Let’s stop talking about target grades…

Tomorrow marks the start of my second week back in school after summer with new pupils and a new timetable. It’s been great to see the energy and enthusiasm of my senior pupils this past week and I’m excited for how their learning will develop over the year ahead. But undoubtedly, over the next few weeks many of us in schools across the country will be asked to give pupils ‘target grades.’ There are many reasons why I’m not a fan of target grades and this blogpost aims to articulate why.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I understand the intention and thinking behind target grades, especially in terms of data and reporting. I realise that grades are very much part of our education system. Parents, and many pupils would find a shift away from reporting on target grades problematic and require a change of mindset. And yet, personally, I feel they cause so much confusion and angst.

Learning is a long term change in knowledge and understanding. And my aim as a teacher is to get pupils excited and motivated to learn. To shape pupils who are passionate about my subject and who get a real buzz from their achievements long after the exam. Not just to get a grade, although I appreciate for many that is important. So why are we still fixated on marks? And do target grades actually help in the journey to pass exams?

My beef with target grades started a while back when I heard of a school where teachers were ‘not allowed’ to give pupils target grades of C as it was seen as not ‘aspirational’ enough. Imagine… teachers’ professional judgement being over-ruled because it might not look good for a pupil to have a C as a target grade. I understand why the school may have wanted to discourage low target grades and instead have high expectations for all learners, but it makes me worry about the part target grades play in the success of a pupil or indeed a school. If we are not giving teacher autonomy to decide a realistic and achievable target grade for a pupil whom they know well, it may as well be a target picked from a hat, making a bit of a mockery of the system. And the more I thought about it, the more I concluded that target grades can be hugely problematic.

In the first instance, target grades are a way of labelling pupils and in many cases, limiting their potential from the start. I don’t believe for a minute that teachers do this intentionally, I’m sure it is often from a place of good intent, but let’s consider how this feels from the pupils point of view. Whilst it might make teachers feel they are differentiating more successfully, how can we ensure that this does not instead create a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Firstly, let’s take the high flying pupil. The student doesn’t cause the teacher any bother, has been a model pupil all through school and did well last year according to her teacher. Her A target grade is well within her reach and the feedback from the first few assessments confirm this. So why should she push herself? She’s pretty confident she’ll get her grade and so she can sit back and coast. She’ll do what she needs to get her A, but that’s it. When assessments are returned, she’ll read the grade to check she made the mark but skip the feedback. Are we really encouraging her to be all she can be so that she experiences the joy and passion of learning?

But perhaps more damaging is the pupil who’s target is a C but despite her best efforts, just isn’t quite making the grade. How must it feel to always be falling short of a target grade? To constantly be told you aren’t quite there yet. This continued emphasis on the grade could be soul destroying for a pupil who already finds this particular subject difficult. As Dylan William suggests giving a grade does not help the student to improve. And when feedback is given along with a grade, the feedback is most often disregarded in favour of the grade. The grade encourages pupils to compare themselves and becomes ego-involving. For me, it seems far more productive to stick to the learning. Yet still we focus on target grades.

When we focus on the mark or grade, we are attaching extrinsic motivation to learning. We are rewarding performance. And the more we focus on this, the less likely we are to be able to harness the intrinsic motivation and passion which comes from deep learning and understanding. Yes, for certain senior classes we may be required to refer to grades or marks at times, but personally I’d prefer to see a move away from constantly referring to target grades and instead consider whether the pupil is achieving their potential. A simple + = – system seems sensible to me. The symbols represent whether a learner is continuing to progress positively, stagnating or progress dipping. The high achieving learners have to keep working hard if they want to keep getting +’s because there’s no room for complacency. Anyone struggling to progress is highlighted by a -. The lower attaining pupils work hard and continue to be rewarded with +’s and any passive learners who are not pushing themselves are flagged up with =. This system focuses much more on incremental improvement and learning as opposed to performance.

If we place more focus on the feedback we are giving or how the learner needs to specifically improve, rather than referring to whether the student is meeting a target grade on a specific piece of work, we are hopefully guiding the learner to the actual ways in which the learner can get better. Dylan Wiliam suggests that feedback should ‘improve the student and not the work.’

Finally I think target grades often cause confusion for pupils, staff and parents. A target grade set to be achieved at the end of the year, makes it very difficult to track progress throughout the year. How can we confidently say that pupil x is meeting their target grade of a B in November when, they still have 5 months of learning left before their assessment? In art and design, a pupil may have only completed half a folio, and whilst they are doing all they can and working to the best of their ability, the folio would not get the desired target grade if assessed in November. Parents find this difficult to fathom, ‘She was getting a B in November, so why is her work now a C?’ Might it be better to focus on the whether they are ‘on track’ to meet their potential and instead spend time giving appropriate feedback to help the learner improve?

I would love to hear your thoughts on what is undoubtedly a highly contentious issue and perhaps how this works in your school. Target grades do serve a purpose, but I can’t help thinking there may be a better use of time, and as always it comes down to great learning and teaching.

Mobile phones. Must-have for their first day?

This blogpost has been sitting in my drafts for a while. But when I saw this image circulating the internet this weekend I felt incensed to throw in my tuppence worth.

You see Tesco, I’m a teacher. And a parent. And I’d rather your marketing focused on things which really do support learning. Because actually, mobile phones are anything but ‘must-have’ if we hope to produce successful learners.

There’s lots of evidence to suggest that a mobile phone will not be helpful for a learner’s first day at school. This research clearly articulates why mobile phones need not be on our ‘back to school’ shopping list.

If you had told me 10 years ago, that I would have been writing this particular blogpost, I would have not believed you. You see, 9 years ago I was the biggest advocate of mobile phones in schools. Fast forward a decade, and this leopard has most definitely changed her spots. Now, I’d rather see a complete ban on mobile phones in classrooms such is my disdain for their distraction.

There are a number of reasons for this u-turn. First hand experience. Academic research. Professional reading. And most significantly a genuine concern for our young people.

Innerdrive Blogpost on mobile phones.

