Let’s Go Crazy… or how re-igniting a passion has made me re-think my attitude to teaching.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. 

Electric word life. It means forever and that’s a mighty long time.

But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else…”

So begins the song ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ from Prince’s 1984 masterpiece, Purple Rain. But why am I starting a blog post, ostensibly about my experience as a teacher, with a quote from Prince?

I’m a Prince fan. Indulge me.

In February this year Prince came to the UK and began a series of ‘guerilla gigs’ in a tour called Hit n Run. It was term time. I was in Liverpool, he was in London. I was devastated, thinking I was not going to get a chance to see him.

The last time I’d seen him was in 2007 when he did his legendary residency at the O2 Arena in London. 21 Nights in London. Great show. (He’s awesome live. If you haven’t seen him, you should try to. I’m going to explicitly put that out there, though it will no doubt be implied throughout!) Seven years had passed and, although he’d toured in Europe during that time, life – work, finances etc – had somehow always got in the way.

Cut to 2014 and we now live in a social media world. I was fascinated by the #princewatch hashtag as people shared information and sparked rumours of his whereabouts. Gigs were announced with just hours’ notice. (Again, I rued the fact that a) I didn’t live in London any more and b) I had a sensible job!) A real sense of hype and drama was created. Prince was back in the news. People were discovering his musical talent and talking about it.

More importantly, through social media, I was suddenly in contact, virtually at least, with people who shared my passion. (Of course my non-Prince-fan friends and family had to vicariously suffer the agony as I waited to see if he’d leave the capital and come anywhere nearer. And when I say ‘waited’ I actually mean moaned incessantly!)

Finally, as he and his band, 3RDEYEGIRL, presented an award at the Brits ceremony, I got the news I’d been waiting for. Prince announced he’d be “heading up North so we want to see you in Manchester. We’re gonna rock it up there a l’il bit.” Simultaneously, a tweet announced the tickets were on sale.

I pounced. My hours on virtual #princewatch had paid off. I got a ticket for both nights at Manchester Academy.

If you’ve even got this far, you may still be wondered when even a tenuous link to teaching is going to appear. This is, in many ways, an even more self-indulgent post than normal. This is me in full-on fan girl mode.

I’d apologise, but actually full-on fan girl mode is what I want to talk about.

I went to Manchester for the gigs. (Thankfully it was half term.) I queued all day for the chance to be near the front. It rained. In fact, at one stage there were hailstones. Even in layers of thermal clothing, it was freezing.

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But the joy was palpable. I met people from all over the UK, from Paris, from the Netherlands, from Italy. We laughed. We shared our Prince stories. We marvelled at those whose fandom was extreme: hundreds of gigs, monthly Prince-fund, sleeping overnight outside the venue.

I felt like I was a teenager again. This was sheer, unadulterated pleasure. I forgot about the marking, the exam result pressure, the observations. I left vaguely sensible Head-of-Department-me at home and revelled in just doing something I love – watching live music – with a group of people who felt the same thing.

I won’t go into details about the gigs.*

Suffice to say, I had a blast. The hours of queuing paid off. I was front row. Front and centre in fact. Underneath the man’s microphone; about three foot away from him. Living the dream. I got to spend hours watching a genius at work. I sang along. I let myself get lost in the music. Everywhere I looked people were doing the same thing. The shared sense of awe and wonder was incredible.

And I did it all again the following day.

As I said, full-on fan girl mode.

I floated home on a purple cloud, the music still ringing in my ears. New friendships forged and memories to last a lifetime. My passion for Prince, if it ever really needed to be, was completely rekindled.

At some point in the following days, I realised that something had happened. And this, finally, is where I get to the teaching bit…

I was smiling. Lots. I couldn’t stop talking to people about how good the whole experience had been. I realised that I need to re-connect with the things that make me happy. I need to surround myself with people with shared interests and shared passions.

And I want to feel that about my teaching. 

I’ve made myself a promise to reconnect with the joy I felt when I first started teaching. I’m going to find my career passion again. I’m going to surround myself with positive people who feel the same way.

Because my students deserve that. They deserve the version of me who is focused and driven, not weighed down and cynical. I became a teacher because of my love of my subject and my desire to do something that meant something. I need to show that every day.

Seems odd to have had this sort of career-epiphany in the queue for a gig.

One of the friends I made as we queued told me that the Academy gigs had been life-changing. I agree with him, as hyperbolic as that might sound.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. 

Electric word life. It means forever and that’s a mighty long time.

It is a long time.

Too long to not do the things you love. Too long to not find joy in your work. Too long to let things overwhelm you. Too long to be cynical.

So as I plan for next year, I’m planning to teach in full-on fan-girl mode.

