Dear Miss Truss – There Is A Problem With ‘Traditional Text Books’

As the end of the exam season arrives, unsurprisingly, government ministers are pushing forward to comment on the state of education and teaching. It is a pattern that, in the UK at least, seems to be repeated year on year.

In today’s Telegraph, Liz Truss announced that:

Teachers must stop “reinventing the wheel” by drawing up special lesson plans for children and revert to traditional teaching from text books – The Telegraph 26/6/14

Fair enough, so it seems based on the article – teachers spending too much time planning lessons and printing worksheets rather than teaching – it would be difficult to disagree…that is, if this was indeed the case.

However, Miss Truss goes on to refer to “strong core material” and that is at the heart of the problem – it doesn’t always exist. In my main teaching subject, English, the quality of text books for GCSE is rather poor. Lots of bright colours, text boxes, pictures, but very little decent content. These books are fine for a lesson or two, but any child whose entire English course was taught from the current crop of text books (or for that matter, some of those from the ‘halcyon days’ of O Level) would be short-changed indeed.

Many English text books follow a very similar format – a short text extract, several mundane questions based on the text and then an imaginative writing task – over and over again, without any real development in knowledge or challenge. As text books aim to cover all possibilities, and knowing that schools have increasingly limited budgets, they often cover most of the literature set texts in a page or two of surface level information.

The attitude Miss Truss reveals is one that suggests that if only teachers stopped faffing around and taught from ‘the text book’, all would be right with the world – it also suggests that this is all there is to teaching. This certainly seems to be the party line, that anyone, qualified or not, can roll up and teach a class. A job made laughingly easy when all you have to do is tell the class to ‘open your text book at page 23 and answer questions 1 to infinity’ while settling down with a coffee for a little gentle marking. Sadly, teaching is not that easy and the miracle ‘core’ text book is currently a fantasy.

In reality, things are not so straightforward. Good teaching means using the available resources and adapting them for the pupils in a particular class, which can take time. Yes, spending hours creating clip-art laden worksheets which achieve little is pointless, but so is getting pupils to work mindlessly from a text book without considering whether it actually meets their educational needs. I suspect that much of the time spent on ‘lesson planning’ is actually for the benefit of OFSTED or, more likely, OFSTED-obsessed SMT. The focus on differentiation and individually tailored lessons, criticised by Miss Truss, is a direct result of Government pressure for all schools to be ‘good’ or better. This in itself is based on Michael Gove’s flawed logic:

Q98 Chair: One is: if “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?

Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?

Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.

Q100 Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?

There is another problem, for decent text books to exist there needs to be several years of stability within the examination system. A text book is likely to take a year or so to create and publish – difficult to do well when as soon as it is published it is obsolete (remember all those text book chapters on controlled assessments?). In addition, there are currently multiple exam boards in England and therefore, unless there was a single board and a single syllabus, there would never be a single, definitive text book. Currently, the major publishers each tend to focus on a single exam board, knowing that schools teaching that board would be likely to buy their book. If we had a single board for each subject then some healthy competition might develop between publishers to produce the best text book – at the moment this is simply not the case.

A similar problem exists for English departments (and every other school department, I’m sure) – every time the syllabus changes or the set texts change, hundreds and thousands of pounds have to be spent on buying new stock, money which is increasingly hard to find. If I wished to teach, for example, Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ (assuming it was on the syllabus) I would need copies of the text to use in class (for those who can’t or won’t buy their own copy) and perhaps additional clean copies for the final exam. This all costs money. There is no text book for ‘Emma’, so it would be necessary to create suitable tasks (something that I would do anyway, even if there was a text book as it is unlikely that one book could cover everything my class would need). Or should I be limited to teach only those texts with an existing text book? Hardly the challenge and rigour so favoured by the Government.

Now, I try not to be too cynical about education and politics, but is there, perhaps, a darker reason for this panegyric on text books? It may be interesting to note that the education secretary, Michael Gove who advocates a return to ‘traditional’ teaching, used to write a column for The Times (a NewsCorp company) and received an advance from Harper-Collins (a NewsCorp company) for a book which he has not yet written (listed on the Register of Member’s Interests)…and that Harper-Collins is a major publisher of educational text books. But, surely that is all just coincidental?

 

What do you do when it all goes wrong?

It took me a long time to decide to write this post. Part of it deals with a particularly unpleasant part of my teaching career and I was unsure whether to address it in public. However, it was several years ago, and I came out the other side to continue my successful teaching career. Please note, it is not my intention to be a ‘raincloud of doom’ or suggest that all schools are like this, in fact, in my experience, the vast majority of school are great, albeit pressured, places to work. My intention, or rather my hope, is that it may be of use.

Teaching can be an emotional job. Any profession that works with people, especially young people, has a level of emotional investment. When you feel that the future of those young people are, potentially, affected by the decisions you make, then those emotions can be pushed to breaking point.

On a good day, there is nothing that comes close to teaching (with the exception, I guess, of the medical profession) for sheer joy and exhilaration. The class who achieve great results, especially when you know how hard they have worked. The buzz when they just ‘get it’. A thank you note from a pupil. A lesson that goes  as you have planned, or even better. Each of these, from the large to the small, are the things that make the job worthwhile.

