A fierce debate circles around this topic – isolation booths. Yet, for the vast majority of schools, they’re part of normal practice to help students develop, change and improve their behaviour. The debate becomes so polarised – I wanted to bring some nuance to the debate and talk about how to use them well*. My column in the TES, where I explore it more depth, can be found here: https://www.tes.com/news/isolation-booths-6-ways-use-them-effectively?amp&__twitter_impression=true
This is the second part of my blog following a course from Bill Rogerswhich was aimed at school leaders leading whole school behaviour. The course wasn’t aimed at developing classroom practice – there was a second day to the course that was for classroom teachers seeking to develop their behaviour management. That said, the day was interspersed with practical tips from Bill – generally speaking, the “soft skills” of managing behaviour. Whilst I am generally of the opinion that a school system is the most important thing that supports teachers with managing behaviour, the day did remind me that there is always going to be a place for the “soft skills” that we need when managing young people. This is something I often reflect on and my views definitely aren’t fully developed yet. I veer from thinking that teachers shouldn’t “need” the soft skills because the system should support them, to thinking that, because we’re working with humans, there is always a place for the soft skills in a classroom. In reality, I think it’s a bit of both. We need the professional judgement and soft skills to respond to children, but we also need the system there to support us. The poor behaviour of a child shouldn’t ever be blamed on a teacher – the child has made their choice. But, there are approaches, like ones that Rogers explored with us, that help us manage situations where children make good choices.
Passive language (ok that’s my name for it – I forget what he called it)
One key tip that Rogers referred to throughout the day was in making non threatening comments about students’ behaviour. The example he gave was “I have noticed”. So, say you’re starting the class off on a piece of writing and a few students aren’t doing as you’d like, Rogers suggests that passive language can be used to prompt students into doing what they should be doing. You might say “I have noticed you’ve not made a start yet” to a student. The simplicity of this stick me – and it’s clear to see how it can serve as a non threatening prompt.
Rogers suggests following up the passive language with an instruction. You’d start by saying “I’ve noticed you’ve not made a start yet, Carly. Grab your pen and make a start on writing the title down”. He then suggests following this with a “thank you” rather than “please” so that the implication is that the student is doing it without question.
Take up time:
Some other techniques he talked about are well known, but still the reminder was a helpful one for me, especially when my role in school sometimes means I am supporting staff with their classroom practice. One such example was around take up time. Rogers argues that, once you’ve described the problem, and followed it with an instruction or direction, and an assertive “thank you”, give the student take up time.
He also suggested that this should include ignoring secondary behaviours. That’s a tough one for me, and, a lot like tactical ignoring, I’m in two minds about this. I am a firm believer that what you permit, you promote in school, and therefore ignoring instances of poor behaviour doesn’t always sit well with me. Over the course of the day, I reflected on why that was. Having thought about it, I realised the problem can be that tactical ignoring can, sometimes, be used mistakenly, when some staff are actually reluctant to challenge behaviour. It becomes an excuse for them – you tell yourself you’re tactically ignoring it, and it sounds like you’re making deliberate, informed choices. Except, in these cases, you’re promoting what you’re permitting. The problem here is masked – it’s likely either because the teacher needs some support with their confidence, or that the systems supporting them are weak, and they’re of the view that there’s no point challenging it, because the student won’t do the detention anyway. Or, they’re already snowed under with marking, and the thought of making her another phone call home, completely unsupported, and suddenly, challenging it becomes less than enticing. This is why strategic leadership is so important – it needs to support teachers so that they don’t use the cover of tactical ignoring just to get out of challenging behaviour, and instead, they use it in a more forensic, strategic way, responding to the student and behaviour in front of them. If that’s the motivation, it’s a strategy I can support. But, like all good things in life, too much of it will be bad for you!
Each of these strategies are ones that I’ve used myself in the 10 years I’ve been teaching – they’re ones I still use now. But I did spot myself in some of the things Rogers said not to do. It had been known for me, in a moment of rage, to question students about their behaviour. I did it on Friday, as it happens. I was staffing a lunch time detention and 3 girls were outside of it, laughing. I was fuming, obviously. I went out of the room and out came my rage “why are you here, disrupting the detention?”. I remembered Bill’s words and laughed inside. We’re all human and we occasionally slip up, but by thinking about the way we approach students, our language and tone can help us a great deal in managing a situation positively.
Social time behaviour
Rogers also talked about a concept called “relaxed vigilance”, especially around managing behaviour in social times or in lesson change overs. His argument was that responding to behaviour was the crucial part, not that it was sanctioned. I found, and still do, that I don’t agree with this. We have a clear sanction system for poor behaviour during social times or lesson changeovers. A student doing anything that does not meet our expectations is issued an on the spot lunch detention for the following day. It’s a made a difference to the language and the behaviour we see on our corridors. I’m not convinced that just challenging this without sanction would have improved much about behaviour in our school. It was one of the things I disagreed with most, but I found it did help me with thinking about the way we approach behaviour around the school. The principle of it is in interacting with the students – and I think, with a bit of a tweak, this could pre empt some behaviour and stop it escalating, in the right context. For example, if a groups of children are behaving in a way that could become more loud or boisterous, going over and engaging in a bit of social chit chat, or a friendly “I hope you’re not about to start running down that corridor, James. You know just how that would upset me” with a cheeky smile, used in the right way, on the right kids, will calm a situation without the need for sanction. This was a real area of reflection for me – too often, the temptation when on duty is to stand around, thinking about the next thing you need to deal with, or sneaking a look at your emails (I’m so guilty of this!), rather than interact with children. We need to spend our time wisely when out and about – this could make a difference to the culture of a school. I do think you need this alongside a sanction system though, and you’ll never convince me otherwise!
