This is a new one from http://www.teachsecondary.com where I prowl around the offices stealing stationery and biscuits. Subscribe to keep me in stationery and biscuits.
You may be brilliant.
You may be able deftly to lob throwing stars of knowledge into the craniums of even the most challenging Y8s at 50 paces. You may be able to create lessons, virtuoso-like, that gleam and inspire and stay with your children for their entire lives. You may be able to decipher the most impenetrable of data and actually put it to good use. You may be able to calibrate the whiteboard on your first try. You may be able to give written feedback that’s not only useful, but which the kids actually read. You may be able to do all these things and more.
You may be able to do all these things; but that doesn’t mean you’ll get a chance to.
Because teachers are not teachers in isolation. We all work within systems, and ultimately, it’s these systems that can either allow us to soar…or shackle us.
It’s an uncomfortable truth. Everyone wants to believe that they are masters of their own destiny – captains of their own ship. And to a certain extent, we are. But, ultimately, the systems of a school are the vessel we sail upon. If those systems work, we can go about our jobs plotting the best course, making sure everything is squared away and the decks are gleaming. If they don’t, there’s no time for anything apart from bailing out the ever-rising water in an effort not to sink.
Ineffectual behaviour systems. Ridiculously arduous data tracking. A thousand decrees that mean endless extra hours of workload. All these things and more see the waterline rise.
This is why, when I hear reports of SLT embarking on a programme of improvement that doesn’t actually start by looking at its systems, alarm bells start to ring. It amazes me when people seemingly can’t understand that you don’t sure up a house by rearranging the furniture inside. You look at the foundations. You look at the walls. You reinforce and strengthen. It’s only when you’ve done all that, when you’re positive the whole thing isn’t going to collapse in on itself, that you start worrying about interior design.
No-one gives a damn whether that picture is hung right when the roof is about to cave in.
But the thing is, systematic change is hard. It involves graft, possible kickback from a wide range of stakeholders, and time. All these things can seem hugely unattractive in comparison to fiddling around with minutiae of no consequence but looking as if you’re doing something. Sometimes that’s a much more appealing route; absolutely useless, but appealing. And unfortunately, it’s one down which many a teacher is dragged.
By placing an emphasis on individuals rather than systemic issues, the onus of responsibility is shifted, disregarding the reality of the situation and enabling blame for any shortcomings to be placed on staff. This then can be dealt with through an ‘easy fix’ whilst the problems will inevitably continue as the systems stay the same. It also ignores something else that I believe to be critical in such situations: you’ve no idea how good a teacher can be, if they are trying to ply their trade within dysfunctional systems. You are not seeing their optimal performance. You are not seeing their best. You are seeing them with a rock around their neck. And you’re wondering why they’re struggling? And you’re going to judge them for it?
Sort out your systems first, then look at individuals. Without functioning systems, you’ve no idea what people can do. Great teaching can only be enabled if systems support great teaching. Evaluating an individual teacher’s performance when this is not occurring is not only a flawed approach, it’s disingenuous. Sort your systems out first and that will allow you accurately to identify truly good practice (or bad as the case may be – I’m not so much of a romantic that I don’t realise that this is also a reality). Sort your systems out first because anything else is, at best, ineffectual tinkering, and at worst an attempt to apportion blame away from the real problems.
Make sure your ship is worthy. Make sure your house is solid. Don’t be the person asking a teacher why they’re not bailing out faster – fix the ship. Don’t be the person having a go about a wonky coffee table as chunks of masonry fall like rain around you – fix the house.
Help them be brilliant.
Some new minutes over here. Subscribe to http://www.teachsecondary.com so I can afford a new do.
Uniform Policy Meeting (Haircuts)
GL – (Deputy Vice Principal), BN, RR, CL
Meeting held in:
School. Several miles from my television.
