Mind Consuming?

Of course teaching is time-consuming, but it’s not just that. It mind-consuming too. Yes there is a lot to do during the day, marking, planning, meetings, supporting, helping, guiding, writing, but the one thing that takes up most of my time in the day is thinking. I find this aspect of the job the most difficult. The inability to switch off, the constant thought process about how to be better, how you haven’t done that display, how you haven’t got that bit of paper laminated. The constant thoughts that pop into your head are exhausting. Possibly more so than the actual practical work. It happens in the holidays, the weekends, in pupil progress meetings and at 2am. Any time and usually every time. Teaching must be up there with the most mind-consuming of jobs.

The amount of mental effort that goes into teaching is the reason that teachers are amazing. It shows just how much each and every one of us care about the students that we look after. If it didn’t matter to us, this wouldn’t happen and I take reassurance from the fact that it does happen. The moment it stops is the moment we don’t care any more, and that is probably the moment we should probably think about whether we really want to be teaching.

But how do we deal with this all mind-consuming aspect of the job? The worries that ping into our brain at 2am. Spending an hour laying in bed at night debriefing from that difficult meeting with a parent. I’m not sure there is an answer to all of this, I think it will always happen. What worked for me was trying to get some perspective on it all though. I’m a big advocate of trying not to worry about things I can’t affect. That is an small statement, but one that can that in certain situations impossible to achieve, I understand it is not as simple as shrugging off all of the thoughts in our mind. However, there are definitely things that occupying our mind that with a change in perspective in our thought process, we can change our thinking, our response and improve our own wellbeing.

Here are some examples.

Number 1: A two hour meeting with a parent over a recommendation for a selective school I gave their child. It was unpleasant, it got heated in their behalf, especially when they realised it wouldn’t be changing. Previously, I might have stressed over this meeting for days beforehand and afterwards. But can I change the way they feel? No. Did I make the right call in my judgements? Yes. Were they always going to be upset because it wasn’t what they wanted? Yes. Will stewing over it help them or me? No. I can’t affect any change in that situation so why give precious time that could be spend in much more productive things to it?

Number 2: my budget. It’s a deficit, has been for two years. Does it keep me up at night? No. I can’t change the amount of money we have coming in, or the amount we have to spend. I am in a fortunate position where I don’t have to consider redundancies as it’s been acknowledged I’m not overstaffed. Will me worrying change the situation? Not one jot. Am I likely to find a solution at 2am?

Number 3: Pupil Progress Meetings. I worried about these for days as a teacher. What would I get accused of doing wrong? What else would I be asked to do? What would I be made to feel bad about? The solution to this worry was much simpler than I thought. Had I done everything I could for those students? Had I worked hard and done my best to get them to reach their potential as much as possible? If the answer to that is yes, then I have, or shouldn’t have, anything to worry about. I have to trust in my own expertise and knowledge of my class. If an SLT can’t see that I’ve done all I can, and that’s good enough, then maybe I’m working for the wrong SLT.

I found this ability to let go of things that I couldn’t change absolutely liberating. It wasn’t easy, it took practise and time. I’m not saying I don’t care, I do, deeply and always will. But the sleepless nights have reduced. The anxiety over my work has reduced. I’ve made sure the things I can affect are being done as well as I can. I have faith in my own practice, standards and ability. This has meant that I’ve been able to let go of things I used to worry about that my worry had no impact on, apart from making me tired and grumpy.

I’m convinced that almost all teachers are better then they think they are. I always encourage teachers at my school who are worried about meetings etc to remember that they are the expert. They know what they are talking about, and they have the knowledge to back up their point of view. Once we can get to a point where we are all secure in our own abilities and strengths we can move past these worries. There will always be exceptions to this rule, but there are definitely things it can applied to for our own wellbeing.

Teaching will always be a mind consuming job, but with some perspective maybe we can focus our thoughts and thinking time on the things that are in our control and really matter, rather than worrying over things we have no can have no impact on. Let’s make it so we can give all of our thoughts to the children and their progress rather than external factors.