However, there are times when things do not go well. Just like the positives in teaching, the negatives can run from the fairly minor to the awful. In the rest of this post I will give some examples of when things have gone bad, what I did, and what it taught me.

  • The unruly class. Every teacher, unless there is some kind of miracle, will have a class who pushes them due to their behaviour. This can be a teaching group or a tutor group; it can make you feel alone and like you’re fighting a losing battle. It seems to be par for the course for pupils to see how far they can push a new teacher. Over the years, I have had several groups like this, it doesn’t necessarily get easier to deal with, you just have more tools at your disposal. In one school, I had a Year 10 class of 30 pupils. I was new to the school, so didn’t have any previous knowledge of the group, nor did I have a reputation I could trade on. There were play fights, silly ‘coughing’ games, and, memorably, a student setting fire to paper at the back of the room. The best way to deal with a group like this is to get tough: create and insist on a seating plan (ask for support from HoD or SMT if you think there may be arguments); have a quiet chat with some of the ringleaders, away from their audience, about their behaviour; call parents for good as well as bad behaviour (this is a hearts and minds campaign!); be consistent, and make sure you only punish those in the wrong, whole class detentions will usually make the situation worse; if you have supportive SMT, ask them to pop in when they are doing the duty rounds – reinforcing to you and the class that you are not alone; don’t plan whizzy lessons until you have the group behaving the way you want – group work can very quickly turn to anarchy if you do – keep it straightforward but challenging. In most cases, these will work – but it may (and probably will) take time, sometimes a whole school year of struggle. The group I mentioned above improved gradually, but it wasn’t until they moved into year 11 that they became the type of class that it is a joy to teach. In some cases, the situation is tougher or does not improve. If this is the case, you definitely need to work with your HoD and SMT. The temporary removal of a key player may improve things; it may even need to be permanent if there is no change after their reintroduction. The key thing to remember is that it is never the whole class, even though it can sometimes feel like it.
  • The meeting with an unhappy parent. If you have been in teaching for any length of time, chances are you will have a meeting like this. In reality, this type of meeting is rarely the horror that a teacher has created in their own mind. If it is a tricky phone call, give yourself enough time for the call, have your notes to hand, stand up and smile – sounds odd, but standing up makes you feel more confident (you can always sit down as the call continues) and smiling comes through in your voice, making you sound friendly rather than confrontational. The key to this type of meeting (by phone or in person), and any other to be honest, is careful planning. Know what the meeting is for and have in mind the outcomes you would like; organise a time that is convenient (to you and the parent) and means that you don’t have to rush off; bring any paperwork and data that may be useful; and, if you suspect it may be a particularly tricky meeting (or the parent is someone who has been aggressive in the past) ask for your HoD or HoY to be part of the meeting. It is important to remember that, however vile little X has been, chances are mum and dad have heard a very different version of events, they may also feel that the fact that they have been invited in for a meeting is in some way a criticism of their parenting. Give them time to express their concerns. You need to be diplomatic and friendly, while making your point. This is where paperwork and data come in. In a meeting with a particularly ‘challenging’ member of my tutor group (I also had the HoY in attendance), the pupil’s main complaint was that I was picking on him and that he had done nothing wrong, and the parents were inclined to accept his view, mentioning a ‘personality clash’. This was proven to be untrue when behaviour slips from 6 different teachers were shown to the parents, indicating that the pupil’s poor behaviour was not an isolated incident – the impact of the paperwork changed the whole tone of the meeting. Overall, remember that the common ground between you is that you all want the pupil to do their best.
  • The ‘bad’ observation. Remember, this is not a comment on you, nor is it a definitive judgement on your teaching, it is, at best, a snapshot. There have been several posts regarding the value of lesson observations (for example here and here) which make interesting reading. You should get feedback, ideally verbal and written and it should focus on developing your teaching. If you feel that the observation is unfair, challenge it and ask for your challenge to be noted, you can also suggest another observation. Leave it a few days and think through the lesson and the feedback – with hindsight, there may be things that you can change or work on. Then forget it and move on, after all, you can’t change it and spending your time dwelling on it will not help at all.
