Author Archives: Perfectly imperfect educator

Less but better?⤴

from

There are four full weeks of term left until our holidays. Having just entered level 4 of Covid restrictions in our local authority, these next few weeks won’t have quite the same feeling which the usual run-up to Christmas normally has. No frantic late night Christmas shopping. No Christmas coffee mornings or craft fayres. No Christmas dance or parties. No school nativity or church carol service.

Whilst there is undoubtedly some sadness around the cancellation of all of these forbidden annual celebrations, there is a small part of me that in some ways is quite glad that all the ‘stuff’ has been stripped away, and instead I can focus on quality time with my immediate family and what’s really important to me. Do we really need the vast commercialisation of Christmas? I’m trying to find positives in the challenges we are all facing instead of moaning about being unable to celebrate in ‘the way we’ve always done it.’

It got me thinking about how Covid could help us to see education in a similar way. It seems to me that in many ways the pandemic gives us a chance to really question why we’ve always done things this way. And whether, if by stripping away the ‘stuff’ we could impact more positively on the lives of our young people.

We’ve now survived nearly 4 months of teaching in this new normal. For me, it’s meant a fresh focus on pedagogy. It has involved slowing down to go faster. It has resulted in me seriously improving my digital skills. It’s definitely not been easy and I’m very aware of the huge pressure we are all under. But it has also been refreshing to be forced into discovering new and sometimes better, ways of working.

So therein lies the question. What’s important and what’s not? To answer this we firstly need to ask ourselves what the purpose of education is. If we consider this important point it perhaps gives us some clarity around what is central to our learning and teaching. For me, education is important to instil a love of learning, to teach our young people how to learn, and to inspire them to keep on learning. To give them confidence in their individual skills and knowledge as well as allowing them to find their voice in the world. So it’s important for me to consider what I feel contributes to providing the learning environments where this can happen. And question if it’s really effective just because it’s the way

There are many aspects of school life which look quite different to how they looked this time last year. It’s debatable whether these changes are impacting positively, but it’s an important debate to have. This disruption to normality and our assumptions is a real opportunity for conversations and questioning in education. I hope it’s a Chance for us to think differently about how we ensure the best for our young people.

Despite the many frustrations around the delay in relaying information about exam requirements in 2021, in contrast this has for me, been encouraging. I have instead, seen and heard teachers teaching to learn, not just teaching to an exam. I hope this has helped teachers to grow in confidence as they are reminded of the key concepts and learning in their subject instead of perhaps falling into the trap of teaching formulaic responses to exam questions. By focussing on the knowledge needed to confidently demonstrate the skills assessed, I hope our learners will be more prepared to approach whatever form of assessment they face. And perhaps cope better with further and higher education as a result.

In addition to this, in Art and design there has been a real shift of mindset to focus on quality not quantity of work. Rather than our young people churning out various similar pieces of art work – spending hours in class, after school and at home – to fill space on a sheet, we are instead encouraged to do less but focus on quality. For some of our learners, especial slow, careful workers, this shift is really advantageous. It allows their high quality work to shine without them being put off by the amount of work required. Many pupils have previously been turned off our subject by the sheer time it takes to complete folio work. Rather than the calming, creative outlet for young people which art and design should provide, it sometimes becomes a rushed dash to tick folio items off a list with teachers and young people both becoming stressed and anxious. I would welcome more discussion around how we help young people to capture and showcase their best learning. Let’s think about how we can best assess what we value.

Another consideration which I feel it would be useful to discuss is the structure and systems in place within schools. Do we need young people in the secondary building 5 full days? Do we need staff in School or could this open up opportunities for greater flexible working? Would later start times help young people to be less tired during the day? Can we learn lessons from the remote/blended learning timetable models many schools developed during lockdown, and which many young people thrives under? I know in art and design we were very excited by the possibility of seeing seniors for fewer but longer periods of time. In a practical subject this would be hugely beneficial. We saw the benefits this would have in terms of relationship building with pupils but also in terms of encouraging independent learning. There are so many questions which can be extremely unsettling and frustrating for staff, but yet it welcomes the possibility of a new normal.

Perhaps controversially, there are many other aspects which indeed contribute to a healthy school experience for learners but have had to be adapted. We must ask ourselves if these are essential or if there is another way we can give pupils these experiences.

I suppose it’s important to finally point out that every single person I know in education is currently working flat out in the strangest of situations to ensure the very best for our learners. School and senior leaders are under a huge amount of pressure at the moment, and I am personally in awe of how they are coping. The situation we find ourselves in in school is hugely challenging but it is no surprise that our amazing teachers are rising to the challenge. Right now might not be the right time to implement huge change. Capacity amongst staff is limited during current times. But I do think it’s important to debate the status quo. If we fail to have these conversations now, and go back to doing things the way we’ve always done them then nothing will change.

When things get tough this week remember that being positive is not pretending that everything is good, it is trying to see the good in every situation.

As always, it would be useful to hear your thoughts. Have a good week everyone!

We all have to start somewhere…⤴

from

For the last two weeks, we have had the privilege of having a PGDE student teacher on placement in our department. I’d like to think that this has been not only a learning opportunity for her, but also a chance for each of us in the department to reflect on our own learning and teaching in order that we demonstrate the highest quality lessons. It has prompted me to consider some of the most important aspects of our practice in this blog post and the valuable pieces of advice which might help new student teachers as they approach the midpoint of their first placement. I hope it might be useful for student teachers and NQT’s, but sometimes we all need a reminder, regardless of the length of our experience.

