This is a follow-up to: moving on…. in which I looked forward to taking up my then new role as HOD English. The original is in italics.
As I approach the end of my job,I want to reflect on 10 years in a relationship and my feelings as I move on to pastures New.
What an odd sensation. But then the whole adventure has been a little strange in some ways. Anyone who read my “who I am, what I do” blog knows the back story: opera singer becomes English teacher to have a job which both utilises my brain ( the multiplier effect) and which does not mean 8 months a year away from my wife and children.
Thus it was that in 2004 I arrived at the front door of a well-known Grammar School in Slough.
Below you will find my top moments and thoughts-a quick a single pedagogical Desert Island Disks.
Teachers are incredibly thin-skinned.
There was little rhyme and reason to the recruitment process.
I will never forget.
Changes. ( with apologies to Mr Bowie for the plagiarism).
Just leave me alone.
I can do this.
We teachers are a funny bunch. Every day we spend hours facing groups of potentially critics and revolutionaries. We show evidence of calm and serenity in this arena all day long. However, stand up to talk at a staff inset and all changes. We are nervous in a way that does not usually show and find perceived criticism very hard to bear. Thus when I arrived with a mindset honed in the opera house that said “make a mistake? Make it a big and confident one and then laugh about it”, it took a while to realise that this approach did not work in schools. A passing comment about a dire colour scheme in a PowerPoint or a suggestion that a certain resource might not be quite as effective as was believed, was greeted with a remarkable amount of hostility. Clearly things were going to be a bit different in my new world. Ten years on, I know one reason: Ofsted and the associated assessment regime in school. No wonder there are few smiles in some schools. In my old job, performance was transitory (unless recorded) and although reviews appeared in national and international press, our careers depended on our ability to perform and win over an audience. We knew that such opinion is subjective and understood that a single poor review is no reason to end a career. How different the pressure on a teacher. Despite lip service, Ofsted still seem to favour certain teaching styles and many lethargic managements still require adherence to this idea. Teachers know that poor performances when observed are career threatening and in many schools are still insignificant pressure to respond to the ill-informed or dogmatic demands of their management.
Moving to the Private Sector has shielded me from OFSTED, though not from inspection per se – we have our own ISI – the independent Schools’ Inspectorate and were inspected this year. The difference for me was the lack of ridiculous pressure on us. We were observed teaching and wrote plans ‘just in case’ but the atmosphere was different and there were no evident judgments made in any way. There seems to be a holistic overview of the establishment rather than a minute focus on individuals and a wide-ranging inspection of the ethos and extra-curricular life of the school. My previous establishment saw me off with a noxious ‘mocksted’ – the single most damaging activity dreamed up by SMT with which to beat an over-pressured staff – here we were supported through the process. As a HOD I had responsibility to ensure that my paperwork was up to date – handbook, resources, data tracking… but I was trusted to complete the relevant documents which, though time-consuming, was something I appreciate greatly.
I also appraise my team – I arrange book views to ensure that we are working on the same tracks whilst recognising that each of my department have their own style. What I want to see this year is better unanimity of use of some of the department policies regarding tracking literacy, especially in years 7&8, but I am left alone to plan and share my ideas within the department, who can then come back with their own… We have no fixed teaching style and have just been given fancy laptops and BYOD looms in the distance, yet we are free to work out how best to use this equipment as an opportunity to develop teaching and learning rather than as a proscribed path to be followed and to be strayed from at your own risk.
I am happy in this role in this school.
My first head teacher was quite a case. She ruled in the manner of Elizabeth 1st and gathered a coterie of close confidants around her. As a trainee I appealed to her because of my background – Classics and opera- and so it was that one morning about three weeks into my teaching life, she glided past me in the staffroom and muttered something about a job. Too surprised to respond, I grunted and moved on. A few days later I passed her in a corridor and raised the subject: “I do not joke” was the response. Later as a close friend struggled under quite appalling pressures and a grievance procedure I saw that this was certainly true. She was in control: interviews by phone were common as were bizarre questions -“are you an alcoholic?” Is one example. I do wonder though whether the recent fetishistic in-box tasks, role plays and student panels really do produce better results.
