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.

Gender discrimination in my classroom? Never!

“You’re running like a girl!”

It was some time ago now when on a field somewhere in Birmingham I was shocked to hear the teacher in charge of the other school’s football team shout that. Presumably he was trying to encourage one of his football players to do better. And with righteous indignation I relayed what happened to my colleagues the next day. Of course I would never do anything like that.

And so for many years I have taught in various places and circumstances, content in the knowledge that I offer equal opportunities to the girls and boys in my class. Or so I thought.

This year I have started teaching at an independent boys school. One of the big changes has been getting used to calling the children in my class ‘boys’ and not ‘children’ or ‘kids’ or even ‘kiddiwinks’. (Sorry about that). But an interesting and more subtle thing has happened too. Starting the school has challenged how I view class dynamics.

Here’s an example. When I joined the school a couple of that staff who taught them last year informed me that a certain boy ‘is a lively one’. I immediately started thinking about which sensible girl I could put that boy with to calm then down. And then I realised there were no sensible girls, because you don’t get girls in a boys school.

And another example. I printed some display banners in outline so that they could be coloured by the children. That way the children could have more ownership of their classroom. And I wondered to myself which girls would volunteer to do the task. And then I realised no girls would do that task, because there are no girls in boys schools.

How fascinating.

Of course the boys did the colouring. And the lively boy is just that – lively, but quite able to respond to instructions. So there are no problems. But it’s made me wonder about the assumptions I’ve made for years.

Is there anybody else out there that does the ‘sensible girl’ thing? Or lets the girls do the colouring while the boys play with the marble run and the Brio? Or is it just me?

Passcode on iPad Google Drive app is genius

Look! You can set a Passcode on the Google Drive App
Look! You can set a Passcode on the Google Drive App

If you’ve read any of my #necessaryendings posts then you’ll have realised that by now I’ll have started a new job. I have. And by the second day with the children I was itching to do something with technology.

Like many schools, this school has a cabinet full of iPads. These iPads get some use but it would be fair to say that their use has not been maximised.

Like many teachers I got my children to write about their holidays today. It’s one of those assessment activities you do to find out how many can hold the pencil properly, form letters, apply phonics, write sentences and all that. So with that done, I thought it would be good to get pupils to explain their holiday writing to camera so I could compare what they write with what they say. The iPads were the obvious recording choice for this activity.

After the initial hilarity of five year-olds seeing each other’s faces on an iPad screen, many of the pupils settled down to try and hold the iPad still enough and close enough to actually record what their partner was saying and most of them said some good stuff.

All done and dusted. Children gone home, settled down in my classroom with a cup of coffee. Now to get all the videos off the individual iPads and edit them together so that tomorrow’s lesson could start with a bang, reminding the pupils of what they had been doing and how they could improve both what they have said and written.

And that’s where I hit a problem.

It seemed that there was no App on the devices for getting the videos off them. And when I plugged them into my classroom Windows PC I discovered that there was no way of transferring the files directly (the PCs are quite locked down and I don’t have administrator access).

Then I noticed Drive. Each iPad had an unused ‘Google Drive App’ icon on it. Problem solved. I quickly signed in and began transferring the videos to a Google Drive account.

But then I realised that with each iPad being used by any of the 180 pupils in the school, I had signed them all into a Google Drive account that I didn’t want anyone else accessing. Whoops.

But things have changed with Drive on the iPad since I last used it. I fiddled around and discovered that in ‘settings’ there is a ‘passcode’ option (pictured above). Now I could set each iPad to only use the Drive account I had signed in with when a certain passcode is entered. Genius. IPads have always been a brilliant tool for creating content, but now they are also brilliant for collecting that content.

Don’t wait for the incompatible wish to come true.

Waiting for the right kind of magic?
Waiting for the right kind of magic?

In his book Necessary Endings, which I found so helpful in making the decision to leave my previous job, Henry Cloud explains that one of the reasons people get stuck and can’t move beyond something is that they believe that an incompatible wish will come true. They believe that a contradiction that can never happen will, as if by magic, somehow happen.

As I read his list of ‘incompatible wishes’ I realised that I had done the same. I believed that I wanted to be the highest performer in the school but also wanted more time at home with my family.

It had been explained to me that as the deputy headteacher I should be the second best teacher in the school, after the headteacher that is. As the headteacher didn’t teach however, then by definition this meant I should be the best teacher in the school. Now there are some things that I think I am particularly good at and I know that that there are others aspects of my teaching at which I’m not so strong, for example my own written presentation and therefore my teaching of handwriting.

