the preamble, ‘This should help cut down on workload!’ as if there is some school next door where teachers do even more and that we should be grateful for this ‘respite’ given that Ofsted could visit any minute now. I mentioned to colleagues that I was thinking about asking to go down to 4 days a week, just so I could have an extra day to do all the things that I am too physically exhausted to do after a day with my class and that require a perky brain rather than one beset with a headache. I think SLT forget what it’s like to teach full time sometimes. Said colleagues were shocked because I’m kind of the litmus test for everyone, what with being the token strict old teacher who has a family. Trust me, I know how to work hard, having had to haul myself out of poverty at a very young age by studying all day and working all night for a pittance; nobody could accuse me of simply being ineffective, inefficient or lazy, so I don’t think the problem is me. Anyway, I’m going to make the case for traditional education in terms of how it could improve the teacher’s lot just by focusing on differentiation……

Monday: It really seems to me that people don’t seem to understand how fractal-like and therefore how inherently impossible differentiation it is. Let me explain. We all know that children in primary school have at least one maths lesson a day which is about an hour in duration. Now, assume you start a series of lesson on fractions with the overall aim of children being able to find a fraction of an amount, but you know that the children are starting from different points, and despite a bit of pre-teaching during assemblies you still need to differentiate the initial lesson content 3 ways:  Group 1 who have their times tables knowledge down pat and tend to work hard, concentrate and behave will go straight onto finding fractions of amounts, Group 2 will need their times tables grid (Oh God how I disagree with this) and will have the TA with them to help them follow the procedure using smaller numbers or 1/nth fractions, perhaps with a reminder of what it all means with some pictures to help with understanding, and Group 3 will have me with them just finding half of any small number using physical sharing and a scaffolded worksheet to write the answers in. Total groups = 3

Then I mark the books.

Tuesday: I notice that within each group there are differences in achievement. Group 1 have done well, but a few have made silly mistakes that indicate they need to spend some time consolidating (practising) the basic procedure. After all, they’re only little children and it’s natural for them to need more time to practise something to the point of automation. Thankfully, the highest achievers can be challenged with some problem solving and you rustle up something trickier for them, so now we have group 1A and 1B. The middle group you find also need more practise because they have completed fewer questions due to the extra step needed to find out how a number factorises with a times tables grid, plus a few were messing about and some were clearly struggling because I was anchored to group 3 just trying to keep them on task and understanding the concept of sharing. The middle group continue, but some need slightly easier worksheets, my bad for expecting them to cope with double digit numbers, so now we have group 2A and 2B with some going up to yesterday’s worksheet that group 1 were on, so that’s actually group 2A, 2B and 2C that we have. Group 3 have done well with me, but a couple need to spend some more time over-learning the concept of halving, plus they need to be re-familiarised with the 2 times tables, so I have one part of this group with the TA over-learning and the other children continuing and attempting to work on the same LO without adult help, therefore we have group 3A and 3B. Total ‘groups’ = 7

Then I mark the books.

Wednesday: Now it’s getting towards mid-week and I’m getting tired, plus our staff meeting finishes at 5pm and I’m trying to get my head around some other reporting requirement that has been sent down from on high. I’m also backed up on marking the other books from other lessons because I ran a lunchtime club (I normally mark through lunch, as well as before school, after school and in the evenings). I re-teach how to find a fraction of an amount but this time give children the choice of going off to find fractions of amounts, or staying for additional input on problem solving, including examples of understanding word problems finding fractions of weights, lengths and volumes, with some children venturing into finding fractions of imperial measurements, so now we’re back to group 1A and 1B and 2A, B and C but really they’re all at different points so who knows really how many groups-within-groups there are, TA being on hand to help nudge children in their thinking. I plonk myself down with group 3 deciding to push them to find thirds and quarters because, if anything, they need to be using and familiarising themselves with the language and we’re all sick and tired of finding halves anyway. Total ‘groups’ = God knows

Then I mark the books.

Thursday: Well, it turns out some children in group 1 and 2 have forgotten the basic procedure (they went to Scouts and it was a late night) and I had also forgotten to factor in that a couple of children had been off sick, so needed a catch up session. I make a note to do some extra teaching during assembly, but wait, what about so-and-so who needs to spend extra time with me as per his plan? The marking showed me that the children were incredibly diverse in terms of progress towards the overall outcome and group 3 just haven’t got the working memory to cope with new vocabulary, remembering to share equally, counting in 1s…..

