Primary Musings

thoughts of an every day teacher


5 Comments

Responding in kind

The thing about educators is that they love helping people learn and this often includes the desire to teach other teachers. Sometimes this comes in a nice, helpful guise, like “Hey, this is working really well for me, you could try it if you like.” Sometimes it comes in a less helpful guise, such as, “If you don’t do it my way, you obviously hate children and are actively trying to destroy their future.” And sometimes, this responsibility for helping others to learn positions us to react to things on their behalf. So we sit in a CPD session on behaviour management and think, “I hope Miss Smith is listening to this because her class are terrible.” Or we listen to a talk on values and think, “Thank goodness they’re emphasising teamwork because last week Mr Jones was mean.” Or we read a blog post on kindness and make a list of all the other people who need to be more kind.

It’s important to recognise that the primary responsibility we have is for ourselves. The reality is, the only person’s behaviour or mind we can change is our own. Of course, we can influence others by offering them choices or opening up alternative perspectives. We can make suggestions, show evidence, debate, manipulate, rant, rave and generally jump up and down as much as we like. But at the end of the day, people, both adults and children, choose their own behaviour. Perhaps respecting this and examining our own actions and attitudes first, before commenting on anyone else’s is the greatest kindness we can offer someone.

Does this mean we should never challenge anyone or expect their behaviour to change? Of course not. I have so often seen teachers who are not doing very well fail to be challenged for fear of upsetting them or seeming unkind. But is it really kind to someone to continually criticise their mistakes or shortcomings without ever talking to them about it? I don’t think so. I have also felt it a personal kindness to me when others have stood up to injustice, speaking out in clear, certain, yet kind ways about things in our world that need challenging and changing. And it is kind to children when we expect the best of them and don’t let them get away with being less than this.

Kindness can come in many different forms and it is up to us to choose what the kindest reaction will be in any given situation. Sometimes it is to stay quiet, which takes self-discipline. Sometimes it is speak up, which takes courage. We’re not superheroes or miracle workers and we don’t always make the right choices. We speak when we should have stayed quiet, and vice versa. But if you do need someone to change their ways, it’s amazing how far a little thoughtfulness and humility will go. Try being a bit kinder to both children and adults this year and see how it works out for you. I dare you.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Advent: waiting.

I love Advent. I like it more than Christmas itself. I love the familiarity of calendars, candles and counting down. I love the traditions of well-worn words becoming somehow fresh as we sing them over again. I love all the different forms of  light that spring up, bringing cheer and warmth and beauty to dark nights. I love the yearly retelling of favourite, familiar stories, especially the nativity.

This year, not much has felt familiar or routine in school. When you have a challenging class, with some children who have complex needs, it can be unpredictable. You don’t know what you’re going to be faced with each day which can create anxiety.  When ways of working that you believe in don’t seem to be effective, you are reminded that you don’t have all the answers, however long you’ve been teaching. As my wise Head of School said, sometimes you have to go to where the children are first, before you can bring them to where you are.

So it’s been a whole term of waiting and hard work. Building relationships; working out what triggers melt downs and how to get out of them; being consistent with boundaries and expectations; being consistent with a smile and a willingness to listen to the child and take them seriously; creating routines, familiarity, security, trust.

This week, for the first time I have felt all the waiting and working begin to pay off. I still don’t know it all, but I do know a lot more about these thirty-one children. The relationships we have built together are becoming rooted and established and I am beginning to really love them.

And I think of thousands of other teachers across the country, and the world, doing the same thing. Showing up and doing the hard work. No shouting about it, no song and dance, no acclaim. Each of us quietly creating a small glow of light in what can seem like a long season of darkness.

Joy to the world.

betsy-candles

Photo Credit: Betsy McIntyre


Leave a comment

Light at the end of the tunnel

The beginning of this year has been tough. My class are a challenging bunch for myriad reasons and I no longer have my amazing, sanity-saving TA. It’s draining and demoralising to constantly see needs that you can’t meet; to feel like the things you really believe in aren’t working with this class; to feel you’re losing it. As a teacher, it’s so easy to feel you’re only as good as your last lesson and if that wasn’t great, and the one before that wasn’t great either, you must be failing.

