Teaching and Learning in schools when lockdown is over

As someone who oversees Teaching and Learning at work, I have been thinking a lot about what to do once kids return back to school. I can’t wait to have them back and miss my pupils dearly, but also know that school closure during this time of year will pose a series of challenges. I know it’s difficult to predict when the lockdown will end but rumours of schools opening up again are popping up in the media and it’s something that requires thought.

Next week I will be holding a Microsoft Teams meeting with my wonderful Middle Leaders (again, who I miss very much!) about how we get ready for those challenges.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I may suggest, I’ve read blogs, asked the wonderful folks on twitter and looked for inspiration. The realisation I have come to is although the situation is unique we don’t actually need to do anything new. I’m a big advocate for embedding things well rather than jumping from one strategy to the other so here’s the advice I’ll be providing my Middle Leaders next week

Challenges per year groups:

We need to accept to that the challenges per year group will vary. For example, depending on when we reopen, Year 6s orthe new Year 7s for Secondary schools will not have been prepped for their SATs. This final push often makes students more confident with reading comprehension and Maths. As a secondary Vice Principal I will be reaching out to the Primary schools in our area to see what we can do to make this transition smoother as it will impact subjects such as Maths and English but also History where we ask students to make inferences and arguments.

For year 10 the challenge will be covering the content in time for the GCSE. The kindest thing the exam boards could do is allow students to pick option questions in the final exam paper, so if they have not covered a topic at the end of year 10 because of the closure they can focus on the others, but I’ve not heard any whispers of this happening therefore we may just need to plough through the content as quick as possible.

Teachers need to ensure they are familiar with these nuances and the challenges to each year group so that where possible they can address these issues. On that note, we need to recognise that all students will be out of school routines, so this will be a big push for us when we get back.

Its’ not all bad

I’m also not a big one for doom and gloom. Yes we will face challenges and yes the chances are that those from the most deprived homes will have a very different experience from others. However, we have to recognise that it will be a mixed picture. Yes kids will have been out of a routine and engaged to different levels with home learning materials but they are also likely to be rested, have possibly watched a documentary on TV that can be explored, read beyond the syllabus, gone for walks and we have to make the most of that and explore it. Many of our children will be excited about learning with staff again and crave routine and structure (even if they don’t admit it) so a return to school will be exciting for them. Again we have to make the most of that.

Lots of low stakes testing

Kids will be nervous, we know they have an acute understanding of how they are performing compared to their peers and what I don’t want is for the kids to come back to a barrage of tests. We know a child who has had limited access to home learning will be nervous returning to the classroom. I have asked my teachers to be mindful of language when completing low stakes testing. For example, rather than saying ‘let’s see what you’ve learnt’, saying ‘seeing as we haven’t done as much online learning before let’s see what the resources taught you and then we can fill in the gaps’ or ‘lets see what you thought of the resources and what I need to add to them to make things stick by doing a quick question round.’ This takes the pressure off and opens the classroom up for exploring where the gaps in knowledge have occurred.

If you’re anything like me I can get into a rut where I like certain activities and do them repeatedly. In the Middle Leaders session next week me and the HODs will be exploring different ways of completing low stakes testing such as Do it now tasks, Connect 3 (where students have to get across a noughts and crosses style grid by answering three Qs with varying levels of difficulty), Quizzes and others to ensure students don’t come back to a diet of 10 Multiple Choice tests every lesson.

Keep using the tech

I’m not sure about you but we have not used the technology we are currently using during lock down so rigorously. I will be urging staff to continue doing so in order to fill gaps in knowledge. This may be by uploading materials to enhance knowledge based on needs identified in class or by setting the quizzes online as homework to then pitch lessons appropriately. On the plus side even the most tech nervous of my teachers are now embracing the systems we have set up so students can expect consistency in approach (like I said silver lining and all that!)

Teach to the top

We must continue to be aspirational for our young people. I really believe this. I honestly believe our children are resilient and will thrive at the other end of this with the right attitude and support. In this paper Hattie argues that school closures will have a relatively minimal impact, but the real impact will come from home resources.  As teachers we know this.

To me this requires teaching to the top and ensuring we have careful scaffolding for our children. What do I mean by teaching to the top? Ensuring students have the same stimulus but adapting the way they may approach it. Some of the strategies we already use in school but will become ever more important are:

Posing a big question at the start of the lesson that helps tie some disparate parts of the content together. A challenging question that you keep coming back to and which students feel they have chipped away at together throughout it.

Best of three (particularly for year 10 if we need to get through content swiftly but want to develop deep understanding). This is where three sample answers to a big question are given to students (grade 9/5/3 for example) and depending on their confidence with the topic they are asked to discuss the pros and cons of one of them and then as a group compare the answers.