You get the picture.

What’s also frustrating about this situation is that at some point in the sequence you actually struggle to decide what to teach during the input. You realise that whatever you do, whatever you prepare and whoever you anchor yourself with, somebody (usually the SENDCo) could easily accuse you of not being inclusive enough!

So, let’s keep things simple for the teacher’s sake. Let’s have whole-class instruction.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

Keep it simple

This blog post is a big and bold ode to all things simple in teaching and education. I’m convinced that a common sense approach could be the key to empowering a whole generation of children; if the pen is mightier than the sword, then we have the power to create the mightiest of warriors. Why send legions of ill-prepared, weak, ignorant and inward-looking young people into a declining Western world when we could send hard-working, intelligent and knowledgeable young people who are truly prepared to take on the real challenges that face us all (versus educationalist’s wishful thinking about a techno-utopia). Who knows, maybe there is a child out there who could one day cure cancer? Even if there were never a cure for cancer, wouldn’t it be great if children from all kinds of backgrounds actually had a chance to take part in the Great Conversation?

I’m sure I’ve oft repeated myself, coming round to my usual Big Idea to emulate that wonderful time in my own childhood when I attended a simple but mad (by today’s standards) private school* for a little while. I can’t emphasise enough how different that experience was to a typical Western, progressive primary education that most children have received over the last few decades. Even if I did have all my academic dreams smashed to smithereens by personal misfortune (living in a hostel, a serious injury) in my late teens, I still feel that that early experience sort of protected me against the worst outcomes, and it certainly set me on a trajectory for a genuine love of learning, especially the kind that involved numbers, languages and music. At a very young age I was effectively trained to be highly focused, hard-working, competitive (wanting to beat my personal best) and interested in everything. I still look back at that time and think of it as being pivotal in the formation of the future adult me, the one who has had to weather the worst of storms and still come out fighting**. It was all down to the education I received and I want that for all children, particularly the ones who currently live in hostels and B&Bs!

While I have mainly focused, on my blogsite, on what I think is wrong with progressive education, sometimes it’s good to focus on what is right with traditional education. What was so magical about that time? Did they have the latest technology and whiz-bang lessons? God no! In fact, I remember the science lab seemed to be a glorified shed. Here are the ‘ingredients’ that seemed so different from the primary schools I have taught at and visited.

  • Religion. And plenty of it.
  • Silence. Pretty much all of the time
  • All weather cross-country runs
  • Teachers who were experts in their field
  • Direct instruction
  • Subject content and decent textbooks
  • Regular testing
  • Long holidays and play-times (lots of fresh air)
  • Interesting, extra-curricular lessons
  • Routine
  • Discipline
  • An expectation that everyone would work hard; there was no notion of bailing out
  • Celebration of academic achievement

These days I’m not exactly religious, but I still credit a lot of my life ‘luck’ to the religious lessons I received. Even if you don’t believe in God, you’ve got to admit that a set of rules to live your life by when you are young and possibly thinking of doing something risky is a good thing, plus of course if you are mired in poverty and a generally crap life it’s always good to have hope and comfort that a bigger entity is looking out for you. A sort of mandate to be a good person also trains you, funnily enough, to be a good person. I’m not convinced that today’s trite message of ‘Let’s be nice and respect each other’s feelings’ can ever match the in-your-face character forming messages and instruction the Bible has to offer. But what if a school isn’t religious? Perhaps children just need to be taught a similar set of no-nonsense rules? I certainly think the rule of ‘Honour thy mother and father [and therefore anyone in loco parentis, like The Teacher]’ should be taught and enforced. The lack of respect for authority that today’s children have for teachers, which shows up as anything from constant low-level disruption to physical assault, needs to be dramatically reversed, preferably in primary schools rather than waiting till year 7+.

