What I Still Don’t Know

I sit here at the end of another weekend, contemplating the week ahead of me. Tomorrow I teach 5 lessons, beginning with a double year 12 and ending with year 7.

As usual I have planned and prepared. My resources are printed and ready on my desk. Books are marked and up-to-date. And yet my stomach shifts queasily as I consider my lessons. Why?

In many ways, I am far less certain of what I consider ‘good’ teaching to be than I was before I began my PGCE. The simple task of standing before a group of teenagers for hours on end, asking to be listened to, has eroded that certainty. I have witnessed every emotion pass over the faces of my classes – from apathy, to boredom, frustration, anger, excitement, embarrassment, and back again.

When I first joined Twitter and began looking around at educational blogs it was like walking into a wonderland of glittering new ideas. I learned so much. I learned to expect more from my classes, to take charge of their behaviour and to stop trying to be liked. I learned that it’s OK for learning to be hard and that increasing knowledge was the key to increased creativity.

I learned all of this, and I am a far better teacher for it. But I will go to school tomorrow and – guess what? Some lessons will go well, others won’t. Some children will misbehave. Some will be bored. Some will complain. Some won’t learn much.

The problem is, even if things are working it’s not always easy to tell. Take, for example, my Year 10 class. Faced with a rigorous new GCSE, I have been implementing regular, low-stakes tests with them as recommended around the blogosphere. Their understanding of the poems, perhaps as a consequence, is impressive, and they are beginning to memorize important quotations and to debate interpretations. But it’s not as if they now gleefully launch into learning poetry when they enter my class. They still look bored sometimes. They still complain.

And I still feel unsure of what I’m doing. I don’t feel that I teach ‘like a champion’. Will I ever?

Marking Resolutions

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An example of a completed improvement task

 

This time last year I began foraging for blog posts which might help me understand what was in store in my NQT year. I found many bloggers who described the mistakes they’d made and how to combat them, such as this one. In the wilderness of the pre-NQT Summer, these posts were comforting and helpful.

Dutifully, I then went on to make all the mistakes I’d planned to avoid making. And perhaps my biggest mistake was becoming so entrenched in work at the start of the NQT year. In fact, I didn’t fully realise how ridiculous those early months were until  recently I found and published a post which had lingered in my drafts folder for months and recalled how I used to quickly scoff my packed lunch in bed at 6pm because I hadn’t eaten all day, before dragging the laptop out to work again into the night.

Instead of advice for new NQTs, then, I’m going to share a single method of reducing workload which I want to continue using in my RQT year:

‘Live’ marking.

This is a fancy term for marking books during the lessons, particularly after assessments.

Personally, I prefer a minimalist approach to marking and hate levelling work. Like many schools, however, mine demands a number of levelled pieces per term. There have been points during this last year when I found this marking load unbearable, and at those moments I ‘resorted’ to marking in class. I soon found, however, that the approach has many benefits, not least that that it saved my sanity.

Here’s how this works:

1. You need a good space of time – about 3-4 lessons.
2. In the first lesson (presuming yours are 60 minutes long) the class do their assessment. If they complete during this time, they can read or do another task of your choice (but the task shouldn’t generate any more marking!).
3. Pupils hand in their books in alphabetical order (if you’re copying into a mark book), open at the correct page.
4. In lesson 2, you explain that you will mark their books over the next couple of lessons so they will work silently while you give individual feedback.
5. Options time. I would begin by flipping through a few books to decide how you want to approach marking. You may decide to give written feedback in every book, in some, or to give none at all. You could use a coding system to speed things up even further. If you choose not to write the feedback down and your school requires it, you could ask the pupils to summarize your feedback after you’ve spoken to them.
6. Call each child up to the front. Give your feedback, if needed, in whatever form you’ve chosen.
7. Direct them to an improvement task which they can do when they return to their desks. For instance: ‘write, cover and check this spelling 5 times’ or ‘indicate where new paragraphs should begin and explain why’.
7. During this process you will almost certainly discover trends, and realise the class need further teaching before their improvement tasks. This is why giving over a few lessons to feedback is helpful. You can stop the class at any point to re-cover a topic, or introduce something new.

