Moving On

Two years ago I wrote a post with the very same title as this one. Although the content between this post and that are vastly different, the theme, however, is the same – change. As over the next few weeks and months, things will change for me in a number of different ways. I am not only moving house, I am also moving for work and to be in the same country and city with my partner of 18 months.

As I sit and write this post I am sat on my sofa occasionally glancing up from the laptop screen to take stock of the four walls around me. Above the TV on the opposite wall, there used to be a large map where I had placed stickers of the various countries that I have visited. Around this I had stuck photos and postcards from some of these travel destinations; some were of landscapes, and many contained images of family and friends.

Looking at it now the bare wall reminds me that I the life I currently lead is, and always has been temporary.

As I write those words, I feel a wave of sadness wash over me as if to encourage me to hide away, to try and pretend that things aren’t changing around me. But if there is one thing that I have learnt over the past three years it is this, although we may not have control over a lot of things that may happen, we do have some power over how we respond to the change. And at least for now, I want to face this change that conjures anxiety and uncertainty and try to embrace it.

Reflect, Review, Repeat

As we near the end of the summer term and with exams nearly over, attention has turned to staff appraisals. Unlike previous schools that I have worked in, where these are completed twice a year (at the beginning and around now), my current school requires us to complete these each term, with five in total.

The senior management feel that these regular appraisals with a nickname of RAG (for red, amber, green) provides us with meaningful reflection, where our performance (for instance in terms of examination results) and personal conduct is scrutinised each term and then colour-coded with a few comments thrown in for extra padding.

But I wonder, aside from the additional paperwork that this fairly repetitive task creates for me as a Head of Department as well as for my peers, are these RAGs actually worth the paper that they are written on*?

This is a tricky question to answer in relation to teaching and education generally. The role is incredibly varied and although we receive a lot of instructions and directions from sources above us, with the idea of us obviously following these, on a day-to-day basis we generally have a large amount of autonomy, primarily in our classroom.

But this question came to my mind for a number of reasons recently, firstly because I am currently in the process of writing up appraisal reports for my team as well as receiving my own, and also when I hit publish on my previous post it forced me to reflect on some of the reasons why I am happy about stepping down from a management role.

In my current school’s system, in theory, nobody should receive a ‘red’ unless something serious has happened as staff should have been made aware of any concerns before it got to the stage of having it included on their appraisal. And conversely, no one should be awarded a ‘green’ unless they have done something exceptionally good.

But this is where the water gets murky for my current school’s appraisal system, as some of the categories on which we are judged are suspect at best and in situations just bizarre; with things like ‘Behaviour as a role model’, ‘Appearance’ and ‘School ambassador’ included in the document alongside ‘Task completion’, ‘Attendance’ and ‘Relationships’.

In my first year, I was awarded amber for my ‘Appearance’ and I was fairly surprised. I have always thought that I dressed appropriately, comfortable and professional yet keeping within my own personal style. By my final appraisal and after receiving amber for the entire year, I queried this, how does one go about getting a green for appearance?

My line manager’s response was that he couldn’t give me many greens as it was only my first year and that ‘I needed something to work towards’. So I need to work towards wearing more professional clothes? But ultimately this told me that the rationale for the amber was less to do with my actual appearance and more to do with management not wanting the form to look too green, i.e., too positive!

Another example relates to a box entitled ‘Job fit’ where the same colour-coding system is used to establish whether you are effective as a worker, a manager and as a leader. The same line manager said that he felt that I was a good manager but ‘he couldn’t see me as a leader’. Again, I queried this, how would he identify a leader in an organisation? I was provided with a vague response about a leader having that special magical ingredient that sets them apart from just being a manager. His comment did make some sense, but in all honesty if that’s the case, I don’t see any of the management at the school as being leaders either.

