My Reflective Journal- GTP 2004/2005.

The following is my journal from my first full year of teaching. I took up post in April 2004 and taught for the summer term. The Year 11s had study leave, there was no real pressure on me, two of my classes were SEN and consisted of under eight pupils per class. The following September, the SEN classes were put together and I had a full timetable. I have removed some names but the rest is the exact account of my first year teaching.

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When I began to write my reflective journal, I thought about what direction it might take and the only avenue I didn’t want was the typical diary entry. So I kept notes of significant days when I felt particularly strong or weak about issues that had cropped up during the day. I found that sometimes it was not the teaching or the students that affected me most.

August 2004:

‘Only three days to go- back at school and the whole summer seems to have cruised straight by me without me even noticing. I am trying really hard to not to over analyze my first day. I am very sure that I can cope as I did last year and I have kept some of my favourite classes. I still can’t sleep- fear or excitement?’

September 2004:

‘First day back at school- whole staff meeting, slightly strange as I feel more grown up and feel a sense of belonging to the motley crew surrounding me. I don’t think that I have seen the whole staff together in one slot before now and definitely never noticed how young we all are.’

‘Pupils came in today and I had my first real run in with a group of pupils in my year 10 class. I forgot that because of the SATs all year 10 pupils are organised according to ability and that was based on their results. There were a few notorious year 9s and it is just my luck to have all the worst in my class! The first lesson was more than slightly poor as I tried to introduce the GCSE subject some of the pupils wanted to know about the kid who hit me last year. Refusing to fall in, I got R (HOD) to deal with them. Then JRF decided he wanted to play up and has new best friend SA (who also made numerous teachers and pupil’s lives a misery last year) started to take other pupils’ pens and be annoying. I can see I am going to have difficulties with 10GY’

‘My tutor group are absolutely gorgeous, little year nine’s who are also absolutely scared stiff of me. I am not sure how much I can keep the whole scary teacher act going. I am rather chuffed that I met most of them last year when I found I was going to be their tutor so I have a head start on a lot of the issues that might come up.’

‘Don’t think I can handle my year 10 class and I think I hate them. I’ve already decided that Tuesdays is my favourite day as I have my tutor group for two lessons, my wonderful year sevens and can cope with 11G7/R7. 10GY are awful and I hate them. They don’t stop talking, I waste at least ten minutes every lesson waiting for them to be quiet. I have tried every stupid behavioural technique I know and it is all rubbish. Phoning home and detaining them seems pointless as they just misbehave further. Started Original Writing Coursework and it is rubbish. I know it’s down to me as I haven’t taught it properly. Feel very bogged down by teaching so many classes and had a bad day’

‘What a delight my 7RX is. I have never taught year 7 before and although they are a set three, they are capable of much more than my little 9RL We have started a scheme called Darkwood Manor. I did a fabulous lesson with them today. I bought some chocolate éclairs and we did a lesson on the senses. I made them look at the wrapper and describe it, then slowly unwrap the éclair and listen to it, then they had to smell it. It was agony and they were all saying ‘Miss, you’re so cruel!’ They finally got to eat it when they had described it. It was such a lovely lesson. Will try it with 9RL and see if they can think of adjectives other than ‘you div’ and expletives which even I wouldn’t say.’

October 2004:

‘Having a tutor group is proving to be a difficult task. I am constantly sorting out petty squabbles and following them around in my free periods to keep an eye on them. My pigeon hole is filled on daily basis with NCRs that complain of disruptive and unruly pupils. I have sat in a science lesson with 9RL and they are bored, the teacher is what I would deem as boring, the lessons are uninspiring and to be perfectly frank messing around is the only way to fill fifty five minutes of deathly slow science lessons. 9RL have more issues than just worksheet filled Maths and Science lessons. One of my favourite boys is constantly fighting with other lads and is usually excluded. I really like him and we have had many manly talks regarding his behaviour. I keep telling him that if he is prepared to dish it out then he has to accept it in return. We have trust between us and he is definitely listening to me. I told him about me when I was at school and how hard I found it to mix with my class mates. His family background is not dissimilar to mine. I like talking to my class and feel a sense of respect. The HOY has praised my work with them. I will always fight for them but they have to, in return, have a certain amount of respect for teachers whether they deserve it or not. One of my girls who I thought I would have the most trouble with seems to be calming down. She hasn’t been excluded this term so I must be getting somewhere with them.’

‘My year 11s are proving to be very difficult. I thought that as we had made so much progress in Yr10 that they would be easy to control. The work load is massive as we have four pieces of coursework to complete before January. It is tough going but not as tough as 10GY. I hate that class and it fills me with dread. I still waste a lesson a week disciplining them. I know that it was because that I have treated them like adults rather than older year nines. I have one good lesson with them and I can feel that I am losing the respect of the good pupils in the class because I can’t seem to deal with the idiot children. HOY has said that he is trying to get rid of SA but we’ll see. They behaved when my tutor came into observe me but I just don’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. My mentor says I have to be more ‘strict’ but I can’t get the class control back.’

‘What is the point? I don’t think I can be a teacher. All this work and for what? I feel run down and just don’t want to be here any more.’

‘Had a few days of sick. Felt guilty. The constant worry of exams looming, the lack of discipline across the whole school makes me wonder why I bother. Half term soon, I am going to hang out with my old friends and just forget the never-ending pile of marking. The only joy in teaching is 7RX who came up trumps with secure levels 4+ and 5 with their assessment piece! I know full well that I set my boundaries with my year 7 and 9, I failed to do that with 10GY and what a fine mess I’ve created. I know for next year that I will ‘not smile until Christmas’ and be so hard that they will have to ask before they breath. I just keeping remembering how hard 10R5 were last year and how much easier they got.’