I’m particularly dreading being observed after half term. Last time I was watched teaching, the observer commented that my children were eating from the palm of my hand. They were. (Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for Wolves in the Wall.) This class aren’t. (Yet.) The relationship between class and teacher takes time to strengthen and develop, particularly for this group of children. And I wonder – does my (or anyone’s) teaching always seem worse at the start of the year because that relationship hasn’t had time to establish yet?

Added into this mix was Twitter. There are some incredibly supportive, kind and genuinely lovely people on Twitter. Then there are the people who are on there to tell everyone else they’re doing it wrong, their expectations are too low, they’re not teaching the ‘right’ way, it’s their own fault their workload is so heavy, they’re not one of the ‘cool’ people. Do they realise that most ordinary teachers are just busy trying to survive and do the best they can, often in hard situations? Plus, I’m good enough at feeling rubbish by myself, I don’t need Twitter to help me with that.

Anyway, I got tired of reading it all. I got tired of wading through all the rubbish to find the gems. I should get better at curating my feed, but I just didn’t have the energy. So I took a break for a while and it felt really refreshing.

Despite all this, there have been some glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel. I have great senior leaders in school who let me cry in their office and don’t think less of me. I have great friends who let me cry in their house and don’t think less of me. I have great family who let me cry on the phone and don’t think less of me. My class are starting (albeit in teeny, tiny baby steps) to trust me and invest in our relationship. They did a great job showing year 2 children around their pop-up Saxon museum this week. They also have huge creative flair and potential which bodes well for mantle of the expert-style learning.

And when I dipped a little toe back into Twitter this evening, one of the ‘gems’ was there to welcome me with a lovely message saying I’d been missed. (Shout out to you, you know who you are!) Maybe I will pop by Twitter once in a while, after all.

 

 


Leave a comment

Creating the Magic

This post, from Carolyn Seymour, and this one, from Carl Hendrick, got me thinking about the underlying relationships that enable some teachers to be so good at their job.  It is certainly true that they are hard to quantify and that they can appear to happen by ‘magic’ to trainee teachers, or those who are struggling. And while some teachers do seem to have an innate, intuitive grasp on these relationships, I believe everyone can improve in this area, if they want to. Much like a class of children, we all start at different points, but we can all make progress and move forward from where we are. Of course, no one is perfect all of the time, but there are some things that teachers with strong emotional intelligence consistently do to create the ‘magic’ in their classrooms.

They manage their own emotions.

Teaching can be an emotive business. We teach children who sometimes push our buttons; we plan lessons that don’t always go as expected; we work to deadlines, often under lots of pressure; we get busy, tired and impatient. Great teachers are aware of this. They recognise how they feel and have strategies to manage themselves. They are secure  and don’t need to rely on children to make them feel loved, successful or in control. Therefore, in the classroom, they can respond, rather than react, choosing to say and do what will best serve the children instead of what will best serve their own emotional needs.

They help others manage their emotions. 

Teachers who stay on an even keel help others to do the same. They are attuned to the emotions of others and purposely create an atmosphere that children can thrive in. They are authoritative and engender trust; they balance humour with gravitas; they inject energy into the room or diffuse calm as needed. They also recognise and validate how children are feeling and teach them to manage themselves appropriately so they can access the learning.

They prioritise relationships.

Great teachers act as though they are interested in each child because they really are. They work hard to find out favourite films, songs and hobbies. They ask after new babies and older siblings; they want to hear about swimming competitions and scout camp; they know whose Grandma is in hospital and who spends weekends with their Dad. They also understand that these relationships are the foundations for managing behaviour. When you have a strong, personal connection with a child, a look, a thumbs up, a hand on a shoulder can all speak a thousand words and head off many an incident from ever happening. It is also worth noting that if you are approachable and listen to children and take them seriously in the small, every day issues, they are much more likely to talk to you about things when it really matters.

They take responsibility and take initiative.

Great teachers relentlessly focus on finding solutions for their children. They don’t abdicate responsibility by blaming children (they’re just a terrible class) or blaming previous teachers (man, that last teacher didn’t teach them anything!) Instead, they take ownership for what happens in their room to find a way through for each and every child. Whether it’s a social/emotional barrier to learning, or an academic one, great teachers never give up. They constantly reflect on and develop their own practice, adapting where necessary, to make sure each child can learn, because they believe that each child can and that it’s up to the teacher to create the right conditions for this.