“And if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy punch a higher floor”

And to Richard, Jay, Simon, Keira, Dave, Ian, Emma, Farah, Shana, Sonia, Lucas, Dani and all the February crew: thank you for being a part of it all.

*Look them up:

Is advice better than feedback when it comes to lesson observations?

I follow Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, on Twitter (@Doug_Lemov) and always enjoy his willingness to share ideas and engage in discussion and debate with educators.

Over the Christmas break, I noticed a link he had posted to his blog. It concerned lesson observations and posed the idea that, rather than simply wait for the post-lesson conversation to give feedback, it would be more productive to offer advice and collaboration prior to the lesson. A simple idea, yes? So why, once we pass our NQT year, do we tend to allow teachers to teach in splendid isolation and then wait till after the lesson to pass our judgement?

(Now I know that teachers do plan collaboratively and are always to be found sharing resources etc and long may that continue. However, I am specifically talking about lesson observations.)

I was struck by the simplicity of this idea: discuss the lesson prior to the observation. Advice beforehand rather than only getting feedback afterwards. I know how busy we all are though and could foresee some reluctance to making what was effectively a two-part process into three-parts. It felt worth the extra step though, so I took it to my line manager and department and suggested we trial it.

Straight away, their reaction was positive. One of my department team is in her second year of teaching. She said she would welcome the chance to discuss her lesson. She remarked on the loss of explicit lesson planning input, other than informally with colleagues, once you end your NQT year. She commented on how that can sometimes leave you feeling unnecessarily worried about your lesson observation and so would be very happy to be involved. More experienced colleagues were equally as willing to give it a go.

So we began the process. All lesson observations were preceded with a conversation about the lesson. I asked a combination of the following questions to stimulate discussion:

  • Where are the class currently up to in the unit of work?
  • What levels are they working at?
  • What will they have done in the previous lesson?
  • What will they do in the next lesson?
  • What do you want the pupils to learn in this lesson?
  • How will they (and I) know they have achieved this?
  • What are you doing to support pupils who may find this difficult and stretch those who need more challenge?

The benefit of this for the teacher being observed was that we were able to share ideas about lesson structure and activities. They got a chance to try some ideas out and, sometimes, the act of talking their lesson through led to them changing their minds about the structure of activities or how they were going to demonstrate learning/progress. It also helped to contextualise the lesson; with the discussion including previous and next lessons it becomes harder to give in to the temptation of a one-off ‘show’ lesson simply there for the purposes of wowing the observer.

I should point out that I too went through this process with my Head Teacher. Prior to him observing me, we sat down and had our pre-observation discussion. I found it incredibly useful. He is not an English specialist, but he is an experienced teacher, and so his input and questions were very valuable. They challenged me and helped me focus on the pupils’ learning.

During the observations themselves I, as observer, felt much more confident in my understanding of the lesson’s context. I felt more able to engage in conversations with pupils, look at the work they had been doing in their previous lessons as I knew the background to the lesson. I felt I could sit back and enjoy the lesson, rather than juggling the task of reading and digesting a lesson plan, making notes and trying to observe the classroom. As a result, I believe my observations on the learning of the pupils and the progress they were making were more astute and thorough.

And when I was being observed? Well, I was confident that my Head knew what we were doing and could understand the purpose of the lesson. This made me breathe slightly easier. If I needed to deviate from my lesson plan, I was happy that he understood the bigger picture and would be able to see how/why I was re-shaping activities. It was the most relaxed I have felt about being observed.

After the lessons had taken place it was obviously time for the traditional ‘feedback’ session. Again, this felt different. As the observer, it felt much more of a dialogue about the lesson and learning rather than my colleague simply waiting for a judgment to be given. (I should point out here that we currently still grade observations.) We were able to discuss how their planning had impacted on pupils’ learning and discuss what had worked in a more collaborative way. I didn’t feel like I was simply passing a judgment.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there had been some reluctance elsewhere amongst the staff. Having launched this idea with the English department, it was then taken to our staff Teaching and Learning Forum. Speaking to some colleagues, they felt like it was a false situation as ‘Ofsted don’t discuss your lesson with you’ or one which would lead to ‘everyone getting a better grade than they might’ve without the help.’  To address this, I would argue that an annual observation linked to performance management targets is not the same as an Ofsted observation and neither should it be. As such, we should be supportive and not simply judgemental. Staff should be offered advice rather than simply have a ‘grade’ slapped on them. This three-part process makes that support and collaboration have more of a weight. It became a learning opportunity for teacher and observer, rather than just a judgement.

(I’m in favour of non-graded lesson observations by the way, but that’s for another post.)

It seems only fair that I give the final words to Katie Yezzi, the teacher whose guest post on Doug’s blog prompted all of this:

“in Success Academies, the teachers and leaders invest more time and brainpower in practicing lessons before they teach them than conducting post-mortems and giving feedback on lessons that already happened.

