Educationally obese?

I love all things education. I get excited about reading a new educational book (in fact I am slightly obsessed with purchasing edubooks.) I often sign up for, and attend educational webinars. Regularly, I can be found out running and at the same time listening to an edu-podcast. And yesterday, I was proud to have co-hosted the inaugural ScotEd online professional learning festival – a full day of listening and chatting with other teachers about learning and teaching. My hope is that the event might have inspired others to discover what I already value about professional learning.

It’s been interesting for me to think about what I get out of all of this. Many might see reading, participating in online courses or listening to podcasts as more ‘work’ in an already busy world. In a profession which is already saturated with ‘to do’ lists and never-ending jobs, I can understand why others may be reluctant to spend their precious time in this way. In fact my own husband, commented during lockdown that i needed to switch off from reading edubooks otherwise I may become ‘educationally obese.’ Indeed, it has become a worry that I ensure a positive work/life balance. So this blog will share some of the benefits I’ve personally gained from professional learning. And some of the ways I am attempting to ensure that instead of ‘pigging out’ on the wide menu available and doing very little to burn off the wealth of knowledge I am gaining, I’m going to attempt to make healthier choices which combined with research and sharing classroom practice, will instead nourish and sustain my appetite for being the best I can be for our young people.

Last week my blog looked at well-being, so it is important to point out firstly that I do value, and enjoy other things in life beside my job. Fresh air, time with my boys, meeting family and friends, running, reading fiction, baking cakes and this year I’ve learned how to paddle board. As teachers, it’s vital that we put self-care high on our agenda. We cannot look after young people if we don’t look after ourselves. I encourage my own team to relax and recharge at the weekend and the benefits of this can clearly be seen in the classroom. But like our well-being, I think its also important within our professional lives to commit time to learning, for reasons which I’ll explain in more detail later. Someone once explained to me that they like to think of integrating exercise into their daily routine, in the same way as they would brush their teeth. It becomes something they do almost without thinking about it. And part of me feels this is important for professional learning in schools too. In my opinion, if we want to improve outcomes for young people, it is vital that staff are actively involved in their own professional learning. I’ve heard a few people use the analogy that we wouldn’t be keen to visit a doctor who had qualified several years ago but hadn’t kept up to date with new research or developments. So too, should teachers be keen to continue to develop as professionals.

For me, professional learning and the connection and collaboration with other teachers, has completely revitalised my teaching practice. It has made me really excited about teaching and increased my job satisfaction immensely. Wouldn’t it be great if that impact could ripple out to all teachers? Discovering more about retrieval practice, dual coding and cognitive load have all allowed me to think differently about my questioning, feedback and explanations, which has resulted in instant impact on the motivation and achievement of the young people. In many ways, it has allowed me to strip back my teaching, and focus on key areas of pedagogy and for this reason I think I have been more effective as a teacher. Many of the things I have learned in recent months made me question why I had never learned this in Initial Teacher Education. But I am so thankful I have discovered it now. And just like when we discover a new fabulous restaurant, or a great diet tip which works, we want to share it with others. ScotEd was a great example of a range of inspiring and knowledgeable educators all sharing their expertise so that others could benefit. And this was perhaps the biggest driver for organising the conference.

This weekend, I heard David Weston (@informed_edu) discuss how important it is to lead by example in regard to professional learning. I regularly share my professional reading with my poor husband, or with colleagues, and we discuss ideas or research which I’ve gleamed from other educators. This session I plan to commit much more time within our department meetings to share and discuss educational literature with the hope that by modelling this approach, others will identify their own areas of interest. I want to promote professional learning as a big part of sustained improvement within our department. CLPL isn’t something which only happens on in-service days or when we attend a course out of school. For me, the rich discussions and collaborations within the team are often more meaningful and impactful than something which it becomes difficult to find time to implement when back in school after a day long course. Indeed, there is a fair bit of research to support this. Teachers need time and space to explore professional learning for themselves.

