Learning not to schwa

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me since starting my new job has not been the step change from leadership to teacher, nor the move from state to independent sector, but the move from Junior to Infant (or Prep to Pre-Prep as we would say in my school). And in this move teaching phonics has been the single biggest difference.

The principle of teaching phonics is simple enough: teach phonics well and children will read. They can use their phonic knowledge to decipher, sound out and blend words, becoming increasingly fluent. When I started teaching twenty years ago (admittedly in Year 4) I remember hearing readers and teaching them to look for contextual clues in the pictures or the sentences they had previously read. Not so anymore: phonics is king.

And I thought I had a pretty good grasp of phonics myself, until a teaching assistant pointed out that I sometimes ‘schwa’ my letter sounds. Schwa may be a word you have not come across before. Mr Thorne (my go-to Youtuber for all my phonics teaching) gives a pretty good explanation of the schwa here. If you watch the video you ‘ll see that obviously learning where a sound is a schwa is really important. But I was adding schwas to letters I shouldn’t have been.

For example when I said the sound for the letter ‘S’ I would sometimes say ‘suh’ not ‘ssss’. Or I would say ‘huh’ instead of the breathy ‘hhh’ for the ‘H’.

As I write this, the school leader in me is screaming ‘Teacher Standards’, because as everyone knows a good working knowledge of phonics teaching is part of the 2014 UK Government Teacher Standards document, teachers should:

if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics

Well. I’m working on it.

The problem for me is that I’ve come down to Year 1 from older years. Many year 1 teachers come up to Year 1 from Reception and have taught the phonics knowledge that children learn right at the start. I’m lucky though because I have a helpful and experienced team around me who all have excellent knowledge of the Early Years curriculum and I’ve been enjoying learning off them!

Focus on where you are going, not what you’re doing.

The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel
The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel

This is the Edgbaston Tunnel. It’s on my cycle route to work. The distance between the fence and the wall isn’t very large and on my rather clunky bike there are only a few centimetres to spare on either side. It would be easy to hit the wall or the fence as I ride through it.

I’ve found that if I keep focused on the end of the tunnel – if I keep my attention straight ahead it’s fine – I can get through with no problem. However, should I look down at my hands to see how far I am from crashing into the fence, I have to screech to a halt as my bike starts to wobble. Focusing on what I’m doing does not actually help me with what I’m doing. Strange that.

In teaching it’s easy to get distracted with the mechanics of the job. Will my lesson plan cut it? Is my voice control good enough? Have I thought about every nuance of classroom management to ensure that the lesson runs as smoothly as possible?

But actually it’s more healthy to keep the focus on where you are going – where do you want the children to be by the end of the lesson / week / term / year?

Of course practice is important. If I hadn’t practised riding my bike on wide paths I wouldn’t be able to ride through the narrow path that is Edgbaston Tunnel. But now I have sufficient skill to do it, focusing on my practice doesn’t help me as much as focusing on where I’m going.

One of the great things about my new job is that there is an implicit trust that I have the skills of teaching sufficient to do the job well. Now I can focus on where I am going with the children. I think too many schools try to refocus their teachers on the minutiae of their teaching when actually their teaching would be better served by focusing on the big picture of where they are going with their students.

And for that the key question is set by the ambition of the school – do we want our students to:

  • have great individual lessons in which progress can be demonstrated by the end of them?
  • have great units of work?
  • make great progress over an academic year?
  • do really well in a test?
  • become great citizens who can contribute to society?

Teachers who then are released into seeing the big picture will only by limited by which of the above questions is closest to the ethos of their school.

What I’m enjoying about my new school is that it is definitely the kind of school where the big picture is closest to how can we make our students great citizens who can contribute to society.

TEAM: Together Everybody Achieves Mediocrity

‘There’s no I in TEAM’.

‘Together Everybody Achieves More’

These are phrases that are thrown about to justify why we need good teams in schools. However these are phrases that initially came from building effective teams in the business environment. And as I suggested in my previous post, not everything is the same between schools and business.

The essential difference is that most teachers spend most of their time working with their students, assessing (by themselves) and planning, which is often done alone, although sometimes with others. Teachers spend very little of their working day with their colleagues, which is something I suspect is different from most other work environments.

In short, while there is no I in TEAM, there is an I in TEACHING.

But to develop the picture, I think that many school leaders make the mistake of trying to over-conform their teachers to a single model of what a good teacher looks like. They set too many ‘non-negotiables’ some of which are important and some of which aren’t, but the net result is that many teachers are denied from working to their strengths because they spend so much time trying to fit the picture set out by their leaders. It’s like the Pareto Principle in reverse – trying to work so hard on the 20% that will make them into the ideal teacher, but then losing the focus on the 80% which they are actually good at.

