‘Necessity is the mother of invention…’ Somebody think of the children!

Frinkiac - S07E23 - Oh, won't somebody please think of the children?

‘At current trends, we estimate that it would take around 50 years for the disadvantage gap to close completely by the time pupils take their GCSEs.’ (Closing the Gap? Trends in Educational Attainment and Disadvantage, Jon Andrews, David Robinson and Jo Hutchinson August 2017)

This is a startling statistic and one that has quite rightly prompted an urgent dialogue about the disadvantage gap and the implications of this gap on wider society and most importantly, on pupils themselves and their lives. This was the state of affairs as it stood in 2017. Fast forward 3 years and we find ourselves amidst an unforeseen global pandemic which has inevitably compounded this gap and left us as educationalists wondering how best to support our pupils and how best to navigate the challenges that come with this.

And this isn’t just about statistics and attainment. I observe countless educators, both within my school and across the professional community utterly disillusioned by the practicalities of what feels like insurmountable challenges. And in the true optimistic and hopeful spirit of the profession, professionals share their reflections, lessons learnt and innovations to support the wider community. And this alone makes me incredibly proud to call myself a teacher.

So in the festive spirit and in appreciation of this wonderful community of individuals, I’d like to share a tool that could be of potential value to schools, particularly during these challenging times- the HAM (holistic approaches meeting).

The base idea underpinning the HAM isn’t revolutionary- it’s the well-established notion that multiple factors have implications on learning and learners and that teachers must navigate and manage these appropriately to not only support the learner but to develop ‘the whole child’. As a teacher, when considering the ‘whole child’ ideology, I always felt somewhat perplexed. I knew the value and importance of this idea and the idea in and of itself resonated with my motivations for becoming a teacher in the first place, but it was a lot easier said than done. Realistically as a teacher, I had 30 children, all of whom I had to develop as ‘whole children’, whilst simultaneously ensuring academic success and whilst ensuring their overall safety and wellbeing. (And this was before you chucked a global pandemic into the mix!) How was this practically possible? How could this be done in a diligent way so that pupils didn’t ‘slip through the net’ as it were?

The HAM is a strategic approach to developing the ‘whole child’ in all pupils and more specifically supports those who are MOST disadvantaged to attain in line with their peers. It considers the external factors that surround a child and how these may appropriately be managed in order to unlock the key to academic success. It operates via a fairly snazzy Excel spreadsheet which acts as a database for all pupils. Within this spreadsheet, teachers (the people who know the pupils the best!) rate pupils across different strands:

  1. Safeguarding
  2. Attendance
  3. SEND
  4. Academic
  5. Behaviour

Pupils are rated from 1-5 (1 being exemplary and 5 indicating a crisis in that particular strand). The Excel then automatically ranks pupils based on number of 5’s (weighted) and average score in order to provide you with a list of priority pupils and prioritised challenges. This then prompts multi-disciplinary meetings (thus the Holistic Approaches Meeting) so that professionals, experts and the class teacher can come together to best discuss how to tackle these challenges systematically and give that particular pupil the best possible chance of succeeding, not only academically, but on the whole.

Is it the finished product? Absolutely not. Is it potentially flawed? Most probably. But ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and we’ve come together as a school to adopt an approach that we feel is entirely called for during these testing times. Amidst the national directives, uncertain news headlines and ever-changing policies there’s never been a more important time to bring it back to the children and it is our hope that the ‘HAM’ does just that…

Please contact or DM me via @teacherfeature2 for the above template.

‘Patience strengthens the spirit…’ -Go easy as you embark on a new half-term

Let’s consider the complex layers of a school:

  1. A school’s individual demographic and make-up
  2. A school’s staff (consisting of actual human beings – not robot educators!)
  3. A national curriculum, setting out what needs to be achieved by certain points
  4. Leaders who lead the school, all with individual leadership competencies, beliefs, ideals (even if aligned by a common purpose!)
  5. A parent body of individuals who quite rightly want the best for their children
  6. National guidance
  7. Local guidance e.g. from the local authority
  8. Potential school groups guidance

…and this list is just the beginning. These individual layers make up the very complex nature of schools. And as educators, we navigate these various tenets and try to devise a plan that brings all of these elements seamlessly together- an all-encompassing master plan, akin to the blueprint for the Pyramids of Giza (or what I imagine they would look like!)

Recently we have been faced with an additional challenge- the COVID pandemic. It’s unsurprising therefore, that leaders and educators at all levels, are feeling under pressure around delivering the best possible teaching and learning.

And although these challenges may be multi-faceted and complicated, our core purpose as educators at all levels remains the same- making sure our pupils are getting the best possible deal in terms of teaching and learning in the classroom and more recently outside of the classroom.

