Primary Musings

thoughts of an every day teacher


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The Vulnerable Teacher

I burnt out this year.

I remember the precise moment the flame finally sizzled out. It was a Wednesday morning in January. I can vividly recall the feelings, the waves of panic and distress rising in my chest, the deluge of tears that wouldn’t stop.

I was signed off work for three weeks.

***

To be a teacher, you need resilience and stamina. You can’t just crumble when you come across children with complex needs, challenging parents or difficult colleagues. You can’t just avoid the workload because it’s huge and you’re exhausted. You can’t just refuse to teach the curriculum because the floor standards are too high and the expectations are age inappropriate for the children. There is a job to do, one that you’re not only paid to do, but also passionate about. One that can be enormously rewarding for all it demands of you. So we absorb everything that comes our way, we get on with it, we manage in every situation because we have to. It is our greatest strength. But it can also be our greatest weakness.

When the ability to cope becomes prized beyond all else, not coping becomes the ultimate teacher failure and we avoid the appearance of it at all costs. It makes us vulnerable to admit we’re not managing. We worry about how people will respond or if saying something will ruin our chances of future promotion. We tell our children it’s ok to make mistakes, while not believing it ourselves. Good teachers don’t fall apart, so we keep silent and struggle on.

But, as Brene Brown writes,

When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt for when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, soldier on. We’ve come to the point where rather than respecting the courage and daring behind vulnerability we let fear and discomfort become criticism and judgement. (Daring Greatly)

***

I worried I’d be on the receiving end of that criticism and judgement when I went back to work. I’d had a leadership role and now I didn’t. I lost my sparkle, felt like I’d failed and wondered if I could still do the job at all.

I had lots of good support though, and gradually things got back to some kind of normal. I’m particularly thankful to the three senior leaders who were extremely kind to me in their own ways, enabling me to get on with my job, recover my confidence and finish the year well. I know that this is not everyone’s experience.

My inspiration for full time class teaching, however, has not returned. I need some time out and my very lovely Headteacher has thought carefully about giving me a role I will enjoy. So from September, I will be teaching music for three days a week in Key Stage 2. I’m going to spend the other two days on my writing. I have a few projects already in the pipeline and I’m excited that I will have some time and mental and emotional energy to spend pursuing my writerly dreams.

***

Being vulnerable can be seen as such a weakness. We’re supposed to hold it all together and keep our emotions in check. But in truth, the people who are courageous enough to say how they really feel and admit it when they need help are ultimately the people who will be innovative and creative because they are not afraid to fail. They are the ones who will be unafraid of change, bounce back after mistakes and stay emotionally and mentally healthy. It’s such a relief when you don’t have to pretend any more. And who knows, maybe the future is waiting to open up in interesting and exciting ways after you’re brave enough to say those four little words: I am not okay.

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Why we don’t need mental health first aid training.

 

Teresa May has announced this morning that her plans for mental health care include mental health first aid training for primary and secondary schools.

I can’t speak for secondary schools, but let me tell you that in primary schools, we already know our children inside out. We spend all day, every day with the same group of children and are well placed to spot any changes in behaviour or attitude. We know if children are especially irritable, or tired or more emotional than usual. We mostly know if there’s been a bereavement or breakdown in the family. We’re very aware of how to spot possible signs of abuse or domestic violence.

Because of this, we are already giving the maximum amount of pastoral support we can offer. At my school we have a brilliant team, including the SLT, SENCo, and two other support workers who are there to offer advice to staff, support to parents and work tirelessly with children to help take care of their mental health. In addition, everything we do is underpinned by our school values, which we explicitly teach to our children, helping them to nurture relationships, develop resilience and reflect on what is important to them. All vital for promoting good mental health.

If a mental health problem can be solved in school, we’re already on it.

Some things can be solved by a teacher or TA understanding you, supporting your parents and giving you a bit of extra attention. But some things definitely cannot. It’s very frustrating to see children in front of you all day who have complex needs that you don’t have the time or resources or expertise to meet. What we really need is adequate funding for access to counsellors, clinical psychologists and CAMHS, so that when a child is bereaved, severely traumatised, self-harming or has chaotic attachment, we can get them access to the specialists they need.

