Wednesday 25 November 2015

BYOD - A viable alternative

There were a lot of people at the National Academies Show today who asked me for a copy of my presentation, and whose names and emails I didn't have time to take down (really sorry! Other people waiting to speak behind me!), so here, for those of you who are gluttons for punishment and want to go through it a second time, is the thing...

Saturday 10 October 2015


I've read a lot of really good blogs recently about teacher well-being, and what a tough nut it is to crack. Depending on whether you come from a leadership point of view or a chalk-face view, you will have different interpretations of where the problems lie, and what the solutions might be.
@kevbartle talked recently about the tokenism of some approaches (free tea and coffee anyone?), or the tick-box approach we are often forced to adopt by external agencies who also want to be seen to be "doing something" to solve the problem. Surprisingly, none of them seem to work. Surprisingly.

For what it's worth, here is my contribution to the debate. I hope it gets to the nub of the problem:

The first given in the debate is this: The business of schools is to produce students who, be it through good exam results or just more ambition, self-respect and belief, are ready for the outside world. We are there to give them "life chances" in the jargon. In a utilitarian view of education, they are the product which feeds the economy, and the product has to be top-notch. From a more humanitarian perspective, students are individual humans whose contribution can improve society if we have done our job well.

The second given is that our job as teachers and school leaders is to deliver that. The ultimate needs of the students must come above our own. Unfortunately, this very often includes the needs of staff well-being, or the needs we may have as normal human beings to have a life. We have chosen a career which, if we let it, can degenerate into a massive black hole for all our energies.

In this context, my contention is this: If students are the products of the system, we are the craftspeople who shape the product. We, and I realise I am risking derision for my choice of words here, are tools. If you're happy for me to carry on with this analogy, it works like this: A craftsman chooses how well he keeps his tools. He can buy them cheap, use them until they wear out, and then just get rid of them. Or, as is the case with real craftsmen, you can look after them carefully, keep them sharp, and produce excellent work with them for a long time.

For me, the well-being debate boils down to this: As a school leader, do your actions contribute towards wearing the tools out prematurely or do they contribute towards keeping them as sharp as possible for as long as possible?

To make my point, under which of the two categories would you place the following activities?
  • Free tea and coffee at break-times
  • Creating support systems around the school (ICT, SIMS, First Aid, school comms etc) which just work reliably day in day out
  • A reliable and easy-to-use VLE
  • Time to meet in teams to plan lessons together
  • Audits of lessons, learning objectives, marking etc
  • Staff socials
  • Timetables which minimise split classes, room changes, etc
  • Timetables which give staff time to socialise and discuss daily problems
  • Setting up a staff well-being committee
  • Staff freebies, such as health insurance or discounts on well-being services
  • Thinking hard about any new initiative, and whether it adds to or distracts from the "main thing": Teaching and learning.
To me, anything which allows teachers to teach more effectively and more efficiently is a sharpening tool: Anything which gets in the way of that is blunting the effectiveness of the tool. Ultimately, that will have knock-on effects for the outcomes we produce as schools.

Monday 6 July 2015


Very swift blog post following on from a session I delivered to this year's (inspiring!) #PedagooLondon2015 conference...

Apart from the sheer joy of getting to meet forces for positivity such as the likes of @Kevbartle, @hgaldinoshea, @Edutronic_Net@joeybagstock and several other personal heroes(!), the conference gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own practice, collect my own thoughts on how well it was going, and be realistic in my appraisal of the major obstacles I was facing. Through the ensuing debates about the validity of what I was proposing as a pedagogy on Twitter, you'll see there were plenty of questions which are hard to answer over 140 characters, so if you would like to engage in debate and discussion, please feel free to email me, or leave a comment.

If anyone wants some practical help with implementing the nitty-gritty of this stuff in their school, I'm sure mine will be happy to release me. Probably for a fee. Don't go thinking I get a cut of it neither!

Anyway, here are the slides...

Flipping the classroom using mobile technology

Monday 6 April 2015

Boss It! - A guide to planning and writing outstanding exam essays

Our English department at school are great, and they really do create some great study aids, as well as fantastic acronyms and scary posters. Frankly, they don't get the credit they deserve!