  • The assault. This is something that really should not happen. I find it bizarre that buses and post offices have signs saying that verbal and physical assaults will not be tolerated, and yet schools don’t. It doesn’t help young people to think that this sort of behaviour is ever acceptable. In fact, I am aware of at least one case where a pupil, (who was used to verbally and, on at least one occasion physically, abuse teachers) was punched when he pushed and swore at a ‘non-school’ adult outside the school. In my whole teaching career I have only been assaulted physically once, when a pupil in a classroom pushed me head first into a wall. If you are in the unfortunate position where a pupil assaults you, remember it is not your fault, take some time out of the classroom (I stayed in the corridor outside the room until someone came to remove the pupil, partly because I was so shocked that I was shaking, and partly because I was very tempted to punch the little sod), if possible get someone else to cover your class for the remainder of the lesson. Write the incident up in as much detail as possible, make a fuss and demand that something is done about it by SMT (chase it up until you have a response), consider reporting the incident to the police (you are perfectly within your rights to do this and the school cannot insist that you don’t). Remember, the school has a duty of care for your safety as an employee. In most schools, this sort of incident will lead to the pupil being excluded, either temporarily or permanently. In my case, the pupil was (very  reluctantly) temporarily excluded for 5 days, his mum took him on holiday for 2 weeks and he was put back in my class on his return (and gloated to his mates that his mum had said he shouldn’t pay any attention to that ‘bitch) – but that was one particular school and a set of circumstances which lead me to my final point.
  • When it really hits the fan. Like it or not, there are some bad schools out there, I don’t necessarily mean the ones in deprived areas where the pupils have challenging behaviour. What really makes a school a bad place to work is ultimately the management, either those who are incompetent or those who are unpleasant and unsupportive. For those of you who have read my previous post on job applications, you will know that I have twice worked in schools which, with hindsight, would have been best avoided. The school I worked at was a tough school with challenging pupils, I had worked in similar schools and had been teaching for more than 5 years, but SMT made the school an unpleasant and depressing place to work. Teachers were routinely sworn at and assaulted by pupils, the school had a very high staff turnover (in fact one teacher’s leaving speech – limited to 30 seconds due to the numbers leaving – paraphrased Wilde, saying ‘to lose one teacher is unfortunate, to lose 15 looks like carelessness’). Each staff meeting was prefaced with an announcement by the head about how awful the teaching staff were, how all poor behaviour was down to the teacher and that it was our job to get the pupils good results. Unions were not encouraged and any union meeting was attended by one of SMT who made notes. There were several events which pushed me to the edge at this school, firstly, the assault I mentioned above (made worse by the fact that not a single member of SMT asked me if I was OK and their insistence that it was my fault – for trying to pick up a tennis ball he had thrown); being expected to take on the HoD’s work when she was promoted to assistant head, while still doing my own and teaching a full timetable; the total lack of support from SMT for poor classroom behaviour (any incident was viewed as poor teaching – this included one poor teacher who was racially abused by members of her class); an onslaught of emails about my ability as a teacher and middle manager, despite my observations being mostly ‘good’. I almost left teaching as a result, but applied for, and got a new job – even with the ‘neutral’ reference from the head (although she made it tricky by insisting that after 2 interviews I had to take any others as unpaid leave). I hoped, with the end in sight, things would improve – they didn’t. There was pressure to cheat on pupils’ coursework (something I refused to do); SMT ‘popping in’ every few lessons and making negative comments in passing about the few seconds they had seen; no behaviour support at all, duty calls went unanswered. Stress began to build, I felt sick at the thought of work, I could talk about nothing else, I began to get twitches in one, then both eyelids and constant headaches. Finally, I was told that the head wanted a ‘little chat’ one break time. When I got there, she, and one of the deputy heads, proceeded to ambush me, telling me that they were disappointed, that I was not a good teacher, that I could be disciplined for a badly marked piece of coursework (which I had not taught or marked). Her parting comment was ‘I hope you can do better at your new school’. I mustered all my strength (helped by the knowledge that I had only about 6 weeks left) and told her that I knew I would do well at my new school, because I knew I was a good teacher. The rest of the day was a blur. When I got home, my headache was worse, I was shaking and felt unwell – my husband insisted on taking me to the nearby NHS walk-in centre. They took my blood pressure, 255/135 (ridiculously high) and asked me about possible causes of stress – by the end of the appointment I had been signed off work for a week. A follow up appointment a week later showed my pressure was still high, and any mention of the school sent it higher (even today , 6 years later, writing this causes my BP to shoot up). I was eventually signed off for the remainder of my time at the school, going back only once to collect my belongings. If you find yourself in a similar position (and I hope you never do), keep detailed notes and copies of all emails and observations. Contact your union – at a local or regional level if you prefer, but don’t rely on them to act (I contacted mine who knew the school by reputation but actually did nothing to help beyond suggesting I looked for another job). Speak to supportive friends, or someone like the Teacher Support Network, see a doctor and if necessary take time off. Stress can be awful as you can feel like a bit of a fraud, like you shouldn’t leave the house because you are off work – but you are allowed, and must allow yourself to start having a normal life so you can get better. Stress and high blood pressure can cause serious and life-threatening conditions so should not be brushed under the carpet. The best thing I can suggest is to leave the school – not necessarily teaching, unless that is the best thing for you. No job on earth is worth making yourself ill for and being miserable.

