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.
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Highlights of the Teach First Summer Institute

Having recently finished the Teach First Summer Institute I’m feeling something of an information overload! However, already a few sessions stand out for me as highlights:

1. An amazing day on number: There were a lot of good subject studies sessions, but this day stands out as covering a remarkable range of content in considerable depth – the pace of the day was excellent. I don’t feel as though the link covers all of the great stuff we learnt – but at least some of it can be found here.

2. IWBs and technology: Some of the best sessions at the Warwick part of the Summer Institute were those delivered by current teachers (Teach First call them associate tutors). This very practical session was one of those, and it was brilliant.

3. Challenges in Leadership event: Teach First emphasises the role of a teacher as a leader (no bad thing). This event is part of the leadership programme, and was by turns inspiring and moving.

4. How an activity feels to pupils: Finally, this is a bit more of a personal reflection on the 6 weeks (one of many!)

How an activity feels to pupils

I saw some truly excellent teaching whilst training with Teach First, and had some brilliant tutors. Some of the very best where when I as a participant or as an observer felt comfortable with the pace of the lesson, and felt that the activities were really meaningful.

Which led me to reflect on how activities can feel to pupils:

  • Do they have time to get on with the activity?
  • Am I disrupting the whole class repeatedly?
  • Are they writing how they really want to write or performing to success criteria set by me or someone else?

Some of these points were quite subtle – for instance even when the pace was great, and the activity useful, sometimes I found that I wasn’t producing outputs that were meaningful to me, because I knew that the teacher was looking for a specific type of ‘answer’ i.e. they were defining the success criteria, not me.

A good example of someone else setting success criteria is our reflective diary entries – Teach First structure these so that you are directed to answer specific questions each week. Great to get you thinking about different aspects of pedagogy or professionalism, but often I found myself wanting to reflect on something different – and there was no space for this. In the end I would often write a ‘tick box’ reflection for Teach First, and then write a meaningful reflection myself in a separate entry.

In terms of my own teaching, then, I need to consider how I can plan activities that feel well-paced and meaningful to students. But I’m realising how hard this is to do – the way an activity feels is dependent on so many different factors. In turn this means that perhaps the best way for me to check how activities feel is to ask students themselves regularly.

Challenges in Leadership

Teach First event 24th July

Leadership is a slippery beast; I’ve spent years studying it and trying to put it into practice in various guises, but ask me to define what leadership is and I couldn’t tell you. Partly because of this, hearing inspirational people speak about leadership is always a good way to spend an hour and a half, and particularly so when the organisers manage to pull together such a diverse and interesting bunch of speakers as Teach First did on Wednesday night.

Thoughts on leadership from the session that have stuck with me:

  • Reuben’s advice to find what is brilliant even in the worst situations, and expand that. For me, this is most meaningful in relation to developing students’ self-esteem and engagement in learning. If I can find something that they are brilliant at/some nugget of brilliance in our relationship, I’ll try to use and expand this.
  • Elisa-Manningham Buller (via Hilary Spencer): “Laugh, say thank you and get enough sleep.” If I can achieve all three of those consistently next year, something will be going right!
  • Henry Kissinger (via Jo Owen): “Leadership is the art of taking people where they would not have got themselves.” This, for me, is what teaching is about. Keeping this in mind leads me to focus on promoting independent learning, constantly seeking to challenge my students, and creating a safe space to take risks in the classroom.
  • 5 top tips from Carly Mitchell
    • Get your rewards and recognition from the impact on students, not from adults and peers.
    • Don’t get swept into negativity.
    • Be solutions focused – respond to problems with 1 page: the need and the change it will lead to.
    • Sweat the small stuff
    • Never stop believing every young person can achieve.
  • Anna Dunne:
    • Leadership of business as usual scenarios can be much more challenging than project leadership.
    • Understand what your followers need and enable them.
  • Hilary Spencer, DfE: What’s usually a strength can spill over into being a weakness.
  • Lauren: You have to believe in yourself
  • Jo Owen:
    • You’re not going to succeed either by being yourself or by being someone else, but by being the best version of yourself that you can be.
    • Identify your weaknesses and collaborate with others to address them – but don’t spend all your energy trying to eliminate them.

Some of this isn’t new, but amongst other things keeping the Kissinger and Manningham-Buller quotes in my head will be really useful for me next year.

Boaler: What is maths? And why do we all need it?