I think it’s key to recognise that there is no magic solution, no quick fix and no sure-fire solutions. Schools’ approaches and strategies around delivering on this core purpose will vary depending on what the school and pupils’ need and the varying versions of those ‘layers.’

A colleague of mine once shared this with me: generating high quality outcomes is geology; it comes about slowly over time and with incisive force on the little details that make tangible differences in classroom practice. 

So, as we embark on a new half-term and as the nation embarks on a month-long lockdown, let’s maintain our core purpose but also go easy on ourselves as individuals. Let’s park any misguided negativity that comes our way as a profession, turn down the volume on the distractions and focus on a) our core purpose as educators- the pupils’ learning b) what we do best- teaching and c) what is essential to the first two- taking care of ourselves as individuals so we can provide the best for those whom we take care of.

How ‘the discipline of noticing’ (Mason 2003) and ‘the little things’ can support Teaching and Learning in the coming months

10 Priceless John Wooden Lessons for Sports Coaches | 5-a-side.com

‘The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged
backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very
effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other
words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole
year’s learning.’
(Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK – interim
findings, The Sutton Trust, September 2011)

I read the above findings today, at a time when school strategic responses to school closures due to the COVID pandemic, is playing heavily on many educator’s minds. Simply put- effective teaching is powerful and makes a significant difference in pupil outcomes. Particularly for disadvantaged pupils who may have fallen disproportionately behind their peers during this time. This isn’t to say that other responses in the way of intervention programmes or home learning models won’t have their place and it may well be a careful combination of these that will support pupils in re-embarking on their learning journeys after this ‘road block’. But it’s clear and generally accepted that effective teaching and learning in the classroom will be a major catalyst for accelerating pupils’ learning in the coming months.

This poses a significant challenge in itself and this isn’ a new challenge. How do we improve teacher effectiveness in a way that a) develops teachers in the most efficient way possible as to best support pupil outcomes b) allows teachers to feel involved and in charge of their own professional development c) promotes a supportive culture of learning, error and improvement? Pupils aren’t the only ones who will be re-embarking on their learning journeys- so too will teachers. And we have to recognise and accept this as something that holds equal importance. This further reinforces the need for coaching models that aren’t critical in nature and are more collegiate whilst still improving teaching and thus learning/pupil outcomes.

I then came across the work of John Mason (2003) who asserts the importance of ‘noticing’ when we consider our professional practice and how best to improve it. In his 2002 book ‘Researching your own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing’ Mason asserts that by becoming more aware of the individual choices we make in the classroom (everything from where we stand to what tone of voice we use) and exploring alternate choices and reflecting on the impact, teachers can be far more involved in the development of their teaching.

‘The mark of an expert is that they are sensitised to notice things which novices overlook. They have finer discernment. They make things look easy, because they have a refined sensitivity to professional situations and a rich collection of experiences on which to draw. Amongst other things, experts are aware of their actions in ways that a novice is not…’ (Researching your own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing by John Mason)

What would this look like in practice? Models such as the lesson study show the power of ‘noticing’. (See below for model https://www.herts.ac.uk/link/volume-2,-issue-2/the-impact-of-lesson-study-on-the-development-of-two-primary-student-teachers) Using lesson studies, colleagues can isolate particular pedagogical approaches and reflect upon the impact on the learning within the authentic classroom space.

Could we also perhaps develop ‘finer discernment’ in our teachers by picking out the subtle nuances that make an effective lesson one by one and exploring the practice around this particular approach? Find below a sequence of reflective questions for an enquiry based approach to developing teacher practice.

  1. How are you giving instructions to the pupil?
  2. How are you communicating your instructions?
  3. How many instructions do you give in one go?
  4. What if you changed this? What would the impact be in the classroom?
  5. Lets try!
  6. Reflect- did this improve your practice? Impact on pupils? Impact on outcomes?

Lessons are made up of hundreds of choices and moments that can lead to effective teaching and learning. It’s the little moments that define the ‘bigger picture’ of a lesson. By unpicking these moments and reflecting on alternative courses of action, we can iterate and strengthen our practice over time. Being involved in this process and watching it unfold before you can create a very real momentum in improvement and can have implications on motivation.

By adopting this diagnostic approach and cultivating the discipline of noticing, we could also support teacher wellbeing and confidence after an extended period of time away from conventional classroom teaching.

