Why are the joys of teaching not being shouted from the rooftops?

Let me get something out of the way right from the start. I love teaching. I come home most days and genuinely feel like I have made a positive difference to the lives of children within my school. I never dread going to work; I look forward to it. I have been successful and students, for the most part, make good progress in my lessons. I am looking forward to the decades ahead of me within the profession. There is nothing else I would rather do with my life than teach.

I want to begin and end this article by sharing my overwhelming belief that teaching is a joy and that teachers should be shouting this from the rooftops for all and sundry to hear.

Let me get something else out of the way though. Teaching is a really challenging profession. Having to plan and deliver lessons which stretch, support, engage, show clearly checked progress, encourage good behaviour and are rooted within the curriculum or exam specification in itself is not easy. Add to this the fact that teachers have to make hundreds of reflexive decisions every lesson in response to the plethora of unknowns involved with teaching thirty-something individuals – each with their own distinct set of preferences and personalities – and it is easy to understand why teaching is so often highlighted as an incredibly demanding profession.

Yet these challenges are not what the media highlight makes teaching such a tough profession to be in. A quick search of recent news stories related to teaching makes for troubling reading, with two clear themes emerging. 1) Teaching is stressful: ‘‘Epidemic of stress’ blamed for 3,750 teachers on long-term sick leave’,[1] ‘Teaching is ‘one of the most stressful jobs in Britain’’,[2] ‘Job stress is ‘overwhelming’ teachers across the UK’.[3] 2) The workload is unbearable: ‘What’s behind the teacher workload crisis? Assessment, assessment, assessment’,[4] ‘’The level of workload expected of teachers is not improving schools, but it is wrecking lives’’.[5] Although the government is – apparently – trying to address workload concerns through the policy paper ‘Reducing  teacher workload’,[6] there will be no panacea.

The high levels of stress and unsustainable workload which many teachers feel weighing upon them can be explained by the raft of recent pressures and changes to our profession, from the introduction of radically new exam specifications, the results-driven culture of league tables and performance-related pay, to concerns over acadamisation and fear of forced redundancies, to name but a few. It is no surprise, therefore, that the final emerging theme from media coverage of teaching is around retention: ‘Teacher retention: Government ‘failing to get a grip’,[7] with the NEU stating that “There is increasing evidence of a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention just as the number of pupils and the demand for new teachers begins to rise sharply”.[8]

I won’t deny that teaching can be stressful, the workload undeniably a burden and retention a prominent – and growing – concern. All of these issues are, unfortunately, a truth of teaching in 2018. Yet this only tells one side of the life of a teacher, focuses only on those teachers who are, understandably, struggling against these odds. There are many teachers who have found ways to manage these challenges, thriving within this most difficult of times and loving our noblest of professions. These teachers tend, from my experience, to have two things in common: they take responsibility for their professional development and they regularly celebrate the many joys to be found within teaching.

One important thing which teachers can do to cope with the demands of teaching is to show the resilience, motivation and hard work required to get better at it. The better a teacher is within the classroom, the more they can negate some of these stresses and workload issues. For example, students work harder if lessons are engaging, challenging and creative, whilst behaviour is better if consistent routines and boundaries are employed, alongside time spent building positive relationships with students. Progress is faster and more sustained if differentiation supports and stretches all students, working in tandem with assessment which effectively spots misconceptions. The workload becomes more manageable if planning and marking is time-efficient and focused on developing student understanding. In summary, better teachers have less stress associated with poor behaviour or results and reduce their workload through efficient marking, planning and time-management. These teachers, therefore, are surely also more likely to remain in the profession for the long-term.

Yet teachers need to do more than begrudgingly attend mandatory school-led CPD and take responsibility for the quality of their teaching. The first step is to reflect, whether with the guidance of colleagues or individually, in order to find areas of weakness to be developed. This ideally should be ongoing so that a regular cycle of self-reflection develops. The second step is to proactively address these concerns; search for and attend CPD sessions within the local area of further afield, read articles, blogs or buy books to gather evidence-informed strategies (if they aren’t supported by the best available evidence, then they are, quite simply, less likely to make you a better teacher), observe other teachers within and outside their department, have an IRIS observation, engage in professional dialogue with other teachers or complete further studies within the field of education. The final step is to take this knowledge and these ideas and try them out within the classroom to see what works, what might need adapting and what doesn’t work. If more teachers were actively engaged in this reflective cycle of improvement, then I believe that a greater proportion of teachers would be able to positively cope with the demands of our profession.