#edutwoxic?

First of all, this is not a response to #listgate. Enough has been said over that, on both sides of the argument. However, it did inspire me to revisit this blog I’ve been meaning to write.

I joined twitter as a teacher in June. I have actually always tried to avoid education in my life away from work. I can’t stand watching TV programmes about education such as Secret Teacher, Educating wherever or Jamie Oliver’s attempt to run a school, they have always just wound me up. I don’t know what made me make the leap, but I did. Setting up as an anonymous was not something I did because I am embarrassed of anything or because I want to hide. I know that the parents from my school will be trying to track me down, especially as we have just started our own social media platforms. Who knows what gets back to parents via likes and retweets here and there, and before you know it you are in hot water.

I have a long experience with Twitter and have several accounts. My first was for friends and family and has largely stayed as such. It is very placid and doesn’t get much attention or traffic. My other account is a football based account. Wow – eye opener. I understand that football is tribal, and I can be as tribal as anyone when it comes to my beloved Liverpool. However, I was taken aback by the amount of vicious comments that passed back and forth over simply expressing an opinion. Nothing is agreed on, any comment is met with consternation or disgust and generally abuse. It’s a harsh world. It’s also a very funny one at times and part of me understands the context in which it is based. Football and sport can be a competitive and divisive world.

So this background brought me to the world of edutwitter. A slow foray into its world led to some exceptional accounts (I won’t list them!) and left me feeling inspired, just what I needed as I was coming in to the end of a long year. My timeline was soon filled with so many excellent ideas and resources to take back to my staff in September. It is a wonderful resource and has opened my eyes too lots of new ways of working. I am very glad to be part of it.

Then came the summer holidays and a whole new world opened up.

In amongst all the good stuff was a world of backbiting, sniping, criticism over classrooms, displays, even over going into work. Someone made to feel awful just because they asked for help? This surprised me much more than seeing it in the football world. The world of twitter suddenly became a double edged sword. One of my very early tweets was just after a visit to a nearby school where I came away feeling inspired, but just as depressed. My school wasn’t like this, there was so much lovely stuff, why wasn’t I doing it? Imposter syndrome came on strong. Twitter can be just like this. Seeing people’s classrooms over the holiday brought on exactly the same feelings. They are amazing, wonderful, fabulous and would be a joy to learn in, but mine never looked like that at all. I wish they did. Does the make me a worse teacher? No. Does it inspire me? Yes. Does it make me feel like a worse teacher? Partly. Would I say anything about it to anyone online? No. What would we say if we saw behaviour like this in the playground? We would be on it in a flash and trying to modify it. It so easy to get offended on twitter, but it also very easy to offend, often completely unintentionally. There is no tone button, there is just face value.

But, why shouldn’t they share it? It’s not done with any malice, it is done to inspire and because they are proud of what they have done. Who are we to take people to task over that? Why is it our place to tell people what they can and can’t share? It isn’t. We are all adults and can make our own decisions about what we look at. However, I can completely understand how the guilt starts. It’s the summer holiday and we all need a well deserved rest, but seeing people in work could make people feel the opposite of what is intended, but that is their choice. You know what works for you, you know how to set up your classroom, you know what access you’ve got. Work with that and be secure in your own expertise.

Is twitter amazing? Yes. There are so many reasons to love it, so many great accounts and great resources and I have really enjoyed my time so far. I’ve gained an awful lot of ideas and resources to try out in September – what a fabulous hub of inspiration and learning. Is Twitter toxic? Yes, at times it can seem that way. It has the potential for making people feel guilty, offending and making people feel inadequate. In a world of education where we all strive to be better and try to teach children the art of collaboration and learning from others, it seems that, at times, we are unable to do it in the online world.

