Sabbaticals

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.


[SLIDE]


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


[SLIDE]


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?


[SLIDE]


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.















Strengths

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.

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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…

BUT

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.

Relationships

This is another one for http://www.teachsecondary.com. For more of me and some other things that may actually be of benefit, click the link to subscribe. 

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When a kid takes it upon themself to choose to act like an utter tool in one of my classes (and yes, I say ‘choose’ as anyone who thinks kids can’t choose to behave in the vast majority of cases doesn’t give them any kind of respect, at all, or hasn’t met enough of them) I often take the hugely innovative step of pointing out to said kid that their behaviour is making them appear to be very much like someone who closely resembles an utter tool.

A lot of the time, this action is met with utter disbelief and leads to many a protestation on behalf of the young person whose impression of an utter tool is massively convincing but apparently in no way linked to them being an actual utter tool. And anyway I have no license to make such an observation anyway as I am not allowed to point out to the young person doing a completely fabulous impression of an utter tool that they have decided to do a completely fabulous impression of an utter tool as utter tool identification is covered in subsection 14.7 of the Human Rights Act that states:

‘Children have every right to act like an utter tool and not get called up on it because that’s against their human rights or something.’

The breaking of this central facet invariably leads to threats of report to my SLT, the alleged utter tool’s parents, the appropriate authorities and various local media outlets. To this, I have a bit of a chuckle, state that I care not a jot about the aforementioned threats as I myself am, in actual fact, a complete and utter tool.

And it takes one to know one.

Now, I don’t spend every hour that I teach pointing out the various failings of the kids that are unlucky enough to be faced by the horrendous prospect of an hour two in my company (although, having just written that down, it kind of sounds like my ideal job, so if you’ve got something going like that at yours, drop me a line) but I’ve also never been one to lie to children, even if that sometimes seems to be what is expected.

I hear ‘building relationships’ bandied about in reference to teaching a fair old bit. It’s the key to everything apparently. Any problem you ever encounter in the classroom can be overcome if you’ve spent enough time building relationships, as if human interaction is akin to completing the construction of a set of drawers from Ikea. (No, actually, I realise that’s often impossibly hard you get what I mean). I’m all for making sure the oak-veneered MALM of relationships is solid, but the thing is, when people say you need to build good relationships with kids, what that often means in practice is placating them at all costs. ‘Build the relationship’ becomes ‘keep them happy’ as if that’s the only desirable outcome of any relationship. I’ve been in relationships like that. They suck.

So forgive me as I morph into a tabloid agony aunt for a second but, for me, a real relationship needs a couple of central things: mutual respect and honesty. The last one being absolutely crucial.

The problem is that being honest and making someone happy doesn’t always go hand in hand. Sometimes, to build a relationship of any type of worth, you have to be prepared to say things that people don’t want to hear, things that might make them angry, or shock them, or hopefully help them figure out that what they’re doing is completely and utterly tool-like. Because if they don’t hear it from someone in authority like your good selves,they might get it into their heads that some of the unthinkably awful things they’re doing are OK. And if that keeps happening, well, there’s definitely going to be a lesson learned, and if I’m being honest (see what I did there?) it’s not a good one.

So, when Harry kicks the chair out from under someone and then laughs at them or Simone indulges in a bit of casual in-school cyberbullying at break times and I find out about it, I hope our relationship is strong enough to withstand me making it damn clear how awful they’re being. Because that’s what I’ll be doing. And if that means our mutual relationship Malm gets a bit wobbly for a while, then so be it.

Relationships are fine, but they have to be healthy and productive and honest.

And completely and utterly un-tool like.

Thanks for reading.  

Duties

From the good people at http://www.teachsecondary.com, straight into your eyeballs. Subscribe by clicking the link or the keyboard gets it.

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It funny what sticks isn’t it? There are some things that (for reasons unbeknownst to this humble writer) have lodged themselves firmly in the recesses of my mind, never to be lost or forgotten. There’s a fair bit of William Blake’s poetry in there jostling for position with which pipes you can go down to collect some coins in Super Mario Bros and an extended and exhaustive list of early 80s horror movie runtimes – y’know, really useful stuff that has limitless practical application in everyday life.