Role reversal asking students to explain elements of the content being covered to quickly understand their level of comprehension through a series of follow up questions.

The two things that tie all of these strategies are cold calling and strong knowledge organisers. These help us gauge where students are at in their learning. I think these will be incredibly powerful tools when we return.

You will notice none of these techniques are new or revolutionary, none of them require me to retrain staff, but I think they need to be done incredibly well and need focus when our students return. I believe that the work teachers do day in day out with students is incredible and that we must continue to do these well rather than adopt a range of new strategies out of fear.

The School we return to

The school we return to will be different post COVID-19 and it’s up to all of us to ensure it’s for the better.

Isolation has given me some rare opportunities to stare out of the window and wonder. Wonder what school will be like when we return. Wonder what I want to return back to. How will COVID-19 impact the culture of the school? And what culture do we need to adopt in order to nurture our students going forward.

When googling ‘school culture’ I was quite surprised to see that a lot of the definitions related it to the culture among staff, rather than students. Having worked at 5 schools I can honestly say not in a single one did the student and staff culture not mirror each other exactly. Test it yourself, what is your school culture? Is it only demonstrated by your staff or also by your students?

One of the definitions I loved most is by Anthony Muhammed where he defines school culture as ‘the environment needed to cultivate the characteristics necessary for student growth and learning.’ I would add to this to include not only student growth but staff too.

I recently tweeted (@secretVP ) asking people to share their thoughts about school culture. It’s beautiful so see the steps heads have taken to develop a strong and positive school culture. The beauty of the twitter community came to the fore as colleagues recommended peoples blogs or even schools where they had witnessed a wonderful culture.* Yet, however positive the cultural norm at our schools we will return back to a slightly different landscape and one we have not faced before. So here are the key tenants of the school I want to return back and build.

Being kind and showing value

I hope with every core of my being that we all come out of this experience as more kind.

Being kind means that we value the other, and to me that is golden. Being kind means we take responsibility for our behavior because at every stage we have the option to be anything less than kind. Showing kindness means showing power. A kind act in the right place changes the course of actions to come.

What does this look like in practice when we get back to school?

For staff

I hope every senior leader in the country takes the time to commend their staff and how they have embraced the challenge of COVID-19. I know in our school we found ourselves changing from a face to face institution to one entirely online within three days. This is no small feat and it certainly isn’t possible without staff buy in.

I can’t wait to get back and tell staff how incredibly proud I am to be part of a staff body that has embraced change when it mattered the most, that have adapted in difficult circumstances. That have shown kindness towards each other covering each other on the face to face rota system when we needed to get things done.

This is why I find it both shocking and embarrassing when I hear stories of leaders asking their staff to fill in time sheets or all staff to come into school so numbers of teacher outweigh that of students because I believe kindness will get you so much further ahead than the desire to control will. It’s how we show our staff we value them. At the school I am currently at we have operated a completely voluntary system of face to face provision and not one person has let us down.

And here’s the thing about kindness, you don’t get to do it part time. You don’t get to be kind to a few, show them how valuable they are and call yourself kind. I’ve seen many leaders have favourites over the years and I’m sure I have subconsciously had some myself. But being kind is not an opt in opt out choice and I hope when we get back we reach out to the quieter ones, even the disengaged.

One of my favorite activities at school has become the Fuddle. Every Friday before a half term we now have a fuddle. Food has been a big part of my life. My mother is an incredible cook and to share food is to say I want to sit with you and talk about what’s on your mind because I value you. Further, staff show how much they value each other by cooking for each other. It also gives us an excuse to eat cupcakes for breakfast 😉 I hope to be having a lot more of those soon.

Every teaching member of staff I know is short on time. To give your time is the greatest gift in education. And I hope as our staff return, with stories of what they have experienced during this lockdown, we take the time to be kind, to listen and to show how much they mean to us.

For our students

This is going to be incredibly important. Many people have already spoken about the need to support students who may have lost someone during this time or experienced trauma whilst away from school.

On a more subtle level we know that students’ access and engagement to online resources will vary. We know some will have engaged more than others. We know some will have grasped more than others. And as teaching professionals not only is it important to show kindness to those students who will undoubtedly be left behind but also foster a climate of kindness in our classrooms so that we can support those struggling. I know that many of my higher ability students can sometimes be quite impatient with those who are struggling to grasp a concept and although I need to make sure I am planning for them when we return I also need to ensure they are kind to their peers.

How do we show our children kindness and that they are valued when they return? I hope that we take a moment not to ask our kids how much they got done but how they were kind to those who needed it. Whether it be by face timing their grandparents because they couldn’t visit, babysitting siblings, baking cakes etc..