Sigh…

In my current role, I have been required to issue a small number of reds on a couple of colleague’s RAGs. My line manager insists that these kinds of details are recorded on their appraisals and that it is discussed during our termly meetings. Sure, if something serious has happened then (if appropriate) immediate action may be required but in many incidences, the issues are rare and sometimes out of my colleague’s control (i.e., it’s not necessarily that they weren’t at fault, but other factors and other people were also involved).

It feels more like reflection just for the sake of reflection, without any clear guidance on genuine suggestions for improvements. The box can be ticked. Move on.

So it comes probably as no surprise but obviously with great sadness (!) that one of the aspects of my current role that I am not going to miss is related to what I feel is more like a pointless administrative task, which doesn’t actually provide sufficient support either to myself or to members of my team about their performance. I don’t know what to suggest as an alternative, but I know that colour-coding the negatives and positives doesn’t cut it.

* The short answer is no.

GOODBYE MIDDLE MANAGEMENT, AND GOOD RIDDANCE

Three years ago when I started working at my current school I was looking forward to stepping down from the ‘management plate’. I had had pretty much had my fill of working in the higher middle management echelons after working as Head of Key Stage 5 in my previous position. It hadn’t been all bad, I found that I was fairly effective at dealing with university applications and recruitment fairs as well as organising pastoral activities for tutors. And there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed and gained great satisfaction from, such as working with students to help them consider their options post school. But the shine had worn off quickly when I found myself repeatedly butting heads with a colleague working at a similar level to me over administrative tasks, she was constantly trying to pass additional work my way when this should have been shared evenly. Although the issues were minor in the grand scheme of things, it was like a drip-drip effect, somewhat like low-level disruption and it gradually wore me down.

Part of the appeal of the school I applied for three years ago (that is, my current school) was that I would return to being ‘just a teacher again’. I had been burnt in my previous position and aside from a desire to lick my wounds for a period of time, I was lacking confidence in my own ability. I was ready to focus on teaching again after putting this largely on the backburner for a little over a year. I had still been teaching whilst holding the Head of Key Stage 5 position, but in reality, the demands of the management role superseded my teaching and it had suffered as a result.

After a few days into my new role three years ago I was approached about taking on some additional responsibility as a Head of Department. Shocked and surprised didn’t even cut it. Gobsmacked more like. I had only been there a matter of days and was still feeling some of the effects of jetlag, and so I knew that I wasn’t thinking straight when the headteacher asked to speak to me in his office.

It transpired that a colleague was stepping down due to illness; it would only be for a year he said, there’d be plenty of support he said, and don’t worry he added. A people pleaser through and through and having my ego stroked (including the prospect of an additional monthly financial incentive) cemented my acceptance of the role with little real thought at the time of what the role would entail. I even glibly ignored the fact that the headteacher had said during this meeting that one of the reasons they were considering me was because I had no ‘ties’, i.e., no kids and having my then partner based in another country meant that I had no distractions. I would focus on the job at hand. Why the hell I didn’t walk out the door at that point I have no idea, but then that could have been the people pleaser in me. But then, he was right, I was in that position. However, knowing the headteacher as I know him now, I am well aware that the issue of ‘ties’ would never have been raised with a male colleague in a similar position.

Three years on and I am still in the role of Head of Department, although I will be stepping down once more when I leave in a few weeks time. To say that I am excited would be an understatement, I am ecstatic. And to illustrate how happy I am about relinquishing the role, when I was being interviewed for my new position the headteacher asked me for my feelings on this, i.e., would I be comfortable in going back to being ‘just a teacher?’

My response?

A huge smile lit up my face.

THE COMPARISON GAME

It’s that time of year again.

Study leave for examination students.

During this summer term I have been in the fortunate position of having a lighter teaching timetable and so it has meant that I have been able to get on with some planning for my new position that begins this summer, as well as have a general tidy up of existing planning and resources. Due to my management position also, I have been required to organise relevant documentation in order to pass onto ‘the new me’, so apart from a few slightly extended lunches since we returned to work after the Easter break I have been productive with my gained time.