They consider everything from the child’s perspective.

Finally, a great teacher understands that teaching isn’t about them, it’s about the children. They consider everything from the classroom environment, to behaviour management, to the ways in which learning will happen, from the child’s perspective. Therefore, they can select the right strategy for the right situation. They understand that sometimes a child needs a short, sharp shock, and sometimes they will better respond to a gentle arm round the shoulder. They understand when rote chanting and a test is the right way forward or when a drama activity will better serve the learning. They know when to challenge and push, and when to come alongside and support. They constantly look for the best ways to engage and inspire children and don’t let their own preconceived ideas get in the way of this.

Great teachers understand that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Children and teachers are both people with contexts, and it is up to the teacher, as the adult, to create great relationships that enable children to succeed.

 

 


Leave a comment

Imagine

With everything seeming to bring out the worst in our country recently, it was a real pleasure to watch the BBC’s Imagine special about the making of the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony; this ceremony which had so clearly and magnificently celebrated the best of all that we can be. It was good to remember that we can come together to create something incredibly uplifting when we want to. It was a great reminder that we have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to be proud of.

To put on this amazing spectacle, director, Danny Boyle, and his team took thousands of volunteers who had never drummed, danced or acted before, and trained them to perform in front of the whole world. It had to be more than good; every timing, sound and movement had to be absolutely perfect. The reputation of the entire nation was on the line.

It was interesting to see the process by which the team took such large number of inexperienced strangers and turned them into a group of highly credible performers. As an educator, there was a lot to learn from.

Right from the outset, Danny talked about the power of a collaborative enterprise and the need to create something these people really wanted to be a part of. He recognised that this performance was going to require hard work, dedication and commitment, so creating a shared vision and purpose was really important. It provided the intrinsic motivation needed for when rehearsals got tough and people got tired.

In addition to this, the dance and drum coaches were both inspiring people who had a strong belief in their students’ abilities to learn. ‘If you give someone the right language, the belief in themselves and trust in other people,’ said the dance coach, ‘you can teach them anything.’ A powerful statement.

The learning was also made memorable. The drum coach taught the drummers the correct rhythm by associating it with a phrase – ‘play-the-drums-so-your-Mum-can-see-you-on-TV.’ It was catchy (it had rhythm and rhyme); it had a mini narrative (I’m gonna be on TV!); and it made an appeal to emotion (my Mum’s gonna to be so proud of me!) The coach knew how to make the learning stick for this group of people.

Interestingly, at one point in the run up to the ceremony, a certain Mr Jeremy Hunt had wanted the NHS scene to be axed. (In the words of Alanis Morrisette, a little too ironic, don’t you think?) Well Danny Boyle was having none of it. If his volunteer doctors and nurses couldn’t participate, he would walk away from the show. ‘We have to be inclusive,’ he said, ‘you can’t just cut them out at the end.’

I loved that even the engineers were given a new lease of life. They had to devise some solutions to get the chimneys to go up for the industrial revolution scene, and Danny talked about how crazy it was that these engineers were so dreamy – that they had all this creativity bottled up inside them, and they were just waiting to be asked to use it.

Relationships really did seem to be at the heart of this performance. It was moving to hear the coaches talking to the volunteers through headsets during the actual ceremony. They prompted, encouraged and congratulated throughout. “Remember what we learned! Group 2, go now! Smile! You can do it! I’m so proud of you!” These performers had been well-trained, but weren’t left to flounder on their own. Their coaches were alongside them the whole time. They were safe to give their all and find out what they were really made of.

The whole production team genuinely recognised the vital importance of these ordinary people. The costume director even went out of her way to make individual costumes for each one of them to make them feel special. They weren’t seen as an irritation to be put up with, or a bunch of amateurs getting in the way of the professionals.  They were made to feel like a crucial part of the process, because they were.

‘They thought they were pawns in the whole thing,’ mused Danny at the end, ‘but really, they were the kings.’