I’m worried about the effects of increased screen time for young people. Constant use of digital devices seriously affects their ability to concentrate. Despite good intentions, it’s too tempting just to sneak a peek at the screen to check notifications. And before you know it, the rabbit hole of social media has swallowed another 14 year old for the 100th time that day, jumping from one video to another message, to email to Instagram to Snap chat. A constant loop of comparison via pings, vibrations and light. It affects concentration. It affects confidence. It affects mental health. It causes stress and anxiety. And these all contribute to poor sleep, poor well-being and poor mindset. Not a healthy combination if we want our young people to thrive.

I’m worried about the use of mobile phones in schools, and the implications this has for learning, when notifications, messages and snap chat are all fighting for our learners’ attention. What chance do they have to experience the joy of learning whilst being bombarded with reminders and communication via their mobile adding a whole other layer of cognitive load to their struggle. Studies show use of mobile phones reduces memory. Not to mention the research into the effects of constant multitasking and ‘app-hopping.’ What chance do we have for focussed, concentrated learning in our classrooms when fighting for attention is a shiny, phone distracting thinking and processing?

But ‘pupils shouldn’t have their phones out in class,’ I hear you cry Tesco. And you are right. Most schools wouldn’t tolerate mobile phones in classrooms. But…

Have YOU tried spending an hour without looking at YOUR phone?? It’s nigh on impossible for adults, never mind young, impressionable teenagers who are keen to fit in and often don’t see the direct benefits of what they are doing there and then in the classroom. Despite the rules, pupils can’t help themselves. A sneak peek there, a quick check in between tasks. Constant battles for attention. And that’s only the students who are keen to learn. Many others don’t have the same self control.

I wonder how many altercations between pupils and teachers stem from mobile phone usage in the classroom? It’s a huge source of friction between young people and teachers, and I’d hazard a guess that the proportion of time given to asking pupils politely to ‘put phones away’ or ‘pop that back into your bag please’ equates to a significant amount of time which could have been better spent on learning and teaching. Not to mention how often situations escalate significantly, when in fact could have been avoided all together had mobile phones not been on their person.

I’m worried about the impact mobile phones have on mental health and well-being, belonging and social interaction. Social media is the root of so many bullying and friendship issues for young people. Often these are drawn into schools as a result of incidences at weekends or in the evening, and already take up huge amounts of energy for pastoral staff. But these should not be the focus of our Monday – Friday in classrooms. Pupils should be protected from that in order to have the best chance at learning. So it worries me that our society now see mobile phones as ‘essential’ prerequisite for the school bag. I personally would much rather focus on creating meaningful face to face learning experiences in school.

And for those arguing the technological benefits of mobile devices, have a read at Daisy Christodoulou’s work if you haven’t already. There might also be parents/carers advocating the need to communicate with young people during school day. This could still happen. Either by a simple message picked up at the end of the day, or in emergencies through the school office, just like was the norm all those years before mobile phones. The issue in school, is that mobile phones, are so much more than ‘phones.’ Cameras, apps, social media, shopping, messaging – and it’s this combination of audio visual assault which distracts from the core purpose of school.

This blog doesn’t have any answers but it does set out to suggest the impact which mobile devices may have on learning. It aims to make parents, teachers and leaders consider how we help students to navigate the constant bombardment of marketing and media which suggest we need mobile phones at school. It may sound extremist to suggest schools should ‘ban all mobile phones’ but like every other educational debate headline we need to understand the context. This is not a draconian, power hungry rule designed to make young people hate school. It actually sets out to protect them – conserving their learning and well-being as well as providing equity of experience. It’s teaching them that in certain environments, especially those required for effective learning, we need focus, attention and thinking.

We need to give our students the best chance at education. Mobile phones in the classroom don’t support that.

Strong starts

Observing other teachers is such a great form of professional learning. There are many things to be learned from being part of a lesson taught by a more experienced teacher. However, sometimes I worry that for new teachers, the complexity, nuance and skill of establishing classroom norms which facilitate learning could be missed when observing a one-off lesson. We all know that although teaching is a fairly simple process, the foundations which we build in establishing our classroom culture can sometimes be overlooked if observers only see the product of this hard work and persistence over time.

For example, a new teacher observing a teacher who has taught the same pupils for two years, might see pupils who enter the room purposefully, young people who know where to collect materials from , who begin work on the ‘do now’ task straight away, and who don’t argue about seating plans or today’s task. It’s important to unpick the careful ground work which has been done by the teacher long before this observation and consistently applied every lesson, to achieve this level of normality.

For me, this begins long before the first time I see a class. Prior to this, great teachers spend time exploring what they want classroom routines to look like and what the expectations are for each lesson. The confidence this can bring to new teachers, simply by having the clarity of thought and the reassurance that you’ve planned for all experiences is a huge aspect which will help propel early career teachers forward allowing them to focus on the learning in the classroom. I remember planning and scripting the most simple of routines in my first few years of teaching. Who would do what when handing out materials, what I would say, where I would monitor this so that I had the best vantage point and so on. Over time, these routines became established both for me and for the young people.

As many teachers approach the start of a new timetable, here are some of the things which I’ll be focussing on when I meet my new classes.

Meet and greet

If possible, always try to be at your door waiting to welcome pupils to the class. This is so important on so many levels. It allows you to warmly welcome your class, greeting each learner individually and starting positively by commenting on something personal to them. It demonstrates that you are organised, ready to teach and establishes a routine for every lesson which allows you to build relationships. It also allows you to guide pupils to what you expect them to do on arrival and remind them as soon as they enter the learning space. ‘Good to see you looking so ready to learn’ ‘I can’t wait to see what you produce today.’ ‘We don’t enter the class that noisily….’ ‘Bags under tables, and jackets and jumpers off.’ This is obviously not always possible. This year I’ve been teaching in three different spaces, and frequently I am moving from one area of the school to another. But, where I can, I always ensure that I’m at the door monitoring corridor and supervising pupils’ arrival. It’s not just about being there physically, (which arguably could be what is interpreted by a newer teacher) – it’s about setting the classroom culture through all you do, say and project to the young people.

Productive start

Having something on the board or desks for pupils to think about or do straight away ensures lessons always start productively. I think it sends a message to pupils that every second of the lesson is important and precious, and that no time will be wasted. I usually make sure this is a retrieval task so that pupils need minimal guidance from me, giving them an opportunity to revisit prior learning and get straight to work, allowing me to check attendance and log in to computers. This comes with a warning though and I think this is where simply observing colleagues can lead to good intentions, but lethal mutations. The task or question needs to be about the learning. It’s not enough to simply put up a ‘busy’ task to occupy the pupils, which is sometimes tempting to do when we are planning outcomes rather than learning. It is important that this starter makes young people think hard and builds on prior learning.

