Life-long lessons from Ghana…

I haven’t posted on here for a while; a rather hectic end to my last term as an NQT (that ended with a promotion to a Head of Year position) and the desire to rest, re-charge and recuperate in the first week of the holidays led to a self-imposed exile from my twitter feed (https://twitter.com/anAtoZofNQT) and blogging too.

However, after some well-earned rest I flew to Ghana just over a week ago. I am staying in Ghana for just under four weeks whilst volunteering for an educational development charity called the Sabre Charitable Trust that looks to improve Kindergarten education (ages 4-6, although often much older) across the central and western regions of the country.

The work this charity is doing is incredible. The team which I am working with runs a program called ‘Fast-track Transformational Teacher Training’. The aim of this program is to promote pupil-centered discovery learning using concrete resources to develop Kindergarten education (which has only been compulsory since 2007-20150727_1147192008) . On my very first day of volunteering I visited some of the program’s partner schools and was amazed at the enthusiasm and energy that the students had for learning. On top of this, the variety and creativity of the tasks which the pupils were completing had clear academic objectives whilst also promoting  crucial life-long skills as well e.g.  problem solving, responsibility, communication and teamwork.

Following on from these study visits I began to reflect on what I had learnt and how I could implement some of this knowledge into my own teaching practice. From my own perspective I think developing activities which combine rigorous academic objectives with outcomes that promote life-long skills is an area that I would love to explore further.

For example, at different points in the school-day pupils spend time completing ‘table-top activities’ – of which there are three different activities running simultaneously. These activities are set up in a way that  limits teacher instruction to a minimum whilst being completely pupil-run – leaving the teacher free to observe and adopt the appropriate intervention strategies if necessary. Ultimately on completion of these tasks pupils were not only meeting their academic objectives but they were also developing their own personal communication, teamwork and problem solving skills.

After a while I began to think about how different this Kindergarten class was to my Year Twelve class from the previous academic year. The demands of external exams and a learning environment that more-often than not rewards the regurgitation of facts rather than individual arguments constructed by deep independent thinking has meant that my pupils (who are roughly eleven years older than the Kindergarten pupils I had observed) are fed a diet of lecture-driven lessons interspersed with the odd practice exam question that is completed under timed conditions. Yet, when I try and engage them in a discussion about a key historical issue I end up becoming deeply frustrated and their inability to argue independently and ‘solve’ the problematic nature of the question I am posing.

This really got me thinking about the way that I teach all of my students and the pedagogy I implement within the classroom. Certainly, with Key Stage Three classes there is an element of flexibility which enables me to plan enquiry led schemes of work that challenge pupils to develop life-long skills like teamwork, communication and responsibility to construct arguments about complex historical issues. However even then the demand for assessment and data to enable progress tracking means that time is limited to the few lessons at the start of each half-term before we must start ‘planning’ and ‘preparing’ for the next box-ticking assessment.

Further up the academic ladder, with GCSE’s and A levels the situation is even worse. Independent thought and all of the other skills that come with the construction of critical arguments about an issue are sacrificed at the expense of learning information to regurgitate in whatever form the questions ask of you.

It is only when students reach undergraduate level that the promotion of life-long skills such as responsibility, effective communication and independent thinking are re-visited and here-in lies the problem. Students and teachers alike operate within an educational system where life-long skills are taught less and less as students progress through the years before expecting them to suddenly utilize these skills effectively for undergraduate study.

In essence, in search of more ‘rigorous’ means of testing pupils and monitoring their progress we are leaving important life-long skills by the way-side. This is something I am desperate to address going into my second year as a qualified teacher but until changes at a policy-making level allow us to promote life-long skills effectively within classrooms up and down the country perhaps my experience of table-top activities will have to stay in Ghana for now.

Enjoy the ride.

The end of my NQT year is slowly inching ever closer. Just five weeks to go and I have to say it has been a long, sometimes painful, sometimes frustrating and sometimes impossible journey to passing my NQT year but ultimately it has been an enjoyable one.

Somewhere along the journey (roughly mid-February), I lost sight of this enjoyment. I sat down in the February half-term and realised I had forgotten why I was doing this job. I felt overworked, frustrated and had lost the enjoyment factor that had coincided with the excitement of starting my teaching career. I am sure I am not alone in having experienced this emotion during my NQT year but for about an hour or so it certainly felt that all hope was lost.

After a cup of tea and a couple of episodes of The Big Bang Theory (other US sitcoms are available) I realised that I had to start allowing myself time and opportunities to enjoy the job.