Remembering back to my own early student teacher days, I am constantly reminded of just how tough it was as a student teacher. I had a brilliant first placement but even so, there was So much to learn, so much to remember, so many new people and not enough hours in the day. Not to mention how exhausting it all

was. Then of course there’s the small issue which our current student teachers face: learning how to be a teacher during a pandemic. With this in mind, I hope this post will encourage and inspire our student teachers, yet remind more experienced teachers of the challenges those new to the profession are facing so they may act with compassion and empathy. Yes it is tough. Yes it is challenging. Yes there are lessons which don’t go as well as others. But it’s also the best job in the world and an absolute privilege for us to play such an important part in the lives of young people. Hang onto the good moments. See the positive. Remember the difference you are making.

Something that we as teachers perhaps don’t admit as often as we should: Everyone has bad lessons. Things don’t always go to plan. Sometimes learners just don’t get it, no matter how much time we’ve spent preparing. There are times we overestimate how much we’ll get through in a lesson. There are occasions when a disruption to the lesson makes it really difficult to get back on track. We have all experienced it. Student teachers shouldn’t think that after so many years, teachers magically become perfection personified, and don’t encounter these trying instances anymore. And it’s equally as important for us as supporters and mentors to remember this too – so we are able to empathise and relate to the difficulties faced in a way which supports and helps move forward. A bad lesson doesn’t make you a bad teacher. It is how you use the experience to shape you as a teacher.

A really important quality which I think is integral to the success of any teacher, is the ability to self-reflect. It’s so important to be able to look back honestly at lessons and pick out the areas of strength and areas of development. I believe this is one of the key areas which will help any teacher to get better. And although reflection can be something which slips down the priority list when demands on our time become pressured, it’s so important to help us identify where to turn our attention to in order to further improve. Many teachers become so experienced at this, that they do it almost without realising. Were we clear enough on what it was we wanted the young people to learn? Did we communicate this clearly? Did we model our expectations? How did our questioning help to make students think? How could we do it differently next time? Often these questions subconsciously fuel the planning of our next lesson. But early on in our careers it can be more useful to dedicate time for this and make a conscious effort to consider how it could be better. Striving to continually develop and become the best you can be is a quality which will ensure you are an excellent practioner, long after your student placement.

I do fear that with experience and a lack of self awareness, it can sometimes be tempting to look less at our own part in the lesson, and instead blame the young people. This is sometimes easier to do than admit we ourselves might be able to make changes to improve learning. The pressure to get through courses, stick to plans and plough onwards despite issues can sometimes seem more important than slowing down and stopping to reflect. By unpicking the pedagogy and content of the lesson, it can help us to see things through a different lense, giving us alternative strategies to try. The aspiration to become better and better at what we do is a very visible and very desirable quality. It will take time. But the desire to want to be better is the first step in getting there.

Becoming a better teacher however, doesn’t always mean having the flashiest lesson with the best resources or an activity which encourages the most engagement. Remember that sometimes these tasks can actually distract from the knowledge you want the learners to retain. Your time as a student teacher, and indeed an experienced teacher is finite. You can’t possibly create elaborate, handmade resources for every lesson. So concentrate on the learning, not on the activities. Start small. Think about what will have the biggest impact on the learning. Your presence, your voice, your words, your pedagogy, your modelling, your relationships, and your encouragement in the classroom will all be far more powerful, and sustainable, in the longer term.

A fairly new development in the world of teaching and is Edu-twitter. Twitter is a place of huge encouragement, support and connection for teachers. Like me, you may already use it to share ideas and approaches, connecting with others to adapt ideas and ask questions. But like all social media, there are downsides. It’s important to acknowledge that often teachers only post the best bits of their practice, which can sometimes create a false illusion of the reality of the classroom. It’s important not to be drawn in to comparing ourselves to other teachers. Yes, use social media to reach out to others and create your own important professional learning network. For me, it’s been invaluable. But beware of the curse of becoming obsessed with creating lessons solely to share on twitter. And don’t be disheartened when you see examples of amazing practice – remember this is just a snapshot of the best bits! We don’t see many posts from teachers of the chaotic tidying up routine, or the mess left over at the end of the day! Focus on the learning and everything else will fall into place.

Remember, It’s a huge learning curve. You are doing brilliantly. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Celebrate every small success. And reach out to others – conversation always helps! Have realistic expectations of your progress and take it a lesson at a time.

I hope this post has been helpful. If any of it has been useful, please feel free to connect – I am always happy to chat further.

Have a great week.

Gentle and strong⤴

from

When I consider my own personal character, as both a mummy and as a leader, strength is not one of the first words I would probably associate with myself. I’m extremely driven, but despite this, I doubt most of the things I do, and am highly self-critical of my actions, thoughts and judgements.  I’m a very emotional person. I cry easily.  As a reaction to both good and bad situations.  I get overwhelmed.  I’ve been criticised as a leader for being ‘too nice’ by a former colleague.  My body is fairly strong, but recently has been exhausted and prone to illness.  So, if we are measuring strength on emotional and physical qualities, I would say I don’t feel particularly strong at the moment.

But then I found this quote:

‘There are two ways of exerting one’s strength – one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.’

I really liked the sentiment of this and agree wholeheartedly.  In fact, in the context of leadership, I think it is a very powerful analogy. 

I’m sure we can all think of strong leaders.  Now consider whether their strength was used to push down on their teams to influence and control them.  Or whether they used their strength to pull up those below them, empowering teams by modelling resilience, compassion and integrity. 

Thinking of leadership through this lens, perhaps helps me to unpick some of the qualities I may have doubted, and frame them in a more positive light to help me celebrate my own remarkable strength. 

It’s taken me a while to realise, but strength doesn’t have to be the loud, confident voice.  Strength isn’t always about having all the answers.  Strength is rarely about using your power to force your views on others.  And strength is never aggressive behaviour used to control others or make them feel inferior.  Leadership in this style creates insecurities which breed fear, alienation and lack of ownership.  Unfortunately this toxic concept of strength, is prevalent in many organisations.  But there is another way.  Strength can be about more than power.  Being both soft and strong is a combination very few have mastered. 

Strength can, and does come from setbacks, struggles and challenges.  It is characterised by perseverance and determination.  It often grows from a quiet voice inside which keeps reminding the self to keep going, and try again tomorrow.  Strength is being human, and admitting when you are vulnerable.  Strength is carrying the burdens of others, alongside your own.  Strength is encouragement which builds other up. 

I would like to think I model all of these.  When I’m overwhelmed, I hope I can learn from the feeling.  I hope it helps me be more empathetic to others, and aware of the challenges they face.  I hope the pride I feel from recovering from hard times, is able to inspire and encourage others.  I hope that I can make a difference through the thoughtful, persistence of my vision, and the strength of my values, not necessarily the volume of my voice or the power to dominate others.  When I express emotion and display my vulnerability, I hope others recognise that I am human and it is ok for them to do the same because I will understand.  These qualities all show strength but perhaps not what others might initially consider as strong.

This does not mean I don’t have difficult conversations.  Or challenge poor decisions, actions or incidents. But I do so with quiet confidence and strength in the belief that by leading by my values, I will be strong enough to take others with me, instead of dragging, pushing or forcing them.   Building others up, making connections and helping people feel valued, encourages them to be the best they can be. To feel stronger together.

Like one of my most inspirational leadership heroes, Jacinda Arden  ‘I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.’

Thanks for reading.

The pedagogy of Zog⤴

from

Nearly every night this week, I’ve read my littlest his current favourite story at bedtime. ‘Zog’ by Julia Donaldson. Every time I’ve read it, Madam Dragon’s pedagogy has struck me. For those of you who, unlike me, don’t know it off by heart, here’s her repeated classroom phrase…

‘Now that you’ve been shown, you can practise on your own. And you all be expert fliers by the time you’re fully grown.’

Madam Dragon, the expert, demonstrates the skill to the novices. Then she gives the learners time to practise. They learn how to fly, how to breathe fire and finally how to capture a princess. None of this is easy. These are seriously tough dragon skills. But her pedagogy is sound. Throughout this ‘I do, you do’ process they become confident in their learning.

I think in Art and Design we are pretty skilled at this. Modelling has always been vital to allow our learners to think and work through the creative process. I do worry however that sometimes, we can be guilty of simplifying the task rather than encouraging the learners to persevere, think hard and practise the tough stuff. Lessons usually start with the imparting of knowledge needed. They normally feature at least one or two demonstrations, where pupils gather around the teacher, get close to the art work and watch the technique or skill being demonstrated by the teacher. This might be broken down into steps to allow pupils to build confidence. Before finally encouraging pupils to return to their own desks and practise. In pandemic times, demonstration is no less important, but how we go about this has other challenges. I would however argue that the health and safety restrictions imposed upon us as a result of covid, can provide valuable opportunities for us to really focus on the pedagogy of modelling throughout the lesson, supporting teachers to improve their practice and in turn the learning opportunities for our young people.

I wonder how often we have been guilty of getting learners to guess how to do something we haven’t yet shown them? Or encouraged them to try something out without ever explicitly teaching them the process. Then wonder why their results weren’t as we had hoped. I know as I reflect upon my own teaching there have been many lessons, especially early on in my career, which would have been far more productive if I had just given pupils more direct, specific instruction. Of course there are times, especially in art and design when learners are encouraged to experiment. Indeed they require to work independently and creatively especially as they move up the school. However, in order that they are confident to do this successfully, it is vital that they have learned the important foundational knowledge as well as having had time to practise in order to develop their confidence. This is what allows them to move from the beginning of the learning cycle to the more advanced stages as they become more accomplished.

The ‘I do, we do, you do…’ technique has been really helpful for me when considering modelling. Similar to the way in which Madam Dragon herself first shows the dragons how to fly, we cannot expect our learners to know how to do something without first being shown. When planning lessons, it helps me to clarify what exactly I want the learners to know and be able to demonstrate by the end of the lesson. If I’m clear on the learning intention, then I am in a better position to make this clear to young people. Using a visualiser or my usual iPad set-up allows me adapt my normal demonstration so that pupils can see me working on the projector screen. I can model the use of watercolour. How to draw something to scale. Or even how to structure a written response. In some ways I think it is actually more powerful than a time-limited, round the table demo. The modelling can be continued throughout the lesson, and allows the ‘we do’ stage to take place very easily. Pupils can join in with me and take part in the practical task, still glancing at the screen to build confidence and learn from the expert whilst thinking hard. I can direct learners to watch again if necessary, and I can re-model tricky aspects if need be. In doing this, they are preparing to move to the ‘you do’ stage, which allows them to demonstrate their learning independently. Of course, the beauty is that learners don’t all necessarily need to move to this next stage at the same time. But when they do, they have the experience and knowledge to apply the learning effectively, with hopefully pleasing results. This accomplishment and success, is what I believe provides the biggest sense of achievement and motivation for our young people.

There is nothing greater than seeing your pupils finally grasp that which you have taught and their visible confidence, sometimes even enjoyment, in relishing the challenge and being successful. Just like Madam Dragon proudly watched her protégés fly off into the sky having learned all they needed to become successful, so too should we enjoy the privilege of being able model our knowledge and experience. Not just in the classroom under the visualiser. But in all we do as humans.

Thanks for reading my ramblings. Have a good week.

Botheredness⤴

from

One of the best bits of this week for me, was a visit from a smiley S2 boy asking me if I would like to visit his class. This is a fairly regular occurrence in our department, but nonetheless it always causes me to drop whatever I am doing and instantly make a fuss of the pupil as I go with them. I am regularly in and out of classrooms to build relationships with pupils and support staff, but there is something special when a pupil asks you to visit. What I find on entering this particular class, is a room full of engaged young people who are all extremely pleased with themselves, working hard on pop art ketchup bottles! It’s an absolute joy!

I’m going to pause here and think about this small interaction. Because sometimes it’s the little things that are the big things.

In so many ways this tiny moment, encapsulates so much about learning, teaching and relationships. The pupil was clearly proud of his achievements and wanted to share this with someone. It was important for me to realise the scale of this in his mind. Sometimes what’s important for a young person, can seem miniscule to a grown up. But we need to try to see it from their perspective. And not pass it off as being unimportant within our adult world of priorities and responsibilities. And it was an opportunity for me to celebrate his success. Appreciate this effort… and notice. Because if as an adult who cares about his learning and development can’t take time to do this, then who will? It’s what Hywel Roberts might refer to as ‘botheredness.’

It’s easy for us as teachers to be dragged down by pupils who aren’t focussed, who aren’t doing as you’ve asked and to see the learning and teaching through a lense of us being the one to put the wrong things right. It’s also extremely tiresome, not to mention exhausting and draining to be immersed your own thoughts, where it’s difficult to see anything other than the negative. I’ve often heard it said that we can’t change the event itself but we can choose our response to it. It’s very difficult for us as teachers to control the actions of our young people. But we can choose how we respond to their behaviour.

I’ll be the first to admit that amidst the stress of teaching in a busy classroom; with the register to complete, phone ringing, coursework deadlines, absent pupils, assessments to mark, more coursework to get through and reports to write, it can be extremely frustrating to have to go slower. Either to interact with those holding the learning back for others or pause to notice the good. It’s often easier to let stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed allow us be consumed and drawn into conversations or interactions which instead escalate the situation.

But here’s the thing. I’m the adult in the room. I’m the grown up who has more experience of regulating my behaviour. Thats not to say I don’t feel annoyed or frustrated. But it’s not personal. I can choose the way in which I respond.

I love this quote.

‘I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.’ Haim Ginott

By consciously choosing not to join their chaos, we can instead try to be the calm in their storm.

Admittedly, it’s not as easy to flip our mindset so that our attention is first drawn to best conduct. But with a bit of work, it can be done. And I would suggest that it creates huge positives for both the learners and the teacher. By making a conscious decision to do so, I am more inclined to notice positive things which I may have otherwise missed while my attention was occupied with negative interactions. It might not stop the undesirable behaviour but it focusses my attention on the desirable behaviours. And that can only be good for my own job satisfaction, stress levels and wellbeing.

But sometimes, changing our filter, and looking for the good not only impacts on our own perceptions within the classroom, it also impacts positively on the young people.

But wearing this filter in the classroom is only possible when we ourselves are rested, able to have perspective and control our own emotional reactions. So I would encourage all teachers to focus on your own wellbeing this October break. Take time to relax and recharge. Do things which make you happy and fill you with positive energy. Our young people need us to celebrate their successes. We need to be the ones who build them up, as there are often many other things fighting to tear them down. Catch them being good. See the positive. Appreciate small progress. Because if we model this, then someday they might look back and realise how our actions made them feel.

The art of conversation⤴

from

This week I posted a tweet about ‘conversation.’ Conversation provides an important opportunity to reflect. A chance to share. Time to grow. There’s no denying that conversation can sometimes be difficult. It can often challenge our thinking. Or touch on sensitive issues. But mostly it can support. It means we have to pause. And listen. It’s not monologue. It’s dialogue – a two way process. And I think there-in lies its value.

Each week I love making time to listen to the ‘Changing conversations’ podcast. I always feel inspired, calm and clearer about my purpose, after tuning in to the conversations which Sarah and Billy facilitate. But I also love the words of the introduction because they completely encapsulate for me what conversation is about.

Conversation is one of the oldest ways to nurture the conditions for growth and nurture. When we talk about what matters, we come alive, and conversation has the power to guide us to new and different actions that offer the potential for great things.

And so it makes me consider the part conversation plays in my own life.

The last few months have really tested our human need for connection. And whilst we weren’t able to meet each other for face to face conversation for much of lockdown, many of us improvised to encourage the conversation we craved. Zoom calls, FaceTime and teams meetings all allowed us to talk to each other and listen by reading facial expressions and gestures. We could connect in a way that emails or text messages simply didn’t allow. So when we returned to school in August, it was with a renewed sense of purpose that I wanted to make sure that conversation featured as a higher priority in my day, than emails or admin.

Conversation makes most things better. The personal connection, the tone of voice, the facial expression, the botheredness and time to pause, are all worth taking a few extra steps to speak to the person face to face. There’s no misunderstanding, no confusion and no interpreting a tone based on how the reader is feeling, rather than that intentioned by the sender. So I’m trying hard to send less emails, and go for a walk, to talk instead.

I’m a worrier. There have been many situations which I’ve worried about, been scared of or dreaded because I was unsure of the outcome. It is no good for someone to tell me not to worry, I can’t help it. But talking through my worries has always helped. And I suppose it’s no surprise then, that talking therapies are a common treatment for mental health concerns. I’ve seen a counsellor twice in my life – whilst going through a tough time in third year at art school and after the birth of my second son. Both experiences were hugely draining, exhausting, tearful and emotional. I dreaded the sessions, but almost always, did feel better afterwards. Because sometimes someone else can help us to see a different perspective. And chatting through an issue sometimes helps us to clarify and understand our own thought process.

I’ve sometimes found myself at the end of a tough day wandering the school corridor looking for someone whom I know will share a conversation which will make me feel better. Laughing, joking and putting things into perspective are all healthy by-products of a good chinwag. It’s so important to find your tribe who are there to share your thoughts and remind you of your worth.

When I first started as a Principal Teacher, I often worried before department meetings that I needed to have all the answers. I’m now more aware that my team collaboratively have the best answers. By building a climate of trust, where staff feel empowered, we are able to share honest conversation which shapes us all, and our individual thinking by learning from others.

I also love the opportunity to really converse with the young people I work with. I find that speaking honestly and sincerely to a young person can really help get to the root of any issues they are facing in class. Again, by building positive relationships in which learners trust you, they are more likely to share their experiences and allow you to listen, non-judgementally. By talking through empathetically and sharing our own stories, we can work together to make things better. Yes, this takes time. And yes it’s not always possible for many reasons. However, it is worth it in my opinion.

Conversation also has the power to challenge our thinking. That might be calling out something which is wrong or that you don’t feel necessarily aligns with your own values. Again, I find this is much more worthwhile to do in a personal, face to face opportunity. In many situations, this conversation allows both sides to learn from each other and consider another point of view.

Now more than ever we also need to be brave enough to have courageous conversations. The elephant in the room, will almost always provide the biggest opportunity for challenge and growth. Yes, these conversations may be difficult but we can’t shy away from them for that reason alone. Challenging the status quo, rethinking how issues align with our values and considering if there is a better way can often lead to those within the conversation taking greater ownership of the issue and buying into moving forward positively together to improve.

So then, I would urge you to notice your conversations this week and encourage you to be mindful of the positive impact they might be having on you or indeed, others.

Have a great week.

It’s just a question of good questioning…⤴

from

This blog post explores how socially distanced teaching has helped me realise how important my questioning is, and how it might not have been as good as I thought!

As someone who does a lot of black and white thinking, I must admit I like when there’s a right and a wrong. This year I’m teaching two huge higher photography classes, as well as NPA photography for the first time. I absolutely love Art and design – it is my passion, always will be, and creativity provides a real positive outlet for so many young people. But this year I’m really enjoying the challenge in delivering a knowledge rich subject. In so many ways, it is really helping me to understand my pedagogical thinking in a way that I’ve always found quite difficult to do in art and design because of the practical, skills based learning much of the time. Even within the written art and design studies element of the course, there is so much subjectivity and opinion that I’ve often found it difficult to clarify the knowledge learners need without stifling their critical, analytical thinking. So I’m hopeful that by focussing on questioning within my teaching of higher photography, I’ll also improve the pedagogy within art and design too.

While there have been many downsides to the health and safety mitigations created by teaching in a global pandemic, for me, one of the benefits, has definitely been the alternative ways in which I’ve been forced to ‘check the learning.’ Normally, I would be continually wandering around the classroom, engaging with and looking at pupil work. But to minimise contact with pupils, I’ve had to think more strategically about ways to test the understanding of my learners. To do this, I’ve really increased my focus on questioning. By doing this, I’ve realised that just because I’ve taught something in class, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been learned. I also recognise that as teachers, we can always get even better at the things we’ve always done.

As Rosenshine explains, effective teachers ask more questions from more students in greater depth, checking for understanding, involving all learners and exploring thinking processes and misconceptions as well as correct answers.

The first thing that I’ve tried hard to address, is something which has always been a key principle in my classroom – the need for high expectations for everyone in the class. Despite not being able to support learners in the usual way, I still need to ensure all learners are engaged, and learning. Covid19 and physical distancing shouldn’t provide an option for learners to hide in the classroom nor should it make it easier for them to opt out. It has taught me that this is important at all times, not just during a pandemic. So I’ve been trying to encourage all learners to be thinking hard in class. Because this is when the learning happens.

I’ve always used the strategy of ‘no hands up’ questioning which I find extremely useful for ensuring all learners are preparing an answer in case I ask them. But the challenges we face in light of physical distancing, have definitely forced me to make use of more innovative approaches to check the gap between teaching and learning. As my learners become increasingly familiar with using Microsoft teams, I’m creating daily assignments through this platform. Gimkit, Forms quizzes and Plickrs have all been brilliant for motivating all learners to participate in a low stakes way which instantly provides me with a formative assessment of their understanding and areas which perhaps need retaught. These allow learners to work independently, but allow me to closely monitor progress in real time. From my desk. Another benefit to learners is that these daily recap activities retrieve knowledge from both current lessons as well as further back, helping to improve their long term memory. I love being able to issue learning tasks which I’ve set up in our Class notebook, and see at a glance the evidence of learning which has occurred. I’m also able to give recorded verbal feedback through OneNote too which learners can refer back to at any time.

As I become more confident in teaching higher photography, I am also becoming more confident in recognising the aspects of learning which pupils will find tricky and the common mistakes and misconceptions which they will sometimes confuse. I can then address this through hinge point questions or multiple choice questions which identify either a surface level knowledge or a deeper, more sophisticated application of their understanding. I have also regularly started using the pie chart or graph results analysis graphics from quizzes to ask students why some learners may have selected a wrong answer. This has provided valuable learning opportunities as students have discussed and had to think carefully about their thinking. I’ve also found that successful learning has occurred when students have been given a less than perfect example answer and asked to improve it.

Another thing I’ve come to realise is that all questions are good questions. It just depends on the context. There has been much discussion about open/closed questions as well as Bloom’s taxonomy. I was always encouraged as a new teacher to use open questions to encourage deeper thinking by learners. As well as this, I was lead to believe that higher order thinking skills were more important than lower order thinking. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that until recently, I wasn’t aware of the fact that Bloom’s taxonomy has been interpreted by many as a hierarchy and in actual fact does not represent the way we learn. However the more I reflect on this, the more I understand that in order to become expert learners able to apply learning to more complex problems, we also need to have the mastered the basic knowledge and have the ability to recall it in a way that frees up our working memory to focus on the problem. I’m only at the start of my journey about the science of learning, so please excuse me if this seems a fairly simplistic view of a seriously complex theory. But even just thinking about this has helped me clarify the layers of knowledge and the way in which I use questioning to test this, which it is helpful to consider when teaching something new.

I suppose what I’ve learned is that not one of us expected 2020 to change education in quite the way it has. I’m trying to look for the positives in that. And yes, it’s hard. There have been lots of challenges. But let’s not forget that sometimes it takes a crisis for us to focus on, and appreciate the important stuff. Whether that’s meals out, seeing family and friends or simplifying lessons into just great teaching. Sometimes it can be going back to basics and rethinking the things we’ve always done, which can have the biggest impact.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week.

Educationally obese?⤴

from

I love all things education. I get excited about reading a new educational book (in fact I am slightly obsessed with purchasing edubooks.) I often sign up for, and attend educational webinars. Regularly, I can be found out running and at the same time listening to an edu-podcast. And yesterday, I was proud to have co-hosted the inaugural ScotEd online professional learning festival – a full day of listening and chatting with other teachers about learning and teaching. My hope is that the event might have inspired others to discover what I already value about professional learning.

It’s been interesting for me to think about what I get out of all of this. Many might see reading, participating in online courses or listening to podcasts as more ‘work’ in an already busy world. In a profession which is already saturated with ‘to do’ lists and never-ending jobs, I can understand why others may be reluctant to spend their precious time in this way. In fact my own husband, commented during lockdown that i needed to switch off from reading edubooks otherwise I may become ‘educationally obese.’ Indeed, it has become a worry that I ensure a positive work/life balance. So this blog will share some of the benefits I’ve personally gained from professional learning. And some of the ways I am attempting to ensure that instead of ‘pigging out’ on the wide menu available and doing very little to burn off the wealth of knowledge I am gaining, I’m going to attempt to make healthier choices which combined with research and sharing classroom practice, will instead nourish and sustain my appetite for being the best I can be for our young people.

Last week my blog looked at well-being, so it is important to point out firstly that I do value, and enjoy other things in life beside my job. Fresh air, time with my boys, meeting family and friends, running, reading fiction, baking cakes and this year I’ve learned how to paddle board. As teachers, it’s vital that we put self-care high on our agenda. We cannot look after young people if we don’t look after ourselves. I encourage my own team to relax and recharge at the weekend and the benefits of this can clearly be seen in the classroom. But like our well-being, I think its also important within our professional lives to commit time to learning, for reasons which I’ll explain in more detail later. Someone once explained to me that they like to think of integrating exercise into their daily routine, in the same way as they would brush their teeth. It becomes something they do almost without thinking about it. And part of me feels this is important for professional learning in schools too. In my opinion, if we want to improve outcomes for young people, it is vital that staff are actively involved in their own professional learning. I’ve heard a few people use the analogy that we wouldn’t be keen to visit a doctor who had qualified several years ago but hadn’t kept up to date with new research or developments. So too, should teachers be keen to continue to develop as professionals.

For me, professional learning and the connection and collaboration with other teachers, has completely revitalised my teaching practice. It has made me really excited about teaching and increased my job satisfaction immensely. Wouldn’t it be great if that impact could ripple out to all teachers? Discovering more about retrieval practice, dual coding and cognitive load have all allowed me to think differently about my questioning, feedback and explanations, which has resulted in instant impact on the motivation and achievement of the young people. In many ways, it has allowed me to strip back my teaching, and focus on key areas of pedagogy and for this reason I think I have been more effective as a teacher. Many of the things I have learned in recent months made me question why I had never learned this in Initial Teacher Education. But I am so thankful I have discovered it now. And just like when we discover a new fabulous restaurant, or a great diet tip which works, we want to share it with others. ScotEd was a great example of a range of inspiring and knowledgeable educators all sharing their expertise so that others could benefit. And this was perhaps the biggest driver for organising the conference.

This weekend, I heard David Weston (@informed_edu) discuss how important it is to lead by example in regard to professional learning. I regularly share my professional reading with my poor husband, or with colleagues, and we discuss ideas or research which I’ve gleamed from other educators. This session I plan to commit much more time within our department meetings to share and discuss educational literature with the hope that by modelling this approach, others will identify their own areas of interest. I want to promote professional learning as a big part of sustained improvement within our department. CLPL isn’t something which only happens on in-service days or when we attend a course out of school. For me, the rich discussions and collaborations within the team are often more meaningful and impactful than something which it becomes difficult to find time to implement when back in school after a day long course. Indeed, there is a fair bit of research to support this. Teachers need time and space to explore professional learning for themselves.

Robin MacPherson’s presentation yesterday at ScotEd on ‘Reclaiming Professional Learning’ really struck a chord with me and helped me to clarify the ways in which my own approach to Professional learning has perhaps not been as effective as it could be. I’ll be the first to admit that I am often like a kid in a sweet shop with educational literature, blogs and podcasts, and want to try every approach I read or implement every idea I hear. I realised yesterday in listening to Robin, that professional learning is a long-term thing. It has to be strategic, sustained and fit for your own context. Others are more likely to buy in and feel ownership through bespoke professional learning. Robin talked of the two way process of professional learning, and David Weston echoed this by thinking of professional learning as a cycle. It’s important to identify the focus of the learning, just as I would do when choosing pedagogical approaches for a class. By taking a more systematic and planned approach to this, and being more informed of research, I hope to be able to ensure that I am less likely to implement fads or fashions in the classroom, but instead take a more long term view of choosing a balanced, healthy mix of approaches which support and enhance the learning and teaching I currently deliver. No one wants to be in a position where they can’t use the knowledge they have gained, or put into practice the skills they have developed. At this point we do risk becoming educationally obese. However, by observing others, discussing approaches sharing ideas and sometimes being brave enough to take risks, not only do our learners benefit, but our teams and staff do too. It’s infectious and helps burn off the calories which we’ve consumed in knowledge. I’ll end with this quote which I love.

‘Powerful professional development makes children succeed and teachers thrive.’ David Weston

Isn’t that what every teacher would hope professional learning might achieve?

Have a good week!

Educational athletes⤴

from

I recently heard @team_tait describe teachers as educational athletes. I really liked his analogy. There’s no denying that the stamina, focus and commitment needed in the field of sport are akin to that required within the classroom. There are other important aspects in looking after the wellbeing of both these professions too – sleep, exercise and eating well. Often we find that sports people are far more disciplined in ensuring they get this balance right. Despite knowing better, this week I’ve skipped nutritious meals and instead eaten cereal, stayed up working til late and not exercised once! When I’m good I’m very very good, when I’m bad, I’m awful. But why are these the things I neglect, when I know how important they are in keeping me healthy and in peak condition for my performance as an educational athlete?

In recent months, we’ve heard lots about ‘flattening the curve.’ For the last few years, I’ve been attempting to try to flatten my own curve of extremes. Trying not to count the days til the weekend, but making every day count. Taking time for my wellbeing everyday, not just when I get to breaking point at the end of the week. Slowing down at weekends rather than jam-packing it with rushing around. And for someone who likes every minute of her day to feel worthwhile and productive, this has been difficult. But overall has helped me to experience a more contented and consistently balanced outlook on life. However, every so often, like this week, I need to check in with myself and give a gentle reminder to avoid the extremes of full-on intense weekdays, followed by weekends which I’m too shattered to enjoy.

This weekend I’ve escaped to my happy place – our caravan on the west coast. Like sports people, teachers need rest time too and could not possibly consistently perform without a break. The last few weeks have been incredibly busy and despite resolving not to, I’ve spent a big part of weekends doing school stuff. This weekend i know I need to recharge. For me, that’s reading (I finally got round to reading a magazine I bought during the summer holidays!), fresh air, running, time with family and with nature. A younger me, would have most definitely felt guilty in indulging in all these self-care activities. I would perhaps have told myself to ‘keep going’ convincing myself that you can ‘sleep when you are dead.’ But I’ve gradually realised that by taking time to look after me, the me I’m able to give to others, has so much more energy, positivity and patience. It is so important for me to know that I’m able to give the best of myself to my own boys as a mum, my learners as a teacher and my colleagues as a leader.

I think for teachers, it’s easy for us to get trapped in the martyr cycle. Yes teaching is often challenging, requires a huge amount of energy and some days it seems like the most difficult job in the world. But let’s not forget our why – it’s also a wonderful profession which is a privilege and honour to do day in, day out because of the impact our relationships can make on others. Without a healthy sense of our self and our life balance, I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, lack a sense of perspective and see the profession through a filter which often overlooks the best bits.

However it’s important to recognise, that even within the sports world, what works for a weightlifter, isn’t necessarily the same as what gets results for a tennis player. And it’s the same for us as educational athletes – we all need to approach wellbeing and self care in a way that works for us. For some, the idea of coming to the middle of nowhere with dodgy wifi in the rain, would not constitute an aid to wellbeing! ‘You do you.’ Whatever fills your cup back up, take time for it! Your perspective, your interactions and your resilience will all be impacted positively. ‘Self care is allowing you to give the best of you, not what’s left of you.’

Another big part of improving my own well-being and perspective, is ensuring that I have a supportive tribe with whom I can reflect, off load and build up in a safe, supportive and encouraging environment. Just as we would expect all sports people to have their own coach, so too is it important for teachers to have that one person who has our best interests at heart. Someone whose views we trust and respect. Someone who can be honest, yet encouraging. Coaching conversations can help athletes, and teachers, to reflect on their performance and improve. They can allow us to get things off our chest which may otherwise eat away at us and slowly consume our mindset making it difficult to move forward. There’s much research which has been done to support the notion that those with a ‘work best friend’ perform better. I would encourage you to seek out someone in your setting who you can build a positive relationship with. Someone who has your back, but will tell you when you are wrong. Who will inspire you, and whose views you can seek when you are unsure. I would suggest that the strength of these relationships can go a long way to creating a positive working culture. I am incredibly lucky that I am in this position and would encourage others to seek out the teachers in the school whom they respect and can learn from. For me, this helps me hugely to maintain perspective as well as grow.

I don’t have it all ‘sorted.’ I doubt many do. I still have days where I’m so exhausted the smallest thing makes me cry. I still get overwhelmed. Some days are harder than others. But my reflections are helping and finding what works for me is halfway to maintaining a positive work/life balance. The beauty is that I enjoy my job so much more when I’m recharged, refreshed and able to give my all.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend and as always, look after yourself and have a fantastic week!

Desirable difficulties⤴

from

This week my big Primary 1 boy received the first ‘Star of the Week’ award at school. Driving home from school on Friday night as he clutched his certificate proudly, I couldn’t help but share his pride and happiness. He’d had a bumpy start – lots of tears, anxiety and a very obvious flight or flight reaction on his first day. So in just two weeks he’s come a long way, settled in well and genuinely seems to be loving school and working hard. His award recognised this and both him and I, are very appreciative of this. But ever the reflective practitioner, over the weekend, I couldn’t help but think about all the other boys and girls who didn’t get a certificate. And also how he might have felt if he hadn’t received the award and instead it had gone to someone else. It made me consider reward systems and intrinsic motivation.

Whilst I 100% agree that learning success and achievement should be recognised, it got me thinking about the effect of rewards and incentives.

Learning is hard. School is hard. David Didau writes about ‘struggle vs success.’ If something is easy, yes learners will succeed but there’s not the same sense of accomplishment when it is achieved. Learning needs to be at the right level – not too easy, not too hard. If it’s too difficult, learners will give up, thinking that it is unachievable. Teachers are there to break the learning down, – not simplify the task but to make learning easier. Sometimes the things we are proudest of, are the things which we were most scared of doing, the trickiest, the challenges we doubted we would achieve. The things that took time, patience and resilience. So when we do succeed, there’s a huge sense of pride. It’s so important that this is recognised! Learners need to experience this struggle and success to feel encouraged. And yes it should be celebrated.

Celebrating effort, persistence, hard work is so important. Not over-praising so that praise becomes meaningless is also important to ensure that learners are motivated to keep learning. Celebrating the process and the learning, rather than the final outcome is another way in which to ensure learners adopt a positive approach to continuous improvement.

What is the purpose of school? To me, it’s about creating young people who love learning. Young people who are motivated to learn and understand how they learn. Young people who will keep on learning long after they leave school. If we achieve this, the by-products are huge. Our learners will be ready for the world of work, will be independent and resilient, confident because they know that with hard work they can achieve anything. The intrinsic motivation for our young people in the shape of success and pride in their learning journey is hugely encouraging. And it’s important to remember that everyone’s success will look very different and take very different routes.

But how do we celebrate this success? A certificate? A hot chocolate? An early lunch? A reward trip? Yes these have their place, especially when linked to core values rather than the highest test score or neat work. But I would argue that by focussing on intrinsic motivation we create learners who are encouraged by knowing they’ve done their best. And who are far more likely to keep trying their best because they’ve experienced the joy of learning.

My worry is that next week when someone else in my son’s class quite rightly receives the star award, he’ll be upset, put off and give up. Indeed there might be someone in his class this week who felt they’d really tried their best and weren’t awarded. Did they go home sad and demotivated? Or what about all the other primary ones who didn’t have a hard time on their first day and have been fine ever since? Were they any less deserving? Is this an important learning lesson for them all? That there can only be one winner? Or is it something which will dent their motivation for school. I don’t want to detract from my son’s moment of glory but I do think it is interesting to consider. It also makes me reflect on how I celebrate the success of my own learners.

‘If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward then we are a sorry lot indeed.’ Albert Einstein

Another interesting consideration is the impact of an educational system which is very much based on summative, final SQA exams and certification rather than the intrinsic motivation of learning. Is this the time to consider another way? I often wonder if some learners lack motivation because our system favours rewarding a summative end point which for some learners is unachievable in their school career. A move to certificating NPA’s and units is possibly a start to creating a richer, more rewarding learning experience rather than an exam factory in which learners are conditioned to perform in a memory test.

Lots of questions and no firm answers. But interesting considerations. I hope at least that this experience has made me personally reflect on the opportunities I create for learners to feel motivated by their own accomplishments! Our role as teachers in this is vital.

‘Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.’ Yeats

Would be interested to hear your thoughts. Have a good week.