To continue the medical metaphor, we already have first aid kits in school, but what some children need is open heart surgery. I didn’t hear Teresa May offering to pay for that. Did you?


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Do schools favour introverts?

An interesting exchange on Twitter today made me think about whether schools are set up to favour introverts or extroverts. First, it’s important to be clear exactly what is meant by introvert and extrovert. It’s nothing to do with how shy, or compliant you are, as many people assume. The following infographic, created by Officevibe helps to describe some of the key differences. Of course, people are more complex than this simple description allows for, and some people are fairly evenly balanced between the two. But it can help us to identify some broad generalisations and what implications these might have for the classroom. (And in the interests full disclosure, I’m an introvert).

The Key Differences Between Introverts And Extroverts

At first glance, it can seem like schools might be set up to favour introverts. After all, if you like talking and you’re easily distracted, you might end up in more trouble than someone who can focus for longer periods and maybe doesn’t talk as much.

But think about what else happens in schools. The children have been working hard all morning and are now sent out to lunch. For extroverts, who recharge their batteries by being social, it’s perfect. But for introverts, who would prefer some time alone to recharge, a big playground or noisy dining hall, where lots of social interaction is required, can leave them feeling even more drained. And if they try to carve out some space, or don’t want to play with a big group, other children often view them as being antisocial, boring or a bit snobby. It’s another level of social interaction to navigate, adding to the effort required to survive it.

Now imagine the children are back in a lesson. If you love getting attention and don’t mind speaking up, you will have no problem letting the teacher know when you ‘don’t get it,’ as some of my extrovert children happily proclaim! But if you don’t necessarily enjoy speaking in front of a big group, then you’re less likely to call attention to yourself by announcing that you don’t understand. You’re much more likely to quietly copy from your neighbour, which feels more comfortable emotionally, but isn’t so great for your learning. (Trust me, I was that child!) Furthermore, if you generally wait to share ideas until you’re asked, you’re much more reliant on the teacher to notice you. And any teacher who is honest will acknowledge that there can be those quiet, ‘middley’ children who are frustrating because they just won’t ‘speak up’ and always seem to get lost in amongst the classroom fray. Of course, once you’re experienced, you know to look out for this, and to compensate accordingly. You know to seek those children out, ask them if they need help, or if they had a good playtime, because you know they won’t volunteer that information. But the very fact you have to do this at all shows that perhaps the classroom is not so biased towards introverts as it may seem.

So what’s the best way forward for schools?

I believe it’s important to be aware that children have different ways of interacting with the world, and that this is okay. Neither introvert or extrovert is better, but introverts can be more in danger of being overlooked. To ensure the needs of all the children are met, teachers need to reflect on their own practice and be prepared to use a range of different strategies. In my class, for example, we have had the seating in rows, in groups, with carpet space, with no carpet space, depending on the needs of the children at the time. Sometimes we work in teams, sometimes in pairs and sometimes individually. Sometimes we’re silent and sometimes we’re not. It also helps that I have good leadership who trust me to make professional decisions in the best interests of my children rather than imposing their own way. In fact, my Head has helped me rearrange my tables on several occasions!

Another thing we have done is to make provision for children who find lunchtimes more challenging. So there are lunchtime clubs, toys to play with in smaller groups or on your own and even little tents to escape into! This was done with our ASC children in mind, but works well for introverts too. And for the extroverts, there are lots of big games and opportunities to socialise as well!

So as teachers, we need to stay flexible and open to doing things in different ways, making sure that we’re providing for those who don’t demand our attention, as much as those who do.

For more information:

Find out if you’re in introvert or extrovert here.

For more about the brain science behind introverts and extroverts, start here.


