A Letter to my Students

Some years ago I recall watching the first series of Channel 4’s Educating Essex, and in one particular episode, the wonderful Mr Drew says whilst chatting to his GCSE History class, “You have no idea how much I like teaching you”.

The pleasure in how he expresses this remarkably simple statement of affection is tangible to see. The students kick back in their chairs laughing, but they are not laughing at Mr Drew, as you can see on their faces that they are thinking something similar, perhaps “But Mr Drew, you have no idea how much we like being taught by you!”

The scene has always stuck with me because I have felt the same about particular students in the past, but this year I am incredibly lucky to have an entire class that I feel that way about.

I know that it could be described as unprofessional to have a ‘favourite class’ and when I was training this was described as a definite no-no, but on a day-to-day basis, I firmly believe that this labelling does not interfere with my other classes, all of whom I equally enjoy teaching. But there is something about this class; it could be down to the expressive joy in how you approach your learning, your individual inquisitive natures, the camaraderie that you express to one another in the class, or all of the above. But I look forward to each and every single lesson. There is something truly magical about it.

Some of you have asked about my reasons for leaving the school at the end of this academic year; why couldn’t I stay? At least to see you through until you head off into the big, wide world next year. I can assure you that my decision has nothing to do with you or any of the students that I teach.

I have been teaching for nearly a decade and worked in a variety of schools and over the years I have seen so much change. In many respects I thought that I had evolved along with the changes rung in by successive governments and school leadership teams; I have always done what has been required and more in most cases, I have put in the hours and have been rewarded by receiving additional responsibilities.

As the years have rolled by, I have become more confident in my own value as a teacher and as an individual; I have always been keen to develop professionally and have supported my teams in doing the same. I also found my voice and will speak up when I have felt it necessary, occasionally ruffling a few management feathers as a result. I don’t speak up to deliberately throw things off balance, but to hopefully provide some healthy dialogue about the rationale behind the purpose and practicality of some school initiatives even if I am left dissatisfied with the end result.

But then I moved to our school and found that the management did not appreciate or even tolerate questions being asked. By anyone. To them, asking questions is a direct challenge to their authority.

Last year when I submitted a formal complaint about a member of the senior leadership team about how he had failed to deal with what should have been a simple department related issue, and his subsequent insulting manner in how he spoke to a colleague and myself, I had hoped that by following a formal process that I was protected to some extent from any backlash. I was wrong and naive. As well as being ‘encouraged’ to retract the complaint, otherwise ensuring a significant blemish on any future references, I was also reminded that my management responsibility could be taken away at any point. In the end, I backed down, I didn’t want to potentially ruin the years I had put into my career and I quickly learnt not to question the management again.

The irony of this, of course, is that we wish to encourage our students to do just that – to ask questions. As teachers we want students to develop skills of analysis and evaluation, yet as adults, if you question the legitimacy of certain actions you are vilified for it. Therefore, over a few short years of working at the school and with a drip-drip effect of what has felt like my actions and those of colleagues being constantly undermined that is also supported by a culture of blame, and in some cases blatant sexism and racism, it has meant that I have become another passive member of the teaching body. I don’t speak up even to protect my colleagues and students by what appears to be bullying tactics from some of the management team. I am not only angry at myself because of this but I have gradually lost the passion that I once had for teaching, at least in this school.

My decision to leave the school has not been an easy one. However, in the past year or so the periods of depression that I have experienced, I believe can be at least partly attributed to burnout from the job and I have slowly come to accept that my mental health is more important than attempting to please any manager who sees the staff as mere commodities and students just as figures on spreadsheets. None of the management has thought to reflect on the reasons why over a third of the teaching faculty are leaving this summer because surely, it can’t be anything to do with them.

You’ve also asked if I will cry on my last day – I most definitely will! You genuinely have no idea how much I have enjoyed teaching you and so I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Ps. Ask questions. Ask lots of them.

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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?

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

‘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.

THE FUTURE PLACE OF EDUCATION

Six years ago I taught in a school that was undergoing a steady transformation, not in an ideological or pedagogical sense, but rather in its physical appearance (although you could argue that in some symbolic ways the areas are linked). The original buildings dated from the 1960s and by 2010 they were in dire need of an update for a student population of over 2000 and by general modern education standards. Aside from the general tired feeling associated with most of the rooms; many had leaky roofs, windows that you couldn’t shut, broken furniture that never seemed to get replaced despite requests, and these were the rooms that weren’t overly that bad…

… because then there were the temporary classrooms/portacabins.