Schools are strong when teachers are individuals. Of course, there needs to be a bottom line. But when we’ve all agreed that we need to raise standards for our students in a safe and healthy way, do we really need to mark in pink, write a post for the class webpage or ask at least 3 open-ended questions in our plenaries (those of us who do plenaries)?

And it’s true that there are educational systems where teamwork is highly valued and effective. Take Shanghai, where the maths teachers teach 3 forty minute lessons a day and have time to plan with their colleagues every day, and meet with other schools on a regular basis. There teamwork is built into the timetable. The resources are already there in the system.

In our system teachers have far more contact time with students, so there is far less time to ‘be team’. That’s why we need independent, unique and sometimes quirky individuals to be teachers. And there’s a strength in that, so long as we remember not to dumb down our teachers to the mediocre by enforcing a range of meaningless non-negotiables.

Education has gone to the dogs

'Dogs' Lyrics
Lyrics from ‘Dogs’ by Pink Floyd

When a friend who is a headteacher uttered these words a few months ago, I was in the midst of my angst about whether I should resign or not. Mired in my own personal work trauma, I hadn’t realised at the time how true her words are.

UK Education has gone to the ‘dogs’.  And by ‘dogs’ I’m using a technical term as defined by Pink Floyd’s 1977 album ‘Animals’, in which a section of the lyrics from the 17-minute long song ‘Dogs’ goes:

You have to be trusted by the people you lie to,

So that when they turn their backs on you,

You’ll get the chance to put the knife in.

The song is about business people. That’s who state education has gone to.

Somehow, somewhere we’ve got the idea that education can be run like a marketplace. So we’ve got businesses involved in it. Companies that run academy chains and companies that market resources for a curriculum that’s only a skeleton and so is ripe for fleshing out with expensive products.

But the marketplace is all wrong. In a normal market, companies compete for the business available. Some succeed and some fail, but in competing the idea is that the consumer gets a better deal. Companies make profit and the whole thing is based on money.

But the education market is a kind of half-way house between socialism and capitalism. Every school gets roughly the same amount of money per child (pupil premium excepted) regardless of how well they are doing. Schools are then judged on student performance, evaluated by Ofsted and put into league tables based on test results. There’s very little financial reward or penalty for performance in the education market.

The very best schools can become teaching schools which can then effectively take over other schools. The very worst schools are said to be failing and then struggle to recruit teachers and take on families who want the very best academically for their children. These schools can be closed, or turned into an academy or taken over by a teaching school. However while these schools are failing, their students are suffering. Those students will never get their wasted education back. What can happen during this time is that the school becomes another province in the burgeoning empire of an executive headteacher, therefore justifying a higher salary. Or the school could become part of an expanding academy chain, creaming off more money from state education into private business.

A virtuous cycle is set up for those who are part of it. The teaching school headteachers and academy chains all know the HMI inspectors. They form a powerful network that other schools can’t easily join. They set about making their own bit of state education the very best it can be, ignoring the effect that a poor-education-for-some has on our overall society.

And sometimes they stoop to anything to make sure this happens. Before I resigned from my previous post I was lied to by those in charge. And just as it says in the song, when I tried to get on with my work having been told one thing to my face, other things where being said behind my back which had the metaphorical effect of putting the knife in.

Headteachers of teaching schools are the very people who should be standing up to the DfE and fighting for the rights of all children to have a great education. But instead they have stood by while the DfE have handed over much of the system to business, because the system has suited their growing empires.

Since moving to the independent sector, I’ve been impressed by the honesty of those who teach and work within it. It’s quite simple – you’ve got to do your job well or parents will stop paying the money to keep the place going. Everyone is clear – the school is a business. It provides education but the bottom line is money.

By contrast the half-way house that exists in the state sector blurs the lines between finance and standards. And when lines get blurry, those without moral purpose can prosper.

So what’s the fix?

First of all, ignore the distractions that the DfE come up with, such as that one about Grammar schools.

Secondly, either education should be a great socialist venture into making education great for all or it should completely go over to the market (based entirely on money: actual hard cash). The current half-way house is disastrous for everyone, except for those dogs creaming money off the state sector.

The Great Grammar School Distraction of 2016

The recent debate about the proposed grammar school expansion is interesting but it’s just another distraction from the real issues that affect education.

These issues are

  1. the quality and quantity of teachers available to teach.
  2. The growing emphasis on the performance of schools over the performance of students, therefore increasing the amount of gaming that is in the system and consequently increasing the amount of dishonesty amongst teachers and children.

If grammar schools were to address either of these issues, then they would be a good thing. But the impact of grammar schools would be peripheral and indirect at best.