All of the above may sound like laziness. 4 whole lessons given over to marking books? Think of all the extra knowledge you could cram into them in that time! If you work in a school which demands a certain quantity and quality of written feedback, however, then that school needs to accept that you will need to find time to do so.

Secondly, the pupils benefit. Any follow-up tasks can be given and completed immediately. If they have any questions, there is time for them to ask. Similarly, if kids try to hand in sloppily-presented work, you can simply send them back to their table to sort it out before you’ll mark it. No more pointless ‘use a ruler please’ messages in books.

My main advice? Do what you need to do to make life bearable (perhaps even enjoyable?) for yourself. Sadly, the majority of schools will wring you dry if you let them – so don’t.

NQT Term 1 – ‘Feed me Seymour’

Disclaimer: I wrote this post a long time ago, saved it under drafts and forgot it existed. I’m now two weeks away from finishing my NQT year and it’s interesting to see how much of this has changed (finishing work at 8pm? Ha!). A follow-up post is imminent.little-shop-of-horrors-01

If it seems inappropriate to equate the children under my care to the carnivorous, plant-like alien lifeforms from the ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ then I apologise. Since becoming responsible for my own classes, however, the all-consuming neediness of children has been, at times, overwhelming. Admittedly the children haven’t yet tried to feast on my blood, yet they do assume that I am always willing to cater to their many individual personal dilemmas, preferences and ailments.

At 8.45 am on Friday when the first of my Year 7 class arrives in tears I can feel the faint throbbings of a headache; by 2.45 pm I have been known to turn off all the lights in my classroom and sit in the darkness until I’m able to go home and medicate with wine. Here are the things that have helped to stave off the best this term.

1. Objectives as Questions 99 % of my lessons follow the same format:

1. simple starter activity (see below)

2. Introduce objectives

3. Q and A session drawing out misconceptions

4.  Teach something

5.  Practice

6. Feedback

7. Leave.

This simple routine usually works for me yet, like the true ‘reflective practitioner’ I am, I noticed that if my pupils’ eyes hadn’t already glazed over as they entered the door they most certainly did when I started my ‘today we will…’ spiel.

Now I phrase the lesson objectives as questions. At the end of the lesson the pupils answer these questions, usually on ‘exit slips’ (aka: pieces of paper) which I then glance over before the next lesson. Unsurprisingly, pupils pay more attention when they know they will be tested on the lesson content at the end. They are also made to summarize content (important for memory) and I can quickly assess their progress – this has been eye-opening.

2. Entry Routines

Since my first lessons as an NQT I have had a starter task on the board as each class has entered the room. The task is always short and always requires the kids to write something down in silence. As the term has progressed, these tasks have become simpler. Now, they generally do one of the following: –

  • Re-write and correct SPAG errors in a passage. Extension: Write another sentence containing deliberate errors.
  • Write down your opinion (with reasons) on a contentious topic related to the lesson and be ready to ABC (agree, build, challenge) on your classmates’ views.
  • Mini-quiz testing knowledge and understanding from previous lesson (s). Extension: come up with some difficult questions of your own.

This all sounds incredibly boring – and it probably is. But the pupils know exactly what they need to do when they enter the room, every time. I have found that even the rowdiest of groups will settle down to a simple error-finding activity, meaning we have a nice window of silence afterwards within which I can introduce objectives (see above) and perhaps even teach them something.

3. Pyjamas You know when you are lying on your couch watching TV and you start falling asleep, and you are so tired that the thought of  going upstairs, brushing your teeth, getting changed etc. is too much effort to contemplate? Well something similar happened to me every day for around two months. At the start of term by the time I got home I was so exhausted that I would immediately crawl to my bedroom where I would lie on my bed and eat the packed lunch I hadn’t had time to eat during the day while browsing the internet, still in my work clothes. After a couple of hours (!) the memory of all the work I still had to do would jolt me out of my stupor and I would haul myself downstairs to my laptop to while the night away planning and marking.

