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!

On Being Professional


I’ve had that term thrown into my face recently. “It wasn’t very professional when he spoke like that,” referring to a time when I didn’t use standard English in a conversation. And I’m sure I’ve been guilty myself of using the word in the we-should-be-more-professional-about-this context.

But being professional is simple. It means being part of a profession. And if you’re a teacher, being professional means being a teacher.

We sometimes place too much on a word, and I think ‘professional’ is one of those words. I obviously can’t speak for other professions, but I think the following is true for teaching:

  • When we say we should be more professional, we don’t mean we should teach better, we mean we should be more serious. Let’s be honest, we often mean let’s pay more attention to health and safety.
  • When we say we should speak professionally, we don’t mean we should speak in a way that helps us teach better, it means we should always use standard English, avoid the colloquial and don’t say anything funny.
  • We when say we should behave like a professional, we mean be honest, but not too honest. Dress smartly. Set an example. Arrive at school really early and work really late.

I’ve had conversations with school leaders where it is obvious that ‘being professional’ also means: don’t use social media; don’t blog; don’t have an opinion.

If you are a ‘professional teacher’ it means that you are paid to teach. You are not an amateur. You are paid because your country values what you do. Your country values your contribution to society.

Being professional does not bestow some angelic status upon us. We teach. Children learn. That’s it really.

Why go to a teachmeet?

#tmBrum logoOne of the most intriguing lines in the UK Teacher Standards document (revised June 2013) is:

”demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship”

It is for this reason that I believe teachers should attend teachmeets. Let me explain why.

Firstly, think about the CPD in your school.

Hold that thought.

Just a little longer…

Now. Does that CPD really help you? Does it, indeed, help you to: “demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship.

If it does, great – you need read on no more. For these people, where CPD means a community of practice, peer review and honest professional learning without the pressure of looming accountability, teachmeets could be a pleasant but unnecessary bonus. For the rest of us, teachmeets can be the only chance we get to learn from other teachers.

Let’s be honest, much CPD time in school is taken up by school needs, and not professional learning needs. CPD is often used by leadership to impose the latest whole school agenda, to prepare for the next inspection visit or deal with sudden crises that spring up. And for those of us who plan CPD for staff, we’ve probably all had the experience where we think we’ve got a marvellous session of professional learning lined up, but at the last minute, someone more senior asks: can I just take 5 minutes at the start of your meeting to let staff know about this issue?” The consequence of this is that everyone is thinking about the ‘issue’ and not the learning.

And of course often times the very people leading the CPD are also the ones who we are accountable too. This can lead to role conflict, where the teacher can be sitting there wondering whether they are a professional learner, or an appraisee, and similarly the trainer can be wondering whether they are a presenter or an appraiser. I know, I have experienced role conflict in both positions.

This is why teachmeets can be so vital. Imagine learning off other teachers where there is no conflict with any appraisal process. Imagine no interruptions from whole school messages. Imagine improving your own practice by comparing and reviewing the practice of others.

Of course teachmeets have changed since they first started. There has been some criticism that they have become over sponsored, and more about the event then the learning. I am keen that we have more teachmeets, but smaller ones if necessary, because I suppose I really think that they should be more like study groups than conference events.

I am helping to organise a teachmeet in South West Birmingham this Tuesday 26th November. It won’t be big, probably less than 30 people, but you will definitely learn something should you attend or tune in online. There are other teachmeets happening locally too, including one in East Birmingham the following Monday 2nd December. You can check the teachmeet wiki to find out if there are any happening near you.

Whatever you think of the changes to teaching in the UK over the last few years, it is hard to disagree with the aspiration behind the teacher standard: “demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship”. It seems right to me that teachers should want to be up-to-date, to be scholarly, to be academic. Teachmeets are a great way to achieve this.

How to be good SMT

I’m no expert at leadership, and so I read @oldandrewuk’s post, How to be a Bad SMT, with a wry smile and a deep sense of sadness. Firstly – it caricature’s the very worst extremes of leadership in our schools; secondly many teachers experience much of what the blogger says on a daily basis.

My counter-list isn’t as comprehensive as the post which inspired this one. That’s more down to my lack of experience in leadership than the ease we Brits we find in being critical.

How to improve teaching and learning

  1. Judge teaching based on the teacher standards, not on Ofsted criteria – this implies an emphasis on the long-term: on lessons sequences over one-off lessons; on consistency over flashiness; on substance over style.

  2. Release staff to teach to their strengths rather than to conform to one single style – the strength of our education system is in the individuality and autonomy of teachers.

  3. Never use the word ‘delivery’. While the postal service is incredibly valued, teachers aren’t posties. Don’t dumb down teaching with the word ‘delivery’.

  4. Take the Teacher Standards statement “demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship” seriously – this means allowing teachers to research good and outstanding teaching for themselves, rather than reducing it to a checklist.

  5. Allow teachers to take part in non-judgemental peer review. This may involve self-sacrifice as you may have to cover lessons yourself to allow teachers to collaborate with each other.

  6. Don’t call yourself SMT: call yourself SLT. It might seem to be mere semantics, but if you call yourself ‘management’ than you will only ever focus on doing things right; whereas if you call yourself leadership you focus on doing the right things. Even better, leadership teams may even learn to do the right things right.

How to improve behaviour

  1. Make sure transitions are your top priority. Be high profile at any point that children are moving into classrooms, or from one classroom to another.

  2. Allow teachers to contribute to the shared behaviour policy. Be aware that adjustments may need to be made depending on the age of the children – sanctions for 3 year olds may not always apply to 16 year olds.

  3. Take your responsibilities set in the behaviour policy seriously – don’t shy away from speaking to parents or reinforcing sanctions that teachers have enacted.

  4. Be prepared to shout occasionally. It’s not ideal, but if you don’t, your teachers will have to, and that’s worse.

  5. Respect the teachers who want to sort out the behaviour within their own classrooms, but offer support even if they don’t want to.

  6. Exclude when all other sanctions have run out – a clear, consistent message helps teachers, children and parents alike.

How to improve morale

  1. Be consistent in relationships, especially with middle leaders, who are still learning a new set of skills and will make a whole load of mistakes.

  2. Be self sacrificial – do an extra cover for  in your department at least once a half-term.

  3. Take the lion’s share of assemblies and playground duties.

  4. Listen to staff. When they suggest that a new initiative might be too much, consider what they say and remember that the main thing is your teachers’ teaching. If the initiative won’t help, don’t introduce it. Even better release staff to design and introduce the initiatives that they want to happen.

  5. Don’t go straight to your office each morning, but spend some time in your colleague’s classrooms first. Follow up at the end of the day if teachers are having a tough time.

  6. Smile.

  7. Apologise when you’ve made a mistake, or even if you’ve been a bit grumpy.

Now I’m not saying I’m God’s gift to leadership. I can honestly say that I have made at least three of the mistakes that are on oldandrewuk’s list in the last six weeks. But neither is the list above pie in the sky – I have done every one of them in the last 6 week’s also.

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