People not Pupils

Don’t smile until Christmas. I was given this advice by tutors, colleagues and even my mum who was also a teacher. Show them who’s boss and set those firm boundaries. Woe betide anyone who might cross them. So, in my NQT year I gave it everything, I was firm, strong, strict and took no messing. Had I cracked it? Maybe. The kids behaved, they did ok but at the end of the year I overheard the nickname they’d given me. Mr Temper.

I was devastated. I realised it wasn’t my job to be their friend, or to be their favourite, but how on earth could they have enjoyed coming to school when they called their teacher Mr Temper? How could they have learned as well as possible? I needed to change something for the following September. Strict and nasty wasn’t me anyway, but I’d done it for the right reasons and was looking for the right results, it just wasn’t the right way of doing it. Children need to enjoy coming to school, they need to feel appreciated, like they will get a fair crack of the whip and I don’t think my first class will have felt they got that.

I started my second year determined to do something different. I still wanted the boundaries but wanted to apply them in a different way. I decided I would only hold them to two rules: do your best and don’t stop yourself or other people learning. We unpacked those as a class and we had a much better year. But why was that? It wasn’t because I had less rules or different ones, it’s because I took the time to get to know my students. Instead of watching them like hawks, ready to pounce on the smallest indiscretion I found myself having more opportunity to chat with them and get to know them. Consequently, I think I had what is still the best year of my teaching career. Our relationships were so much better. We understood each other, we knew where each other were coming from and what our boundaries were. I was more consistent and they responded to that.

I started thinking about this when reading cards from pupils this year and when I found some old ones in the loft. None of them told me I was great at lesson planning, none of them said I led maths really well nor that the way I catered for all learning styles really helped them. No, they commented on kindness and helping them, humour and being happy. This is is what they remember and this is what puts them in the right frame of mind to learn.

A teacher who can build good relationships, but has poorer practice will get better outcomes than a teacher who has perfect practice but can’t connect with children. We know it as teachers, from the way senior leaders interact with us. Set the boundaries and establish your classroom ethos from a place of relationship, not from domination.

That’s why every first days of the year was spent getting to know children. I always did an art activity with them in the first afternoon and sat down with each table completing my own version of it. I didn’t comment on their technique or try and teach them anything at all. We just chatted while they were kept busy. Did I miss several learning opportunities? Maybe. Did I care? No. I built the opportunity for so many more just by spending time with them as people rather than pupils.

The children reflect everything we do. This came sharply in to focus for me when some of my Year 6s taught my class for a lesson. It was like looking in a mirror, every quirk I had when I taught, they did. My phrasing, my language, my structures. They will reflect exactly the relationship we offer them. We want them to be happy and to respect us, and reach their potential and they can only do this if they feel happy, safe and secure. The best way to reach this point is to really get to know them. Not just superficially, but to laugh with them, get upset with them, get indignant with them and share experiences with them. All of that made for far better learning, for them and for me.

Paying Lip Service

Pay rises, extra money, Nick Gibb saying he’s looking forward to sorting out education spending, a new Secretary of State for Education who actually has a link to teaching, a new optimism in politics. The future is bright, surely?

Except we’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? Every time there is a change in leadership or reshuffle, we get the same old rhetoric. Let’s make our education system the best in the world, let’s raise standards, let’s finish the job this government has already started. Unfortunately, it is a load of old cobblers.

But why? I think the people who have said this down the years have genuinely meant it. They do want our system to be the best, and they do want to fund it, but their hands are completely tied. Not by chancellors or austerity or spending cuts, but by simple necessary prioritisation.