I have now taken part in 3 interview processes and see no random chance in the process. We have been lucky and I have a brilliant department – a good mix of age, experience and interest who work well together can trust each other. This is vital for a happy department. We have an office in which we can let off steam with each other and it would be daft to pretend there is never any friction, but the element of being part of the hiring process is one I value – I am looking for compatibility as well as classroom skills when I am interviewing. I find the whole process frustratingly artificial, however… few lessons should be disasters in this process and one has no idea how the candidates may be hiding their humour in an effort to appear ‘intellectual’. I try to find the humour and the personality.
I am, however, surprised by the nature of some of the CVs which do not make the short list. Does no one coach our colleagues about how they might sell themselves? Maybe this is an element of CPD with which schools should engage with their staff – after all, we spend months helping the Upper 6th write Personal Statements!
Without children there would be no teachers. We all have our favourites but also recall those who have impacted our lives and made us better people. Looking back there is a girl who.I helped through GCSE resits in yr 12. She seemed committed but had a dreadful attendance record. She had energy, but no stability. She cared for a baby sibling almost full-time and received irate phone calls during afternoon lessons from an irate mother demanding to know where she was and why she wasn’t at home to help out. She passed and was in touch recently- a lovely and successful young lady. Most of all though was the boy who lived. When I first met him in yr8 I was told he would not live beyond 16. He was wheelchair bound and suffering from a degenerative condition which would inexorably take over his body. But never his mind. I never saw him downcast and loved the way that his peers engaged with him and encouraged him. He was not left out in any way and staff were often asked to spend lunch in the gym overseeing the most spectacular games of basketball ever conceived. I was his form tutor in year 12 and helped him with the UCAS process. I am thrilled that he is about to begin his Masters degree. We bump into each other on social media and I think he is the single most impressive human being I have encountered since I began this life, if not ever. Aren’t teachers lucky?
I still believe the sentiment of the last sentence and both young adults mentioned above are going strong and still occasionally in touch. As for my new charges, I see such talent on display at times – the playwrite, the boy who opted for a stint in the Finnish National Service because it might be good for him, the strugglers, the charmers and those who get on with it and don’t really raise their heads above the parapet. All of them make my life richer. Thank you.
Leadership has been something that I have given much thought. I am about to take on my first HOD role and am obviously concerned to get it right. However I know that I will make mistakes and hope that my honesty and integrity still lead my response. Leadership seems to need to balance what has to be done with what should be done. For me, the latter seems the more important. A moral compass and a sense of integrity should not be sacrificed for political expediency. Too often it is. I know one wonderful SLT member who has gone out on a limb rather than flinch from what is right- it has not won her the same friends as those who nod meekly and accept each element of policy as though their lives depended on it. At what point did we abdicate our responsibility for creating an excellent education system? The system is currently damaged. Ofsted seem to be vanishing up their own fundament in the search for a method of stigmatising the poor, based on dogma and entrenched philosophies whilst leaders seem to be lagging behind the staff when trying to drive change and embrace the potential freedoms of a world without levels and in which the changes at KS5 could be embraced as a challenge. There are exceptions, naturally, and I follow many staggeringly impressive figures on Twitter, but being realistic, these voices which drive open and exciting discussion in the Twitter-verse are a tiny minority of school leaders in the country, many of whom are still cowed by the league table culture and a fear of what Ofsted might say. Based on my limited 10 year experience, I urge leaders to remember:
This seems a little darker, especially when looking at OFSTED… I still value Twitter colleagues and the brilliant @team_english1 in particular, which has turned into a great support network for English teachers. All should follow it and join in the conversation. I try to get to at least one major T&L conference each year as time allows and am trying to make time to meet some of my tweacher colleagues in the flesh: so far – so rewarding.
1 You were a classroom teacher once- rediscover that excitement
I still love engaging in new teaching ideas and texts – this year I will be teaching American Lit for the first time at A level and have got myself back into Year 7. The new timetable is going to be interesting and not without considerable challenge, but challenge is interesting and without it we fester and corrode.
2 Don’t build walls between yourself and the other staff
I try to be as open and available as possible. I was amazed that our librarian was not invited to meetings by my predecessor – she is now and ‘library matters’ is usually the most populated area of the minutes sent to SMT weekly. I know I can be a grumpy sod at times, but I hope that I am there when it matters. We are all silly-busy, to come over all precious and HOD-ish is just childish… the ‘I’m the captain and I say so’ school of management. We eat and drink together – and I try to buy the first round.
