http://www.teachsecondary.com keep putting what I write into their magazine. Subscribe by hitting the link to bear witness to this madness.
One of the things that doesn’t seem to be much discussed when it comes to behaviour in schools is group dynamics within the classroom. I’m not talking you and the kids; I mean the kids and the kids. There’s a heavy emphasis on what a teacher can do to improve an individual’s behaviour (in some quarters there’s a belief that a teacher’s actions are the only thing that affects behaviour but as we all know, the people who subscribe to this are quite clearly completely and utterly insane) – in comparison however, the effect that different students have on each other seems relatively overlooked.
This could be down to a couple of things. It might be due to the fact that there is very little wriggle-room (if we don’t count streaming or other similar practices) with regard to who ends up in the class in front of us, so we accept the group as it is presented and just get on with it. However, if we dig a little deeper I think the reason for the lack of focus on group dynamics is that with it an ugly truth rises close to the surface, which is to do with the notion of teachers being masters of their own fate. In moving the focus away from the direct line of transmission of behaviour management from teacher to student we skirt close to a realisation that some find unpalatable, which is this:
The ease of a teacher’s success in behaviour management is very often down to the luck of the draw.
Now, behaviour as ‘register roulette’ might not be the most chirpy of ideas out there. It allows and admits a certain amount of chaos and chance when it comes to teaching – and who wants to admit that? It’s a depowering concept in a lot of ways. I’m in no way saying that we defer our responsibility to do our utmost to create and maintain an environment where every student is allowed to learn, but on the other hand, I think there has to be some acknowledgement of other factors that have an influence within those four display-laden walls apart from the whiteboard marker-wielding person at the front. Group dynamics being one of them.
When it comes to the mix of students in a class, some are a golden draught and some are a steaming toxic slop barrel that glows yellow when you turn the lights off. There might be a buzz in the room as children spark off each other in wonderful ways or there might a buzz in the classroom as children try to use sparks to set fire to each other in wonderful ways. Personality clashes, age-old grudges, even family feuds; all these can put paid to the best teaching in the world.
It means that the starting point for teachers when it comes to successfully managing a class differs, and that the journey is a lot harder for some than it is others given the hand that’s dealt. It’s not just you and them. It’s them and them. And him. And her at the back. And Daryl and Kim. They’re the worst.
For me, the relationships that kids form with each other and how those relationships manifest themselves in the classroom are infinitely more important than anything I can do directly. Of course, teachers can dampen the effect of powder-keg classes, model good relationships and respect for others, shuffle and change seating plans, take key players aside and give them an earful if that’s what’s needed; but at the end of the day people are complicated, and the way they act towards each other is even more so.
Times this by a shed load if you’re talking about children.
We’re only one person in a room of thirty (if you’re lucky). That’s thirty minds and hearts all mixed together. It’s a small sea of humanity looking primarily to each other for affirmation, entertainment, threat, love (yuck) and a plethora of other wants and needs beside. Sometimes this means great things and sometimes it means a massive headache.
So have a think about group dynamics next time you’re in. Try to take yourself out of the equation and look at how they are with each other. It can sometimes open your eyes to a world outside your sphere of influence, where there are triggers and factors away from what you do. It’s a scary thought… but no-one ever said this teaching lark was going to be a doddle.
Thanks for reading.
Here’s another leaked document from my contact who is certainly not me. This time it’s on behaviour policy. As a rule, my policy is that everyone has to behave, apart from me. Subscribe to http://www.teachsecondary.com or I’ll not be pleased and no-one wants that.
New Behaviour Policy Meeting
Present: DR, PT, AA
Apologies from: The entire senior leadership team
Meeting held in: DR’s room, as he has biscuits
ITEM 1: Rationale behind updating the behaviour policy
The old one is 87 pages long and seems specifically designed to be so complicated that by the time anyone follows the procedure any kid will have stopped exhibiting any type of unwanted behaviour as they will have left school, grown up and died from old age.
“Guess that’s one way of dealing with it,” commented DR.
It has been decided that the policy is well overdue a renewal, especially given the recent behaviour of Y9, who are starting to exhibit character traits, attitude and responses seemingly inspired by post-apocalyptic literature and film, “and that’s not even on the scheme of work,” stated PT.
ITEM 2: New policy suggestions
Suggestions as to what the new policy should look like were taken.
PT seemed fairly enthused by this:
“What we need to do is create a space where students can air their grievances. Somewhere non-threatening without any sharp lines or corners. Some sort of circular construction maybe. A dome perhaps. And in it, we can place tools that will allow the students to manifest their aggression and…”
“We are not building the Thunderdome out of Mad Max,” stated LR. “For one thing, we haven’t got the budget for chainsaws.”
A card system was suggested where students would be given colour coded cards for infractions of the policy. Green for good behaviour, yellow for a warning and red for a punitive measure.
“I for one,” asserted AD. “am not waving a red card at Theresa in 9BB. Can you imagine it? It’d be like slapping an angry bull on its nose. She’d go mental. Start smashing up china shops and everything.”
There were a fair few nods and mutterings of agreement.
Whatever form was agreed, it was made clear that it would be essential that the senior leadership team should be visible at all times, taking the lead in carrying out and supporting any punitive measures, and allowing students to see that the entire staff are a cohesive whole and that there is consistency throughout.
ACTION: Find a member of the senior leadership team and inform them of this, seeing as none were able to attend the meeting due to them being elsewhere on important senior leadership team business.
Other suggestions included:
Krav Maga and small arms training for staff
Some form of pen/corral for Theresa
Restorative practice (“I need a restorative after 9BB, that’s for bloody sure”)
An emphasis on positive reinforcement
It was agreed that whatever form the policy takes, it needs to be clear, concise, easy to understand, and feature absolutely no chainsaws.
There were a couple of other things that were needed to be run by the senior leadership team but y’know. Meh.
Many thanks to DR for the biscuits
Meeting adjourned: in time for everyone to get down to the gym for some strength training in preparation for Teresa’s return.
Here’s another one for http://www.teachsecondary.com who promise to move me off the back page if I promise to stop stealing the individual sugar packets that they have next to their coffee machine.
So I’m never getting off the back page. Subscribe by hitting the link.
So the holidays are here (or just about over, or actually over, depending on when you are reading this – writing for magazines is a bit like being a Time Lord sometimes, only no one cares what gender you are); the old academic year is over and another is soon to begin. With the new crop of students comes a fresh crop of teachers, so what follows is some boot-camp advice for those grown-ups who are crossing the threshold of the school gates for the first time this September. Top tips, as it were, where I share my accumulated knowledge of how to be distinctly average.
1. Invest in a sturdy school bag.
Your bag will have to hold a veritable cornucopia of equipment, books, tech, pens, lunchboxes, folders, paracetamol, fluff, toot, vodka and broken dreams. Therefore, having one that isn’t bobbins is very important. I’ve found military style backpacks to be most effective. They’ve got lots of different pockets, are rugged, designed to be comfortable on the shoulders and are often expandable so you can feel even more righteous as you shove not two, but three sets of exercise books in them to mark on the weekend and promptly leave it untouched in the corner until you have to lug them back in on Monday.
2. This is not a movie. Movies about teaching lie.
Do not climb on any desks. Do not attempt to teach gospel singing to the disengaged. Do not try to be a renegade in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the kids.
All these things will end up with you crying as the kids mock you mercilessly for the noob that you are. And you’d deserve it, dumbass. This is not a movie. A real movie about teaching would just be teaching, marking, planning on a 8 hour loop.
Oh, and meetings.
3. You are not better than anyone else. You are not worse than anyone else. You are simply at a different stage in your career.
Don’t go comparing yourself to every bugger. Leave your ego or your anxiety at the door and DO THE JOB to the best of your current abilities. Oh, and although you’ll be up against a screaming wall of information (and children) try to listen to the people around you, you might learn something important (or at least some extremely juicy gossip about Dave from PE and Sinita from admin).
4. Teaching is graft.
Is it an art? Is it a science? Is it a craft? Who knows? Not me. Nor do I care. These lofty questions can be considered at a later date because what I do know above one and above all is that teaching, as a profession, is absolutely rock hard. Nutter-in-the-pub hard. Junaid-from-Y10-hard. Mentally taxing, physically demanding and with little recompense, you have to be prepared for the sheer weight and variety of the work. What that preparation looks like is up to you, just make sure you go into it with your eyes open – you will be tested on all manner of levels. These tests can be hugely unpleasant. Be aware.
5. Eat well. Sleep well. Be well.
No job is worth your health. There’s a tendency for school offices to be magnets for crap food. Biscuits, cakes, limp and soggy sandwiches from the last managers’ meeting that have been sat there under sweaty clingfilm for an undisclosed amount of time. And even the last looks hugely appealing if you’ve only got five mins to shove something down your gullet before break duty. You animal.
Anxiety can also lead to loss of sleep that can lead to anxiety about loss of sleep and so on and so forth. Late night marking and planning don’t help either.
Do your best to eat properly and sleep for more than six hours. Your body and your mind will thank you for it. Think of the long game. And yourself. And leave the damn sandwiches alone.
6. Don’t let them mug you off.
Due to your inexperience, the chances are that there will be those who try to take advantage of you. I’m not just talking about the kids either. Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you have to let this happen. If you’re being unfairly overburdened (and you’re the best judge of whether that is happening, no matter what anyone else says) speak out. If the issues aren’t addressed, speak to your union. Many schools are still stuck in the mindset that you are lucky to be working for them. Given retention and recruitment this is patently utter tosh. They’re lucky to have you. Keep that in mind.
7. All teaching advice is highly subjective and context-specific.
Apart from the bag one. The bag one is a universal constant.
Thanks for reading
My in-school contact risks their career every time they hand over these docs. Subscribe to http://www.teachsecondary.com before their cover is blown. Which will be tomorrow morning if they don’t get me that tenner they owe me.
Prom Organisation Committee Meeting
Present: AR, RF, AF, GF
Meeting held in: the school hall, ostensibly to ‘get everyone in the mood’
Prevailing mood: cold, uncomfortable, reluctant
It was suggested by AR that instead of the usual recognition for academic, sporting and pastoral achievement, this year’s prom prizes should be awarded for ‘Most Inappropriate Dress’, ‘Strongest Deodorant’ and ‘Earliest Throwing Up’. RF countered that the first and second categories would have so many applicants as to make the judging nigh-on impossible, and the third would invariably be won by Devon, as he had already beaten all comers in that particular event on two field trips, not to mention the ill-fated County Basketball Semis.
It was decided that the more traditional awards categories were probably the way to go.
AF suggested that it might make planning easier if there was a theme so he’d know roughly what he was looking for when he went to the pound shop to stock up on decorations. This was agreed and a conversation ensued as to what theme would be the most conducive to having decorations available in the pound shop.
Gangsters and Molls (“But the classy gangsters, not the ones that need pulling their trousers up and mumble a lot” from AR). This was rejected on the grounds that the outgoing Y11 perhaps may need steering away from criminal activity rather encouragement to dive headlong into it, in full costume.
Rejected with reference to 11C’s infamous, if impressively profitable, Autumn term ‘casino’ project for Business Studies.
Back to the 90s
(“So we could call it a disco and forget about the limousines and the rest of that guff.”)
It was eventually decided that the theme should be: ‘Prom’. Again.
As per GF’s request that student voice be an important part of the event (“Oh God, does it have to be? They’re so loud already…”) the prom suggestion boxes that had been distributed across the school building were opened. A great many suggestions were of the extremely lewd variety, some with accompanying diagrams. However here are a few of the less filthy ones:
“Can we get Little Mix?”
In response, GF stated that although she didn’t exactly know what kind of party food little mix was, she was more than happy to work with the students to make sure their catering ideas were taken on board.
No-one had the heart to tell her.
There followed a number of similar suggestions that were variations on the same theme:
“Will there be booze?”
“Can we drink beer?”
“BEER BEER BEER!!!”
“Imma gonna get wrekt”
And so on and so forth.
AF said that there will be alcohol served in his office to the rest of the staff after the last one of darlings has been safely escorted off the premises and the gates have been locked. Quote: “I, for one, will certainly need to ‘get wrekt’ after all that.”
Transport was mentioned a number of times:
“I’m getting a limo for me an me besties!!!”
“Are horses allowed?
(“Allowed for what?” asked GF)
“If I cn get a helicopter, cn I land it on roof?”
RF at this point interjected with, “I know that handwriting, that lad can’t even park his scooter properly.”
It was decided that students would provide their own transport whether it be by limousine, helicopter or unicorn.
Different roles were assigned to members of staff. Under protestation it was made clear to AF that he would not be responsible for the music as the kids have actually worked quite hard and it would be nice if they could enjoy themselves and have a dance rather than stand there befuddled as another 13-minute prog-rock opus blares out of the speaker system.
Different roles were assigned, with AF meeting and greeting. This will involve him having to try and smile and be personable, which will add some much-needed comic relief for the rest of the staff on the evening. GF will be responsible for catering and will ensure that the students have plenty of little mix to eat, and everyone else will be on security.
Oh. Everyone’s gone already.
Meeting ended: promptly. NB – a grovelling apology to the caretaker will be required regarding unstacked chairs.
This is another one for http://www.teachsecondary.com. Hit the link to subscribe. I mean, look at that face there. How could you not?
What’s the number one response when I tell people that I’m a teacher? (Apart from, ‘Are you sure? Really? With hair like that?). Well, it’s a variation on the phrase: ‘Wow, that must be so rewarding’ coupled with a look of pity or mistrust. Then they move away swiftly to go talk to one of my mates who’s a lawyer or recruiter or MMA fighter or something sensible like that.
I get it. It’s pretty difficult to conceptualise why someone would want to get into this game. A lot of the time it can be a right ache in the nethers and I’ve often wondered myself what the bloody hell I’m doing in a job that’s long on hours, short on recognition, fat on absurdity and heaving with stress (this is perhaps why I’m not allowed to write recruitment slogans). Even so, there’s something about that response, the use of ‘rewarding’, that never fails to nark me off no end.
What it comes down to is that I don’t want to be patronised or pitied by people when I tell them that I’m a teacher. I don’t want them to have to resort to the assumption that it’s ‘rewarding’ (but you know, not in the monetary sense, or the kudos sense, or any of that useless stuff) and that’s the only reason I do it, like I’m some sort of paladin with a whiteboard marker instead of a lance. Get out of it. Here’s the bottom line:
I teach because I get paid to do it. It’s my chosen profession. I don’t do it out of any sense of missionary zeal. I do it because it’s my job.
Crazy concept, I know.
Of course, it’s a job that has golden moments. The kids (when they’re not conspiring to make my life as miserable as an Eastenders omnibus but with more swearing) are kids, with all the inherent yet wonderful madness that comes with them. But when all’s said and done, golden moments don’t feed my children, pay my mortgage or keep me in Nutella (OK, not even Morrison’s own brand version of Nutella). Also, a lot of the time the kids can go do one (which, coincidentally, is the title of my upcoming book on education. It’s either that, Teaching. Meh. or 101 Ways to Eat Morrison’s Own Nutella in Class, I haven’t quite made up my mind just yet.)
What I truly long for is a time when I tell someone what I do and there’s no mention of the job being ‘rewarding’, no consolation in their eyes – just pure, unadulterated jealousy and then some desperate begging to hook them up with some training. Instead of being seen (both without and within) as uncomplaining saints, teachers should be revered. I’m talking free backstage passes for us and our entourage. I’m talking complimentary everything. I’m talking real Nutella. I’m talking RiRi levels of swag and other terminology that I’m not fully confident in using.
Because if teaching really is the most important job in the world, why aren’t those that do it treated like VIPs? Instead of ‘That must be soooo rewarding’ it should be ‘Wow! That is absolutely incredible! Sign this body part!’
With recruitment and retention being as it is at the moment, maybe we should start looking at the fact that people’s go-to response when you tell them that you’re a teacher is to assume that you’re doing it out of some sense of vocation, some intangible reward, rather than because it’s a good job. Because what does that say about the profession?
‘Only Saints Need Apply’ is also not a very good recruitment slogan.
I sometimes think we’re our own worst enemy. We have a tendency to revel in the hardship of it all. To signpost our sacrifices rather than negotiate our contracts. To shoulder burdens and carry on ‘for the kids’. Whatever the hell that means. Do you see RiRi shouldering anything but a diamond-encrusted Gucci handbag? No. You do not.
So the next time someone mentions your job being ‘rewarding’ just say ‘Yep. It is incredibly rewarding for people to have a chance to work with me. Then take a selfie, and bounce out of there, like the rockstar that you are. #teacherswag #iamthereward #realnutellabeeyatches
Thanks for reading.
So my secret contact passed this to me in a brown envelope in an undisclosed location that certainly wasn’t a McDonald’s on the high street and I certainly did not get ketchup and nugget grease all over it before passing it on to the good people at http://www.teachsecondary.com or anything like that.
Predicted Grades Moderation Meeting
Present: (Eng Dept Teaching Staff) AF, CC, KC and ST (the trainee lad who looks all of 12.)
(Senior Leadership Team) JN
(Admin Staff) BS
Apologies from: No bugger. It’s full attendance. The fact that JN’s here is merely coincidence says I.
Meeting held in: Boardroom One as a member of the senior leadership team is present and the Eng dept classrooms are a bit of a trek downstairs.
Input of predicted grades for KS4 into new ‘Perseverance’ admin system tool
KC opened the meeting by stating, in no uncertain terms, that the only tool he was aware of was the one who decided to buy such an unwieldy, bloated and almost psychotically unhelpful piece of software as Perseverance.