And yet, could I ever keep my duty day straight in my head from one week to the next? Could I ever pluck it from the distant deeps of my memory before the point where an irate member of SLT came bursting in just as I had my feet up to enjoy my post-lesson Curly Wurly looking almost purposefully relaxed and nonchalant just to rub it in?

Of course I couldn’t. I mean, that stuff’s actually useful. My brain has no time for that there useful stuff.

There’s no sprint faster than a missed duty sprint. You fly. But as fast as you go there’s still no gold medal waiting for you once you’ve passed the finish line, unless you count a huge sense of guilt and some choice eye-rolling as something of a prize. I don’t. For me a real prize is a bunch of gold coins that can be found in the 4th pipe just before the invisible 1UP block on level 1-1)

It’s those kind of mistakes that, if they’re repeated, can get you a name in a school. It’s not a complimentary one like ‘Hotlips’ or something like that either. People notice the people that miss their duty day. A mark is made (probably in some medieval tome fashioned in human flesh and inked in blood like in The Evil Dead which is 85 minutes long, in case you’re wondering) and the ink doesn’t tend to come off that easily.

Because missing a duty, whether it be break or dinner or bus (which is my personal favourite as there’s nothing quite like making sure the kids are all stowed away properly on what could best be described as a doubledecker pirate ship on wheels) means that someone else has to take up your slack. And just because you’ve got a mental blind spot doesn’t mean that someone else won’t have to get out there on your behalf and start chucking kids into waiting transports like so much luggage. That person might have had a seriously bad day and then it’s topped off by standing out in the rain because Mr Curley Wurley can’t get his act together and actually write down the day when he’s supposed to be hurling children onto the good ship Lynx and Red Bull.

I learnt quite quickly that excuses such as ‘my brain is too full of other things’ don’t really cut it. You’ve got to do your part or you end up leaving others in the lurch and in a job that’s quite difficult-enough-as-it-is-thank-you-very-much, that’s something nobody needs. Everyone works hard and if someone has to work that extra bit harder due to someone else not pulling their weight it can really sting. A dropped duty may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things but in the world of the school, it can signify is a lack of respect for the time and efforts of your colleagues and that shirking of responsibility looms large.

Sometimes you’ve just got to put down the Curlew Wurley, pick up a planner and make sure you’ve got your duty days there before you leave on a Friday. Blake and Mario and gore-laden chainsaws are all well and good but sometimes making a little head room for the really important stuff; the stuff that means that you’ll never get a name for yourself as someone who doesn’t really care about whether their colleagues end up doing someone else’s work because you always turns up for your afternoon of press-ganging Year 7 onto the Jolly Discarded Crisp Wrapper and you take you duty to do your duties seriously.

Thanks for reading.

 

  

     

 

 

Support

This is another for http://www.teachsecondary.com – a magazine that features some great stuff on the subject of secondary teaching. In this issue there are people who aren’t me for some reason so that’s an added bonus on what is an already sweet deal. Click on the link to subscribe.

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“I need some help.”

It’s a variation of a statement uttered countless times in the classroom. Some hands shoot up like rockets, confident that all will become clear if they only make their problem known. Others snake up, then back down, then up again –  unsure as to the validity of their question, their position, themselves.

And we go to them (unless it’s Devon. Devon’s got that smirk on his face that he gets when he’s figured out how to phrase a question in such a way as to turn it into a particularly disgusting double entendre, so you’re now tactically ignoring him as to not give him the satisfaction). We go to them because it’s our job and we can help. We want them to do their best and we can go some part way to guiding them. And (let’s not beat around the bush here) there is a kick to be had by sending these kids on their way to the fabled land of understanding. It would be a pretty awful teacher who ignored these requests for a bit of assistance.

(unless it’s Devon. C’mon Devon, seriously kid, pack it in. Ugh.)