This routine continued for some time. As a result, I didn’t genuinely relax at any point in the day. And so I promised myself that I would try to develop a healthier routine. Now when I get home from school, I do the following: 1. Put the kettle and get myself a snack 2. Have a shower if I feel like it 3. Put my pyjamas on 4. Do any planning or work I need to do 5. STOP WORKING This way I have managed to stop working by about 8 pm most nights – some nights earlier. The time after that is for me. I choose to spend this time lying in bed drinking wine and watching ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ but if you are a successful adult you could even spend time with loved ones or exercise in this time.

I hope this helps some of you who are facing your own Shops of Horrors.

A Very NQT Ofsted Part 2

I thought I’d better finally follow up Part 1 of my Ofsted tale.

Lesson

Ofsted were in town, but on their first day I wasn’t seen, or ‘hit’ – the verb of choice in school. Rumours circulated that some staff had been graded as ‘3’s. This troubled me, since 1) Ofsted weren’t meant to be grading lessons and 2) feedback was supposed to be confidential. Right? More on this later. In short, people were beginning to panic.

I, however, wasn’t feeling the fear. On day 1, yes I was terrified. But by the time I woke up on day 2, I was over it. I remembered all the lonely, dark months I had spent worrying and marking and worrying and preparing and worrying … If Ofsted thought I could have done better in my NQT year then so be it. I felt like popping the collar on my metaphorical leather jacket and grinding a metaphorical cigarette under my heel.

Period 1 on day 2 was with my worst class. This class and I have been through the wringer since September. At one point I had 50 % of them on report to me. They are frequently sulky, loud, rude and lazy. In addition, we were doing a dry and boring lesson which involved them listening to me talk about a Lady Macbeth soliloquy before completing an assessment in silence (judge me if you will). But my newly defiant attitude meant I was not changing that lesson, no matter how boring it may be. No siree.

So the lesson began as normal. Now, the aforementioned Lady Macbeth soliloquy includes several words which I knew this class would ‘enjoy’. Hence I decided to ham up lines such as “come to my woman’s breasts.” It was during an exchange about this particular line that I said the immortal words, “imagine if Ofsted walked in now.”

You can see where this is going.

When the inspector walked into the room I froze. I still remember the feeling of my heart plummeting through my body and my blood rushing to my face. So much for not caring. I mutely ushered him to a seat at the back of the room. All I could think was ‘just keep talking and you’ll figure out what to do.’ And so on I went – back to the topic of Lady Macbeth’s breasts, much to the amusement of the class.

But despite a few giggles, they largely performed like a crowd of angels. They behaved impeccably. They answered questions. They asked questions. They did all tasks happily. And when the time came to get on with the assessment, they settled down in silence.

Here’s what the inspector did during my lesson:

– Looked briefly at the pen portrait and seating plan I’d put together (no lesson plan as my school don’t use them)
– Made notes
– Spoke to the two pupils sat closest to him
– Looked through those pupils’ exercise books.

With about 15 minutes left in the lesson, he left. The pupils breathed a sigh of relief and did no further work.

Feedback

There was some discussion amongst those of us who had been ‘hit’ around whether or not to go for feedback. I think that one of the few beneficial aspects of an Ofsted visit for an NQT, however, is the opportunity to get outside appraisal on your teaching, however unreliable or unjust that appraisal may be. The other NQT at my school and I often wonder whether how we teach is ‘normal’ – if you don’t get much chance to observe others and your observations are done by the same few people in your school then it’s hard to tell what goes on beyond your classroom. So on this basis, I decided I’d like to know.

Feedback was given in a small office in the head’s corridor with only the inspector and I present. He began by reiterating that any feedback was confidential, before asking me how I thought the lesson went. He then talked through the lesson. Here are the things he commented on:

– The pupils were engaged and understood the ‘journey of the lesson’ (his words). The students he spoke to said that they enjoy English.

– Marking was helpful and regular. Homework was clearly being set.

– Behaviour was excellent

– He was able to see good progress in pupils’ understanding in the question and answer part of the lesson.

