A fresh head and a new state of mind



I hate the whole ‘New Year’ thing. Calendar wise it’s completely arbitrary and it feels like a solution looking for a problem to have to generate a new resolution each January.

So it is completely coincidental that this January I find myself in need of a fresh start.

For the last two academic years I’ve been trying to steer a department through various challenges – new curricula, changes to exam structures, a shift towards computer science, having staff poached by other departments and an increasing pressure to be accountable for all things at all times (and the inevitable paper chase that goes with it).

I’ve noticed that my positive, jovial demeanour most of the time has been strained. I’ve become more cynical, pessimistic and generally unhappy. In the run up to Christmas I found myself trying to support a large group of students through ECDL, and I put myself under far too much pressure and that ultimately put strains on the strongest professional friendships I have as well as my personal life.

I have no scientific backing for what I’m about to say, no double blind studies or journal citations. What I do have is 11 years of experience at the front of the classroom and about 18 years at the back. A stressed, cynical, unhappy teacher makes for stressed, cynical, unhappy students. I’ve found myself snapping at students for not knowing something that I do or, worse, for not knowing the thing that I taught a different class last week.

So I’ve made a deliberate effort this Christmas to take a proper break. No school emails, no marking, no planning, no reports or even a stray thought for school work for about a week and a half. Yes, it means that I’m a bit behind now but, you know what? I will get done what I need to and the rest of it will just have to do. Ultimately I’ll return a happier, more productive teacher and middle leader – which I hope will lead to more interesting and engaging learning experiences for my charges. I’ll continue, in fact redouble, my efforts to teach them things ‘for the sake of learning it’ rather than because it might turn up on an exam paper. And I’ll trust that the results will bear out their learning rather than being the sole objective.

Ask me in a week how well it’s working…

Re-finding my teaching mojo

Back to School – Bluesquarething

So, it’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. But this year I am determined to find the time for self-reflection that I missed out on last year – and forcing myself to blog at least once a fortnight should help me do that.

The return to school after such a long break is always a funny one, and this year I’ve felt less organised than ever. Partly I think I overworked myself last year and really needed a long break, meaning that I didn’t even do the token 3 or 4 days in the run up to starting this year.

And yet, it really doesn’t take long to get back into it. This morning I felt quite disillusioned arriving at school. The same corridors, the same room, the same tip that I didn’t tidy properly at the end of term… and the same requirements to be excellent, to be outstanding, to have engaging, entertaining lessons. I really didn’t think I had the energy for it any more when I rolled up at 8am.

By third lesson I’d spent two hours with my new form, taught a tutorial lesson that didn’t result in me wanting to bang my head against a wall and was starting to take some shiny new Y7s through the intricacies of logging on. I didn’t have time be tired, found myself making jokes the kids didn’t get (is it just me that does this?) and just generally felt quite at home.

This afternoon I met both of my new Y10 classes and was impressed by their work ethic, their ability and my planning (I might be one-sided but I genuinely thought they both lessons were well paced, included varied activities and both actually had a plenary!).

So, while it seemed a dispiriting moment to be heading back to the front lines, it’s actually reminded me of all the things I love about teaching. Interactions with enthusiastic kids, being helpful and supportive, seeing people make progress on a minute by minute basis and all that stuff.

We’ll see how it goes in week two once they’ve gotten a little more comfortable 😀

On being a hard-ass

Strict rules

Originally uploaded by Craig A Rodway

This is an issue that’s plagued me since the start of my teaching career and it’s something I’ve never quite gotten to grips with.

As a child I had a lovely upbringing, but it’s fair to say that my parents had clear and high expectations of my behaviour and general attitude. I had to ask permission to leave the dinner table, I had to listen when I was spoken to and I apparently didn’t know what a good hiding was (or so my mum used to tell me).

I happen to think I turned out OK. I consider myself to be well mannered, respectful of others and I seem to do pretty well for myself in life. Seeing that this model certainly worked in my case I’ve adopted a similar approach with my own children. As my children’s dance teacher once said to me, she knows what each parent is like. Some kids they get 3 chances, some get twenty, mine get told once.

Translate that to a classroom and some kids have recently told me that I like to argue, that I need to lighten up or that they wish I wasn’t their teacher/form tutor. It’s easy to laugh that off as just kids, or say that it means I must be doing something right, but I do wonder.

As a child you make mistakes. You do things and you might or might not realise that it wasn’t a great idea. It might be how many times you can tell the same joke (any parent of a 4 year old will know that they never tire of “knock knock – Doctor Who”), how far you can go with a bit of banter before you cause offence or whether you’ll get away with playing Google Pacman instead of finishing the 3D model of a house you were asked to design.

Yes, we need to steer the youngsters right and help them to make the right decisions (in this case once, not as far as you think, probably not), but we also need to make sure that we create positive relationships built on trust, respect and safety. I worry about how much of a barrier I put up by being too strict, and have expectations about behaviour and attitude that are perhaps not realistic.

As usual this is really an opportunity for me to reflect on my own teaching rather than being aimed at an audience, so I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but I do think I probably get the balance a bit too far to one side and wonder how I can bring it back a little while still being me.

Good enough ?!?!

I’m writing this blog with stolen time (the best kind, IME).

My Thursday nights are normally spent painstakingly preparing a quiz for my form. We have a picture round with 15 pictures (spot the actor, name the TV show, etc.), 15 anagrams, 15 subject specific questions (English lit, English lang, Maths, Science, French, German…) and 15 news questions. It takes me a good hour, sometimes more – and all for a 15 minute registration period.

I’m proud of that quiz though. It has educational as well as entertainment value. It builds teamwork. It makes the registration time seem more worthwhile. It supports the rewards system as the top 2 teams get merits.

Tonight though, I’m tired. First week back after the Christmas break, jobs appearing on my desk quicker than I can shift them off it – you know what it’s like. So, I’ve nipped to onlinequizarea, sorted out 4 rounds from there and I’m writing this with the time instead.

Is that fair? Is that good enough? Is it as educational? Well, yes, yes and no, probably. But that’s OK.

I’ve told this story a number of times, but when I did my PGCE I was a year or so out of academia. My early assignments were drafted, redrafted, proofed, drafted and then submitted. I worked really hard on those assignments and put a lot into it. Then I started my teaching practice…

The assignments in the second half of the course were tackled slightly differently. They got done. Once. And then submitted. They were done in good time, they weren’t rushed, but they didn’t go through multiple drafts. I didn’t have the time and, frankly, they weren’t a priority for me.

Strangely, I got better marks on those assignments than I did on the first!

The lesson there? In this job (and, I’m sure, many others) there just isn’t time to do everything perfectly. And there really isn’t an advantage to doing so anyway. Do things properly, do them well, but sometimes you do need to prioritise, sometimes you do need to do something that’s merely ‘good enough’.

And that’s OK.

Image attribution: Good enough ?!?! Originally uploaded by AUSTIN_O