What do these things have in common? A seesaw. A conversation. A hug.
‘I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.’ Mother Theresa
There are some things in life we can’t do on our own. A seesaw isn’t much fun without someone there to provide the counter weight. A conversation with ourself is far lonelier than with a friend. And as we’ve all learned this past year, hugging ourselves instead of a loved one is just not the same. Sometimes we are ‘better together.’ Could this quote from Mother Theresa be any more appropriate for education?
Togetherness in learning. Togetherness in leadership. Togetherness in culture. Togetherness in our journey.
A partnership. A team. A recognition that we all have individual skills, qualities and knowledge which collectively can make a huge impact for young people.
I want to first think about togetherness in learning. I strongly believe in the quote by James Comer; ‘No significant learning can take place without a significant relationship.’ But I also believe that it is a very special kind of relationship. Not grown from friendship, over-sharing or unprofessionalism. Instead, i think it’s the learning that fuels the relationship. We aren’t there to be friends with the young people. Students won’t learn from someone they don’t trust, someone they don’t think has their best interests at heart or someone who they don’t believe really knows their stuff. Likewise, students won’t learn from someone who may be friendly, approachable and fun, if the same teacher doesn’t have high expectations and rigorous learning routines in place. Establishing positive relationships is so important. But let’s ensure this is done through the lense of learning.
I hope I do both in my classroom. Encourage sky high expectations, yet have the warmth and compassion to build trust and togetherness with pupils. I’ve talked a bit about this before, when I discussed motivation here. I think it’s important that in order to build that partnership, there needs to be an understanding that although the teacher may be the expert and the pupil the novice, working together, great learning occurs. I can recollect several occasions seeing pupils in awe of my live painting demonstration – this instantly builds trust. The pupils believe i know what I’m talking about. They trust that I have the expertise to be able to teach them. They want to learn how to do it as well as I’ve shown them. But it also requires my understanding that they are novices, and my teaching must reflect this. I need to appreciate that they need the small steps. They need clear explanations. I need to meet them where they are but encourage them to aim for the top. And it’s this togetherness which allows learning to flourish.
Creating a culture of togetherness in a classroom, or a department, or indeed a whole school is massively impactful. The notion that we are all part of the learning, that we all learn from each other and that individual interactions impact us all, is hugely powerful. I love when a real bond forms between a class. But it doesn’t just happen, it takes work. Great teachers are super skilled at this. It takes persistence and perseverance. A relentlessness in encouraging ‘the team.’ A conscious effort to use language which promotes the joint nature of the learning journey. ‘We’re going to be looking at something quite challenging today but I just know that we’ll work through it together to get great results.’ Words matter. Using any opportunity to reinforce the norm of working together, the partnership and the collective accountability is massively helpful in drip feeding the notion that we are better together.
Is this just as true when working with staff? Absolutely. For me, leadership is about bringing people with you, building others up in order that they thrive, and using the skills of the team for the collective good. Again this can’t be done in isolation. We need an appreciation of each individual within the team – what inspires them, their ‘why?’ So that we can utilise this and encourage them to thrive. We need to be human and bring our whole self to work so that we can relate to others, yet maintain our commitment to challenge directly if things aren’t going so well. As Brene Brown states, ‘Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.’ We need to admit to making mistakes, show humility and honesty to encourage this kind of culture with others. Again using the team – building trust and togetherness is the goal so that everyone moves in the same direction.
How do we create togetherness? I’ve touched on this a bit, briefly already. But firstly, I think it’s recognising that it takes time. Time and space to allow togetherness to grow. Understanding that we sometimes overestimate what can be done in a day, yet underestimate what we can achieve in a year. Relationships take time. Trust doesn’t just happen. We need to clearly communicate the shared vision. Constantly. And create opportunities to build that trust.
As we’ve certainly learned this year, life is so much better when there’s a sense of togetherness. Many of the challenges we’ve faced during the pandemic have been because our freedom to be together has been compromised. Times without face to face teaching. No Christmas dinner with family. Cancelled plans with friends.
This week as restrictions lift a little and we are allowed to hug our loved ones once more, let us remember that just like a hug, we can’t do it alone. We need each other. We need to be part of something bigger. And let’s not forget those that find it hard to be part of a team. Ensuring they are understood and valued exactly as they are, will go some way to helping their individual feeling of togetherness.
If you’ve seen the Netflix series, ‘Pretend it’s a City’, you’ll have heard Fran Leibowitz discuss reading and say ‘A book is not supposed to be a mirror. It’s supposed to be a door.’ I cheered when she said that because it summed up my philosophy of English teaching throughout my career. It addresses the age-old complaint from teenagers that this book has nothing do with them: ‘where are the people like me in this book?’ ‘This book is ancient’. And, while you might think these are fair questions, our job as teachers is to explain why they are important. And to open the door for them and send them on their way as readers.