[Insert head smack here.]

This is such a simple, brilliant idea and makes so much sense.  Here are a few of my thoughts on this practice idea:

As a teacher, getting feedback on a lesson to ensure its success ahead of time is incredibly practical, actionable and supportive.  It means I go into my lessons more confident and prepared.  That sounds like a great way to feel at work each day.

As a coach, it seems like a powerful use of my skills and abilities to engage with teachers about lessons to come, to dig deeply into the content and the “why” of the lesson.  It also positions me more as a partner in the work, rolling up my sleeves to work out the lessons in advance.

Haven’t we all walked in to observe lessons only to find that something is being taught wrong? Then as a coach we have few options, and often have to jump in to ensure students don’t have to later unlearn and relearn the correct version.  That usually doesn’t make teacher or coach love their job. Catching the errors before they happen achieves our goals of teacher and student success.”

– See more at: http://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/katie-yezzi-preparation-beats-feedback-insert-head-smack/#sthash.rk9l3IgX.dpuf

#Nurture1314: That was the year that was…

2013: that was the year that was about…

1. TeachMeet Liverpool. I organised the first Liverpool TeachMeet in April. It was a fantastic day and showcased some excellent teachers and educational professionals. It was a labour of love. It was a Saturday. I’m not sure my SLT quite ‘got’ what a TeachMeet was when I first mooted the idea, but hey, I think they are now convinced. I am currently planning the next one, so watch this space!

2. #TLAB13 One of my professional highlights was my attendance at the Teaching Learning and Assessment Conference at Berkhamsted School. What a day! It started very early on the first London train from Liverpool but it was worth it. Not only did I get to hear some fantastic speakers, but I came away energised and enthused. For a profession that gets almost constant flak, us teachers are a pretty incredible bunch. One of my posts about the day is here: http://wp.me/pYpwi-4Z

3. Visiting Joseph S. Clark Prep in New Orleans. I was lucky enough to visit a high school when I went to New Orleans. It was a fascinating insight into how teachers are working in a very complex educational system. (There is a blog post; I need to finish it!)

4. Getting to grips with being (Acting) Head of English. Maternity cover is never easy. You want to do a good job but, at the same time, it’s not your job, you’re a caretaker-manager. I had the privilege of stepping up from second in department to Curriculum Leader for English for six months. It was hard work. Luckily, I work with a great team.

5. Getting to grips with being Head of Year. In September I became Head of Year 12. Wow. After five years with a departmental TLR, the pastoral side of school life has been an eye-opener. I have really enjoyed this opportunity and am sad that, come January, I am moving back into curriculum leadership. However, I feel that my experience as a pastoral leader will have added much to my leadership.

6. Meeting Twitter pals in ‘real life’. I value the inspiration, knowledge, ideas and support I get from twitter and the connections I have made as a result of being on there. In 2013, it was good to meet @joanne_rich, @mrpeel, @ChillEdU, @deadshelley, @learningspy, @nickdennis, @danpo_ and many more. It was also lovely to be reacquainted with @KristianStill. There are some who I can now call friends and others I consider virtual colleagues, rather than just random screen names and 140 character witticisms. That’s a great thing.

7. Team English. I work with some fantastic colleagues. I’ve already said that, but it cannot be over-stated. It has been a pleasure and a privilege.

8. About seeing people’s true colours. There were a difficult few weeks at work. It hardened my resolve to be the best I can be.

And 2013 wasn’t just about work, you’ll be pleased to know…

9. Finding a lost friend. Earlier this year a friend of ours went missing. It was a harrowing time for his family and closest friends. I was humbled to see how people pulled together and worked to get his name and face out there. It worked. He’s back and on the road to recovery.

10. Rediscovering a love of live music. In 2013 I have been privileged to experience some brilliant live bands. New Orleans was a feast of music, from start to finish. I also (finally!) visited Ronnie Scott’s for the first time. It will not be my last visit.

Jazz in the Park: George Porter, Jr & Bill Summers
Jazz in the Park: George Porter, Jr & Bill Summers
Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile, June 2013
Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile, June 2013
Soul Rebels, RNCM.
Soul Rebels, RNCM.
Irvin Mayfield at Wednesday in the Square
Irvin Mayfield at Wednesday in the Square
Treme Brass Band at dba, New Orleans
Treme Brass Band at dba, New Orleans

11. Cats! I can’t really do a summing up of 2013 without mention of McNulty, who I adopted in January and who is a joy. Alas, Brontë the beautiful stray who I adopted in August was sadly run over. She is missed.

McNulty: Jan 7th 2013
McNulty: Jan 7th 2013

12. All about New Orleans. My city. I have never felt as truly ‘me’ anywhere else. It was an incredible experience to return and I will definitely not be leaving it as long next time.