No negative feedback or suggestions for improvement were given.

Overall Thoughts 

  • Grades. I was not offered a grade. If I wanted to infer a grade then I probably could – the word ‘good’ was used throughout the conversation – but I don’t know for sure. However, it appears that this practice is not consistent. Other teachers told me that while the inspectors reiterated that they couldn’t give grades, words like ‘outstanding’ peppered the conversation along with nods and winks. And I know that others were either given grades, or again were able to infer them. My thinking is that if grades truly are gone inspectors need to begin widening their vocabulary beyond words such as ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ since these have understandably become such loaded terms for teachers.
  • Confidentiality. I don’t know the Ofsted rules well enough to say what confidentiality means to them. What I can say from my experience and talking to others is that one way or another people seem to find out how others’ inspections went. I know one teacher, for instance, whose head of department proclaimed on day 2 of their inspection that Ofsted “hadn’t seen any outstanding teaching” in their department yet. Perhaps people are wilfully sharing their feedback. But it seems to me that it would be difficult, in most schools, to keep your feedback entirely private if you wanted to.
  • Teaching Styles. I’m lucky to work in a school which does not pander to the traditional ‘Ofsted style’. My lesson did have a starter of sorts, but it did not have a plenary, mini-plenaries, group or pair work and the children did not get up from their seats at any point. None of this seemed to bother the inspector and he did not comment on the suitability of any of the ‘activities’ beyond the progress he saw taking place because of them. I don’t think my lesson got the hallowed ‘Outstanding’ and if you, or your school, are still bothered by such things then maybe a more ‘bells and whistles’ lesson would be better. I’m just pleased that my lesson was a typical lesson for me, that I didn’t bow to pressure to change anything, that this group of often difficult kids were learning valuable stuff, and that the inspector was happy with that.

If you’re interested, the school was rated Outstanding in every category.

A Very NQT Ofsted – Part 1

In the fitful night that preceded Ofsted’s visit to my school I trawled Google for NQT experiences of Ofsted. I thought it was only fair, therefore, that I document my own. This is a long post, so I’ll describe the rest in Part 2.

We got ‘the call’ late on Tuesday afternoon. I was in the middle of teaching when my HoD opened the door and told me to check my emails. When I did, my first response was to laugh. It was three days until half-term. It had been yet another knackering term, overloaded with assessments and parental ‘concerns’. We were all dragging ourselves through the motions. Yet any hope of a quiet, restful end to the term were gone: Ofsted were coming tomorrow.

We were de-briefed in assembly after school. After the assembly I looked at my plans for the next two days. In all honesty they looked like this:

– Do Year 9 assessment
– Year 10 doing controlled assessment
– Do spelling thing with year 7 and 8. Reading when finished.

My first thought was to panic and re-plan. However, I then thought about it again. Year 9 had been getting ready for their assessment – I’d warned them last lesson that this was going to happen. I really wanted Year 7 and 8 to look back over their books and practise words they had misspelled throughout the term before moving on to a new topic after half-term. Year 10 needed to do their controlled assessment. None of these lessons would be ground-breaking, but the work planned was purposeful and fitting. If Ofsted wanted to see ‘progress over time’, then surely that’s what matters?

Opinions on this question were divided in the staff room. Some teachers maintained that we should go ahead with whatever we had planned, including assessments. Others said that we shouldn’t do assessment lessons as you can’t get ‘Outstanding’ if they don’t see outstanding teaching. Others then pointed out that we weren’t supposed to be graded anyway.

In the end, I stuck to my guns and did the lessons I had already planned, with a few tweaks. I reasoned that if nobody could even agree what Ofsted wanted to see then there was little point in trying to pander to them.

School stayed open until 10 pm that night and free pizzas were brought in. I left at 6pm. I got home that night and looked over my lessons, wrote my pen portraits, marked a few more books and checked I had all the data on my class. I finished work at about 10 pm and was asleep by 11.

Day 1

The next day I got in slightly earlier than usual, at about 7.10 am. I had just enough time to get my resources ready, finish pen portraits and print seating plans etc. As lesson time loomed, I had to abandon the last of my marking.