The problematic ‘canon’ encourages a healthy debate, but when it comes down it, we teach books which we think we lead on to other things, ensuring an engaging study of language and good writing along the way. And, yes, as teachers we are the ones who can recognise what good writing is. It is not our job to close off potentially uncomfortable subjects because the current time makes them so. It is our job to open up a discussion about why such views are out-dated and to challenge them with further reading.
Over the course of my twenty-odd years in teaching there have been many new texts which have appeared: some of them actually endure. I’m thinking ‘Skellig’ by David Almond or ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness. There are others. There are also many which appear fleetingly: departmental budget busters which appear with a movie and then are forgotten; dust catchers, weeping quietly, gathering dust in the text cupboard. There is a very good reason why we have a core of texts to which we regularly return. And not merely because we have them already in our departments. They are building blocks for young people to use, providing them with the tools to go on and read whatever they want.
To think of not teaching texts because we think they discuss out-dated views is tantamount to banning books. In that context, who would feel comfortable? It would make us no better than those states in America who banned Harry Potter because it encouraged witchcraft or ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ because it has swearing. As English teachers in Scotland, we are fortunate enough to have the freedom to choose the texts we take into our classes so, by all means, do or don’t teach something as you please. But it troubles me that we would even have a conversation about dismissing great writing, without even using the word ‘banning.’
So I’m proud to have taught books like ‘Of Mice and Men’ in both my first and last years in teaching. I’m proud of the time I’ve opened up discussions with young people about racism and the language used in the book. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve moved on to discuss Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter this year. Not to mention topics on the role of women, loneliness, austerity. The only way we, as teachers, can begin to tackle racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia is to open the discussion of challenging views. To do so through Literature has been the greatest pleasure and privilege of my life.
As teachers of art and design, I think modelling is one of our real collective strengths. Not because of our good looks and catwalk prowess(!) but because like other practical subjects, it’s really important for pupils to see techniques demonstrated by an expert in order that they can learn and master these themselves. So this blog will unpick some of my thinking around why modelling is so important not just in Art and Design, but across the curriculum.
This time last year I’d heard of a visualiser, but had never actually used one to demonstrate techniques. Now I wouldn’t be without it. A year ago, I’d never made an instructional video for my pupils, but always wanted to. Now we have a YouTube playlist with over 50 asynchronous video resources modelling key concepts in Art and Design.
Despite the huge number of difficulties we have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning has magnified the need for excellent pedagogy. And in art and design, it has really shone a light on modelling and explicit instruction.
Great art and design teachers do this every lesson. It may now seem like a distant memory, but pre-pandemic, our lesson ritual involved gathering all pupils close around a table to demonstrate the lesson. Sometimes, we might have done this at numerous points in the lesson to break down the task into stages. I remember the worry back in August when we returned to school but were having to teach from the front. How would we recreate a demonstration using a visualiser? How would we assist pupils, without sitting right beside them to help?
But we managed. And I would argue that the use of a visualiser actually improves our ability to demonstrate. Because it allows ALL pupils to see ALL stages of the learning. They can see our demonstration in close-up. It allows us to demonstrate our meta-cognitive process as we model and, (and this is a biggy in a practical subject such as art and design!) it means that there is zero disruption to learning because pupils don’t need to leave their seat. The modelling is now not just limited to the short time around the demonstration table. Instead techniques, concepts and common mistakes can be viewed by learners at multiple points throughout the lesson on the whiteboard.
So what are my top tips for modelling in Art and design, or indeed any subject.
Provide an example
I think this is really important for so many reasons. Firstly it lets learners see what they are aiming for. It helps boost motivation because usually the exemplar is impressive and pupils like the challenge (especially when I then go on to give them the steps to achieve success.) I often call it, what a good one looks like. In a frantic, busy timetable it can often be tempting to wing it and just go without but it really is an important part of preparing for your lesson. In many cases an exemplar, helps me as a teacher because sometimes practical processes take too long and it’s a good idea to have ‘one I made earlier.’ This avoids wasted time during a lesson. Finally, it’s a really important process for me to go through as it helps me identify the difficulties, mistakes pupils may make and helps me to think about to breaking down the modelling into steps. It also builds teacher confidence because especially in the early stages of teaching, it can be hugely daunting to demonstrate live in front of a class of young people.
Whilst demonstrating I am asking questions. Constantly. I am probing pupils to check their understanding and guide their thinking. ‘What kind of line should we be using here?’ ‘Where is the light coming from?’ ‘How dark should this side be?’ This engages learners throughout and builds their confidence. It means they are not passive, but gaining the meta cognitive thinking to guide them through the process. I often think that in art and design, we are teaching pupils not, ‘how to draw’ but ‘how to see.’ This requires prompts to encourage them to see things in a way which will help them. I also want to give them the thinking process to ensure that when they get stuck, they have the tools and thinking skills ways in order to get back on track.
This is why visualisers are really useful. Pre-pandemic, there might have been a tendency to cram everything into one demonstration to avoid disruption to learning and having pupils constantly stopping and starting out of their seats. I’ve seen pupils become really frustrated because they are just getting into the task and then they are being asked to get out of their seat to watch something they can already do. They want to get on and make progress. And as teachers, we don’t want to break that flow of success. Visualisers mean that learners who need to can watch. Learners who are confident can continue working.