Resilience

When we get back we will be in unchartered territory and will need resilience to get us through. We have all shown resilience in bucket loads recently but I think this is something that will be tested once again when we get back to school. We will find ourselves in a situation where we are in front of children who have not been in a school routine for possibly 4 months. This is not only likely to test the resilience of teachers but also our students.

For the teachers, getting students back into school habits is likely to be a challenge, we will need to be resilient as we figure out ways to ensure that all of our kids, with various levels of engagement with home learning are on the same page. We will need to be resilient as we battle with the challenges of teaching the national curriculum on what is less time in the classroom.

I breath a sigh of relief that I have built a culture of honesty in middle leaders meetings over the past year, where we not only share our successes but our failures and ask each other for help, because middle leaders will need to be collaborative in their approach to bridge the learning gap and resilient as they figure out their approach to each year group.

Students too will be required to be resilient. How do we build the resilience of the child who knows they haven’t been able to access the work at home, either because they just didn’t get it without you there, were babysitting siblings or any other reason? I have spent the past year trying to get rid of the fear my students feel when it comes to any form of testing and I know that a big part of our return will need to be lots of low stakes testing to see how much they remember, know etc… I know this work will need to continue as we move forward.

Reestablishing routines is another challenge staff will face. Caroline Spalding (@MrsSpalding) speaks extensively about this and building in quick wins to motivate students to want to follow those routines. This links to the social ties we have built with our students and how they will need to be reestablished once we return. The trust we built with those difficult to reach students will be tested or need to be reestablished.

Some students will have been resilient in ways we can’t imagine and we will be expecting more of that in the classroom. Therefore, we need to take the time to think about how we will celebrate their first day/lesson back? What will we want to reiterate, establish and celebrate? I can’t wait to tell them how much I have missed them and how I can’t wait to get back on the journey of exploring history with them.

Honesty and open mindedness

A common saying I use with my students is ‘Let’s reach for the stars at the very worse we might hit the ceiling.’ I want my students to know they are limitless. But the other part of the coin is being exceptionally brave and honest about where they currently are.

For staff this means admitting that we are facing new circumstances, not one of us has all the answers but collectively we will have suggestions we can test. What we can’t do is get tied down to any of these ideas at the risk of seeing what works.

Honesty to admit when we are stuck, losing some students or just plain tired and the open mindedness to try something different will be paramount in our ability to adapt to the new landscape we return to. Senior Leaders should encourage it, model it and nurture it.

With students I intend to get inquisitive and try and take the pressure off. Rather than say ‘I wonder how much you learnt’ I will be asking them to let me know how effective the online resources were at teaching them X and checking that. Taking the pressure off of them and allowing them to be honest about how much they do or do not know/remember. Again, the wonderful Caroline Spalding talks about the effectiveness of self-testing here to remove embarrassment and give students a quick review of how they are doing so they can move forward.

Needless to say there will be a whole host of other skills teachers will soon be asked to pull on but we only have to look online at twitter for a few seconds to the level of commitment this group of wonderful individuals has demonstrated over the past few weeks and there is no doubt they are up for the challenge.

*a particular shout out to Chris Foley @HT_StMonicas and Mark Chatley @MrMChatley

The 10% Braver Multiplier Effect

Just over a year ago I went to my first WomenEd Unconference. I was nervous, I knew no one in the community and I didn’t quite know what I was doing there, going for, or looking for. I met a wonderful community of women and men who were just interested in the female perspective. But the one message that stood out above all else was the call to all attending or viewing online to be 10% Braver.

I carried that message home with me and rather than looking at all the things I wanted to do, I took the decision to spend some time thinking about where I had not been showing up. I have climbed up the career ladder in education fairly quickly so to speak, and deep down I know I thought I didn’t deserve to be there, in the Leadership meetings, presenting at Board level, none of it. Deep down I believed I hadn’t earned the stripes so therefore didn’t speak up in an authentic way, scared to be found out or busted. Not immediately, but eventually I worked on myself to ensure I did show up to work as my authentic self this meant I wouldn’t tolerate the bullying that sometimes went on in leadership meetings no matter how subtle, that I would entertain alternative points of view even if they were ridiculed because to entertain them, that was what mattered. To weigh up the credibility of ideas not natural to us is what makes us rational humans. I had frank conversations with my managers about what I needed and what I felt was missing to take the school to a better place.

Eventually I left my place of work and was brave enough to apply for a promotion at a new school as a Vice Principal and got it. But this isn’t about my successes through being brave but what it has allowed me to pass on. Because by showing up, whole, flaws and all, I have allowed others to do the same including, and I believe most importantly, my students.