So I've decided it's my mission today to get their fantastic-ness out there to all of you who are either revising for exams, or trying desperately to get your students  to do so! This video follows on directly from my video playlist on effective revision strategies which I shared last week, and which is based on the latest research into cognitive techniques. hopefully it will help.

But once you've learnt your stuff, you can easily score an extra 10% in exams (in my humble opinion) by having a system for planning and writing essays as comprehensively as this.

Please share far and wide, and let me know what you think...

Revision planning

A series of videos put together from material researched by the ever-generous @chrishildrew.

Hope this helps students to revise effectively...

Sunday 4 January 2015

Principles of a good work-life balance in teaching

Over October half-term I wrote a blog about how teachers could reconnect with themselves as people, in order to start looking for that elusive work-life balance thingy they all talk about. As we approached New Year and I indulged in the usual reflections about the year, I came to two conclusions:

1) 2014 had been extremely kind to me and my family;

2) My job as a teacher hadn't dominated my thoughts about how good the year had been.

There are lots of ways to read that, but I think it means that for me, considering what an excellent year it had been professionally (ALPS1/2 for A levels, FFTD for GCSE, major show within the Faculty, and lots of particular success stories for individual students which, while they didn't look overwhelming on paper, were significant milestones for them personally), I had also managed not to make my work the be-all and end-all of my perception of happiness. Other things have mattered more, and I think that's a great thing. Maybe it even represents personal growth. Wow.

Anyway, for this quick New Year's post, I thought I would share a few of the fundamental principles I've found helpful in the search for that balance, for no other reason than the fact that, in my opinion, a balanced, healthy teacher is a more effective teacher. Here goes...

1) Remember that some jobs are fundamentally incompatible with day-to-day family engagement: Accept this and work around it

2) Never put the quality of your life in the hands of someone else: You won't like their version of what your balanced life should look like

3) Elongate the timeframe in your search for balance: think about it over a term rather than a day or a week: What does your ideal term look like?

4) Make sure that your balance contains elements which nurture you physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually

5) Sweat the small stuff rather than big gestures: There is a huge difference in perception between how important you think a big gesture is, and how important others think it is. There is often a similar disparity between what you might think of as a little thing, and how much help it has been to someone else. Apparently, my offering to do someone's detention duty for them in the last couple of weeks of last term was a gesture which meant a massive amount to them at the end of a crippling term.

6) On that theme, be kind:  Not just generally a nice person. Look for opportunities to bestow kindness on others, without judging how deserving they are. Do it in secret as much as in public: The well-being benefit is as much for yourself, and these acts come back to you all the time. Actually looking out for the kind things other people do for you is equally a great way to become a more positive person: It takes your focus away from the negative, and it helps you deal with it much more successfully when the negatives arise.

That's it. Short but sweet. I hope that 2015 is your happiest, most balanced year yet.

Copyright: Scott Adams, Inc.

Monday 17 November 2014

The perpetual anxiety of education

This blog post follows a series of events which have clearly contributed to its central idea: These events include (in no particular order), a summer holiday where I truly reconnected with myself for the first time in ages, a set of excellent exam results across the Faculty I lead, a first half-term which nigh-on wiped that feel-good factor out, a Middle leadership meeting that left me feeling the overwhelming weight of national educational change coming soon, a well-being meeting where we tinkered around the edges but never really got to the crux of the problem, and a graded observation which was Good (with some outstanding features) but didn't really reflect what I've been doing this year.

What I've been doing this year is mostly consolidating a range of pedagogical tweaks I've learnt, mostly thanks to Twitterati (@headguruteacher, @HuntingEnglish, @ICTevangelist, @jkfairclough, @kathydarlison85,  @hgaldinoshea and @ragazza_inglese to name a tiny proportion) but also some fantastic colleagues at my school, and formalising them into concrete lessons via our new FROG OS VLE (a school development area). The VLE has been useful in helping me get to a really deep level of flipped learning, which I've always wanted to do, to the point where I have several classes where some students are now lessons ahead of others, and really powering through the learning. It has increased the independence of a significant number of the most motivated and able students I teach, and at the same time highlighted just how teacher-dependent some of my least able are. It has also, frustratingly, pushed me back in pedagogical terms by preventing me from combining the VLE with all of the great things I've learnt from two years of working with iPads, because the two won't talk to each other. All of which is irrelevant to the actual post, but you need the context to see why this topic is important to me.