After the (mostly) successful implementation of the new school uniform policy, it has been noted that there has been some ambiguity as to what constitutes a ‘suitable’ haircut. A meeting has been called to iron out the details as if I don’t have owt else to do. I better not be missing the two-part Emmerdale special that’s on tonight for this I can tell you. Anyway…
GL stated that he has seen around school examples of haircuts that he would personally deem unsuitable. Ironic really, seeing as his comb-over needs a right combing over. Examples he gave were ‘too long’, ‘too short’, ‘too tall’ and in Cassandra from 10RR’s attempt at late 70s punk revival, ‘too stabby’.
RR nodded in agreement on this last one. “She almost spiked me when she looked up from the board too quick last period. Lovely colour though.”
BN interjected at this point as to whether the word ‘too’ might be a little difficult to define. Then suggested creating a template that you could put on the children’s heads and simply go over with a no.2 grade trimmer. No-one was sure if he was being serious or not.
CL suggested that perhaps haircuts were one of the only ways that students could express their creativity given the introduction of tighter uniform rules. RR argued that creativity is great, but keeping it within confines might be of more use, especially when it came to Tom’s misspelling of his beloved football team that he had self-shaved into the back of his head. “Actually, come to think about it,” stated RR, “I’ve no idea how he did that himself – I guess that is creative.”
GL wondered that perhaps in some extreme cases, hairstyles could constitute a breach of health and safety rules. Cassandra was cited as one example.
GL then proceeded to mention another case study. “What about Devon, for instance? All that hair right down across her face. Surely she can’t see where she’s going?
“Devon’s a boy.” observed RR, helpfully.
“Wait, are you sure?” from GL.
“Pretty much.” said RR. “I’ve been teaching him for three years. Don’t think I’ve ever seen him bump into a wall or anything like that. He’s pretty graceful for a big lad. Wants to play rugby professionally when he’s older.”
The meeting moved swiftly onto the next item.
It was put by CL that unless the school wanted every parent with a grudge on the front page of the local newspaper, photographed next to their mad-haired sprog looking miserable, and spouting off against the awful, Victorian, draconian enforcement of the hair policy, then perhaps it would be best to drop it and simply remind kids on an individual basis that maybe a ganja-leaf on the side of the head might not be the best way to promote themselves to the wider world. GL (no doubt thinking about the bad publicity) eventually agreed.
Actually, now I think about it, a quick trip to the salon before telly might be an idea.
This is another one for http://www.teachsecondary.com where along with my stuff, there’s a veritable selection box of delicious educational treats. Mine’s like the coconut one that’s always left until the end. Click the link to subscribe.
Given my barely coherent utterings on here, along with the lack of care and attention I give to things like personal appearance, health, a regular bathing regime, organisation, keeping my tie out of my breakfast bowl, the ability to keep the classes I teach from going into visible shutdown as I talk passionately about Katherine Mansfield, and all the other things that are more or less essential in the pursuit of being a completely functioning member of the human race (or, at the very least, not a total slob), it may come as some surprise to you all that I am a parent. Twice.
It often comes as a surprise to me too. Seriously, the amount of times I’ve almost wandered out of Morrison’s without one of them, occupied more by a soon-to-messily-consumed Steak Bake than by the fact that the youngest has done a bunk in an attempt to wrestle one of the salmon off the fish counter and into scaly submission is a bit too numerous not to be slightly worrying. Or would be if I ever mentioned it. Although there’s a good chance that my wife is going to be reading this at some point. So… errr… sorry, Caz. Love you!
But yes, despite my fairly obvious shortcomings, I act as a parental unit to two small human males. Go me, beating the odds and obvious milky-tie based disadvantages like that.
People say that parenthood changes your life. They’re not wrong. In fact, they’re not right enough. Change is too small a word for it. Change is where, instead of your usual bowl of rice krispies for breakfast, you opt for a piece of toast. Parenthood is where, instead of your usual bowl of rice krispies for breakfast, someone dumps a cruise liner on you and asks you to eat it using only a crocodile with a machine gun. And that’s if you’re any good at it. Otherwise, there’s no machine-gun-wielding crocodile for you.