This is why I thought it was important to tell them I was going for a VP interview before I did, no matter what the outcome. That one act meant I had a Year 13 student knock on my door with the usual prologue that women use before they dare ‘I know this is stupid but….’ She was entertaining the idea of applying for an apprenticeship at Google something she thought was completely out of her reach. I encouraged her to go ahead anyway. Do it anyway. Dream it anyway. I’m am pleased to say she is in London right now as a Google Apprentice.

One of my favourite acts of courage by my class was with a Year 13 group as we approached their final exams. I asked them all to be honest and share a concept /model or word they didn’t still didn’t understand. As a result, one of my students said he had heard the term ‘Vice Versa’ throughout his education but had never known what the teachers meant. I’m proud to say that we all whooped for his bravery and I explained it to him. This led to other brave acts in the classroom. Quiet students making goodbye speeches at the end of the year in our final lesson. Students pushing to have their work shared with and critiqued by others in class.

Being braver (and reading a lot of books, thank you Brene Brown and Chase Jarvis!) has allowed me to encourage others to be brave too. Writing a blog has allowed me to encourage students with particular interests to start their own YouTube channels and not hide their light. Prepping for my book has allowed me to encourage my niece to pursue her dream as a writer.

I am by no means insinuating that I deserve any credit for the brave acts of the lovely young people I work with. What I am saying is courage breeds courage. Whether we want to accept the mantel or not, we are role models for our students. Our brave selves give them the courage to shine in all their glory also.

And the more whole and gutsy women and men we have, the better I say.

Curriculum Design 2 (Mary Myatt)

When I say Mary Myatts book ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence’ made me fall in love with curriculum design, I am making an understatement. As Tom Sherrington says in the forward ‘Mary Myatt knows how to hook you in and get you thinking.’ The chapters are concise and straight to the point and it’s probably the only book in which I have paid as much attention to the footnotes (in which she provides a wealth of resources) as I did to the main words in the chapters of the book.

Areas of the book that particularly stood out for me and influenced the way we shape our curriculum at the Secondary school I am currently at are:

Curriculum coherence – which along with Summer Turners book ‘Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design’ (mentioned in the previous blog) sparked interesting Leadership conversations about the curriculum model we were offering as a whole school. In this chapter, Mary stresses how we are ‘pattern seeking individuals’ and therefore the curriculum needs to tell a story. Each one of our middle leaders has spent a considerable amount of time identifying this story, its key themes and threads that run throughout it and are trying to communicate it to the students. What has surprised me, certainly in history which I teach, is how quickly students from year 7 – 11 have caught onto this, understanding what they need to learn now and how it will connect to what they learn in the future.

Cognitive science – Linked to the above Mary highlights ‘curriculum is content structured as narrative over time.’ This had a huge impact on myself and the middle leaders I have worked with. How do we communicate this narrative to students? It has been interesting to see what teachers are doing. Some have it on their first slide. Others have a big sign on their board saying ‘Why are we learning this?’ which reminds them to start each lesson with a conversation about how the lesson fits into the whole to help chunk information. With it, has come the realisation that this is not something you ‘do’ but something we ‘we will do always.’

Chapters on Curriculum products and Beautiful Work place the emphasis firmly on what the student is doing which is often surprisingly forgotten when middle leaders have their heads down in planning. This shaped our observation forms in which we write not only to look at what the teacher does but what students do. Interestingly, this was particularly helpful when working with teachers who give their all in the lesson but often end up ‘carrying’ it, to help these staff shift some of that responsibility onto the students.

As a Vice principal the section on Leadership has provided with me no end of food for thought about how I structure CPD and give all staff time to understand the finer nuances of their curriculum, as well as how we go about communicating this curriculum journey to department members and students. You are a leader if you find yourself in the front of the classroom so I suggest everyone read this.

Sections on Etymology, Speaking and Writing – have influenced our Knowledge Organisers which we are using this time in lock down to redesign with curriculum journeys in mind. This has also influenced out Literacy programme and our quick low stakes tests which emphasise language.

I could go on forever, this book has nuggets of cold scattered throughout it which are communicated simply but beautifully. Some of the above may seem obvious now as we are bombarded with information about curriculum design but two years ago when I was stepping into a new role it was the simplicity with which curriculum design was explained and how it linked to every aspect to the school, which attracted me to this book. I would thoroughly urge everyone in education to read it so they can see the curriculum for the critical, wonderful, backbone it provides to schools.