Demonstrate the process
Sometimes, as an early career teacher, demonstrations are the most daunting part of the lesson so the thought of having to demonstrate multiple times may be off putting. However, if we reframe ‘the demonstration’ as ongoing modelling throughout the lesson, it becomes a lot less high stake and pressured. It allows us as teachers to model the process and the stages which learners need to go through to achieve success. We can also use this to address difficulties identified as we scan around the classroom. Working together through the process is also really useful. I use the modelling process ‘I do’ (pupils all watch me) then ‘we do’ (pupils work alongside me – I guide the stages, pace and structure.) And finally ‘you do’ (as pupils build confidence, I set them free to work independently.) This structure really helps pupils to progress at their own pace and allows me to support those who need more practice.
Provide an opportunity for pupils to work themselves
This can often be difficult for teachers. It’s a fact that we like to talk! But the ‘you do’ stage of modelling is really important. We need to give time for our pupils to demonstrate their knowledge snd understanding of the learning too. So this is our opportunity to circulate, to check everyone has grasped the technique and stand back and let them go. It’s this bit which builds the motivation. As pupils realise that they can actually do it themselves, they are motivated to achieve more.
Identify the key learning.
When planning demonstrations and modelling I think it is useful to think of the learning and the knowledge pupils need, rather than the task itself. This helps to identify the aspects which we need to reinforce and concepts which a transferable. It can be tempting to become a Blue Peter presenter and create demonstrations which become a set of instructions taking through procedures in order to achieve a finished piece. Yes we need to model in a way which breaks down the learning into steps, but it’s important that we aren’t just telling pupils what to do. We need to explain why we are doing things, model the thinking and the visualisation required to see things in the way an artist would.
As many of us return to our physical classrooms this week, I know that modelling will be a real focus of excellent learning and teaching in classrooms across the country. And I hope this post will highlight many approaches which I know so many of us already do everyday in art and design, and beyond.
Have a great week everyone – I cannot wait to have all our pupils back in the building!!
noun n. a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.
In life, few things are black and white. It would certainly be easier if they were. And yet as educators, we tend to separate many of the apparent issues into extremes. Our views become polarised. We fit things into neat little boxes and sometimes become unable to open that box up and examine the real nuance of the debate.
There seems to be a tendency in life; in education but particularly on social media, to label and categorise, to sit firmly at either end of a continuum unable to see other perspectives, which at best is narrow-minded, and at worst is divisive bullying. I wrote a bit about this here in a blog exploring knowledge and skills.
It’s great to have strong opinions on things. I believe it’s really important. Especially when they amplify the importance of issues which directly impact our young people. However, there’s a difference between passion for something you believe in and conversely a firm reluctance to shift your stance or see things from another point of view. I would argue that as educators we need to be more skilled at examining the shades of grey and finding the best viewpoint, not just the one which people are shouting loudly about.
Personally, I sometimes struggle to find a strong voice because my arguments are never usually either/or. (As someone who is known to do a lot of black and white thinking in my personal life, this in itself is a strange dichotomy!). I find it’s not always as straightforward in schools. Especially when it comes to the incredibly complex, wonderful individual young people in our care. For a while I somewhat downplayed my educational values because they seemed to cross too many extremes. But I’ve come to realise that it is entirely possible to believe two things at the same time – it’s not a weakness to be want the very best for young people through high expectations, boundaries and routine, teaching behaviour as a curriculum of its own, and yet at the same time demonstrate compassion and understanding for the individual circumstances. Often it’s precisely because of that strong sense of care and duty to the young person, that you want the best for them. It is possible to believe that excellent learning and teaching, high standards and nurturing classroom environments are not mutually exclusive.
‘’Dichotomous or black-and-white thinking can be dangerous and is often based on the premise of achieving perfection. It gives you only two alternatives, one of which is usually neither attainable or maintainable. The other then tends to be the black hole in which you inevitably fall after failing to get to the first. You set your sights so high, constantly chasing an ideal that you can grasp only moments at a time. When the standard for being okay is this lofty, you’re destined to feel lousy most of the time.’’ Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
Often if we examine approaches more carefully; if we look beyond the attention grabbing headlines or the 140 character tweet, we come to realise that there are many subtleties, and it is absolutely key to understanding these if we are to learn as professionals and develop the best systems for our young people. Most of my educational views have been formed due to a professional learning ‘pick n mix’ of theory, research, practice and experience. Yes we can veer more towards one approach. It is quite possible to believe that a particular way of doing something is the best. And as leaders of learning, I think we need to ask ourselves if we have the conviction and direction to lead with purpose, yet the humility and integrity to adapt and be flexible within our approach to meet the individual circumstances of of our wonderful young people and their families.