Another recommended reading from Teach First. Selected quotes below:

Mathematics is a performance, a living act, a way of interpreting the world. Imagine music
lessons in which students worked through hundreds of hours of sheet music, adjusting the notes
on the page, receiving ticks and crosses from the teachers, but never playing the music. Students
would not continue with the subject because they would never experience what music was. Yet
this is the situation that continues in mathematics classes, seemingly unabated.
Those who use mathematics engage in mathematical performances, they use language in all its
forms, in the subtle and precise ways that have been described, in order to do something with
mathematics. Students should not just be memorizing past methods; they need to engage, do, act,
perform, problem solve, for if they don’t use mathematics as they learn it they will find it very
difficult to do so in other situations, including examinations.

We cannot keep pursuing an educational model that leaves the best and the only real taste
of the subject to the end, for the rare few who make it through the grueling eleven years that
precede it. If students were able to work in the ways mathematicians do, for at least some of the
time – posing problems, making guesses and conjectures, exploring with and refining ideas, and
discussing ideas with others, then they would not only be given a sense of true mathematical
work, which is an important goal in its own right, they would also be given the opportunities to
enjoy mathematics and learn it in the most productive way.

Boaler’s vision is an inspiring but ambitious one. Like Swan, Boaler discusses the end goal of a maths classroom without always making explicit the precursors necessary to allow students to work like mathematicians. Working like a mathematician is hard and, amongst other things, requires grit, persistence and a willingness to be wrong before being right. None of these things will come naturally to a mathematics student.

On the other hand, each of these things can be encouraged. The challenge is that it will take time, persistence and agility on my (the teacher’s) part to encourage students to work like mathematicians. It isn’t easy, but if Boaler is to be believed it’s worth the effort.

Boaler: What is Maths? And why do we all need it?

Swan: Collaborative Learning in Mathematics

From Swan’s paper (available below):

Teaching is more effective when it …

  • builds on the knowledge students already have;

  • exposes and discusses common misconceptions

  • uses higher-order questions

  • uses cooperative small group work

  • encourages reasoning rather than ‘answer getting’

  • uses rich, collaborative tasks

  • creates connections between topics

  • uses technology in appropriate ways.

Types of teaching activities that can achieve these principles:

  • Classifying mathematical objects
  • Interpreting multiple representations
  • Evaluating mathematical statements
  • Creating problems
  • Analysing reasoning and solutions

But what are the precursors to this? Swan talks about the challenge of ensuring all group members participate, and some ways to encourage this, but reflecting on what I’ve heard from other teachers in the past few weeks, I think we need to take another step back first.

The challenge that I’ve seen and heard from several teachers is to create the conditions within their classroom that allow productive collaborative work, rather than students spending group work time chatting about something other than maths.

Those classes that have used group work time productively have all had some common features:

  • The level of challenge is just right – students want to do the work because they want to find a solution to the problem the teacher poses.
  • There is a balance between letting students spend quality time on a difficult problem, but not letting activities run for so long that attention wanders.
  • Most importantly, the teacher has a good, professional, mutually respectful relationship with the class.

These points are hard as a teacher to achieve, but worth working on when I get to school in September. The last one, particularly, is what I keep coming back to – mutual respect and a professional relationship with the class are absolutely central to good teaching.

Another reflection is that the stuff Swan is suggesting is tough for students too. That’s part of the point of his activities. But if my classes are to have success with strategies like this, I need to scaffold them through Friday skills lessons or similar. Asking students to undertake activities like this when they’re not used to them will take time and effort on both our parts.

Swan: Collaborative Learning

Reflection on PRU visit

As part of our Teach First training several of us spent a fascinating morning in a Pupil Referral Unit. It was an inspiration, and several points stick out in my mind from it:

  • The competencies a teacher needs to teach effectively in a PRU are the same as those in a mainstream school, only extended. Getting to know pupils, making lessons relevant to them, setting clear boundaries, and outstanding teaching were repeated themes throughout the day.
  • There is always a reason for poor behaviour. If you can find out that reason, you have the best chance of addressing the behaviour.
  • Its most important to get to know the students you least want to teach. It’s those students who will respond best to a personalised approach.
  • In terms of safeguarding: if a student discloses something to you, its often because they want something done about it. Students rarely disclose accidentally.
  • Building a relationship with students is crucial in being able to de-escalate behaviours in the classroom: “keep your distance but let them in.”
  • Allowing students to take control of the lesson, and giving your most challenging student responsibilities can work wonders in classroom management.

So how can I apply this in my own school? Obvious parallels are to focus on getting to know students as much as I can early on, particularly individual interests and needs. The second point is for me to set myself a challenge of putting extra effort in to getting to know and engaging the students I least want to teach. This will be difficult! But valuable.