I hope that few, if any, of these happen to you in your career, but if they do, I hope this post has helped, at least a little.

What have job applications and interviews taught me?

In my teaching career to date, I have worked in a number of schools, attended numerous interviews (both for main scale and promoted posts) and completed more application forms than I care to remember. I have also been at the other side of the table, being involved in shortlisting and interviewing teachers.

Applying for jobs is always rather nerve-wracking, you are putting yourself on the line and no one likes rejection. Unfortunately, that is part of the process and it is better to develop a bit of a tough skin rather than sink into a pit of despair.
My own experience of the application and interview process has been rather mixed. In the January of my PGCE I started scanning the TES job pages for suitable jobs. I sent out numerous applications, received some rejections, heard nothing from others. Finally, I got an interview at a school in Cirencester.
I researched the school, prepared my sample lesson and ran through possible interview questions. The lesson was ok, I liked the school and the pupils seemed nice – I didn’t get the job. I have to say that I was a bit gutted. However, looking back, the fact that they announced the successful candidate in front of all 4 of us (saying that we were all good, but that candidate x was better), suggests that at least one manager lacked a little empathy.
My second interview was for a school in Gloucestershire. Again, the lesson and interview went ok. We were then taken on a tour of the school and shown the classroom the successful candidate would teach in. It was an old porta-cabin at some distance from the English department, and the rest if the school. There was a boarded up window and a jagged hole at the bottom of the door. I was truly relieved when I found I hadn’t got the job as I had pretty much decided to decline it if I had been. During the wait in the staff room  for a decision (something that is much less common nowadays), I had been torn between my gut instinct that this was not the right school for me and the fear that I might never find a job.
My third, and successful, interview was for a school in Somerset. I was more practiced, both in delivering a mini lesson and in being interviewed. The head was friendly, staff and pupils seemed nice and, when I was offered the job I nearly cried.
Since those early days I have attended interviews, some successful others not, in a broad range of different schools (I particularly remember the one at Cheltenham Ladies College, lovely homemade cream cakes – for the sake of my waistline it was probably a good thing I didn’t get that one). I still get nervous, but I know the type of questions that are likely to be asked and the ‘lesson’ does not hold the horror that it used to.

So, what have job applications and interviews taught me?

  • You will probably have to apply for several jobs and attend several interviews before you get a job offer. Keep this in mind and don’t let it get you down. I know it is a cliché to say that it might not have been the right school for you, but sometimes a school is looking for someone to fill a very particular gap in their team. Also, interviews, like teaching, are a learning process, you will get better.
  • Proof-read your application, get someone else to proof-read it, then proof-read it again for good measure. The first screening process many schools will put applications through is for spelling and grammar mistakes – make mistakes and your application (however impressive) is likely to find its way into the reject pile.
  • Make your application stand out (in a good way). Firstly, remember that everything you send to a school is part of the selection process – so your cover email should be formal, polite and accurate. Never write a letter to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ – a few seconds on Google will tell you the name of the Head, and schools know this. Also, avoid the ‘comic’ email address – it makes you come across as a bit of a prat if the school have to contact mrbigboy@ or mzsexy@. Consider Theogriff’s advice from the TES and include an ‘Executive Summary’. This is basically a grid which outlines the person requirements and shows where your skills and experience meet them. This is a useful exercise even if you choose not to send it, as it helps you clarify why you are the right candidate for the job.
  • The internal candidate does not always get the job. I have heard so many people say that there is no point going for a job if there is an internal candidate. Frankly, that is rubbish. In interviews I have attended, and in some I have been part of the interviewing panel for, the focus has been getting the right person – I have seen internal candidates who have not been successful. To be honest, there may be schools who do interview for the sake of it and take on the internal candidate, even if they are not the best, but you need to ask yourself whether you really want to work at a school that does this. If you are the internal candidate don’t assume you will get the job, and never assume that your SLT know your CV and skills (they can be worryingly clueless) – treat the application and interview in the same way that you would treat an external post.
  • It is possible to get a job with a ‘neutral’ reference. Twice in my career I have worked for schools that (putting it euphemistically) were not the right school for me. As a result, I had a ‘neutral’ reference – schools have to stick to the facts, so it is highly unlikely that a ‘bad’ reference will be sent out, however badly the relationship has broken down. I have been interviewed and got jobs (one of them a promoted post) with this type of reference. Heads generally know that this type of reference means some kind of breakdown in relationship, they may ask you about it and you should think carefully about your reply in case they do. If they do, keep it brief and keep your response neutral – a 10 minute rant about the failings of your current/previous school is not going to endear you to your interviewers, however, remaining professional and calm will at least show that you can behave in a professional manner.
  • Use your lesson to show your skills. The sample lesson is a strange beast, they can last from 20 minutes to a full hour, they can be focused on a specific topic or be left up to you. If you are starting out in teaching, chances are you will be asked to take a group who are lovely. If you are going for a promoted post, you may be given a more challenging group to see what your behaviour management is like. Most classes will behave well for the interview lesson, especially if there are members of staff watching – if they don’t (and it is more than just very low level behaviour), ask yourself whether you want to work in a school where pupils don’t behave when SMT are in the room. Try to do something that you have done before, ask about the ability of the group and whether they have covered the topic before, and make sure you know you subject well. When I have observed lessons for interview I have looked for a range of things. Firstly, was the lesson well planned and organised (a lesson plan for your interviewers is useful here)? Did the teacher have good subject knowledge, use questioning and tasks to challenge the pupils and draw out what they knew? Did they have a good rapport with the pupils, e.g. use some of their names (ask if there is a seating plan, if so refer to it as it really freaks the pupils out if you know their names; if not, when a pupil answers a question, ask for their name), or smile? Did the lesson go as well as can be expected for an interview lesson, and did the teacher have a realistic view of how it went and how it could be improved? Don’t be afraid to say that a lesson didn’t go as well as you had hoped, that is far better than saying it was brilliant when it was a disaster. Finally, if you plan on using technology: check what is available in advance and have a (non-technical) back up plan – it is very impressive if the network goes down and you can switch seamlessly to an alternative task.
  • Trust your instincts. If possible, I like to get to the school early enough to see the pupils arrive, this can tell you a fair bit about the place. I also expect to spend time in the staff room, the department office (if there is one) and meet some of the staff – if this doesn’t happen, alarm bells start ringing. Twice, when interviewed, I have been kept in a conference room and only met the other candidates and the interviewing panel. Twice, I have left the interview day with a niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right and twice, I have accepted positions ignoring those feelings. It should come as no surprise that I have worked in two schools that I wished I hadn’t. That links to another myth, that having several schools on your CV is so bad that you need to stay somewhere awful for a couple of years – no job is worth that. For these two schools, I left after a year, for a new post – for one of them I should have left earlier. Both jobs taught me a lot, about SMT, about my capability as a teacher and about my resilience as a person – however, in hindsight, I should have avoided both schools.
  • Listen to the interview questions carefully, think about your response and answer it. Some candidates freeze in interviews like a bunny in the headlights, others get verbal diarrhoea (I have a tendency for the latter, but as I am aware of it I make efforts to stop talking before I start withering nonsense). Remember, the interviewers want to see the best of you and know that you are nervous. The key thing, besides preparing well for the interview, is to take your time, ask for a question to be repeated or ask for clarification if you are not sure. Whatever you do, make sure you are answering the question and explaining, not just what you have done in the past, why it is relevant to this school. I have been part of an interview panel where a candidate spoke for 10 minutes about irrelevant past experiences, without answering the question. The Head rephrased the question and the candidate did the same again. Make sure you have some questions to ask, these are useful to find out about NQT support, opportunities for promotion, or to show your wider skills by asking about extra-curricular clubs.
  • Don’t take it personally. Sometimes it is them! While most schools are organised and professional, some, sadly, are not. In others, things may happen in the course of the interview day which throw a spanner in the works. Many years ago I attended an interview, there were 3 candidates, and, after the lesson, the tour and the interviews we were told that they didn’t actually have a job available – very strange! During another interview, the process was stopped before the actual interviews because, over the course of the day, two other members of the department had resigned and the school needed to take some time to review their new staffing needs before taking on anyone else.