‘There is no way you can have a life and be an English teacher. I watch RE and Art teachers swan in and out of schools with handbags and not the suitcase I lug around filled with marking. If you let it slip then the Snowdonia size marking becomes the size of Everest and seems to be everlasting. I have to be more organised and I have to get my teaching right first time around so that I am not having to re-do coursework. I know I am learning but I keep wondering if I am in the right job.’

November 2004:

‘R said that November was the ‘hardest month’ and that every teacher wonders why in this cruel and dark month. I have no heating at home and because every day off matters, I can’t get it sorted. My network of neighbours has rapidly depleted and mum is still travelling abroad. I feel very much on my own at the moment. I don’t want time off because the pupils suffer and whilst I don’t want to be that sad teacher who has nothing in their life other than teaching I can definitely see how easy it is to slip into. I was invited to a party but it was on a ‘school night’ so could not go. I find that every hour of sleep matters and I am counting them.’

‘There was a big fight at school today. I was very unsure about how involved I should get. Some of those year 11s are huge and I don’t want to be on the end of a year 11 fist. I share teach one of the hardest classes in school. They are well known for their poor behaviour and yet in my English class they do work although limited by their low ability. I know I am getting somewhere with them, but I put that down to the fact I teach them period two and my first lesson is a free so it is a combination of me being relaxed and them not be as wired as if it was Friday period five. Their form tutor praised me yesterday in the staff room. She said that they ‘really liked me and have learnt lots more in my lesson’. That gave me a boost. Maybe I can do this job.’

December 2004

‘Christmas is looming. 9RL have their mock SATs first week back in January, Year 11 have their mocks too, and my goodness I am feeling so pressured. My year 9 group are so low that I am worried that they have leant nothing since September.’

‘Went out for drinks with the staff. We behave worse than the kids. I really like being part of such a young school. We are all about the same age, I feel a sense of belonging again. Mind you that could have something to do with the amount of vodka consumed. Spoke to people that in my normal routine I never normally see let alone speak to.’

‘I feel very happy, I have been praised for the work I have done with my tutor group. They are coming on leaps and bounds compared to how they were last year. I have one lad who has really come along away, I feel that I can’t take the credit as it is the kids themselves who make the effort to change. I do know that I make a difference because I am able to get through to boys like him when they are at their most angry and upset. All I have to say is ‘it’s me you’re talking to, come on. Am I being rude to you?’ and they come round, that must be the trust that some many teachers talk about. I do feel well respected. I can laugh and joke with my pupils and still get good results. I am going to work on SA and JF. 10GY here I come!!’

January 2005:

‘I bought my entire tutor group a selection box for Christmas and gave them a card with a special message. I was very surprised how many presents I was given. I bought some thank you cards for those who bought me the never ending mound of chocolate and bizarre Whinnie the Pooh memorabilia (I don’t think I have ever expressed an interest in Pooh). First day back and I was surprised at how much I had missed my tutor group. Still feel the same about 10GY but I have decided that I am going to take back all the time that the chatterboxes take from me. This is war.’

‘Poetry! That’s what I am good at. At last the real teacher in me is coming out. I started off with some New York hip hop which 10GY were said that ‘Hip-Hop ain’t poetry!’ and I proved them wrong by playing them the piece after we read it. I think they were secretly impressed with my ‘cool’ and ‘with it’ lesson. We talked a lot about the origins of Hip-Hop and how it led back to the Oral tradition from Africa. Then we began learning ‘Limbo’ by Kamau Braithwaite. I finished my lesson on a real high 10GY learnt something today!!’

‘My 11R5 are losing their will to live and the revision and coursework wheel seems never to stop. Am quite worried as they seem to be slacking and I fear bunking my lessons. Time for another round of phone calls home. I spent my evening ringing parents who were surprised that their child had not attended two English classes this week! Oops, not that I care. I praised all my naughty kids, then told their parents what I really thought and ended the conversation positively! The next day a lot of sheepish pupils crept through my classroom door and I made a sarcastic remark about how much I missed them. We had a laugh and carried on the hard work!’

‘7RX are proving to be a real challenge. I am really enjoying teaching them. I had one pupil move upwards which I am pleased about but also am going to miss him. We did a media scheme of work and he brought in a set of screens from the Sun newspaper. He did a really impressive presentation and gave the screens to me as a present. His move means that I will have a new pupil starting, so that will be interesting. I am not sure I agree with all the moves within the year group. It seems to me that moves are based on behaviour and not academic work which, I really do not believe is fair. It is my view and understanding that pupils who are not being challenged tend to misbehave and if that leads to disruption and then a move into a lower ability group, surely it follows that that pupil will become even more disruptive.’

‘SATs results for 9RL are in! Actually, I was pleasantly surprised at how well my lovely tutor group did. I have spoken to HOY and said quite categorically that I do not want any of my pupils moved as I know I can do better with them. Maybe that’s not fair on SS and DL because they deserve to move up however, I know the tutor group above mine are unruly and I think that could damage both pupils. I also want, selfishly I know, to prove that I can teach and this will be proved in the summer SATs and through the all important data.’

