Unhappiness

Lots of our children are unhappy.   They are defensive against each other, against teachers catching them out, against their own situation.  They have so little to be happy about, so disempowered that they ferociously attack anything that threatens the little happiness and power they have.

So they swear. So they smoke.  So they throw food.  So they disrupt.  Swearing, smoking, violence, disruption – our kids gain empowerment in this way. These kids gain status in their world. And what do teachers do?  They step in to stop it.  They take away the children’s only power.

Let’s say for a lesson, sweary, smoky, disruptive Jenny plays ball.  She shuts up in class, she answers and asks questions, she does more than the minimal amount of work.  She does it for an hour, but then she’s frightened: What if her peers tease her?  Where will she go?  She can’t be friends with the good kids because she’ll feel inferior, and they’ll probably reject her anyway. And how do you talk to those kind of people?  She can’t work too hard in class, because what if she gets things wrong?  She can’t let down the barriers for too long, because what if the teacher asks her a question she can’t answer?  What will everyone say about her?

She’s trapped.  The bad kids have too much power in the school, so neutral kids become bad kids and good kids play down their goodness.  They’re all trapped.

Do you know what all of them want?  ALL of them?  They want to be happy.  They want to be empowered.  They want to know what to do and how to do it.  They want to be proud of themselves.

At this school, the culture isn’t led by adults who know what they are doing.  It’s set by children who don’t.  Who do you follow, Jenny?  Which direction do you go in if you want status?  If you want to be somebody?  Not in the future, because for God’s sake you’re fourteen and you have not the slightest idea of what the world’s like now – never mind what lies ahead.  No, if you want to be somebody now, you fit in with your school culture and you gain status by doing whatever reinforces that culture.

Unfortunately for Jenny, the culture isn’t led by adults who know what they are doing.  It’s set by children who don’t.

Killing creativity

Some thoughts on the arts…

Do schools kill creativity?” asks Sir Ken, among others.

Yes, I think that in a lot of cases, they do.  But how exactly?  Rote-learning, boring lessons, mindless conformity?

And  compared to what?  Were human beings really more creative before education?  Are people who don’t go to school more creative than those that do?  Perhaps it’s compared to pre-schoolers.  See those drawings of monsters that they do?  Such imagination!  See them sitting in a box pretending they’re flying to the moon?  You don’t see teenagers doing that do you?

Facetiousness aside, I do accept that some (perhaps most) children in my school are much less creative than they could be.  And here are some reasons:

  • Peer pressure – it’s hard for teenagers to admit they like things outside what is socially ‘normal’. Even in the 21st Century, a boy practising his ballet moves in the playground is likely to be teased mercilessly.  Come to think of it, a girl is unlikely to do this either.  The fear of what your peers will think of you is perhaps the biggest impediment to creativity our children face.
  • Skills are underdeveloped. Although they may get an hour a fortnight of music education, most children do not learn to play an instrument – and they would of course have far more creative opportunities if they did.   Similarly in art – most children are not taught how to draw – not really.  They might be asked to draw and get feedback on it, but that’s not the same thing.  If they can’t draw well, this diminishes their ability to be creative in the visual arts.
  • Many children do not develop much general knowledge. Many basic facts of Geography, History and Science are not properly understood, and this makes it difficult for them to access much literature, news articles etc.  They then avoid these areas of life, diminishing their potential to be creative in them.
  • They can abandon things at an early stage – before they achieve mastery. GCSE French is not a high-enough level to be properly creative in the language:  it requires study to age 18.  If they quit English Literature after GCSE, they have stopped analysing books and poetry before reaching an age of maturity that allows them to appreciate things in depth.  They miss out on learning from other people’s creativity.
  • They learn less in lessons than they could do because of stupid interruptions. They therefore find school less interesting than they could do and make less progress, leading them to lose interest.  Hard to be creative when you don’t care.
  • Poor social skills make it difficult for whole-class discussions to do more than scratch the surface of an issue. Group discussions are worse than useless if students do not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with one another.

If we are to help students develop their creativity, I think a tighter focus on good behaviour, mutual respect, in-depth reading and discussion, and developing concentration spans are where we should be focusing our time and cash.  Sounds terribly boring, doesn’t it?  But only boring in the same way that soil is boring.  If the soil is right, you can grow amazing things.  If the soil is right, you stop looking at the soil and just enjoy what grows out of it.  If the soil is right, our students will be free and empowered to develop their own individual creativity.