In contrast to the relative calm I’d felt previously, my predominant feeling that day was mortal terror. Logically, I knew that worrying was pointless. I was doing my best for my class and had worked incredibly hard over the last few months. I marked the books regularly, I gave helpful feedback and my class were making progress. My NQT observations had been excellent. But my main fear was that I didn’t really understand what Ofsted wanted. Was it true that they weren’t concerned with teaching styles anymore? Did we really not have to have group work? Was it honestly OK not to have ‘dialogue’ in the books? Nobody seemed to know for sure.

Ofsted didn’t come into my lessons that day. But they did come in the day after that. My experience of that day will come in Part 2.

My PGCE Experience: Part 1.

My first PGCE placement was in a ‘good’ school close to my home. Despite some Ofsted-pleasing nonsense (progress should be checked in 20 minute cycles, ipads for all students, lengthy lesson plans in minute detail) I liked the school and the staff were welcoming. Although I had some difficult experiences with challenging classes, I received good and encouraging feedback from teachers. When I went beyond what was expected it was noticed and appreciated; for instance, when I put together a scheme of work for a novel which hadn’t previously been taught at the school. My university observations went well and my tutors remarked that I seemed to be sailing through the course. I felt sad when I left, but excited about my next school.

Elsewhere, things were going well. I had a permanent teaching post secured by February, in an outstanding school which had a huge volume of applicants. I mention all of this not to brag – I still felt cripplingly and rightly under-confident about my ability to teach – but to highlight the contrast with the rest of my year.

My second placement was in a very under-subscribed, challenging school with very high SEN and Pupil Premium numbers. The working atmosphere was atrocious; staff who appeared to be close friends would snipe about each other’s abilities behind their backs in the staffroom. The head of department was openly and vigorously criticized, as was head, deputy head and pretty much any member of staff who didn’t happen to be present at that time. I remember one member of staff happily commenting on a girl she taught: “She’s a bitch and I fucking hate her.”

Despite this atmosphere, I  enjoyed being at the school at first. Staff were generally civil towards me, and a couple (particularly the aforementioned, despised head of department who bought me a card after I secured my NQT post) were friendly and helpful. The pupils were badly-behaved but open and friendly. I was happy that I was experiencing a different, and more challenging school than my first.

This all changed as soon as I started teaching. My first lesson, with year 8, was appalling. The students talked over me and put little or no effort into the tasks. I left the classroom feeling exhausted and upset.

Much of that behaviour was my fault. I didn’t put any serious thought into how I would manage behaviour, or how I would introduce my expectations as a new teacher. I didn’t give out any sanctions when pupils behaved badly or ignored me. If I was to give myself advice now I would say this: Get the pupils lined up in silence outside the door. Let them in one by one, when they are calm. As soon as they are in the room they should open their books and start a task in silence while you take the register and get settled.  Then introduce your rules and get them to copy them down, or stick in their books. Explain your sanction process and use it as soon as needed. Do not attempt to talk over them; wait until they are silent and add minutes to the board. Get them back in at break time to make up those minutes.

I’m not saying this would have solved the problem, and I’m not saying it’s the only way to ensure compliance from a class but  it would have gone some way to making my placement less hellish. I do all of the above with classes now and have relatively very few behaviour problems.

The advice I received from my mentor, however, was very different. He found me at the end of the day in the photocopying room, close to tears. He asked me how I thought it went – I said I thought it was a dreadful lesson. I was finding it difficult to speak and so I explained I was a bit upset. He offered no words of encouragement or reassurance. He agreed the lesson was bad ‘but not a complete disaster’. His take on why it hadn’t worked however, was not to do with behaviour. He believed that the lesson had not been ‘engaging’ enough. My ‘starter’ task for instance: as a warm-up for persuasive writing, I had put some images from adverts the children would know on the board and asked them to note down in the back of their books any adverts they liked and what made them memorable. My mentor said that asking the students to answer questions in their books was disengaging and had turned them off from the lesson.

More to come in Part 2….