I was expecting to find myself disagreeing with far more than I expected. I did find the absence of any real comment on sanctions somewhat frustrating – I think they’re absolutely vital in a school, especially secondary phases. I was also hoping to hear more about supporting children who are our most challenging, most vulnerable young people. I suppose there’s no one size fits all with this kind of situation, though. Those situations will need a highly individualised approach, drawing on the support of external agencies, to support these students. A one day course probably couldn’t respond to that, so it’s perhaps an unfair criticism, but it was one that a few on our table talked about together. I have a hunch that this is a national gap in the system, though. And one that will always be a challenge to fill.
Earlier this week, I found myself driving through wild snow storms, on untreated roads, to see the formidable Bill Rogers delivering a training session. He was up in the wilds of Cumbria to deliver to different audiences – the session I attended was aimed at school senior leaders in charge of behaviour and head teachers. Interestingly, I was one of only 3 secondary staff there. The other 70 odd people were all primary colleagues. I found this an interesting observation – but as the day progressed, I could see how a lot of what Rogers was talking about seemed a lot more applicable to primary contexts. That said, he did say that he would do that because of the audience make up, so I’ve tried not to judge the content on that too much and instead focus on the key areas he covered and how that helped me reflect on our approaches to whole school behaviour.
The day itself actually covered both whole school approaches and classroom practices. I’ll split my blog into two parts, although there will inevitably be an over lap between the two.
The success of any strategy in schools seems, in part, to be measured by the level of consistency that a school achieves through its staffs’ implementation of the strategy. This couldn’t be more true than when it comes to behaviour. Except, in part at least, behaviour is one of the trickiest areas to get consistency. You’re dealing with unpredictable human beings, both the student and the teacher. There will be a wide ranging amount of unpredictable incidents that staff deal with. We also need an element of professional judgment, in my opinion, when dealing with young people. Rogers’ comments on consistency were that schools should, when it comes to behaviour, be aiming for ‘reasonable consistency’. This was a light bulb moment for me. Part of my role in school has been leading and implementing a new strategy for behaviour. In short, it’s the biggest change our school has had in the 9 years I’ve worked there. As an inpatient person, I am often frustrated that we don’t automatically achieve full consistency. But hearing from Rogers that ‘reasonable’ was the goal, it made me reflect on the massively improved level of consistency that we have achieved as a school in a term and a half. There’s still a long way to go, but that will always be the case, I suspect.
Shared preferred practice:
Another key strand of the day was in helping school leaders to develop their whole school cultures. One of the factors Rogers talked about establishing a “shared preferred practice” which was informed by the culture and ethos of the school. For me, this is about how schools define their work with children – are we respectful? Are we kind? Are we expecting the most from all of our young people? Rogers’ advice was that the shared ethos should be evident through interactions and management of the young people in our school. Makes sense to me!
The knowledge that there will always be a follow up is powerful in a school. Whilst there’s an element of this that’s relevant to classroom teachers, when your whole school system is centralised, as ours is, it’s vital that the teams enforcing this are relentless in their pursuit of following up any incidents. As a pastoral team, in our school, we have full responsibility for ensuring that all student incidents are followed up. We are relentless in ensuring that every child attends a detention. When they don’t, which, occasionally, they won’t, because they’re teenagers, we are tenacious in following this up. School systems, then, need to facilitate this. We’ve hand built ours ourselves to make sure it works for us. We use a software package called ClassCharts which makes it incredibly easy for us to be able to be our typically unwavering selves. For me, this is where Rodgers’ advice needs to be heard – the whole school structures need to support this. If they don’t, carnage ensues. When students know there’s a chance they’ll slip through the net, the system is compromised and standards will drop.
Part of the day also focussed on having systems as a school for when things escalate to serious or persistent levels, such as a violent incident or persistent disruptive behaviour. Rogers argues that every school needs a formal, supervised area for “time out”. He suggested that this needs to be well staffed, often by middle or senior leaders, and to be available at all times. He acknowledged that there will be times when children need to be given this either as a sanction or as part of supporting their needs. I couldn’t agree more. In the past, I’ve experienced not having this facility and, in my experience, it just doesn’t work. We’ve really prioritised this as a school this year and having this support on hand at all times has had a strong impact on improving behaviour in our school. Staff know that this system is available to them at all times and they feel more supported in using this, safe in the knowledge it will always be there to be used.
One of the things I found myself agreeing with most strongly was when Rogers was talking about our most vulnerable students. His advice as clear: Don’t let traumatised children be re victimised by letting them away with things others wouldn’t. Whilst I can see that, when dealing with students with really complex and traumatic experiences, it feels like the right thing to let them off and have lower expectations, in the long term, we let them down. We implicitly suggest that they aren’t worth the same high expectations, they won’t achieve the same things, that the world will treat them differently. In short, we do them a huge disservice. We are complicit in their victimisation – we fail them again in a world that has already failed them. So many of these children will need all kinds of support, we must ensure that they are properly supported to meet the same standards as their non traumatised peers.
This was a really important area for me. Whilst I have a whole host of views on the myriad of restorative practices out there, the main take away for me was that these are important within structures in school. Rogers didn’t touch much on sanctions, and I do believe that sanctions have a strong place in a school. But this also needs a restorative element – after all, relationships play such a huge role in behaviour management, there is a place in school strategies for ensuring that restorative work takes place alongside consequences. This is something I want to think more about, too. I’m very clearly not of the opinion that restorative work alone will lead to impeccable behaviour in a school, but I do want to think more about how we incorporate this into school structures.
School cultures are important in terms of what kind of exhaustion you feel!
This made laugh more than anything, but there was a serious point in here somewhere. As one of the team responsible for the operational and strategic sides of our behaviour systems, the type of exhaustion I feel tends to be the fatal feeling type. It’s a rough job! But Rogers’ point was that, in a school where systems don’t work, incidents aren’t followed up, and children don’t follow the rules, the type of exhaustion is a whole different ball game to the type of exhaustion staff will feel in a functional school. He’s not wrong. The former will lead to burn out, high staff turn over and low morale. Teachers get into teaching to teach. It’s that simple. When their time is taken away with endless paperwork, chasing of behaviour incidents, it takes them away from their passion. We owe it to all of our teachers to ensure that our school behaviour systems don’t increase the already high workloads they face. Teachers need to be thinking about teaching and learning, their subject knowledge, planning the best learning opportunities for our young people, not endlessly chasing up incidents that they don’t have the time, on a full teaching timetable, to chase. Teaching will always be an exhausting job – but need to make sure that our teachers aren’t burnt out by our systems.
It was interesting to spend a large portion of the day on whole school aspects to behaviour. It seems to be a much neglected area for me. I can see why – it’s endlessly complex. Not much of what Rogers said was things I hadn’t heard thought about before. But what it did do was allow me to spend a good chunk of time making sure we are on the right track with our whole school systems. We don’t often get the luxury of a whole day away from school, with an international expert, to really reflect on our strategic leadership of the school. The reflections alone have been worth the scariest drive I’ve ever had to do!
Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to make the thinking, learning and studying processes more obvious to my classes, and my year group. Think metacognition. One thing I’ve found really useful in English is the use of Cornell Notes. I’ve written an article for Teach Secondary about how to do this in the classroom. Have a read here: https://www.teachwire.net/news/boost-revision-and-retention-skills-with-the-cornell-notes-system
Teachers very rarely get careers advice. It seems like education is a separate entity when it comes to careers. The Times Educational Supplement are helping to fill that gap with their new careers advice provision, lead by the wonderful Grainne Hallahan. They interviewed me back in December about how you know it’s time to move on and develop your career. You can watch the video in full, for free, here: https://www.tes.com/news/watch-how-plan-your-teaching-career-next-steps
Pastoral work is one of the most demanding and unpredictable roles in a school. At any point in the day, something major can happen. You can go from a serious disclosure to teaching year 7 in seconds. You can take a phone call that’s life changing (often not in a good way) for a student. And then there’s the myriad of tiny little jobs that stack up throughout the day. In short, it’s manic.
If you’re a teaching Head of Year, balancing this alongside the demands of being a classroom teacher is a really hard task. Especially if, like me, you also teach a subject that has a high marking load as well as P8 bucket pressure!
Whilst I don’t feel like I’ve got all answers (who has?), there are some things that I do that help me stay as on top of things as I can be. In my experience, the only way to survive is to free up as much time and brain space as possible. Here are the things that I do to keep myself able to do the best job possible
I try to plan and resource as many of my lessons in advance that I can. I work at least a half term in advance, but I also have entire units planned. This means that I have devoted the serious time and thinking around what my classes need to learn in advance. This frees up brain space and also time. Given the fluid nature of teaching and learning, you do sometimes need to go in a different direction with your teaching, but having things planned and resourced in advance allows me to only need to tweak my planning for each day based on the previous lesson. Of course there are times when you do need to do something responsive with your classes, but generally this approach stops me having daily planning demands on my time and on my brain space.
This is something I do a term of at a time, where possible. It means that I am running through the impact of homework properly rather than simply setting something sporadically and without real thought. It frees up thinking space and time really easily. I also find that I’ve done this enough now to not need to do anything other than tweak it for future years or classes, unless we decide to teach new units.
I do these in every half term. We produce our assembly rotas a half term in advance which allows me to see how many I need to plan and I do these in the holidays. I also make sure that I have a clear strategy for how I’m using my assemblies. This means looking at it alongside the school calendar to see if there are key points where the two need to marry. I also have a set of “last minute” assemblies written incase I ever find myself in need of one at very short notice!
Part of a Head of Year role is having an overview of the academic year and having a pastoral programme that runs alongside this. I try to make sure that there is a clear weekly routine for my year group and that whatever time we do have is used effectively. In previous years, I’ve had a cultural capital programme or a reading exposure programme running one day a week. Thanks often to generous souls on twitter, having work booklets made for a term and printed off and given to tutors to work through means that I’m not having to think about day to day matters, freeing up some time each day. I also pay for (don’t kill me!) a subscription to a quiz resource called Classroom Solutions which sends out a a fab weekly quiz. It costs me £50 but for a year’s worth of quizzes, the time it frees up to me is well worth it! We have a weekly quiz day and the kids love it.
I rarely have time for lunch. I’m either on duty sandwiched in between lessons, or I’m dealing with something. It’s far too easy to end up neglecting yourself when you don’t get a minute within the day. To stop myself from dying, I use meal replacements. Huel is wonderful. It takes seconds to make and I can chug and go. It can come on duty with me. It can be downed in one if necessary. The stuff literally keeps me alive. It’s also super healthy and gives your body everything it needs. I don’t get hungry for a good few hours which is vital when you sometimes have to choose between a wee or something to eat. I have some at work but also some at home for those days where you get in really late and then just can’t face making food.
In pastoral work, you have to be organised. Organisation does not come naturally to me. It’s something I have to work really hard at. I tend to look ahead at school calendars when booking in meetings, for example. This might be, say, a EHA meeting. If the week already has a big marking load, a data drop, reports or a parents evening in, I try to be mindful of this and schedule pre arranged meetings around these so as not to over commit time when it will be most in demand!
By looking ahead and finding all of the things that you can do in advance, you can really free up daily demands on your time. Last week, I spent some time trying to see where my time was going. This meant that I counted up all of “issues” that I dealt with each day, all of the little jobs that stack up. The average was about 56. That does not include anything related to my classroom practice. The demands of that on your cognitive load are huge. You’re spinning so many plates. In order to be able to deal with them all effectively, you need to reduce as many of them as you can with planning ahead. There are always going to be difficult days in pastoral work. But by taking out as many pressures as you can, it makes it just about a doable job! As much as it is challenging, it’s the best job in the school and I won’t hear otherwise!
I’m a self confessed make up obsessive. This will not be news to those of you that know me well. It’s my hobby and my passion, outside of teaching. I often get asked about make up for work, most often being asked about how to keep your make up on through a busy teaching day.
As a pastoral leader, my days are looooong. They’re also active, very active. I am most often found running around the school. It’s part of the job. But keeping your face on and flawless is a challenge, especially when schools are often the same temperature as the sun. Over the years, I have perfected my routine. It can hold up for around 14 hours. Sure, it starts to look a bit tired by around 6-7pm, but generally speaking, I am not embarrassed by it! This is my routine:
You need a good base before applying any make up. My skin is both dry and oily so I have to combat both issues. After cleansing and toning (Pixi Glow Tonic Cleansing Gel and Pixi Glow Tonic Toner ), I need a hydrating base for my moisturiser. I use The Ordinary Marine Hyaluronics. A hyaluronic based serum, it is designed to boost the impact of your moisturiser. It’s lighter than a hyaluronic acid serum, but does a similar job. I follow this with Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturising Lotion, a holy grail product that I’ve used since I was 15. I’ve never found anything as perfect as this. If you have dehydrated or dry skin, I couldn’t recommend this more. Bearing in mind I’m a skin care junkie, for something to stay in my routine for 17 years – it’s that good. Both of these products are light weight and sink in quickly, which is key for keeping your make up on. The last thing you need is a layer that adds in any slip if you’re looking for longevity in your make up.
I follow my skin base with Benefit Porefessional Primer in pearl available here. I have big pores on my nose and this fills them in well. It’s also like glue for your foundation. It works really well with my skin care and doesn’t do that irritating piling thing!
When it comes to foundation, I am a Full Coverage kind of girl. If it’s mask like, it’s my jam. In the wise words of Jeffree Star, hello coverage. My favourite foundation is Urban Decay Lock It foundation available here. It’s thick coverage but it also sets like a dream. It stays put. I’ve previously been an Estée Lauder Double Wear girl, but I found this would still separate on my oily areas within a few hours. I also wanted a bit more coverage than it gave. The Urban Decay ticks both of these boxes for me.
I follow up my foundation with the Urban Decay Waterproof powder available here.This stuff is ridiculous. It’s magic in a compact. It sets your make up but it also creates a waterproof layer above your foundation. A miracle. In my job, with the amount of running around that I do, I have been known to break out into the odd sweat. That’s not an issue with this bad boy layered on my face. It’s a gift from the Gods.
I then add my brows, contour powder, blusher and highlighter. Once that’s in place, I finish off with a layer of Urban Decay All Nighter Setting Spray available here.This stuff is like an extra layer of glue for your face.
For those of you who don’t wear as much make up, this might well sound like a lot. It is – but that’s how I like my make up. If you’re a fan of a more subtle look, you could easily swap out the foundation for a more natural finish, but keep in the powder and setting spray. In my experience, lighter foundations have less longevity on my skin. Some that I feel have good staying power but a more natural finish are Charlotte Tilbury Magic Foundation or Yves Saint Laurant Le Teint Touché Eclat Foundation.
Foundations are rarely one size fits all. We all have different skin and what works for one might not work for another. If you’re not sure where to start, or you don’t want to shell out loads of money, go to a department store and get some samples first. Most MUAs are happy to colour match you and give you a sample to try.
If you have any questions, hit me up! I’m always happy to chat about make up.
On the back of reading Bob Pritchard’s blog about his own teaching faux pas in Science, it brought back some of my own teaching moments that I now look back on and cringe over! Unlike Bob, we weren’t setting fire to tampons in a Science lab, but over the past 10 years, Key Stage 3 English, has, in some areas, ended up as a bastardised version of English through the guise of ‘skills’. It became gospel that English was a skills based subject, not a knowledge based subject. I need to be clear here – I am not criticising anyone involved in the writing of curricula at the time. I have the absolute privilege to work with some of the most inspirational people going. But that merely serves to highlight, to me at least, that the bad ideas permeated far and wide.
Top of the Flops
Coming in at number 5 is an old favourite of many English teachers I’m sure – the Shakespeare soap saga drama! As was customary in the Dark Times, rather than actually teach students something about Shakespearean texts, instead, accepted wisdom was to develop their ‘skills’ through drama based approaches. A particular low moment for me, whilst teaching Romeo and Juliet, is getting students to re-create a scene between Juliet and her mother as a modern day Soap Opera perfect for the pre watershed slot on BBC1. Somehow, I ended up with a class of girls screaming ‘you’re not my muvva!’ with an equally ear drum bursting ‘YES I AAAAAM’. Whilst their drama skills were perfect for a Slateresque iconic moment, they had learnt precisely nothing about Shakespeare or Romeo and Juliet.
Taking the place at number 4 was an incredible, innovative unit that I decided to teach to a low prior ability SEN KS3 group. Rather than teach them to read or write functionally, in one of my most wild moments, I decided that a unit of ‘learning’ (and I use that term lightly) on designing their own Theme Park would be The Thing that developed their English skills. Obviously, it didn’t. They couldn’t read or write any more fluently than when the unit started, nor did they know anything more about English. But they had designed their own ‘Love rollercoasters’ and ‘Chocolate Rivers’. Life changing, it was not.
Rolling in at number 3 is the time I decided that turning my classroom into the Actual Harry Potter Experience would be the best thing ever for a low prior ability KS3 group. I went all out – I mean all out. On an NQT wage, I must have in excess of £50 on this one lesson. We had magic spells, we had potions, we made slime, I dress up as a witch – we had the best time! The lights were on low, the Harry Potter sound track playing in the background. The closest we got to learning anything was that spells aren’t real and play doh knackers the carpet when you mix it with slime and food colouring. As a wide eyed NQT+1, I even wrote about this inspirational lesson in a job application. In hindsight, having taught them something about English might have made me a better teacher to them.
Runner up for the Top Flop, coming a close second, number 2 is a project I creatively named Playdoh Esio. Clearly, having not learned my lesson from the Harry Potter scene of horrors, my 22 year old self felt that getting my class to create play doh versions of the characters from Esio Trot would be world class teaching and learning. At best, there was a tedious link between what they had read in the book and the way they made the characters. At worse, they were making 100 teeny tiny tortoises because that’s what the book says. Great. What was I going to do with those? They ended up living in my room for months – which, coincidentally, left a permanent, blistering reminder that they’d learnt nothing about English. But they could make some tortoises shaped blobs. Awesome.
Aaaaaand coming in at number 1 Top Flop* is an old favourite of mine – the ‘writing instructions clearly’ lesson. In the Dark Days of previous English GCSE specs, there were writing ‘triplets’ which, obviously, became bastardised into skills we had to teach all the time regardless of what knowledge they’d need to develop those skills. My answer to this was, of course, to teach them the skills of writing instructions accurately. The lesson started with a task ‘write a set of instructions on how to make a jam sandwich’. Then, with a desk coated in cut up black bin liners, I would whip out a loaf of bread, some butter, a knife, some jam and a plate. Students would then read out their instructions and I would follow them literally. ‘Put the butter on the bread’ became me shoving my hand into the butter, scooping it out and slopping it on some bread. ‘Use the knife to put the jam on the bread’ would be demonstrated by me ramming the knife into the jam, ensuring the whole thing was covered, and roll it around the bread. Eventually, the instructions would become more precise and I would be able to make a sandwich without getting elbow deep in some cheap butter. Happy days – outstanding learning. They had all made progress because they could write a set of instructions for making a jam sandwich by the end of the lesson. I remember delivering the lesson once and a group of visitors dropped by unannounced – they were all trainee teachers. I dread to think what impression I gave them of what they should be aspiring to as fully qualified teachers with jam smeared on my face and an errant crust stuck to my hair. Welcome to teaching.
Over the years, I have learnt just how little impact I had in the Dark Days on learning. In each of these examples, students learnt very little, if anything, about English. That honestly devastates me – English is such a rich, wonderful, diverse subject and there was I was dumbing it down to an Eastendersmoment. What I hadn’t realised then, a pretty fundamental thing, was that students learn about what they think about in lessons. If I’m making a tool of myself with a loaf of bread, they’re going to remember the time Miss made mad sandwiches. If they’re divving about pretending that Juliet and her Mother are on Jeremy Kyle, or an episode of Eastenders, they’re thinking about Jeremy Kyle or Eastenders, not about Shakespeare or the text that’s so beautiful that is deserves to be the sole focus of their learning. An inescapable fact that I can’t ignore in my Top Five horrific moments are that the classes quite often were SEN or low prior ability. At the time, I thought I was making English accessible to them – now, I realise I was crippling their education with low expectations. Our most disadvantaged students, and our lowest prior attainers, are the furthest behind. They should be doing the most work, the hardest work, the work that brings them up to speed with their peers. In mistaking engagement for learning, I made that impossible – my heart was in the right place, but my head wasn’t.
Thankfully, things are changing, and with curriculum focus taking priority from OFSTED, and an increasingly evidence informed profession, I really hope that this ill-advised practice begins to be weeded out of education. Our young people deserve better.
*Honourable mention to the following that didn’t quite make the cut:
A few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk over on EduTwitter about the importance of the voice in teaching. Not the metaphorical one, the literal one; your actual voice box. Having lost the use of my own voice box for 3 years, I probably know the importance of this more than anyone. But I see so many teachers making dangerous choices with their voice, and sometimes I want to scream “no voice, no job”. I mean, I don’t, because screaming is bad for the old voice box, and the small but significant fact that I literally can’t, but internally I definitely am.
My own voice loss was complicated. For various trauma related reasons, I lost the ability to use my vocal chords at all. Although the root cause was a traumatic event in my teens, and I had to work through that, I still also had to learn how to use my voice again. In hindsight, although I could have done without the trauma in the first place, I feel really lucky to have had such expert, professional voice care that I feel teachers just don’t get, but absolutely need. So, if you’re interested in caring for your voice, here’s my top tips for keeping it healthy in a job that places so much demand on it.
1. If your voice is struggling, avoid the following: dairy (produces all kinds of mucusy crap, technical term, in your throat which is likely to compound the issue), spicy foods (even if they feel like they sooth it!), caffeine (I know!), alcohol (I know! But you’ll survive without it). Also, clearing your throat by trying to hack up throat gunk (another technical term) is also going to add further strain. Instead, you’ve got to swallow it down. It’s gross, but it’s literally why stomach acid is thing. All of these irritate the voice further, putting you at risk of more problems.
2. If you have a cold, the worst thing you can do is push through it. Sometimes, I see teachers whispering to counteract this. Big mistake. The actual worst thing you can do. Avoid. Instead, keep it hydrated with warm water.
3. Speaking of colds, cough sweets, throat sprays and cough medicines are the Devil’s work for your voice. They make it worse. If I could destroy something forever, I’d destroy these. They’re dangerous. Just don’t.
4. Your voice needs warm ups just like any other muscle in your body. When I was re learning to use mine, I had to moo like a cow. There are plenty of people who can attest to how good I am at being a cow. But aside from that, mooing or doing a Z hum can help keep your voice healthy.
5. Breathing is vital. That sounds pretty obvious – like, we’d be dead if we weren’t. But it’s about how you breathe. Pre speech therapy, it didn’t occur to me that there was a right way to breathe. There is – and it should be coming from your stomach. If your chest is rising, you’re doing it wrong. Place your hand just above your belly button – that’s where it should rise and fall, not your chest. This is probably the thing I come back to most. I’ll always have a vocal weakness – I can’t shout, and if I have any form of negative emotion, it manifests in my voice box, and I feel the bits in my throat trying to take over. It’s taken me literally years to be able to do public speaking. A combination of nerves, imposter syndrome and my screwed up voice box means it’s significantly harder for me to project and be heard. But stomach breathing is an absolute must for me in being able to do it with relative ease now.
Now, I’m far from a professional speech therapist, and I don’t want anyone to think I’m giving medical advice here. I’m not. I’m just trying to offer some pearls of wisdom on things that I come back to, time and time again, when my voice is struggling. I’m always going to have a vocal weakness – I’ve accepted that. If you’re worried about your voice, get straight to a GP. Get some proper medical advice on it. There’s a plethora of things it could be – I’ve been tested for pretty much all of them! Don’t delay it or just think that it’ll be fine.
When your voice is your job, it pays the bills. Look after it and treat it with care and respect. It’s the most powerful thing you have.
One of the biggest changes in the last few years in education is the abolition of national pay scales which teachers automatically progress through. As a result, and combined with government academy policy, schools across the country have vastly different methods, some of which require teachers to jump through crazy hoops for a minor salary increase. This can often mean that teachers are given numerical exam data targets to meet if they want to move up the scale, or it can mean lesson observations at a certain ‘grade’ – a practice which is vastly becoming outdated and generally accepted to show us very little about the quality of teaching, with observers often measuring poor proxies for learning rather than exploring learning over time.
In this context, then, I feel really fortunate to work in a school that is ahead of game in this respect. We dropped formal, graded lessons observations some time ago, and combined this change with a PPD (personal professional development) system of PRP (performance related pay). Our policy is project based, and asks that teachers identify, in around July time, an area of their teaching that they wish to improve, and to go off and try some things to see if they can improve it, followed by exploring the impact of said changes to see if they are worth implementing over time. It is as straightforward as that. In July, we hand in our ‘log’ of what we’ve been up to, which doesn’t have to be in a set format, just show what we’ve been doing. During the course of the academic year, we also check in with our line managers about what we’ve been doing and whether we need some support or guidance to help us move things forward. Throughout the year, we have calendared slots of 1hr 15 mins in which to work on our project. This is something that I think is crucial, to have that time earmarked for the work. There are 6 of these over the academic year. At the end of the cycle, in July, we share our ‘logs’ with SLT and governors and pay decisions are based on this. This year, my log was a purple and silver uniforn notepad, a folder with copies of the research papers I’d read and annotated, plus a copy of my blog post which I wrote following my talk at ResearchEd Oxford about the work I’d done in the last academic year for my PPD. I also included some copies of resources I had made.
Although I jest about the unicorn book, it did enable me to work in the way I work best which is another huge positive for me. You can see here the kind of stuff I had inside:
As well as the obvious love I have for the freedom of the log, there are plenty of other reasons this policy works so well.
First, the emphasis is firmly on teaching and learning, and creating some real, meaningful change to your practice. I remember the head talking when he first launched this policy and saying that having 100 teachers working on 1 improvement is far better than the same 100 working on a box ticking exercise; I couldn’t agree more. The PRP process can sometimes be completely devolved from your day to day teaching, whereas this method encourages us to try new things, read widely and experiment with confidence. For someone who like me, who lives and breathes this kind of thing, it’s heaven! Furthermore, the focus actually isn’t on whether or not the improvement actually works – that’s almost irrelevant in the wider picture. It is about the engagement with, and response to, pedagogy. As long as you’ve engaged with your idea, tried it and worked hard on it, if it doesn’t have an impact, then that’s fine so long as you learn from it.
Secondly, the timings of the policy are important in the wider culture shift. By having the deadline for submission in July, it prevents staff from using exam data and actively encourages us to evidence impact in other ways. This is a real stand out point for me in that it reflects that exam data isn’t always the best measure of teacher quality. The argument behind this is one I empathise with – improved teaching should, in turn, lead to improved learning over time, which will be reflected in whole data any way. It’s too early to tell this on a wider, whole school level, I suspect, but from my own practice, I know I have made some significant changes from which I see impact in the classroom regularly.
And finally, in terms of teacher retention, this policy is, for me, one of the best ways to keep your best teachers in your schools. I have found it completely reinvigorating and I wouldn’t ever now move to a school that did things differently, such as exam data targets and formal, grade lesson observations. The impact on my practice has been significant. For example, during the last academic year, I focussed my project on using cognitive science to address the challenges presented in the new, closed book, English Literature GCSEs. In the end, this became the topic for a talk that I did at ResearchEd Oxford (which I blogged about here), and now a number of colleagues elsewhere have benefitted from the work that I had done as part of my own PPD project. Isn’t that just brilliant? The impact of one decision made in school, to enable our teachers to be creative and free, has led to change for the better in a number of other schools – it makes the alternative, ticking a few boxes for a 4+ headline figure, seem laughable, frankly.
This year, I’ve been working on strategies to make marking more manageable whilst increasing impact and I have some great ideas that will hopefully also benefit colleagues both in school and in the wider teaching community.
I’ve been more than spoilt by seeing how good things can be when schools unleash their teachers in this kind of transformative way and I have no desire at all to return to uninspiring tick boxes which have little bearing on student outcomes.
AQA Paper 1 Question 3
This seems to be the question that worries everyone. Except for the monster that is Question 4 on Paper 2, it seems to have baffled students and teachers alike. For one of my groups, nothing I tried was working. At the end of my tether with it, one day, as I was modelling for what felt like the six thousandth time, out of nowhere came an idea. Much like those that arrive in my brain in the shower, it seems to be one of my better ideas. It worked brilliantly. I’d like to thank my brain for being 18 months late to the party.
One of the areas that seemed to be problematic for mine was in contextualising their comments and showing a clear understanding of the extract as a whole. To address this, I asked them to look at the first sentence of each paragraph, not in terms of its structure, but in terms of its focus and content. I used this extract, Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby:
Starting with the first sentence of the extract, we identified the focus as being on the character of Gatsby.
We carried on, with the focus of each of the paragraphs. The next one revealed a focus on fruit. The one after, caterers. Finally, I asked them to identify the content of the last sentence.
This particular extract, combined with this focus, worked brilliantly in moving students away from the “makes you want to read on” that I was frustratingly accustomed to seeing from answers on this question.
We looked at the chain of events: the neighbour, the fruit, the caterers and the guests. By looking at the content specifically, students were then able to draw out an answer to “why”.
Here are some of the points my group made, word for word:
• The focus on the neighbour at the start of the extract could imply that he is an important character to the narrator.
• The change of focus from the neighbour to the fruit could show the extravagance of the character because it’s the next thing that the narrator focuses on, it could be that as soon as you see the main character, it’s like their extravagance is the first thing you notice about them and it could be that the narrator is almost fascinated by this as well, which is why it’s positioned in this way.
• The focus then changes to the caterers and when they arrive, which is often “At least once a fortnight” which could show that the narrator is often watching these events as an outsider and because this is the third focus, it might be that the narrator is not involved.
• The final sentence ends with a focus on the guests. The focus is on his criticism of them, which could suggest that the extract is building up to this. The narrator mocks the people who are attending and by building up towards this, he emphasises he feelings towards them.
Now, I’m not saying these are perfect, but they are a great deal more contextualised than previous attempts they’d done. Time and time again, students weren’t contextualising their comments on the effects of the structural choices, and this really helped them to tweak this. Their marks were moving up, from Band 1 responses to some Band 3 responses. It also meant that students were able to comment more on the extract as a whole, summarising how it develops, alongside making analytical comments as to the effects.
From this, I’ve been better able to develop students’ answers more. They’re thinking less about how to make contextualised comments, because they have a clear model and process to follow. Having a process to follow has, I think, eased the cognitive load and allowed them to be able to focus more on their analysis. Previously, I’ve been guilty of bombarding them with structural terminology. A step back from this has renewed their focus on how they could approach it in the exam. I think AQA have been really clear, recently, that phrases like “focus” and “shift” can be used in answers that score highly. Their clarity on this has helped me strip back the approach – it’s about what’s said, where, and why. Using “What, where and why” is refreshingly simple and proving effective for my students on this question. I’m certainly seeing far less of the “the writer makes you interested so you read the next bit” comments. And that can only be a good thing, right?
At the ResearchEd English+MFL conference in April, I spoke about how I have used research based ideas to rise to the challenge of the new AQA Grade 9-1 GCSEs. I wrote about it for the fabulous #teamenglish blog and it seems right to use it now that I’ve created my own blog.
One of the main reasons I engage with research is to ensure that there’s evidence behind choices that I make in the classroom, and in my wider practice. For English teachers up and down the land, the new GCSEs have meant we are making more new decisions than even before, often where we don’t have any concrete evidence. Arguably, one of the biggest challenges many teachers have had to rise to is the closed book element of the English Literature GCSEs. Students have to study 3 texts, alongside a hefty anthology of poetry. And, if they want to do well, they need to learn many, many quotations to use in the exam this coming Summer.
As my year 11s progressed through the course, and sat their first formal mock exam in November, it became increasingly clear that a major factor in under performance was the lack of quotations some students had used in their exam answers. I knew I had to do something to fix it. I read around the research on memory and on retention. On David Didau’s blog (http://www.learningspy.co.uk/) , I saw he’d referenced a paper by Cepeda et al (2008) which proposed optimal intervals for retaining information. He shared this:
This image is what lead me to the Cepeda paper, which is freely available here: http://laplab.ucsd.edu/articles/Cepeda%20et%20al%202008_psychsci.pdf
The paper suggests that in order to retain information for 6 months, which is what I needed for my GCSE groups, a study session for the information should take place every 3 weeks. From this, I devised a programme of study for my year 11s, all of which would be undertaken as homework. They would have 5 tasks a week for learning quotations for each of their literature texts, and, after 3 weeks, these would be gradually replaced with recap tasks each week. It looked a bit like this:
In preparation for this, I spent some time explaining this to my groups, and talking through the methods to recap their work. All of this work would be done in “homework books”, which I would check weekly, to ensure students were learning high quality quotes. And so, in January, off they went.
I knew I needed to measure how well this was working. After all, the need for retaining quotations was high, and the impact of it not working was really quite risky. Still, I have faith that evidence based findings should, in theory, be replicable. By March, I had done a range of activities in lessons which showed some indication that it was working. Random recall starters and 5 a day starter activities (a frankly brilliant idea put forward by @TLPMsF https://thelearningprofession.wordpress.com/) suggested that students were retaining new quotations. However, I needed to test it out in more robust detail. 3 months after their mock exam, my groups sat another. Their initial mock was on Romeo and Juliet so I decided to use the same text, and only have 1 exam, rather than one on each text. The reason for this was to be able to measure the improvement in marks, specific to one text. They hadn’t sat a mock on the other texts, and so I didn’t have a reliable benchmark for these, despite their quote learning tasks being on all 4 literature texts.
The findings were surprising. In the initial mock exam, a total of 3 different quotes had been used. In the second, 40 different quotes were used. I was delighted by the increase, especially as it was a no notice mock. Not only had the variety of quotations increased, the amount they were using increased too. In their first mock, an average of 1.2 quotes were used. In the second, that went up to 3.0. Their marks went up, too. 96% increased their mark (on our internal grade boundaries). With this, 22% saw a 1 grade increase, 29% a 2 grade increase, 19% a 3 grade increase, and 6% a 4 grade increase. I was really very happy with their progress, especially in light of the fact that our curriculum plan meant that I hadn’t recapped or revised the text with them at all in the time between their first and second mock.