‘Intentional noticing’ as Mason puts it, also supports the model of observing from our more experienced colleagues. This is part of many school’s professional development strategies but I find frequently ‘falls off’ in the day-to-day busyness of school life. Professional development of our teachers requires a commitment to sharing in best practice and having the time and space to meaningfully reflect on how it can support our own development. Having this as an embedded and protected structure within schools could perhaps support whole school teacher development. ‘Reflection is the vogue term for intentionally learning from experience but it is more talked about than carried out effectively…reflective practice requires ‘living in’ and not mere occasional attendance’. This could very well support the case for less ‘lesson observations’ and more sharing of ‘lesson reflections’. Some ideas that might support this:

-Teach Meet style informal opportunities for teachers to share in a particular strategy (small or big) that they have adopted and the impact it has had in their classroom
-Teaching reflection blogs for teachers to journal around their teaching practice in lieu of lesson observations
-Grouping colleagues together to share using the ‘lesson study’ methodology
-Coaching conversations that are centred around a ‘did you notice?’-‘what did this mean for the pupils’ approach

In writing this blog, it has occurred to me that perhaps we could use these unusual circumstances we find ourselves in as an opportunity to revisit what professional development looks like within our schools and create a ‘toolkit’ of strategies for supporting teacher development that promotes teacher agency, confidence and best practice simultaneously, as we collectively navigate our journeys ‘back to school’.

Four Things You Can Do To Promote Excellent Writing In Your English Lessons

  1. Immerse pupils in new vocabulary

Writing is essentially the art of using words to create meaning so it’s no surprise that immersing our pupils in new and interesting vocabulary and not underestimating their ability to absorb and use this vocabulary, enriches their writing significantly. We have probably all been in the situation as teachers where we teach our pupils a new word, for example ‘dilapidated’ and all of a sudden, for the next year, EVERYTHING is dilapidated. This very common occurrence illustrates just how much our little people love learning and using new words. Something that I’ve done which is now a regular feature in my writing lessons is introducing ‘words of the day’- sharing 3 or 4 ambitious words that the pupils could use in that lesson. Alongside the word, I share a visual and an exemplar sentence. We start it as a game, with pupils having to use the visual and the sentence to explore the possible meaning of the word. This generates interesting discussion around the word’s function in the sentence, the word class and how that can give us clues and replacing the word with another to see if the meaning can be deciphered. After this, I explicitly teach the meaning of the word and ask the pupils to jot it down with a definition in their own words. I then model use of the words during my model write and encourage pupils to use these words in their writing.

The subtle nuances that a given word can create in relation to the meaning and impact of a sentence upon the reader is often underestimated.

Another thing you can do to encourage exploration of new and exciting vocabulary is invite your pupils to find and introduce the class to words or phrases they come across in their reading. Simply provide your pupils with sticky notes alongside their class read so they can bank vocabulary they discover through their independent reading! You could also model this as a writer yourself- ‘I was reading an amazing novel last weekend and came across the word gregarious. What a great word-I’m going to use this word to describe my character!’

2. Create excitement and real purpose

Writing can sometimes seem like a chore to our pupils. Teachers require a given outcome, on a given topic and pupils are expected to write reams on the subject. But that’s not how real writers work. Understandably, teachers need to teach to their school’s curriculum but when we are planning units of writing we really need to define the purpose of the end outcome and share this with our pupils. If the pupils know they are writing for a very real purpose and audience, their motivation to write improves and pupils are more likely to want to deploy all of the literary techniques they have in their ‘toolbox’ to fulfil the given purpose. Setting up a ‘journalist project’ where pupils’ writing will be published in the school newspaper gives them a sense of pride in their writing but also allows them to see the whole writing process through, as a real author would!

It goes without saying that the best writing outcomes emerge from when pupils are genuinely excited to write! I am by no means condoning changing our writing units to stories solely about Lego Ninjago or whatever the latest kid’s craze is but I do think we should make our writing ‘real’, topical where we can and really try to create a buzz around the writing with a ‘hook’. Pupils, particularly the older ones, won’t necessarily buy these ‘hooks’ e.g. an alien landing in the playground and leaving behind footprints, but that excitable, imaginative writer in them will and they will often ‘play along’ all the same!

Give them a hook, give them visuals, show them videos- the more buzz around the writing, the better!

3. Give them the knowledge they need to write in an authentic way

Writing is a complex skill. Cognitively it involves a number of ‘spinning plates’ and our whole brain (both left and right hemisphere) is involved when we are writing- everything from the creation of the ideas to the physical action of putting pen to paper. If we don’t give our pupils the knowledge they need to say, write a diary entry as an evacuee, we are giving them an extra plate to spin during that process. If pupils for example, are unaware of what an evacuee is or how they might have been feeling and why, they are already on the back foot and will most likely spend more time focusing on this, rather than how they can manipulate their writing to make the author feel empathy toward the evacuee. It’s crucial that we pre-teach this knowledge to our pupils so they can have an authentic ‘writer’s voice’.