However, not everyone in my school is happy with a section of the teaching body getting ‘all this free time’ with the majority of grumbles coming from the primary section. Unlike the schools, I worked at in the UK where primary and secondary schools are predominately separate in terms of geography, in the two international schools I have worked in so far their primary and secondary schools have been located on the same site.

A close friend made these familiar-sounding grumbles recently where, during dinner with a group after work, she proceeded to compare her working hours as a primary teacher to that of an ‘average secondary teacher’. I tried to maintain a cool and calm exterior whilst she berated the ‘average secondary teacher’, arguing that our work was easy in comparison, particularly at this time of year. Perhaps understandably I felt myself become defensive in response to some of her remarks. Of course whilst there will always be some teachers who kick back during this time, they are in the minority. It is in fact during this time when most secondary teachers are catching up on planning and resourcing for new courses or updating what currently exists, and that’s if they don’t still have a heavy teaching timetable (for instance with KS3) or, if they are working in a school that doesn’t offer their students study leave.

But at the time I didn’t say any of this out loud at the time, as we would have ended up going around in circles as well as probably ending the evening by falling out. Plus, I have heard it all before, from her in particular and when I have tried to provide some balance it has fallen on deaf ears. It’s like comparing apples and oranges I reminded myself and that there are some comparison games that are simply pointless in playing.

But what would be nice is that rather than working against one another and seeing ourselves in a perpetual state of competition over our hours, our tasks and even our status within teaching, couldn’t we try and be a little bit more supportive?

ONE WAY… OR ANOTHER?

Back in early April, Theresa May called for a ‘snap’ general election and today is voting day. It’s an interesting way of running what is a pretty important national event, being able to call for an election and set a date for within six weeks time. That’s my idea of stress! But then again, perhaps we should be grateful for these ‘snap’ elections, my partner who is American had two years of lead-up before the US presidential election finally came to a close.

I landed back in the UK for my Easter break not long after May’s announcement and the conversation quickly turned to politics, with my dad asking me for my thoughts on the drive back from the airport. I said that I was surprised, especially considering that May had declared a number of times during the first months of her leadership that there would be no general election. After all, it’s just shy of a year when we voted in the EU referendum. And only a year before that was the previous general election. You have to wonder if the general public is a bit ‘electioned out’.

My parents have always been relatively private about their voting intentions and have certainly not been particularly vocal about their political leanings. With the only exception being the 1997 general election where I know that both my parents voted for New Labour. At least for them back then, something had to change and that even included telling other people about their voting plans.

Fast forward twenty years and for this election, I feel a sense of energy that I haven’t felt for some time, perhaps since the first time I was able to cast a vote in 2001. I didn’t vote in the previous two general elections and although I cannot place my rationale for this squarely at the door of apathy, that certainly played a part. But I can’t help but wonder if this newfound energy (whether that’s in me or I am feeling the buzz within wider society) is the result of feeling that there is more of a choice this time around, compared to the past two elections where it felt like each political party was more of the same.  

So I had better get my vote in.

Oh, and I am voting Labour… just in case you might be interested.

HELLO, WAS IT ME YOU WERE LOOKING FOR?

I hope so, but even if you are a subscriber or just so happened to have stumbled across this post and my blog; good morning, good afternoon or evening wherever you are in the world.

Has it really been nearly a month since my last post?

Yes, sure enough it’s there in black and white, 10th May was when I last hit publish.

Over the last few weeks I got all kinds of caught up in work; including making a start with planning for my new teaching job that starts this summer, I guess I didn’t quite realise how caught up I would be with it, as well as doing a bit of travel that was also for work.

I have a few posts in the pipeline so I hope to be back writing more very soon.

TAKING A CHANCE: INTERNATIONAL TEACHING

As part of a new series of posts looking at teaching in an international context, including some of its most wonderful aspects as well as some of the things that I wished that I had known in advance, I thought that I would begin by writing a post about some of my reasons for leaving the UK to teach abroad in the first place.