Education will never be life and death, and that is the reason why it will never get the spending it deserves. The NHS is crumbling and struggling to cope under winter demand and the outcome is that people die. Defense spending is cut, our troops die. Crime rates go up and there is less policeman, people can die. Housing is mess, same scenarios. If education is underfunded what is the worst that can happen? That little Johnny doesn’t have a gluestick? We all know it’s much worse than that, but politics is never about the long term. The other public services have serious short-term impacts of underfunding so get the money quickly. The effects of underfunding on education won’t be seen for years and years, by which point it is too late. This is why education is only ever paid lip service too. It will never be important enough in the here and now to warrant a substantial and meaningful cash injection. I’m not saying that other public sector workers don’t have similar feelings – the NHS is testament to that. Workers there will feel the strain just as much, or even more so than teachers, but my point is that when use comes to shove, the NHS will get the funds. Push will never come to shove with education.

This infuriates me. Why should my first concern over a child’s support be whether I can fund it, not whether they need it? The short-term views of politicians and policy makers will never place education high enough up the list to see their ideas through. There are no votes in education, because the effects of underfunding can never be seen vividly enough in the public domain. Standards are rising, funding is better than ever, pay is better than ever, it is fairer than ever, more children have access to a good or outstanding school than ever.

That will always be the argument. But education is life and death. Not literally, but it is the key to everything politicians want for this country. Strong export businesses, strong economies, low unemployment, the actual vote winners. We all have the common sense to see that an education system that doesn’t work will cause more problems further down the line. It’s because of this that teachers make sure it won’t happen. They give everything to give children meaningful, memorable and effective educations that will help them. The politicians know this. They know teachers won’t stop and will keep providing great education, and that’s why they never have to pay more than sound bite lip service to our education system. Let’s hope that this time I’m wrong.

The Dark Night of the Soul

Today marks 8 years since the lowest point of my teaching career. I remember it vividly. However, looking back it was probably simultaneously the worst and best day of my career. 

I was coming to the end of a long year in Year 6, and despite coming off the back of another good set of SATs result I was at my lowest ever ebb. Working for a headteacher who can only be described as relentless I was fed up. Nothing I did seemed good enough and I couldn’t see how it would ever be so. Work sampling filled me with fear. Emails from the head made my blood run cold, as a member of SLT there were plentiful. It wasn’t that she was a bad head, far from it. She was excellent and demanded the best everyday, but I couldn’t see a way to come to terms with and deliver what she wanted. I didn’t want to go to work at all. This was more than the usual end of term exhaustion. I was as unhappy as I had ever been in the job.

The reason I remember the night so clearly is that it was the night of our Year 6 show. I remember sitting on my computer  between the end of the day and the kids coming back for make-up and googling ‘alternative jobs for teachers’. I had pretty much made my mind up to leave the profession. 

It didn’t take long before I realised that this wasn’t really an option. I had wanted to a primary teacher since the age of 14. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t work hard enough for GCSE and A-levels, and while they were good enough to get my onto my BA Primary Ed course, they should have been so much better (although I do now have a good motivational story to tell Year 6 every year). My degree was in education, all I knew was education. It dawned on me that all I was qualified for was education. As the main earner in my household and my wife pregnant, retraining wasn’t an option, we couldn’t afford the salary cut.

So, in that empty classroom I realised this was me, and this was what I needed to keep doing. I wasn’t qualified for anything else. At that point, after I had made that resolution, I instantly felt better, like a weight had been lifted. 

Over the nest few months I slowly started to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t need to be perfect. We can’t strive for perfection, we will never get there. However, we can strive to be excellent and we need to accept that this is OK. Teachers are a strange breed. They forever look for the negatives and the ones that got away and what they could have done more of for each child that doesn’t quite get what we wanted them do.. We need to stop this. It doesn’t do any good. Celebrate success. Accept you did all you could. Remember you are working with children. They aren’t adults, they are immature and unpredictable no matter how grown up they seem. By shifting my mindset I was able to fall back in love with teaching. I could hand on heart say I was doing all I could, and to be honest, no one can ask any more from me than that. After all, that is all we ask from the children. There are thousands of things we can do, hundreds of things we should do and tens of things we have to do every day. Once I accepted that I cannot do all of the things I could do, or even all of the things I maybe should do I instantly became a better teacher. Being able to say sometimes:

What is the worst that will happen if I don’t get this done? 