Behaviour Nazis

Let’s compare education professionals with Nazis!

The Nazis demanded total compliance without question.  Strict teachers demand total compliance without question.  Do the math!

The Nazis wanted order.  Strict teachers want order. Do the math!

The Nazis wanted to create a “better” society.  Strict teachers want to create a better society.  Do the math!

The Nazis killed and tortured people who challenged their authority.  Strict teachers ask students who challenge their authority to stay behind after school for half an hour…

The Nazis wanted the extermination of the Jews.  Strict teachers want students to know true things about their world and understand how it works…

The Nazis wanted acceptance of and dedication to their world view. Good teachers want students to think for themselves and develop their own considered and balanced opinions…

I could go on.  Obviously this is about the Michaela advert for a sergeant-major style Director of Detentions that has been winding people up this week. It included this question:

Do you believe in children being obedient every time?

As as strict a teacher as I can reasonably be in my current school (see here), I answer yes.  I like to think my every instruction is made with the intention of improving a child’s education or well-being, or in the creation of a positive, calm and kind atmosphere, and so of course I do.

But I don’t believe in teaching children to be obedient full stop.  I believe they should question orders (in their minds, initially) and seek to understand the other person’s motive. They should judge the reasonableness of requests.  Children should not obey adults just because they are adults.  Lots of adults have harmful intentions. And sometimes those with good intentions make errors of judgement.  It is incumbent on us to explain our values and our reasons behind our instructions.  From what I’ve read of Michaela (I’ve never been), this is something they do extremely well.  Children obey because the values of mutual respect, concentration, hard work and kindness are heavily sold and accepted.  They are the same reasons I obeyed my parents and teachers as a child – because these values were taught at home.  Where I was given instructions that came from a different place, this was easy to spot, and where I rebelled, it was against bullying and manipulation.

Children should be obedient in school because school is a force for good.  However, if it is not clear to them that their school is a force for good, perhaps it’s best that they don’t conform.  I’d rather they rebelled intelligently than conformed blindly.  Believe it or not, it is far from obvious to many kids that school is there for their benefit.  We have an argument to win before we can demand obedience.  Michaela seem to have won that argument already and if so, their advert is valid.  What about your  school?

#nurture1617

2016

Lots of awful things this year, as have been documented all over the place.  But this is not a blog about the world, it’s about me!  So how am I?  I’m pretty good, thanks for asking, though I regret eating all those wasabi almonds this afternoon.  Work-wise, it’s been 60% awful and 40% OK, which is not a ratio I’m used to.  The number of crises this year have been unnerving, and are mostly attributable to the culture of the workplace.  I’m doing my bit to improve this culture, and bit by bit, things have improved, but there is a way to go.  Target for the end of the year: 30% brilliant, 50% OK, 20% awful.

  • Work-life balance I did actually manage to keep my work-life balance in check this year, but crisis after crisis led me for the first time ever to go to the doctor and ask him to help me get to sleep.  He prescribed a tiny dose of citalopram pills to reduce my anxiety levels and they were awful.  I spent most of my nights awake, necking water.  I got off them as quickly as I could.  Exercise helped more, but the biggest anxiety-reducer was that other people started doing their jobs better after some awkward and unnecessary conversations.  That’s all I’m saying on the matter.
  • Tidy room My classroom is tidier, but not pass-on-able.  If I had fallen under the proverbial bus at any point in 2016, the teacher covering my lessons would not have been able to find anything on my desk.  Will do better this year.
  • Sod Ofsted I have given scant regard to Ofsted, and have made some headway in persuading my department to do the same.  There is still a long way to go though in getting them to use their own judgement.
  • Behaviour The kids have got a better understanding of our expectations, and most of them buy into it, but there are some lessons in the department where behaviour is poor, and where teachers are using de-merits as a weapon and are bruising themselves.  Still some hearts and minds to win.