Writing without knowledge of your subject is adding an additional level of complexity to the writing process- yet another plate to spin!

4. Talk Grammar often and share its purpose!

When we think grammar, unless you’re an avid grammarian or an English teacher, we often think it’s the less glamorous side of writing. It isn’t the exciting action scene before the Hobbit slays the dragon, it isn’t creating the suspense before the protagonist walks into the abandoned house and it isn’t the description of the mysterious character sat at the platform waiting for a train.  It’s the sentence structures that allow us to convey meaning, the tense that allows our reader to know when things are happening and the fronted adverbials that add those extra details. It is, glamorous or not, essential to excellent writing so drip- feeding into our English lessons alongside those more exciting parts of writing and teaching it in context is the best way to ensure sound grammar is underpinning our pupil’s stories, newspaper articles or non-chronological reports. If pupils understand grammatical terminology and use them as the ‘norm’, we’re able to more fluidly discuss how grammar, much alike literary devices, can be used to fulfil the purpose of a given piece of writing and enhance our writing. If pupils see this as an ad-hoc element, they will often throw in conjunctions haphazardly in an attempt to be a wholesome writer, which will have the complete opposite effect in terms of their effectiveness and lead to checklist writing- the worst kind!

Grammar might not necessarily be the most glamorous part of writing but our pupils need to know it’s just as important as any other element of writing!

TOP TIP- Refer to your pupils as authors and as writers during the lesson so they can get into the mindset of one!

My Top 5 Tips for NQTs- What I wish someone had told me…

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Happy New Year! This phrase conjures up many images: champagne glasses clinking, the countdown to midnight, loved ones gathering together and new year’s resolutions being optimistically declared (only to be broken a few weeks later!) But for a class teacher, new year means something altogether quite different…

As the start of a new academic year approaches, I think back to what this time of year felt like for me as an NQT- a mish mash of emotions ranging from giddy excitement to sheer terror. Hindsight is a wonderful gift and looking back I really wish that someone had told me a few things…it would have saved me a lot of time and a lot of stress! So, here’s my Top 5 Tips for all NQT’s taking up a role this September.

  1. Be organised and be on time!

This may seem like a fairly obvious one and for most teachers and trainee teachers that summer break trip to Paperchase seems like a rite of passage, but organisation is crucial as a new teacher/any teacher. That first week back, you’ll be finding your feet, attending INSET training and getting to know your new team- all in all, lots going on! But use this time wisely before the ‘big day’-the first day with your new class. Find out how to take the register (yes, this is what tripped me up on day one!), ask about break & lunch timings so you can create a timetable that you can understand and work with clearly and set up your classroom so you’re not manically trying to track down coloured pencils during that first activity you’ve planned. These finer details being dealt with in advance will allow you to be in the perfect headspace for meeting your class. Calm, collected and measured, you’ll be able to make that all-important first impression in the way you want and need to.

Again, being on time seems like an obvious one but there’s nothing worse than rocking up to the staff briefing late on your first day or rushing down to greet the children because you made a last-minute dash to the photocopier. Have all your resources and activities laid out in your classroom for that first day. This tact may/may not last for the whole year but start as you mean to go on! Success breeds success and if you can make it through that first day feeling confident and happy with your performance, that positive feeling will snowball!

2) Define your personal teaching philosophy (you can keep this to yourself!)

In the previous tip I mentioned the word ‘performance’. Teaching is fairly comparable to acting. As teachers, we put in lots of prep time to get ready for our ‘role’, we have to ‘act’ emotionally neutral even when a child has accidentally dropped water on our assessment notes and we adopt a persona as teachers that, although often rooted in our own personality, is somewhat distinct.

Think about what kind of teacher you want to be and what philosophy you want to adopt as a teacher. This should encompass your ‘why’- why did you get into the profession and what drove you to embark on this career, but it should also include what it is you want to help your pupils achieve. This usually isn’t constrained to academic performance so reflect on what you want to offer your pupils outside of this and how you want to develop them as individuals. One way I like to do this is by thinking about what I’d hope my pupils say about me and the impact I had on them in 20 years’ time. What impact do you want to have? Decide on this now and then take one small step daily in your classroom in service of this ideal.

3)  Set the tone in your class

People talk about ‘classroom culture’ a lot but what does that actually mean? It’s the intangible atmosphere of your classroom that you must establish from day one. It’s something which is admittedly difficult to establish but comes with time, consistency and shared, clear expectations. It isn’t about quick wins but is a much longer game and if you can get it right on day one, it’ll make day one hundred a whole lot easier and more enjoyable. So how do you go about setting the tone? Many people have shared the advice, ‘don’t smile until Christmas…’ I disagree. Smile. Show the pupils you want them there and you’re excited to share this new year and new class with them. Human nature dictates that we like to belong to social groups. We are of course, social animals and a sense of belonging is beneficial for us as humans on lots of levels. In the classroom, if you can establish this sense of belonging from the beginning, you can leverage this throughout the year whenever you hit hurdles. For example, if in the Spring term, you notice motivation dips, you can have this discussion as a collective rather than one to one, which can feel intimidating. You can establish this by creating a class charter- a list of ideas which you choose to commit to as a class e.g. respecting and showing empathy for adults and peers. Top tip- when doing this, don’t distinguish between adults and children. Avoid the Ms Trunchbull style ‘I’m big you’re little, I’m smart…’ approach at all costs. ALL individuals in the classroom should be respected. Your behaviour management style will distinguish you as the person ‘in charge’ but creating a sense of equality will allow you to show the pupils you’re a human, not a robot and allow you to model compassion and respect.

Another way to set the tone is to create a sense of positivity and optimism from the word go! This is an important one in establishing the right attitudes to learning but it will also make your classroom a nice place to be for the adults and the children. A great way to do this is exploring pupils’ goals, dreams and hopes. The purpose of this is two-fold. You get to know your pupils on a personal level and build a rapport with them that will act as the foundations for everything else but they will also see that you are committing to help them to reach those goals and this will form that all important trust. These will be the conversations you revert to if a pupil is having a bad day, if they feel disheartened by a tricky challenge or they seem uninterested. Having a culture of high aspirations and positivity in your classroom is not only essential for their academic performance but it is again modelling human traits that will stand them in good stead for their lives. Last year, in the first week, we asked our pupils what they hoped their ‘legacy’ would be when they left the school or when they were older. We had pupils create ‘legacy’ art depicting their goals and kept them up in the classroom all year round.

4) Ask for help and don’t just nod along!

As an NQT, I thought asking for help was a sign of weakness. ‘I’ve completed my PGCE, I have the credentials- surely I should be able to handle this without help! I’ll look like a bad teacher if it seems like I don’t have it together!’Guess what? Most teachers don’t ‘have it together’ all the time, even the experienced ones! (Sorry folks- secrets out!) To ask for help is the most courageous thing you can do as a teacher and a sign of true professionalism.

We’ve all been there…sat in an INSET and the trainer asks the question, ‘does that make sense?’ and we nod along knowingly whilst inside trying to memorise the acronym they used so we can Google it later. My advice? Don’t nod along! Ask there and then and don’t stop asking! Asking questions and saying that you simply don’t understand is again another hallmark of a true professional. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but you will feel more informed and ultimately it will benefit those little people you’re about to teach!

5) Accept that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day…’

The biggest hurdle I see NQT’s come across is this one- putting far too much pressure on themselves to ‘get it right’ as quickly as possible. Funnily enough, many years into my career, I still don’t feel like I’ve got it quite right and that’s the nature of teaching. Teaching is one of those professions where things are continually changing and in order to provide the best for our pupils, we need to continually develop and grow. I distinctly remember sitting down with my NQT mentor and questioning, ‘why am I not getting this lesson plan right?’ or ‘why was that lesson a complete disaster?’ and the advice he gave me has stuck with me ever since- ‘Rome was not built in a day.’ In all honesty, the job will test you at times and perhaps even make you question your choice but if you can chip away at it in this first year and remind yourself of this when it all feels too much, you’ll thrive!

Teaching isn’t the first career I’ve embarked on but I really can attest to the fact it is the most rewarding and the pride of seeing your pupils develop academically and as people outweighs any challenges you may face. It truly is a privilege. Best of luck to all the NQT’s taking up a role this September!

Behaviour Management- Repairing the Fault Line

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Retention is at an all-time low and every other news report simultaneously spreads panic about this issue whilst extoling those ‘few’ teachers who do stay in the profession, despite such challenging times.

When I really think about this, I’m deeply saddened. An incredibly rewarding and exciting profession feels seemingly weakened. Although there is some truth to the media coverage, I believe it would be far more productive to spend some time analysing the ‘why’ and thinking about potential solutions, rather than adding further fuel to what is clearly a well-established fire.

In my experience working in a number of primary schools, one huge red flag for teachers ‘on the edge’ has become abundantly clear- behaviour. I was recently asked by a teacher, new to the profession ‘how do you cultivate a positive culture for behaviour in a classroom full of challenging pupils?’ The question threw me slightly. Having been a teacher for a while, I was unable to express the intangible stuff that made behaviour management, manageable. It really did remind me how difficult it is in those initial years (and still is!) as a teacher and how further guidance on behaviour management is essential if we’re going to keep enthusiastic and passionate teachers in the profession.

There was no straightforward answer to the question, so in a quest to offer practical advice that may strengthen this particular fault line in the teaching profession, I’ve broken down what I believe to be the critical elements.

A Class Culture of Perceived Fairness

It’s the age-old problem. A pupil misbehaves, a teacher responds with an appropriate behaviour management strategy, the pupil argues back, the teacher feels undermined in front of the masses and the cycle continues. How do we break this negative cycle? The advice I would always offer the teacher is to pause and briefly note how the pupils views this situation (wrongly or otherwise). The pupil experiences anger and this anger comes from a sense of perceived unfairness. Usually in the form of ‘but he was doing the same’ or ‘but you didn’t even hear my side of it…’ The best thing the teacher can do in this situation is to take the pupil to one side and share this ‘note’ of how the pupil has perceived this in order to express their objectivity as the ‘judge’ of the given situation.

We have to remember that we aren’t just teachers- we’re humans. Like all humans, we experience human emotion. Disappointment- when there’s no mugs left in the staffroom cupboard and we’re desperate for a caffeine hit but resentment and anger when a child has publicly undermined our authority. We need to separate this emotion from our ability to handle the situation in that moment. This is not at all an easy feat but one which will pay dividends when de-escalating a situation. As soon as you’ve heard that pupils’ side of things and they’ve had their say, you can clearly identify the choices and behaviours that the pupils made that were unacceptable and thus get them to take ownership. A great way of doing this is ‘pressing the pause button’ in their story to identify these choices whilst still calmly listening to and showing empathy for their perception of the situation. Perceived fairness- if they know that you are fair and equal in your reactions and behaviour management strategies with all pupils, it becomes very tricky for them to argue back so passionately (and sometimes convincingly!).

Individual Investment
The best demonstration of pupils with specific behaviour needs came from a Principal that I once worked with. He stood in front of staff during a CPD session and shook a Coke bottle. ‘That’s having a fight with mum on the way to school.’ He shook it again. ‘And that’s not having any breakfast and being hungry.’ He continued. He then urged one of us to open the bottle. The point of the demonstration was that prior to even getting through the school doors, some of our pupils have experienced either small issues that have put them in a negative headspace, or even more devastatingly, much larger issues at home over a period of time. This really stuck with me…It is crucial that we separate our pupil’s behaviour from them as individuals. It’s not who they are; it’s symptomatic of other circumstances. Again- this is easier said than done but with time and experience this becomes second nature. Individual investment could be something as small as having a quiet word when the pupil comes into school, spending some of your time sharing in an activity the pupil likes to reward some great learning or sending a quick note home to celebrate a great day. Incredibly small gestures that show that actually we care beyond our role as educators.

Disclaimer: creating a strong rapport with pupils and investing in them appropriately shouldn’t come at the cost of having clear and definable boundaries or as I like to call it ‘the line’. As the teacher it’s really important to have the confidence to assert that ‘this is not ok’ and make it clear that a choice that has been made is unacceptable (with no room for negotiation on this). Therefore, it’s important to strike the perfect balance between the firm distinction between acceptable/not acceptable and your role as a nurturing teacher.

Consistency, consistency, consistency…

The most valuable tool in our teacher ‘toolbox’ for behaviour management in my experience is consistency. And it’s a frustrating one for us as teachers because it takes an extended period of time and during that time you will be faced with defiance and pupils challenging expectations and pupils testing the waters to see what they can and can’t get away with.

It reminds me of the runner’s analogy of ‘hitting the wall.’ The wall is the hypothetical barrier that stands between a distance runner and the finish line. It’s the moment where the runner feels like they simply cannot continue. They are fatigued, exhausted and worn down by the demands of the race. It’s similar with behaviour, I think. Consistency can be quite challenging to achieve because that low level behaviour can chip away at your patience and your ability to think clearly and logically but if we can recognise that this challenge will crop up and decide that we will continue to apply consistency in our language, our expectations and our clearly defined boundaries, sooner or later, the pupils will ‘get it!’. They’ll know where the ‘line’ is and won’t try to dance around it because they know it will result in the same response and the same outcome that it has always resulted in. Consistency is key!

Most importantly, this is not something that should be placed solely on the shoulders of our teachers. This has to be a whole-school and joint approach so that our teachers don’t feel alone in the pursuit of trying to understand their pupils and learners better. Yes, it is teacher’s responsibility to manage behaviour and this forms quite a critical part of quality first teaching but just like a competency in any profession, it is something that requires training, exploration and practice. By isolating our teachers and expecting them to ‘deal with it’ without support, we immediately establish that fault line, which over the course of an academic year gets more vulnerable and can lead to teachers simply walking away.

By articulating these strategies and joining our teachers in the classroom regularly to practice using them, we can make all the difference as leaders and keep truly wonderful teachers in this rewarding profession.

The importance of considering the ‘why’ in our primary schools…

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I recently watched an inspirational video by best- selling author and optimist Simon Sinek that really resonated with me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlBSiiNNchM He spoke of the importance of educators drilling down and considering the ‘why’. Here are my reflections on some of Sinek’s insights and how they can practically apply to primary education, particularly in light of the new Ofsted inspection framework.

‘Are we helping kids find solutions to their own challenges which likely will become their strengths as adults?’

Amanda Spielman recently delivered a talk at the National Governance Association on the renewed education inspection framework. She remarked, ‘Getting to the heart of it, this new framework is about 2 things: substance and integrity.’ Sinek’s point on developing both academic and non-academic traits seems to run parallel to the philosophy underpinning the new framework. Developing more than just academically successful pupils is key and when deciding what the traits, values and virtues are which we want to develop, we need to consider what will stand our pupils in good stead for their futures. By future, I refer not only to their subsequent academic journey e.g. secondary and onwards but their adult lives. Skills such as ‘problem-solving’, ‘reasoning’ and ‘logical thinking’ aren’t restricted to the academic arena but are skills that we as adults employ all the time both in our careers and personal lives. This is especially important for those schools operating in areas of high disadvantage- we must equip our pupils with the skills that perhaps they will be unable to develop outside of those school gates! You often hear renowned individuals talk about their school experiences and comment on how very little of it was useful to their lives as adults. Maybe we should be asking the question, ‘what do we want our pupils to say about their school experience and it’s value to them in 20 years time?’ in order to establish our ‘why.’

‘We’re going to ask how we can help children be more curious…how to learn empathy…how to foster their passions rather than help them just make a grade…’

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not at all suggesting that developing the ability to be curious and empathetic should be the only outcomes of successful teaching and learning. We of course want our pupils to achieve highly. But I do passionately believe that these attributes can directly contribute and act as a significant catalyst to a pupils’ academic attainment and achievements. The ability to be curious for example is central to learning. Fostering passions in a pupil can focus and channel their motivation for learning and so on. Research studies have also established a link between pupils ability to be empathetic and their academic attainment, particularly in Reading.(Feshbach and Feschbach 1987). It seems that academic performance therefore, becomes a natural by-product of developing these broader attributes of the whole child.

This idea also circles back to curriculum design- it is an incredibly huge challenge to weave the teaching of these skills into the curriculum in a meaningful way and to strike a balance between academic and personal development. It is certainly a real breath of fresh air that this is referenced explicitly in the new framework- I really think this will allow us to more meaningfully reflect on the importance of this as educators and adapt the ‘substance’ of what we teach appropriately.

Our second judgement is personal development. It’s about what the school does for children’s broader development. It’s about the school playing their part – along with parents and others – in children learning to be good citizens, confident and resilient, able to take on the challenges of the future. I should say, with personal development, that we’re not attempting to judge the outcome. We’re looking at what schools are putting in to it and how they’re approaching it– Amanda Spielman

‘We have no metrics in school for the whole person…’

Sinek makes a great point about the absence of a metric to recognise and indeed celebrate the progress pupils make in their personal development. Best practice for this comes from our Early Years Foundation Stage, in my opinion. EYFS track both academic and personal development concurrently and offer each equitable weighting. ‘The Characteristics of Effective Learning’ are in essence this very metric. There are many things KS1 and KS2 can lend from the EYFS and this ‘metric’ is certainly one of them. I think the challenge here is measuring this over time and tracking this development as we would a child’s development in Mathematics or Science. Unlike quantitative metrics- percentage of pupils meeting the standard in Reading- this is far more subjective and qualitative by nature. How do we go about doing this in a way that gives us ‘data’ in terms of assessment for learning and not just for the sake of creating ‘data’ to justify it’s presence in our curriculums?

‘Leaders are responsible for the people that are responsible for the results. Administration serves the teachers and teachers serve the students…’

This is a crucial point from Sinek and has possibly never been more pertinent in our primary schools. Teacher retention is a critical issue and amidst this crisis we are still grappling with the challenges of serving the pupils we teach to the highest possible standards. Sinek remarks that when leaders are asked what the most important thing is they respond with ‘the pupils’ and rightly so but I think there’s definitely something to be said for nurturing and supporting our teachers as much as we do our pupils and putting both at the forefront of our schools. This can be on many different levels. For example, giving teachers a sense of agency and involvement in their craft and the curriculum they deliver, all the way down to the small things- providing teachers with the necessary flexibility to strike a good work-life balance. Staff wellbeing has never been more important and if we are to expect great, high-quality teaching from our teachers we need to as leaders, serve them respectfully and compassionately. The move away from ‘teaching to the test’ is certainly a step in the right direction and acts as the perfect opportunity for leaders to reflect on why their teachers got into the profession in the first place and how to preserve that ‘good stuff’ without it being shrouded by other factors.

I would highly recommend giving Sinek’s video a watch (link above) because it really does act as an important reminder about establishing and sustaining a real and authentic sense of purpose in the work we do. If we can somehow remind ourselves of this purpose at every turn, I’d like to think we could make our schools even better and face our challenges as educators with a renewed sense of resilience and optimism.

Character Development through Curriculum Design

It was an unseasonably rainy Tuesday afternoon and I was teaching PSHE. My class of Year 6 students were facing a daunting period of their lives: the mounting pressure of assessments and SATs, social demands, and the looming transition to secondary school. I posed a question: what key character traits did they need to be successful as they transitioned to Year 7?

One of my pupils offered an answer that surprised me. ‘It’s a bit like The Hobbit,’ they said. ‘We need to do what Bilbo did and show courage. He was scared to go on the journey at first, but then he decided to be courageous and it paid off in the end.’ This prompted another pupil to explain how Bilbo overcame his fears by ‘getting out of his comfort zone’.

We’d been studying JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit in English lessons for the past few weeks. But I hadn’t realised that the book had given my pupils more than just vocabulary, plot structure and an understanding of the rivalry between Orcs and Elves. It had acted as a vehicle for exploring something far more important – courage.

After I left the room, that moment stayed with me. When an opportunity arose for me to help shape the whole school curriculum, literature became its central feature. I wanted to develop a character-based curriculum, which taught ‘soft skills’ such as empathy, compassion and resilience through high-quality narratives.

While I believe the knowledge focus was undeniably crucial, the experience with my Year 6 class had changed my stance on what a truly rich curriculum was. I felt there was a fine balance to be struck between knowledge, skills and character development. I hoped to maintain a strong knowledge base, while also weaving in opportunities for students to develop outside of the confines of academic achievement.

In helping to shape the curriculum, I drew inspiration from the work of The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at The University of Birmingham (see link below), which had produced incredibly useful research about the development of character and virtues through literature. I pulled out ideas and quotes from books as ‘topics’ for learning. We used a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem Law of the Jungle (‘For the strength of the pack is in the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is in the pack’) to look at teamwork, for example. In this way I created a series of umbrella ‘topics’ that gave teachers the agency and flexibility to draw on multiple disciplines, a breadth of knowledge and ideas and to make real connections sequentially through a unit of learning.  

Not everyone was convinced by the idea. There was some initial pushback from teachers who felt that some of the character concepts were perhaps too abstract and heavy for primary school children. To the contrary I believed that their young age actually made it an ideal time to be explicitly teaching these life skills, as it was the very time when their belief systems were being shaped and moulded.

The curriculum is still very much in its infancy and there is still work to be done, but we’ve already begun to see some benefits. Pupils studying Philip Pullman’s Clockwork, a book about a young apprentice who seeks to make a figure for the town clock to sustain an ongoing tradition, have begun articulating what kind of legacy they hope to leave behind. Pupils studying Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows now discuss how to cultivate strong friendships during PSHE sessions, referencing the friendship between the key characters.

For me as a teacher, the approach has allowed me to bring to the forefront important conversations that would previously only take place in response to a pastoral incident. For example, my Year 6 class and I have recently been discussing the importance of compassion (drawing on the ideas from our class novel) and how to apply this thinking to conflicts in the playground. We’re exploring ideas that will stand them in good stead for their lives not just for their subsequent educational journey.

In an educational climate where historically so much emphasis has been placed on academic achievement, I see my pupils demonstrating more and more how they’re developing as individuals as well as scholars. Pupils are more engaged and more active in their exploration of pieces of literature-both classic and contemporary and this in turn has had a positive impact on their academic progress in Reading. Truly the best of both worlds!

All inspired by an unseasonable rainy Tuesday afternoon in Year 6…

https://www.jubileecentre.ac.uk/432/character-education


So it begins…

I’ve been a Primary Teacher for seven years now and am currently a Deputy Head leading on Curriculum Design and Delivery. I’ll be blogging about all things in Primary Education. I’ve grown so much as both a teacher and a leader from sharing in the thoughts, insights and ideas of other educationalists and I hope to have a similar impact on other teachers, so that we can continue to grow and develop as a profession. Most importantly, I hope the ideas I share can have an impact in the classroom, on the ground so that we can provide the very best for the little people we educate. All views are my own.

‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give.’ Maya Angelou