Robin MacPherson’s presentation yesterday at ScotEd on ‘Reclaiming Professional Learning’ really struck a chord with me and helped me to clarify the ways in which my own approach to Professional learning has perhaps not been as effective as it could be. I’ll be the first to admit that I am often like a kid in a sweet shop with educational literature, blogs and podcasts, and want to try every approach I read or implement every idea I hear. I realised yesterday in listening to Robin, that professional learning is a long-term thing. It has to be strategic, sustained and fit for your own context. Others are more likely to buy in and feel ownership through bespoke professional learning. Robin talked of the two way process of professional learning, and David Weston echoed this by thinking of professional learning as a cycle. It’s important to identify the focus of the learning, just as I would do when choosing pedagogical approaches for a class. By taking a more systematic and planned approach to this, and being more informed of research, I hope to be able to ensure that I am less likely to implement fads or fashions in the classroom, but instead take a more long term view of choosing a balanced, healthy mix of approaches which support and enhance the learning and teaching I currently deliver. No one wants to be in a position where they can’t use the knowledge they have gained, or put into practice the skills they have developed. At this point we do risk becoming educationally obese. However, by observing others, discussing approaches sharing ideas and sometimes being brave enough to take risks, not only do our learners benefit, but our teams and staff do too. It’s infectious and helps burn off the calories which we’ve consumed in knowledge. I’ll end with this quote which I love.

‘Powerful professional development makes children succeed and teachers thrive.’ David Weston

Isn’t that what every teacher would hope professional learning might achieve?

Have a good week!

Educational athletes

I recently heard @team_tait describe teachers as educational athletes. I really liked his analogy. There’s no denying that the stamina, focus and commitment needed in the field of sport are akin to that required within the classroom. There are other important aspects in looking after the wellbeing of both these professions too – sleep, exercise and eating well. Often we find that sports people are far more disciplined in ensuring they get this balance right. Despite knowing better, this week I’ve skipped nutritious meals and instead eaten cereal, stayed up working til late and not exercised once! When I’m good I’m very very good, when I’m bad, I’m awful. But why are these the things I neglect, when I know how important they are in keeping me healthy and in peak condition for my performance as an educational athlete?

In recent months, we’ve heard lots about ‘flattening the curve.’ For the last few years, I’ve been attempting to try to flatten my own curve of extremes. Trying not to count the days til the weekend, but making every day count. Taking time for my wellbeing everyday, not just when I get to breaking point at the end of the week. Slowing down at weekends rather than jam-packing it with rushing around. And for someone who likes every minute of her day to feel worthwhile and productive, this has been difficult. But overall has helped me to experience a more contented and consistently balanced outlook on life. However, every so often, like this week, I need to check in with myself and give a gentle reminder to avoid the extremes of full-on intense weekdays, followed by weekends which I’m too shattered to enjoy.

This weekend I’ve escaped to my happy place – our caravan on the west coast. Like sports people, teachers need rest time too and could not possibly consistently perform without a break. The last few weeks have been incredibly busy and despite resolving not to, I’ve spent a big part of weekends doing school stuff. This weekend i know I need to recharge. For me, that’s reading (I finally got round to reading a magazine I bought during the summer holidays!), fresh air, running, time with family and with nature. A younger me, would have most definitely felt guilty in indulging in all these self-care activities. I would perhaps have told myself to ‘keep going’ convincing myself that you can ‘sleep when you are dead.’ But I’ve gradually realised that by taking time to look after me, the me I’m able to give to others, has so much more energy, positivity and patience. It is so important for me to know that I’m able to give the best of myself to my own boys as a mum, my learners as a teacher and my colleagues as a leader.

I think for teachers, it’s easy for us to get trapped in the martyr cycle. Yes teaching is often challenging, requires a huge amount of energy and some days it seems like the most difficult job in the world. But let’s not forget our why – it’s also a wonderful profession which is a privilege and honour to do day in, day out because of the impact our relationships can make on others. Without a healthy sense of our self and our life balance, I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, lack a sense of perspective and see the profession through a filter which often overlooks the best bits.

However it’s important to recognise, that even within the sports world, what works for a weightlifter, isn’t necessarily the same as what gets results for a tennis player. And it’s the same for us as educational athletes – we all need to approach wellbeing and self care in a way that works for us. For some, the idea of coming to the middle of nowhere with dodgy wifi in the rain, would not constitute an aid to wellbeing! ‘You do you.’ Whatever fills your cup back up, take time for it! Your perspective, your interactions and your resilience will all be impacted positively. ‘Self care is allowing you to give the best of you, not what’s left of you.’