I haven’t provided a list of possible questions or copies of application letters – to be honest, you need to do these for yourself. What I hope I have given, are some lessons I have learnt from the process which I hope you find useful, especially those of you embarking on the application process for the first time. Good Luck!

What did OFSTED teach me?

When I started teaching, back in 2000, OFSTED was rarely mentioned. As a trainee teacher, I was aware of teacher standards and observation grades as it was part of my assessment. We had essays on the SEN code of practice and were regularly assessed on our subject knowledge, but nothing specific on OFSTED.

In my first teaching job, as an NQT, I was observed a few times for the forms for my induction. Training was generally focused around new technology or, in department, on exam specifications and developing schemes of work. OFSTED was in the background (They might visit), but were barely mentioned.

About 7 or 8 years ago that started to change. There were occasional INSET sessions about preparing for OFSTED, a particular lesson structure was suggested as something that OFSTED wanted. But still, most of the time, they were barely mentioned.

The most dramatic change happened in the past 5 years or so. Suddenly OFSTED was mentioned regularly – in lesson observations, in INSET, in staff meetings. We became bombarded with information regarding OFSTED and what they wanted. There was a, not so subtle, shift from teaching to the best of your ability, challenging and stretching the pupils to being a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ teacher. Everything shifted. Suddenly it was not about what the pupils needed, or what you as a teacher needed, it was all about what OFSTED wanted.

OFSTED became a big stick, which in many schools has stilted the focus on teaching and learning. You must all have x, y and z in your lesson, your lesson plan should look like this, hour after hour of INSET on lesson grading. Observations being about judging teachers and giving them a number, rather than being a discussion about their teaching and what each party could learn. (One teacher told me that, after being observed by SMT and given a ‘Good’, she asked which member of SMT she could observe teaching an ‘Outstanding’ lesson – the response? No one!).

The school year for many has become a round of learning walks, graded observations, book checks, mocksteds. Boxes being ticked, reams of paperwork being completed. This can lead to fear: fear of innovation in case it fails, fear of teaching the way you know works because OFSTED might not like it, fear of allowing staff to use their judgement. The end result is often all teachers being treated as though they were incompetent or lazy, rather than the occasional teacher who actually is. If Michael Wilshaw wants to know why so many teachers leave it is this (and schools with poor SMT who don’t support staff with behaviour).

After years of dodging the OFSTED bullet, I was visited a few years ago. It was brief, I got little feedback and the process had no impact on improving my future teaching. I suspect that, for most teachers and most schools, improvement is despite OFSTED rather than because of them. It makes me sad, because, alongside this bloody minded focus on OFSTED, there has been a real change in teaching – the joy is being sucked out of it. Teaching is becoming more and more about targets, data, results and paperwork rather than the joy and excitement of learning. If you want excellent teachers, let them teach, trust them as educated professionals. And if OFSTED visit they will see what they should have been looking for all along – hardworking teachers teaching well and pupils learning.

So, what did OFSTED teach me?