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A mini reading spree

Lots of my favourite Twitter people were at Oxford Reading Spree yesterday. A whole bunch of people talking about how great reading is and how to encourage children to read more sounds hugely inspiring to me! I was sorry to miss it, so thought I’d tell you about some fun reading spree moments from my week…

  • We’ve been reading Charlotte’s Web and the random plastic spider in my classroom (you know what I’m talking about, Primary teachers!) has now been named Charlotte, and she is taking on a life of her own. She shows up in unusual places and often has some wisdom for us! (Constructing mental models, anyone?!)
  • I’ve been super strict on reading at home at the moment. Bring your reading record in, signed and you get a star sticker. Don’t bring it in and you’ll spend your playtime reading. The message is, it’s *that* important. I wasn’t quite sure about being so uptight about it – would it just destroy a love of reading? Was it too much to expect for children who don’t have much support at home? However, one of my least engaged readers has brought in his signed book every day for 2 weeks now, mostly at first, for the stickers. But this week, ah, this week, he has discussed his book with me every morning! “Miss King, that How to Train Your Dragon, it’s really good Miss!” His behaviour has also really improved, so I called him to the front of the class to big him up. But, get this: he didn’t hear me calling his name to come and get a prize because he was so engrossed in his book! I could have cried for joy.
  • Books are so important for offering children a wider experience than their daily lives often allow. For one reason and another, a lot of our children don’t have a lot of life experiences, but books can give that to them. Books can allow our inner city little ones to find out about life on a farm, or in a different country, or different culture. If you’re going to be a “good” reader, with all that entails, in it’s broadest sense, you need rich experiences and an ever-increasing vocabulary. Books can help you with that when your own life doesn’t.
  • I was sad to miss Sue Cowley’s talk on writing for a living yesterday, so I read her book, The Seven M’s of Writing for a Living, instead. It is a brilliant little book, full of helpful hints and tips. It taught me things I didn’t know, but also felt encouraging, and like making a living from writing is possible. I’m sure I’ll be returning to it a lot over the coming months.

Finally, if Mr Galway can post a picture of his nephew reading, I’m going to finish with a photo of my gorgeous goddaughter, Connie-Joy and I, reading together of course!

connie joy reading


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Getting Caught in Charlotte’s Web

 

I’ve been back with my class after a brief hiatus this week, and as always, my attention has turned to reading.

I’m not a fan of guided reading as I never seem to be able to make it work for the whole class. It has always felt ineffective and unsatisfactory to me, although I’m sure better, more organised teachers than I can make it work well! So I’m back to trying whole class reading again.

We read Fantastic Mr Fox last term, and one of my SEN children picked up a spare copy as I read aloud, always asking what page we were on so he could follow along. It helped him to stay attentive and exposed him to what unfamiliar vocabulary both sounds and looks like. It seemed like this might be a helpful strategy for other children too, so I scrounged up as many copies of Charlotte’s Web as I could find, and we’ve begun our new story.

charlottes-web

I chose Charlotte’s Web for several reasons. First, I’m a huge fan of E. B. White. His writing is fantastic and this story is pitched at just the right level for my Year 4 class. It’s a good stretch, but not so far beyond them as to be unreachable. In addition, there are lots of opportunities to learn new vocabulary. We predict what unfamiliar words might mean from the context, then use dictionaries to check if we were right.

This story of love and friendship, loyalty and loss, hope and new beginnings also gives lots of opportunities for the children to develop their inference and empathy skills. We’ll be reflecting on the attributes and feelings of different characters at different points in the story by considering the evidence in the text. We’ll also be using the story to deepen our understanding of how we can follow the ‘golden rule’ that underpins the ethos of our school.

The children and I have been taking it in turns to read aloud and I have particularly enjoyed hearing some of them model how to use tone of voice, pace and fluency to make the story more interesting for their peers. They’ve been captured by Wilbur’s story so far and I’m hopeful that when we meet Charlotte, she will be able to weave her sticky web of friendship, loyalty and a love of words around the hearts and minds of my children too.


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In which I ask, why?

desmond-tutu-quote

I am not someone who just accepts the status quo and goes along with things. I am a thinker and a questioner and although I am not loud or pushy, I certainly have opinions and things to say. (I realise I am probably hard work to manage for this reason!) I ask “Why?” a lot, and right now, that question is screaming loudly in my mind around two particular educational issues. One is children’s behaviour and the other is the curriculum/SATs.

Obviously, children should behave themselves in school. It’s extremely frustrating trying to teach a class who are all talking at once, or who can’t co-operate, or be kind to each other. It’s demoralising for you and creates a bad social and learning environment for them.

However, in managing children’s behaviour, we must dig deep enough to ask about the approaches we use, because no approach is value-neutral. Exactly what are we shaping our children towards? Is it compliance to an external set of rules, or is it understanding social co-operation and developing their own self-regulation skills?