Finally, I believe that we teachers need to take a step back and recognise the many joys of teaching a bit more often. We all entered this profession because we want to make a positive difference to the lives of future generations and you know what: we do. Sometimes it may be a small difference, or one that we never even know about. Yet not one of us looks back on our own school days without remembering that teacher who ‘got you’ or went that extra mile to help you; that teacher who came along to watch the school football team play a match (even though it was raining); that teacher who inspired you to love biology and set you on the pathway to becoming a doctor. We all have the potential to be that teacher. Isn’t that amazing?

Yet teaching offers further joys. Getting to know hundreds of children and young adults through their formative years, watching them grow academically and as individuals, readying themselves to shape the world; what a privilege it is to share in all of this. There are so many small things, too, which make the job a delight. How about watching the school musical and giving a standing ovation to our talented student body? Or the deep pride that comes from seeing a student improve their understanding and grow in confidence because of the efforts you have made? What about watching a student fall in love with learning because of the inspiration that is you? Or being there on results day when that student who always worked their hardest gets the results they need to go to their first choice university? How about when that student comes up to you and personally thanks you for all that you have done for them? Should we not be focusing on all of these amazing things just a little bit more?

I too get home after a long day (and with another coming tomorrow, and the next), feeling drained and overwhelmed by the workload. I too sometimes wonder why I spend so long planning these lessons as it all goes awry because I forgot that half of the class are on a school trip. I too feel pressured by the results that somehow define how ‘successful’ I am as a teacher and despair that this even matters when I know I give my all every day for each student I teach. Yet these days and these moments are rare and this itself is, it seems, rare. This needs to change and teachers need to take responsibility for aspects within our control – especially our own professional development – to enact this positive change. If we all took small steps towards this end, then perhaps the joys of teaching would be shouted from the rooftops more often. They really should be.

Ben Wright

Co-author of forthcoming book Thrive: In your first three years in teaching, published on 18th May 2018.

References:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/11/epidemic-of-stress-blamed-for-3750-teachers-on-longterm-sick-leave

[2] https://www.tes.com/news/teaching-one-most-stressful-jobs-britain

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-41280360

[4] https://www.tes.com/news/whats-behind-teacher-workload-crisis-assessment-assessment-assessment

[5] https://www.tes.com/news/level-workload-expected-teachers-not-improving-schools-it-wrecking-lives

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reducing-teachers-workload/reducing-teachers-workload

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-42873153

[8] https://www.teachers.org.uk/edufacts/teacher-recruitment-and-retention

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Secret Student

Secret student is a ‘golden nugget’ I have stolen from a work colleague (Sophie) and started implementing a couple of weeks ago! So far I can say it has been incredibly successful.

Starting at a new school, I have had to build up my reputation as a teacher and set out my high expectations with all the new students I now teach. One of my classes, my current bottom set year 9 class, are challenging. However, the more I have got to know them (and them me!) our relationship is becoming a positive one. This doesn’t always mean they take pride in their class work or work to the best of their ability in every lesson. So when a colleague (also a new teacher to the school) suggested starting secret student, I have never looked back!

What is secret student?

Secret student is where you have an envelope with the names of two students in your class inside. At the end of each lesson you open the envelope and those students whose names have been randomly placed will have an e-mail sent home with a photo of their class work that day. So far it has been a big success.

Students are taking more pride with their work and they are striving to achieve their best. At the end of the lesson there is a positive anticipation of whose names are going to be picked!

Today I had one of the students desperate to tell me at the beginning of the lesson they received an iTunes voucher from their parents over the weekend after I sent an e-mail on Friday.

Not only is this raising the expectations students have of themselves, its building a positive relationship.

I strongly suggest you give it a try and once you have e-mail template, it won’t take up too much time.

Martha

Space to Reflect

All good teachers know the importance of reflecting upon their practice, yet perhaps don’t spend as much time considering how to approach being reflective. The space that the summer holiday affords – time away from the all-encompassing nature of school life – lends itself well to considering this and laying the foundations for developing our teaching practice come September.

Reflecting on our practice is essential if we wish to continually improve and develop our teaching abilities. More than that, though, it offers us a way to make sense of the complexities, uncertainties and challenges that we face when teaching. Some reflections can be quick; we can usually recognise when a task or resource hasn’t really worked and can often think of a step we could take that may remedy its limitations. However, other aspects of our teaching practice may require a deeper level of thought and will often benefit from a critical and creative approach to reflecting. Being reflective is about being self-aware, often developed through reflections which shed light on our personal attributes. It is about small improvements, but can also embody transformative change. It requires the asking of awkward questions, the giving and taking of challenging advice. It is about recognising that we will never be the ‘perfect’ teacher, but must surely strive to be the very best we can be.