  1. Reward your students.

I am very lucky to work in a school with an excellent rewards system in place, but after spending the first 7 weeks dishing out ‘merits’ and ‘Humanities Pupil of the Week’ awards like they grew on trees I began to slow down. Too much marking, too many emails, too much data to input, chasing up detentions, you name it- I thought it was more important. But ultimately why only chase and recognise students who aren’t doing what you expect? Rewarding those that go above and beyond your expectations helps you to realise the positive impact your teaching is having on pupils and in turn makes all your hard work seem worth it. Ever since February I have spent 30 minutes every Wednesday lunchtime writing positive referrals, nominating numerous students for Pupil of the Week and simply allowing myself some time to reflect on the excellent work my pupils’ were producing.

  1. Set realistic and tangible aims each half-term.

Choose a class; choose a realistic outcome you would like to achieve with that class by the end of the next half-term and repeat the process twice more. You now have three focused and, more importantly, tangible outcomes that you can work towards over the next few weeks. The academic year can seem endless at times and with that your focus can become lost in a pile of Key Stage 3 exercise books. However, seeing each half-term as an opportunity to achieve something new with your classes that (most importantly) will benefit your students’ learning compartmentalizes your year into much more manageable and rewarding segments of hard work.

  1. Allow yourself a social life.

Dealing with the age old problem of managing your ‘work-life balance’ is a balancing act all teachers (even those who have been teaching for years) face on a weekly basis; but ultimately it is very simple. Enjoy your weekends. Don’t get me wrong; I sometimes have to work on a Sunday, especially around assessment and data-drop time. It’s a fundamental part of the job, but if you heed my earlier advice (see ‘Planning to Plan’ and ‘Put in the hours. But on your terms’) you should be able to allow yourself that game of rugby on a Saturday, that meal down the local Italian with your partner in the evening and maybe even a soda and lime at the local Public House on the Friday night.  You can always do more when it comes to teaching but learn to put the books down and enjoy yourself. It will even help you to enjoy your work more, I promise.

The elephant in the room…… Behaviour management.

Everyone’s thinking about it, everyone’s worrying about it, yet no-one will dare ask for help about it in the staffroom – behaviour management.

Funny thing is, if my NQT year has taught me anything, no-one get’s it right 100% of the time.

There will always be someone in the staffroom who is on top of their marking, someone else who plans the most intriguing and imaginative lessons and someone else who always has their reports done first… Yet you will never find someone who has every single one of their classes exactly as they would want them. Hence, why so few people openly discuss and give advice on behaviour management.

That may sound a bit doom and gloom but it’s actually completely the opposite. In fact it should be reassuring that behaviour management is the hardest thing to perfect in teaching. If you are struggling with it, you know someone else just down the corridor will be too (and probably with a class that you have exactly as you want!)… If only you would share ideas!

However all is not lost, there are things you can do to improve the behaviour in your classroom. The following tips are pieces of advice that I have been given over the past seven months and may well help you with the elephant in the room….

1) Consistency, consistency, consistency…..

Children are creatures of habit. They like boundaries. They like to know what they can and can’t do. To find out what they can’t do, they’re going to have to push the boundaries as far as you will let them. Just make sure you know where those boundaries are; and then keep those boundaries the same week in week out until they know exactly where they are as well.

2) Variation, variation, variation……

Those boundaries need to stay the same week in, week out. But that doesn’t mean they can’t change for the different classes you teach. Each class is likely to be made up of 30 different pupils, if like me you teach over 250 different pupils you are going to need to take into account 250 individual needs, there is no way all 250 pupils are going to be able to work within the exact same boundaries.

3) But, play by the rules….

As long as your the boundaries for each class are all within the school rule-book, you will have no problems. As soon as you start letting one class step outside of those rules, before you know it another class will be trying it too. Children talk you know….

4) Rewards.

Sure, bad behaviour will need punishing and you will need to follow the correct school behavioural policy when issuing sanctions. However, rewards are always the golden ticket. Think about it; are you more likely to do what your Line Manager asks you to do if there is a tangible reward for the extra workload or if there is an unpleasant punishment if you fail to complete the extra workload?

5) Ask for help.

As I said, show me one teacher who has every single class behaving exactly as they want 100% of the time and I will show you a thousand that don’t. Everyone is looking for help and the pastoral team, subject leaders and SLT are all there to support you and will gladly offer assistance; if you ask for it. Don’t let bad behaviour become the elephant in the room.

Marking: Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

After an extended Easter Break, it is back to the ‘real’ world tomorrow and a return to school. I always find going back to work after a holiday particularly daunting, as my brain goes into overload and I worry about what the next term will bring.

My number one worry?

Marking.

Ask 100 teachers what their least favourite part of the job is and I guarantee that over half of the responses will involve the word “marking”. For me, the reasons are as follows; marking consumes a vast amount of time outside of contact hours, it is very often repetitive and tangible effective outcomes are very difficult to achieve. However, as the year has gone on I have developed a strategic approach to marking that allows me to address all three of those issues and achieve a somewhat effective yet efficient marking system.