Very tight behaviour structures look great in the short term. They make you look good because your class is silent. Arms are folded, backs are straight and instructions are automatically followed to the letter. But my worry is, what happens when those structures are taken away? What happens in a less structured environment like a school trip, or the playground? What happens when the children have a different teacher, or when they leave the school? What happens in a safeguarding situation where an adult should not be obeyed? Have these children learned to be independent, to manage themselves and their own behaviour? Have they learned that sometimes you are allowed to say no, and should be respected when you do? When you’re teaching independence, self-regulation and self-respect, things can get a little messy because children (and adults) will make mistakes. But if you never allow any room for mistakes, you will never allow any room for learning either.

Secondly, I often hear that we must be rigid with children’s behaviour, because we can’t possibly miss two minutes of learning time. Again, I have to ask, why? Clearly, no one  wants the frustration of having to spend the first half hour of every afternoon sorting out lunchtime issues, we’ve all been there! But if taking two minutes to chat to a child about their interests, or reassure them about something, is going to impact so heavily on the curriculum, and therefore results, then perhaps it is the curriculum that is at fault.

The pressure of performing for SATs reverberates throughout the whole school as we try to cram more and more knowledge into children’s heads. We run booster groups and after school revision clubs. We endlessly blog and read and think and stress about how to get better results. It’s not surprising due to the high stakes nature of the tests. No one wants to lose their job over a bad set of data. But again, we must ask the question, what are we shaping our children towards? Is this the best we have to offer them? Why do we spend all our time and energy pulling them out of the river, as it were, instead of questioning what’s happening up stream?

We know that high stakes accountability measures are ineffective for judging the quality of schools and teaching. We know that they are next to meaningless for the children and that secondary schools and private schools pay little to no attention to the results.  We know that they provoke huge anxiety and poor mental health in lots of children (and teachers). We know that they narrow the curriculum and kill off a love for writing.

It’s time for the collective voice of the profession to stand up and say no, this isn’t right and we’re not doing it any more, before many more of us vote with our feet.

 


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Road School: a review

road-schoolIt’s rare to find a book about education that is completely unique, but Sue Cowley’s Road School is. Part travel guide, part memoir, part schooling discourse, it is a tale of one family’s journey through Europe and China in search of an alternative educational experience for their children.

Funny and self-deprecating, the book is a heart-warming glimpse into life on the road with this lovable family. Dad, Frank, quickly became a favourite character. His grumpy nature made for an entertaining read, particularly when you realised the only things that put a smile back on his face were spreadsheets, beer and the nights he didn’t have to share a bedroom with his kids! Plus, anyone who’s ever taken children on an educational trip will find Alfie and Edith’s joy at the seagull eating the pigeon, while they were supposed to be appreciating St Mark’s Basilica, both hilarious and instantly recognisable!

As well as being entertaining, Cowley raises some important questions about the forms and purposes of education. Reading about her children visiting Anne Frank’s house, seeing The Last Supper in person and being exposed to new places, cultures and ideas, it’s not hard to see Cowley’s point that education is much broader than the classroom. The book is also very practical. Each section ends with a summary of what the family learned in that particular country and some ideas about how to maximise the educational opportunities that come with travel.My favourite tip came from the China section: “There is no point in visiting another country and getting cross because people don’t behave in the same way that people do back home.”

All the way through the book, I kept thinking about the lasting memories that Alfie and Edith would have from their trip. There is something about travel that has a significant impact on you. When I was growing up, Ski Sunday would come on the TV and every week, without fail, my Dad would say, “I’ve been there.” We teased him mercilessly, of course, but his trip as a teenager had made him feel connected. He was proud to belong to a world bigger than his own country and has been to many other places since then. Likewise, my own travels have broadened my thinking and forced me into more nuanced understandings of people from different cultures.

Forging a strong, personal affinity with other places seems like one of the most powerful antidotes we have against the current climate of nationalism and sweeping generalisations. We need to come face to face with the humanity of those who are different to us because we’ve been to where they are, talked to them, seen the amazing things they have offered the world. In Road School, Cowley offers people the opportunity to do this with and for their children. I hope they take her up on it.