It’s interesting how three years ago a crisis of a lack of headteachers, was responded to by introducing a new curriculum and how a year ago the crisis in teacher recruitment was met by radical changes in how children are assessed. Then in June the Public Account Committee reported that ministers have no plans to address the recruitment crisis. No. Instead they would like to expand grammar schools.

Two of my children go to a grammar school. They are both thriving. They are thriving because the school is full of great teachers. The great teachers go there because grammar schools find it easier to recruit because they have higher performing students from more aspirational families. And far fewer behaviour problems. However they are still vulnerable to bad teachers. My son had one last year for a few months in his computing lessons and he actually went backwards. It’s the teacher that makes the difference to the child.

I have no problem with grammar schools. But every child in this country deserves great teachers. If we restructure to more grammar schools does that then mean that some children get the best teachers and the rest will just have to get by?

No. We don’t fix these issues by restructuring the school system, it has to be more direct than that and focus on the teachers themselves: what make teachers great? And what keeps them great without burning out?

The Encouragement Box

My Encouragement Box
My Encouragement Box

I’ve been musing on the issue of self-confidence in the last couple of posts. When I was at one of my lowest points about last April, I spoke to a friend at church who mentioned having an ‘encouragement box’.

The is a place where you put anything that makes you feel stronger and better about yourself. It might include things people have written about you – cards, letters or even post-its. It might be a report of something that had gone really well, a photo of a good time, even an artefact that reminds you of something that was really, really ace.

I had no box for this sort of stuff. When my friend mentioned this to me I was too much in an a mental mire to take time to put something like this together – I just felt that I was far too busy to spend time being encouraged. Now looking back it was just the thing I needed – something to remind me of things that I do well.

After I made the decision to resign I started the inevitable process of packing up my stuff. And as I did this my encouragement box started to form. I found certificates that I had lost; cards from parents and colleagues that I had forgotten about; reports of successful projects over the years. It made me realise that despite things being bad, they hadn’t always been bad. In fact sometimes they had been really, really good.

Then, in the final week, I was treated to a magnificent surprise. The staff and the children put on a surprise leaving performance for me with fun, games and songs, each class presenting me with a book of memories. It was a laugh-a-minute – we really had loads of fun and some of it made my cry with laughter it was so funny. I particularly remember a sketch the Year 6 teacher had written performed by the Year 6 children where they impersonated the staff responding to one of my maths CPD staff meetings. It was marvellous. And lots more things were added to my encouragement box.

It all made me realise that I had forgotten some vital aspects of my identity as a teacher and school leader over the previous months. The fact that I was being remembered by my colleagues as creative and fun was something I had lost sight of. And I have resolved not to lose sight of these things in the months and years ahead.

Hopefully my encouragement box will remind me of this next time I start to forget…

What’s your stick?

In my last post I wrote how I had lost a considerable amount of confidence in my previous job. These next few posts are dedicated to how I’ve begun to regain it.

Confidence is a strange thing. You can have confidence in yourself, but people can lose confidence in you no matter what you feel. Confidence can be affected by external factors, like what people say about what you do or how you work. But you can affect your own confidence too, make choices that increase or decrease how confident you feel about something. In fact the verse of the day that I read this morning (Hebrews 20:35) it said: “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.” Confidence therefore is something that you can choose to get rid of. Or maybe we can choose to stop doing the things that once made us confident, and therefore we lose confidence.

During the Summer this was made clear to me at the New Wine Summer Conference. During a talk by Danielle Strickland a question was asked: “what’s your stick?” Danielle Strickland went on to relate the story of Moses who when finally he had got his people the Israelites out of Egypt was presented with the seemingly impassable boundary of the Red Sea. The Egyptian army, the mightiest army of the time was on their tale, time was ticking and it seemed that the Israelites were doomed to be destroyed. They moaned to Moses who in turn reassured them that everything would be alright if only they stood still. But God’s response contradicts Moses. He told them to stop crying out and get moving and he reminded Moses to use his stick (OK, the passage says ‘staff’, but that just makes me think of Gandalf.)

Oh yeah, thought Moses, my stick. The same stick that I had with me when God, the infinite being, spoke to me from the burning bush. The same stick that I had when I called ten plagues down on Egypt. The same stick that turned into a snake and ate all of the snakes of Pharoah’s wizards. That stick.

That stick.

I forgot that I’ve been given things that have got me through tricky times before. These things are the metaphorical equivalent of Moses staff. Or maybe Moses staff is the metaphorical equivalent of them. I’m not quite sure which way round it is. These habits have worked before but I’ve forgotten them, fallen out of practise at using them, but they are the best things at reminding me, who I am. They keep me confident. In other words, I had thrown away some good habits – chosen to lose my confidence.