And yet, when teachers are struggling and make the step of asking for a little bit of support themselves, the response can be a tad less, well…responsive. Workload where the load is just too much work, behaviour that is anything but and numerous other pressures often befall us. It’s difficult enough to ask for help in these situations as something about the job means that such a request can be extremely painful to make. We often internalise the problems we encounter and view them as indicators of weakness and failure in ourselves rather than the systems that we find ourselves in (this, sadly, can be further reinforced by the weird concept still held dear by many that children are mere programmable puppets and if we pull the correct strings, we can make them dance, sing, and leave the greater influences of their home lives behind them with a swift tug).

Basically, it can take a lot for us to put our hands up. And even if we get over that initial hurdle there’s no guarantee that help will be forthcoming. Unrealistic expectations of what a teacher can do in the hours they have in school (and out school), a blame culture that shifts an obviously institutional problem on to the individual, a reliance on goodwill to paper over the cracks that are so readily apparent, a blind adherence to systems that disregard the reality of a situation, and (let’s continue to be honest here as I’m in full-on rant mode) a tendency for us teachers to put up with things that we really shouldn’t be putting up with for the good of the kids (whatever that means); all these elements combine in an unholy smokescreen of excuses as to why we should just shut up, think ourselves lucky and get the hell on with it.

We wouldn’t do that to the kids (OK, I would probably do that to Devon, but honestly, it’s sheer filth that comes out of his mouth most times) and yet, for the reasons listed and more, it’s often the case that we put up with it ourselves. That it’s expected we put up with it.

And we so often do. Right up until the point where we can’t anymore.

I’m not saying this is everywhere. There are places that readily accept the responsibility and importance of giving support to their staff, of valuing those who work with children and thereby valuing the children themselves. There are places where those who are struggling are able to tell others, safe in the knowledge that they will be listened to, judgement will be minimal and help will be forthcoming. Places where hard work has gone into shaping the culture and ethos that allow and even encourage staff to put their hand up. As it should be.

Perhaps we need to start treating this type of workplace as an expectation ourselves; as something that is taken for granted and, if it is amiss, something that gives us serious pause for thought as to what is going on and whether we want to be part of it.

When they put their hands up, they expect to be helped. Why not the same for us?

(Shut up, Devon.)

Thanks for reading.

Kids

This is another one for my regular column at http://www.teachsecondary.com. It’s a beautiful, glossy publication that features a load of good stuff to do with school which is then sullied by my nonsense at the back. Click the link to subscribe.

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It’s all about the kids isn’t it? Those bright-eyed vessels of potential – it’s such an honour to be around them every working day. Such wonderful lights in this dull world with their hopes and dreams and questions and demands and incessant chatter and hormones and phones and drama. Every…single…working…day.

It might seem odd given my chosen profession that, at certain points, I want nothing more than a break from the wee little tie-wearing cyclones. But I do. And I don’t just mean evenings, weekends or holidays (blessed be the holidays, amen). I mean during the day when I’m at work.

Gasp away comrades.

Is this the long-searched-for proof that actually, deep down, I hate children? Well, only a little bit. And only sometimes. As much as I understand that they are the reason for the job and should be the main focus they are also highly adept at doing my nut on a fairly frequent basis. (They also make me feel a whole range of other emotions like joy and surprise and love but don’t get me wrong, nut-doing is way up there). So no, I don’t want to spend every single second I have after I step through the school gates in their company. This attitude has often been considered strange by many of my colleagues, and something of a worry to a number of managers that I’ve had (who, I’m pretty certain, get the ‘doing my nut’ feeling themselves when I come barging into their office).

For instance, at a former school, staff were encouraged to eat lunch with the students to promote a feeling of community and build relationships and some other stuff that meant I’d have to be in front of kids for an extra hour out of my day, instead of hoovering up my lunchtime cream of chicken soup like some faulty Dyson in a dark secluded spot somewhere as was my preference. I refused on the grounds that there would not be much community feeling or relationship building when I made the kids I sat with eat in silence and avoid all eye contact with me because that would be the only way that I’d do it (unless they could sort out one of those partitions you get if you’re a witness who can’t be identified in court). Many in the briefing where the scheme was suggested thought that this was a rather curmudgeonly attitude to take and they were 100% absolutely correct. But better a little surliness now than the full-blown, eye-popping rage that would have been witnessed if I didn’t have a very small piece of time to myself or exclusively with other adults at some point in the day.