There are many ways to develop as a reflective practitioner:

  • Write a ‘teacher diary’. This doesn’t have to be every day, but it is a good habit to get into. Nor does it have to be long; in fact, it is best if short and focused. Perhaps consider one success and one thing that could have been improved (and also how you would improve it) each day.
  • Observe others. Observe other teachers and reflect on how their approach to teaching compares to yours. Have a focus for your observation, but be open-minded too. What great practice did you see that you could try yourself? Don’t assume that what works for someone else will also suit your unique style to teaching, but do be brave and try something if it has inspired you.
  • Be observed. Invite other teachers into your classroom. Have an open-door policy which encourages visits. Always ask for feedback and consider how you will act upon this.
  • Consider using IRIS, which is great for self-reflections (although sharing your lessons with others can also be very powerful) and can often make you aware of aspects of your teaching that you hadn’t previously considered (where do you stand? Who do you speak to (or ignore)? How do you come across to students? How is the pace? What do you do subconsciously?).
  • Ask your students. Give out exit slips at the end of key lessons, perhaps where you have tried something out or had a new focus. Ask for feedback at the end of a module. Keep your questions concise and to the point, without room for ambiguity. Consider using SurveyMonkey; the anonymity it offers can facilitate more honest responses. Consider asking your students to write a postcard to next year’s class (e.g. ask your Year 10s to write a postcard to next year’s Year 10 class) with their reflections on what they have enjoyed, what they struggled with and what advice they would give. Use this to inform your own practice.
  • Take part in a 360 Review. This type of honest feedback from a range of colleagues is both disarming and eye-opening. Ensure the person interviewing understands how to get the most out of the process. Have a professional dialogue with your chosen interviewer about the feedback. Use this feedback and your reflections to create targets.

Once you have received feedback on your teaching and reflected upon it, you will find you have areas you want to focus and work on. Discuss these with other teachers, your line manager or on twitter. Engage in professional dialogues about your practice. Find articles or books to read. Ask for help from those around you. Be prepared to try a number of new approaches or strategies in relation to your reflections; they won’t all be effective, of course. Most importantly, ensure that you are not just reflecting, but then acting upon your reflections to improve your practice.

As another year draws to a close and we have a chance to take stock, I think to a quote from John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” I hope you have a restful and reflective summer.

Ben Wright

Twitter can be a dangerous world. Be careful out there…

I think that Twitter is brilliant. I mean, it’s not perfect, but for teachers it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities to share creative, practical ideas, to discuss pedagogy in critical dialogue, to encourage reflection of our own practice and that of others, and to develop networks of like-minded professionals who have the improvement of teaching practice – and therefore student outcomes – at the core of all that they do.

However, Martha and I were at the Teacher Researcher Conference at the University of Sussex on Saturday and, amongst presentations of fascinating research and much lively discussion, one comment caught our attention: many teachers are now formulating their teaching approaches from Twitter and blogs, and this is dangerous due to the unaccountability of what they are reading. This got me thinking about the direction that the delivery of pedagogy is taking and of the hazards, but also clear benefits, of the rise of Twitter and the teaching blogosphere.

I agree that there are some risks to the fact that any teacher, regardless of experience or ability, can proffer advice – often seemingly definitive – to the teaching world at large. Our blog, amongst many of others, does it with regularity (although I hope we show enough humility so as not to appear dogmatic or definitive). As a History teacher, I am acutely aware of the inherent dangers of sources with unreliable provenance and the teaching community at large must show the same discretion. Blogs are, by their very nature, personal opinions which may, or may not, be accurate or rooted in evidence. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as many great teaching strategies and ideas haven’t yet been subjected to objective research methods and analysis. Indeed, many simple classroom ideas don’t warrant such detailed research and even the most thoroughly evidenced approaches are subject to scrutiny and conflicting views. Furthermore, I’m sure we have all tried using critically accepted approaches to teaching and found that for our teaching style or with specific classes that they don’t work. However, it is hard to separate the good advice from the bad, especially when there is such an overwhelming range of often conflicting opinions being put forward. So what can we, as individuals and a community, do about this?