No opt out/high ratio

Through your interactions with pupils it’s important that right from the start, young people know that in your classroom everyone is expected to learn. The message should be clear to everyone that it’s not just those who are keen to answer and put their hands up, who will be required to work hard. This awareness of ratio and participation has been a game changer in my classroom. Mini whiteboards, cold calling and annotating live models are some of the best ways I’ve found to ensure high participation rates in class. Again my worry is that simply observing colleagues using these techniques is not enough, we need to have an understanding of how they are being used to ensure evidence of learning is being elicited from every single person in the room.

Achieve success

For me, this is vital to pupil motivation. Whatever the task, the teaching needs to be so good that the pupils achieve success. The achievement motivates. That hit of dopamine when you succeed. But it won’t have the desired effect if it’s too easy. So pitching the task correctly is so important. The sense of accomplishment is what drives learners to continue and make progress. Forming these positive learning habits are what help create a culture of success.

Run routines

Don’t give up. Keep running the routines. Keep persevering. Keep reminding pupils of what you want. I promise – this is exactly what the experienced colleague had to do at the start. It may well look like everything just magically happens and the pupils respond for them, but beyond the surface of what you see there has been careful planning, scripting and practice of these seemingly simple techniques.

Observing an experienced colleague can teach us so much, but avoid reducing their practice to merely what is surface level and ensure that the careful nuance of their every movement and word paints the full picture of their proficiency in their craft.

Have a great week – get out and observe a colleague this week if you can. The art of digging deeper whilst watching their practice and considering what impact it has on the learning and teaching can be really powerful! I’d love to engage more with anyone who has any feedback.

Let’s normalise imbalance…

A few weeks ago a colleague said to me… ‘But you always look like you have it all together?!’ Now… either I’m doing a pretty good job of looking like the swan gracefully swimming above the surface, whilst furiously paddling below, or actually they don’t know me very well at all. Either way, I most certainly don’t have it ‘all together.’ But it got me thinking about perceptions and our role in how others view us.

The most recent podcast from @ScottishEducatorsConnect on Imposter Syndrome further forced me to consider this notion. How do we portray ourselves to others either intentionally or unintentionally? What part does social media play in our portrayal of both work and personal life? And how, as leaders, do we balance the dichotomy of bravely taking on the burden of the team’s issues, with being vulnerable enough to admit when things are difficult? So as a teacher looked at me almost ashamed to admit she was stressed, worried and overwhelmed, and I openly admitted that I often felt those things too, I wanted to pen a letter to my colleagues everywhere…

Dear fellow teachers,

I do not have it sussed. I know a lot after teaching for 16 years, but I’m still learning.

I always try my best but sometimes I get it wrong.

I love my job but sometimes it’s really hard.

I adore my boys but often they drive me crazy.

I work hard but I love time off.

Please don’t ever put me on a pedestal and assume I’m superhuman. I’m not.

Please don’t ever think you can’t come to me to offload. Because often I need to offload too.

Please share your bad days with me. I have them too.

Please ask me for help. I need help sometimes too.

Yours sincerely,

A very real mummy, wife and teacher leader.

It can be easy to present a part-life on social media. Only sharing the good parts or the things that go well. Part of the reason I removed myself from Facebook and Instagram years ago. For me, EduTwitter helped connect me with many inspirational teachers and leaders, at a time many years ago when I felt a bit lost and disheartened. It was about allowing me to stay positive and celebrate success, but I realise now that this may be seen by others as toxic positivity. As time went on, I used it more and more to learn from others, and ask questions. Admit mistakes and reach out for help. But I suppose we never really know others’ perceptions of our social media presence. But being aware of it, and recognising that everything we post will be taken and perceived by others in different ways should make us mindful before posting. That’s quite a responsibility. But so is filtering what we perceive as voyeurs. And being aware of our own responses when making judgements or decisions about others based on a wholly surface level acumen.

It’s important to normalise ‘not having it all together.’ Work/life balance isn’t the utopia. Life is not balanced. Being ok with work/life imbalance is important. Sometimes I’m on fire at work. Sometimes I’m doing great as a mummy. Sometimes I get it right as a wife. But very rarely is there a time when all three are equally successful – more often than not, because I’m doing well at school, I forget about my son needing to take money to school for a craft fayre. Or because I’m supporting a member of staff, it totally slips my mind to collect my little one off the school bus. On the contrary, there are times when poorly kids mean that my priority is being mummy, and work has to take a backseat. Making peace with the fact that there’s never an end point when we ‘make it’ has been really useful for me as a coping strategy. It gives me permission to give it everything I’ve got to do both well but when things don’t go to plan, it’s all part of the journey… or the rollercoaster.

The word I keep returning to is dichotomy. For leaders it’s the dichotomy of reassuring the team by being calm and in control, yet being vulnerable and honest enough to admit when things are tough. I want my team to come to me with problems. I want them to feel comfortable enough to tell me when things aren’t working. To be able to be honest with me, without fearing my reaction. Which means I need to be mindful of my response. Leaders are like the fenders on a boat – they cushion the blow. They are not able to stop the impact, but they can prevent or minimise damage by allowing others to lean on them.

But for leaders, that’s tough work. How can we as leaders, balance the need to carry the worries and stress of those around us, yet not be overwhelmed by burdening this weight for others?

For me, having a strong, trusted support network around me is vital to ensure that I can offload and talk through these worries to people who understand, yet whom I am not directly leading. Honesty, integrity and compassion are at the forefront of my actions and being professional is without question. Keeping perspective is another aspect which I think is important. Seeing the bigger picture and opening up the eyes of others, to the context of situations, is a key part of creating empathy within the team. As well as realising that sometimes others, like leaders, just need time and space to vent. There’s not always something tangible which can be ‘done’ or fixed, but purely by providing the safe space to open up, sometimes colleagues work out a solution or a way forward. That’s why it’s important that colleagues feel able to approach leaders. And that leaders have space to reflect – They don’t always have to have the answer. And that’s ok.

