Get the Teaching Right

Get the teaching right and everything else feels easier.

This little mantra has echoed through my thoughts consistently throughout the last eleven years as a teacher. Seeing students enjoy the lessons that I have planned and seeing them learn and develop has, and always will be, the best thing about the job. When it’s going well in the classroom I feel everything else can be done. And it generally gets done. The marking, programmes of study, reports, action plans, data entry…

Get the teaching right

Over the last few weeks I’ve enjoyed settling into my new role as the Vice Principal at a newly converted academy. Immediately obvious was the fact that this was going to be a steep and speedy learning curve. Decisions that I was used to seeing being made by more experienced and knowledgeable colleagues in my previous school were now down to me. What will the curriculum look like next year? How will we include “modern British values” in the curriculum? Do we need to include modern British values in the curriculum? How do I start to write a three year development plan for a school from which 65% of students left without qualifications in English and maths? In addition to trying to offer some semblance of a strategic roadmap to answer these questions I, of course, had to teach. Because that’s what I am: teacher. Teacher first. VP second.

Get the teaching right …

This is what I found myself keeping in mind over the last few weeks. I’ve always felt that having credibility in the classroom meant staff took you seriously. Teaching has a “show us yer medals” attitude that often permeates football. Just ask David Moyes. Much of the reporting of Moyes’ time in charge at Manchester United focused on the fact he’d never won anything before therefore he couldn’t possibly know how to win anything. He hadn’t proved anything. He couldn’t ‘show ’em his medals’. Teaching is similar in the sense you need to prove you can teach, that you know your stuff, earned your classroom medals, so to speak, if you are to be taken seriously as a senior leader. That’s why the first three weeks in my new post has seen me spend as much time preparing lessons, assessing exercise books, sharing resources and sharing lesson plans as considering the strategic direction of the school. But then comes the actual teaching…

Get the teaching right…

Students aren’t really bothered about hierarchy in the same way staff are. School staff can be surprisingly rigid and place value in the formal hierarchy of the school. The formal teaching hierarchy in a school goes something like this: Teaching assistants, NQTs, teachers, heads of department, assistant head teachers, deputy head teachers (Vice principals),head teachers (principals). As in many workplaces, the ways staff interact with each other can be very dependent on where you fit into that hierarchy. Students couldn’t care less. So this last three weeks has seen this newly appointed VP floundering in the classroom with a group of ruthless Year 11s! A new teacher is a new teacher. There to be teased, mocked, tested. Boundaries pushed, challenged and broken.

I’ve loved it.

It was back to the implementation of routines, rituals expectations, systems that I relied far more heavily on in the early years of my time in the classroom: be at the classroom before the students arrive, books and resources out on the table, meet them at the door, smile, show them you are happy to see them, spare pens, spare books…Basic stuff. Vital stuff.

So as week four approaches I’m set to continue dedicate myself to getting my teaching right. Getting it right in the class with the students is what counts. Whether your an NQT or VP this is what will always count.

What’s the point of INSET?

Over the last 10 years I have sat through hours and hours and hours and hours of INSET. I’m a bit of an INSETaholic you see. As I’m writing this a reminder has just popped up in the corner of my screen flagging up that I’m due to attend a forty five minute session on ‘reasoning’ at 3:00pm. I’m keen to attend. You see I still approach all INSET with the mindset that I will learn at least one thing. Perhaps a strategy that I can add to my classroom practice, an idea I can trial whole school, advice that prompts me to reflect on my own leadership. But just like lessons for the students who attend our schools the quality of INSET varies.

The best INSET leaves you feeling inspired; hungry to learn more. Sees teachers swapping contact details and hanging around long after it’s ended talking and talking and talking about the topic at hand. The worst leaves you sat there listing the things you could be doing if you hadn’t been ‘advised’ by your line manager to attend. 

Some of the worst INSET has left me raging with anger as my time has been sucked away listening to an intelligent adult read through each and every word of 35 slide powerpoint presentation.