2017

  • Let the sun shine This is a marvellous job, and our children are lucky to be learning to speak a foreign language.  Let’s enjoy it much much more.  Let’s feel really pleased with the progress we make. Let’s be on the same side.
  • Work less Once I’ve got these schemes of work and assessment finalised, that will be a whole load of paperasserie out of the way.  The structures will be in place, and so I, and the other teachers will be able to go into the lessons fully armed, and just groove on it!  We are going to greatly increase the amount of conversation work, and therefore greatly decrease the amount of marking.  Free time can then be used for watching TV, reading, reflecting, exercising, connecting with the world, and having a bloody good laugh with the people we love.
  • Love them With only 1-2 hours contact per week with my classes, and 30 students at a time, it’s difficult to get to know who the hell they are!  But I’m going to get to know them and understand them better this year.  If I make an effort to make more connections now, it will be easier to keep them onside for their remaining time at school.
  • Family first They always have been to be honest.  But it’s worth thinking about where they are heading, and how best to support.  We’re still doing football, but it’s time to expand now. We’ve very recently joined the National Trust, and now all of a sudden we’ve got a new world to play in.  Parks, forests, history – let’s explore!

Why I undermine the behaviour system in my school.

You’re out of line, you get a warning.  You’re out of line again, you get a detention. You’re out of line a third time, and you’re out.

It’s simple. We don’t take any nonsense, and the kids know exactly where they stand.

Oh they know alright.  They know that they are entitled to a warning, so in essence we are allowing up to 30 interruptions to a lesson before any kind of punishment takes place.

They also know that we’re scared of not being fair.  “But everyone else is talking! You don’t punish them!” We’re scared of the parental phone call: “You’re picking on my child.”

They perhaps don’t know that we’re also scared of other teachers, especially management.  Numerous detentions and removals lead to us being seen as weak.  We feel embarrassed even to walk in the staffroom.  We avoid going into the corridor at breaks because it’s their territory and they know that we won’t be able to deal with the things they shouldn’t be doing.

They also don’t know how much of a ball-ache it is to keep a record of detentions, chase them up, fill in the forms, email the head of year, phone parents and write it all up on SIMS.

But they know that we’re not very good at it.  They know there’s a chance they can get away with it.  And there’s one more thing they know – they know that the “safe” teachers don’t use this system, and any teacher that does use it is, by definition, the enemy.

The system is simple, but it doesn’t work, so I don’t use it much.  I use other techniques.  I get them to like me, I crack jokes, I confuse them, I act the alpha male, I use the occasional put-down, I shout loudly for no more than a second, and then bring my voice down to just above a whisper.  I make eye-contact, and I try to make sure every kid in there knows that I like them and want the best for them.

It basically works.  I get 80% out of the kids which is as good as I’ll get in this school.  This is how most of us old hands do it.  Much better than the teacher next door who has a touching faith in the power of punishment, gives loads of detentions and still only gets 20% performance on average and no more than 50% on a brilliant day.

But there’s a niggle.  If I and every teacher followed the behaviour policy to the letter, both I and the teacher next door would be getting close to 100% in every lesson, because our days wouldn’t be about behaviour, they’d be about learning.  However, if I actually enforce the behaviour policy, I’m down to 20%-50% and everyone loses.

Two questions:

  • What should SLT do to make their own system work?
  • If SLT do bugger-all about it, what can I do to maintain good behaviour and not undermine my colleagues?

 

 

 

Brexit: Wilful ignorance undermined democracy.

Most General Elections are about which gang you’re in.  You’re irritated if your side lose, just as you’re irritated if your country is knocked out of a football tournament.  But you accept the result, and most people don’t go berserk and insult the winning supporters.  And it’s easy to see why: the differences between Labour and Tories isn’t great enough to really believe that the result is genuinely catastrophic, whoever wins.

But Brexit was different.  Brexit was angering, far more than any election result in living memory.  And what’s angered many of us is not that things didn’t go our way.  It’s not even the fear of the actual consequences, terrifying though those are.  It’s not fear that’s making us angry – it’s wilful ignorance.   We are furious that the warnings were there and were dismissed so lightly by so many.

To anyone who thought about it seriously for a minute, there were many automatic consequences that were staring us in the face before we even considered the rights and wrongs of belonging to a supranational body.  There was the real possibility of economic catastrophe.  It was obvious that Scotland would push for a second shot at independence.   It was obvious that the economy would take a short-term hit.  It was obvious that the introduction of trade tariffs was extremely likely and therefore the economy will take a long-term hit.  It was obvious that the £350-million-to-the-NHS claim was a lie.

Some people listened, knew this and voted Leave because they thought that ultimately it was still the right long-term decision for Britain. Fair enough.   I’m hoping with all my heart that they are right.