Bayou Metairie, New Orleans City Park. May 2013
Bayou Metairie, New Orleans City Park. May 2013
Free Hugs? Jazz in the Park, New Orleans.
Free Hugs? Jazz in the Park, New Orleans.
Jackson Square, May 2013
Jackson Square, May 2013
Reminders of Katrina: N. Rampart, Treme.
Reminders of Katrina: N. Rampart, Treme.

13. A reminder of the importance of friends. I lost a friend this year. He died suddenly and unexpectedly. It reunited me with a group of friends I’d lost touch with. It made me appreciate the fact that friends are friends no matter where or how you met, or indeed how often you all get to meet up. He is much missed.

Neil: wordsmith extraordinaire.
Neil: wordsmith and wit extraordinaire.

And 2014? What will this be the year of?  

(I’ve left a few blank… I’m hoping 2014 surprises me!)

1. Health. I am pledging to get fitter. I need to make time for exercise to balance the mental workload. And hey, if they want me to work till I’m 69 then I’m going to have to be seriously fit to do so!

2. Doing. And not just saying I am going to do. My biggest flaw? Maybe. I am the Queen of Procrastination. In 2014 I will be a doer and not a thinker-about-doing. Professionally and personally.

3. Marking. I’m making a concerted effort to mark smarter. I am focusing on D.I.R.T and making my marking meaningful.

4. Reading. I’ve set myself a ‘Fifty Books in 2014’ challenge and shall be blogging my progress. I want to read more for pleasure.

5. Writing. Years ago I wrote all the time. Now, I seem to forget what an excellent tool it is for reflection, idea generation and all round relaxation.

6. KS3 Curriculum. My big professional challenge as Acting Curriculum Leader is to re-vamp our KS3 curriculum in preparation for all the changes that are coming. A big job, yes, but one I am looking forward to.

7. Appreciation. Saying thank you and really taking time to recognise and appreciate those around you is often overlooked. I’m putting it on the to-do list as a permanent item in 2014.

8. Photography. In 2014 I’m determined to get out and shoot more.

9. Career. I think this is the year for me to make some decisions. Hopefully they will be the right ones.

10. De-cluttering. I need to do a bit of this. Physically and metaphorically.

11. Learning and getting better at being a teacher. #TLAB14 and Northern Rocks are two main teaching CPD events I’ve got booked into the calendar so far. Generally though, here’s to a year of collaboration and learning.

12.

13. 

14. New Orleans. I have to go back. My favourite Chris Rose quote kinda says it all: “She is a New Orleans girl, and New Orleans girls never live anywhere else and even if they do, they always come back. That’s just the way it is. This is where she belongs. End of discussion.”

#TMLpool: an educational “bring and buy sale”?

At #TLAB13, Alastair Smith spoke about TeachMeets. He’d attended the TeachMeet held at Berkhamsted the night before the main conference. He called it “an educational bring and buy sale” or a “carboot for teachers” and praised the counter-cultural, bottom-up rather than top-down nature of the TeachMeet format.

It made me think, as much of what was said at #TLAB13 did.

I’m currently organising a TeachMeet in Liverpool.

TeachMeets, along with the weekly #ukedchat sessions and the edu-extravaganza that was #TLAB13, have been the things that have re-energised my love for teaching. It’s easy to get caught up in the pressure and the negatives, but meeting people from across the country who are engaged, motivated and brilliant at what they do makes me realise why I love this profession.

Not many of the staff at my school seem that engaged – yet. They seem somewhat reluctant to commit to an event on a Saturday. And I appreciate why: we’re horrendously busy at this time of year and the majority of us give up lots of time as it is for revision, extra-curiccular activities etc on top of a huge workload. However, I believe the chance to meet, share and learn is important.

I’ve currently 12 people signed up to present and another 35+ coming to watch, meet and network. I’m confident that figure will rise. I’m looking forward to the chance to meet educators from across the North West.

So here’s to our counter-culture bring and buy!

If you’d like to come along, then sign up here: http://teachmeet.pbworks.com/w/page/64371633/TM%20Liverpool

After #TLAB13: what next?

It was a long journey home after the conference and I had time to reflect and start to think how I was going to implement some of the things I had seen, heard, discussed, considered…

My action plan:

  1. Students as questioners, not tellers: using Rosie’s ideas in my Y12 planning.
  2. Sharing what I’ve learned with colleagues back at school.
  3. Risk-taking: I need to look for my next challenge and that might involve taking a gamble. (No more ‘if only’ regrets!)
  4. Looking at my planning at how I can incorporate some of David’s ideas.
  5. Next year’s KS3 schemes need an overhaul. What better time to think about explicitly teaching grammar?
  6. Promote TeachMeet Liverpool – networking is so valuable.
  7. Blog more and read more blogs.
  8. Try to recapture some of the sheer exuberance and joy for teaching that was present – it can get lost amongst the daily grind (aka exam season!)