So how does parenthood fit in with the job of teaching? Can you eat that cruise liner and still have room to chomp down on the myriad of pressures that a classroom career provides? I think you can, but as many people have found out (women, in the vast majority) it’s incredibly tough. What is already a juggling, plate-spinning extravaganza of a job becomes a juggling, plate-spinning, blindfolded-whilst-set-on-fire extravaganza of a job – and that’s if you have a decent amount of support both at work and at home. Not everyone is that lucky. Sometimes the only option is to focus on your own kids by leaving the kids that you teach behind.
With ongoing concerns about recruitment and retention of staff, where the sector’s life-blood is being lost and there’s not enough in the bank to make sure we can keep going, making the job more compatible with parenthood has to be one of the ways that we can stem the flow. The promotion of part-time places (including at management level) and a removal of the stigma attached to them might be of use. More flexibility regarding start and finish times to help with drop-off and pick-ups; financial support in relation to childcare; longer paternity leave – all these could help, but of course, there would be a cost. It’s about weighing up that cost against the greater long-term ramifications of losing so many who just want to have a family and actually be there for them occasionally, whilst also doing a job that they love and is incredibly important to society in general.
I’m one of the lucky ones. (Me, not my lads). I work a part-time role that means that I teach but I also act as the primary carer to the boys for part of the week. I have a partner who earns enough and has enough flexibility in her role to facilitate that. I do other bits and bobs (like this here column) to tide us over (subscribe and help me feed my kids!). And because I’m at home, we save on the huge childcare bills that would otherwise mean I would have to work full-time. One of my biggest expenses is the regular dry-cleaning of milk-stained ties.
But here’s the thing. You shouldn’t have to be lucky. As difficult as parenthood is, if put in the position of choosing that or teaching, I choose parenthood. Every time. Cruise Liners, crocodiles and all. So if we’re going to keep folk, let the job be one where that choice isn’t necessary.
Thanks for reading.
This piece for Teach Secondary brings together my two passions of mine – education and fried chicken. Subscribe at http://www.teachsecondary.com and I might be able to afford a family bucket tonight.
And every other night.
Healthy Eating policy meeting
GL – (Deputy Vice Principal), BN, RR, CL
Meeting held in:
RR’s office. Because she has cake.
It has been noted that within a two-mile radius around the school there are now 11 fast food establishments. These include: Chicken Palace, Chicken Castle, Chicka-Chick-Ah!, Licka-Chick-Ah!, Cluck-U-Like, Poultry Offerings and Dave’s Chicken Shed.
(“Ooh, I love Dave’s!” interjects CL at this point. “They’ve got this thing called The Grease Bucket. It’s just the skin. It’s ace.”)
With this influx it seems prudent to promote healthy eating in school to attempt to minimise the detrimental effect that these takeaways may present to the students in regards to diet.
At this juncture it was suggested by BN that this may be something of a tall order when students like Cammy in Y10 sincerely believe that consuming something that isn’t a highly caffeinated green neon sludge or a deep-fried mystery meat is akin to the abuse of her human rights.
“I think if someone offered that girl a carrot, she’d stab them with it.” was BN’s prognosis of the situation.
Even so, it was decided, for the sake of the students’ health, (and Cammy’s very-near-future heart problems), that a push on healthy eating was the way forward.
Salad in a bucket?
Making the school cafeteria offerings more appealing to the students was one of the options considered.
“We could put everything in buckets. I love buckets,” suggested CL.
“We could make it not be awful,” was BN’s somewhat out of left field proposal. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I had the tuna bake yesterday; it wasn’t baked properly and I’m pretty sure whatever was in it wasn’t tuna.”
It was decided to expand the salad bar selection and put up posters encouraging healthy eating and exercise, and highlighting the dangers of overconsumption of fried chicken. (I have my suspicions that this was more for the benefit of CL than anyone else.)