  1. Stick to a schedule.

One of the tasks I set myself in the first week of each half-term is to construct a marking schedule. There are three things to consider here; whole-school marking policy (how often should I mark), the timing of assessment/homework tasks for different classes (try and space these out for each year group) and finally other deadlines (I am unlikely to mark as many books when reports are due than when they are not). As is the nature of working with young people, lessons change and the best laid plans will not always be followed. To allow for this I usually stick stringently to a Key Stage 3 marking schedule and then allow more fluidity when it comes to my exam classes. The obvious benefits to a marking schedule are that you can plan your marking efficiently and alleviate the anxiety/stress of making sure you are following the whole school marking policy. As I mentioned in my previous post, preparation and organisation will be two of the most important skills you need in your NQT year.

  1. Marking codes.

As a teacher of History, my marking consists of two tasks; giving detailed feedback on the pupil’s historical understanding as well as correcting more objective aspects of pupils’ work i.e. dates and the spelling of key words. For the latter of these tasks I have developed a ‘marking code’ whereby I circle the mistake and then write the relevant code in the margin e.g. ‘sp’ for a spelling mistake. The pupil then corrects their mistake in the next lesson. At the start of the year each pupil was given a help-sheet that explained what each ‘code’ meant and this was stuck in the front of the each exercise book to ensure all pupils understood this system. The advantage of this is that I can spend much longer on giving detailed feedback on historical understanding and the time it takes to correct silly mistakes has been significantly reduced.

  1. Progression targets.

It has long been proven that detailed formative feedback is the most effective way of ensuring a pupil progresses in their understanding of that subject. Therefore, detailed historical feedback that explains to pupils what they have done well but also how they can improve is paramount to progression. As you can imagine, this is the most time-consuming aspect of marking, yet it is also the most valuable in relation to learning. At the start of the year, I found myself slightly overwhelmed by the weight of the task and despite my best intentions the formative feedback given in the last book I marked was very often less effective than the formative feedback in the first.

To solve this problem I devised a simple yet effective method of providing formative feedback.

Firstly, each time I mark a set of books I choose one task that I will provide detailed formative feedback on. Secondly, I devise a simple success criterion for that task based on learning objectives and Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive processes. Following this, I type up a generic ‘feedback slip’ with a WWW (what went well) section, an EBI (even better if) section with the success criteria included and finally a hints/tips section that is left blank. A slip is then printed for each student. Once I have finished reading that student’s work I stick in the feedback slip and provide them with a personal WWW comment a highlighted EBI task from the success criteria and finally a personal hint or tip to support them in completing that task.

Crucially, I have developed an efficient way of providing formative feedback that is effective in allowing pupils to progress from their current understanding. On top of this, each bank of feedback slips is saved for me to use again the following academic year if appropriate.

  1. D.I.R.T

D.I.R.T was an idea I picked up from my Mentor on my second school experience of my PGCE year and stands for ‘directed interactive reflection time’. Essentially, in order for my marking to have any effective impact on my pupil understanding, my students need to have time to process (reflect) and complete the feedback tasks (interact) I have set for them. I structure my D.I.R.T so the students understand that first they correct any objective mistakes they have made before then completing the formative task given to them on a ‘feedback slip’. The next time I take in their books I will then check their responses and use a stamp system to show whether they have met their targets or need to keep working on them. As with any new concept or idea, some students were resistant to this process at the start of the year, however the use of the stamps to show them that they have made progress provides them with a tangible outcome for their efforts. The repetition of D.I.R.T also ensured that students became familiar with the process and the demands placed upon them.

Marking will always be one of my least favourite parts of teaching, but through this process I have managed to increase the efficiency of my marking whilst allowing for effective detailed an

Planning to plan. The art of being prepared.

Lesson planning was hands down the #1 worry I had going into my NQT year. The thought process went something like this;

How will I have time to plan twenty- two lessons a week when on my PGCE I had struggled with a maximum of twelve?

How will I have time to ensure all my lessons are engaging and cater for all types of learners?

How will I have time to differentiate appropriately for all abilities?

How will I find the time to learn all subject knowledge necessary for the schemes of work I’ll be teaching?

How will I cope?!?!

The answer was staring me in the face the whole time. Plan.

Planning to plan. A mantra that I have lived by throughout my NQT year. The results? By the time I leave school at 5pm every Friday, my Key Stage 3 and 4 lessons are completely planned for the next week. Don’t believe me? Try the following strategy. It will work, I promise.

1) Use your summer wisely. Plan a week’s worth of lessons ready for the first week back.  This planning allows you to use Week 1 to plan for Week 2, Week 2 for Week 3 and so on. You will always be one week ahead, simple right?

