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.

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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.

A NEW OPPORTUNITY

A few weeks ago I signed myself up for the ‘Blogging Fundamentals’ course, part of WordPress University. I was really excited from the off as I was hoping to spend time working on my writing muscles and also engage with fellow bloggers.

I have a tendency to be pretty hard on myself when it comes to ‘getting shit done’, believing that there is always more that I could be doing. But I have been trying to stick to my commitment, that is, of posting at least once a week.

That was until this past week or so because work happened… Well, to be more specific, a new job happened.

As I mentioned in some of my earlier posts I have been torn for some time between whether to remain in teaching or not (I am talking at least five years). It is the only profession I have known apart from stints of working in various retail outlets and then a waitress when I was a student, and I can’t leave out the two years doing a newspaper round in the neighbourhood in which I grew up. But in the past few years I have been toying with the idea of leaving to do something different, either still within the field of education or breaking away entirely.

The idea of toying of leaving was very nearly going to become my reality when, after some months I was unable to find another teaching job. I work in the international circuit having left the UK five years ago and, unlike three years ago when I first moved to SE Asia, this time it was going to be much more difficult. In the first instance, my search area was restricted due to a move to be with my partner and also because the teaching market where he is based is incredibly competitive. Most, but certainly not all, international schools have many of their positions filled by Christmas with some advertising as early as September/October for the following academic year. By March, I was resigned to the fact that I would be moving without a job and would be living off some of my savings for an indefinite period of time.

But then a job came up and despite some mixed feelings about applying for it; primarily due to the resigned feeling and wondering whether I still want to teach, I put in an application. And things went from there.

I had an interview and received an offer a little over a week ago.

And the best thing? I am really excited about it!

BREXIT MEANS BREXIT, APPARENTLY

A little thing called Brexit was triggered today, as Brexit is both a verb and a noun, or more specifically article 50 was triggered. The Treaty of Lisbon, which contains the article itself came into force in 2009 allowing member states to apply to leave the European Union. And if you listen to some areas of the media, Britain will not be the first country to do this. It means two years of negotiations between the European Union and the UK to establish what they can both get out of the deal, with what it really coming down to who is going to pay out the most or least depending on how you look at it. But it was a nice photo opportunity for Teresa May to sign official papers in Downing Street as it was also to then have these delivered to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.

In some areas of the media, the result of the EU referendum has been likened to a divorce, resulting in the subsequent dividing up of assets between opposing parties. But, my view is that the relationship is more akin to frenemies. After all, we all know what that’s like… one minute you like one another and the next minute, you don’t. The difference in this instance is that the breakup isn’t usually permanent with frenemies, unlike this situation*. 

Successive British governments, although there have been exceptions, have not found the partnership with the EU easy; they’ve squabbled, they’ve become best buddies again, there have been periods of relative calm (particularly before the economic recession in 2008), only to eventually decide to call it a day in June 2016 in a globally televised vote. I voted in the referendum and found myself gobsmacked when the final result revealed that ‘Leave’ had won by nearly 52% and with a voter turnout of over 72%, this was higher than the previous two UK general elections (65.1% in 2010 and 66.1% in 2015).

It has taken some months for things to sink in, as I, like many, battled with a number of emotions following the result. I was in the Remain camp and felt that we were better together than apart, and I still do. I am not saying that everything about the EU itself is wonderful and it exists in some magical place full of rainbows and unicorns, the EU headquarters are only in Brussels for goodness sake. But silliness aside, the EU is bureaucratic, it is bloated and I also imagine that in some areas it is also expensive to operate. But for me at least, when I think of Europe and its creation, I think of it’s central aim when it was first established – to bring countries together after a period of chaos and war.

Now, where is that magical place full of rainbows and unicorns? Any ideas?

* In theory the UK, like other countries have done in the past, can ask to join (re-join) the European Union and there are various tests a country must pass before being able to do so.

‘HAPPINESS LESSONS’ IN SCHOOLS

I first realised that something wasn’t ‘quite right’ in terms of my emotional health when I was in my early teens.

Sure, like all teens my hormones were all over the place and combined with the fact that I was a frightfully sensitive young woman, it just meant that I was a sucker for punishment. Certainly, the hypersensitivity that I experienced was nothing new, but by the time I was around 14 years old I felt as though I had slipped down a rabbit hole.

As much as I had some wonderful friends, I didn’t feel as though I could confide in them about what I was experiencing. I suppose to some extent I believed that either everyone was going through the same thing or nobody was. But either way, I wasn’t prepared to find out, I felt far too insecure. My parents also had busy working lives and apart from over the dinner table we rarely sat down as a family ‘to talk,’ or if we did, it felt disjointed and false. So I certainly wasn’t going to bring up personal issues with them.

Back at school the only guidance we had about issues related to mental health linked to exam stress. An important area but I didn’t fully understand or couldn’t even yet articulate to a large extent my own thoughts about how I was feeling and why, but I knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t solely down to exam stress.

I felt that there was and still is a level of stigma associated with simply taking the first step in asking for help. During my teens and even up until relatively recently as an adult, I felt that if I did speak out about what I was experiencing I was effectively branding myself as ‘different’, something that would surely cause me much embarrassment and even more anxiety.

So I read with interest recently that the government is planning on trialling ‘happiness lessons’ to eight-year-old children as part of the government’s wider support for mental health services. The lessons will utilise mindfulness techniques with the aim of helping students to “self-regulate their own behaviour.” It is a step in a good direction and especially trialling the scheme with younger students especially as it will hopefully instil them with tools that they can come back to when necessary. However, at the same time I am cautious, can you really ‘teach happiness?’

Right today everyone, we are going to be learning about happiness. Here are the lesson objectives…

  • Know what happiness is
  • Apply this to your own life
  • Evaluate your own levels of happiness

And that is what concerns me, in all subject areas, a student’s progress is measured by a predicted level/grade of some sort. This then allows a school to compare this data to other students and schools. I would hope, that if the trial is successful, it doesn’t result in a data crunching and comparison exercise where the original purpose of the research is lost. In one school where I previously worked, even in PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education), a curriculum that focuses on life skills such as careers advice, sex and drug education, and health and wellbeing, students were given termly assessments to check their progress.

I would also hope, that any scheme, this one and others with a similar ambition, focus on the breadth of emotions that we can experience. Yes, teaching happiness is all well and good, but even that has a range of emotions attached to it from ecstatic joy to a more sedate level of contentment. Although I have come to live with bouts of depression and varying degrees of anxiety, it has taken me years to accept and come to terms with these aspects of myself. But, if schemes like this can help young people recognise the emotions that they experience from an early age and it helps them articulate them then I am all for it.