For although we work with kids and for kids, it doesn’t mean I want kids all up in my grill 24/7. There’s an energy that crackles off people of a certain age  – it’s one of the things that makes working in a school unique, but it can also be exhausting. I watch them sometimes and to me it’s like their lives are amplified, the good and the bad of it is cranked up to the nth degree. I find this simultaneously appealing but also sapping – the immediacy of all, the ever present action, a depth of feeling over minor details. It’s affirming, but it’s also very tiring. You need a break from it to recharge and not be swept away by the glorious madness.

Whether it be a silent minute alone, staring out of the window as you wait for Y10s to come in or a laugh at break time with your colleagues or even a lunchtime of solitude sat noisily slurping soup, you’re allowed to have a little something away from them. A little time off the shop floor to gather your wits before once again rushing headlong into hopes and dreams and questions and demands etc.

And, to be fair, the poor kids might need a break from us too.

Thanks for reading.

Management

This is one from http://www.teachsecondary.com. Follow the link to subscribe for some quality features on secondary school. Tell them I sent you and you’ll receive absolutely no discount whatsoever but it’ll make me look super popular. 

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Management has always seemed like another country to me – an exotic one with extremely changeable weather. It has its own language and customs that I’ve never been able to properly translate (no matter how hard I stare at the guidebook or gesticulate wildly.) This may very well be why I’ve never held a management position. It’s that or the ‘lack of anything vaguely resembling ambition, drive, or a shirt that is free from coffee spillage’ according to my last appraisal.  

Either way, career progression in schools is a strange beast. A vast majority of the time if you want to go up that ladder, you have to leave teaching behind to some extent. It’s a trade-off that has ultimately always left me cold. For all it’s faults (30-odd uniform-wearing ones usually HAHA! I’m joking obviously, ((it’s usually around ten)) the classroom is where I feel most comfortable when I’m teaching and leaving it for more admin and meetings would make me miserable as sin.  But then again, comfort isn’t everything. For although I wield absolute power within my kingdom like some insanely petty tinpot dictator, the kingdom I rule is very, very, small.

Yes you can shape, mold, knead and wedgie the lives of the group of young people in front of you and it’s a noble endeavour by anyone’s standards, but there is the wider world out there, and beyond the borders of the classroom chalkface voices are often lost. Schools are very much hierarchical institutions where position within that structure often trumps the value of an idea. Unless you work in one where steps are taken to make sure that all members off staff have an opportunity for input that will be considered and actioned if it’s of benefit (and if you do, hold onto that place tight with both hands as they are rarer than a clean mug come break time) then any bright scheme you might have for making things better has a chance of abject failure. To achieve maximum effect, you have to try to attain a higher level within the structure, thereby leaving behind the things that may be what makes the job special to you.

It’s a tough, extremely daft choice.

A system set-up in such a way that to do the most good in teaching you have to teach less? Slow hand-clap on that one.Yep, very special that is. Couple that with a lack of alternative progression options that allow you to stay in the classroom, and what you’ve got is a straightjacket of career advancement. But something I’ve come to realise is that if you want to affect change that reaches further, best get measured up for something slinky in really long sleeves and brass buckles.

It’s not ideal. In many ways it’s a path of constriction that relies on an outmoded structure. I’d prefer valid, valued alternative routes that imbue a teacher with equivalent status to management (the money would be good too). I’d prefer it that those who decide to stay in the classroom weren’t seen as being lacking in something. However, I suspect that that would take a culture-shift of fairly gigantic proportions and I don’t think we’re going to see something like that any time soon.

Although I’ve always been hesitant to the prospect of moving out of the classroom perhaps I was wrong. I don’t want to leave the kids behind to enter a strange world of action plans, minutes and walking purposefully down corridors but then again if I don’t I might not be able to do anything about the wider problems I see in front of me. Is that the way it should be? No, I don’t think it is. But that’s the reality.

Perhaps I can study the guidebook a little more closely – try to figure out what the natives are doing with those spreadsheets on their ipads. And I could really do with getting a new shirt.

Thanks for reading.