Whilst the rest of the school was receiving a deep clean and facelift, the portacabins were deemed ‘fit for purpose’ by the school’s management and so were not going to be disposed of until the main building work had been completed. And around a third of my teaching took place in these.

The portacabins were simply depressing. I hated having to teach in them and I am sure that the students picked up on this despite my forced smile to the contrary. During the winter wetter months, sidelining the fact that the steps leading up to the cabins would often freeze over and therefore be a health hazard in themselves, the rooms were bitterly cold. The heating units regularly broke, resulting in both myself, colleagues and students having to wear coats in lessons (a big no-no in terms of the school uniform policy), and in some cases, I would also teach wearing gloves (an even bigger no-no). Conversely, during the warmer months, the classrooms heated up like greenhouses even with the windows and doors wide open. And you can probably imagine what a sweltering room smells like with the added potency or should I say the pungency of a bunch of teenagers!

Unfortunately, the state of crappy classrooms is nothing new. My own experiences were almost a mirror image of those I describe above but took place 20 years earlier. So I read with interest and dismay last week in the British press about the state of many school buildings that are “crumbling into disrepair” whilst money is being diverted into other projects such as the free school program. Money that is being invested into shiny new buildings or to convert brownfield sites to accommodate students, whilst existing local authorities and schools struggle to plug those leaky roofs and move students out of temporary classrooms.

I know my own experiences are only anecdotal and a building does not necessarily make an education, but it can help. It can encourage students to feel positive about their learning if the environment has some semblance of being cared for and valued, and it can allow teachers to focus on actually teaching, instead of adjusting the thermostat or their coat every few minutes.

References

AN INSPECTOR CALLS

I am getting ready for an inspection.

Okay, that just sounds wrong… the school where I work is due for an inspection and we have been informed that it is going to take place in a little over a week.

When teaching internationally, the regulations around formal school inspections are different to that of working in the UK, in that you get a different amount of advance warning to make your preparations. And I mean, a considerable amount of advance warning… I am talking at least six months if you work in many schools internationally! A little different to the minimum two days notice provided by Ofsted*. Shortly before the school finished for the summer break, management were very kind to drop the ‘I-bomb’ on us.

Of course, receiving this much notice for an inspection has its blessings, in that it gives you ample opportunity to get your stuff in order. But when it has come down to it, it’s actually rather difficult to plan lessons months or even weeks in advance. Even on a day-to-day basis things crop up: a ‘surprise’ school event may tear away half your students, you may end up having a fantastic debate that you don’t want to put on hold so the lesson has to roll over to the next day, or perhaps more realistically, you have so much to content to deliver that you end up either rushing or missing out chunks of information so you have to go back to it another time anyway.

Conversely, this much notice sent some of the management at my school into a spin and when the new school year started back in August the teaching faculty were swiftly issued with additional tasks to add to the already bulging workload. These additional tasks have so far included: gathering more data for our classes (as if we don’t provide enough), providing sample lesson plans and schemes of work together with resources to be scrutinised (I actually hate this word) and an ‘enhanced’ data review for each department/year group in the school – for some staff this took up to three to four drafts to complete, each edit taking at least a further hour or more. It’s significant to note here that in my two previous years at the school these reports came back with no feedback/complaints giving me the impression that, either no-one had read them previously or that management simply wants us to add copious amounts of information just for the inspection.

And the additional list of tasks goes on.

It’s been five years since I last experienced a school inspection, so you could argue now it’s my time. During my first, I managed to avoid nearly all detection from the inspection team with only brief contact made when one happened to pass through the library (where I was doing some work at the time) as they were on their way to the bathroom. My second experience couldn’t have been more different. I did receive one lesson observation and in truly stressed teacher fashion, instead of upping my game, I panicked, pretty much nearly forgetting what I was meant to be teaching and the kid’s names along with it. The feedback didn’t go as well as hoped.

At the moment I am feeling a little more prepared, but that could be the six months notice talking. There is still a lot more to do and I fear that next week will be filled with some more of those ‘additional’ tasks alongside my actual teaching.

*Ofsted: stands for the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills and they are the UK’s centre for school inspections.