Schools have got to think much smarter when it comes to the develpoment of their staff. It seems to me that too much training is done on a wim or ad hoc basis. Leaders are influenced by what’s flavour of the month–independent learning; AfL; thinking skills; brain gym (seriously!) as opposed to what their staff really need or want.

At their best, professional development programmes in schools offer  choice; a combination of internal and external speakers; value the input of new teachers and experienced teachers; reference well grounded academic research; offer staff an end product such as Masters level credits. In short offer staff a learning opportunity.

So isn’t that the point of INSET? To learn. To continue to provide time, space, connections, for staff to learn? Providing a platform for staff to focus on their areas of interest, their passions and their own improvement. For this to happen school leaders need to work hard to ensure they plan for, build and nuture a culture of learning within all staff, conveying to staff that being a teacher is a continution of learning and the training and professional development will support them in that. 

Banning Slang? Just Bare Crazy, Innit?

A few years ago whilst still teaching in London I was one of a group of teachers that took a coach load of teenagers to the south of France to live by a river for a week. The trip involved students canoeing, mountain biking, raft buiding and swinging from ropes too high for me. I remember one evening camping by the side of the Ardeche River listening to the students as they chatted, gossiped and mickey took around the camp fire. Their conversation was littered with the often alien lexicon of the teenager. Words such as “bare”, “nang”, “butters” “peng” and “wasteman” darted between them like some secret code. Interested in the orgin, use and meaning of this slang we began to talk with the students about how teenage slang can change depending on region. I tried to remember the the slang terms that I relied on growing up in Swansea I got no further than “stonking” (today’s ‘fit’) and “minging” (still popular today, apparently?) Sat under the stars that evening we decided that upon our return to school we would try to introduce a new slang term. After much discussion we decided on the word “tender”. On their return to school the students would start using the word “tender” to decribe anything positive, such as “those trainers is tender, where’d you get them from?” or “Did you see Bergkamp’s goal on Saturday? It was tender, man”. My intention was to prove to the students that language is in constant change often depending on fashion, location, usage and context. Needless to say, as an English teacher I was pretty excited by this little sociolinguistic experiment. I was reminded of this episode this week when reading about how the Harris Academy Upper Norwood has banned the use of slang by its students. Even going so far as to have a banned list displayed around the school.

Surely, the people (let’s call them language Nazis)  who have decided and created this are missing the point. The use of slang is not new and, I believe, it enriches and colours our language use. So it comes down to where and when it is used. The Language Nazis of Upper Norwood (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write!) seem fearful that such language will find it’s way into students’ essay writing and more formal learning. So teach them about context, about audience and about purpose. Don’t outlaw something. That’s the easy optiom.

Historically, banning things has often resulted in a black market or under-the-counter trade. The prohibition of alcohol in 1920s America perhaps the most obvious example that springs to mind. Perhaps Norwood will see, just like the US did, a Prohibition King Pin like Al Capone (Let’s call him Slang Capone?) seize the black market. Only this time they’ll be dealing in slanguage as opposed to beverage. I can see the students now, nipping around the back of the science block to get their fix of “ain’ts, cozs, wozs and yeahs”  A quick drag on an “innit” and then back inisde to have your langauge cleansed by the dullard that introduced this idea. It’s just soooo extra.

Language lives, language breathes and language evolves. Let students play with it, let them mess it up, fix it and break it again. Give them the chance to learn about context and the whens, wheres, when nots and where nots of the use of slang.

As for tender? It kind of died out after a week. But for a short time we showed how  language meaning is not fixed it, the rules are not always hard and fast. Now that was exciting, Bare exciting.

So, who’s for a mini-plenary kids?

Since starting work at my current school just over two years ago an OfSTED inspection has hung over the the place like the sword of Damocles. It was always there. Wafting above us waiting to fall. After Christmas, we knew it had to come this term, the sword appeared to grow heavier; the horse hair holding it appeared thinner. Phrases like “when they come…” and “OfSTED will expect…” littered the language of the headteacher. Much of the  CPD over the last year had been focused on improving teaching and learning. This is sometimes called: What to say and do when an OfSTED inspector walks into your lesson. Just like the sword of Damocles, OfSTED created a sense of fear in which the staff worked.