I’m afraid I don’t have a clear answer, but allow me to share some tentative thoughts. Evidence-based practice is undeniably important – indeed it is the bedrock of our personal approach to teaching – and it would be remiss of any teacher to not consider whether their teaching strategies reflect what has been evidenced to make the most impact. Yet this doesn’t really help us in the world of Twitter, where so many new, creative or challenging ideas are put forward which haven’t yet been subjected to the rigours of research. I don’t think we should avoid reading or trusting personal opinions, or only follow advice that is rooted in research, but that we must be critical of all that we read, whilst also having an open mind. I am aware that this sounds like an oxymoron and perhaps to an extent it is, but it is what we must do to both teach in the ‘best’ possible way, whilst also continuing to learn and develop our practice. We must consider whether we believe the advice we are reading to be accurate, if it matches our own thoughts and experiences, whilst also be willing to have our views challenged. We must consider typicality and whether the idea put forward has been backed up by other sources or goes against the grain, whilst not dismissing alternative views out of hand. We should consider if the advice is evidenced or not. It doesn’t have to be, but we then need to be aware that as an opinion it has its own attached weaknesses, whilst also not in any way necessarily being wrong because of this.

As I said earlier, I’m not sure what the answer is. Perhaps the frequency and sheer amount of blogs being posted is so overwhelmingly large that there is no panacea. There is, however, one thing that we can all do: be reflective of our own teaching practice. Whilst being willing to listen to and try out a range of strategies and ideas, you must also consider what is working in your classroom and for your students. This is something in your control, negating the provenance of the pedagogical input you receive. If you try something out and, upon reflection, you feel it has improved the progress your students are making, then keep doing it (and keep reflecting upon it). Likewise, if upon reflection the impact has been small or even negative, then don’t feel you have to keep following this approach. Or perhaps consider adapting or tweaking it. Or try it with another class. Classrooms are so diverse, that what works for you may not for someone else, and vice versa. This is what makes teaching such a stimulating and challenging profession to be in. The key is to keep reflecting upon what is or isn’t working for you. This, I believe, is what may make it possible to approach the range of ideas and strategies out there with a degree of confidence.

The world of Twitter is a dangerous one, but approaching its offerings with a degree of care and a reflective mindset should help to keep you safe.

Ben Wright

How can you add value to your teaching? Connect with your students.

Whenever I have the privilege of observing another teacher’s lesson, the thing that strikes me first is always the relationship that the teacher has with their students. You can sense this through the emanating atmosphere when you enter the classroom; sometimes uneasy, tense, staid or – dare I say it – rebellious, at others focused and respectful, full of positive energy, motivation and application. There are manifest reasons for why this may be the case, some a result of the teacher or lesson, others the particular topic, room or time of day. Yet the most positive atmospheres have a common thread running through them: excellent teacher-student relationships.

The importance of teachers building positive connections with students has been highlighted in recent and seminal studies. These suggest that students are more motivated when teachers take a genuine interest in them (Ferlazzo, 2015) and create inclusive classroom conditions (Ryan and Deci, 2000). The damaging impact of not building these relationships has also been stressed (Ginsberg, 2015). My own small-scale research for my MA in Education also highlighted the importance of positive teacher-student connections. Across interviews with a number of my students, ‘getting to know students as individuals’ was the most frequently coded reason given for the development of motivation-encouraging relationships.

Why is fostering these positive individual relationships with students so important? Well, apart from the pleasure that comes from getting to know another human being at more than a surface level, they have a positive impact on the quality of learning that occurs. Having these positive connections won’t in themselves make for excellent lessons, but what they can do is to add value to every aspect of your teaching. Students will be better behaved, work harder, respond better to feedback, show increased motivation, be more sympathetic to your misjudgements and in sum drive your class forwards more positively than if these connections haven’t been made.

So how can we go about building these individual connections with our students? The most important thing may be just finding (in reality, making) the time for the many small inputs that help forge these positive connections. Here are some of the things – and I’m sure there are many others besides – that I believe are worth making time for to build these connections:

– Learn the name of every student that you teach as soon as possible at the start of the year. Don’t just hope this will happen naturally over time. Get your class photo lists out and consciously learn them. Nothing that follows will work without this essential prerequisite.

– Get to your lessons a couple of minutes early and spend that time talking to individual students as you wait to begin, trying to find out something of their lives and interests outside of your lesson.