Let us talk about silence. I crave it, but these days both children and educators feel the need to fill silence with chatter, a constant spewing of ‘thoughts’ that are really just blurted feelings and inane comments. We had so much silent study when I was at that crazy school and I loved it, even if it felt a bit weird at first; I got so much done, particularly in the academic subjects. I read and read and read, and I calculated and I calculated. Nobody called out ever. When I went back into state education I really struggled with the lack of silence and deep thought and it also seemed as if so much teaching and learning time was lost to useless chit-chat, with subjects devoid of content too. If I could have a wish granted right now it would be to bring back periods of silence in order to train our youngest minds to dwell in their own thoughts, to have to think in order to get something done. Ironically, my musical education that followed also included a lot of silence (because in an orchestra, you stop often to analyse music and listen to the conductor’s comments), so I had additional training in listening, thinking and focusing. How odd it is that educationalists talk of teaching children how to think, yet go to great lengths to deny them the habit of dwelling in and just coping with their own thoughts.

Everybody knows that a bracing cross-country run is good for you. I needn’t say any more on this really!

I had some really interesting teachers at that private school, some of whom were PhDs. I do love an academic; it’s not just the intelligence and knowledge, it’s also the fact that when people are nutty about a certain subject, they also seem to have other interesting facets to their lives and personalities too. They had such an influence on me when I was a young girl, and in later years the only state secondary teachers who came close were those who were incredibly knowledgeable about and dared to share that love of their subject, with the odd, illegal fact-infused book being secretly shared around the class while the clipboard-wielding powers-that-be were occupied elsewhere. As a teenager, I distinctly remember a really strict English teacher who said to us, ‘I’m not really allowed to teach you this [grammar] because it’s not on the curriculum, but I think it’s important for you to know.’ I’m sure there were many more along the way who could’ve passed on more information, yet were prevented by the fact that they were only allowed to ‘facilitate’ generic ‘skills’ rather than actually teach anything of any substance.

We had textbooks and real subject content. During that time, my own trajectory of learning was the steepest it has ever been and I’m sure it was partly because I had access to serious subject matter and instruction in textbooks. I think it is such a shame that the authorities in state primary ed many years ago felt it was the right thing to throw all the textbooks in the skip. Occasionally, I come across an old maths textbook in a second hand bookstore and marvel at the tiny font and precision diagrams illustrating exactly what to do. Wouldn’t it be great if children today had proper textbooks?

Tests were constant, and in pretty much all subjects. I don’t recall any fear or anxiety because they were pretty simple and if you didn’t pass, then you had to revisit in order to catch up; it was normal, for everyone. What was excellent was the fact that I felt like I was getting better all the time, and it was a source of pride to be passing those tests too, constantly moving on to the next level. I wasn’t set any targets though because it was just assumed that everyone would keep plowing forward and aiming for the top.

Routine, discipline and high expectations are concepts and practices that all parents instinctively understand and approve of. What has made sense for many parents and teachers for millennia is sometimes viewed as old-fashioned and unimportant, even detrimental, by many of the progressive persuasion. That little school I attended had the highest of expectations, the strictest of discipline and unwavering routines. What really shocks me these days is how children feel that they can emote all over a lesson when they feel like they should be given an opportunity to bail out, because the lesson is ‘boring’ or ‘too hard’ for example. Neither I nor my peers would have dreamed of bailing out on a lesson, so how is it that very young children these days feel they have a right to opt out or give the teacher a piece of their mind about a lesson? Who gave them permission to think they know better than the teacher and to selfishly disrupt other children’s education because they simply don’t ‘like’ something? On a daily basis I have to deal with constant moaning, whinging and sulking from children who cannot and will not let others enjoy learning about something interesting and who insist on stopping me from teaching too. It is most depressing to counter the realisation that progressive education has lowered my status to the point where even the youngest children can choose, like little consumers, to simply chat with their friends rather than look at and listen to me. I genuinely feel for those professionals out there who have to deal with far worse on a daily basis and we have got to the point where we are, in some cases, genuinely scared of the youngest generation.

The thing is, all of the above aspects are rooted in common sense and they don’t cost much or require people to attend special courses either. Even better, they enable children to learn. Really learn. Sure, my sample size n=1 does not make these connections statistically significant and you could argue that the experience I had during that amazing time was purely coincidental, that I would’ve still been hard-working and interested regardless of the school I attended.  However, I really think that that unique experience was pivotal in changing my life trajectory and that I wouldn’t be here now, able to write a blog instead of being trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and homelessness, if I hadn’t gone to that little private school. If only the current younger generation could also have that private school experience?