This week, let’s lift each other up with encouragement and praise, but recognise that toxic positivity is also damaging. Look for opportunities to listen to colleagues, but attempt to keep things in perspective and respond with compassion. Have a great week all.

Paddle board leadership

On Mother’s Day 2020 I was given a paddle board. As someone who is not particularly confident in water, this may have seemed like a slightly ominous choice of gift. However, I absolutely love using it and the more I’ve spent time on it, the more I’ve been struck by how it is a perfect analogy of educational leadership. So what has paddle boarding taught me about leading a team?

To others it may look easy, but until you are there you don’t know

Before I had ever paddle-boarded, I watched others out gracefully gliding along the water and thought how simple it looked. ‘I have good balance,’ I thought to myself. ‘I could easily do that.’ Turns out its not as easy as it looks and there’s a bit more to it. Where to position your feet. What to look at when trying to stand up. Using your weight to help manoeuvre the board. We are oblivious to these as those paddle boarding usually make it look easy. I wonder how often this is the case in leadership? From the outside leadership can seem easy. Like an iceberg, good leaders bear the weight of their team but often present themselves professionally to avoid showing the full extent of the pressure. Perhaps others wonder what leaders do with themselves all day if they don’t have a huge teaching commitment. Maybe team members question why decisions can’t be made more quickly. Or maybe we still suffer from a culture in which leaders don’t always appear to get their hands dirty. All of these might contribute to the thinking that leadership ‘looks easy’ or that ‘’anyone can do it.’ However just as I discovered with paddle boarding, it’s all very well looking in from the outside, but as Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘man in the arena’ speech reminds us…

Context is key

I wouldn’t just launch my paddle board into any open water without surveying it first. It’s important to know the situation you are going in to. What temperature is it? Where are the rocks? Are there any currents? What about the tide? Water is highly changeable. No two experiences of open water are the same. It’s important to assess each new opportunity in a way which takes into account the unique challenges and context of the environment, even if you’ve paddled there before. How similar this is to leading a team? It would be foolish to think that the initiative you are keen to introduce will work because you’ve seen it work elsewhere. But it’s important to remember the uniqueness of each educational setting – the individual staff, the learners, the history, the community, the learning environment – each has their own set of values, motivations and boundaries. Taking time to know your context is absolutely vital to ensure the best fit for your setting. A buy product of this is that even if the initiative does not go to plan, the trust which you build in your leadership during that initial period will help to achieve buy-in and drive within the team to work together to implement.

Stand up leadership

Pushing out the paddle board into the water and getting deep enough to stand. Feeling the water support you as you glide on your knees out from the shallows. From kneeling to standing takes bravery, confidence, determination and a belief that you can do it. That moment when you focus on the horizon in the distance and put your balance to the test. It’s all very familiar to the emotions we often feel as leaders. Can I do this? Will I be ok? Am I brave enough? Do I have the strength? From those initial first footsteps into leadership, to becoming more confident in your abilities but still doubting yourself. It’s about being brave. It’s about believing in yourself. It’s about a strong focus on where you want to go ahead but cautiously and carefully inspiring your team to the point where they want to travel with you.

Where the wind blows

This morning I spent a considerable amount of time looking at wind forecasts to predict what time of day might be best to go out on my paddle board. The wind is a big factor in this sport. The same wind speed can create very different conditions depending on your direction of travel. It can make things much easier for you in one direction yet on the return it can blow against you and make things really hard work. Similarly, in leadership we will encounter moments which guide us towards the best way forward and people within teams who make life easier. However, sometimes we may be leading within blowy conditions; feeling like we are working against the wind and being battered head-on. This might also be apparent in individual situations which involve being in the middle of two demanding and opposing sides of the same team. Again a clear understanding of where we are going and why, the humility to change direction if required and the ability to fall down sometimes and admit defeat are all hugely useful in both paddle boarding and leadership alike.

Mercy

No matter how good a paddle boarder you are, you are still at the mercy of the weather and the water. Tides, currents, and changing weather can, very quickly, wreak havoc on even the most experienced water sports enthusiast. We have no control over these elements, and if they suddenly decide to turn, the only thing we can do is react skilfully. The same is true in leadership. Yes there are many things within our control as leaders. But it would be foolish to think we can control everything. Much of the time we are dealing with humans – pupils and staff, parents and the community – and we have very little control over them. Other things thrown at us which are completely out-with our control. What good leaders demonstrate consistently, is the expert ability to control their own response to others and situations. Our reaction to difficulties and challenges mark out the type of leader we are.

It’s all about Balance

You’ve mastered the standing up. Now to stay up and make some progress. In paddle boarding, and leadership, this all about balance. Your strength and experience will only take you so far. Physically, on the water and metaphorically in leadership. Balance is key. Being able to stay professional and human. Being gentle and strong. Caring personally, and challenging directly. Working hard but knowing when to rest. All of these require careful balance.

Falling gracefully

And without our doubt, you will fall in. You’ll reach your paddle too far, lean over much, take your eyes off the horizon or a wave will catch you off guard. Before you know it you are knocked for six, winded and underwater. In fact, you should attempt to fall in early on so as you know how to recover and get back on to your board again. And the same goes for leadership. There will be days where you are caught off guard. Times when you lose focus on where you are going. Weeks when tiredness from too much paddling into the wind finally gets you. It’s ok to fall. It’s good to fall. Sometimes a refreshing dip is what we need to clear our heads and realign our vision. It’s the getting back up again which is the most important part. It’s hard to heave your bodyweight onto the board, especially if there are others watching as you attempt to get back on as gracefully as you can. But that’s where the learning happens. It’s where the character building, the strength and the resilience which I’ve seen in successful leaders comes from.

I hope to get out on my paddle board again this week. Any excuse to develop my leadership! Have a great week everyone.

Cover lessons – this much I’ve learned…

Due to a combination of timetabling and staff absence caused by the pandemic, in the last 6 months I’ve taken more cover classes than I probably have in my whole career. Initially, I was excited by the opportunity to get out and about in the school, meeting staff and pupils. I marvelled at how much of my own work I could get done during all this time ‘covering’ classes. Then I became frustrated by how little I was actually achieving each week whilst sat in various different rooms around the school.