But others (and we are talking millions here), simply did not properly research the background issues.  People were unduly influenced by an advert on a bus, despite the fact that the £350 million claim was debunked on prime-time TV by professional impartial commentators, and despite the fact that they had access to the whole of the internet in their pocket.  They seem utterly unaware of the bias in their news providers.  They don’t know what tariffs are.  They don’t know what the single market means.  They accept the argument that the EU is undemocratic without understanding how the EU makes its laws and decisions.  They fear immigration without getting to know immigrants.  They trust Boris Johnson because he is charismatic, and leave it at that.

As teachers, we need to teach the next generation to do better.  Yes, we need to teach children the basics of how our world and our democracy operates, but it goes further than this.  University-educated people voted overwhelmingly for Remain, and I posit that the key reason for this is that this demographic understands the need to research and consider the issues properly before making a decision.  Many of our children will never go to University, and we cannot afford to allow them to leave school without the basic confidence that they can understand political issues if they research them properly.  We have to teach them to mistrust their news sources and identify the prejudices that lie behind people’s opinions.  We have to build their concentration levels so that they can tackle quality news and opinion articles without running scared.  We have to teach them to consider things carefully, and not accept slapdash opinions.  We have to teach them to believe in their ability to research and understand tricky issues – our democracy depends on it.

What is the point of Senior Management?

I’m a middle leader, and from this worm’s eye view, this is how it looks to me.  Most of the day-to-day stuff in a school is done at a department level, and between us my fellow Heads of Department and I are responsible for virtually every hour of every student’s learning, every day.  In my department I set the curriculum, monitor the learning, support with behaviour and try to instil a strong work ethic.  I do this alongside teaching the most challenging classes, coordinating the exams and Controlled Assessments and making regular contact with parents.   In many places a Deputy Head can take a fortnight off without anyone even noticing, but if you lose a Head of Department for a couple of days, things can go very wrong very quickly.  Senior staff have fewer lessons, no tutor group, less marking and much higher pay.  So what is the point of taking these well-qualified and experienced teachers and putting them in an office?

Obviously this is not quite a rhetorical question. Schools need to be well led and efficiently managed.  In my current school, the Senior Team are a fine bunch of people, and unquestionably have the students’ best interests at heart.  But not all the schools I’ve worked in have been like this.  Whilst there is all sorts of bureaucratic nonsense that comes with the SLT territory, this must not be allowed to get in the way of the Senior Team’s key responsibility: to ensure that the school is a really good one and works well.  Anyway, here’s my take on it.  As a Head of Department, this is what I want from my superiors:

  • A clear view of what will make for the best educational experience for all, and the determination to put it into place.
  • Provide the framework for a really good school. Policies that work, with a clear view as to how they need to be implemented.  Organisational structures that are effective and allow for clear communication.  Procedures that are fully embedded.
  • A clear communicative voice: being a dominant presence in the school and selling, selling, selling the value of good behaviour and hard work.
  • Mucking in. Taking lessons (especially cover lessons), being everywhere at breaks and lunchtimes, popping in and out of lessons and praising and challenging students all the time, constantly upholding the values of the school.
  • And when it’s too difficult for me, my colleagues and my team, I’d like them to step in and support. When students are still being difficult after intervention from middle leaders, when my colleagues and I are just so tired from a heavy timetable and dealing with countless problems not of our making, I’d like the senior team to help us out.  Make phone calls, deal with students personally, hold the line, and help us to hold it before we capitulate and undermine the whole system.

 

And here are some things that they do, that I question:

  • Training.  Not all training, but some.  Staff need training on whole-school approaches.  However, generic teacher-training sessions often need excessive filtering in each department.  What teachers need is subject-specific training.  Basically, Heads of Department should do it.  I’m happy for senior leaders to coordinate this, meet with us to agree an approach that matches the school culture, or even train us to train, but I know what I need my staff to do, and what I need is the time and space to develop them.
  • Whole-school literacy and numeracy initiatives. Competitions, word of the week, DOT (Day Off Timetable) days, initiatives about praise postcards and motivating working-class girls, how we can support pupil-premium students and blah blah blah.
  • Analysing data to see which social groups are performing the worst and coming up with a nonsense plan for addressing it. I know it’s an Ofsted thing, but love see no colour.  Get the best out of everyone and leave it at that.

I’m not the greatest teacher in the world, and I’m not an astonishing Head of Department either. If I were better, my department would be a bubble of excellence in a sea of mediocrity.  But like most people and most of the staff in my school I’m only as good as my environment allows.  Senior Management:  you are responsible for the environment.  Now earn your salary.