The day where I thought I’d gone to hell

By and large the Teach First Summer Institute was excellent, especially the bit in Bristol. It was the first year it had been run there, but was up there with the best training I’ve had across a range of jobs and settings.

All the same, there was the odd off-day.  This post is about one of those rare days and, specifically, about remembering that day when I’m in school teaching.

I’m not going to say which day it was, although any single member of the Teach First South West cohort could tell you. But the day involved us spending 7 hours sitting in one darkened classroom, listening first to a poorly researched, heavily biased two-hour diatribe and then to a half-baked pedagogical approach with no relevance for us as beginning teachers, on a blisteringly hot day, hardly moving from our seats except for a paltry 25 minute lunch break and a poorly conceived venture into the local park to deepen our knowledge of the half-baked pedagogical approach that was the pet project of one of our lecturers.

Unsurprisingly, the day brought out the worst in us as learners. We were disengaged, childish and finding any excuse to cause trouble. The highlight of the day was when several of our colleagues got stuck in a lift for an hour.

The point for me to remember is that days at school will probably feel like this for students, especially those who have been in a lunchtime detention. Whilst not excusing disengagement and poor behaviour, if 38 very committed trainee teachers had (temporarily) given up on life, what can we expect of teenagers whose reason for being at school isn’t necessarily clear to them at the best of times?

Action points for me then are:

  • Always try to consider a lesson from a students’ point of view. How engaging is it? Are they actually doing anything? What about the student in the corner who hasn’t spoken all lesson. Have they spoken all day?
  • When I get students at the end of a long, hot day, consider things from their perspective. Don’t excuse disengagement, but try to surprise them with a lesson they’ll enjoy, rather than being the latest in a long line of tormentors.

Classroom behaviour Ch 8: When things get difficult: hard class, hard times

  • If you are struggling/see someone struggling, ask for/offer non-judgemental support.
  • Meeting other colleagues who work with that class is vital. Acknowledge the reality that teacher behaviour can also be a problem.
  • Holding a classroom meeting to address: behaviour and rights and responsibilities can help to re-establish a class (p.223)
  • Following a classroom meeting, have a re-establishment plan (p.224)
  • Review the plan with fellow teachers a few weeks in.

Classroom behaviour Ch 7: Managing anger in ourselves and others

  • It is natural to get angry; we need to learn to express/manage that anger in a constructive way.
    • Awareness of what lowers our tolerance helps; so does skill
    • Characteristic behaviours when angry can be learned and unlearned.
    • It can be valuable to get angry on issues that matter, but do so in a controlled way after taking a moment to calm yourself. De-escalate the situation swiftly afterwards, perhaps with cool-off time. The teacher will also have to initiate rebuilding.
  • With angry parents:
    • Let them explain how they feel
    • Invite them to sit down
    • Listen and reflect back
    • Assure them that you know they and the school care
    • Have the facts as the school sees them
    • Be honest and supportive
  • When a student is angry it may be useful to let them run out of steam and deal with it calmly later.

Reflecting well

It feels a little ironic to write a reflective diary entry on reflection! But I am conscious that it is a very, very important element of my development as a teacher. I’m also conscious that at times in the past I have found myself ‘going through the motions’ with reflections, particularly at UTSAM in Ecuador. The reasons for this were twofold: I was very busy, and didn’t prioritise my reflections sufficiently; and I got into a routine with my classes and found it hard to keep my reflections fresh.

Solutions to this are various:

  • Recognising it as an issue should help me to avoid it next time.
  • Planning dedicated time to reflect (a) on individual lessons and (b) every fortnight or so to reflect on the past couple of weeks and set goals for the next couple of weeks.
  • Doing ‘hot debriefs’ on some lessons, following the model of my CELTA course – this gets the reflection done quickly, but allows me to draw out the learning from it while it’s fresh in my mind.
  • Assigning myself particular topics to reflect on, so that I’m not always trying to reflect on the lesson as a whole.

An interesting blog post argues that the quality of reflection is limited by our memories, our limited perspective (that of the teacher), and perhaps focusing on the wrong things. The solution is to record the lesson, and use this recording to objective analyse the lesson according to the learning objectives (or, indeed, any specific objectives I may have had).

So another solution for me is to use video as a reflection tool from time to time. One really interesting way to develop this and to link it to my objectives around student involvement and building trust with students is to ask them to video me in the lesson, and then to analyse my teaching for strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, I think a solution comes from building my own template for what a meaningful reflection should focus on. A useful starting point is the questions in this blog post. From these, I can build a basic template for my classroom reflections:

  • What’s one thing I was trying to achieve in this lesson? Why?
  • In what ways did I achieve it? In what was didn’t I achieve it? How do I know?
  • What would I do the same or differently if I had another chance to achieve this objective? Why?
  • What might have been the root cause of my success or failure? How do I know/why do I think this?
  • How can I respond to this root cause in my next lesson?
  • What assumptions did I make in the lesson? What impact did those assumptions have on my teaching/students’ learning? Do I need to change these assumptions? Why?
  • How did this lesson contribute to my overall vision for (a) my teaching (b) my students (c) this year? How did it contribute to one or more of my students’ visions for themselves? How do I know?
  • What one thing can I change in my teaching tomorrow?
  • What one thing can I improve for the next term?
  • What one thing should I keep doing?

Obviously I won’t answer each of these questions every time, but by putting them in a ‘reflection master document’ I can refer to them easily whenever I am reflecting.

Reflective diary 4th March 2013

I’m in the midst of the preparation work for Teach First at present. It has caused me to reflect on something that I read a while back, relating to how many beginning teachers’ views and aspirations go out the window once the actually start teaching.