In the last week of March this year the sword fell. We got the call. They were coming.

On the morning of the inspection two rather gentle looking ladies arrived and greeted the staff with smiles and promised “an opportunity for us to work together to ensure the school is on track to move forward”. All very friendly. In a pre-inspection email to staff the headteacher had closed with the line: Do not trust them. Doesn’t sound like she bought into the whole “opportunity for us to work together idea” being offered by our colleagues from OfSTED.

The next two days were something of a blur. A fuzzy mess of lesson observations, impromptu meetings, meetings cancelled, demands for data, hysterical teachers who were judged as satisfactory, hysterical teachers who were judged as outstanding, the crackle of walkie talkies announcing where an inspector would appear next. On the Thursday evening the verdict was in.

Now, you may have detected in what I have written above something of a cynical tone. You’d be right.The inspection process hangs there to create a sense of threat. Too often it is used by some school leaders to create a culture of accountability when in fact it creates a culture of fear. A sense of impending doom that for some staff is too much. To a certain extent it has become the reason for some schools existence. Or should that be survival? A battle to beat the inspector. Far too much time is spent getting schooling right for when the inspectors call. Too often training and meetings focus on getting things in place that OfSTED would like to see such as making sure that staff know precisely the criteria for OfSTED’s lesson gradings. If I am advised one more time by somebody to insert a mini-plenary into my lessons as soon as inspector walks in I’ll stab them through the heart with a chisel tipped whiteboard pen!

OfSTED has hijacked the ways schools are now managed and lead. It takes a very brave leader to ensure that their staff prioritise the needs of the people that matter: the students and parents of the communities they serve.

Charlie and the Blue Plastic Chair

On too many occasions to mention I have been asked what’s the best thing about teaching. My usual and perhaps predictable reply is something along the lines of you never quite know what’s going to happen. Yes, I’m teaching Romeo and Juliet for the umpteenth time and yes, trying to explain that ‘specific’ and ‘Pacific’ really are two different words does get a little wearing. But the truth is working with teenagers is a fantastically unpredictable business. Yet today has seen me break new ground. Today I had to cut a student free. From a chair.

Admittedly, Charlie is only a slip of a lad. The type of student whose blazer bought at the start of Year 7 will see him right through to Year 11. Nothing much too him really. Five stone soaking wet. Which he often is. Today while arguing about his latest detention Charlie managed to pop his knee through the gap in the backrest of a plastic chair. Shouts of “come on Charlie, get up. Stop messing and get yourself off home” soon changed to “someone get a first aider”  as Charlie’s knee started to swell and bruise in front of our eyes.

After some gentle tugs and wiggles of the chair it was clear that the boy was stuck. Trapped. And now not hiding the fact that he was in pain. Into this still farcical scene stepped Jeff. Caretaker Jeff. A man armed, not with a first aid kit, but a tool kit.  As Charlie lay back with the blue plastic chair pinning him down, Jeff and I gently set to work. Fifteen minutes later after a sustained but dextrous bout of sawing Charlie was free from his confinement. Regaining his feet like a new born deer, Charlie thanked his liberators and quickly informed the crowd that had gathered, most of which had their camera phones capturing the episode, that if anybody put it on YouTube he’d “fookin’ batter ’em”.  As for the teachers that had gathered? Well they slowly retreated to offices to release a tide of stifled laughter and welcome the half-term holiday.

Wos occurring Sir?