But then I realised that I quite enjoy the experience of being in different subjects and learning new things, so over the last few weeks I’ve tried to flip my mindset to one which recognises the potential impact a cover teacher can have. For some young people, this interaction with a substitute teacher, despite only being for a short time, will be hugely influential. Seeing this role as crucial to not only the daily logistical running of the school, but also in providing safety and security for our pupils to learn effectively when they face disruption to teaching.

Here are my thoughts on how to survive and thrive as a cover teacher.

Consistent high standards

It might not be your classroom, or your usual pupils, but all the more reason to lean into the consistency of whole school expectations. Please don’t assume that because it’s a ‘cover lesson’ anything goes. Burying your head at your computer, while ignoring the chaos unfolding in front of you does nothing to help you or the class teacher on their return. Ensuring learners are clear from the very beginning of the lesson of what you expect – high standards of work, uniform, no mobile phones, excellent behaviour – will all set the tone for the lesson. You role is vital in creating the culture of the school. If pupils think things slip when they don’t have their normal teacher very quickly they will push the boundaries and the next cover teacher will have a harder time. We’re all in this together. It’s not a case of trying to win favour by letting pupils sit and do nothing. Pupils will ultimately have respect for the teacher who ensures a calm, safe and respectful learning environment.

Never assume you’ll get your own work done.

If you were timetabled a class to teach in your own subject, you wouldn’t be getting on with marking while they worked away in silence. You would be teaching. Explaining. Modelling. Questioning. Checking for understanding. So do the same in a cover lesson. Now you might not be an expert in the subject, in fact some of it especially in senior school might be incredibly complex. However use the pupils expertise and get them to teach you what the know. Try not to become frustrated about what you ‘could’ be spending this time doing. Instead, focus on how to get the best from the learners. What support and encouragement can you give them to help them succeed?

You get what you give

I always feel far more satisfied leaving a cover lesson when I’ve engaged with the young people, learned some new names and felt useful. You might not have been the subject expert their own teacher is, however if you’ve made an effort to support their learning, the chances are they’ve made more progress than they would have had you got on with your own work. I’ve surprised myself by writing out maths examples on the white board to help pupils stuck with factors. Although I do have an A in Higher maths, I struggled to remember how it all worked, but together we got there. Your uncertainty can be a great stimulus to question young people – ‘Where should this be?’ ‘Why?’ ‘What happens if I do this?’ Forcing then to explain their reasoning and justification. Setting work and then explaining that we will go over it together is a good way to encourage pupil accountability as they know you might call upon them to explain. The more you give to the pupils, the more you’ll get out of them and the lesson.

If it’s too complicated to explain, it’s probably too complicated to leave as cover work.

I’m sure we’ve all been there. Trying to type up cover work to leave for an imminent absence. Sometimes I’ve got myself tied in knots trying to write out instructions and explanations of what pupils should do. Yes you might be keen that pupils move on with the work as you had planned, but think about what is best for them. And the teacher covering the class. Teaching new content, or lessons which require lots of equipment or organisation are generally not the best cover lessons. Instead, retrieval practice, reviewing material which has already been covered or practising a technique which has already been taught, tend to be simple yet effective as lessons to be lead by a non-subject specialist. The other benefit of this type of lesson is that because content is being reviewed, there should be a relatively high success rate. Not only is this improving learners understanding but it is also helping to motivate them as they begin to build confidence in their success.

Improvise

Unfortunately sometimes there requires an element of improvisation. Having some great Ted talks, iPlayer documentaries or team building games can be handy to have up your sleeve. Hopefully you won’t ever have to call upon them, but it helps you feel in control and prepared in case the need presents itself. I remember as a pupil, a guidance teacher stood in for my regular maths teacher one day and did a brilliant ad-hoc lesson on aspirations for the future. She got us all to discuss and write down our 10 hopes for the future. I stuck that piece of paper on my pinboard in my bedroom until I was at least twenty and it became ingrained as a kind of daily reminder of my ‘why?’ I’ll never forget that lesson with Ms Owens – something so simple can have a profound effect on young people.

Be prepared

Some pencils, rubbers and paper are handy to take with you, just in case. You probably won’t need them, but again you can feel confident that you don’t have to get stressed trying to find simple things in a room you don’t know, while pupils procrastinate getting themselves started. It’s these transition points that can set the tone for the lesson, so allowing for minimal fuss and disruption at the start really helps to ensure a focussed and productive start to the task. Another handy thing to make sure you have a note of is a phone list. I have mine stuck into the front of my planner so that I’m always able to make a call if needed. Again you probably won’t need to, but it will help you to feel confident to know you have it at your finger tips if you need it.

As everyone working in schools knows, when teaching staff are absent, it has huge implications. In one day, secondary teachers may impact 100 pupils through the course of 6 periods. Therefore this absence is felt far more in a school than the absence of a member of SLT who may have minimal teaching contact. For the pupils of this teacher, the disruption and anxiety caused by the change of routine, lack of familiarity and uncertainty can be hugely daunting. This is particularly pertinent during these difficult Covid times. However ensuring consistency, whole school routine and shared culture can go a long way to support these pupils effectively during cover lessons. Yes it would be nice to get some stuff done. But ultimately what difference will it make to the learners in front of you?

In your next cover lesson, embrace the learning. Look out for those struggling with the change of routine. And do your best to support the young people. I guarantee you will feel more fulfilled than spending the period constantly telling pupils to be quiet and stressing about how little you have achieved.

Have a good week everyone.

Why I dislike differentiation… and why great learning and teaching is the best way to support ALL learners

According to Carol Tomlinson in How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability, ‘differentiation, is a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing all students within their diverse classroom community of learners a range of different avenues for understanding new information (often in the same classroom) in terms of: acquiring content; processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and developing teaching materials and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in their ability.’

Whilst I don’t have a problem with the concept that all learners, regardless of differences in their ability should be able to learn effectively, I do want to explore exactly what ‘a range of different avenues’ means. This blog post will look at what differentiation is and isn’t, as well as a closer inspection of what this might look like in the classroom more specifically, the art and design classroom.

I think there is a huge misconception about the meaning of the word differentiation. The fact that it contains the word ‘different’ has always irked me. Not because I believe that young people shouldn’t experience different levels of support and challenge, but instead that in some way or another young people will learn completely different things. Within education, I think there has been a tendency for differentiation to somehow mutate into an expectation of different outcomes for different learners. That might be different worksheets, different activities or my absolute pet hate success criteria which includes ‘all, most, some.’