The feeling I have at the moment is a horrendously negative feeling that I hate, because I'm not that man. I see myself as a positive person, someone who leads by example and encouragement. But at the moment I feel like quitting. I don't feel that moving up the career ladder to leadership positions is the answer, but I'm not enjoying where I am either. And I can't work out why.

Except today, it hit me. Like an epiphany. A more bleeding obvious epiphany you will probably never hear, and I appreciate that the first sign of publishing this will be greeted by a chorus of "Duh!"s, but here it is anyway. It's called the Perpetual Anxiety of Education. It's the result of the Accountability Matrix. Yes, probably very similar to the one your heard about in the Wachowski brothers' film, but not quite as entertaining. It starts with targets. As soon as targets are formulated, your job is to meet them. Aspirational or not makes no difference, you still have to meet them. And as a teacher, you spend your entire year in this state of anxiety about students meeting their targets. This of course is exacerbated by senior management, who have the same worries, but spread across the whole school, and with often only indirect power to do anything about it: Hell with a side order of chips! The less control you have, the more anxious you are likely to be. Hence the plethora of "accountability measures" deployed in order to keep checking that everyone is doing their utmost to hit those targets.

Copyright: Jantoo
As a teacher, this constant surveillance makes it very difficult for you to put it out of your mind, hence why I called it a perpetual state of anxiety. And there are few teachers who can do their job effectively without communicating this anxiety to the students. Thus the students themselves are also afflicted by the same perpetual anxiety. Ask the Year 11s in my mentor group who, despite my support and encouragement, feel this overwhelm from all sides. Because of course it's not simply teachers who are putting the pressure on, but parents as well. Are their kids doing as well as the others in their class? In their year group? In their school? What about other schools? Could we be sending our kids to a better school? What about the education system itself? Is it too soft? Is it "fit for purpose"? Is it really preparing my child to do career capital battle with that wiry, hungry little Singaporean kid I hear so much about in the papers, with his 25 hours extra tuition a day on top of his fifteen hours of regular school, per day...? Perpetual anxiety.

Now let's go back to this situation in schools. We have leadership whose job it is to deliver the targets, who have least classroom time to do it in. Their only weapons are by proxy, and they have to deploy these increasingly atomistic dictats to get the rest of their staff to get to "best practice" at all times: Do you have your MUST SHOULD COULD? Do your students know their targets? Their Working at Grades? Was the homework you set meaningful? Was it marked that day? Was it responded to in a meaningful ongoing dialogue which lasted until seconds before the exam? Did you push the students along at the perfect pace for them to cope while maintaining consistently high expectations etc? Don't get me wrong: This is NOT an anti-SLT rant, because I've been on the verge of going for these sorts of positions myself for a year or two, and the thing which has always stopped me is this very question: What would I do differently? You see, I think the vast majority of teachers and leaders are good people with the best of intentions, but these are too often warped by the target culture. The accountability matrix. What happens when you meet your target? That's a moot point to be honest. Because the vast majority of teachers only hit their target when the exam results come out. Even if you've hit them beforehand, the criticism is that you've under-estimated your target, you haven't been aspirational enough. So here's a higher one. But once the exam results are out, we have a week to celebrate the achievement of 51 weeks of anxiety-ridden stress, before 1) sending the students off to their next life stage, which will be even more target-riddled than the last, and 2) beginning a whole new round of targets of our own. Hamster-wheel, anyone?

And then we come to the staff well-being meeting. Where nobody can work out quite why staff aren't responding ├╝ber-positively to the Friday morning cakes, the fruit bowl in the staff room, the staff silly jumper day and the disaggregated day off. These are drops in the ocean of a culture which is otherwise dominated by doubts about whether you could be doing that little bit more to hit those targets. The anxiety is the permanent, low-level background noise which defines the existence of many teachers on a day to day basis.

What's the worst thing about this state of perpetual anxiety? I'm not sure that this is just about education. There is a very good argument for saying that this pretty much covers the majority of our social ills at the moment, in a society which seems hell-bent on better and more rather than sufficient and happy. But I know which I would prefer if given the choice of how to live my life. And that's a BIG "if"...