Archive for the ‘blogsync’ Category

This month’s Blogsync topic – how we can raise the status of the teaching profession – makes things a little difficult for me for one major reason: I teach in Scotland.

It really is hard to over-emphasise how important this distinction is. Scotland is, in so many ways, a very different country to England (ask Nigel Farage) and education is definitely one of the areas in which there is a major – and increasing – divide. I read lots of blogs and tweets from teachers in England and the issues that frequently arise – academies, free schools, PRP, SATs, Gove, Ofsted – are, thankfully, products of what feels like an entirely different world.

As a consequence of this, my response to this particular Blogsync topic may be quite different from my colleagues in England, as some of the issues that people are concerned are eroding the professionalism and prestige of teaching (most notably the approach of the current Conservative Education Secretary) do not particularly impinge upon my life.

To be entirely honest, I don’t even particularly feel that the status of teaching is a massive problem. There are the usual suggestions that “those who can’t do, teach”, and there are graduates who see a career in teaching as a mark of failure (full disclosure, there was a time when this applied to me) but, on balance, I’d say we are generally valued (at least north of Berwick). Crucially, I don’t wake up in the morning dreading another attack from the individual in charge of education for my country – indeed, Mike Russell seems to me to be good at his job at least in part because he doesn’t appear terribly interested in telling me what to teach or how to teach it.

Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t changes that I believe would make things better. If we assume that we could improve education overall by attracting the best people then re-organising teacher training to include a salary would seem to be to be a logical step. I wouldn’t advocate the sort of ‘train on the job approach’ being advocated in some quarters (a mixture of academic learning and teaching placements seems to me to be broadly the right approach) and can see the merit in making teaching a Masters level profession (as it is in Finland). I’d probably be inclined to change the nature of the GTCS (although recent changes to the Professional Standards do seem to be a step in the right direction).

One change I would make would to be our union representation, in which I have absolutely no faith whatsoever to represent our best interests or enhance our image and reputation among the wider population. The tactics adopted during the recent ‘negotiations’ over increased pension contributions illustrated this well, but that debate is for another time.

Probably the biggest changes I’d like to see in teaching, however, are the sort of things that most of us want: I’d like to see every teacher taking responsibility for their own professional development rather than asking what local authorities are going to do to train them; I’d really like to see a culture of collaborative working that makes use of the potential of 21st Century technology; and I’d absolutely love to see a profession that feels that our desire to innovate in the best interests of the pupils is not just accepted, but openly and actively supported.

I suppose the point I’m making is that to enhance the profession, we need those in charge to trust our professionalism – only from this starting point can improvements come. I can see this happening (albeit a little slowly) in Scotland, but I’m not so sure about the future for my English colleagues. One thing I am sure of is that I’m glad I don’t work for Michael Gove.


Read the rest of the Blogsync contributions on this topic here.

Progress is central to everything we do, but I also feel that it is sometimes misunderstood.

Plenty of excellent posts have already been submitted for April Blogsync outlining specific ways in which progress can be planned and measured, and everyone will have their own approach to this. In terms of technical procedures I have an Excel system which allows me to measure the progress of individual pupils through the Curriculum for Excellence Experiences & Outcomes, and it has helped me to develop specific and personal areas of weakness for my students in S1-3. Here’s a screenshot of a demonstration version of the system:

A screenshot of my Curriculum for Excellence tracking system for Literacy and English Experiences & Outcomes

A screenshot of my Curriculum for Excellence tracking system for Literacy and English Experiences & Outcomes (I should probably point out that I hate this type of approach, but is was my attempt to make some sense out of the nonsense that is ‘Developing’ ‘Consolidating’ and ‘Secure’ sub-levels)

The tracking system is not, however, what I’m writing this post about. The thing about progress is that I care much more about the little, individual steps made by my pupils that don’t generally show up in the paperwork (what I tend to think of as Invisible Progress). As my April Blogsync submission, I’ve decided to simply share the following stories about two of my students to show what I really think of as progress.

Pupil 1 – Way back in May 2012 my PT told me that, if I wanted it, I could take on the Advanced Higher class for the following year. I didn’t hesitate to accept the offer and immediately asked about numbers – he told me that there were two pupils confirmed, but that I might be able to persuade a few more. In the end I managed to increase the class size to three pupils by adding a student who, despite struggling with aspects of the Higher course, clearly had the ability to go a step further. She – like the other two pupils – worked incredibly hard for months, continually developing her analytical  and creative-skills; however, her moment of Invisible Progress came just last month – while working on her dissertation she turned to me and said that she didn’t think it was good enough “to get a high mark.” What made this special? Well, as I pointed out to her, when the course started she genuinely didn’t believe that she would be able to pass, and even after months of work maintained that she would be happy to scrape a C – now, seemingly out of nowhere, a C wasn’t the target anymore! That, more than anything else, made teaching that class worthwhile this year.

Pupil 2 – This year I’ve been teaching our top set S3 class, and from day one there have been a few pupils who simply weren’t convinced that they deserved to be there. Throughout the year they’ve produced some brilliant work but one or two still doubt their abilities. Today, though, one achieved her own moment of Invisible Progress while I spoke to her about the upcoming close reading exam. She’d been struggling through the last couple of lessons on exam technique, but without really believing that she could pass. Today, though, she had the courage to tell me: “I’ve done this for years though, ever since primary school – I always tell myself I can’t do things before I start and I realise that’s making it harder.” Admitting the problem is the first step to a solution, and I know that I’ll now be able to help her get over this self-inflicted mental roadblock.

I’m not sure if this is the sort of thing that this edition of Blogsync was supposed to be about, but the longer I’ve thought about ‘progress’ the more I’ve realised something important: if you don’t have a grasp of the Invisible Progress going on all around you, then the facts, figures and spreadsheets don’t really mean a whole lot. What progress looks like for each individual, and knowing whether it has been made, is, more than anything else, down to knowing every single pupil well enough to be able to spot the ‘Invisible Progress’.

Read the other ‘Progress’ posts for April blogsync.

It is an extremely uncomfortable question.

As teachers we want to see a profession which is effective, innovate and forward-thinking; we want constant improvement in the pursuit of excellence, because by nature we are problem-solvers; we want pupils to have the best possible experiences and gain the qualifications they need to succeed in the rest of their lives.

But something is wrong. Every single year a new cohort of excellent NQTs emerge from teacher training institutions across the UK, eager to play their part in the development of educations system which should, by all accounts, be some of the best in the world. Many of them succeed, and go on to make an immeasurable difference in the lives of their students, but too many simply don’t survive and, as David Didau has already discussed, up to 50% of them leave within the first five years.

As we all know the education systems in Scotland the rest of the UK are worlds apart, and having never taught outside my home country I am only really qualified to suggest why so many teachers leave the Scottish system, although I suspect that the fundamental reasons are much the same across the board.

Some of the reasons for leaving the profession are obvious and don’t really need much explanation: some people realise pretty quickly that they have made the wrong choice in career, in which case it is better to leave quickly; others may be drawn away by other opportunities, or family circumstances; and some, to be frank, probably just aren’t up to it. These factors affect all careers and there is no reason that teaching – which is every bit as emotionally, socially, personally and intellectually demanding as any number of professions – should be any different.

It is crucial, however, that we are completely, painfully honest, and realise that many of those who leave do not fall into the above categories, and could – should – have helped to deliver the exceptional education that every single pupil deserves. What, then, is it that is forcing them out, and depriving children of someone who could have inspired them to achieve everything that they are capable of and more?

To be honest, I’m not really sure – the question is far too expansive and complicated, and I certainly can’t comment on what motivates other people; what I can do, however, is explain why I know, deep down, that there is a chance that I may well find myself part of the group that leaves the profession early. Perhaps in sharing my own feelings I can begin to understand what might drive others to leave a job that I find immensely rewarding.

For the avoidance of doubt, I do love teaching. I never expected to become a teacher (I still remember rejecting the possibility with an expletive-laden rant when the question came up as I neared the end of my undergraduate course) but, now that I’m here, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve ended up at a brilliant little school which suits my outlook, personality and style beautifully, and in less than two-years have become hugely invested in the success of my pupils. I spent my NQT year in the same school last year and experienced a superb balance between feeling supported and being left to just get on with it, and have been made to feel like a valued member of staff since day one. Having survived a series of utterly dreadful jobs since the age of 16 I feel as though I’m finally using my skills and experience to help people, which is all I ever really wanted to do. Teaching makes me happy.

But what if it isn’t enough?

One of the reasons that I love teaching English in particular is the freedom it gives me to tailor absolutely everything around my students, therefore pushing them as far as I possibly can. In the short time that I’ve been teaching I’ve already had some major successes, and there are plenty more on the horizon. For every success, however, there is another frustration, and I wonder how long it will be before battling with them becomes a fight that can’t be won from within the four walls of a classroom. I am not ‘burned out’, I don’t face a conveyor belt of horrendous behaviour each day, and I’m not a victim of workplace bullying (as I said already, my school and colleagues are absolutely superb) but there is a niggling issue that refuses to go away.

The one individual who, more than any other, inspired me to teach left the profession for similar reasons, and while I couldn’t understand it at the time, I am already starting to see his point. Schools can indeed, in his words, be ‘stifling’: everything must be quantified for Local Authorities; innovative ideas (especially when they involve new technology) are regularly hobbled by a system of hurdles and hoop-jumping; and the worst part is that, in many ways, the Curriculum for Excellence – something which is supposed to liberate teachers and which I have always been in favour of – is actually becoming more and more of a constraint on what I am trying to do.

I wonder, then, if these might be the same things that irreparably damage so many new teachers? We want to be brilliant and, all too often, are prevented from achieving excellence not by our own shortcomings but by the constraints of a system which should empower teachers but instead achieves the opposite.

How many teachers pour their heart and soul into a new idea only to be cut down by a voice from higher up the pyramid of hierarchical authority? How many individuals find themselves being forced into conformity by top-down requirements for explicit learning objectives and graded lesson observations? How many of those leaving the profession are creative individuals desperate to make a difference, but  in reality find their creativity being micro-managed until the only way to save it is to find a new environment? It seems rational that the frustration caused by such a situation could easily account for a good number of those leaving teaching.

I suppose all of this is directly associated with the theme of my first blogsync post – trust. I suspect that one of the main reasons for the number of teachers abandoning the profession is the perception that they are not trusted, which over time is sure to wear down even the most enthusiastic of people, eventually forcing them to look elsewhere for the sort of personal satisfaction that a profession like teaching should be more than able to satisfy.


You can find out more about Blogsync, and sign up to contribute, by clicking here.

Having started this blog and then (as I thought might happen) completely ignored it for a while, I came across the BlogSync project on Twitter and decided to sign up, hoping that it would spur me on to start actually writing.

So, here we go…

“The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime”

Having read the topic title for this month I decided to wait for a few days before starting writing. This wasn’t because I couldn’t think of anything, but rather because far too many ideas popped into my head almost instantly for me to be able to produce a concise and effective piece of writing (the very thing I constantly insist that my pupils do for me).

The first and most obvious point that occurred to me was that there is, of course, no single magical cure to the ills of our education system – the problems are too numerous and complex. Surely, though, it should be possible to find a starting point from which an effective treatment might proceed?

Anyway, having let the question rattle around in my mind for a few days I stumbled across something last week which confirmed exactly what I want to see in education – have a look:

So, the number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime? An explicit and unconditional acceptance that the professionalism of teachers must be trusted. This sounds obvious enough to make this entire blog post redundant, but if that were the case then the ICTex group wouldn’t have felt the need to explicitly recommend the move in both their initial and final reports on the future of technology in education. Of course, these documents relate specifically to the use of ICT in the classroom (where the professional judgement of teachers is far too often overlooked) but I would argue that the problem runs much, much deeper.

The example which is perhaps causing the most consternation (and, let’s be honest, anger) amongst teachers of English is the upcoming imposition of set Scottish texts for the new National 5 and Higher exams. Since this was first mentioned there has been a steady stream of criticism from across the country: we have been at pains to point out that required texts runs entirely contrary to the principles of Curriculum for Excellence; that English teachers in Scotland already teach Scottish texts (and even if they didn’t, there is a huge difference between good teaching of Scottish texts and forcing pupils to write about it in examinations); that such restrictive proposals will limit innovation; that a significant amount of funding will be required to allow schools to acquire stocks which are broad enough to offer personalisation and choice; that there is a depressing dearth of contemporary texts on the proposed lists; and that, to be perfectly frank, we do not need to be told what is ‘appropriate’ literature for our students.

And the response to all of this? Exactly as you would expect – there is to be a list of set texts for the National 5 and Higher examinations. In a country where the professional judgement of teachers was paramount there would at the very least have been a feeling amongst professionals that our responses were taken seriously.

Of course, this is made all the more frustrating by the fact that Curriculum for Excellence is, in so many ways, a significant step in the right direction, but I can’t help but feel that we are at risk of missing some of the biggest opportunities that it presents.

Then again, it could be worse – I could be teaching in England, where Michael Gove seems hell bent on crushing the idea that teachers can be trusted to drive effective change for the benefit of their pupils. We only need to take a quick look at the outcry over the ill-conceived EBacc, or the move to allow academies to employ teachers with no training or qualificiations, to see that a situation is developing where the opinions of teachers are of no importance whatsoever – ‘innovation’ is driven by ministerial diktat with no regard for solid evidence or the experiences of other systems (presumably in a future role as Health Secretary Mr Gove will start telling doctors how they should be treating cancer).

Why, though, is this my absolute number one wish in education? Put simply, because I firmly believe that all of the other ideas on my wish-list (access to genuinely 21st Century technology for all pupils in all schools, a system which is incessantly insistent that all pupils are pushed to achieve as much as they possibly can, approaches to Learning and Teaching which are innovative and focussed on the needs of individual students) are completely and unavoidably dependent upon the presumption that teachers are the ones best placed to decide on the needs of those in their classes and schools.

Is every teacher perfect? Of course not, and it would be absurd to suggest otherwise; however, the best way to drive up the quality of teaching is to develop a culture of excellence, the first step for which is trust.

I know that we could develop a truly world-leading education system in Scotland (unfortunately recent evidence suggests that achieving this in the rest of the UK might be more of a challenge) but only if we emulate the approach of countries such as Finland, where teaching is a high-status, academically challenging profession and teachers’ expertise are highly valued. We cannot simply replicate the Finnish system in Scotland, but there is one hugely important aspect of their philosophy that would benefit our own system; as the speaker in the video says:

When people ask me how do you know … that your students are learning in a school I always say: ‘Ask teachers, they know.’