So let’s keep things simple

Who’s with me?

*I went on an assisted place

**I still feel a lot of pain whenever I think about the day I had to admit defeat at 18, that struggling to study for A levels and work for a low wage almost full time to put a roof over my head was too much; university was no longer a viable option for me. I never forget that moment when I opened that newspaper, scoured the job ads and applied for a full time job.

 

What if…..the photocopier ‘accidentally’ blew up

Hear me out.

This isn’t about worksheets, although you know I’d be the first to jump on the ‘Who wants to bring back textbooks? Hurrah!’ bandwagon. No, this is about the futility of constantly photocopying evidence for various subject leaders’ folders. Such a simple activity takes up such a huge amount of time, plus it is associated with general fear of Ofsted. I do wonder what would happen if we just stopped making each other run around like headless chickens gathering evidence?

I’m a subject leader/coordinator, plus I am full time in the classroom. I don’t get any release time, but then again CPD tends to take place after school. However, I’m supposed to be observing all the other teachers for these two subjects, gathering photo evidence of activities, somehow making these two subjects fantabulously specstravagant across the school, collecting in planning and asking for photocopy evidence of work that is done as well as our marking policy. All of us class teachers have at least one subject leader role so we’re all not observing each other (because we’re teaching), but at least we’re making up for it by supposedly doing lots of photocopying of work as well as taking photo evidence for each other’s subject leader files.

Why? Because Ofsted expect to see subject leader files to be bursting with evidence of……evidence gathering?

I have been told that I could use my PPA time (1.5 hours a week) to do the observations and associated report writing/feedback, but even if I did, it would take a couple of months of giving up PPA to do this effectively. But then, I don’t actually want to inflict myself on colleagues in that way. We’re already observed enough as it is, what with SLT/HT observations (announced and unnanounced), governor observations, consultant observations, LEA suits ‘dropping in’; there’s enough fear already.

SLT, who at least have a few days out of the classroom each week, are really leading the way on the evidence gathering though, and as they have English and Maths, we minions are regularly emailing planning and photocopying consecutive days of children’s work for them so that they have their ‘evidence of progress’ for their subject leaders’ files, as well as updating Target tracker and spreadsheets on a weekly basis. It seems so petty, but I actually struggle to remember to do all the evidence gathering, what with being a full time class teacher. I also feel like I’m constantly living in fear of…..everything.

Am I doing enough to lead my own subjects or will I be slaughtered by Ofsted for not driving improvement across the school intensely enough? Don’t get me wrong, I am a subject expert for these two subjects, so I know what I’m talking about, but at the end of the day Maths and English take up the majority of the class teaching timetable. There’s only so much ‘driving of improvement’ I can do with music lessons that last half an hour a week (if that). Of course, I’ve got networks from my old life that ensure a study flow of musicians into the school for example, and I make sure I run those music clubs to make sure the children are being given those free opportunities to learn a musical instrument (opportunities for the disadvantaged) and tick off the national curriculum requirements for performance etc, but that’s not enough because I haven’t got enough PHOTOCOPY evidence in my subject leader files. I also keep forgetting to photocopy evidence for my colleagues’ subject leader files too.

To be honest, I’d love to develop these two subjects much more across the school because I love them so much, but I can’t because I am just so physically tired and tied down to full time teaching and whole class responsibility, especially when behaviour issues of my own class drain my like an iPhone with Bluetooth and GPS running constantly (and marking and planning take hours anyway). Perhaps the pressure is slightly more for primary teachers because we are not only solely held responsible for a set of children’s progress in many subjects, but we’re also solely responsible for ensuring their happiness and wellbeing too. One by one, classes are increasingly being taught by part time teachers who have asked for reduced hours in order to cope (doing the extra stuff on their days off), one class has 4 teachers now and I sometimes wonder whether we, as a school, have got to Supernova stage and are in danger of collapsing into a Black Hole. I’m also in danger of being caught out because, unlike many teachers, I actually need to work, so have to suck up the extra bureaucracy in my own time rather than take a reduced pay and work on my ‘days off’.

Anyway, sometimes I look at the photocopier and fantasise about it blowing up for no reason whatsoever.

Who’s with me?