Another big part of improving my own well-being and perspective, is ensuring that I have a supportive tribe with whom I can reflect, off load and build up in a safe, supportive and encouraging environment. Just as we would expect all sports people to have their own coach, so too is it important for teachers to have that one person who has our best interests at heart. Someone whose views we trust and respect. Someone who can be honest, yet encouraging. Coaching conversations can help athletes, and teachers, to reflect on their performance and improve. They can allow us to get things off our chest which may otherwise eat away at us and slowly consume our mindset making it difficult to move forward. There’s much research which has been done to support the notion that those with a ‘work best friend’ perform better. I would encourage you to seek out someone in your setting who you can build a positive relationship with. Someone who has your back, but will tell you when you are wrong. Who will inspire you, and whose views you can seek when you are unsure. I would suggest that the strength of these relationships can go a long way to creating a positive working culture. I am incredibly lucky that I am in this position and would encourage others to seek out the teachers in the school whom they respect and can learn from. For me, this helps me hugely to maintain perspective as well as grow.

I don’t have it all ‘sorted.’ I doubt many do. I still have days where I’m so exhausted the smallest thing makes me cry. I still get overwhelmed. Some days are harder than others. But my reflections are helping and finding what works for me is halfway to maintaining a positive work/life balance. The beauty is that I enjoy my job so much more when I’m recharged, refreshed and able to give my all.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend and as always, look after yourself and have a fantastic week!

Desirable difficulties

This week my big Primary 1 boy received the first ‘Star of the Week’ award at school. Driving home from school on Friday night as he clutched his certificate proudly, I couldn’t help but share his pride and happiness. He’d had a bumpy start – lots of tears, anxiety and a very obvious flight or flight reaction on his first day. So in just two weeks he’s come a long way, settled in well and genuinely seems to be loving school and working hard. His award recognised this and both him and I, are very appreciative of this. But ever the reflective practitioner, over the weekend, I couldn’t help but think about all the other boys and girls who didn’t get a certificate. And also how he might have felt if he hadn’t received the award and instead it had gone to someone else. It made me consider reward systems and intrinsic motivation.

Whilst I 100% agree that learning success and achievement should be recognised, it got me thinking about the effect of rewards and incentives.

Learning is hard. School is hard. David Didau writes about ‘struggle vs success.’ If something is easy, yes learners will succeed but there’s not the same sense of accomplishment when it is achieved. Learning needs to be at the right level – not too easy, not too hard. If it’s too difficult, learners will give up, thinking that it is unachievable. Teachers are there to break the learning down, – not simplify the task but to make learning easier. Sometimes the things we are proudest of, are the things which we were most scared of doing, the trickiest, the challenges we doubted we would achieve. The things that took time, patience and resilience. So when we do succeed, there’s a huge sense of pride. It’s so important that this is recognised! Learners need to experience this struggle and success to feel encouraged. And yes it should be celebrated.

Celebrating effort, persistence, hard work is so important. Not over-praising so that praise becomes meaningless is also important to ensure that learners are motivated to keep learning. Celebrating the process and the learning, rather than the final outcome is another way in which to ensure learners adopt a positive approach to continuous improvement.

What is the purpose of school? To me, it’s about creating young people who love learning. Young people who are motivated to learn and understand how they learn. Young people who will keep on learning long after they leave school. If we achieve this, the by-products are huge. Our learners will be ready for the world of work, will be independent and resilient, confident because they know that with hard work they can achieve anything. The intrinsic motivation for our young people in the shape of success and pride in their learning journey is hugely encouraging. And it’s important to remember that everyone’s success will look very different and take very different routes.

But how do we celebrate this success? A certificate? A hot chocolate? An early lunch? A reward trip? Yes these have their place, especially when linked to core values rather than the highest test score or neat work. But I would argue that by focussing on intrinsic motivation we create learners who are encouraged by knowing they’ve done their best. And who are far more likely to keep trying their best because they’ve experienced the joy of learning.

My worry is that next week when someone else in my son’s class quite rightly receives the star award, he’ll be upset, put off and give up. Indeed there might be someone in his class this week who felt they’d really tried their best and weren’t awarded. Did they go home sad and demotivated? Or what about all the other primary ones who didn’t have a hard time on their first day and have been fine ever since? Were they any less deserving? Is this an important learning lesson for them all? That there can only be one winner? Or is it something which will dent their motivation for school. I don’t want to detract from my son’s moment of glory but I do think it is interesting to consider. It also makes me reflect on how I celebrate the success of my own learners.