Now before I go any further, I’m happy to admit that I’ve ‘been there, done that and got the T-shirt.’ When I first qualified as a teacher, I was encouraged to have different art outcomes for different young people. I have also tried differentiated worksheets, which quite frankly took such a great deal of time to create and ultimately caused more confusion in my classroom. And encouraged by a DHT I’ve tried ‘all most some,’ before building up the courage of my convictions and abandoning it because of my inability to see past the self-limiting statements. And now with a bit more experience under my belt, I think I have formed a better understanding of what differentiation, or ‘scaffolding’ as I prefer to think of it, is in the classroom.

To address differentiation, we need to teach everyone better.

I feel very strongly that as teachers, we need to have high aspirations that all students will learn everything within our curriculum. The journey might look different for each individual, but the destination for everyone should be the same. It’s also important to note that of course there are learners who need very specific support to complete tasks. I am not for a second suggesting that these are not valid or indeed necessary for specific pupils with identified needs. However what I am suggesting is that excellent learning and teaching benefits all learners, and by addressing our core business, every pupil benefits. Learners shouldn’t be taught different things using different pedagogies. Nor should we be trying to water down our content to create even bigger gaps in attainment. We should be ensuring that our learning and teaching is of the highest quality so that everyone has the chance to be successful.

‘When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.’ Confucius

So what could we consider as action steps? And what does this look like in the classroom?

Cognitive load

We often don’t do our students any favours in terms of the cognitive load we put on them within lessons. Consider the covid19 pandemic whereby everyone is affected yet the most vulnerable are the ones who suffer. If we don’t fully understand the impact of cognitive load, all our pupils will be impacted but it is our pupils who need extra support where this impact is felt most strongly. I would suggest that if teachers understand this theory, it would positively impact all our learners, but most notably those who might require additional support.

‘I’ve come to the conclusion that Sweller’s cognitive load theory is the single most important thing teachers should know.’ Dylan Wiliam

Usually unintentionally, we create cognitive overload for students. This is almost always well-meaning and from a place of wanting our learners to succeed but in actual fact it does the opposite. We sometimes give students vast amounts of information, PowerPoint slides jammed with images and text (sometimes too small to even read!) or lengthy instructions spoken by the teacher at the beginning of lessons to be remembered before they start work. In other ways, classrooms can often become a source of cognitive overload due to wall posters, distractions, visuals and decorations. I’ve seen first hand when sensory overload affects learners and it has given me a very different outlook on the way I set up my classroom and organise my lessons.

I didn’t learn anything about cognitive load whilst studying to be a teacher. Whilst a lot of CLT is common sense, and many teachers might be using these principles already without conscious knowledge, I’m pretty confident there might be others like me who would benefit from a better understanding of this in order to support all learners.

A great book to explore this is Ollie Lovell’s Cognitive load theory in Action if you would like to understand this in more detail.

Modelling

The use of a visualiser has totally transformed the support I am able to give students. I wrote more about modelling here but in terms of scaffolding, modelling is an excellent way to ensure all learners get specific help at any point in the lesson. Instead of trying to remember the spoken information and instructions given during a live demonstration at the start, the visualiser allows this to be taken a step further by supporting pupils throughout the lesson, in real time as a piece of work or learning develops. In a practical subject this is particularly useful. I can be doing the task alongside the pupils on the visualiser and they can watch initially before setting to work themselves. I then usually scan the room to ensure everyone is coping – pupils know that if I bypass them without comment then they are on track. At that initial stage, I can determine where common errors are being made and use these to direct learning when I return to the visualiser. Or I can offer one to one support if necessary. Pupils can use the continued support if required by checking in with my modelling on the screen, or if they are confident in their learning, they can continue independently.

In our department, catapulted by online learning, we have also taken this a step further by creating demonstration videos which are shared with pupils. This allows them to pause, rewind, rewatch on their own device during a lesson and gain support on the individualised aspects they are struggling with, at their own pace. In a room where there are often 20 young people, and only one subject specialist teacher, it allows each pupil to have access to their own personal instruction, at their pace. I feel this is a huge support in terms of scaffolding, as well as addressing the common issues of cognitive overload. Yes, creating a video is time consuming but if our aim is to support each learner in the individual way they need supported, this goes a long way to achieving that. And by ensuring the videos we create are focussed on the key learning rather than a specific outcome or exam related task which may change, their longevity and lifespan is increased. It also reflects the idea that differentiation isn’t about changing the outcome we expect from pupils – everyone is working towards the same goal – but the length of the journey, and the steps to get there might be different.

Desirable difficulty

I feel strongly that ‘differentiation’ is not about simplifying the task. Again, I’ve written a bit about this here. Learning is difficult. To learn something is a challenge. To feel proud of our learning, we need to know that it has been an achievement and we want to feel a sense of accomplishment. If we make the learning too easy, there’s little satisfaction in moving forward. For example, in art and design we are learning to draw a building. Some learners might find this difficult. To differentiate this, we adapt the steps that learners need to practise to get there. Showing learners where to look and guiding their eye. Breaking it down into simple shapes. Discussing the angles and using a pencil to measure. Starting lightly and building the strength of our marks. We give them the tools to think and see like an artist. What we don’t do, is tell them to trace it on a light box. Or give them a simpler clip art building to copy. Or let them colour in one the teacher has drawn. Not all learners will need all of the support steps. But that’s the beauty of scaffolding as opposed differentiating. In other subject areas, we might support learners with difficult learning through sentence starters or writing frames. ‘I do, we do, you do’ is another excellent way of allowing the learner to build confidence – again very useful in practical subjects. Initially learners will watch the expert, then use guided practice before progressing to independent practice.

I think art and design teachers are generally really good at differentiation. We are used to working with young people and adults, who find our subject challenging. Very often these are highly academic students who really struggle to draw or create. It’s often rewarding to see students who find other subjects difficult, excelling in art and design. Whatever their experience or their ability – and a key point is we don’t always know – we would be doing them a huge disservice if we labelled what they were capapsble of and didn’t support them individually to aspire to be the very best artist possible. In doing so we ensure equity and aspiration for all.