It became clear as I worked harder and harder to try to address the issues where I wasn’t ‘the best’, I was doing the opposite of the other part of my incompatible wish, namely spending more time with my family.

Reading the section on incompatible wishes was incredibly releasing. It released me into making a choice – between being the best performer in the school and spending more time with my family. I stopped being stuck. I recognised the incompatible wish – that contradiction I had thought to be possible – and chose the latter: the necessary ending that meant I could spend more time with my family.

People don’t think the same

Proverbs 18v6
Proverbs 18v6 (The Message)

One of the lessons I learned in ending my previous job was that people don’t think the same as each other.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? People are different, so clearly they think differently from each other. But I had made a presumption that we were all at least on the same bus as each other. But I was wrong. We’re not.

In my last post I mentioned I had read Henry Cloud’s book ‘Necessary Endings‘ and how helpful that had been. As I read through Chapter 7, entitled ‘The Wise, the Foolish and the Evil: Identifying which kinds of People Deserve Your Trust’, I realised I had made a couple of catastrophic errors in how I related to various people who were working with me to improve the school. Firstly I presumed that others thought the same as me and secondly I presumed that all the advice I received would be wise.

Henry Cloud says this:

“The truth is that not everyone on planet Earth is like you. Not all take responsibility for themselves or care about how their actions are affecting other people or the mission. Moreover, some are even worse than that. Some people are actually out to do you harm.”

Necessary Endings, p120

Reading this chapter was vital to me because it made me realise where I had gone wrong in my communication with other people. Cloud is clear that one of the main differences between wise people and foolish people is how they receive feedback – wise people listen and respond, whereas foolish people shift the blame and make it your fault. I was in the position of seeking feedback in how to do a couple of parts of my job that I hadn’t done before. But when advice and feedback was not forthcoming I began to lose hope. When I was told I had to improve without advice or feedback entirely in my own strength the hope drain continued. By admitting my errors and failures in the journey of the school from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’, I had expected to be advised on how to put things right. Instead my failure became part of the narrative of the school. Now I was hopeless.

Up to this point I had mainly focused on how well I was performing at the various functions involved in my role as Deputy headteacher. Now I was confronted with the fact that my communication to others had contributed to a narrative in which my position was increasingly untenable.

Cloud’s solution about dealing with foolish people is to stop talking. “Talking about a problem with a fool does not help it all.” Cloud writes. At the end of the chapter, he talks about getting to a ‘good hopelessness’. I mentioned earlier that I had been beginning to lose hope. Now as I read ‘Necessary Endings’ I realised that actually that hopelessness was a good place – I was hopeless for my role at that school, and that meant I could venture into the unknown of finding an exciting role somewhere else.

And that’s what I did.

Necessary Ending

The rose that was pruned
The rose that was pruned

I’ve been reading a great book recently. ‘Necessary Endings‘ by Dr. Henry Cloud shone a bright ray of hope into a fog of confusion and negativity.

In it, the author uses the image of a rose.

I was in my own garden yesterday and my very favourite rose – the yellow one – was just coming into bloom. I love it because when the flowers are just starting their petals hold just a thin line of red on their delicate, wafer-thin ends. Then they bloom into a magnificent gold and finally fade into chrome pink.

I noticed that the first and biggest flower had 2 little flowers growing off the same stem and I knew straight away they had to be pruned so that the first flower could reach its full magnificence. Similarly, I know that in a few days I’ll have to prune off that first flower so that when it’s faded beyond the chrome pink stage that I really like, other flowers can grow in its place.

I choose the endings for my rose. These endings are not failure. The endings are so that the rose can be at its best.

If you’ve read my blog recently you’ll have noticed that half way through my #LentBlog back in March I stopped writing abruptly. You may also know that in May I resigned from my current position and as recently as yesterday (Wednesday) was successful at interview for a new job in September.

I have experienced a necessary ending.

Pruning sounds like a harsh word when applied to people, because it speaks of being cut off for good and implies failure. While my story does involve failure, I do believe that the ending was both necessary and good.

There’s a lot I want to share about the successes, failures, regrets and hopes of the last few weeks and months. I also hope to ‘end well’ at my current work place. I intend to share that here in a new sequence of posts labelled #NecessaryEndings.