Ten years ago this June, I participated in a graduation ceremony confirming the completion of my teacher training. I was finally leaving what had felt like a relatively safe and fulfilling bubble of academia and heading out into the big, wide world of full-time employment.

And now looking back over my career to date, I realise that I have not only jumped over what feels like a hurdle (or should that be a shitload of hurdles) of getting to the infamous five-year mark of employment in teaching, where it is estimated that approximately 50% of new teachers will have left the profession, but I have also added five more.

But the fact is that for at least for me, if I had remained in the UK to teach, I don’t believe that I would still be teaching at least in a secondary school context.

There was most definitely not one single factor that led to my decision to leave the UK, but five years ago I was presented with a choice: stay or go (as in move abroad to live and work). The latter primarily instigated by my then partner who had already moved to Spain for a teaching role. The romantic in me would say that I moved for love, although I have subsequently realised love is not necessarily the best reason to move jobs let alone countries.

Prior to the move abroad, I had been working at a city secondary school, which reported generally strong examination results and had good connections to parents and the local community. All of which were part of the lure for me apply for the job in the first place. My immediate team were also incredibly supportive, something that I had been craving having left my previous position partly due to an absence of this at the departmental level. However, after less than a year of working at what was my second teaching position in the UK, I realised that I didn’t quite ‘fit’ within the school itself. My previous school had been considerably smaller in size and therefore on a day-to-day basis I would regularly see familiar faces, those of students and staff alike, and it felt like a warm and close-knit community. But in my second position, I often felt lost and there were times when I didn’t know who to turn to for advice. Plus, I realised that I simply wanted to work in a school with a smaller student intake.

Finding a school that ‘fits’ is much like a romantic relationship, you can go in thinking of what you desire in a partner; such as a steady job, good hair, own teeth, wants marriage and so on, but you end up falling in love with someone who doesn’t fit any of that criteria. And the same can be said for a school, sometimes the things that you think you want, just don’t work in reality.

Another significant factor that could be said to have influenced my decision to leave the school itself was related to the behaviour of the students. There were times when I found it really tough, to the point where I absolutely dreaded going into work. For some lessons, it felt more like crowd control than anything else, as I couldn’t say any real learning took place for some of the students. I issued warnings, handed out detentions, contacted home, and fortunately the team I worked with were always willing to have some of most badly behaved sat in the back of their class with some work to do. There were, of course, times when I would skip stages of the ‘behaviour management process’ when I was tired and/or stressed, but I followed school policy mostly to the letter.

Things came to a head with one particular class towards the end of the academic year that contained a number of ‘characters’, to put it politely. I taught them for a double (two hours) on Monday after lunch and they were all over the place in terms of academic ability. There were two students in particular who appeared to go out of their way to disturb the class and learning in any way that they could each week. And, after months of using various strategies to manage their behaviour, I cracked.

I had contacted a member of the management team to remove one of the students, who, in this specific lesson was the catalyst for most of the disruption. He had continually refused to follow my instruction of waiting outside for a ‘time out’. But whilst the member of management delivered a grave speech to the entire group about the importance of the learning that should have been taking place, I began to cry. I didn’t break down completely but it was certainly enough for the front few rows to notice the tears.

It perhaps should be left to a future post to provide my own opinion about the effectiveness of certain behaviour management strategies for some students and even my own failings in this regard, but as you can imagine I was embarrassed by the incident and also by what appeared to me was that I simply wasn’t up to the job, at least in that school. In effect, I had lost all confidence in my ability to teach. It was only upon moving on that I realised that I wasn’t completely rubbish at teaching and in a different environment I could thrive.

So when I was presented with an opportunity to leave and move to my first international teaching position in Spain, I jumped at the chance. My partner was already working at the school and so he provided a backdoor opportunity to meet and receive an interview with one of the headteachers, a convenient break certainly.