There were some other, more incidental things that I learnt from marking their second mocks. Earlier on, I mentioned that I’d used Rebecca Foster’s 5 a day starter idea. In students’ work, I saw that some of the quotes that they’d used best were those that had featured in one of these activities. When I do this as a starter, I follow it with modelling what I’d pick out of the quotes, what analyses I’d make, different interpretations, subject terminology and how I’d make contextual links. Students were transferring this very well. When I repeat this quote learning journey next year, one thing I will plan far more closely is that my staters follow up what students have done the previous week, to build their knowledge of the quotations in more depth.
I’ve also thought long and hard about the right time to start something like this with students. I think one of the reasons it worked as well as it did is down to it coming after the students’ first mock exam. Many were disappointed with their result. They needed some firm guidance with how to improve, and this provided just that. Rather than simply providing “Learn quotes” as their area for improvement, they had a simple programme to follow to achieve that. Equally, by using the 5 a day starters to test their recall, students could see that it was working, meaning they were more likely to buy into it as an idea. I think, had they not seen an improvement, their buy in might have weakened and it would have been less effective overall.
And so, my top tips for enabling students to adequately prepare for the English Literature exam would be:
• Design the programme for them.
• Make it compulsory
• Use starters and in class activities regularly to enable students to build their confidence
• Introduce it at the right time – they need a motivation for it
• Don’t leave it too late. Students have a lot to learn for this exam, alongside their other subjects.
I have uploaded all of the resources mentioned in my talk at ResearchEd into a Dropbox. You’ll find the PowerPoint slides from the talk, as well as research papers and the homework resources in here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/wh7az8vp2kw88j9/AABt1Gw-_VyKXeotz1bLOhLua?dl=0
You can find me on twitter @amforrester1 where I’m more than happy to take questions you may have.
I have been working on collating the free opportunities that are out there for students who aren’t applying for A Levels but are looking more at college pathways. There often isn’t bridging work from providers or the in house knowledge required for the huge range of areas students may be applying for. Here’s what I’ve got so far, and I must thank Grainne Hallahan from the TES for pointing me in the direction of most of these. If you find something that you think year 11s in this position would benefit from, let me know on twitter @amymayforrester and I will add it to the list.
Cumbria Youth Alliance
Cumbria Youth Alliance are a wonderful group that help support young people in Cumbria aged 14-25. They have produced a range of free e-learning modules that you can complete during the school closures. There are lots of things to choose from and some examples are listed below. They are things that can help your career development, but also things that help develop you as a person. There are wellbeing modules where you can learn more about mental health and supporting your own mental health and resilience in positive ways. For those of you looking to move into the health and social care sectors, these will be excellent.
- Change and Resilience
- Developing Mental Strength
- Managing Stress & Anxiety
- Mental Health: Body and Mind and many more
Support with your Career
- Career Ahead
- Career Resilience
- Work life balance and many more
Modules to improve your CV
- Introduction to food hygiene safety
- First Aid
- Health and Safety
- Understanding data protection
- Career ahead
- Manual Handling
To find out more and sign up, go to https://www.cya.org.uk/e-learning/young-people where you will find more information about signing up.
The Khan Academy has made their learning resources free for all during the lockdown. There are hundreds of things that you can learn on there. Sign up and have a browse!
Rosetta Stone is an online porgramme where you can learn a new language. This is an in demand skill in the workplace – why not learn the basis of some languages you’ve not studied before?
History and Culture
The British Museum have opened up their content for free during the lockdown. If you have a particular interest in History or finding out more about the past, this is a superb resource.
Drama and theatre
The National Theatre have made a range of things available for free. If you are interested in drama, theatre studies, or just enjoy live theatre, take a look. https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/learning/national-theatre-collection
There are also Broadway musicals available to watch for free here: https://www.playbill.com/article/15-broadway-plays-and-musicals-you-can-watch-on-stage-from-home
Online Courses in a range of areas
Future Learn have made their online learning modules available for free. There are so many different areas: business and management, creative arts and media, healthcare and medicine, history, IT and Computer Science, languages, law, literature, nature and the environment, politics and society, psychology and mental health, science, engineering and maths, study skills and teaching. You can find out more here https://www.futurelearn.com/ . Thinking about the wide range of courses that I know you’re all applying for, there is literally something for everyone on there!
Computer Science, IT and Coding
For those of you pursuing courses in this arena, or if you want to develop your computer skills in readiness for making yourself an excellent candidate for jobs in the future (and employers DO want people who are strong in this area), CODE are offering free resources to help you develop in this area. You can find out more here: https://code.org/athome?_ga=2.120568008.1590534741.1586847688-2106906943.1586422860
Art and Culture
For those of you pursuing creative, arts based careers, the Tate have free access to a tour of the actual Tate museum. This is a great opportunity to broaden your experience and knowledge of culturally significant art. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/360-video/grimshaw
Science and STEM
For those of you looking to get into the Science industry, The Royal Society have a range of free resources. You can find out more here: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/education-skills/teacher-resources-and-opportunities/science-at-home/
My January column in the Times Educational Supplement focuses on getting to the truth of what really happened. https://www.tes.com/news/3-ways-get-truth-after-behaviour-incident
English is underpinned by hundreds, if not thousands, of allusions. I fully believe that we need to explicitly teach these to students in order to open the doors of academia. I wrote the following article for Teach Secondary on why I believe this and some ideas about how to do this. There is also a free lesson resource alongside it: https://www.teachwire.net/teaching-resources/ks3-english-lesson-plan-make-deep-literary-connections-with-the-power-of-allusion#login-box24
If you have a go at it, please let me know how you found it or what improvements you made in delivering it.
Developing academic language in students is something that is incredibly important. Without this, they cannot become fully fledged academic scholars of our subjects. I wrote the following article for Teach Secondary in which I explain why this is so important, and suggest some strategies for doing this: https://www.teachwire.net/news/why-teachers-of-every-subject-must-develop-students-academic-language