‘If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward then we are a sorry lot indeed.’ Albert Einstein

Another interesting consideration is the impact of an educational system which is very much based on summative, final SQA exams and certification rather than the intrinsic motivation of learning. Is this the time to consider another way? I often wonder if some learners lack motivation because our system favours rewarding a summative end point which for some learners is unachievable in their school career. A move to certificating NPA’s and units is possibly a start to creating a richer, more rewarding learning experience rather than an exam factory in which learners are conditioned to perform in a memory test.

Lots of questions and no firm answers. But interesting considerations. I hope at least that this experience has made me personally reflect on the opportunities I create for learners to feel motivated by their own accomplishments! Our role as teachers in this is vital.

‘Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.’ Yeats

Would be interested to hear your thoughts. Have a good week.

Incremental improvement

Have you ever sabotaged a diet because of one small slip up? Maybe you’ve eaten well all week, but because you couldn’t resist a chocolate biscuit at break time you end up spiralling into skipping the gym that night and pigging out on a takeaway then crisps and chocolate. Does this sound familiar? Or is it just me who experiences this ‘all or nothing’ approach to dieting? ‘If I’ve had a chocolate bar, I may as well go the whole hog and really mess up my healthy eating with a McDonald’s as well!’ I must admit, for me this doesn’t just relate to dieting, often I adopt this ‘black and white thinking’ in life more generally.

As someone with traits of perfectionism, I’ve come to learn that I do an awful lot of black and white thinking. ‘If i don’t do this way, then this will be a disaster.’ ‘If I don’t get it right first time, I’ll never manage it.’ ‘If this doesn’t go well, there’s absolutely no point in me continuing.’ It’s taken a long time for me to recognise this and I’m only at the beginning of challenging my thoughts when I realise I’m using this filter. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t need to be ‘all or nothing.’ I’ve learned that giving up on your goal because of one setback, is like slashing your other three tyres because one got a puncture.

It can often feel overwhelming at the start of of new term or school year. With time to reflect during holidays or inset days on what needs done and what could be improved, sometimes it feels like it’s all just too big a mountain to climb. I often have grand plans of my ideals to improve this unit of work or totally overhaul a series of lessons which really need updated. Good teachers will reflect often and because they want to be their best, they will constantly look for ways to get better. This is a strength. But then term starts and the demands on us ramp up and just getting through a 6 period day is a challenge enough let alone making a start on development work. I tend to slip back into my black and white thinking and do none of it! Instead of making a start at developing something and chipping away at it gradually, I write it off completely. And no one benefits. I wonder how many teachers recognise this pattern.

I recently heard the very wise and sensible Mark burns @Thelearningimperative talk about the 1% effect and it really resonated with me. He refers to this in terms of incremental improvement within a school suggesting that we don’t have to do it all. 1% is better than 0%. If everyone in an organisation improves by just 1% then imagine the gains overall. And if I return to the dieting analogy, what is likely to have better results?! The quick fix dieting pills or the harder route of consistent healthy eating? Usually small, incremental steps applied consistently over time have more long term impact than a radical quick fix which might provide some impressive results initially but becomes hard to maintain.

So What if I took my own tendency for ‘all or nothing’ and instead, applied this 1% thinking. Aiming to improve by just 1%. Taking little steps, which over time will cover a huge distance. Starting small but growing big.

This past two weeks back at school I’ve been challenging myself to improve my use of digital technology to support learners. It might have been easy to write this off as too big a job. Too much of a challenge. But what if I tried to do 1% of it at a time? By seeing this differently, and realising I can do it in stages has helped me make big gains in the classroom. By being vulnerable, admitting it’s not perfect to learners, and by sharing with them that I’m still learning has been scary, but has taken a bit of pressure off. And the results have been reassuring – we learned together. Shared ownership and shared problem solving to get to a better solution. Slowly I’m building my knowledge of OneNote and transferring resources and booklets online to this digital platform. I don’t fully understand it’s possibilities yet but by taking it one step at a time and embedding each new thing I learn gradually, means I’m more likely to stick with it in the longer term. I think this applies to pupils and schools too. I wonder what developments might seem more manageable if we just focus on 1%?

Lockdown and blended learning has shown me what is possible when we really have to adapt in a short space of time. But I’ve also learned that it’s ok to step back and take a longer route to a different destination. Especially if it’s going to lead to improvement.

I love this quote by Mark Twain. ‘continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.’