And they are simple things. Like being creative – writing some words or a song to express how I feel, singing, playing my guitar, praying, singing in tongues, cycling. These are things that don’t take much time or effort. And they are good for me.

And of course these things are different for different people. As you read this you will know that you have a good habit which when you practise makes you feel good about yourself. You’ve probably got more than one. Practising them keeps your confidence up, so do them. Do them more. They’re good for you.

The Importance of Confidence in Teaching

I’ve written before that I believe four things define a teacher:

  1. subject knowledge
  2. pedagogical skill
  3. motivation
  4. confidence

I think too often schools over-focus on one of those areas to the detriment of the others. It may be that a school works on team building to develop the motivation of its staff, but neglects to look at the pedagogical skills that are needed to teach good lessons. I’m sure you can think of your own examples where schools work too hard on one of those qualities while the other three are going down the pan.

As individuals we all have our different strengths and for me my subject knowledge has been strong whereas my pedagogical skills have been developed thanks to the grace, patience and expertise of a whole host of teachers I have worked with over the years. I’ve never really considered that a lack of motivation or indeed confidence would affect me, although I have seen how it has affected others over the years.

But as I reflect on the reasons for my necessary ending at my previous job, I realise that I had lost some confidence. As I began to receive both public and private criticism of my practice I found that I worked harder to fix the problems which had been identified. But the criticisms didn’t go away, my confidence did instead.

One example is a lesson observation that I knew was coming up on a Monday morning. I’ve been observed many times, but never under such criticism and I found that I worried about the lesson all weekend: planning and re-planning what I would do, unable to focus on the things we were doing as a family and losing sleep.

When the two observers came into the room on Monday, I found that any confidence in my ability to do a good lesson just drained away. Some elements of the lesson went well, some didn’t and the external criticism increased. As my confidence decreased I found that in turn it affected my motivation. I was not looking forward to the school day and I was not enjoying the interactions with the children or my colleagues as much as I once had. Seeing the people who were observing me just in passing around school made me feel physically sick, so I did my best to avoid any interactions with them.

In short, whether or not the original criticisms were deserved, by this point my confidence was so low that I was actually under-performing. Something had to change – another realisation that led to my Necessary Ending that I have written about so much recently.

Over the summer break I learned some things about regaining confidence. Now at a new job with my confidence firmly back in place and feeling motivated to get up and teach every day it’s time to write about some ways I’ve found handy to increase confidence. But they’ll have to wait for another day.

My Uncle and the Secondary Modern

My Uncle on his bike
My Uncle on his bike

My Uncle Pete died a few weeks ago. The picture is one I painted for him when he had a motorbike. He was a bit of a loner and a hippy as I wrote in the poem that I read out at his funeral.

When I talked to my Mum about his life it became clear that his schooling had had a profoundly negative effect on his life. Not academic enough for grammar school and not sporty enough to fit in at the secondary modern where he was sent, he was bullied terribly.

Uncle Pete painted. He wrote poems. He was writing a book. He was philosophical, with interesting views on a wide range of things. He was gentle. He died with a smile on his face.

Yet I feel his creative talent was never fully fulfilled. Instead of being nurtured and allowed to develop at school, his talents were bruised and crushed by those around him. He first ran away from home when he was sixteen or seventeen and disappeared at other times throughout his adult life. Whether it was the teachers, or his peers, or the system itself, I will never know.

But what I do know is that Uncle Pete would have had a better chance of doing well in the current secondary schools in this country. Yes, I know it would not be certain, but our secondary schools nurture talent when they identify it. Far fewer students slip through the net into failure.

I wonder what Uncle Pete would have thought of the current debate on Grammar Schools. I didn’t get to ask him.

ClassDojo is Awesome

I’m new to a school and wanted a way to motivate the children but use the school’s behaviour system at the same time.

I’ve come from a school where I was both the technology lead and the behaviour lead to a school where I am neither. At my previous school I had built up Google Apps from scratch and a behaviour system that worked. At my new school I was just getting my head round Outlook for the first time in about 10 years.

All I had was the internet and the memory that someone had once recommended using Class Dojo for classroom management.

So on Monday morning I realised I had failed to print out any sticker charts for the school’s house points. I wasn’t that confident with the school’s printer or indeed using Publisher, which I am well out of practice with. But I had the internet.

Twenty minutes later Class Dojo was up and working, filled with the names of the children in the class with the generic rewards rep[laced with the rewards that match the system of the new school. I had even grouped the children into their ‘houses’.

It is literally awesome. It had saved me time, the school paper and the boys love it. Ace.