Thanks to everyone at #TLAB13.

You made me think, reflect, reconsider and laugh, lots.

Rosie McColl at #TLAB13: can pupils be more effective teachers?

One of the biggest challenges I find is making student presentations effective, so again, my choice of second #TLAB13 workshop picked itself. Rosie McColl, Deputy Head of English at Berkhamsted School, led a workshop which posed the question: can students be effective teachers?

Rosie had endeavoured to fix the age-old problem of ineffective group presentations. I thoroughly enjoyed Rosie’s workshop as it contained ‘real’ (video) examples of her action-research.

We saw examples of student vox pops on the problems of presentations:

  • they enjoy the research but don’t like the feedback if it isn’t engaging, detailed or the presenter(s) is nervous.
  • if all class are doing the same topic, fine but if not, we only really learn our own topic.
  • it’s nice to hear other voices and views though.

and the one that surprised me the most:

  • I don’t trust other pupils’ research – teachers should validate content.

This was backed up eloquently by several pupils in the audience (and whoever’s school they were from, they were a credit to you) who echoed much of what Rosie’s videoed pupils had shared.

So, what can be done to improve on this?

We’ve all come across research that says we learn best when we teach others, so equipping our pupils to do this effectively must be the holy grail.

Rosie’s approach was simple but effective.

Her year 10 boys were looking at war poetry. They needed to makes links and connections. The class was split into groups and all were given a selection of unseen texts, poetry and prose. Half the groups were tasked with presenting their findings via the traditional method of ‘telling’ the audience. The other half were told only to use questions when presenting their findings.

(Some time had been spent on effective question formulation prior to splitting into the groups, so all pupils had come up with some ‘good’ questions or question stems to aid with their discussions.)

We saw videos of the pupils feeding back. The ‘tellers’ were predictably dull with a fairly dis-engaged audience. The ‘questioners’ were much more engaging. Both audiences, classroom and conference, were paying attention, considering responses, involved.

Rosie said she was simply offering one idea of how to make pupils better teachers, she wasn’t claiming it was the best or only solution.

Sometimes though, it’s the simple ideas which are the best.

Pupils as questioners and not tellers: there’s my year 12 lessons planned for the next week or so!

(Oh and if you’re not already, then get following Rosie on Twitter: @rosiemccoll)

David Didau at #TLAB13

As an English teacher (and self-confessed Twitter-holic) then the choice of the first #TLAB13 workshop was a no-brainer: I was going to listen to David Didau’s Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson session.

For those of you who don’t know David, he is an associate member of SLT and Director of English and Literacy at Clevedon School in North Somerset. He is also an associate of Independent Thinking Ltd and specialises in training on Literacy, AfL, Outstanding T&L and English.

He blogs and tweets under the name of @LearningSpy and I have always found his take on teaching to be both innovative and refreshingly real.

So, I left the theatre with my head buzzing from Alastair Smith’s keynote and entered the room to the sound of Cameo’s Word Up – classic theme tune for an English teacher, right? (Later in the workshop David spoke about playing music at the start of lessons and its potential to change mood/atmosphere etc.)

What a pleasure it was to meet David and to get an insight into how he goes about planning a lesson. He manages to combine authority with an endearing humility which belies his ‘twitterati’ status as the go-to-guy for English.

Alastair Smith had already talked about the problem of many lesson plans being simply “elaborate to-do lists” and David’s workshop continued this theme as he promised us he would demonstrate his “contempt for activities”.

Firstly, the visual metaphor of the iceberg to describe lesson planning was perfect. It really is the unseen ‘stuff’ that makes the observed lesson work. And, as someone currently mentoring NQTs and a PGCE student, it gives me a great discussion point for this week’s meetings.

David’s learning questions resonated with me. (I’m using the word resonate a lot in my #TLAB13 posts – but it was that kind of day. Lots of little lightbulb moments or earnest head nods and palpable relief that I’m not alone in problems, dilemmas etc)

Five Planning Questions

1. How will last lesson relate to this lesson?

2. Which students do I need to consider in this particular lesson? (Pen Portraits.)

3. What will students be doing the moment they arrive? (Bell work.)

4. What are they learning and what activities will they undertake to learn it?

5. How will they – and I – know if they are making progress?

Again, not only am I going to reflect on these questions in my own planning but they will become part of my dialogue with the department. I liked the idea of the Pen Portraits. Having certain pupils in each class who are the focus for that unit, skill, module, term etc seems like a good way to do it.