I’ve just been writing what could be considered a highly idealistic aspiration regarding allowing students to pursue their dreams in my maths class. It struck me – is this completely unrealistic? Will I look back at the end of my first year and say ‘well that was great theory, now the reality has hit its completely different’? I hope not.

One question, therefore, is how to hold onto those aspirations once the reality hits. This, perhaps, is what separates excellent teachers from the rest. I’m not sure of the answer to it yet, but perhaps I can ask the teachers who I meet and am inspired by how they achieved it.

How to prepare for an NQT observation

From somewhere on the web!

How to prepare for an NQT observation? Simple really ….. once you’ve been through quite a few I suppose …… especially if you’ve also been observed by Ofsted, Local Education Authority etc etc etc. I won’t go on anymore, let’s get down to the useful tips.

Fist of all, have you read your student profile data sheet? ……. No? Well, speak to your Head of Maths, speak to your school data manager, find the information yourself from the school IT system. Get it as soon as you can. You really should not be going into the classroom without looking at your students’ prior attainment, current level and end of year targets. You need to know the level of EAL requirements and composition of SEN students, not to mention any G&Ts that might be sitting there quietly staring out of the window waiting for a real challenge……. If you dare.

Is there a seating plan that you can hand to your observer? …… Yes! But, have you annotated EAL, SEN and G&T students on the seating plan? It’s a very good idea to annotate this information on the seating plan. Firstly it shows that you have read your student data profiles and further more, you are aware of the distribution of the different students around the classroom. Oh! Also try to annotate the current level and end of year target for each student. If you do this on a computer, then it should be easy to shrink the information to fit in nicely with your plan view of the classroom and your scale drawing of each table with perfect details of the window and door position.

Here is a new idea I picked up from my boss, I really like it. A class context sheet. What’s that? It is a piece of paper consisting of a table showing prior attainment in the class sectioned into levels and sub-levels. Any tests you may have done and how the results have progressed. End of year targets on another row. This is very complicated to explain, I will post up an example soon. Also, the sheet of paper can have details of any differentiated tasks for each group of students in the class.

Now, we come to the lesson plan. A clear objective, not too long and not too simple. ‘Learning to find the median of a set of data and calculating the range’. Clear and straight to the point. You may now describe how many students you expect to achieve the aim of the lesson and how many will achieve to certain extents. By the way, you are an NQT now, so stop using the university-style lesson plans, and get up to speed with school templates. Ofsted like to see consistency, your in-school observer likes to see something they are familiar with.

Differentiated activities are essential, in all lessons, especially in an observation lesson. Why not make a matching card exercise with differing levels. Remember, it is possible to differentiate even within a set class of same level students. All students working at a level 5 may not necessarily have the same SEN and EAL requirements. Why not laminate some buzz words for the day and have them sitting on the wall ready to point to. If you are going to use differentiated activities, try to use different colours as this will make it blatantly obvious where the differentiation is happening. I am not saying observers are stupid, but it’s like going through a driving test, using the push and pull manoeuvre to its extreme just to pass your test.

By the way, if this is the first time you are trying activities in your class just to impress the observer, don’t bother. You should have accustomed the students with activities like this already: trying something for the first time might go wrong and blow up in your face. I don’t want to scare you off trying new things, but STOP and think. Is the observation a good time to try this great new idea you had overnight?

Are your books marked? Check up on your school marking policy, every two weeks in most cases. Observers like to walk around and take a look at the books, look at comment marking, and check whether you are a tick and flick kind of guy or gal. Do you have comments that engage the students in dialogue and help move them on in their learning? “Well done on finding 10%, now can you find 5% and then work out 15%”. Try not to give too many level descriptors while marking: study has shown that students tend to ignore the comment and only look at the level, completely missing the point of marking a student’s book.

Although we don’t like to talk about levels when marking, as maths teachers we should be big on students’ knowing what level they are currently on and what is their end of year target. Ofsted will go around ask students about this information, your school-based observer may ask this of your students. Quick and easy solution: stick a piece of paper on the front of the book showing the student the current level and end of year target. And don’t forget to tell the students to read it every now and then.

ICT, if you have it, use it. Please don’t use the interactive board as a high-tech extension to the OHP. Showing a Powerpoint presentation may be a key part of your lesson but to make a whole lesson into a lecture is just plain and simply a crime. The interactive board can hide things, it can have animation, it can play videos, it can click and drag items, it can reflect things, it can draw lines, it can recall past pages, it can reveal the answer, it can play music, it can show time, it can count down, it can have hundreds of colours, it can use geometric software, it can go onto the internet, it can pull up pictures of your dog using a calculator, even prove that your granny can do algebra….. in a photo of course. Please add your own ideas to this list.

Back on track, if you are being observed in the morning or after any break period, why not spend some time and hand out books already on the table so as to have a prompt start. It’s not cheating to have equipment out and ready. Remember, observation does not end as soon as you have done the plenary: you must maintain your good lesson even until the last student is just leaving the class.

Feedback, try to get feedback immediately. From experience, an observer will say that the lesson was very good and that they really enjoyed it and they saw excellent examples of good practice. Then, they leave you with a satisfactory rating. Do not accept that. If they said all that good stuff then that should be reflected in your written feedback. Ask for reasons why it is only satisfactory. Some observers will not give you excellent just because…… well, I don’t know why actually. If you don’t ask then you won’t find out what needs improvement.

Finally, your NQT observation is not like a normal observation. The NQT coordinator will be conducting these observations almost as if you are still at university doing your PGCE or GTP. You will have to meet certain standards. Try to find out from your observer which aspect of the standards document you are being observed on for that lesson. Before I sign off, make sure you have 10% reduced timetable, it’s your right, not a privilege.