Curriculum Design 1 (Summer Turner)

At the start of this year I took on the role of Vice Principal for a large secondary school. A key priority for the school, which had had several changes in middle leadership, was to help middle leaders develop their curriculum plans, understand them and be able to communicate them with others and their own staff as well as communicating the student journey to students.

Two key books played a phenomenal role in this. Mary Myatt’s (@MaryMyatt) book ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’ which made me fall in love with curriculum design by carefully explaining its merits and the thought process that needed to go behind each element of planning. Summer Turner’s (@ragazza_inglese) ‘Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design’ really highlighted the challenging questions I and the leadership team I was joining needed to tackle in order to ensure that curriculum design was being conducted in a coherent way. I will focus on the latter book in this post.

Here is how I used some of their Summer’s within the school this year:

Summer Turner’s Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design:

If you’re new to curriculum design (and even if you’re not) Summer breaks down everything! Lots of definitions, explanations and lots of clarity of terms we may confuse.

Getting clear about whole school Curriculum Intent

The Self – Assessment in Chapter 2 was brilliant to use with the Leadership team. Not only did it give us some crucial questions to discuss but was a quick way of me learning about the new school I had just joined and also the thinking of the leadership team around curriculum. We had some brilliant, open and honest discussions about the purpose of our curriculum and our ambitions for our students. I honestly believe if this hadn’t happened we would not be singing off the same hymn sheet as we do now when line managing middle leaders.

Some of the questions were really challenging for example:

Should you teach to the test if it means pupils will perform well in exams?

These questions made us question our moral purpose and what we were in education for.

The self-assessment also asks you to assess yourself and your confidence in areas. Which meant we could help each other in area where we felt less confident. Not confident with how assessment data is used? Let another member of the leadership team explain it to you.

Learning from others

The book also introduced me to some great twitter handles to follow and brilliant tweeters!

As well as social media, Summer also makes numerous book recommendations which I will get through one day! Combined these ideas from other thinkers and institutions allowed me to challenge our own ideas in school to have deeper discussions around curriculum.

Sequencing

Summer’s questions around sequencing led to some hot debates. Questions such as:

  • Whether we sequence year by year and if not how do we accommodate students who join us at different times.
  • How much we want to invest in making connections across subjects, how we do this and whether this is a longer term plan.
  • How we would communicate cognitive science and knowledge acquisition and memory to all staff so it would influence their teaching practice and when we would do this.

All of the above were considered but not necessarily given equal weight in the first year. I had to remember that a few well executed changes and initiatives are better that a heap of poorly communicated ones.

Taking this approach with middle leaders

Once leadership was clear about the above questions we started to discuss these questions with middle leaders. Explaining how we had agreed on our whole school curriculum intent and ensuring that we were open to middle leaders opinions and ready to adapt where necessary.

In my next post I will post about what we shared in middle leaders meetings and he discussions we had as well as our curriculum template.

It would be great to hear how other curriculum leaders have led curriculum design in there schools. Curriculum design is an ever changing beast. It is something that we must and should, adapt, tweak and amend year after year to meet the needs of our students so I think the more ideas the better!

Thank you to Summer Turner for the support she has provided our school in doing this.

Modelling

Read any of the work into Cognitive Learning and the importance of Modelling will become apparent. But what do we mean by modelling?

Im’ writing this post as a result of a Faculty CPD session on which we focused on Modelling.

Read any of the work into Cognitive Learning and the importance of Modelling will become apparent. But what do we mean by modelling? It is a term that can be used in several contexts. We can, and do, model behaviour as teachers, we model attitudes but we also need to ensure we are clearly modelling thinking processes and literacy.

Some teachers argue they model by showing sample answers. There is also research to suggest that sample answers too perfect can scare or disengage students and critically I believe, miss the magic of modelling which is the thinking process. As David Didau puts it “Sometimes it’s enough for students just to see a model but an essential part of the teaching sequence for writing is the process of modelling: talking through the decisions a writer makes at the point of writing.”

So how do we Model? This was the focus of the session.

Using the ‘Making every Lesson Count’ series. We broke modelling down into a series of smaller tasks.

1.Select what you want to model in detail and its purpose: Are you modelling the answer to an exam question? Perhaps just a clear introduction or conclusion. The process of a tackling a problem (such as the scientific method). Get clear about what you want students to get out of it.

2.Plan to model your thinking. This means talking out loud to your students about your thinking process. When you look at a question which words do you unpick first? Which bits are difficult to unravel? (I think this is important because students need to see even you as an expert classify some things as challenging, and then take them head on). How many times have you heard the words ‘I don’t know how to start’ as a child sits there with a blank bit of paper 10 mins into a question being set? So we need to show them how to start.