David is a teacher. He may have additional responsibility and a sideline in writing and training etc but the man teaches. So when he talks about how “time is precious” and offers ideas of how to work smarter, then this fellow teacher is listening. His assertion that “a set of books marked is a lesson planned” and “lessons can simply be working through the feedback” made me think. Could I (and by extension, the teachers in my department) be working smarter when it comes to marking and planning?

I liked David’s idea of the post-it note as instant feedback. I’m a fan of the post-it note as teaching aid. I use them all the time. I’m not sure I have used them in this way though – an instant take-away-and-implement idea. Genius! (The idea: step back during the lesson, observe pupils’ learning & use the post-its to offer suggestions, feedback, next steps etc)

The workshop continued. I was typing away furiously. Discussing ideas as they popped up with Kristian, my fellow back-row occupier. (It was probably at about this point when I stopped forgetting I’d already been up for hours and realising what a brilliant day this was turning out to be!)

A discussion about learning outcomes followed. David shared his use of the phrase “so that we can” which was a little slice of genius. This allows you to split the learning from the outcome but still make it meaningful and coherent. See the example he gave below:

Learning: To be able to analyse characterisation.

“so that we can…”

Outcome: Evaluate Steinbeck’s intentions

Or another: zoom in on details “so that we can” zoom out on the big picture

This was my second instant take away from the workshop. I’ll be framing my learning objectives/intentions/outcomes (whatever the phrase du jour is!) in this way from now on. It makes sense.

As a fellow English teacher, I always appreciate training delivered by subject specialists. I am confident that whatever subject the audience taught, they would have gained much from David’s clear breaking down of the elements of a lesson but, as an English specialist, the subject-specific element gave this the edge.

David on writing was very interesting. He writes with his pupils. Sometimes this may be typing straight on to the screen in full view, other times it may be on paper and then shared with them at the end of the task. It sharpens his own writing. It helps him re-frame tasks or questions. It also models good practice and, let’s be honest, good writing takes deliberate practice. (I do this. I think I miss a trick though; I don’t perhaps explicitly talk about the writing process enough. My third instant takeaway from this session.)

I’m going to pinch a Didau-ism and make it my own. Henceforth, I won’t talk about writing… it’ll be called drafting so pupils realise it is a process. I’m also going to channel David when I say: “If it isn’t proofread, it isn’t finished.” 

David went on to talk about how there is no magic formula for a perfect lesson. I agree. He did however point to one fact that separates the good from the great when it comes to lessons. What is it? The relationship between teacher and pupils. As the class teacher, you have an innate advantage or trump card you can play on the observer: your knowledge of the pupils in front of you. “Dare to know” challenged David and he’s right.

Thinking about the outstanding lessons I’ve observed and, dare I say it, the best lessons I have taught and they hinge on the teacher’s knowledge of the pupils in front of him/her. If you dare to know your pupils and teach a lesson tailored to meet their needs, designed to help them progress or to challenge them to exceed expectations, then how can it fail to impress those who may be observing?

What a workshop. What a guy.

Sycophantic? Unashamedly so. I had the privilege to meet someone whose writing I’ve long admired and, do you know what, he deserves the plaudits.

Alastair Smith at #TLAB13: Beware the Ofsted Whisperers

Alastair Smith opened the inaugural #TLAB13 with his keynote speech entitled: 50,000 chunks: how we become ‘experts’ and what it might mean for our conference today. 

I’ve posted a link to the presentation which Alastair has uploaded on to his website. I’m not going to attempt to re-hash the presentation, but rather discuss what I personally took from it.

Starting with a call to arms to identify the expert schools amongst the audience, Smith was both challenging and entertaining.

Beware the Ofsted Whisperers

Beware the Ofsted Whisperers

He cautioned us, as a profession, to beware the ‘Ofsted whisperers’ as: “Ofsted chasing will reduce us to the mean, turn our profession into a trade and make us all vulnerable to the industry of second guessers…” Having recently sat through some (no doubt expensive) training which was designed to teach me about the new Ofsted framework and yet taught me nothing I couldn’t (and indeed pretty much had already) read myself, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Citing an example of a school who had gone from special measures to outstanding under the guidance of an inspirational leader, Smith spoke eloquently about how it isn’t all about Ofsted. There is an Ofsted 1 and a ‘real’ 1 – I think I know which kind of outstanding I’d like to be a part of.

So how does a school become truly expert, truly outstanding in its day-to-day life?