Thanks for reading and please share your thoughts. Have a good week.

6 months in a new post – this much I’ve learned…

When you move to a new school, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have, you don’t have experience of that particular school. This can be both a blessing and a curse. And it’s this that has comforted me, haunted me, driven me, frustrated me and encouraged me throughout my first 6 months in post as Principal Teacher of Expressive Arts. To be the best for the school, I need to know the context of the school. And that takes time.

Surface level change is obvious. But deeper impact, is cultivated and built over time and cannot be rushed.

On the surface, I’ve achieved a fair bit. I already feel fairly settled. I have built the foundations of a strong team. I’ve made good relationships with pupils. I’ve started scratching the surface of attainment. I’ve lead by example. I’ve initiated and led staff in a number of wider school projects such as the exhibitions and performances for our royal visit , our virtual art gallery and our online Christmas concert. I’ve begun to make links with the local community. And, most importantly I’ve learned lots. But it’s a slow process and perhaps that allows for plenty of opportunity to pause and reflect. So what have 6 months in post taught me?

Making impact takes time

It’s such a fine balancing act. Enough change to feel we’re moving forward together, yet not too much to disorientate. I’ve consciously given myself time. Rushing into a new post, full of ideas and ‘new’ ways of doing things can be hugely detrimental and shows a complete lack of understanding of the school and dept context. I’m sure we all know something who arrived in a new post and didn’t nothing but mention, ‘in my last school we did…’ I’ve therefore tried to really get to grips and understand where we are right now. What our biggest challenges are and where the strengths are we can build on. What motivates and inspires each team member, and consequently what causes them anxiety. Only then can change really be meaningful as it directly links to us as a team, is created by the collective and addresses our own particular needs.

Human first, professional second.

I’d say that this has always been a priority, but throughout the pandemic it has been magnified. I’ve been fortunate to have learned this first hand from others and feel privileged that I’ve been able to model the same empathy, compassion and care which has been shown to me. I don’t think we can underestimate how tough the last two years have been on individuals and as leaders, starting from a point of compassion is the least we can do when we are unaware each individuals circumstances. The way we talk to colleagues, the attempts we make to understand situations, the way we ask others to do things for us.

Always believe in your ideas and do what’s right, not what’s easy

Seek other perspectives, Listen and learn from the experience of others, but learn to trust your instincts when it comes to something you are passionate about. You need to be able to defend your actions so it’s important to go with you gut. If you truly believe you made the best choice, it’s far easier to live with that decision even if it turns out not to be the right one.

People will always work harder when they feel appreciated.

If someone is doing a good job, I tell them. Like with pupils, I often seek out individuals to congratulate their success in a football match or competition. I try to make the same fuss over staff. Genuine, specific praise goes a long way in encouraging and building staff up.

Do less, but better

When starting in a new post, it’s extremely easy to say yes to everything which comes your way. In fact sometimes it feels like you are obliged to. Every opportunity, every request for help, every experience available. You are excited and full of energy. You want to be seen to be keen, and want to get involved with the life of the school. And this isn’t all bad. It helps build a sense of belonging, introduces you to other colleagues and allows you to contribute to the wider life of the school. However, sometimes the effect of doing everything is often that instead of seeing the best of you, what colleagues see is a thinly spread version of your best self and not your true potential. I’ve definitely been guilty of this and so in the next 6 months, before committing to anything extra, I’ll be asking these questions:

⁃ will it positively impact the learning and teaching and curriculum experience of our young people?

⁃ Will it impact workload of staff?

⁃ What are the well-being benefits to those involved?

If it ticks these boxes then there’s a good chance it has a worthwhile place. If it’s purely to get a photo on Twitter, or in the local news, then we’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Yes there are hugely positive experiences for young people to be gained from community working, outdoor learning and linking with industry but these need to be coherent and well-planned within the context of the curriculum.

It’s not always easier to ‘do it yourself

This has been a huge learning curve for me. At home, I’m often of the opinion that if you want something done, it’s better to do it yourself. But in leadership, this isn’t always the case. I’ve needed to use those around me. It has required me to lean into the expertise of others and give up some of the control. Admittedly I’ve found this hard, but it has most definitely rewarding to empower others. The collective responsibility has allowed others to share the collective success. Quite simply, in a middle leadership role this vast (three very different creative subject specifics all with huge extra curricular input) I couldn’t possibly have done it on my own. Building the capacity and confidence of others has been so worthwhile, both for me and my team.

The past 6 months had not always been easy,(Possibly more to do with moving to a new area, having no central heating and all the challenges of the global pandemic!) but it’s definitely been worth it. I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had to support a bigger team and I’m excited about the months ahead.

#OneWord2021 Reflection on the year gone by

Last Hogmanay, inspired by Jill Berry I reflected on the year which had passed and looked ahead to what 2021 might bring. I tried to find positives within the challenges of a global pandemic and considered how I might use these experiences from which to grow. I attempted to choose a word for 2021 but really struggled to find a fit. In the end I settled on ‘Dichtomy’ and it seems that in retrospect it was quite apt. Little did I imagine that in 12 months this city girl would have a new job, have sold a house, moved 100 miles, and have begun to readjust to rural living far away from any family or friends. It has been quite a year – a year of bravery and a year of fear. A year of sadness for loss of the old, and excitement for new beginnings. A year of incredible planning ahead, yet taking each day as it comes. A year of positives, balanced out by trying times. Here’s a look back at 2021…

My year, like everyone’s, started in lockdown. A return to home learning allowed us an opportunity to put into practice everything we learned the first time around. Positive routines, increased participation ratios and asynchronous resources which helped break down learning for young people all helped me to become a better teacher. I loved live lessons with young people but hated feeling so distant from pupils and my team. In addition, I loved time with my own boys and the flexibility it allowed in terms of childcare, getting outside and exercising. But it was tough! Without the interaction of young people and connection with colleagues in person, each week became a little harder. It made our return to in school learning very welcome and at various points I’ve often reflected on my gratitude at being in the building and hearing voices in the corridor.

I was fortunate to be given several great opportunities to share my practice with others – presenting to iPGCE students at Strathclyde university, recording various podcasts, and working with Pgde art and design students at Moray House before they completed their virtual placements. I have loved being able to help and influence others within education.