Chicken. Ropey. Grotbags. The Penguin. Deathbreath. Mad Mike. Purple Pam.  Reads like list of enemies Batman might find himself facing but these are the nicknames bestowed on some of the teachers who taught me or my sister at Cefn Hengoed School throughout the 1980s and early ’90s. Any ex students of the ‘Hengoed’ will know exactly who I’m referring to and will remember that they were all good people. But this is what they were known as to us and they knew it. Some of them I’ve since learnt warmed to their alias. Although I’m not sure Mrs Jones quite recovered from discovering she was being likened to a fat green witch who spent most of her time chasing Rod Hull and his bloody emu. Looking back this seems to have been the golden age of the nickname. I’m now in my tenth year as a teacher and I cannot think of a single teacher I have worked with, in three different schools, that has been given a nickname by the kids that has stuck.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard students call teachers names, I’ve even been called something other than Mr Harris but I’m not sure that “sheep shagging Welsh prick”  counts as a nickname. It’s also a bit of a mouthful. The nicknames I mentioned above were imaginative, funny, alliterative, enigmatic. Now as I approach a decade in the job I seem to have finally been nicknamed. The children of the Manchester academy  I work at seem to think it’s hilarious to refer to me as Uncle Bryn. Being the only outsider in a staff of Mancunians and Lancastrians my Welsh accent signposts me as different. An other. Their only Welsh point of reference seemingly being Rob Brydon’s character from Gavin and Stacey.

My Year 11 class seem to think this particularly funny and now have a bunch of ‘gags’ that come my way. I’m frequently asked if I’ve been on a fishing trip at the weekend, whether I’d like an omelette for lunch and of course the ubiquitous  “Alright Sir, wos occuring?” All of this delivered in spectacularly bonkers Welsh accents. A number of students have actually crossed out my name on their exercise books and overwritten it with “Uncle Bryn”. All very amusing and I must admit I indulge this by hamming up my Welsh accent and even teaching them some Welsh.  I doubt there is another class of 16 year olds in Manchester who can count to 10 in Welsh, know how to say they like coffee in Welsh and know that “pam” means “why” (they find this hilarious for some reason).  The fact that I’ve laughed along with this has quickly cemented my relationship with them as a class and when it comes down to the formal part of teaching them some stuff it’s noticeable that Uncle Bryn disappears from their language and  Mr Harris returns. The strength of my relationship with this most difficult group of students is founded in my reaction to their nickname for me. Laughing along and being willing to laugh at myself has proved a very powerful tool in creating a bond with teacher and class that bodes well for the challenges we’ll face throughout their final year in school.

So Uncle Bryn it is.  I suppose it’s better than “sheep shagging Welsh prick”.

Time for the Troops?

The recent announcement that a free school to be staffed by ex British servicemen and women has set alarm bells ringing with teachers and teaching unions. The proposed Phoenix Free School will be run using strict military style discipline, for me this immediately conjures up images of students standing to attention as their teacher inspects their homework. I’m imagining  Louis Gossett jr’s Sgt Emile Foley from An Officer and a Gentleman standing nose to nose with a boy berating him for failing to hand in an essay while also demanding to know “you eyeballing me boy?” Or perhaps a Captain Mainwaring type bumblingly asking a Year 10 boy to make sure his shoes are shiny. Stupid boy.

I’m sure this isn’t what the people behind the Phoenix Free School have in mind but if they do intend to establish a school in which high standards of behaviour are maintained through a strict and unwavering set of rules they will not be doing anything new here. If this military style discipline means having a behaviour policy in which respect, courtesy and self discipline are at the heart of it then these schools already exist. What’s more they are being expertly run by, guess what? That’s right. Qualified teachers.

Children do not need the expertise of the military and their band of unqualified teachers to get them to behave. They do need a headteacher who knows exactly what kind approach to discipline is needed for the community they serve. I have worked in a school in which the approach to student discipline was likened to a boot camp by people who had never set foot in the place. Only today I saw somebody online refer to it as a jail. Why was this? Because students where expected to have black socks on? Top buttons done up? Attend Saturday morning detentions? Walk in silence to each lesson? Eat together? Such mythology around this type of school often arises. But what this school did have was a Principal and a body of staff who believed that this was the appropriate approach for the students who came through their doors everyday. The school was judged as outstanding in its last inspection.

Of course I’m not advocating this is how all schools should approach behaviour and discipline but if this is what the Phoenix Free School is suggesting then it is nothing new. There are headteachers and teachers that by having clear sets of expectations and rules; that are consistently applied by all staff who are already creating a culture and environment in which good student behaviour is the norm.