3.Think through your evidence/support. Once you have decided your main argument(s) what could students use that they have learnt that will support it? How have you selected the evidence you will use? Why did you pick some over others? How have you picked your main arguments? You may choose to include some class participation here. But if you do what is important is that you are completely transparent why you go with some suggestions and not others. The students need to see you (or in this case hear you) make those choices.

4.Get writing: At this stage you can either go for it with the class and write the whole thing out or you can write the key parts of your answer and get them fill in the rest. Depending on where your students are in their writing journey.

5.Flaunt it. Share the answers. Obviously you will share yours if you are writing on the board but if students are creating their own versions then get them to read it out, share it with the person sitting next to them.

6.Steal. This is the bit where you ask students to steal what they like from others. I always say to students the difference between a grade 4 and a grade 9 is often the Grade 4 students knows what they think and can get it down on paper. A grade 9 student knows what they think and what others think so can effectively articulate different perspectives. This means to hit those higher grades students and myself have to create a safe space for each other to share thoughts in.

Now I’m sure for many of you this may be something that you do day in and day out but what I see and do over and over again is often miss step 2. I think this is easy to do when you have taught how to tackle an exam question over and over again and jump straight into it. But the students need to hear the cognitive process behind it. So we will all be practicing this, this afternoon.

I went to see the wonderful Kat Howard (@SaysMiss) at ResearchEd last year and her talk on modelling was excellent at considering how all the things students are trying to process at any one time. So I can’t finish this blog without highlighting the importance of giving time to modelling. Many times I have wanted to do a question but come away with just an introduction and a debate with what evidence to use. This is a good thing because rushing through modelling means students often have too much to process and can end up more confused.

So 7. Ask yourself what you want students to do at each stage. Listen? Write? Have you built in enough time for them to focus on one thing at a time? This ensures the students don’t walk away with a written answer that they have copied but not grasped the process.

The search for James

I have told myself many lies as teacher and Vice Principal but none of them is as regular or benign as making a cup of tea during the school day, knowing full well it will never be consumed. I continue to boil the kettle regardless.

The dreaded crackling begins. ‘Hello on call’ I grab the walkie talkie like a surgeon being called into life-saving surgery. ‘Go ahead’ I say.’ James Burton* is missing from curriculum support. He has stormed out after kicking some bins and swearing at the LSA’s.’ The possibilities run through my head. Could he be kicking in a bin somewhere else in school? I mentally make a note of all bins around the school site. James has quite a knack for pranks. Could he be sitting in a bin? Ready to jump out and give one of us a heart attack as we approach him? Another possibility I make a mental note of. Could he be off site quite possibly causing a danger to others more than himself with his old ‘pull my finger joke’ and farts on demand? I visit Curriculum Support where he was last seen and the staff quickly point towards the direction in which he left. On passing his friend James Seager I enquire where he went and am told he headed towards the music rooms. Likely, I think to myself, he’s probably written a bloody musical about his escape and is going to perform it to the school as the bell goes at the end of the day. I pop my head into classrooms where I hear loud noises thinking he may be doing his usual monologue whilst standing on a chair but no luck there either. I look at my watch, nearly home time and over 14,000 steps covered. I think about entering the London Marathon again, there is no way I am not fitter now than when I last ran and was in sales, driving hundreds of miles in my car every day. The search for Wally continues.

Eventually I give up. Defeated, I decide to walk to reception and call his mum to say we can’t find him and ask her to come into school. Hopefully he will appear in time to be taken home. As I approach reception I thank James Seager for his help in finding his friend although I have been unable to locate him, at that point I hear his mum stomp in and scream at the top of her lungs ‘You’ve found my boy!’ I look at the ladies who notified me of a missing James Burton in the first place. It seems they got the wrong James. I make eye on contact with the other James, the one who I should have been searching for. We glare at each other. ‘Yes we did’ I say smiling at his mum. ‘Yes she did’ he repeats. I go to make another cup of tea. It seems we are all little liars in the end.  

2nd March 2020

Monday

All staff have been asked to complete a half hour online course on the use of the internet and email. Apparently, this is due to a virus that an ITT recently opened and was then sent to all staff in the Trust. I dutifully sit at my desk I am already a day over the deadline and this is no time for a philosophical debate about the madness of this all. Only, I can’t log in. I send the IT Director who has commissioned this unusual form of punishment upon us all, an email explaining I can’t log on to the course on the internal system. He asks if I am using my usual log in details. I reply I am and that I know they are correct as they are the same as the  ones used to log into my email, which he can see I am managing to use successfully. He explains to me that information such as this must be kept confidential to avoid hacking. I explain having not completed my training he can expect such mistakes from me in the future. I await a reply….