At the beginning of the year, I knew I needed a new challenge but wasn’t quite sure what. Having been in my post for over ten years, I needed to get my teeth into something. I had more to give. And then… not one, but two jobs caught my eye. His and hers, matching posts. In Oban. I can’t explain what possessed me to consider moving 100miles for a new job, but something about it just felt right. My word of 2021 came into play again… applying for a new job was a real dichotomy. Heartbreak at leaving the familiar, excitement at being able to contribute to a new context. Fear of not being good enough to do a different job, confidence that I could make a positive difference. Worry that we were going to uproot and unsettle our boys. Assurance that it would all work out ok. Sadness at leaving behind great colleagues and pupils. Happiness at the opportunity to meet new people and build great teams. And so it goes on…

After 6 months, I continue to see my word of 2021 reflected in much of what I live, think and do in my new role. The dichotomy of wanting to do it all, yet knowing I need to pace myself. Of having a strong vision of where we need to go, yet knowing I need to take others with me and thus feel ownership. The dichotomy of challenging directly, yet caring deeply about my team. The new challenges, the new relationships, the new perspectives side by side with the old experiences which shaped me as a person. The beginning of 2022, sees me wanting to grow and move forward, continuing to build and improve myself and others, at a pace which is both manageable and aspirational.

2021 has provided yet more opportunities for me to curate my work/life balance. Another dichotomy I constantly face is the need to relax and realign, yet struggling to be still and do nothing, instead feeling the need to be busy. But I’ve realised that self-care for me is not the same as that for others. When I’ve enjoyed time for me – be that running, paddle boarding or drinking gin with friends and family – I’m in a better position to handle the complexities and the challenges of life. And that’s self-care. Spending such an amazing summer at Port Ban meant that I had plenty of opportunities to practise my paddle boarding – making new friends and enjoying the space and time to just ‘be.’ And one of my most recent discoveries in my new house, is the simplicity of sitting beside my wood burner and getting lost in a book. I look forward to much more of that in 2022.

Finally, the dichotomy of being a mummy, and all that brings, parallel to working full time as a middle leader. I so often feel torn and this year has been no different although I’m proud of how I’ve coped. Being a mummy is hard. Really hard. Juggling homework, pe kits, permission forms, school nativity, parties, packed lunches, tears, tantrums, a million questions and school/nursery drop offs don’t come naturally to me. Throw into the mix numerous precautionary Covid isolations, working from home as well as home learning in a rented house with no central heating, and it’s been a recipe for building my patience, self awareness and keeping perspective. I love my boys with all my heart. They amaze me everyday and I love being the one to care for them, love them and make them feel safe. But I also love my job. So I’m learning to lean into the dichotomy of life as a working mummy. Because it’s who I am.

And this holiday I’ve been most thankful and proud of both of them as I pause to watch them grow and play together after all that this year has thrown our way. I am so thankful for all that we have – family, friends, love and careers. The tears, tantrums and arguments are definitely lessening and to all those with young children, it does get easier. Here’s to 2022.

Pace #MonthlyWritingChallenge

Pace Verb Definition move or develop (something) at a particular rate or speed.

Often associated with sport in particular football and running, but mentioned frequently within a school context, pace is a term which is used with both negative and positive connotations.

Whether it is discussing pace of lessons, pace of teacher talk or pace of change, there are many things in education which require us to consider the speed at which something is developing.

During the recent October holiday, I used the communal laundry to do not one, but two, loads of washing – the joy of caravan life! Whilst some people might find this hugely inconvenient and time consuming, (traipsing back and forward until a machine becomes available, timing the cycle, setting a reminder to return so that someone else does not need to unload your clean underwear, and then waiting patiently while the seconds count down and it is tossed through the tumble dryer) there is something I love about this opportunity to be mindful of this period of time we usually take for granted. As I stood watching the tumble dryer timer tick down and querying the pace of my own tumble dryer, I realised that I’d never actually stood in the same way, mindfully counting down until the end of the cycle. By contrast, the whole laundry experience provided a useful pause to reflect on the pace of something which often goes unnoticed. I wonder how often we get an opportunity like this in school?

Now from the outset, it’s important to recognise that pace of change is not the same as pace of improvement. It can be very easy to feel like within a school context there is constant change. Especially within the context of the past 18months. Changes to the structure of the school day, changes to safety measures, changes to the way in which courses Are taught and changes to assessment. Never before has education experienced such rapid pace of change. It has forced teachers to be flexible, adaptable and reactive in a way which has arguably been needed but for many, has been faced with reluctance. Without doubt, some of these changes have had a positive impact. I wrote a little about this here. But change for change sake is not useful. Instead, schools need considered, sustained improvement and this is perhaps more difficult to see.

‘Sometimes we can become impatient with the pace of improvement.’

Just before the holiday, amidst a mix of family covid scares, extreme end of term tiredness two new jobs and the stress of being unable to find a more permanent home for our family, I reflected on the pace of improvement within my new role. I was pretty hard on myself. I wanted to see immediate impact, measurable improvement and real change as a result of my leadership. I felt like progress had been slower than I might have liked. In the laundry during my holiday week when forced to pause and consider pace from a different perspective, I reminded myself that it’s only been 10weeks in post during a particularly challenging term amidst a global pandemic and I should probably cut myself some slack. I realised that whilst there may not have been huge visible changes outwardly, I hope that incremental improvement is evident in the meaningful conversations which have taken place, and the building of strong foundations through positive relationships with both pupils and staff. This I hope is a more sustainable pace of improvement and is more valuable in the long run.

I’m no plumber, but I reckon the pace of my washing machine cycle at home would be similar, if not slower, to the industrial laundry machines I used this holiday. However the laundry experience itself, provided a different perspective to consider the pace of this everyday household task. Whilst in the midst of change, it can often feel difficult to see our progress, but by changing perspective it is possible to become more aware of the subtleties of improvement. Take some time to remember your impact both individually snd as a team.

To all those beginning post graduate student placements tomorrow, all the very best. Be mindful of the huge learning curve you are on and the pace of improvement you will experience over the next few weeks. Reflect on your incremental improvements and learn from every experience. I wrote this post last year to remind us we were all student teachers at one point. All the best. Have a great week.

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