The following characteristics of an ‘expert school’ were offered:

  • Have a School Development Plan
  • Seen School Development Plan
  • Feel you have contributed to School Development Plan
  • Senior Staff Member responsible for Teaching and Learning
  • Teaching and Learning number one priority within the School Development Plan
  • Within Teaching and Learning Priority there are identified strategies
  • CPD priorities built around these strategies
  • Regular whole school dialogue around these strategies
  • Lesson observation (including peer observation) built around these strategies
  • Agreed strategies revisited consistently and over time
  • There is shared lesson planning utilising strategies and data
  • Staff are accountable for students results
  • Involvement of students in understanding processes of learning

Given that the audience were comprised of, in my opinion, predominantly forward-thinking educators, it was surprising how few people remained standing once the entire list was read out.

So, once all of that expert practice is in place, what else is needed to make the Ofsted 1 a real 1?

Alastair Smith suggests that a school needs core purpose, clarity, coherence, consistency and community. Music to my ears. Too often I worry we suffer from initiative-itis… we’re guilty of adopting the ‘Dangerous Deputy’ approach. We say ‘I fancy giving that a go’ and jump on the latest faddy bandwagon without really considering what value or impact it will have.

If we are clear and consistent in our approach, if the whole school community knows what our core purpose is and works together to achieve it then positive and lasting change will happen.

I’m not a school leader, but I aspire to be one. I am currently leading a department and so much of what Alastair Smith said resonated with me.

Define and Enshrine What Works
Define and Enshrine What Works

I need to now think about the strengths we have as a department and how we can embed this. I also need to think about where we can improve, look at what other departments or schools are doing and make that a part of our daily routines. As Alastair said, the rhetoric of marginal gains is all well and good but the basics need to be in place first: “you still need to get the bike up the hill.”

Expertise requires dedicated practice. It requires simple, clear and coherent messages which everyone can get behind.

We owe it to our students to be expert teachers in expert schools. No matter what is going on with education at a political level, we can be agents of change.

That’s a call to arms. That’s a reason to get out of bed… even on a Saturday morning.

http://www.alistairsmithlearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/TLA-Berkhamsted.pdf

#TLAB13: Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted School

4am on a Saturday morning & my alarm is going off.

What would get me up at this unearthly time? Why, the inaugural Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference at Berkhamsted School of course!

The conference was organised by Nick Dennis, Deputy at Berkhamsted (@nickdennis) and publicised on Twitter. The power of the educational network on Twitter means that come 9am on a chilly Saturday morning, around 200 educators who had travelled from the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States were gathered in the theatre to listen to the first of the day’s keynote speakers.

I’m going to do a separate post about the various sessions I attended, each of which have made me reflect on my teaching, but wanted to reflect on the day overall as well.

A massive thanks goes to Nick and the staff and students at Berkhamsted for hosting such a fantastic event. To those who gave up their time to be workshop leaders, thank you. A special mention to David Didau (@LearningSpy) Rosie McColl (@rosiemccoll) and Daisy Christodolou (@daisychristo) whose sessions I attended and found both incredibly useful and thought-provoking.

The three keynote speakers: Alistair Smith (@alatalite) Bill Lucas (@eed_net) and Bill Rankin (@rankinw) also deserve a mention. You all made me think, re-think and reflect on both my own teaching and my school’s direction and purpose.

Equally valuable was the chance to meet, chat and learn with and from fellow educators. In a time when education is undergoing a massive transformation and morale can, at times, feel low it was a pleasure to meet everyone and realise what a passionate and committed bunch we are. And yes, there were moments of contention and disagreement when views were shared which some didn’t agree with. But that’s what made the day so interesting. We all come with different experiences and realities and we bring a variety of perspectives to every issue.  The one thing I believe we all had in common was a desire to become better at what we do. Admirable on our day off, no?

Finally it was, as always, a pleasure to catch up with Kristian Still (@KristianStill) Vice Principal at The Wellington Academy, fellow mischief-maker, almost-heckler and force-of-nature.

This year and next…

Lots of people on Twitter seem to be writing an evaluation of their year & a looking forward to the next with #Nurture1213

So, in no particular order, here’s my contribution: twelve highlights of last year and thirteen hopes for next year.

12 Highlights of 2012:

1. Getting my own place.

Having moved back to my folks’ a few years ago, this felt like a huge step. I initially moved home to be able to afford to complete my GTP. I stayed for financial reasons and, although I love my parents dearly, moving out (again!) was and is just perfect.

2. Becoming Head of Department.

Admittedly this is an acting role during my boss’ maternity leave, but all the same I am enjoying the challenge.

3. Losing weight.

As of 27/12/12, I have lost 30lbs. I feel heaps better for it.

4. Starting to exercise.

I’ve discovered that exercise won’t kill me… although not doing any might!

5. Delivering a literacy INSET at school.

Sometimes I think my colleagues suffer from INSET-ennui, so being asked to present to them in December at the end of a long term was a challenge. Despite a raging flu-induced temperature throughout, I loved it. I’ve had some great feedback from colleagues from a variety of departments and I need to blog about the best bits.