In the next instalment… Sun, Sangria and Salary Woes

FINDING INSPIRATION IN SHAKESPEARE

A little over a year ago I participated in some teacher training that provided me with an existential experience. A dramatic statement I know, but it was and still is perhaps the best and most useful training I have ever had in my teaching career to date.

The training was focused on developing effective leadership skills, but its audience was to the teacher and not specifically aimed at the higher echelons of management. We are, as teachers, leaders of a sort in our classrooms and the organiser wanted us to reflect on our own leadership skills and to see how we could link some of the work of Shakespeare to our role.

I was dubious at first and naively, I thought to myself, what could Shakespeare teach us about how to improve our leadership skills in the classroom? For example, one of the set texts for my GCSE English Literature exam was Macbeth and we all probably know what happened to him.

Well, it turned out (surprise, surprise) it could teach us quite a lot.

At the beginning of the day and for those who didn’t know a huge amount about the story of Henry V, including myself, we were given a synopsis of Shakespeare’s play including a few (amazing!) direct readings, most notably the St. Crispin’s Day speech where Henry motivates his soldiers on the morning of the Battle of Agincourt. The rousing speech along with Henry’s evident clear direction of goals is believed to have helped the English defeat the French despite being vastly outnumbered. But the purpose of the training wasn’t to provide a history lesson, although that was an added bonus, it was to illustrate how some of the themes Shakespeare used in his depiction of the story of Henry V could be utilised inside and outside the classroom, in particular, the importance of how effective leaders inspire the troops.

The troops in my case are students and one of the key message that was emphasised from the very beginning was that despite what the government, the media and some members of school management may say, the kids are not the most important part of a school. It’s the teachers. If teachers are largely happy, confident and feel supported in their role, then this will translate into their job of actually teaching, ultimately leading to hopefully happy, confident students who feel supported in their own learning.

And it was also at this point that I felt something unfurl within me, as though a part of me was stretching and waking up from slumber. It struck me that I knew I couldn’t stay much longer at my current school and it even raised larger questions about whether I wanted to remain in teaching. The realisation shook me to my core and at various points throughout the day, I was holding back tears as for the first time, in what felt like a long time, I felt as though I was being listened to but without having to say anything at all.

The organiser made the point a few times throughout the day about the importance of a supportive work culture that begins from the top (the organiser illustrated this point using Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech which he read in its entirety without prompts) and it was during this time that I noticed a few disgruntled faces amongst the management team. I believe that the shit hit the fan for some as this guy was inspiring us. He was waking most, if not nearly all of us up from a compliant and passive slumber.

I couldn’t describe the school as having a supportive culture. There are shades of it for sure, but unfortunately blame and fear ring closer to the truth. I certainly don’t want to paint all of the school management as completely unsupportive but I learnt quickly that to speak up about something was akin to branding yourself on the forehead. And those who stood out generally didn’t last long.

This was what I have always found a bit odd and disconcerting about some of the schools that I have worked in and I am sure that I am not alone in thinking this, we like to encourage our students in the hope that they will be inspired to study and think about the content they learn,  admittedly some of this motivation may come in the form of sweets or other extrinsic reward to simply get a piece of work finished, but teacher motivation is something that is rarely given as much consideration. It is assumed that working with students is reward enough. But sometimes it is quite nice to be simply told, ‘Well done, you’re doing a great job’, something that rarely happens in my school from upper management.

It obviously hasn’t been as straightforward as experiencing this realisation and then leaving. The training was over a year ago and if simply due to contract requirements I have been required to provide nearly a year’s formal notice of resignation. But I am now in my last term working at my current school and it feels incredibly strange to think that I won’t return there come the end of summer. I have learnt a great deal over the past three years and this realisation is one of the bigger things, work culture matters and a school that doesn’t value its staff will eventually lose them.

POLICIES NOT INSULTS PLEASE

The general election had barely been announced before insults were being flung from one political party to another, and one which spectacularly backfired came from the current foreign secretary, Boris Johnson who described Jeremy Corbyn as a “mutton-headed old mugwump” referring to the latter’s views on national defence.

The word ‘mugwump’ sounds like a description of a Harry Potter creation and in actual fact it is, referring to members of a confederation of wizards, including characters like Albus Dumbledore. Although it’s pretty obvious that Boris didn’t intend to label Corbyn as a wizard, or to mean Corbyn was like a ‘boss’ if you take a Native American definition of the term, rather, Boris used the term to insult the leader of the opposition.

When the story broke, I felt myself groan, along with I am sure many others. If this was an example of how the 2017 general election was going to begin, I wondered what the rest of the campaigning was going to look like. 

Will we actually hear election pledges or just a bunch of playground insults?

There are certainly far worse pejorative terms that could be flung at politicians, but the mud-slinging is not only annoying but it also trivialises many elements of the democratic process, steering people away from looking further at policies proposed.

Soon after qualifying as a teacher and before I started my first job, I completed some work experience in London working at the Palace of Westminster. I was lucky to be based right within the belly of the House of Commons assisting an education outreach group. Although most of the work took place behind closed doors working with secretary’s for various MPs, I was granted some freedom to wander the corridors of Westminster with other recently qualified teachers. We also managed to view some debates from the public gallery of the House of Commons. I was, at the time, a complete politics geek so you can probably imagine my excitement of being in the thick of it all.

In the years since my work in London, my active political engagement and enthusiasm has waned. In all honesty, I lost interest in some of the comings and goings of British politics to the point that I didn’t even bother voting in the previous two general elections. I simply couldn’t recognise in those standing for election aspects that I could believe in. One only has to take a brief look at a news clip of a debate within the House of Commons itself, particularly when the house is full to see what I mean. I completely understand and endorse the need for debate but when that consists of shouting over one another along with offensive jeering and sneering along with the occasional xenophobic and sexist remark thrown in, it becomes more like a disturbing carnival sideshow than anything politically driven.

But then that’s the point, politics often operates like a carnival side-show. Those who can shout the loudest or say something controversial are generally going to be heard first. And of course, politicians don’t operate in a bubble, the media choose what to report and how.

But as a teacher, I wouldn’t tolerate this in the classroom or in the ‘average’ workplace, so why does it occur so freely within the political sphere?

In the past year or so I have tried to address my own lack of interest, particularly since the Brexit vote (in which I did vote) but Johnson’s recent ‘mugwump’ comments have reminded me of how frustrating and childish (British) politics/politicians can be*.

I want to hear clear policies and genuine intentions, not backbiting. But then if you can distract the press and the public by throwing stones and insults, it means that there is less focus on the policies themselves, as they may well be shit.

* Obviously, the British are not isolated in this, you only need to look across the Atlantic ocean.

SWITCHING OFF FROM SWITCHING ON

Things have been quiet on the site for a little over a week as I have been away on holiday. The break provided me with what might seem like one of the latest Windows updates, including the swirling circle indicating ‘come back later’ and also having no clue of a definitive timescale of when the update will be complete. However, I now feel as though I am rebooting back to someone I vaguely know. I feel awake for a start.

A number of things take a hit when I experience periods of chronic fatigue; I skip the gym, my diet switches to dishes that require little thought or preparation on my part (so mostly fast food then) and I don’t have the mental energy to even think about writing. There were various moments last week where I felt as though I was having out of body experiences as I was struggling to focus or build enthusiasm for many tasks outside of day-to-day teaching. All in all, I was ready for some time out.

However, one of the things that I noticed over the course of the weekend was that I was still struggling to switch off. For example, one of my first thoughts on Saturday morning was that I needed to check my inbox… I didn’t as my partner wanted to head out for an early morning walk. A strategic diversion on his part? Not quite, more of a well-timed walk along the beach to watch the sunrise.

IMG_4884

I have a few more days before I head back to work and so I hoping to use the time to catch up with friends, get to the gym and to do something that I have missed dearly in this relatively short period, writing.