Leave a comment

Northern Rocks: wisdom, humility, celebration

I went to Northern Rocks yesterday, and it was incredible. I’ve been teaching for 10 years and I can say, hands down, that was the best CPD I’ve ever, ever experienced.

There were many great things about the day, and probably my favourite moment was a hug with the lovely Sue Cowley! But what really stood out to me was the hugely high quality of all the speakers. We genuinely have some outstanding educators in this country. We have people with huge credibility because they have been there and done it. They stand, or have stood, in a classroom day in day out, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. They have retained their passion, enthusiasm and altruistic motives over many years, through many changes of government. They are expert communicators who can connect with and inspire their teacher audience because they know them inside out. They are intelligent, well-read, well-researched people who are experts in their field. They understand the big picture of education and can join the dots, from early years to HE, from government policy to classroom practicalities. They’re also mostly really funny and entertaining and it was a pleasure to learn from them.

At the end of the day we were asked to send a postcard to Nicky Morgan and although I couldn’t fit it all on, these are the things I think we need from Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan the most:

Wisdom
We need Nick and Nicky to have the wisdom to realise that going to school when you were a child doesn’t mean you know everything about education. We need them to realise that things decided in an office in London can seem like a great idea, but you need the wisdom to know what will actually work on the ground.We need them to realise that it isn’t wise to only talk to the people who will agree with you and say yes to whatever you want to happen.

Humility
We also need Nick and Nick to stop being so defensive and really listen to educators.  SPaG knowledge really isn’t going to make children into better writers. Quoting national data on teacher training doesn’t help schools who can’t recruit and won’t be fully staffed for September. Saying you’ve ring-fenced the education budget doesn’t explain why support staff are being made redundant. Be humble enough to admit that there are problems and ask people (like the ones above) for solutions. They might just surprise you.

Celebration
Finally, we need Nick and Nicky to realise that there are loads of amazing things already going on in our schools. If they had any experience of teaching, they’d know the best way to motivate and engage people is positive reinforcement. Words like thank yougreat jobwell done, aren’t very hard to say, but go a long way towards improving morale.

This Saturday, 500 positive, enthusiastic, happy teachers got together to help each other and learn how to do a better job for their children. Surely that’s something worth celebrating?

 

 


Leave a comment

Well-being Week

Last week was Healthy Body, Healthy Mind week at school. I can’t take credit for the idea or the planning as that was down to one of our Assistant Heads.

The week gave children an opportunity to take part in activities to promote emotional and physical well-being.  Our English focused on the story of Giraffe’s Can’t Dance and we thought about how we can solve problems and use helpful self-talk. In maths we used rounding, ordering decimals and fractions and division to work out amounts of sugar in different foods and had quite a few surprises! We tried out a whole range of mindfulness activities including massage, mindful colouring, controlled breathing and we also used the ‘Flow’ videos on the brain break website gonoodle (highly recommended for all kinds of things if you haven’t seen it). We also did some exercising with our resident Commando Joe and both staff and children were challenged to run round the park each morning just before school starts.

Staff weren’t left out of other well-being activities either. There were different things on offer to try such as head and shoulder massage, hypnotherapy, hairdressing and nail painting! Interestingly (and maybe most obviously) most staff felt the biggest contribution to their well-being this week has been the lack of marking…

My contribution was to create well-being bags for the staff to receive on Monday. I was inspired by Abigail Mann’s idea and wanted to do something similar for our staff. Our Head loved the idea, kindly agreed to fund the bags and I roped in my lovely colleague, Beth, to help out. Our bags contained:

  • Mints: to keep you cool in tough times.
  • Tissues: for ‘those’ days.
  • A Glow Stick: to remind you that you need a break so you can keep shining.
  • Bubbles in a champagne-shaped bottle: to celebrate the good times.
  • Hand sanitizer: to remind you of all the lives you ‘touch.’

wbb1 wbb2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The aim was make people feel appreciated and thought about and, judging from people’s reactions, I think this was achieved. One of the best things for me was the opportunity it gave me to chat with staff that I don’t know so well.

Beth and I have got lots more ideas for things we can do to appreciate our staff and contribute to their well-being, so watch this space!