The big question was then addressed: should the upper school students be prevented from leaving school grounds at lunch, thereby minimising the chance that they’d be mainlining hot chicken every day?
“There’d be pushback from the parents,” stated RR. “Cammy’s mum for one would be trebucheting £1.99 two-piece meals over the fence just in case her baby wasn’t getting her usual 18000 daily calories for a start.”
Even though this was undoubtedly true, it was decided to have a parent consultation about the idea – and with community support, the lunchtime restrictions would come into play at the beginning of the new academic term.
“Erm…these new restrictions,” asked CL, with a distinct look of terror on his face, “would they be applied to the staff as well as the students do you think?”
“Well, I think we could probably do with being role models, so that’d probably be a yes,” admitted GL. On hearing this, CL broke out into a serious meat sweat.
Staff were tasked with finding out what is in those drinks that Cammy has, and where they can get some.
CL was seen making his way to Dave’s. Possibly to stockpile.
I don’t teach angels and I don’t teach saints. I don’t teach monsters or demons either. I teach people. They are sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly. They often follow their own agency but are also often swept away by factors beyond their control. Sometimes this is the same person.
They break my frames.
They aren’t my past self or my past self’s friends or my past self’s bullies. They are not me.
They are not my cause. They are not what I believe they are or what they should be. They are not what the research says they are or what I want the research to say that they are. They are not the tool to prove my worth or my worthiness.
The way that I view them does not make me a better or worse person because that view is not them. They are not my romanticism or my cynicism. They make me neither hero or villain.
They are not the future and they are not the problem. They represent nothing but themselves.
And that is enough.
Here’s another account of an absolutely critical school meeting written by my anonymous contact. Subscribe to http://www.teachsecondary.com and I’ll write more of them. No, sorry, I mean they’ll write more of them. Or something. Whatever.
Staff Wellbeing Meeting
GL – (Deputy Vice Principal)
TR (Due to illness)
TT (Due to illness)
GH (Due to illness)
FH (Due to illness)
HK (Due to illness)
MEETING HELD IN –
Art studio – only one that doesn’t have at least one migraine-inducing flickering fluorescent light.
So what exactly is the problem?
The meeting has been was called by senior management to try to pinpoint the reasons for / and alleviate the issues surrounding the perceived decline in staff wellbeing. Attendees were asked what one of the main problems was.
“Meetings.” – CC
“Endless meetings.” – RL
“**** endless meetings.” – PB
GL stated that he would look into the many and varied reasons that had been stated and call a meeting with other members of the senior leadership team to see if they couldn’t get to the heart of the matter in this hugely multifaceted issue. Responders were also invited.
Stretch and challenge
GL was pleased to announce that a yoga consultant had been brought in for a day’s training to help staff to try and manage their stress levels. At this point, the other attendees stress levels seemed to go through the roof.
“As much as I would love to learn good form in downward dog,” stated PB, I’m not sure it’s massively relevant when trying to teach 9LL simultaneous equations.
“I dunno. Being bendy might be useful when they start chucking stuff,” said RL. “You could go all Neo from The Matrix and dodge it.”
“Will yoga help with the time it takes to complete a set of books using the new triplicate mark scheme?” asked CC. “Does this yoga have the potential to bend time and extend the hours in the day so I might not have to be green-penning it until 11pm every night?”
GL stated that this wasn’t on the website but he could certainly look into it. He assured people that it would be a good way to manage stress.
“Wouldn’t it be better to try and minimise the reasons for that stress rather than our reactions to it?” asked RL. “I mean, if workload was lessened, perhaps we wouldn’t have to pay someone to come in and teach us how to roll about on a mat for an hour.
GL informed those present that it was, in fact, an all-day event.
“But that doesn’t leave any time for department planning,” explained RL.