‘Academic Review Day. I saw SW’s parents first thing this morning and I was not impressed by the father who could not see through SW’s achievements such as not being excluded, excellent and continually improving marks and comments from subject teachers. I felt desperately sorry for him as his father took away privilege after privilege. In my eyes, and I know I am not a parent, SW is a child who responds to praise and responsibility, he works hard for me and we have such a good relationship. I just couldn’t say anything to improve matters. DH’s mum came in, I also teach his sister in 7RX, we had a chat about DH and how well he is doing and how impressed I am with him. Mrs H said that she ‘felt I had a connection with her son’, and that I ‘was on a level with him and that’s why D is doing so well’. I felt quite choked as I never realised the impact that teachers make on children’s lives could be made so quickly. I really love Academic Review day, meeting the parents is really interesting. ZR came in the next day and said ‘my mum doesn’t think you’re a proper teacher ‘cos you don’t act like one!’ I thought that was a compliment.’

February 2005:

‘11R5 have completed their coursework. I have lost MV, I really tried to help him by offering him extra lessons after school. I also invited his father in to go through the work but he rang to say he could not make it. MV will now not be entered in English. I feel like I have failed him and that miserable feeling overrides the feeling of accomplishment that the others have achieved.’

‘I learnt a lot today about young people. We had an interesting discussion about what young people do outside school. They are so frightened of violence and many have been the victim of ‘happy slapping’ and been involved in vicious brawls. I really thought I was up to date with issues that affect young people but I am not. We talked about gangs and how many of them were involved with or had friends in gangs. I felt a real wave of sadness as they were recounting their experiences. What terrified me the most was how nasty the girls are. They told me about a fight that some of them witnessed in the local high street, a year 10 girl used a metal door handle to punch a girl in the face. I asked if anybody tried to stop it but they said they couldn’t get involved because the girl involved was a member of a gang and they ‘would end up getting their face smashed in’. It just left me wondering what else these 15 and 16 year olds have to through and no wonder that sometimes they are not in or have not done their homework.’

March 2005:

‘I had a really funny lesson today with 11R5. They decided that they were going to imitate my every word and action. I was attempting to teach poetry but to no avail. I asked for my HOD to come in, and thought they would not even attempt to mimic me in front of her but they did. R found it hilarious too. So no work done today!’

‘Trying to teach Macbeth to 9RL is like trying to teach them Japanese. I have had to pull out all the stops in order for them to understand it. We have translated it into Eastenders characters, re-enacted the banquet scene by moving tables- almost everything I could think of I have done. As time is so short I have to plan the writing triplets within the scheme of Macbeth. My pupils are understanding it very slowly. R has always said that if the children learn one thing from a lesson then that is a success. We’ll see come the SATs.’

‘I attempted to teach the idea of Utopia to 11R5, at first they did not understand it. So as I have learnt with all my lower ability classes that I need to put it into terms they understand: ‘My idea of utopia is a CaribbeanIsland, surrounded by…’

‘Yeah, Miss, men, we get the picture!’ A few chorused.

‘So my idea of dystopia would be a million SBE saying ‘Miss, Miss, Miss’

They understood that straight away. SBE always puts his hand up to ask me the most ridiculous questions such as ‘Miss, do you think I look hench?’ SBE really annoys me, he knows it as I have told him and the class know it because I have told him in front of them! SBE came in late that lesson and when he walked in the class told him that he was ‘Miss’s dystopia!’ This made them all fall about laughing especially since SBE had no idea what they were talking about!’

April 2005:

‘Oh my goodness, I am drowning in a sea of marking! There is no respite and once again I am ill. There is no way I can cope with all the early mornings, late nights. I have marked all my year 11 coursework and still am not sure whether it is right or wrong but whatever is done is done. I don’t feel well supported by my mentor and it is not her fault, there is just no time. GS keeps telling me that this is the best way to learn ‘on the job’ and that the ‘PGCE never taught [her] the skills needed to manage a classroom.’

 

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If you lock them up, then you throw away the key- Youth Offending and why education isn’t enough.

How far can you hold on to a pupil who is on the wrong path outside of school?

C was sentenced to Her Majesty’s Pleasure at a well-known young offender’s institute. When his mum telephoned me with the news, I felt a sudden panic for this lad. The school planned to keep him on roll which was great news but the Head of Year warned me not to get my hopes up as ‘generally these kids won’t make it to the end of Year 11’.

I carried on teaching my class, I dutifully sent C all his coursework which I had photocopied and marked. He was the best student in that class by a few academic miles and predicted a B. I sent a note containing some teacherly advice but also some genuine fondness. I didn’t expect a reply.

One morning, I found a small brown letter in my pigeonhole. My name was scrawled out in big adolescent letters. It had C’s name and prison number on the back. He had actually replied and it was a proud teaching moment. He told me all about his days and his new English teacher whom he put in brackets wasn’t as good as me and ‘don’t get jealous Miss’. It made me smile even though I knew that the promises C was making to me, to himself and his mum would be so hard to keep.

He did his three months and rejoined the class in Year 11 but he had changed. Physically and mentally. He was no longer the boy but a man. He found it hard to settle back into the childish confines of the classroom. He told me that some teachers had written him off,  he felt disengaged like he had nothing in common with his friends. He had grown-up and they hadn’t. In his descriptive writing C wrote two telling pieces about loneliness and bullying and although he never said, he must of undergone harsh treatment at the hands of his fellow inmates.

So when the latest government initiative is to invest in a secure prison college or college prison then I truly hope that they can provide pupils like C the emotional support required to return to their old lives and move away from the temptations of their neighbourhood hangouts. Pupils like C come from backgrounds of drug and alcohol dependency, violence and abuse. C was following in familial footsteps.

A criminal record damages life chances further and even with qualifications, how likely are young people such as C to gain full time employment or fully integrate into law-abiding communities? His father was testament to that.

I agree that education is important and that no child should be left on ‘the scrapheap’ but I also don’t think we should be criminalising children. We should be supporting them in the ‘right environment’, creating a place where they can learn, develop and grow without being labelled a criminal.

According to Rob Flello, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South and former shadow justice minister  says ‘Surely it is safer and more humane to detain children in small, local units with a high staff ratio and where they can maintain links with their families, and children’s services. Such links can also lead to better planned resettlement, and therefore reduce the likelihood of reoffending.’

It makes sense when you consider the links between background and offending. Social workers and youth offending teams need to be more closely aligned in such cases. 47% of young offenders are underachievers at school and 39% have been subjected to a child protection plan, meaning they have ‘suffered significant harm’ in the form of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse.

C completed courses in prison, gained numeracy and literacy, he even did a gym instructors course. He managed to complete his GCSES but one year later, I read he had been arrested and was out on bail.

A society that locks up its youth is effectively throwing away a child’s future.

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Homecoming- how two tragedies united a year group beyond classroom walls.

My return to Britain at Christmas was filled with the usual family and friends gatherings, but this year was filled with a sense of sadness; I felt compelled to meet with some of my ex-pupils to share in the tragedies that had begotten the passing year.

In 2013, on the 5th February and 5th June, my year group lost two of their peers. They both tragically passed away within months of each other. I was deeply saddened by both, the sense of shock and bewilderment that we could lose two in the shortness of time was unbearable. And I was so far away that I could use only words to comfort them. The two students, Philip and Jamie-Leigh, were both amazing examples of young people and in their passing, left legacies which shone a light upon their friendships and the amazing abilities of young people to comfort, rally and unite in their grief.

Social media had provided me with the news of both tragedies- when I tweeted news of my homecoming, some students messaged privately to ask if I could meet up with them. I secretly looked forward to meeting some of the characters that had induced workloads and laughter in my role as their Head of Year.

I was astounded by how mature and grown-up they were and I was touched by the number who showed up to the coffee shop where I said I would be. I felt so proud to have been a small part of their amazing journey through the first four years of their secondary school. We swapped stories, I let them in on a few secrets and we laughed. I also cried for the tales of Jamie-Leigh and Philip. It was so hard to hear the individual stories of how it affected them, it hurt to know they were in pain but the swell of pride in the ways they have fundraised for both causes, the way they have rallied each other for support, the way they still managed to collect an impressive array of GCSEs and find their way into colleges and sixth forms counteracted the grief with smiles.

I visited both graves. Quiet reflection. Sadness at the loss of two beautiful stars with their futures clipped no further than their 16 years. But what a legacy they have left. Their passing has taught an array of young people from different backgrounds to be strong, to unite and to share in their successes and failures. I was amazed by the collective strength and bond that was evident among the group, a bond that they will share for a long, long time. There are no words to describe how wonderful that afternoon was for me, as their teacher but also as a human. I witnessed something very powerful and although beyond words, I hope I convey my feelings of pride, sadness, laughter and grief all collected and rolled out into feelings of anticipation and excitement for these future grown-ups.

Jamie-Leigh and Philip’s legacy is what we do next, how we live our lives to the fullest, how we make the most of every moment not just because of the unknown but almost in spite of it.

Thank you to all my ex-students who came to say hello, you will never know how much that touched me. I think you are all amazing and I am so looking forward to the future. Your futures.

Rest in Peace Jamie-Leigh and Philip, all my love to you. x

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White, working, class boys: why it is poverty and not teaching that fails them.

In my beloved mark book, I used to have a code for EAL, SEN and FSM* which Ofsted/SLT** wanted to see being targeted in lessons across the school- these are the areas which attracted additional funding for the school and we were told to focus our teaching on. However, it’s the ‘white working class boys’ who are now deemed as falling behind other groups within schools. But as always, the debate is not as simple as cause and effect. There are a myriad of social and economic demographics to consider before we simply dump the problem and blame at the local school gate.

Any teacher will tell you the white working class boy issue isn’t a new issue, read my earlier blogs about 10R5 and you will see that we have had this problem for a long time, their apathy is just now glaring obvious as other groups overtake them in the Raise Online data produced by Ofsted. Is it, as has been suggested, the London schools have become better or is it because the issues are no longer the sole claim of the inner cities? Issues which used to only affect the urban boroughs of London are now spreading to towns on the peripheries.

Deprivation, over occupancy, abuse, domestic violence are all par for the course in boroughs that once claimed to be leafy. Affluence and poverty are side by side in places like London. But across the UK, towns have lost their centres, their manufacturing heritages, their employment hubs and it is a story replicated from Kettering to Dover. The jobs which were the stronghold of the white, working class are no longer there and the replacements do not require 5 A-Cs.

I read a headline that the London schools attract better teachers and Laura McInerney discusses some of the reasons why in her blog .

But actually I would argue that it is the lack of jobs and prospects that is failing these young men, not the calibre of teacher or their trailing spouse that is to blame. It is a potent mix of low educational aspirations versus high lifestyle expectations from families who are second, and third generation of unemployed and low academic achievers.

C4’s recent documentary, Bouncers focused one of its stories on a nightclub in Clacton on Sea, the nightclub was full most Friday and Saturday nights with revellers from across the impoverished town and one single mum commented that there were no jobs and she had spent half of her benefit money going out that weekend. I make no moral judgement but wonder how a whole town can be left out of the economic spoils just an hour and half from the capital.

Interestingly, the number one drug found by the bouncers in Clacton was cocaine- escapism from the cyclical nature of boredom and despair. How do you raise aspirations when there is nothing to raise them for? When drug dealing and general criminal behaviour pays more than an regular or hard-to-come-by job. Another C4 documentary, Secret Millionaire, followed celebrity hairdresser Adee Phelan as he attempted to open a pop-up hairdressing shop in Clacton. He tried to offer the young people something to do, a little training- some took it enthusiastically, some were suspicious and trashed the shop. Par for the course in areas that see little investment.

The poverty and challenges faced by people living in areas such as these are often insurmountable, faced with funding cuts, police, charities and local governments can no longer meet the needs of communities ravaged by high unemployment, crime, alcohol and drug dependency. The cult of celebrity and fast-cash leaves young people feeling inadequate which is why their job and lifestyle expectations are unevenly matched.

How can I expect a pupil to hand in his English coursework when he doesn’t have access to a computer or one who is sharing his bedroom with three other children? How can I expect mum or dad to turn up to parent’s evening and talk about literacy when they are barely literate?

We are taught to teach our pupils that education leads to better prospects. Well it does in places like London because there are prospects. Schools can make links with businesses and if they have an excellent careers office, then work experience and apprenticeships can be accessed.

London Challenge had ring-fenced capital which targeted the poorer London boroughs, it incentivised pupils and staff. It was an exciting organisation to be part of- it rolled out as Pixl nationwide. I would be interested to see how Pixl fairs in towns like Clacton when the results for the local academy’s GCSE students are among the lowest in the country.

There is also a debate around ethnicity, why is it that some communities are more successful in education than others? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation  argues the single biggest factor is poverty and not ethnicity. Some communities fair better because they have become stakeholders and established socioeconomic roots.

Is there a link as to why Hackney has more Good to Outstanding schools than say Croydon? Is it because the poorer boroughs benefited from the aforementioned ring-fenced funding and targeted initiatives like London Challenge and later on, the trickle down effect? My previous London school felt it no longer needed the input of Pixl as they had gleaned all the good ideas and went on to achieve 99% pass rate three years later. Success indeed through a changed (and sustained) culture of achievement but outside factors contributed. The brights lights of the big city are 20 minutes by train, the local area had benefited from regeneration projects and transport initiatives not to mention the Olympics. Prosperity could still be seen, over the horizon,  from the windows of the Inclusion Room.

The last UK GCSE cohort I taught were early entry Year 10s, they were a marvellous joy to teach, from Year 8 they would strive to gain the highest marks in assessment. It was a mix of ethnic backgrounds but all of the class felt empowered and that’s what teaching can do. Empower. They all had aspirations of university and beyond, but they all had something else in common too- parental support. Parents who turned up to every parents evening,  supported me and their children. Parents who were educated or like one mum, educating herself through the Open University whilst working full-time.

Is it my job to teach work ethic? Can it even be taught? Most teachers demonstrate a high work ethic but actually society needs to recognise that it needs to come from home and home is the single biggest factor in a child’s life, school might well be the second but if a child sees his mum or dad ‘grafting’ then they are more likely to pick up the baton of work and pass it on.

How about we actually have a conversation about food banks, housing shortages and rising youth unemployment and how we address that in areas such Clacton instead of the usual blame apportioned to the classroom teacher?

If you want better educational outcomes then you must invest in public services that reduce poverty. That’s a simple lesson to learn isn’t it?

*English as an Additional Language, Special Educational Needs and Free School Meals

**Senior Leadership Teams

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Do teachers make better parents?

When I came back from maternity leave, a lot of my pupils said I had changed. Apparently I was a lot calmer, nicer even more understanding (ha, I guess the 2am feed was a great leveler). I remember a parent asking me and a colleague if we had children.  Her little darling was in trouble again and mum’s best defence was attack coupled with her unusual but very natural use of bilabial plosives.

My colleague said that it had nothing to do with the current situation and mum retorted, ‘ahh yess it does, because if you had kids, you’d see.’

See what, I wondered? I knew that my child would never be like that, it couldn’t be. I would be the best parent and my child would be effortlessly easy to raise. Obviously.

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I remember over-hearing a conversation in my EBD class between two girls.

K: Oh my god, she is pregnant.

C: Nope, she is just fat, my mum looks like that and she is just fat.

K: Nah, she is, and anyways, oh my god, that poor kid, it ain’t gonna get away with nuffin’. Who’d want her as a mum?

She had a point, none of these kids would want me as their mum. Their behaviour in school and out of school would have me reaching for the gin and corn flakes and maybe that was the point the Mum in the meeting was trying to make.

Once I returned to school after 6 months, I did feel differently towards my cohort. I felt a lot more empathy and understanding towards their misdemeanors. I found myself wondering what I would do if he or she was my son or daughter-  how could I support or defend them? I had a new bond with parents because I was one of them now too. I also lost the cocky ‘my child will never behave like that’ mantra.

It soon becomes obvious that your own child is less afraid of you than your Year 9 EBD class are and a supermarket meltdown is far more challenging and cringe-inducing than can ever be imagined by your former, childless-self.

My stint in a Montessori nursery taught me the capabilities of 2 year olds and set the foundations for behaviour management with teens. It taught me that patience, high expectations and a gentle voice would always win over even the most difficult young person. A shout could stop a child in their tracks, work wonders for shock value but if you wanted or needed anything from them, you must return to calm, cool and collected.

And I found that my Cbeebies’s voice also works wonders for annoying teens, they hate the patronising tones (almost as much as my husband) and the threat to speak like that all lesson soon has them working hard in class. Humour works well with all ages, laughter and fun is an essential part of both teaching and parenting.

In both roles, I have learnt to ignore, diffuse, avoid or distract negative behaviours and when they can’t be, I have learnt that positive praise, and following through on sanctions whether it be the naughty step or detentions is as fundamental as talking to them about their feelings and actions.

Am I better teacher or parent? Not sure I can answer that definitively but I can say both roles have helped me to be more human and take realistic steps forward in both jobs.

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Girls, now, now! Jealousy is a beautiful emotion.

At some point in everyone’s life we feel the burning rage of jealousy. It hits us as children like a punch to our abdomen and it hurts. It can lead to tears and anguish but for some young people it can consume them to a point of becoming a bully, manifesting in aggression and rage towards others both verbally and physically or a young person can be come reclusive and retreat from social groups as their low-self esteem takes hold.

This is a common problem with teenage girls, friendships are at the heart of every girl’s life. Every girl wants to be accepted by their peers and part of the most fashionable group. How they handle the ups and downs of friendships sets the precedent for how they behave and view themselves as adults.

Friendship can be extremely difficult for parents and teachers who are faced with a division in friendships groups. It is always best to voice your concerns. In the Year 6 to 7 transition, a parent came to see me about her daughter.  F’s mum was concerned that she wouldn’t make friends easily as there had been issues in primary school, she told me that she never got along with girls and that she would be better off with boys. I explained that we balanced the tutor groups as much as possible and that secondary was quite different to primary in that boys hated girls usually from the second week of Year 7 until about Year 10 when they suddenly became interested in them as potential GFs.

Mum was right, F was at the epicentre of girl feuds usually because she had started them by saying something catty or spreading rumours. But F could never understand why she was always the one who everybody hated (she was “just saying the truth”) and why she couldn’t make friends, even with all the evidence stacked up against her, she never admitted she was in the wrong.

Jealousy is a beautiful emotion I told her. She looked at me like I was mad. I asked her to list all the things she liked about herself. Then I asked her to list all the things she disliked about this one particular girl B.

B was very popular, she was very clever, in top sets for Maths and English, she had a nice family and was always immaculately turned out. The list that F comprised was made up of things such as ‘she thinks too much of herself’, ‘she always answers the teacher’s questions’, ‘she thinks she is so perfect’ ‘she never does anything wrong.’ The list was endless. But the list about herself, nothing, not one thing could F say she liked about herself because it ‘was a dumb thing to do’.

I went through things such as her hair, her teeth, her nice shoes, her beautiful smile and for every positive thing I said about her, she counteracted with two and sometimes three negative comments.

ME: Your hair is so beautiful, I like the way it catches the sun.

F: It’s disgusting, it’s ginger and it is always frizzy.

ME: you have a really lovely smile.

F: Oh my god, no way. I hate it, my teeth are all wonky.

ME: you have lovely teeth

F: seriously Miss, they need like braces.

And so on, these conversations are so vivid and well remembered because they are universal to girls who have low confidence and self-esteem.

F was jealous of B, so she tried as hard as she could to undermine her, make her feel bad because that’s how F felt about herself. The taunts, the salacious gossip and the attempts to leave B out were F’s way of saying, I want to be like her.

Envy and Love are both produced by the same hormone Oxytocin, scientific stuff aside, it means you can’t experience one without the other which is exactly what I told F. I told F that all the things she admires about B are glimpses of herself that she would like to see more of. This conversation wasn’t easy at first, no teenage girl ever wants to be accused of envy and jealousy. But kindness, time and gentle examples helped F to see that it really was her issue.

I suggested that F wanted B’s friendship and to be more liked by her peers, she wanted to feel like she could answer questions in class and feel confident to shrug away criticisms from others. F was really hurting, she had never known real friendships so it made sense she didn’t know how to be a friend.

As for B, she understood and accepted F as a friend. She quite liked the concept of jealousy being a beautiful emotion. She was able to see F in a less threatening light, she felt confident to see past all of the negativity and retained her confidence level.

Jealousy is an insight to what is missing, a window on confidence and a self esteem  check. It really is a beautiful emotion.

Some ideas to help with self-esteem and low confidence:

1) Give them a book to write down all the positive things that happened that day. Ask them to share what they are most proud of. They can then look back and see their worth written down.

2) Compliment them-  discreetly ask members of staff to do so too.

3) Talk though negative feelings, allow them to cry or scream somewhere safe and private.

If you are really worried or there are no signs of improvement, teacher should flag with your SENCO and ask them to refer to an educational psychologist.

Parents, for support and advice, talk to your child’s school or contact one of the links below:

http://walk-tall.org.uk/

http://www.youngminds.org.uk/for_parents/whats_worrying_you_about_your_child/self-esteem/about_self-esteem

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For the Greater Good or Glory?

Heads of Year deal with everything from teenage pregnancy to family deaths. It’s disheartening to watch the childhood of some pupils taken away by the sudden and painful grip of adult issues. The anecdote that follows made me reflect upon my practice and called into question my intentions as a Head of Year.

The little girl in Year 7 was cute, she was cheeky and challenging, her smile took her out of trouble’s way on nearly every occasion. We battled over uniform and make-up, then smoking and truancy and I never let on how much I liked her spirit. It was Year 9 when her whole life tumbled into the unknown, when her mum died suddenly. She came to school as normal, she told us in a matter of fact way. I rushed to hug her but she stiffened. In the days that followed, she moved in with her father who she barely saw from week to week, from month to month. The sparkle in her eyes faded as the circles underneath grew.

Her attendance dropped dramatically and I had no choice but to inform Educational Welfare. We arranged a meeting with her father and they both sat there, the schism between father and daughter palpable. They didn’t know each other. She confessed she had been staying awake at night- she wasn’t tired, she said. She couldn’t sleep because she was thinking about ‘things and stuff”.