– Greet each student at the door of your classroom by name as they enter, saying good morning and asking how they are. Do the same as students leave, this time highlighting something positive they have done in the lesson, for example asking great questions, showing improved concentration or finally nailing that 8-mark exam question.

– Always say hello to your students in the corridor or around school. Make this an active approach; be the one to make the first move. If you can, stop to have a chat with them. Remind them about a due homework or test. Ask them how their half term was. You will find that over time students will start to seek you out as well, further developing the teacher-student relationship (and brightening up your day).

– When returning tests or assessments, find time to speak with each student individually about it. Let them know what you were pleased about and reinforce areas they need to improve. Support them if they under-performed and stretch them if they had success. Make your students aware that their results are not just a ‘number’ for you, but a signal of their progress and a spotlight on their strengths and weaknesses.

– When you ask a student a question in class, be sure to always listen to their answer. It can be easy to ‘switch off’ sometimes when teaching and only half-listen – especially if you are concerned about time or monitoring behaviour – but nothing will hinder these connections more than your students feeling as if their contributions aren’t valued.

– Following on from this, don’t tolerate anything less than total respect in your lessons, not only between you and your students, but also between the students themselves. Make sure everyone feels like they can make a valuable contribution to your lesson in a supportive and respectful environment. Encourage your students to make mistakes (and learn from them). Encourage all students to get fully involved in tasks and activities. Don’t let a student fall ‘under the radar’ as every student needs to feel like a valued part of your class.

– Share something of yourself with your students. You are their teacher, but don’t feel you have to act like a ‘teacher’ all the time. Show some humanity. Share a story about your past, demonstrate empathy with struggling students or relay an amusing anecdote from your weekend. 

Ben Wright

References:

  • Ferlazzo, L. (2015) Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond, Oxon: Routledge.
  • Ginsberg, M. (2015) ‘Shadowing a student shows how to make learning more relevant’, Phi Delta Kappan, 97(4), pp.26-30.  SAGE [Online] Available at: www.sagepub.com
  • Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000) ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), pp. 54-67.

Evidence based practice, why are we so bothered?

With myself and Emily currently completing our Master’s in Education and Ben having already completed his, our research is often at the forefront of our minds.  As an advocate for evidence based practice I have found I have focused much of my writing around this topic.

About 18 months ago I read an article by Ben Goldacre ‘Building Evidence into Education’. Goldacre raised a very valid point, professions such as medicine, nursing and midwifery see evidence as integral in providing the best outcomes for their patients as well as continuing CPD. Not only is this argument both popular but academic as well. Therefore why are we, professional teachers, not engaging with this practice and using evidence to improve the outcome of our pupils?

So, what exactly is evidence based practice?

Evidence based practice is using current literature and the available evidence to make decisions about our teaching practice and to inform policy making. Obviously evidence can take different forms and evidence used in the medical profession will be different to that used in education, but applying the principle of sourcing evidence, evaluating it, applying it and using it to further inform practice is something the teaching profession should be looking to achieve. In short, teachers should be using the literature that is out there and applying it to their own classroom practices and then evaluating the effect.

How did this impact my Master’s research?

Ben, Emily and I set up a journal club to encourage colleagues to engage with current literature. The club runs every half term and we discuss the latest research article, provided by ourselves, and how this can impact on our teaching. We often focus on a research questions and critically analyse this as a group of professionals.

As part of my Master’s research I decided to analyse the impact journal club has as a mechanism for teachers to engage with evidence based practice. From my findings there was an overwhelming agreement from staff that they felt education should be evidence based and that journal club could have a positive impact on engagement, however many teachers do not attend. I also identified that teachers see the value evidence has for the development of their practice and engagement was talked about as being ‘forward thinking’. This frustrated me somewhat as although the teaching body wanted to move the profession forward to engage with evidence based practice, there are clear barriers in place which leaves teachers unable to engage. What these barriers are I am currently researching as part of my dissertation. I hope to disseminate these barriers and discover how we can work towards this culture in time for the next academic year.

Martha Boyne

References:

 

Biesta. G. (2007) ‘Why ‘What Works’ Won’t Work: Evidence Based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research’. Educational Theory 57:1

Boyne, M. and Beadle, H. (in press).  Journal Club: A mechanism for bringing evidence based practice into school. Teacher Education Advancement Network (TEAN) Journal, [forthcoming].

Goldacre.B. (2013) Building Evidence into Education. Department for Education

can be accessed here:

http://www.badscience.net/2013/03/heres-my-paper-on-evidence-and-teaching-for-the-education-minister/