It is OK for my students to know that I have a life outside school and that’s why I didn’t WWW and EBI their RE work from yesterday. 

I am not going to be the perfect teacher, but I am going to excellent and make sure that no-one can say I haven’t tried my best.

I gave that child my all, and they still didn’t make their target – that is not my fault.

Accepting this liberated me, and I am so glad it did. This is the job I wanted to do, and love doing again. As a head I try and let my teachers have this attitude. Nothing will every be perfect, but if you have done your best, I will never tell you it isn’t good enough. I will tell you how it can get better and  help you with it. Why should we treat staff and differently to the children when it comes to their professional development?

We are privileged to do the best job in the world. We do it well. We shouldn’t be made to feel like we aren’t doing well enough when we are. If you are thinking of leaving the profession, before you make up your mind, take a look at your mindset and ask yourself if you are being too harsh on yourself. The children deserve our best, yes, but they shouldn’t get all of us. That is what leads to burn out, stress and and an unrealistic view of what an amazing job you will be doing for those children. Allow yourself some slack, appreciate how great you are and accept that your best should be good enough. 

Reports – The Honest Truth?

Urgh. 

I’m sure I’m supposed to say they are a vital part of parent’s feedback and will be treasured and valued. But, actually, are they? 

However much thought goes into them, are they ever more than a sycophantic snapshot, filled with teacher jargon and obscure adjectival changes to shift meaning for those who can read between the lines, and pull the wool over those who can’t? Is it just an arse covering exercise…”well if you read his Year 5 report Mrs Jenkins, it does say that he was developing his understanding, and was beginning to show signs of working at the expected level”.  It’s clear to us teachers, but is it clear to the parents? I’ve seen it reports I’ve read, I’ve seen it in reports I’ve scrutinised for appeals, I’ve seen it my daughters reports, and yes, I’ve written it in reports myself. 

Let’s be honest, unlike we are when we write reports, we don’t want to deal with the hassle from the parents at the end of the year but maybe, more importantly we don’t want to be told it is our fault. Little Johnny who has been a pain all year suddenly becomes a child who ‘has progressed well, despite a tendency to become distracted and lose focus at times’. Sorry? You’ve been in my office complaining about him and how he needs a 1:1 TA all year, and now all he does is become a bit distracted? However, if we tell it like it is, then it won’t be anyone’s fault but our own. Not in the eyes of the parents anyway. It doesn’t matter how many interventions we’ve run, how many booster groups have been delivered and how much extra support has been given, it will still be the school’s fault if there hasn’t been an improvement. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t done a shred of homework. It doesn’t matter that he’s late every day. It doesn’t matter that he’s spent the last three months trying to write upside down with his wrong hand in italics, bold and starting every other sentence with one of those superman ’S’ shapes. We can’t say that. 

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But why? We should be able to say it. We are the experts, we are the professionals. We spend the most time with the children, we know how to make them improve. We’ve been doing all we can for the last 9 months. Why shouldn’t we tell it like it is?  We should have faith that we have done all of we can. We can prove we have offered everything we said we would, but we haven’t been met halfway. Teachers are a most immodest breed, always thinking of what extra they could have done. Why should  we cover up for a child who has refused to engage despite the best efforts of every member of staff who has come into contact with them?

It’s not blame shifting. It’s not an absolution of responsibilities. It is honesty. It’s realism. It’s helping prepare children for a world when there isn’t always someone there  to gloss over the tricky bits and over emphasise the good.  In an education world that is full of values and personal development, determination, resilience and perseverance are everywhere at the moment. There is another one that is always there as well though – honesty. Maybe it is time teachers started being truly honest with parents and children. We’ll help you, we’ll work with you and give you all the support you need, but if you aren’t pulling your weight we will hold you responsible, and tell your parents just as much. We are the experts, we should have nothing to fear because actually, deep down, we all know it is for best.