And likewise, as human beings we need to accept that our feelings are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly acceptable and indeed quite normal as teachers to feel absolutely exhausted, and still be hugely resilient. We can very much be independent, and yet still need others to support us. It is entirely possible to feel apprehensive about returning to school after the holidays, yet at the same time be very excited to see the young people and teach them face to face once more. It’s entirely normal to know that others have it way worse than you, but accept your own pain and hurt – something which has been a huge learning curve for me.
Let’s cut others, and indeed ourselves, some slack. Let’s realise that it’s ok for two opposites to exist in harmony. Let’s have a voice but use it for good, to shape things for the better and take people with us rather than knocking others down. Let’s practice what we preach to our young people, and be tolerant of other viewpoints. By all means challenge others’ thinking by sharing our views, but accepting that context is key. We may all be teachers, but no one knows your school and your pupils quite like you.
The problem with black-and-white thinking is that you never get to see the rainbow. Omar Cherif
This week I was privileged to present a session at UKEdChat’s global online conference. This is the basis of what I said.
Hello there I’m absolutely delighted that you’ve joined me for this session today and that you are ready to consider the idea of authentic leadership or how to be a professional human.
Our focus for the next 20 minutes is going to be on exploring the balance and maybe the tensions of being both professional and human but also taking a bit of time and space to think about how we align our professional selves and behaviours with our values.
My contention, after almost 30 years in the classroom is that if we spend too much time playing a role in our working life that isn’t aligned with our true self and personality then eventually that will take its toll on us.. but also on those we teach and work with.
Now although my title for this session talked about leadership, I am coming out at that from the perspective of us all being leaders in our classrooms; leaders of learning but most importantly role models who have responsibility for shaping the lives of children and young people.
It’s my belief that the pandemic and the way that leaders at national and international level have acted has given us a good landscape and maybe a new and current example of what we need from people who are role models and have responsibility for us and our futures.
Without going into politics or commenting about any individuals I’m sure you can all look at the leaders out there and think for yourself which leaders you feel you have faith in, which leaders you feel you would trust with your life and which leaders you would trust with the future of our society and communities and the lives of those close to you.
Now I know you may think that your job as a teacher isn’t really compatible with the job of a prime minister or president …but actually one of the things that I’ve learnt over my career (and it’s backed up by some of the greats in educational discourse) is that we do take on a huge amount of responsibility when we choose this incredible job of shaping the lives of children and young people. And that responsibility is also a privilege.
Dr Haim Ginott who was was a school teacher, a child psychologist and psychotherapist and a parent educator working in Israel and the USA in the 1940s through to the 70s. He said, in his preface to “Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers” in 1972:
So, before I say more i’d like you to take a moment to think about this question.
How do you show up at work? I don’t know what stage of your career you’re in, whether you’re new to teaching, whether you’re like me, a bit long in the tooth and having done the job for many years…. but just for a moment, have a think.
Is the person who shows up at work the same as the person watching this presentation?
When you show up at work do you act differently to how you would right now?
When you show up at work do you talk differently to how you would right now?
When you show up at work do you dress differently to how you would right now?
Now when it comes to dress, possibly it would be a good thing if you dress differently for work because I imagine that some of you may have got into some of those lockdown habits, whereby you are in a state of dress or undress right now that is absolutely appropriate in your own home on your sofa but *possibly* wouldn’t be in the outside world….
Because of course we have social norms and conventions of what is acceptable in different contexts.
As a drama teacher I used to talk a lot children about this and I would explain to them about the fact that as human beings we often play different roles in our lives. whereby we change our language and behaviour to suit different contexts and relationships.
So for example I would explain how the language and behaviour that they might use when they were out with their friends would probably be different to the language and behaviour that they might use in front of their granny or perhaps if they ever got to meet the Queen.
I would explain that as we grow up we learn appropriate behaviours to use in different contexts and that school is a place where children can explore this.
However I also used to explain to children that under all behaviours and language we have a personality, identity and a character that shouldn’t have to change across the different contexts that we are in.
Because although in society we have to adapt our behaviours and language so that they don’t cause harm or hurt to the other people around us, we should never have to change the essence of who we are in order to fit in.
And of course that sort of teaching is absolutely underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child and in particular article 8 around identity, article 12 around the views of the child, article 13 around freedom of expression and article 14 around freedom of thought, belief and religion.
So what happens if we take those ideas and relate them to ourselves as teachers? How important is it that,whilst we may change our behaviours and language to suit the context of the classroom and the role of being a teacher, we also need to be clear that we should never have to change the essence of who we are, in order to fit into the role?
Of course it is important, when we explore what the elements of being an authentic professional human might be, that we also take a moment to look at what it is not.
It is not about over sharing or making lessons all about you. We can probably all remember the equivalent of the teacher whom we all adored and who told us everything about his family, dogs an holidays but from whom we learnt practically nothing about ..(insert subject).
It is not about subverting agreed professional codes relating to use of language or dress. (Tattoos, use of social media and hairstyles seem to constantly cause debate but the best advice I can offer is to check out the codes in any school you plan to work in.)