6. Completing my MLDP.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Middle Leadership Development Programme and made some great contacts in local schools. It made me think and helped hone my practice. I have also found it useful to look back on as I have begun my acting Head of Department role this term.

7. Our departmental team.

I’ve taken on the acting Head of Department role and, it has to be said, I couldn’t do it without the support of ‘Team English’ who have been uniformly fantastic. We have a great team and it is a pleasure to work with them. I look forward to 2013, working with them to further improve outcomes for our pupils.

8. Learning to appreciate my family more.

My moving out was postponed by the horrendous flood I had in October 2011. The house was wrecked and lots of my possessions (I was in the process of moving in) were ruined. My family rallied round and were fantastic. From the initial desperate phone calls ankle deep in water, to the time they have taken to help clearing up, sorting stuff out and getting me settled, I couldn’t have asked for a better safety net behind me.

We’re not overly close. We don’t do emotion. I should tell them I’ve written this… but, whilst I pluck up the courage, at least some people know how much I appreciate them!

9. The fantastic wedding of the delicious Katherine and the marvellous Dave.

Two of my friends got married in July. It was the perfect day. The bride looked stunning and, what’s more, it was a loooooong time overdue. So, as the year draws to a close, I offer another virtual toast: “to the bride and groom.”

10. London 2012.

That opening ceremony. That glorious celebration of our past and present. The amazing Olympians and Paralympians. The medals. The once-in-a-lifetime moments. I’ll admit it: I got quite emotional!

11. Friends.

2012 delivered some new friends. That’s got to be a highlight!

12. The stuff I can’t write about…

Some of the highlights of this year are best not blogged about. But remembering them makes me smile… and chuckle. Lots.

Thirteen hopes for 2013:

1. To continue to lose weight.

I haven’t set any goal weight/size but I know I will continue in the new year. I’m following the Weightwatchers plan & so far so very good!

2. To make exercise an integral part of my routine.

I’ve recently started going to a Bootcamp fitness class in the village. It hurts but, oddly, I have found I quite enjoy it. I enjoy not being so preoccupied with work & just being outside in the fresh air. I’m determined to make this a 2/3 times a week routine.

3. To have one weekend a month in which I do no work.

Every year since starting teaching I swear I will achieve a work/life balance. I somehow fail. This year I’m trying to make this happen by having one weekend per month set aside for non-work stuff. We’ll see.

4. To start driving lessons… again!

Yes, I know, I should be able to drive at my age. Moving swiftly on…

5. To learn to salsa.

I’ve just booked a course of 10 lessons starting in January, so this is one step closer at least. Every year I watch Strictly and think I’d love to be able to dance. Every year I sit in front of the tv and do nothing. No more excuses!

6. To get back into photography.

I have a fab camera. I need to learn what all the buttons do. I’ve neglected it this year. I’m going to try & do more in 2013. (See hope no.3)

7. To successfully complete my acting Head of Dept role.

I want to make a success of the temporary position. I am looking to move onwards and (hopefully) upwards in my career, so this is a great opportunity. I don’t want to let our students down more than anything though. I want this year to be successful for them.

8. To be a better teacher.

I have committed to being the best teacher I can be. It’s a hard job but it’s also one of the best jobs in the world. I need to make sure I’m doing the best I can for my pupils. They deserve nothing less.

9. To make some of my Twitter pals ‘real’ pals.

This starts in January when one of my good Twitter pals is coming to stay. I’m very much looking forward to being tour-guide-in-chief for @joanne_rich as she ventures to Liverpool for the first time ever!

I have benefitted from the support, inspiration and challenge that Twitter, and the #ukedchat community in particular, offer. I hope to turn some of those ‘virtual’ friendships and collaborations into ‘real’ ones in 2013.

10. To blog more.

I’ve neglected this blog in 2012. I need to get better at reflecting on my teaching and blogging is such a good method of doing this. I read so many inspirational blogs… this year maybe I will contribute something of merit myself.

11. To travel.

I’m booking a holiday this year. I didn’t manage to get away in 2012 and I do so love to travel. After my solo trip to Italy in 2011, I’m hoping to venture further afield in 2013. I think a long overdue return to my favourite city – New Orleans – may well be on the cards.

12. To host a TeachMeet in Liverpool.

See no. 9 – this will, I hope, be a chance to meet lots of fantastic educators and to benefit my own practice and that of my colleagues. My Head will hopefully be on board with the idea when I present it to him in the New Year. Watch this space!

13. To be content.

I’ve felt somewhat at sea this year. I want to work at being content in 2013. I have so much to be grateful for and so much to look forward to. I shall work very hard to find my inner contentment this next year, even though I’m not quite sure how or what I need to do to make this hope a reality!