She never wanted to talk about her mum not to me or to anyone. We offered support but she rejected it all. Deep in my heart I knew she was too horrified to sleep in case she forgot her mum or relived the night of her death. I wanted to hug her, to help her, I spent hours thinking about different ways to reach her. She came in late most mornings, sometimes nearer the afternoon. She didn’t complete her homework, fell behind in coursework and her attitude towards staff worsened. I tried many different approaches probably verging on psychotic but nothing seemed to affect a change in this heartbroken girl.

I asked a male teacher to mentor her, to check on her and he did so every day. We differed in many ways, I found him too soft with girls and harder on boys. He was often quite ‘pally’ with pupils but to his credit he was liked and respected. My student often beguiled him with her smile and he would mediate when things became tough in classrooms. Mr_____  gave her trust and respect but also the negotiable boundaries she needed in her turmoil.

I stepped back because my way wasn’t working and a good Head of Year should be able to recognise when a pupil needs a different tact. Sometimes, you have accept that someone else can access a disaffected pupil and you can’t. Don’t force relationships with students, they are either organic or they are not. You should never be afraid to ask for help especially from long-serving  staff or ones whose beliefs seem to be the opposite of yours.

Being a Head of Year places you in the spotlight of the School. Some staff will look at your role and think, ‘yeah, that’s easy. I could that’ or staff will look at you and be in awe of your relationship with students. It is a hard job to be sandwiched between the SLT and staff. You very rarely are thanked for doing a wonderful job and most of your decisions will upset someone at sometime, but be careful not to let your ego get in the way of a student’s needs.

Be ready to put aside your own feelings and emotions because even though you maybe miffed at your perceived lack of success, success comes in many guises. Ask for help. Find a mentor. I am lucky, I have always had two or three close members of staff to ask honest opinions from. The decisions which you fight against the most are often the right decision for the student.

She completed school and with exam success, she is at college studying and she apologised for being ‘a cow’. I apologised for being a maniac Head of Year, to which she replied ‘but at least you kept trying with me and never gave up’.

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‘Born for factory fodder, but the factories have closed down.’

Aspirations. We have been trying to raise them for the last decade, telling pupils they can be anything, anyone and education is the key to life long success. I am not sure how I feel about telling a pupil to work really hard, get your 5 A-Cs and work in a factory. It echos my English grandmother’s words when I told her I had got a Saturday job up town in Oxford Street, she told me ‘Jill, work hard and you could be the manager one day.’ Mmmmm, thanks Nan but I had already decided that I was going to be a TV presenter and it was hard work, the shop floor. I couldn’t think of anything worse, I was earning less than three quid an hour, dumped in the basement stock room counting ladies tights. I was destined for bigger things. I mentioned she was my English grandmother for a reason.

My mum is an immigrant, she worked hard, went to University when Access courses were first introduced, got a BA, MA and then a PGCE and lectured for a few years until ill health became her nemesis. She instilled a sense of educational pride, she said society would value us with a degree and she was right. I tend not to la-di-dah and say I am a teacher but when I have dropped it in a conversation with a doctor at A+E or another professional, attitudes do change. Suddenly I am afforded a right to speak my mind, to challenge a point of view.

I find it offensive that David Cameron wants pupils’ aspirations to be lowered into menial, unskilled work. (The Guardian, Mon 28th October). “Let’s get our education system right so we are producing young people out of our schools and colleges who are fully capable of doing those jobs.”

The education system is certainly cranking up the production line of factory fodder with its latest plans to axe ‘soft’ subjects such as Media, Drama and PE. The website, http://www.schoolsimprovement.net cites an exam board insider saying “Some subjects like PE and drama are more vocational and practical than academic. The question will be asked of each one: why is this a GCSE?”

Are we really asking why some pupils opt for these at GCSE level? It is because the subject interests them. Why is the Government intent on creating automatons for factories? What is the vision for the UK in 20 years time? As far as I can see, it is bleak.

But it isn’t just those three subjects, Gove is removing Literature from the core subjects. Pupils will tick box answer grammatical questions. There will be an implantation of facts but facts do not allow for creative thoughts or processes. Does Gove really expect Outstanding lessons when pupils are fed boredom? The Ofsted criteria says an Outstanding lesson will ‘demonstrate excellent concentration and are rarely off task even for extended periods without adult direction’. Did he meet 10R5?

I gloomily predict Gove’s policies will set the education system back 20 years. We will be in overcrowded classrooms because there will be a chronic shortage of teachers, back to poor pupil behaviour, parental disengagement and high levels of truancy because young people who do not fit the Gove-mould will find it very hard to engage in school and in life long education. Gove is taking away our children’s right to be creative, the right to voice and form their own opinions and above all else their right to aspirations.

I can imagine Carol from Willy Russell’s play, Our Day Out screaming at Gove: “Don’t lie, you! I know you hate me. I’ve seen you gin’ home in your car, passin’ us on the street. And the way y’ look at us. You hate all the kids.”

And she would be right, wouldn’t she?

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Holidays and why some pupils hate them.

As teachers we spend our lives counting down in half terms, I just spent mine taking in the tourist sites of Bangkok with my two and half year old.

I wondered what he will remember of the hair-raising ride in a tuk-tuk, the noisy taxi boat along Bangkok’s klongs, the sights, sounds and smells of  his childhood and how much of these memories he will carry forward as happy ones.

School holidays are supposed to be halcyon days filled with great memories, days out and time spent with family and friends. I often found as Head of Year, my busiest time would coincide with the holidays. Here’s some of the signs to look for.