  • Fearing OFSTED is an unhealthy waste of time. 12 years, 195 days a year, I worked as a teacher, that is 2340 days. One OFSTED inspection in all that time which lasted 2 days – that is 0.085% of my teaching career to date. Now obviously, OFSTED did not spend those two days with me, they actually spent 30 minutes. So, 5 possible teaching hours a day for 2340 days is 11700 hours – a massive total of 0.004% of my teaching time. To get worked up over something which takes up so minimal amount of your actual teaching time is pointless, akin to worrying and attending training to deal with a wasp in your classroom.
  • SMTs interpretation of OFSTED guidance is not always accurate. OFSTED is about schools rather than individual teachers, and as such, there is a lot of pressure on SMT and particularly the Head. It is hardly surprising that this pressure can turn into an almost obsessive focus, skewing what should be the core focus of the school and teaching. Heads worry, so they often pass this down to their staff, and in their panic they interpret and misinterpret what the OFSTED documents ask for. This is never more true than when they are applying gradings to lessons. Comments on twitter like this:
    TeacherToolkit (@TeacherToolkit)
    I received an email last night from a teacher; informing me that their line-manger expected to see progress within 10 mins in a Food lesson!

    Teachers being told that a single mistake will lead to an inadequate grading and capability. The problem here is not OFSTED, but SMT’s misinterpretation and using it as a big stick.

  • Beware consultants selling fear. I have always had an issue with consultants, especially those who work for OFSTED, don’t teach and have a side line as a consultant. Realistically, it is not in their interest to say to a school ‘Just do what you’re doing, there is nothing specific OFSTED is looking for’, they would do themselves out of a lucrative job (unless they are doing this free out of the goodness of their heart). If you pay for someone to deliver INSET, you expect them to deliver something, a checklist or key messages – it doesn’t follow that, just because you pay them, they are any good. I have been told about a recent INSET with an ‘OFSTED consultant’ telling staff that they would be fools not to have a lesson plan (despite this line from the School Inspection Handbook ‘Inspectors will not expect teachers to prepare lesson plans for the inspection.’), that they must show progress in the lesson observation and differentiation for each pupil, that they need an ‘OFSTED file’ containing student data and seating plans. My particular favourite was that if a single child is late to your lesson it is a) your fault for not engaging them (how can you engage them if they are not there?) b) lateness is the teacher’s issue (not SMT, whole school or the pupil themselves?) and c) if that happens your lesson is inadequate.
  • Luck has a lot to do with it. Any observation, and OFSTED in particular, is a snapshot – one tiny moment in time (0.05% of a school year, if you are observed for about 30 minutes). That observation is subject to a range of influences: is it last thing on a windy Wednesday with 11v27 after their half day at college? Has a giant wasp invaded your class room? Is the start or end of term or the school year? Have you been up all night with a sick relative? You do your best, but sometimes in teaching things don’t go the way you want. One observation does not define you as a person or your teaching – we all know those who are excellent but crumble under the pressure of being observed. Equally, I’m sure we all know those who are half-arsed teachers the bulk of the time but can pull a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ to of the bag when being observed. The time I was observed by OFSTED, with a Y10 English group, in the first 3 weeks of a new school year, I was lucky. My lesson was pretty much what I would have normally done, the luck was: that I had taught most of the class for the previous year, and in some cases two years (pity those teachers seeing groups for the first or second time), and that two of the boys decided to have a detailed discussion about the character of Mr Darcy in response to my prompt. I was told the lesson was ‘Outstanding’ but I know that it just happened to be one of those days when all my ducks were in a row, I could have been faced with stony silence and a swift shift to a written task.

OFSTED has become an all encompassing focus in many schools, the danger is that it, and the way that schools interpret its advice, will continue to have a negative effect on teaching. Schools and teachers need to choose whether to allow this to happen.

What did my first job teach me?

As any teacher will tell you, your PGCE (or other training route) is only the start of you learning to be a teacher. Most trainee teachers heave a huge sigh of relief at finishing their course and securing their first job – and rightly so, but the way ahead is steep and difficult. I would be lying if I didn’t say that your first teaching job makes your PGCE seem, relatively, easy.

I attended three interviews before I secured my first job. It was in an 11-16 school in my home county of Somerset, a rural school, totally different from the inner city I trained in. I was so pleased to be offered the job I almost cried – most unlike me. Then it was back to finish the course and graduate.

September 2001 arrived and I started my first term as an English teacher and form tutor. Luckily, I had a Year 7 tutor group who were as nervous and wide eyed as I was, which meant that, for the first day I didn’t really have time to worry. My timetable was a mixture of groups including Year 10 and Year 11 GCSE groups, some ‘nice’ and some ‘challenging’. Having this mix is important. Sometimes, new teachers are kept away from exam groups and difficult classes – this isn’t helpful as they have to learn to teach these groups at some point. All it does is put more pressure on those who end up with large numbers of exam/difficult groups and creates a situation where these groups are taught by a select few due to the fear of a dip in results.

The department was small, a head of department who started at the same time as me, three part timers and two NQTs. There were filing cabinets full of ‘resources’, many of them printed on Banda machines (one to Google if you have never heard of it) and newspaper articles from the early 80s. Schemes of work were almost non-existent. This was a blessing and a curse as it forced me to produce my own resources and schemes – tough work but I believe it set me up for my teaching career. My planning and lesson delivery improved (to see the gaping chasm between these two read @tstarkey1212‘s blog post on planning).