3 Share your vision and enthuse
It’s quite hard to enthuse without pushing. What I hope is that my vision is clear and that I never ask others to do something which I will not. We need a collective understanding to get on with whatever we need to do – the hurried celebration of the 140 years of the school which led to the re-writing of the Hunting of the Snark is a good example – I cajoled and requested… I tried to show my enthusiasm for a fortnight which interrupted other work long in the planning and the outcome worked.
I have encouraged others to develop and write SOWs for our use – Bethan’s passport is one such outcome – as exciting a transition scheme as I have worked on. Our work to deliver lectures to look deeper at the texts studied has developed the Lecture Day to something really impressive thanks to the work of Gavin and Maria. And I have not lost my enthusiasm for blogging.
4 Credit what is happening, don’t just criticise what is not
Hard – but rumination is the root of all stress – the less we ruminate on the unchangeable or the out of our control, the better. I try. Honestly, I try.
5 Be a Multiplier and empower your staff to use their intellect to benefit the school
Again, I am trying. I want my team to be motivated whether by further CPD training towards leadership roles or ensuring that their wishes and personal targets are supported. I will try to find suitable courses if this is needed and will also try to have some ideas of my own in the background, but I will not be a leader who offers chances only to take them away at the first sign of difficulty. ‘What are you going to do next?’ is a process which enables development. ‘Here, let me’ just stifle sit and builds a sense of why bother. I hope the couple of instances of this which have arisen this year have been of value, even if the colleagues didn’t realise what I was trying to do. We all work to tight time constraints and there are times when a leader has to take on work to ensure it is completed, but for me, the aim is to develop an environment in which all my colleagues can thrive.
6 Look for evidence before accepting the latest pseudo-scientific breakthrough
Yes. No change here. Read the books and make up your own mind.
7 Remember to be human both for staff and students alike
Again – we are all stressed, and they are CHILDREN, even if they are 18. We all make mistakes, we all get tired and we are all prey to emotion. Children are not different and we must always remember this whilst being scrupulous about being consistent in the application of sanctions as required.
8 Think of yourself as the stem of the glass supporting the bowl. The support is the fragile bit – be careful and gentle and honest.
I still like this analogy and think about it often. I wonder if it is widely held in the senior ranks?
Embrace change! With no change life is deadly. I try to find new books to use in class and always look for pedagogical developments: some works, some does not, but even with the latter, I find that the seeds sown often develop into something interesting at a later stage. My change of job is exciting. I know that I don’t really want to have to go back to stage one of the “getting to know you” game, but it will be worth it and the change excites me greatly. Look forward, not backwards.
This is so close to number 1, above…. We must not be afraid of making mistakes and learning from them and we need to show our students that this is the path to success.
This one comes back to assessment. Many are the cries to be left alone to teach and, to a degree I support this. Confrontational observation with a checklist of required behaviours has been systematically rubbished this year in a series of writings by bloggers such as David Didau and Tom Bennett, often collated by another figure “Old Andrew” ( who blogged anonymously for years to avoid hostility stemming from his trenchant views). Only today the Civitas report by Robert Peal has surely sounded the death knell. No. In September there will be hundreds of us required to jump through hoops to achieve a weird sort of acceptance of our competence. Leave me alone, and give me the power and space to develop my own pedagogy. Institute triads to support and develop colleagues and ensure that all access the incredible wealth of real CPD opportunities found in the cloud and regularly given publicity on Twitter. At the same time, telling companies purporting to sell courses guaranteed to show the “outstanding” lesson to crawl back under their stones. Use the money saved to send 10 Staff members to #TLAB15, one of the best days money can buy.
Yes. Assessment is not confrontational in my department – at least, that is my intention. I use ISI grading sheets which are holistic and look for evidence of what is present rather than what is not. I keep meaning to drop in on teaching in the department, though time issues make this hard. The other problem is that I get excited by what I see and want to join in. Both Bethan and Jade have suffered from this when I watched WW1 poetry and Chaucer being taught this term. We have a regular book check rota, though I will not run each session and the department take it in turns to review a year group and to present to the group with good-practice-seen being the key trend. Serious areas of concern will be dealt with by me, but none have turned up as yet.
My current wish for staff would be to attend #ResearchEd in any of its guises. Bethan and I will be in London on September 9th.
7. I can and I bloody well will!