More about boundaries later.
I believe that it is very important and that, in fact, that it’s only by taking our true selves to work that we will make our classrooms the most conducive learning environments that they can be.
Rita Pierson once said that children don’t learn from people they don’t like.
I understand what she was saying but I think it’s about more than liking. In my experience, children will learn best from people they trust.
And how to we get people to trust us?
By being honest. By being consistent.
By showing that we are interested in them.
By giving something of ourselves.
When I was in my second year of teaching and struggling, as a twenty three year old, to manage some of my classes of young people who were just 7 years younger than me, I had in my head this idea that I needed to project an image of some sort of strict, sensible and mature professional in order to gain respect and establish control.
My teacher training has definitely instilled in me the idea that I should never consider smiling before Christmas.
Incidentally if you want proof as to why this was one of the worst pieces of advice that young teachers could ever be given, find the video of the still face experiment by Dr Edward Tronick on YouTube. https://youtu.be/apzXGEbZht0
Why was it ever thought a good idea to withhold from children the warmth, empathy and enthusiasm that comes from a smiling face?
But I digress. In desperately trying so hard to be something that I was not and suppress my personality, I ended up with lessons that were chaotic and a desperate attempt by me to “keep a lid on things”.
One day, my line manager came to me after a lesson observation and said “the one thing you need to do is relax and be yourself. You don’t have to control it all so much. Take some time to get to know the pupils, talk to them about their hair, their hobbies and their families. You know your subject and your stuff but you need to get to know them. And they need to get to know you.”
In following that advice, I found that my practice was transformed. And it is advice that I have used in every classroom and in every school and every role that I’ve taken on since.
And not just in my relationships with pupils but also in my relationships with colleagues and with parents and carers.
Children will work hard for you and learn from you if they trust you and feel safe in your company.
Colleagues will cooperate with you and, if you’re a leader, work most productively for you if they trust you and feel safe in your company.
And parents and carers will be confident that you are doing the best for the most precious beings in their lives if they trust you and feel safe in your company.
And trust and safety come when people see who you are, what your values are and what makes you human.
If you work in a school or setting where you feel that you have to put on a mask, or maybe worse still, a suit of armour before you step through the door, maybe take some time to reflect as to whether changing your behaviour and fitting someone else’s mould is really serving you and your values. If you are asked to do things that, in your heart or your gut, don’t feel right, if you are being motivated by drivers from someone else’s belief system, consider the toll that, over time, this may have on you.
Back in September I was lucky enough to attend an online conference with the psychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry who is one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable experts on child development and trauma in the world.
At that conference spoke of something called ego-dystonic behaviour in relation to employees who are expected to undertake actions and behaviours which they know are not in the best interests of those they are there to serve – so for example therapists who have to see 8 children in an hour when in fact they know that this is too rushed.
He talked about the negative impact that, over time, working in such a context will have on the health of the organisation and the individual.
I attended that conference as, over the last couple of years and through my work with care experienced children and young people, I’ve been involved in some work around what is known as trauma informed leadership. This is specifically to do with making sure that the practice of anybody working with children and families takes account of the trauma that people may have experienced in their lives and how we as organisations make sure that we don’t traumatise or re-traumatised people through the work we do with them.
If you’re interested in this work more generally I would encourage you to look at the work of Dr Karen Treisman or Lisa Cherry and Dr Bruce Perry at an international level.
However as part of my work in this field I began to explore what it might be like to be a truly authentic trauma informed leader. As part of this I began to talk about my own personal experiences of trauma and the impact on my development and mental health over my formative years.
Two years ago, I stood up at a Head Teacher conference in my local authority to speak to my colleagues about our Trauma informed work.
Many of my colleagues knew me as a respected teacher and education leader with many years of experience. They knew I had worked in a number of countries and schools throughout my career and I had a reputation for speaking and writing on a number of educational issues including leadership, inclusion, curriculum design and pedagogy.
They didn’t necessarily know some of the other reasons that I feel so passionate about this project and this work. But as part of modelling courageous and trauma-sensitive practice, I decided to tell them about the abuse that I had suffered as a child about the coping strategies and behaviours that I developed to help me survive in a world that I saw as unsafe, scary and sad and about the subsequent mental health challenges that I had faced throughout my life.
I had actually already written about these experiences in a book. I first wrote that book three years previously under a pen name but had gradually been sharing it as “me” because I had a strong belief that my authenticity as a leader is what might help change things for others.
I know I took a big risk in doing this. I know my bosses and my colleagues will never see me in the same way again.
I know it is possible that this has had and it will have negative consequences for my career but I feel strongly that it was necessary for me to take that risk.
I know that, on the whole, people are “either” an “education professional” or an “inspirational speaker on trauma with lived experience” but what I have tried to show that it is possible to be a hybrid, a professional human and simultaneously outstanding and flawed.
But on the whole, my risk has paid off because some of our most “dis-engaged” families have reached out to me because of what they know and because, rather than creating a barrier, it has built a bridge.
It’s not “me over here in my comfortable world as a leader” and “you over there in your family with your trauma and mess”. It’s us, in the middle.
Now to go back to what I said previously about boundaries, I have never mentioned these issues directly to pupils or families who I have worked with. I have never discussed them in classes I have taught or in conversations with pupils.
I have touched on them with colleagues, on occasions, as part of coaching and when I felt that a shared experience might help them.
But my writing is out there and my contributions at events like today are out there.
Because to me, anything else would be inauthentic.
I am absolutely not advocating this approach for anyone else, if it doesn’t feel right or comfortable.
But I do advocate today, as an invitation to you, thinking about whether you make take a little bit more of you to your work.
If you want to find an example of someone who has been an absolute inspiration to me in this respect, I would recommend that you find out about Rae Snape who is a primary head teacher down in Cambridgeshire.
Rae unrelentingly takes her whole self to work and I asked her permission to share her recent avatar which I think sums up the idea of being a professional human.
So before I do that, thanks so much for joining me today. I hope you have taken something from the time you have spent with me and above all I hope this gives you the power to be the person you want and need to be at school.
Have you ever thrown a stone into a glass-like pond and noticed the ripples spread outwards long after the initial impact? One tiny pebble, breaking the surface tension of the water, and causing the water to spread, influencing the water around the initial point of contact, and the water around that.
In any organisation, we all have the power to make an impact. It doesn’t matter the role you hold – your actions, your words, your smile – can effect someone in ways we simply might not be able to imagine. I’m sure lots of people will have heard of the story of the caretaker working at NASA headquarters. According to the popular legend, during a tour of NASA HQ in 1961, John F. Kennedy encountered a janitor mopping the floors. “Why are you working so late?” Kennedy asked. “Mr President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
This commitment to a cause, this determination to do our best and make an impact no matter how small, really resonates with me. Especially when I think of education and schools. Like the smallest of pebbles hitting the water, no matter what part we play in the life of a young person, we have the opportunity to make an impact. It might be the canteen staff, office staff, cleaning staff, janitorial staff, teachers, support staff, middle leaders or senior leaders. I think of my own P1 boy who talks so highly of the friendly support assistant who always talks about sweets at interval. Or the kind dinner lady who gives away cakes at the end of lunch time or stops for a chat at breakfast club. Or the lovely office lady who always has a wet paper towel to fix any playground injury. Our interactions matter.
I’m the teacher who will happily volunteer for lunch duty; who will sign up to help at the school dance; who will go along with my own boys to support the fundraiser. And all of those things are so important because we should value the community in school and beyond. These aren’t ‘duties.’ Instead they are opportunities to make an impact. To positively effect someone’s experience outwith the classroom. To show ourselves as human first, teachers second.
I love this quote by Haim G. Ginott,
‘’I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.’’
Our impact as educators can be positive or negative. We can choose the adult we want to be and how we respond to our young people. It won’t always be easy. We will experience disappointment. We will feel infuriated. There will be times when we feel like giving up on a young person because we are so frustrated by their choices. It can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. That we aren’t making any difference. But those are the very moments we are having the biggest impact. We might not see it at the time, but your reaction in those testing times won’t be forgotten. Young people are learning to be grown up, by watching you.
Unlike the ripples in the water, our impact as teachers isn’t always quite so instantly visible. And often that makes it hard. As performers at the front of a classroom, we can seek instant gratification. But often we don’t come to realise our impact until long after our pupils have been sitting in front of us. Yes the assessment will tell us instantly whether we’ve done our job in terms of the teaching of knowledge, but it might be years or even decades before we understand the impact of our kindness or our determination not to give up on a young person. Pupils are incredibly astute. Your interactions never go unnoticed. In fact, positive or negative they will make a very definite imprint in the hearts of those on the receiving end.
This week, news of my new job and imminent departure from the school I’ve been at for 10 years, was made public. The messages and kind words I’ve received this week have confirmed to me that our impact as educators is very real. We just don’t always hear about it day to day. But never forget the impact you are making. It may be months or years before a young person looks back and realises just how much of a positive influence you were. You might never find out. But know that you were.
Most of us are now on holiday. Please use this time to recharge and reset in order that we have the patience, and resilience to make that positive impact when we return to school. Have a fantastic break.
Many staff in Scotland and certainly in my local authority, did training around emotional regulation and trauma last summer, ahead of the first full scale return to school buildings after lockdown. It may be a good time to remind you of or direct you too these simple slides and the key messages:
Certainly, not all of the children returning this week will have experienced trauma during lockdown. The pandemic has not been traumatic for all. But as we have said many times in education, we are not quite sure what our pupils might have been through and how they will be when they return, in terms of their ability to regulate themselves emotionally.
Learning and recall for school work assessments are likely to be impacted if pupils are not emotionally regulated.
We all know that calm, regulated adults welcoming all of our pupils back this week into familiar routine is the ideal. We know that we as adults will have to work hard on this, particularly as we are having to cope with another big change to our routines (for example, one class spread across three rooms!) and will probably be feeling all sorts of worries around where, what and how we are teaching.