Being part of a small department, and a small school meant that I got the opportunity to take on extra responsibility. This included being the first in the department to get an interactive whiteboard in my second year. A classroom was built from a section of corridor and part of a toilet block (I kid you not) and the board was installed. As is often the case, it didn’t occur to anyone that I might actually need a traditional board as well – especially with a relatively new, untried piece of equipment (this was eventually sorted out). I had to teach myself how to use the board and its software, as well as having back up lessons for when it broke down. I learnt to wing it, when necessary, and rely on my subject knowledge and my teaching ability.

I eventually moved to another school, for promotion, after three years and was genuinely sad to leave.

So, what did my first job teach me?

  • There is no substitute for doing it yourself. Although there was support and guidance, most of the schemes I taught were created by me. This made me a much better teacher and improved my subject knowledge. I am all for sharing resources, but I think there is a danger of going too far, with whole schemes produced on powerpoint, lesson by lesson. Teachers need to make the lesson their own and the danger with this is that they don’t. I have observed a lesson power point, which I had produced and shared, being taught by someone who thought all they had to do was show the slides to their class – they hadn’t even read the text fully – needless to say, the lesson was a disaster. Yes it takes longer to create new resources or tweak existing ones, but that is what a good teacher does.
  • ‘Bad’ groups have sometimes been short changed. My first GCSE group was one which was a terrifying prospect. Year 11, lots of SEN, challenging behaviour – you know the type. I was given them, I suspect, because if I didn’t manage to get results out of them it wasn’t the end of the world. The class had had three teachers in Year 10, one of whom had walked out mid-lesson never to return. When I looked at their ‘coursework’ I was horrified – none of it was acceptable and mostly there were just a series of posters made after watching films. The group had been failed – by their teachers and by the previous head of department. Over the course of a year we worked hard to complete the missing work and prepare for the exam. It was not plain sailing. I had to convince the group that I was going to stay and that they were capable of GCSE work. There were tantrums and upturned tables (a pupil, not me), but eventually it was done – all but one achieved a pass, and two got a C grade. Those C grades mean the world to me as I know just how hard the pupils worked for them. From that point on, I was careful not to judge a class by their data and reputation and knew the importance of high expectations.
  • Sometimes you have to go with your instincts. The more observant of you will have noticed that my first teaching position coincided with a tragic time in world history, 9/11. My new Year 8 class were doing a scheme of work on the media. We had covered the difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet, looked at the layout of a front page and the questions an article aims to answer. Homework was to bring in a tabloid or a broadsheet newspaper for analysis in the next lesson. I went home that night to see the news full of the horrible events in New York. The next day, I met my Year 8 class again – almost every child had brought in a newspaper, some had brought in two. At the start of the lesson I had had a vague plan of getting the group to write a newspaper article on a completely unrelated topic, or to pull out the textbooks. However, the group wanted to explore the front pages, naturally they were shocked and frightened by what had happened but also curious. Nervously, I decided to go ahead with the planned lesson. We looked at the front pages and the way the headlines were written, the choice of images and the difference between the tabloid and broadsheet coverage. The class were brilliant – fantastic, probing questions; thoughtful comments and a solid understanding of how newspapers cover a major international event. When I spoke to other members of the department about the lesson some were shocked and suggested that parents would complain – not a single one did. It was a tough lesson emotionally for all of us, but I’m glad I went with my instinct.
  • Life sometimes gets in the way. The danger with teaching is that it can be all encompassing. However, sometimes you need to prioritise ‘real’ life: your family and friends. During my first teaching position, this was reinforced by three events – my father having a (thankfully non-fatal) heart attack, my grandmother dying while I was on an overnight school trip and a friend being shot and killed in the local pub. What I learnt from these three incidents was that you need to let someone in school know (however private a person you are), and that ‘good enough’ teaching, whether it be use of worksheets, textbooks or whatever, is good enough until you are in a position to get back to your normal standard of teaching. No one, will criticise or blame you (and if they do then, frankly it is not a school you want to work in) if your lessons are less than brilliant and the books not marked for a while. Concentrate on what is important and let HoDs and SLT deal with the rest, after all, that is what they are paid extra for.
  • School politics can be bizarre. Schools can be a hotbed for all sorts of odd behaviour – you probably have all kinds of stories (real and exaggerated) from your own school days. My first job reinforced that: the ‘reserved’ seats in the staffroom, mugs and the all too common rivalry between the Maths, Science and English departments. However, I also experienced the minefield that can be departmental politics. My new HoD was in the unenviable position of having to work with his predecessor, a lady nearing retirement who had given up the head of department job to teach part time (not entirely voluntarily, I suspect). They did not see eye to eye. She wanted to hoard the old resources (Banda sheets and all, many of which hadn’t been touched for years) and was reluctant to make any changes to ‘the way things have always been done’, even when a change was desperately needed. Pupils had been set in Year 7 and then remained in the same class throughout their school career, she never saw the problems this caused in the lower groups as she only taught the top ones. In departmental meetings, she was vocally against any suggestions that were not her own – it was clear that she had become totally disillusioned with teaching and did not enjoy what she did. Eventually she made the decision to resign (to the relief of the rest of the department, who were sick of the tension) and left after giving a speech to the whole staff about the awful state of education and that children should not have to attend school after 14 years of age. My advice, if you find yourself caught in a similarly bizarre situation, observe, listen but keep your own counsel (in public at least).