GL stated that planning would then have to be shifted to another time in the day. Break or lunch perhaps? As the yoga training was compulsory perhaps they should organise a meeting to plan when it can take place?
At this point in time RL, PB and CC all had to leave for their next meeting. Unfortunately, they all went on sick the day after.
No. Even if there was someone else would have to sort it, I can feel myself coming down with something as well.
Here’s one from http://www.teachsecondary.com. If you hit the link and subscribe they say they’ll get me a new whiteboard marker. I think they’re telling the truth this time.
For the majority of my career, I’ve worked in places that have been deemed to be ‘challenging’. I’m not a huge fan of the term. It’s a bit of an educational misnomer.
I find getting out of bed on a Monday morning (or any other morning quite frankly) to be ‘challenging’, the weekly trolley smash to get the shopping with my two sprogs is ‘challenging’. Heck, managing yours truly can often be a tad ‘challenging’. Working in a school that has underlying problems isn’t just ‘challenging’, it’s rock hard.
But ‘I work in a rock hard school’ hasn’t really got the same ring to it. There’s none of that positive sheen and gloss that people so love to present to the outside world. You’re not going to see a job advert for HoD that states:
“We are looking for a passionate member of staff to come and work in our tough-as-nails-that-have-seen-some-terrible-things-during-wartime school.
I understand the reasoning in using the word. I understand that ‘challenging’ offers an aspirational alternative to ‘rough as a hedgehog’s five o’clock shadow’ but I also understand that in education there can be a tendency to do a bit of semantic juggling to paper over some pretty large cracks. I sometimes wonder if people think that if you change the name, the nature of the thing will automatically follow. I also wonder why these people don’t call themselves Millionaire McSexypants. Those people are delusional. Or lazy. Or both.
So here’s a tip to all senior management out there – if you’re referring to your school as ‘challenging’, best be doing everything you can to help your staff meet that challenge. Otherwise, it’s just another euphemism designed to muddy the waters. Or ‘a lie’ as I like to call it.
At heart, it’s a question of striking a balance between image and honesty. That’s the real challenge, right there.
The other problem I have with the term is that every school has unique and particular challenges no matter how well or how badly they’re doing. If it’s not behaviour, it can be workload. If it’s not workload, it can be pastoral issues. If it’s not pastoral issues it could be staffing and so on and so on. Even the most pleasant, together schools where the kids are polite, staff are well rested and look forward to functioning at optimal capacity to help their charges (I have heard wild rumours of such places) have their own challenges to be overcome.
I can drag a class of 35 through GCSE when 27 of them have severe behavioural issues and that’s challenging, but so is taking a talented top set class through their A Levels which is something I haven’t done for so long that the prospect of it would be one that fills me with dread. Whether something is challenging or not doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be at the extreme end of things. Challenging is sitting down with a kid whose parents are going through a messy divorce and doesn’t know how to take it. It’s taking some year 10s on a skiing trip (even when they’re being absolutely brilliant). It’s break in drizzle. It’s making sure that your targets exceed last year’s. It’s parents evening when the expectations are sky high. It’s a million other things teachers have to do in thousands of schools up and down the country. They’re all challenging. The very DNA of this job is challenge, no matter where you work.
Granted, some of these challenges may be, well, slightly more challenging than others. I wouldn’t mind swapping the behaviour issues I deal with frequently for something a little bit more genteel for instance but I’d be willing to bet my hurriedly scoffed Friday canteen fish and chips (with extra chips) that there’s not one school in this country were working there does not present itself some form of challenge. It’s just that they’re different types of challenges, that’s all.
Words are important as is the way we choose to utilise them. We shouldn’t have to be given the extra challenge (HA! LOOK WHAT I DID!) of trying to negotiate words that don’t really mean what they’re supposed to and we should try to appreciate that one teacher’s challenging isn’t the same as another’s yet they both come under the same banner.
I’m off to do the weekly shop. Always up for a challenge, me.
Thanks for reading.