But let’s remember what we CAN control. Our breath, in and out. That first interaction we have with each child as they enter our class. Our own behaviour and actions,
Evidence from the last year and the various changes to rules and protocols has shown that there are likely to be few issues with pupils remembering to follow the COVID mitigation protocols. They quickly picked up on sanitising and bubbles and will quickly get the 2m and mask protocols.
We need to remember also, however, that adolescents are biologically driven and that peer pressure can be a hugely important factor in their lives. The classic teenage brain/head and heart dilemma means that even though they know the right thing to do, they may be influenced to act otherwise if they are in an unsupervised situation with peers. If you want to know more about this, check out professor Sarah Jane Blakemore. Many of them will be craving connection after weeks of isolation. Many of them have missed out on the essential interactions, flirting, bonding and risk taking that normally characterise the natural moving away by adolescents from having their strongest bonds with their primary care-givers. Instead, they have been rather unnaturally trapped at home with these care-givers…..who, however lovely and funny and caring, just aren’t peers!
And just on peer pressure, it can be a strong influence on us all. I distinctly remember last summer, when masks were 2 weeks away form becoming compulsory in shops but Nicola had asked that we wear them, sitting in the car on the forecourt of the local garage. Mask in hand, I said to my child beside me “but no-one else has one on, I feel stupid……” And then I remembered my GP friend and what she would have said and put it on straight away……..
But if that was the process a 51 year old “good girl” went through, we can’t underestimate the power of peer pressure on younger people.
It is also understandable that adolescents may not instinctively follow the protocols as they will not have got into the habit of standing 2 m from their friends or wearing facemasks and these are habits that they need to be reminded of as frequently as possible.
However, if staff and other pupils see that the “rules are being broken”, they may well feel anxious and possibly angry and respond in a way that reflects this, unless they have pre-empted the situation and thought of a regulated response to have at hand.
I am going to adopt “face and space” as the mantra that I am going to use, if I need to remind someone that they have strayed from the protocols; calmly, assertively and with a mask-hidden smile. You may want to adopt something similar ?
I am also going to arm myself with tools to help me stay regulated through the day in school. Deep breaths, in for four, out four six.
A tissue with the smell of a perfume that makes me feel calm in my pocket. The comfiest of clothes that I can find in my work wardrobe.
This is a document I have shared with all of my S1 and S2s as part of our work on choices and speaking up when you feel that someone else has broken the rules. Peter Vermeulen has done incredible work around this. It has been very helpful and not just for autistic people.
As I reach the water’s edge, I see the boundary where the safety of dry land ends and exploration into the unknown depths of the sea begins. The security and comfort of the land visible, yet being washed over repetitively by the strength and power of the waves. The sand shifts therapeutically beneath the foamy, crash of the tide. Here, it is familiar, reassuring and known. How will it feel to cross over into this unfamiliar territory? Am I brave enough to push through this boundary?
If I stay here I’m safe. No currents to sweep me into the unknown or take me off in a different direction. Feet planted firmly on the beach, I’m in control. The luxury of the familiar, soft white sand beneath my feet. Walking one foot in front of the other, moving forward but seeing the world the way I’ve always seen it. The water calls to me… blue and refreshing. A new perspective. But full of risk and challenge. If I allow myself to trust in nature, to feel the water carry my weight, what do I gain?
I like boundaries. I like the rules I create for myself. I like the familiarity of being in control. I like to stand on a firm foundation. And sometimes it’s essential to have these boundaries. They protect us and keep us safe. They allow us to understand what we will and will not tolerate. But life isn’t always predictable. Or tolerable. Or without waves. And sometimes the boundaries we set ourself can be damaging, by limiting our experience. By keeping us too comfortable. And not giving us the opportunity to develop the resilience to cope when things aren’t We all know the saying ‘growth happens outside our comfort zone.’ So when do we push ourself to break the boundaries? To do things differently, to tolerate the discomfort? I’ve learned there sometimes need to be some short term pain, for long term gain. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Often the outcome is worth it.
I’ve learned that sometimes, boundaries need to be like the shoreline. Changing with the tide, moving in and out and flexible enough to accommodate feelings, situations and growth.
And with that, I place my paddle board into the water, bathed by the orange glow from the sunset. Kneel onto the board and find the courage, (and the balance) to stand up and float towards the horizon.
It’s been another week of adapting to change and I’ve spent the weekend recharging. Both my boys have now fully returned to nursery and P1, and I am eternally grateful for the early years staff who have been nothing short of heroic in their care of my wee ones. I’ve been in school four days again this week with senior phase pupils, supporting them with the completion of practical work. And as well as this, I’ve been engaging with learners at home.