Your first teaching job, good or bad, is something that helps shape you as a teacher. It will be hard (realistically it should be) and it may convince some that teaching is not for them, but for those who stay in the job it is unforgettable.

What did teacher training teach me?

Reflection is a key tool in any teacher’s arsenal, so with that in mind, I am going to write a series of posts reflecting on the lessons I have learnt from different parts of my teaching career. There seems no better place to start than the start of my teaching career.

I came to teaching slightly later than many do, I had left university 7 years previously and worked in a variety of jobs including finance, journalism and the military. However, in 2000 I decided to stop resisting the career that everyone I knew told me I should follow.

I applied and was accepted on a PGCE course through a SCITT in Birmingham. SCITT stands for School Centred Initial Teacher Training – this was a PGCE course validated by the Open University but based in a consortium of schools rather than a university. The course appealed to me as I would be based in schools for the bulk of my training, with one day a week of lectures and twilight sessions.

In some ways, this was a real trial by fire. We were a small group of trainees, which inevitably got smaller as the course progressed, based in some of the toughest schools in Handsworth. We would spend our time in two different schools – my two were a mixed comprehensive and a non-selective girls’ school. We were encouraged to teach before our ‘official’ placement, and expected to continue teaching afterwards, each lesson having a 2 page A4 triplicate lesson plan – to be completed several days in advance.

I had two mentors. One was bubbly, disorganised and totally supportive. She encouraged me to teach Chaucer to Year 10 and experiment with my teaching. I remember attending a parents’ evening with her. No appointments, a large proportion of non-English speakers and few of the pupils attending – it was chaos, I had no idea who anyone was and I suspect she didn’t either! My other mentor was almost the polar opposite. He was a stickler for detail, not particularly supportive and used to lock away every item of stationery – even the board pen and eraser. However, I learnt a lot from both of them.

I planned and taught lessons at all Key Stages, some went well, others were disastrous. I wrote essays, lesson plans and created schemes of work. I attended staff meetings and parents’ evenings. It was a hard slog, weekends and holidays were spent working, I barely saw my partner but eventually, finally, I passed.

So, what did my training teach me? Beyond the basics…

  • The first time a pupil swears at you is a big shock. In my first placement I had a very difficult Y9 class (why do they always seem to be Y9?). They were tough and reluctant to complete any tasks I set – I had to grit my teeth to build up the courage to come out from behind the desk. Then one of the little lovelies decided to swear at me. It was like a punch to the gut – not because the words offended me, or my feelings were hurt, but because I wasn’t sure what to do. Your normal reaction may be to swear back, leave the room, thump them – none of which you are allowed to do! I stood there like a goldfish opening and closing my mouth. However, the next time it happened the spell was broken, I knew what to do and was (relatively) calm.
  • Always check your resources. Towards the end of my third placement, with a sense of demob excitement in the air and a plan to show a video, I failed to check my resources carefully enough. For part of a scheme on satire, I planned to show an episode of The Simpsons. I had watched it before so all should be fine – but it wasn’t. I had chosen what is now etched into my mind as the ‘bastard’ episode – where Homer meets his illegitimate brother and Bart says ‘bastard’ about a million times. I had to brazen it out or it would have been all too obvious that I had cocked up. I still shudder.
  • Good behaviour needs good managers. Beyond the classroom level, pupils behaviour needs a strong and active SLT. I was based in two very different schools, both challenging but one SLT were in the corridors, they taught and the pupils knew where the line was drawn. The other school had two locked doors between SLT and the rest of the school and they were rarely seen – unsurprisingly, behaviour was much worse.
  • Take time to wind down. This is something that easily gets forgotten, but it is essential for your mental health. Every Friday we would meet up for a drink to discuss the triumphs and disasters of the week. Once a month we met up in a Chinese restaurant and ate and drank ourselves silly – it really helped.
  • Some training is rubbish. Not every ‘expert’ gives useful advice. I had to sit through ICT ‘training’ which started with how to switch on a computer. I also remember a session on behaviour where it was obvious that the teacher had not been in the classroom for years, and when he had been, it was in a selective grammar – totally unlike the schools most of us had been placed in. Take it with a pinch of salt and move on.

Teaching is a tough job and teacher training needs to be tough to prepare you. But it is worth it!

Summary of SOLO Posts

As one of the searches that seems to bring people to my site is for SOLO taxonomy, here is a post which provides links to each of the posts I have written about SOLO. I am not saying that SOLO is a magic bullet or universal panacea, however, my research suggests that it may have a positive impact.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is: read about it, try it for yourself if you want to and make up your own mind whether it is useful for you and your students.

MA Research Project

All of these posts are based on my final MA dissertation, as a result they tend to be more theoretical.

Teaching with SOLO

These posts are about my own experiences using SOLO in lessons.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer.