Author Archives: Perfectly imperfect educator

Appreciation #monthlywritingchallenge⤴

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Appreciation for me, is more than being thankful. Yes, it is important to acknowledge and appreciate the big or little things in life which mean most to us. Whilst this helps remind us of the positives we have, it is also worthwhile in attaching value to simple pleasures which we may otherwise take for granted. The smell of freshly cut grass. A pink sky at sunrise. The first coffee of the day. It helps us to notice and recognise things which impact us, and helps us to tune into these rather than becoming pre-occupied by the negative. During 2020, a year like no other, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found it helpful to focus on the small wins. When we are constantly bombarded with negativity in press and on social media, the uncertainty and changing situations can be a real source of anxiety. And so it’s important that we do not let that negativity become the norm.

However, thinking of appreciation in a wider sense, I’m more drawn to the definition which explains it in terms of a ‘full understanding of a situation.’ Yes 2020 has taught us to appreciate the positives which have come from challenging situations. But I also believe it has helped many of us to become more aware of others’ situations and attempt to be more understanding of the difficulties others may be facing.

It would have been easy to become enveloped in our own hardships over the last year. And believe me that’s ok. From my own experience, juggling home schooling, and working from home during a pandemic. Not being able to see family. No childcare to allow some much needed couple time. Cancelled plans. And uncertainty in bucketloads. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings of disappointment and failure. Yet I believe there has been time to slow down, pause and reflect on our appreciation of how difficult this has been for everyone.

What I’ve seen is huge numbers of people thinking of others. Appreciating the difficulties others are in. Finding ways to make life during a pandemic that bit better for older people. Connecting with others who are isolated and alone. Becoming innovative by creating virtual opportunities to share from a distance. Discovering ways to spread kindness. All these are borne from an increased awareness of those outwith our immediate family bubble. Neighbours we’ve never spoken to. Members of our local community who have come together to support each other. Older people in care homes. Those on the margins.

When teaching pupils about art work we often discuss appreciation of paintings. Many learners find it difficult to appreciate a piece of art because they don’t necessarily ‘like’ it. I try to help them realise that appreciation isn’t about personal taste. We aren’t asking if they would buy it or hang it in their bedroom. We want them to recognise and be sensitive to the piece. We hope they will consider it from all angles. Recognise the important aspects and the ways in which it is unique.

And so it is with life. To fully appreciate others’ situations, opinions and viewpoints, we need to remove that bit of us which might judge. The personal bit of us which considers whether it is to ‘our taste’ or what we’d personally do in that situation. And instead, seek to fully understand and conscientiously appreciate, without judgement. To question the needs of others with real empathy, and to seek the best for them, not for ourselves. It’s so easy to make a decision based on someone’s appearance or form an opinion as a result of someone’s status or reputation. But appreciation helps us to see the full situation.

In education, and in life, we all have different opinions and viewpoints. Some have louder voices than others. Debates around curriculum, behaviour and assessment are common. There is no right or wrong. Different contexts suit different approaches. Appreciation of other ways of doing things doesn’t mean we personally agree with that particular method, but a recognition that there is a reason for the choice. That for that individual, they believe it’s best for them. I think it’s important to have strong values and opinions on what we, as teachers believe in and stand for – being able to confidently express these to our school community and team is vital to help us move forward together. However, having an appreciation of the variety of other ways things can be done is also incredibly worthwhile and shows a strength of character.

If there’s one good thing to come from 2020, my hope is that everyone will be a little more equipped to show an appreciation of both the positive aspects of their own life, as well as being a little more open-minded and appreciative of the opinions of others and the situations they find themselves in. As 2020 has demonstrated, life is unpredictable and fragile. We don’t know what is around the corner. So being able to show appreciation for the here and now is vital. In a world in which we are sometimes quick to judge, let’s all show some appreciation as cognisance, sensitivity and empathy.

Predicting the unpredictable⤴

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I like routine. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s familiar. It’s predictable. I feel in control, when I know what’s going to happen next. Exercise routine. Eating routine. Morning routine. Skincare routine. Bedtime routine.

I’d imagine that many of our learners might feel the same. Classroom routines in particular provide a structure and consistency in situations which could easily become chaotic. I think young people respond well to classroom routines. If we can train our learners to do everyday things subconsciously, it frees up working memory for the new stuff we are trying to teach them. Pupils then don’t have to think about how they enter the classroom or where they sit or how they will tidy up. It’s all done on autopilot. For many of our young people, school is their safe, predictable space. I think much of that comes from the fact that they know exactly what the expectations and boundaries are within the school building. They see the same faces day in day out and those are faces of adults who never give up on them. And they know that routines are familiar. So personally, I’m all for establishing important routines.

But I suppose my big worry, is what happens when routine changes and life throws us a curveball, or as Gavin Oattes might say ‘plot twist?!’ How do we cope with this change to routine? Where do we find the resilience and strength when things becomes unfamiliar and unknown? For me personally this has been something which I’ve spent a lot of time learning to deal with. And I think I’m very much aware of it in our learners, particularly watching my own sons grow up.

Both my boys are very different and I often wonder if that is due to their early weeks and months of life. I’m sure many mummies can relate but with baby number 1, I was regimented with routine. Naps, feeds, mealtimes, and bedtimes were all timetabled to within an inch of their life. He thrived on this routine – slept well, ate well and was fairly contented. Until, something unexpected happened. Then we knew about it!

Baby 2 was much more laid back and fitted in with our lives fairly quickly. He didn’t have as strict a routine – fed when he was hungry and naps tended to fall around when we were out in the car. He often stayed up later at night, didn’t sleep well but nonetheless found a rhythm in our family life and we just got on with it. It did bother me that life was less predictable without the Gina Ford schedules but there’s wasn’t much we could do given a very demanding 2 and a half year old big brother, whose own sense of familiarity had been well and truly disrupted due to the arrival of baby brother.

What I’m trying to say is that both cope very differently with the unexpected. Number one child, like mummy, finds change really hard. A deviation from the planned usually results in tears and anger. Number 2 child is much more chilled and adapts far more easily to anything new which crops up. Who knows if this is just in their genes or if it is a result of their very different early months as babies.

In a school context, it is interesting to consider. We all know that the weeks approaching a holiday can be difficult for some. This year, perhaps harder than any other. Is this because of the change of routine? Do our learners sometimes struggle to cope with unstructured classroom activities and increased social interactions which we often find ourselves amidst in the last couple of days of term?

This week we’ve had so many tears in our house from our biggest boy. We also had two toy boxes and a full-to-the-brim sugar bowl tipped out all over the kitchen in frustration. When digging a bit deeper it became obvious that this behaviour was communicating something else. Worries about school parties, anxiety about performing a dance at the assembly and fears about what Christmas jumper to wear on dress down day. It’s interesting to consider how all of these ‘fun’ end of term activities were causing such thoughts. If this is the mind of a fairly well-adjusted, loved, nurtured and cared for wee primary 1 who adores school, then imagine how some of the other children you teach might be feeling? Or indeed some of the adults you work with?

It has taken me months of CBT and a pandemic (thank goodness I did the CBT before lockdown!) to realise that life will not always follow a routine – we might not be able to control the situation, but we can control our response. Amidst a pandemic and in light of yesterday’s very unexpected announcement from Scot gov, more than ever I’m realising the need to choose how to respond to the unpredictable or unplanned. It can be easy to let anger, frustration and worries overwhelm. But recognising those feelings, and sharing them can help. So how do we model this for our young people? How can we as teachers, teach resilience and coping strategies? Routines are so important. But so is talking about and naming the worries and fears we might have when things don’t go to plan.

As many of us approach the last few days of term, please be mindful as I know you always are, for those struggling a bit for whatever reason. Look out for them – pupils, staff, parents – and be the familiarity and comfort they need in a very uncertain time. Recognise that their fears or worries may present in different way, but show the kindness and compassion they need.

The end is in sight. You got this!

Visibility⤴

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What you see is what you get. Or is it?

I’m sure if we think about it, there are many instances when this is not the case. An iceberg. For every part we can see, there are 7/8ths of it underwater. A swan gracefully gliding across the water whilst paddling furiously beneath the surface. The athlete who wins the gold medal making it look effortless, but who has spent months training hard.

The visible can often mask, hide or deceive the real picture. So it’s important that we are mindful of this in all our interactions and realise that the visible, isn’t always the reality.

And within education, I’m glad that there seems to be a growing understanding that the behaviours which both pupils and staff visibly present, aren’t always an accurate reflection of the struggles, challenges and difficulties they are perhaps facing. Visibility is one thing, but seeking out that which is sometimes invisible, is just as important.

For many years I believed that as soon as I entered my school building, I put on a special cloak which made me forget the troubles and issues of life outside school. I got on with my job, I presented that I was holding it together and I tried exceptionally hard to leave my worries and personal life at home. I didn’t want my personal life to affect my career. Those who didn’t know me, may not have suspected I was facing difficulty, what they saw was probably someone with a heart of stone who was extremely driven and very much consumed by her job.

Thinking of the most difficult times in my personal life, I’m not quite sure how I managed it. But somehow when inside the walls of school, something enabled me to put on the performance and get through it. And to a certain extent that is necessary with 20 young people in front of you, needing you to ‘turn up’ for them. There’s no denying that teaching can be all-consuming and it often gets to 3pm in the blink of an eye without ever having had a chance to catch your breath let alone think about anything other than the young people in front of you. But looking back I sometimes wonder how often I slipped up. The times I cried in the cupboard, the occasions my patience dwindled or my mind became distracted. Because these parts of life aren’t invisible, they are there below the surface.

With time, maturity and a few more turbulent life experiences under my belt, I think I’ve learned that it’s not always helpful or necessary to hide these feelings. Sometimes the connection and trust which it builds by sharing these vulnerabilities is hugely powerful. I’ve learned a lot about empathy which I hope is more apparent in my own interactions with colleagues.

And it has made me think about how others may well also be experiencing things we can’t necessarily see. Both adults and young people. I think it’s therefore important to remember that ‘everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Be kind always!’ Sometimes the behaviours we see, are communicating something else. A cry for help, a need for attention or maybe an indication that someone feels completely broken but can’t express it in words. I can think of several instances when pupil behaviour could be misinterpreted as defiance, non-compliance or down-right being a pain in the neck. I’m not denying that there are some occasions when a pupil will choose to misbehave. But often seeing it through this lense infuriates us. It makes the behaviour a personal attack on us as teachers. And fuels so much negative energy. It becomes about something else.

However being mindful that often there is a reason for these poor choices, can be a game-changer in de-escalating situations. Instead, encouraging the young person to open up rather than put their guard up. And it’s true for staff too. Re-focussing the visible can help us to deal with situations more compassionately, and in a way which understands each colleague’s own situation. It’s not about being a soft touch, but seeing the invisible and sometimes reading between the lines in order that colleagues feel understood, supported and able to do their best. I believe that’s when staff are more likely to be able to do their job well.

For me it’s also important that these values are visible, even when no one is watching or can see. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. Being true to yourself and your values. Not to impress others, show off or make yourself look better.

For all its good in connection and sharing, I do sometimes worry that social media plays a big part in fuelling a very visible life, which often omits the less than picture-perfect moments. It’s important to remember that what we see is not always the true reality. There are the parts we don’t see. Comparison is the thief of joy. Live your life. For you.

Remember what you can see, but don’t forget what you can’t see. Sometimes the visible is only part of the story.

Learning for the soul, not for a role⤴

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Earlier In the year, I wrote a blog post Educationally obese about some of my thoughts on professional learning. But after listening to the wonderful @teachmrriches last week, I was inspired to write a bit more on the subject.

In the brilliant Becoming Educated podcast, Darren @dnleslie chats to the inspirational Adam Riches about lots of wonderful ways to ensure job satisfaction as a teacher, by teaching smarter. One of the areas Mr Riches touched on was, teacher reflection and professional learning.

It really struck a chord with me and made me think about the reasons teachers engage in professional learning. Obviously the desire to gain new knowledge, skills or experience are important factors. Some teachers, like me, love learning. As well as this, they are often keen to improve an aspect of their practice. And for a number, professional learning is undertaken perhaps with a view to enhancing their CV and their GTCS professional update. Or the fact it might look good if they go for another job.

I wonder how many see it as the latter. Something to ‘go through,’ to get somewhere else. A box to tick. A course to add to an application form. A presentation which could be put down on GTCS professional learning record. A training day to sit through and endure, to be able to say we are more qualified. For those people, who see professional learning as something extra and maybe too much of a mountain to climb, I hope this blog post might be useful.

Adam spoke about professional learning for yourself and not for a role. I hope I am interpreting what he meant correctly. Professional learning should be integral to our profession not because we want promotion but because we are keen to be the best we can be for our young people and our team.

I do an awful lot of professional learning but very seldom is it officially recognised in the form of a certificate. Professional reading, listening to educational podcasts, watching other teachers, online webinars and opportunities for professional dialogue have all had a big impact on my practice in the classroom. I’ve engaged in learning I’ve had a keen interest in and that I’ve identified as areas I could improve. I’ve loved the connections I’ve made, the things I’ve learned and the impact I’m seeing on the young people I teach. I feel like I’ve become a better teacher, and indeed human, as a result. It has reinvigorated my practice. And far more than this, it helps me to work more effectively which gives me huge job satisfaction. It’s for me, not for a piece of paper.

Not everything will be a success in the classroom. There will be more than a few lessons which don’t go as planned. But it is important to recognise that we can reflect and recognise where it is going well. I believe incorporating new thinking and approaches as a result of the knowledge I’ve gained, has had tangible rewards in terms of young people’s progress and engagement in learning. It keeps my practice fresh. It stops me getting bored. But it breeds success for the young person.

Embracing different ways of learning in the classroom sometimes requires me to admit to pupils that I’m Still learning and it might not work out the way we hope. However, there is something hugely powerful in this vulnerability and I hope that I am modelling to my pupils the benefits of stepping out with our comfort zone and trying new things to find the best possible way.

So for me, it’s important to participate with authenticity. To do so with my strong values at the heart of all I learn. To say no if it doesn’t fit in with my current practice. Realising that some ideas don’t just transfer from other places, but understanding the context of our own school and young people in order to create the best fit. Professional learning which I’m passionate about.

Professional learning works best when it’s driven by the individual and they feel ownership of it. Not because they think it’s a stepping stone to something else or being forced upon them. Likewise, professional learning for yourself and leading through your values is what will take you places. The grass does sometimes seem greener in a different role, but I’m a great believer in ‘what is for ye won’t pass ye by.’ A good friend who had recently been promoted, once told me to focus on being the best for the school you are in, not losing sight of that to apply for other jobs. Because ultimately that’s what will give you the joy, enthusiasm and satisfaction day in day out.

And so it is with our professional learning. Becoming better and better for ourself and our pupils should be our core reason for engaging in CLPL. It’s this that makes our role in the classroom more rewarding as we see the positive impact and our young people progressing. And for me, that’s the addictive bit.

It doesn’t need to be throwing yourself into hours and hours of reading, or attending online courses every week. This week I’m going to offer to cover a class for each of my department to allow them a quiet 45 minutes with a cuppa and a mince pie to do some professional reading from a choice of educational books. Even reading a short educational blog or article can be enough to spark a thought or idea. The key is going at your own pace but realising that whatever you do manage is incremental improvement. As the fantastic @learnimperative Mark Burns mentions, imagine if we were all to improve by 1%? The collective difference would be huge and we’d all be going in the right direction.

Enjoy the last few weeks of term. Don’t underestimate the difference you are making. Yes it’s tough right now, but try not to forget how fortunate we are to be a positive influence in the lives of our young people, especially at the time of a global pandemic. Don’t put pressure on yourself to do more. But find the thing which excites you. Your ‘why?’ If you are passionate about it, it won’t seem like work!

Have a great week!

Less but better?⤴

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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…⤴

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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⤴

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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⤴

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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⤴

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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⤴

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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.