For me, it’s been a joy to be back face to face teaching, despite the challenges, and pupils have made really great progress in a short time. For some, possibly more progress in a couple of in-school sessions than throughout the whole home learning period. Which I fear is not for want of effort on the teacher’s (or learners!) part, but perhaps a lack of my own understanding of this really complex issue of motivation to learn. As well as the challenges we are all facing at home during lockdown. To me this highlights the importance of the connection with their teacher and the need for the teacher to be there to guide the learning. Something which I’ve been reminding my team this week to take comfort in – learners really do need their teachers – never underestimate the value you have.
And it has really got me thinking. About learning. About motivation to learn. About assessing learning. And about what we prioritise in our return to school.
Reflecting on my 14 year old self and how I myself might’ve coped with learning from home, I most likely would have been studious, timetable colour-coded and worked as hard as I possibly could to do my best. Was this a pressure from my school? Not particularly. Did my parents put pressure on me to do well? No. I think they only ever asked me to try my best. And I suppose, my ‘best’ was what motivated me. And that achievement, spurred me on to want to do better and to continue to improve. But I know others for whine that wouldn’t have been the case.
So I want to unpick this through my blog this week.
What is it that motivates young people to learn? What drives them to become more knowledgable or be better than they were yesterday? And what can we do to understand this in an effort to increase the motivation of our learners? In every school across the country, I reckon there are huge numbers of highly motivated students, and also those who could do with more motivation. How can we help motivate those who need it most?
A huge part in this, is my belief that as teachers we are there to support all of our pupils to achieve success. Success was what motivated me as a learner. That feeling of accomplishment was the drive I needed to continue to improve. It feels good when we ‘get it.’ Yet, often this desire for pupil success translates into making tasks too easy. Not challenging learners, when indeed pupils love a challenge. Our job is to support and scaffold the learning to make it achievable. And whilst simplifying tasks will allow students to experience success, I fear that this is at the cost of not allowing the young person to experience a feeling of pride. Instead we should aim for ‘High challenge, low threat.’ As Mary Myatt @MaryMyatt talks about.
This low threat aspect, highlights the need for trust and a strong relationship between the novice learner and the expert teacher. I would suggest that we can’t do learning on our own.
‘No significant learning can take place without a significant relationship.’ James Comer tells us.
I’m a strong believer in this. Pupils must trust that we are there to support them and have their best interests at heart. Young people can very easily tell when this is not genuine. They need to feel safe in order to take risks in their learning. We want them to make mistakes so that we can learn from them. Misconceptions are often the best opportunities to learn. We want them to struggle so that they feel accomplishment. And a good teacher builds this relationship to ensure that learners feel like they ‘belong’ in a learning situation in order for them to thrive. Is the online classroom simply too unfamiliar to students despite our best efforts to ‘dissolve the screen’?
A contentious issue is obviously the assessment aspect. Whilst our education system in Scotland is still entrenched in, and values summative assessment, within an arguably flawed model, there is always going to be the motivation of exam results. But I would argue that for many, this just isn’t a positive driver in motivation. Because we all know that learning doesn’t equal performance on any given day. Learning is much more than a snapshot assessed by an exam. Learning is a change in long term memory. It’s moving the thinking from the working memory to the long term memory so that it becomes automatic and understood. So exams don’t always accurately reflect learning. Think of those who often ‘cram’ the night before exams. Or those who fall apart on the day of an important assessment.
The last two weeks in Scotland, have seen learners return to school to complete practical work for assessment evidence. Whilst I welcome the opportunity to work with the young people in school, and feel it’s important for pupils to have these opportunities to work in school, I do worry that this suggests a panicked decision by the government, in which the focus is on the destination and the tick list, not on the journey and the progression. ‘Getting stuff done’ as opposed to embedding real routines for learning. It again highlights the obsession for evidence. And yes, evidence is important but is this our priority right now? And how can we address this?
I feel that if we were to focus on motivating pupils to learn, not just to pass exams, we would be making huge in-roads with this. The passing exams would be a by-product of this. But this is no mean feat. It is a huge undertaking to shift the mindset of learners and teachers, placing a focus on deep learning rather than ‘getting through it.’ Have we become obsessed with what Mary Myatt describes as the ‘curse of content coverage?’ Read here I would argue that whilst we are still rushing to gather evidence and get ‘through courses’ rather than a long term goal of highly motivated learners, then yes we will struggle to close the motivation gap.
This week I finished reading Peps McCrea’s @Pepsmccrea wonderful book ‘Motivated Teaching.’ Read a blog post about this here. This gave me lots to think about and I would really recommend this to anyone who wants to explore motivation in more depth. It really is a fascinating area and one which Peps discusses with much more clarity than I am able to do justice.
So as we focus our attention on the return to school over the next few weeks and months, I really hope that we don’t all rush back into ‘covering the course’ to get stuff done. And instead return to school mindful of the factors which drive motivation. Is this an opportunity to pause, consider what our learners really need in order to ensure they are in a place which maximises the opportunity to learn? I hope we will consider well-being, connection, success and motivation. Because my thinking is that if we get these elements right, and continue to focus on ‘learning,’ everything else will fall into place.
Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.