This week I hope that we all remember our collective impact as teachers. Perhaps you might discover that even just 1% can make a big difference on the route to improvement. Have a good week everyone.

The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones. Confucius

Doing things differently

‘A change is as good as a rest.’

Not many teachers have had our usual period of rest, relaxation and an opportunity to recharge this summer, especially not head teachers or many senior leaders. I’ve been lucky to escape to my happy place in the middle of nowhere in Argyll but despite this, my mind and worries have very rarely turned far from school. And so this week’s return to school made me more than a little worried about how us educators might cope. Not only with the huge changes to routines and procedures in light of Covid but in terms of our energy, patience and own well being. However, I was pleasantly surprised.

This week has confirmed a lot for me. Our pupils are amazing. Our staff have our pupils at the heart of everything they do. And, for me, thinking about ‘the thing’ is often worse than ‘the thing’ itself.

As someone who has recently completed months of CBT to help me cope with Perfectionism traits, it was incredibly difficult for me to consider this year’s return to school. My habits are triggered not so much by things not being perfect, but things not being like the rules I’ve made in my head or the routines and assumptions held previously. So this was going to be a challenge as it was very much out with my control. In June, not knowing whether our return would be part or full time caused lots of anxiety. It was difficult to plan my usual course outlines. I hadn’t had time with my team to ensure resources were updated and photocopied. I hadn’t even had the usual development time to get my new course up and running. We didn’t even really know what a practical subject would look like in a Covid classroom. For me, this previously might have been fairly disastrous. However, I continued to have regular conversations in my head… reassuring myself to tolerate the discomfort. Be ok with not being ok. I realised more than ever, that this year’s return was not about being ‘perfection personified.’ It required other qualities to make it a success. I needed to be positive for my team, flexible and adaptive to changing circumstance. My ‘to do’ list went out the window and more than ever my ‘to be’ list trumped all the things which needed ‘done.’

And do you know what? It was possibly the calmest, most pleasant of returns to school I’ve ever experienced with pupils. I recognise this might not be the case for everyone, and the week was not without its challenges, but… I’m reflecting on the positives of doing things differently.

Like most across the country, school looks and feels quite different. But different can be ok. Our new timetable’s staggered start of day timings have helped create calmer corridors and a less overwhelming beginning to the day. Likewise dismissal at the end of the day has been similar. Having two staggered lunches, again has had an impact on the pressure points in corridors and accommodation making it less overwhelming in the canteen and corridors. I’ve found that pupils have responded well to the consistency they have been met with in every single class across the school – the cleaning routine on entering and leaving the class. This personally, has forced me to slow down, take time to chat with learners and allow valuable time to consider their wellbeing and nurture rather than rush into learning at ninety miles an hour to maximise class time. I’ve always loved being outside with classes and this week, this has been even more beneficial. As always, I found our staff team hugely encouraging at this uncertain time and I’ve lost track of the times I checked in with others as well has having regular visits from my work buddies to see how I was doing. Often there were no firm answers to questions but what I did see in abundance, was real team spirit and support.

Something else I’ve recognised is a change in our approach to working at the end of the day. I’ve found it odd to be leaving the building as early as possible – going home earlier to let cleaners in to our rooms for enhanced cleaning. I would very rarely have done this previously and most definitely would have felt guilty walking out of school early. But having this new routine forced upon me, has challenged me to question my unrelenting high standards of myself. It has also made me realise that a lot of my time at the end of the day was spent making tea, procrastinating or chatting with colleagues rather than completing important work. I’ve found myself to be more efficient and focussed to prioritise after the last bell. Whilst the social side of connecting with colleagues is important, I’ve found that more time for me out with school has had benefits to my own wellbeing.

It seems to me that none of these positive outcomes would’ve been realised had we not been forced into our current situation. It’s reinforced what I’ve learned through CBT. That it’s ok to do things differently.

The other major development this week has been the announcement from Mr Swinney regarding the u-turn decision for SQA results and the welcome Review of SQA. Despite your own personal stance on this, it has shown me that it’s ok to make mistakes and learn from them, even in leadership. It’s courageous to put things right when they’ve gone wrong. And most importantly we don’t have to do things that way, just because ‘it’s the way they’ve always been done.’

We are all learning together. If anything good is to come out of this global pandemic, I hope it will be the realisation that it’s ok to do things differently. I am optimistic about the positive impact this might have on our young people.

Have a good week everyone. Take care.

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