Tuesday

My husband snores into the early hours of the morning and after I weigh up the pros and cons of murdering him with my pillow I decide to just get out of bed and start the day by tackling my email. To be frank I feel like quite the superior being, having tackled my inbox before I even enter school at 7.15am. People are staring at me and I can only imagine that my organisation skills this morning are oozing such power that everyone can see the powerhouse I am. At 8am I enter the bathroom and am shocked by how much I have aged overnight! Grey hair appear at the top of my head and I rub at them to check if it really is my own reflection I am seeing. Some investigative minutes later I realise that I have not had a reverse Benajmin Button moment but in tiredness have sprayed my hair with deodorant rather than dry shampoo.

Wednesday

Question. What is the experience of someone who has tourrettes and a stutter? I too was stumped by this question when asked by a student at the end of lunch at the bottom of the humanities stairs.

Thursday

Aha! IT Director has got back to me suggesting I change my password for the system on which previously mentioned training is run. I am struggling to do this without being able to log in at which point he frustratingly exclaims that I should contact their help desk directly. He reminds me that the course must be completed by the end of the day or Armageddon will occur and all my emails could be deleted if I accidentally click on a virus. I reply to his email explaining that I can’t imagine anything more delightful followed by a screenshot showing that his own security systems have denied me access to the helpdesk he would like me to access.

It is World Book Day and I have no end of Wollies and Wanda’s roaming my corridors. Lady Macbeth walks towards me and her intentions are definitely sinister. She asks if she can miss a CPD session to attend a doctors appointment she could not book at any other time. I do the usual and remind her that dates for CPD are shared at the beginning of the year and she is expected to attend them but if she really can’t go at any other time then she should go and catch up with me later regarding the session. She smiles politely but I can feel her scowling at me through her eyes. I imagine she’ll offer me tea from a poisoned chalice in the near future.

Friday

Eyes down I look at a small hand with a choco crispie cake and then up at a spotty face smiling. Student X is offering me a chocolate rice crispie cake he made earlier in Food Tech. Usually I would wolf down such offerings but having spotted the state of Student Xs hands I’m certain that the coronavirus is not currently the biggest threat to our school. I find a tissue in my pocket, smile politely and wrap the cake putting it in my pocket reassuring the student that I will enjoy it with my cup of tea later. I cannot walk to a bin fast enough the ticking time bomb that is melting chocolate potentially seeping all over my coat.  

Radical Open Mindedness – Thank you Ray Dalio

I recently read Ray Dalio’s Principles. It’s a heavy book with real wisdom at its core. One of its core principles is the idea of radical open mindedness. About leadership actively surrounding themselves with people who disagree, question and pose alternatives. However it also states that the people who argue these points need to be equally intelligent, confident with the information they put forward and be informed.

I’ve spent a lot of my life in leadership meetings and wonder if this exists in education.

If you yourself want to test how open minded the leadership team in your school are try a hot potato question. Such as:

  • Why do we have homework?
  • Why do we have uniform?
  • What’s the point of detention?
  • Or something else the school holds dear.

And then watch whether a discussion ensues or one person shuts down the question.

Of course this is not the case if you have been discussing one of these questions quite recently and invested a lot of time into it and therefore the leadership team look at you like you have lost your marbles and got amnesia. But you get the gist. How much can your leadership team entertain alternative thoughts?

Research in education is relatively new in terms of teachers researching what does and doesn’t work in classrooms etc.. and we have a wealth of information coming our way as education continues to be an area with growing research. The best researchers tell you nothing is conclusive, particularly this early on. I had the pleasure of listening to David Didau at a ResearchEd conference and was amazed at how candidly he embraced this. Stating he had interviewed thousands of children (in this case he was questioning them about marking) finding the evidence was inconclusive, we have some threads we can pull at but we have to ensure we remain open minded, he suggested. This was music to my ears. Everything about the way we teach is up for question. What an exciting field to be in!

All the more reason to adopt radical open mindedness. We have never seen this landscape before. Trusts and their structures, OFSTEDs focus on curriculum, Data collection, life without levels, it’s all new and I challenge anyone to say they have it all figured out. Therefore we have to keep having the radical conversations, questioning our practices and being radically open minded especially when we hear something we don’t like.

The second reason I love this is because in my experience the biggest frustration for staff and leaders alike is that not everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet. Many schools have no end of policies and practices but consistency is where it goes tumbling down. I believe you can’t have consistency without debate. You want all your leadership staff and then teaching staff to push forward with an initiative? Debate it regularly, in front of them, so that they can buy into the rationale. Far too often however leadership teams try and cram in 5 agenda items into a 90 minute meeting and the room for debate goes out the window. People leave without buy in and to no ones surprise things go a bit pear shaped and are implemented inconsistently.

I speak from experience when I say this. Just a few months ago I questioned the value of homework. The conversation was very nearly shut down by the head stating that we didn’t have time to go off piste. Yet the issue we were dealing with was about why homework isn’t being set in line with a policy that all staff had agreed to and what should be next steps. So as far as I’m concerned this is exactly the time to have this debate. It in fact led to a great discussion which showcased how much we valued homework but the barriers to some students completing it and what we can do about that.

So how do you encourage radical open mindedness in your school? Be the debate maker, be the questioner, ask people to explain, generate buy in from all around the table, encourage the quiet members to speak up. Speak and encourage others to speak. Because we are all better off for it.

Difficult conversations

During my time in Education and as I’ve managed people I’ve had numerous difficult conversations. Having never been told how to handle these I’ve had to work my way through quite a few to know what the best approach is. I’ve had to tell teachers they smell and need to wash more thoroughly, that they need to be kinder to their colleagues, that they are not kidding anyone and the whole department knows their books aren’t marked, that kids have commented on their animosity towards them, the list goes on. My saving grace is I make a real effort to have positive conversations to counteract these!

So here is my advice. The way I see it difficult conversations can be categorised in three broad areas (If we do not cover unprofessional behaviour which should be covered by school policy with next steps depending on the seriousness of it). These are:

Not their fault bad news

This is where you have to deliver bad news and the member of staff has not done anything in particular. Redundancies is a classic example. Unfortunately in secondary education due to options coming in and out of fashion this can happen more often than you’d like. In this case you should really have had the conversation a while before to prepare the member of staff. If numbers seemed to be dwindling you should have spoken to the member of staff about retraining. If this is a no go then you have to tell it straight and as soon as possible to give that colleague a fighting chance of finding a job they love elsewhere. Again how redundancies are handled by the school will be in the HR policy so not all the steps below will be needed but can be used as a guide).

Bringing people up on how they behave to other members of staff

This is something that I have had to do surprisingly often. The majority of teachers I have met are fantastic team players, I believe you have to be to survive the pressures of teaching. Unfortunately, every now and again I come across a staff who is incredibly negative. What these people will cost you is priceless, it will be camaraderie, positivity in whichever dept they function in, positive attitudes in the classroom, so you have to bring them up on it straight away. I have only ever had two reactions to bringing people up on their negative attitude and that is crying or aggression. Either way you have to keep a straight face, state the facts and move on (sometimes hoping they will to).

Performance focused

There are some members of staff which suddenly find themselves in an education world that they did not enter. This can be incredibly hard and the best way to deal with this is by offering clear examples of how things can be changed with a caring support plan. They will need a lot of time and support and I have put several members of staff through these and am pleased to say only two have chosen to leave the profession and actually go on to things they feel more passionate about and are aligned with their skillset but most have found their way back and gone on to a wonderful career in teaching.

A guide to handling difficult conversations

1) Get clear -Before you have the conversation about get clear about three things.

a) About the actual problem and make sure you have evidence

b) What a good outcome looks like for the school and your colleague. You have to know what you are working with and working towards.

c) What support can you/or someone else provide

2) Be honest – once you have evidence and are clear about the above be honest with them about what it is you are trying to address. By being honest you are doing them the greatest service. Dishonesty or flowering things up will most likely mean you don’t get the outcome or acknowledgment of the problem you need to move things forward and most times you are doing it so you don’t feel bad as opposed to doing what the person needs.

3) Sit in it with them but don’t try to soften the situation – this is hard. At this point the person you are addressing will either try to justify their behaviour or just get very emotional. You must sit through it with them. Sometimes this can reveal their journey in getting to this point and help you understand why you are both sitting where you are. This is good. I had a colleague who was addressing poor performance with a colleague but had assumed she had been teaching for several years because she was a mature teacher. She had however been an LSA for many years and he’d never known! This encouraged him to provide more layers of support because she was earlier on in her career than he’d known. If the person is getting very upset and defensive keep coming back to what it is the students/staff in your school need and how their behaviour is not meeting that need. You are all in it for the students and to improve the life chances of every child in your care.

4) Ask them how they see things improving. On some occasions you may have to be prescriptive about next steps however if possible get them to come up with them so they are invested in the change

5) Set corrective course and tell them how and when you will check in with them to monitor their progress.

6) Document your conversation. This is incredibly important both for yourself and for them so you can measure progress from the time you have had the conversation.

Unprofessional behaviour

Schools should have policies on how to address this but again this must be documented and evidence recorded. Follow the school policy as the extent of the unprofessional behaviour will determine next steps.

I hope this helps!