In the run up to holidays, pupils who seem anxious or out of character. D began to hang around after school, it became later and later. He said he was just waiting for friends but could never say exactly who or where they were. D would be pop up in unusual places, expecting to be caught and told off. He enjoyed detentions, he would sit there and chat to whoever if he was able to get away with it. The odd behaviour went on. In the end we made a referral to the EWO who did a home visit, she said that as far she could tell no one lived there. It transpired that D had been living on his own whilst mum ‘had popped out’, she had actually moved in with her boyfriend and left D in the care of Dad who worked away from home. The attention seeking behaviours, were a cry for help, a child’s way of saying look at me, I need to be noticed. The words ‘help’ may never leave their mouths but as professionals we need to be mindful of any character changes that take place. D’s anxiety was obviously heightened as the holidays approached.

An experienced Head of Year can usually pinpoint the pressure points for different families. Finances are often a source for family fissures. School provides stability for children especially those on low income. For some families, the cost of feeding and heating their home during an October or February half term can almost double.

For families entitled to school meals during term time, there is no such support during the holidays. Pressures such as these can contribute to a meltdown which can result in a school, having to make a referral to social care.

I have thankfully only dealt with a few cases of sexual abuse, there are no words to describe the process. All bar one disclosure occurred before or after a major holiday. X was always a fiery character, she could flare up at any moment and usually with peers who she found to be ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’. The issues were usually trivial, X was a smart girl who didn’t pander to any nonsense especially from girls who she perceived to ‘have it all’ or at the very least ‘nothing to whine about’. We spent many an hour discussing the pros and cons of hitting this one or smacking that one; to her credit, X never did and as the years progressed she became calmer but all her melt downs occurred around holiday time. One day, I leveled with her and asked her outright why she hated home so much. The tears flowed, we cried together, I put my arms around her (like they tell you not to do and I always did) and we began the agonising process of a CP (Child Protection) referral.

X’s story always makes me wonder how many more children and young people live in fear of the holidays, how many call school their safe space and dread going home. The charity, Kidscape estimates that 25% of young people are victims of sexual abuse. Disheartening and frightening to think that a quarter of your cohort could be suffering in silence and you only know about 1%.

So whilst students are swapping stories about Mallorca, and sharing their Instagram snaps, look for the ones whose story is yet to be told.

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So why did you leave the UK?

I left the UK a year ago to join a growing number of teachers who had left for sunnier, Ofsted-free climes. I remember talking to my union rep in the countdown to my departure, she asked if I knew how many had gone for my job. I said the Headteacher received over a thousand applicants for it and I sighed. And I sighed because that’s 1000 teachers who wanted to leave the UK teaching profession. But with constant criticism and degradation of the profession, it isn’t surprising.

There are some definite upsides to teaching internationally especially here in Bangkok but there are also some downsides. I am lucky enough to be part of an amazing community of ex-pat teachers who have shared some of their experiences with me.

One definitive upside is the weather, we all agree that an escape to Ko Samet is possible most weekends and there is no horrible November feeling when the nights last longer than the days and your workload feels like an impenetrable fog.

The international teaching day is longer, lessons start early when most UK teachers are huddled around a Nescafe but this is counteracted by more non-contacts. In the UK, your non-contacts are protected by the Teacher’s Pay & Conditions. In International schools, there are no such agreements and although pay can be higher, the contracts are for two years and if your face don’t fit, you could be out the door.

The anxiety caused by two year contracts permeates staff rooms, there is a lot more jostling for favour and as a rule, unhappy teachers just put and shut up. This itself leads to insular and very retrogressive teaching styles; death by PowerPoint and copy and comprehend exercises. But then it is no surprise when CPD (Professional Development) is seen as expensive and unnecessary by some international schools.

Pity the poor international school leaders, they live in fear of ‘personal problems prevent me from returning’ emails which is code for I got a better offer elsewhere. A headteacher in Bangkok told me schools within the city had an unwritten rule, like a code of honour, a promise not hire anyone breaking  contract. There are pressures like performance related pay and school numbers- these exist in the UK too as the academisation of UK state schools unfolds. However, allowing a student to drop a subject is far more acceptable than palatable.

Do I leave at 4pm swishing my handbag like a comprehensive school RE teacher? Yes because my day allows me to mark, plan and prep everything during my contracted hours. A dream for most UK teachers. Can I hit that beach this weekend, yes. Is my marking up to date? Yes. Is anyone checking? No.

International classrooms can be more creative and are often equipped with new technologies which lends itself perfectly to collaboration from peer marking to Skyping classroom’s further afield. Have I become a better teacher? I hope so mostly because I am no longer on the battery hen production line of data driven, too – little – too late interventions and unrealistic targets set by managers in offices who rarely come into contact with children let alone pupils.

I have smaller classes, more time to actualize personal learning, to realise potential and to raise aspirations. To work one-to-one with a struggling student or provide something extra for the Gifted and Talented pupil. We can connect via email, use VLEs to their full potential, international teachers move in different circles not bound by some of the more stringent rules. There are no behaviour issues to deal with but support for SEN and EAL can be sketchy and varies from school to school. It isn’t perfect, but no where is.

Underneath all these layers of pros and cons, lies the heart and soul of any good school, the pupil. I have met the most wonderful students but  the international school is not at the heart of a community like a UK school. The parents offer no loyalty, just high expectations and can (and do) move their children at a term’s notice. Education is a commodity; it is a transient world, where teachers, schools and parents are interchangeable and replaceable.

Would I swap it, change it? Not for the world. Ok maybe not for England right now.

Previously posted on http://www.ajarn.com September 2013

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