This is another one for http://www.teachsecondary.com. I’m in it, but to counterbalance that it also features a whole range of articles on secondary education that you can use to cleanse yourself after reading my shtick. Subscribe by clicking the link if you dare.  


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As I get on in years, I am, more and more, thinking back to my own time at school. This has led me to a conclusion about this odd profession of ours; whether we like to admit to it or not, our opinions and viewpoints of education are often intrinsically linked to our personal experience of it as children. The halls, corridors and classrooms represent a past paradise to some or a prison to others, and I’m of the belief that what we think about education currently as adults has an extremely strong lineage back to the days when we weren’t.

I see in fellow teachers attempts to embrace their own school past or to shove it over a wall. I see teachers who have wanted to emulate those that helped and guided them and I see others who have wanted to show those who let them down that they could do better. Attitude, approach, pedagogy – our own time in uniform has influenced them all. In some ways we are all dancing (or boxing) with ghosts.

My own experience of secondary school was pretty unremarkable (which, some would argue, accurately reflects my teaching career, heh). I was a smart kid in a rough place but I was big so I got away with it. Mostly I remember being cold at break time. To be honest, I could go on for a couple of long paragraphs reminiscing about my own experience (and taking into account the word count required for this page, that might well be on the cards so don’t rule it out) but those stories are often akin to when you recount your dreams; they’re fascinating to you because you experienced them – but they’re wholly tedious to any bugger else.

Having said that, I know for a fact that some of the things I prioritise as a teacher, some of the beliefs that I firmly hold today, have their roots firmly stuck in the heart of an awkward, lumbering 14-year-old with hair like a hay bale and dreams of…well…getting through five periods and then going home and eating his weight in Boost bars. To this day, behaviour is still a burning issue for me, due to the fact that I spent a lot of time trying to learn in a school environment where it wasn’t brilliant. I lean towards a more ‘traditional’ way of teaching as that’s what the most effective teachers in my school did. I’m concerned about teacher welfare because I remember when we took bets on how quickly we could make new teachers cry. Just about every part of the teacher I am now goes back to what I experienced then.

Our history shapes us. And whether it does it with an artist’s brush or a madman’s axe we still hold that aspect, taking it into the unique job that we do. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I haven’t really decided yet. We are fashioned from our past yet I worry that we can become slaves to it as well. The significance of our individual experience on a personal level can blind us to different worlds, different ways of doing things and different narratives. There’s a wide educational world out there and only seeing it only through the lens of our own school days may lead to a restricted view.

Perhaps we spend too much time with the ghosts.

I’m not, of course, saying that we should deny our history or go through some sci-fi mind-wipe during training so we become more open and susceptible (although if anyone can build something like that for the kids, you can take my money right now). What I am saying is that our own school history, whilst important, is only one story among countless others and if we let it fashion our thinking and our actions to such an extent that we close our mind off to other possibilities then we run the risk of missing a rich, expansive world that may offer us seemingly alien, yet useful ideas.

OK, that’s 675 words. Err…so…. let me tell you ‘bout the time when Mr Maynard fell asleep during the inter-school football tournament. Only thing was, right, he was supposed to be refereeing. Almost caused a riot. Me and Davey and Ryan had to…

Thanks for reading.



Here is a big juicy, ripe tomato of a good idea. Look at how the condensation trickles off the taught, ruby red flesh. Inside it is chock-full of delicious potential to make things better. It is perhaps the best, most perfect idea tomato that has ever been imagined into existence. It’s gorgeous. 

Now, take this plump, juicy, ripe, delicious, idea tomato and lob it into that industrial fan there.

Now wipe yourself down a bit. Scrape the pulp of the walls. Get that bit off the floor. Don’t worry about the chalk-dust and rat droppings and such. Mix it all up, no-one will notice – it’s still the same tomato after all.

Right, put it into a sandwich and give it to the kids. No, it’s the same tomato – yes, I know that the added grime has made it a bit gritty and slightly hazardous but it’s still the same tomato and we’ve already paid for it. Just spread that mush in there, it’ll be good for them. Tell them how good it will be for them. Put it in a poster or something.

You eat it too.

There are good ideas in the world. Some of these good ideas could be very useful in schools. However, without proper implementation of these ideas, they just end up as so much crap stuck to the wall.




This is another one from http://www.teachsecondary.com. It’s a great magazine that has some extremely useful snippets on the education biz. I’m at the back, like the kid who constantly asks you what time the lesson finishes but then takes ages to get his stuff and get out of the classroom.


‘Low-level disruption’. It’s almost a cute term isn’t it? Like disruption that’s not trying very hard and needs to do better:

“C’mon Low-Level, you’re only at sneaking a look at your phone now. You’re really going to have to get your act together if you’re going to make it to the big leagues of assault and bullying!”

But disruption is disruption at whatever level it manifests itself, and if it manifests itself for long enough it can be bloody knackering. Even the ‘low-level’ stuff has enough weight behind it to smash learning to smithereens and have you wanting to low-level disrupt the perpetrators by shaking them a lot.

For instance, I once had a lad who, without one iota of malice, would lay waste to my lessons with neither thought or design by drowning them in an unending avalanche of verbal diarrhoea.

It wasn’t so much a stream of consciousness, as more of a tsunami of ever-present thought only ever vaguely attached to the question at hand. Or the subject. Or the fact that he was indeed in a school. No tangent was too far off, no anecdote too disparate (and often hugely awkward).

If there was something to be said, he would say it. At length. Whether it had anything to do with what was going on or not.

Now, this wasn’t fighting or calling me names that have no place being repeated in an upstanding publication such as this (there was a fair bit of that going on as well) – it was just wave after wave, after wave, after wave of words. The cliffs of my lesson eroded against the constant tide. It was like watching a personification of Finnegan’s Wake only less comprehensible and peppered with far more ‘yer get me’s’.

It might be accurate to classify this onslaught as ‘low-level’ but the effect of it was anything but. You could actually hear the eye-rolling from the rest of the class when he got going because they knew that no-one would be able to get a word in edgeways.

I’d become increasingly frustrated at the constant interruption and those that needed quiet to concentrate (contrary to popular belief, there are actually quite a fair few of those in schools believe it or not) were pretty much jiggered.

Although this lad didn’t mean any harm (and on the scale of awful things that can go on in a school this didn’t even get into the top 50) his actions meant that others weren’t being allowed the shot they deserved. This, just about more than anything when it comes to teaching, doesn’t fly with me.

Sometimes it even feels a little like overkill. But in this case I was considering killing for the talk to be over, so it seemed like a good idea to do something about it before it got to that point.

I took him to one side, explained that his talking was affecting the learning of his classmates, and asked him what he thought about that. Half an hour later, after I had learnt more than I had ever wanted to about his eldest sister’s social life, he finally agreed that perhaps he could do with keeping schtum during my classes.

To help him before he sallied forth thereafter, I would remind him of this conversation and for further reinforcement, whack him in a detention every time he decided to go on one of his epic soliloquies.

It was pretty effective. Remember, this kid wasn’t a hard-nut, just a mouth. Sometimes the quick word would work and sometimes he got a detention. But overall, with a bit of encouragement and a hard word every now and again, there was an improvement and it meant that the rest of the class saved a fortune in ear plugs.

When it comes down to it, ‘low-level disruption’ is simply disruption. Grading these things by supposed levels of severity is counter productive due to the fact that any disruption has the potential to stop kids learning and should be dealt with with extreme prejudice – because everyone deserves a fair shake.

Especially when they don’t shut up.

Thanks for reading.


This is another one from the good people at http://www.teachsecondary.com who strive to produce a magazine that is useful, interesting and insightful. And then I turn up at the end like the uncle nobody invited and proceed to fall over a chair.


Hello. I am writing this to you from the realm of the unwell.

And as a man who is firmly ensconced in the realm of the unwell, I can, with no doubt whatsoever in my mind, tell you that no-one in the entire span of human history has ever been as unwell as I am now. On this sofa, under this blanket with its avalanche of snotty tissue papers, lies patient zero of a terrible plague which has the power to destroy all of humanity.

Or, it’s a cold. One of the two.

Either way, scarlet fever and a particularly virulent strain of some flesh eating virus combined could not even touch the discomfort that I find myself in at this present moment (I imagine). And adding to the sweats, shakes, and the heroic lifting of a cup to signal to my wife that it is essential that I get another hot lemon into me (STAT!) there is the extra added side effect of my life or death sickbed battle: an extreme case of The Guilts.

The Guilts manifests itself in a number of ways. Affecting teachers in particular, The Guilts is a secondary illness that attaches itself parasitically onto the primary malady in an often successful attempt to make you feel even worse about having the audacity to have a body that does not work at optimum efficiency 100% of the time (even when faced with stress and physical exhaustion).

As if being ill weren’t enough, The Guilts often compounds the illness by making the patient imagine all the work that is not being done that will leave kids further behind, the hardships faced by the colleagues who will have their time sucked away as they have to cover your lessons (and the accompanied tutting and eye rolling when discussing your absence), and the reams of extra work that will be faced upon your return.

In some, more extreme cases of The Guilts, the secondary illness can hugely exasperate the primary one as its influence pushes the carrier into taking their body above and beyond reasonable function in an attempt to carry on through feverish rivers of mucus, even though it is patently obvious to anyone the subject comes into contact with that the subject needs to go home for fear of turning the staffroom into a biohazard site (and not just because of those three cups that have been sat in the sink since last Christmas).

The Guilts effectively acts as a contributing factor to the spread of the primary illness and soon enough you have both the staff and student body looking like something out of the film Outbreak, just before Donald Sutherland decides to use an experimental air-bomb to level the whole area. Was that too specific a reference to a film that not many people watched? I can’t tell as I’m feeling a bit hot and can’t think straight.

Anyway, The Guilts is a nasty little bug that is very difficult (or sometimes impossible) to shift. But you know what else is difficult to shift? An illness, if you don’t properly take care of yourself. Soldiering on is all well and good, right up until you become the school equivalent of Typhoid Mary and waylay the whole building.

Now, I’m fully aware that there are places where it’s expected that you soldier on, no matter what colour slime is oozing out of you or which of your organs you’ve accidentally coughed up for the third time that day, but in my never-even-close-to-humble opinion schools are basically huge petri dishes designed to cultivate all manner of ickyness (and no, I’m not talking about the kids).

People will get ill. People do get ill. It’s of the utmost important that schools have a contingency plan for when it happens (hopefully one that doesn’t place an undue burden on remaining staff, and is rather more substantial than ‘don’t get ill’) and if they haven’t, well…perhaps they need their own dose of The Guilts

So I’ll feel a bit guilty about being off, but I’m not going to let it drive me into doing something that might scupper my chances of getting well. The Guilts will not get the better of me. I’ve got enough to put up with, trying to function whilst being the most ill person in history an’ all. Although I think I’ll see if I can make my own hot lemon next time; that’s how brave I am.

Thanks for reading.


Sit back, relax and read my newest column from http://www.teachsecondary.com. If you like it go subscribe by hitting the link. If you don’t, subscribe anyway because there’s good stuff in there. Also, you’re wrong – I’m fabulous. 



“Sir! Did you hear about Chelsea and Tariq getting together?”

Eeeeeeewwww. If there’s one thing that’s bound to make me a little bit sick in my mouth it’s when I’m witness to a fledgling classroom romance.

You’d think (schools being the grey, cold, soul-destruction factories that they are) any blossoming of the heart between the young people that attend would be instantly crushed like a jackboot stamping on a delicate rose.

Or, at least, I’d hope it would. Crush that puny flower, jackboot!

But no. Although the environment is less than optimal when it comes to the cultivation of romance (or whatever the Y11 equivalent of romance is nowadays – a snapchat that doesn’t include parts of your anatomy I guess) love often permeates the air along with the dozen or so different deodorants that slap you upside of the nostril as you amble down the corridors. When it comes to desire, hormones trump the cold shower of the school habitat any day of the week.

So, every now and again, the jungle drums beat out the news that Tall-Lad-with-Greasy-Hair has started going out with Smiley-Girl-Who-Puts-Stars-Instead-of-Dots-on-Her-‘I’s and every now and again some other fool kid makes the mistake of thinking that I’m remotely interested in this seemingly history-changing development. That’s bad enough as it is, but it’s not just the kids that love the drama – to make my working day all the more unbearable there is often office chatter as to the suitability of the match, what the ramifications may be for all concerned and other such minutiae as if it’s a royal wedding that’s on the cards rather than some illicit snogging between third and fourth lesson.

Like I said, ‘eeeeeeewwww’. Ew. Ew. Ew.

So when it comes to students declaring undying devotion to each other and then sealing the statement by slurping face, I’m extremely happy not to bear witness and be well out of the spittle zone. Chelsea and Tariq’s epic story of love overcoming the hurdles of overly slick hair and overly decorative letter formation is not, in my humble opinion, one for the ages. Or break time. Or any other time. Especially when I’m eating.

The problem is that it often gets dragged into my orbit regardless.

Shakespeare had it right with Romeo and Juliet. Oft misinterpreted by the kids as a love story, what he really gives us is the classic and timeless tale of a couple of teens who get infatuated with each other and then proceed, invariably, to act like a pair of complete dumbasses.

(Yes, I’m well aware that’s my own personal reading of the play, but it’s my column, so hush now.)

I am not fond of dealing with dumbassery. Students in romantic relationships often see that relationship as a ‘get out of dumbassery free’ card. Petty rules no longer apply to them as they mean nothing in comparison to the passion that they feel, that no-one has felt before in the history of the world etc etc. And that’s if everything stays on track – if there’s a messy break-up or some such then expect things to go absolutely pigging nuclear and in the resultant mushroom cloud of tears, facebook slating, and revenge trysts unimportant things like grade prospects and a civil classroom environment to be blown to dust.

I’m not without empathy. I remember the all-consuming desire and the delicious uncertainty in regards to matters of the heart (and other bits) at that age. The present moment as the only moment, the shift in priorities from a cold pencil to a warm hand. An electric touch which signalled forever.

But if any of that nonsense gets in the way of my teaching, I say down with love. Down with it. Time for the jackboots.

Or, as I tell them, at least keep the icky stuff as far away from my classroom as is humanly possible. We’ve stuff to do. And sucking face will only ever get you so far because sometimes, love stinks.

Or that might just be the deoderant.

Thanks for reading.


I was lucky enough to present at this year’s UKFEchat conference on the benefits of sabbaticals. Here’s the full script (I have to work from a full script, I don’t trust myself to not go completely off on one). It’s a tad rough but I thought I’d post it as soon as and I’ve whacked the accompanying slideshow in there as well. Thanks to everyone involved.

UKFEchat script – Sabbaticals

Thanks everyone – it seems, by all accounts, to have been a brilliant day so far and a lot of that is to do with you. You being here, your presence and your support of UKFEchat is, to me, a real sign of the sector trying to better itself at an authentic, grassroots level and I think you lot deserve a round of applause. So here’s to you

Now, they’ve gone and ruined all that good work by inviting me to come and give the grown-up equivalent of a ‘what I did on my holidays’ essay. You know, that one that you give students the first day back so they’re distracted as you silently weep for 9.00am get-ups and being able to go to toilet when you want. Y’know, those luxuries.  

Teaching’s hard. And like anything that’s hard that you end up doing for a prolonged period of time, it has an effect. After 8 years of working in FE, primarily at the rougher end of things (I teach English to vocational students therefore I’m not massively beloved. I also got a name for myself for being ‘good with behaviour’ so therefore my job title might as well be Reigning Thunderdome Champion) after 8 years I was shot through. I was tired, physically and emotionally wrung out. The relentless nature of the job (something, if I’m going to be honest, I formerly thrived on) had chipped away at me.

It’s not an uncommon story and yet, as a sector that struggles to recruit and retain staff, there seems to be very little thought as to how to ease certain pressures. On the contrary, ‘more for less’ seems to be the unofficial mantra due to necessity and many of us are taking on a greater workload than ever before. Now, I’m not daft, I came to FE after working in secondary and units and I didn’t enter the profession with blinkers as to what it would entail, it’s just that term after term had worn me down. I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting it.

So, I had to have a think. Which isn’t my favourite thing to do but needs must. I enjoy teaching. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not enamoured with it. I’m not part of that narrative that says you must passionately love it and want to get married to it and want to have it’s babies. I enjoy it – I think I have a certain talent for it (although if you were to ask the people I teach, they may give you a slightly different perspective.) But I enjoy it and I didn’t want to give it up.

Because that’s sometimes the stark choice in these situations. And people ARE making that choice to leave. Many people, who have been in the job for a while are being made to feel as though there is no choice but to leave. In many cases it’s a self preservation tactic and it’s a completely understandable reaction – I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about knocking it on the head completely myself.

But fortunately, thanks to a chat with a former colleague who’d already done a temporary bunk, I was introduced to the concept of (in the parlance of my college) a ‘career break’. Or sabbatical. Or ‘research leave’. But never, as my wife the good Dr Caroline Starkey has often reminded me, never a ‘year long jolly.’ And for me, it seemed like a really good fit.

Some things that you might want to consider before you go diving in.


Having answers to these quick questions is a good place to start if you’re thinking of going down the sabbatical route.


This is anthropologist Victor Turner whose work my wife pointed me towards yesterday. (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, THAT’S how prepared for this talk I am.) The reason she did this was that she saw parallels to what I experienced during my sabbatical and the liminality that Turner explored in his work. This quote discusses the liminal stage of the rite of passage with its three stages of separation, transition and reincorporation.

Because in taking a sabbatical I was cutting ties with my former community, but (importantly) not in a permanent fashion, I then entered the transitional (or liminal) phase where I was unsure of my status, my place away from the old structure. This could probably be best represented by the weird ass list of jobs I took during my career break.

[SLIDE] Quick discussion (and vid)

All over the shop. But varied. And fun. And bar that one there not teaching.

But after throwing off the shackles of my old world, and trying to negotiate the new, it was time for reincorporation. What kind of transformation had there been? And was there an effect on my teaching?


One of the things that working in a high pressure environment such as FE does is promote a very narrow focus. There’s so much going on right in front of us that it’s difficult to see the wider issues. The career break allowed me to indulge in a wide range of employment some of which meant that I was involved in the edtech industry. Seeing what goes on outside the classroom has been fascinating to me and has sparked my interest as to the use of edtech in college. In things like wider policy, in things like how education is viewed from the outside. These insights have been useful.

It has also meant that I join my vocational colleagues in teaching a subject that I have worked in. This is important in FE and is often a stick used to beat down more traditionally ‘academic’ areas. English isn’t just what I teach, it’s what I used to do for a living.

Here’s a strange one – learning that I can get on OK without teaching if needs be has, in many ways, made me a better teacher. I no longer feel beholden to nonsense for fear of losing my post. I speak up more when I think something’s not right. My confidence has increased.

Perhaps, most importantly, I feel rested. It has been a time of relative relaxation. Time I’ve been able to spend bringing up my children. Time I’ve used to cultivate my interests. I started to run (for those that new me before, this is something of a minor miracle). The time away has seen a dramatic improvement in my health – I lost three stone (the legacy of too many sugary treats during meetings rather than eating propery) and my mind, where formerly filled with noise is now quiet.

For me, the sabbatical has represented the chance to step away from a high pressure job and reflect, and to some extent, heal. On my return I am calmer, more aware, and more willing to try new things in the classroom whilst having less tolerance for the things that are sub-par.

As I said at the start, teaching is hard. Perhaps the widespread take-up of sabbaticals for FE staff could go some way to making it less so.

Thanks for listening.


This one is for the good people at http://www.teachsecondary.com who lost a game of poker with me a couple of years back and have to keep putting me in their mag until they’ve cleared their debt. Click the link to subscribe (as it’s actually a pretty damn good read – even the other bits).

PS – I’d just like to point out the fella in the pic at the bottom there isn’t me. 

Not nearly sweaty enough.


Teaching is a stupidly difficult undertaking, so when you’re doing it, it’s probably a good idea to play to your strengths. There are as many different teaching styles out there as there are teachers so working in a way that’s effective and not crushingly grinding is a pretty good option.  

Having said that, it takes a while to figure out what those strengths are. When you’re first dropped into the classroom (without so much as a fully weaponised exo-suit with shoulder-mounted laser-guided missile) it often takes all your effort not to run screaming out of the gates, let alone start on a journey of self-discovery where you work out what works for you. Usually, your head is swimming with so much differing advice from all quarters about how you should teach – a thousand books, countless opinions (some of them from actual people who’ve been in the classroom nonetheless) – that forging your own style takes time. Years even.

But, eventually, the pieces fall into place. It starts to become apparent what parts of your personality are a benefit when you’re stood in front of a class. There are things you discover that you have a natural affinity for and you utilise them to enhance your teaching. For instance, you have a half decent sense of humour so you put it to work making the kids laugh and in doing so find that they are more willing to try for you. Or you’re uber-organised, so that organisation manifests itself in plotting and recording (in a fabulous colour coded scheme) the progress of your students, and they respond to this as they are confident in where they are and what they need to do to improve. Or you’re a little bit scary, so you scare them into doing what you need them to do.

(That last one’s my personal favourite. That and letting people think that I’ve finished talking and then hitting them with a ‘but’ so I can go on another half an hour or so. They love that.)

Teaching is a crazily gruelling undertaking, so when it becomes apparent that there are things in your arsenal that make it easier, parts of your personality that kids respond to, or a way of working that feels natural and makes your day go that bit easier you should use it.

Hang on…

Wait for it…


There is a danger that the things we rely upon (our teaching strengths as it were) become something that we depend upon, to the detriment of any other techniques that we could be using, and here’s the big problem with that:

Sometimes the things we depend upon just don’t work.

The funny teacher finds that all of her a-grade material is falling flat with the Y9s and they’re beginning to turn on her. The uber-organiser finds that no matter how many colours he uses, the progress of his ICT group is painfully slow. The scary teacher comes across someone who is scarier. They are 12 years old. And there’s 32 of them.

It’s all well and good to play to your strengths – they are something that make up your own individual style and set you apart from every other teacher out there. But you also need something to fall back on when your strengths turn into anything but. The comedian has to be able to become the badass; the organiser needs to be able to ride the chaos; the fear-monger needs to be able to break into a smile, all situation dependent. It’s not enough to rest on the laurels of our natural attributes (although they’ll get you through most of the time). You’ve got to spend a little time and effort cultivating the things that aren’t part of your repertoire because there will be times when your natural way of working goes down like a ton of bricks that are then picked up by the kids and thrown at you for being rubbish.

Teaching is an insanely punishing undertaking and it’s ok to use the things that you are naturally good at to make you more effective. But every once in awhile, it might be an idea think about trying to improve some of the techniques that wouldn’t be your first choice (or your second). Because it’s unpredictable this teaching lark. So the more back-up, the better.

Thanks for reading.