JN said that he would certainly look into it (it was him) but for now it was what they had and if the predicted grade boxes weren’t filled in it would hinder student progression pathway. I’m also pretty sure that if this doesn’t happen soon that the system will become self-aware and try to wipe out humanity.
To aide the team in their use of the system, BS attempted to demonstrate the ease with which a teacher can input their grades. This is primarily the reason why the meeting overran by approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes.
All members of the English dept to attempt to input their grades by the end of the week (or invent a time machine to stop Perseverance before it destroys the world, whichever is easiest).
Predicted grade moderation, or ‘Fight Club’ as it’s also known.
CC suggested that due to the new specifications, boundary shifts and an alternative grading system, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to accurately predict the grades that students will achieve – and furthermore, attempting to do so may well take time away from activities that could actually help the students, such as planning and feedback. This coupled with the possible demotivating factor that arbitrary grading may result in for the students means that there are real concerns.
To counter this argument, JN stated that the boxes needed to be filled.
At this point ST (bless) piped up and asked if anyone was using a particular formula for grade prediction as he was struggling. AF suggested tossing a coin, CC explained her patented dartboard technique. This left ST with a horrified expression on his face until KC told everyone to stop taking the Michael and that she would go through it with him at a later juncture after he’d calmed down a bit and stopped hyperventilating. This seemed to do the trick until she added that she’d let him have a go on the crystal ball she kept in her office.
There then commenced full and total open warfare as to what the exam board specifications actually mean, with the poring over the minutest detail of semantics, vagaries of meaning, interpretation and detective work not seen since Sherlock Holmes was about. This ultimately led to an agreement that for now, no-one had a scoobie and a line of best fit would be used going on previous examples of marked work. An almost inaudible comment from an unidentified member of the team suggested that this be a perfect juncture for CC to actually do some of the said marking but when challenged, no-one was able to identify the source of the statement. CC then stated that whoever it was, she would be seeing them in the car park. Everyone agreed that it was most likely ST, and that he was in SO MUCH TROUBLE. ST then excused himself to go to the toilet as he was looking a bit peaky.
AF and CC to attend exam board training day to see if they can’t figure out what the hell is going on.
(From JN to all) If everyone could stop messing with ST before he has a heart attack, that’d be great.
Get outta here. Don’t you even dare.
Meeting ended: with no injuries
I talk a lot about ‘golden moments’ in teaching. The good stuff, the stuff that gets you through. Moments of insight, kindness and humour from the kids or something that reminds you why you do the job in the first place. A sweet little memory from the day that puts a smile on your lips as you struggle through yet another set of Year 8 books that are physical, ink-stained evidence that no bugger listens to a word you say (or can underline properly). These golden moments act as fuel to keep on pushing because the job, the life, the kids, the lessons, even the lunches aren’t that bad.
But also in schools, as in the wider world which they reflect, there are moments of abject horror.
Not the fights, scuffles, rudeness, workload and all the negatives that can be experienced in places of learning (although these are sometimes bad enough). I’m talking about things that open your eyes to a world where there is no light and no hope. Disclosures from students regarding the worst types of abuse from those who are supposed to love and protect them. Visible signs of self-harm or neglect (or both). Reports of lives led in places that are dark mirrors of home pushed or sometimes screamed out of battered and worn bodies and minds. Unlove instead of love. Fear as the norm. Lives inside a fist, forever squeezing.
Stories from children.
I’ve worked as a teacher for a long time in places where these type of stories are perhaps not as uncommon as they would be elsewhere and luckily, even then they are relatively rare. Yet they do happen. Luckier still, in each of those places there were strong pastoral systems and support that allowed those more expert than I to take over and do their part in trying to make the child’s life better. I have been able to refer children to people better trained, better equipped, with more knowledge and experience of the surrounding issues than I could ever have. Sometimes this support included various agencies working together. Many people were involved.
In these situations, although I may try, it is abundantly clear that I am not good enough to handle these things by myself and neither should I ever be put in the position where that would be the case. Yet, when I look at funding (the fist that schools find themselves in) I can’t see anything other than removal of services resulting in a detrimental effect. I foresee a time where teachers have no choice but to take on the responsibilities that were once given to a broad range of people; professionals and experts who, working together, had a much better chance of bringing a modicum of light to a child’s life.
Some of the things I’ve heard and witnessed have stayed with me. There’d be something seriously wrong with me if they hadn’t. But even now I’m confident in knowing that I did my best for them by being able to refer them to people who had a better shot at giving them something better.
I hope that I’ll always be able to do that. It’s one of the things that stops the dark getting me.