2) Plan for all eventualities. If like me, you teach a rang of abilities within a year group then when you are forward planning (as above) plan generic lessons that can be adapted later. Ultimately, all your students in Year 7 will need to understand the same content and concepts, the differentiation will come later.

3) Utilise existing schemes of work. Unless you want an 80+ hour working week, you will never have time to design and make the resources for twenty- two lessons each week. If you are very lucky and there is a shared area for your department then do not be afraid to use it, remember most of the resources have been made by teachers with many years’ more experience than you. However, share and share alike, they will appreciate your resources just as much as you appreciate theirs. As both my PGCE mentors would constantly remind me “don’t reinvent the wheel”.

4) Prepare and differentiate. This is crucial if the lesson for your Year 10 high ability class is to be engaging and challenging for all learners. I arrive at school about 7.30am, the 75 minutes I have before my Year 9 form enter the classroom is when I revisit the ‘generic’ lessons I planned the week before. I look at every lesson and group I am teaching that day before scaffolding and adapting the activities appropriately. Fifteen minutes per class is plenty of time as the main structure of the lesson has already been planned the previous week.

5) Plan to plan. To follow all of these steps you must plan time to do so. For me, I commit around six hours a week to planning generic lessons for the week ahead, around two hours to developing my curriculum knowledge and then an extra 75 minutes each day to differentiating my lessons appropriately. All in all that is just over 9 hours planning per week, sounds simple right?!

They say that “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” . This couldn’t be truer in teaching but if you plan effectively and efficiently (by planning to plan) you will consistently have well prepared lessons that will enable outstanding learning to take place.

The value of excellent CPD.

CPD, or continuing professional development for those unfamiliar with the term, is a buzzword within the teaching profession at the moment. Nearly all teaching vacancies are advertised with the promise of “excellent CPD opportunities” or something along those lines and six months into my first teaching post it’s easy to see why.

It’s a rather old, yet appropriate, cliche but you never stop learning when it comes to teaching. Day in, day out you will evaluate your own practice in light of behaviour for learning, engagement and ultimately pupil achievement. This is an essential part of the profession and is a necessity for those striving for success. However, towards the end of January I realised that the endless cycle of self reflection could only take me so far. I had hit a wall and was recycling the same ideas, activities and learning strategies (just in slightly different forms) week in, week out.

It was over the half term break and reading through some of my PGCE course material that I came across a handout from the Centre for Holocaust Education, based at the Institute of Education. A quick internet search and a few clicks later and I was registered for their Core CPD session at the end of February.

Cutting to the chase, this research driven CPD was a goldmine of useful information regarding the near impossible task of teaching the Holocaust effectively and appropriately. Rather than being overawed by the subject, I left feeling revitalised and ready to plan a whole new scheme of work on this incredibly important topic. The key to the success of this day, I believe, can be found in the extensive research that underpins the CPD. The Centre conducted a national survey of teachers and used their findings to inform and help plan a day that was thought provoking, engaging, powerful and in line with current pedagogical thought.

I thought I would struggle being back in a classroom setting and being the ‘student’ but instead I found myself exploring a rich variety of resources, activities and lesson plans that I cannot wait to put into practise in my own classroom.

It is very easy as an NQT to get bogged down with the intense workload demanded of teachers these days. Just stop. Go and conduct some research. Find a CPD session that suits your needs. Book it. Attend it. You will feel refreshed, invigorated and I guarantee you’ll learn something. I promise.

Put in the hours… But on your terms!

Let’s cut to the chase; you are going to work long hours.

It’s Monday evening and I have completed ten and a half hours of this working week already. I arrived at school at 7:30am and left at 6pm (on the bright side I saw daylight at both ends, Spring is nigh!) In that time I managed to teach six lessons, differentiate and prepare all my resources for the next two days and reply to an inbox full of emails before moderating a whole class of Year 12 mock exams.  

Don’t listen to any of your friends who say teachers get it easy and finish by three every day. Instead, you keep a fifty hour week on average and explain to them that those fifty hours multiplied by the thirty-nine working weeks in the academic year means you will probably work longer than any of them that year.

Remember, you can ALWAYS do more when it comes to teaching. However, after a term and a half as an NQT; I have found that on average, a fifty hour working week enables me to complete all of the necessary planning and marking I need to do. It even allows time for all the relevant meetings and other miscellaneous deadlines I may have to meet that week.

Personally, I like to complete all of these hours at school (including marking). Not only does it mean I have all of the resources that I require for these tasks to hand but it also means I have a clear and definitive line between my work and social life. (Except for this Blog!) I know plenty of other NQTs who prefer to leave off a bit earlier than me but then continue to work at home until they go to bed, it works for them and they are fantastic teachers. However, knowing that when I get home I can put my feet up, have dinner, watch some awful TV and not have to worry about any work helps me to enjoy both my working and leisure time equally.

As I said at the top, put in the hours… but on your terms!