Friday Period 1 – Simple? Not really

Schools are not simple places

There is a cynical view amongst many teachers that there are many experts on education because “we all went to school once”. A particular and probably unfair criticism often made of Secretaries of State, after all they do get to visit schools, just maybe not enough and with a very specific view and not the view from the chalkface. I’m not sure it is true but there is an impression that some Governments and some politicians and maybe others think schools are simple places. Along the lines of:

  • Teachers prepare lessons (same year on year) deliver lessons (to a class) and mark the work produced.
  • Teachers teach to a specification or syllabus.
  • The children learn (or do not) and pass (or do not) exams.
  • The curriculum is clear
  • The best teaching methods are very well known and agreed
  • Assessment models are clear and effective ( oh hang on for all audiences: parents, employers, HE, schools themselves, teacher, Ofsted LA…)
  • The exams are clear ( well a bit too easy or hard here and there).
  • The governors will monitor.
  • Ofsted will double check and publicise but sum up the school in one or two words (Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement, Inadequate).
  • Parents will support the school because they chose this school for their children.
  • Government can fund (I am talking maintained sector) fairly both revenue and capital works. The end

In the heady days of Bakers national curriculum the government thought a grade could be given to a pupil each year from year 0 to year 11 on a scale from 0 to 10, simple. It would allow parents to see their children progress ( or bring pressure if they didn’t). Anyone can teach, some think, don’t waste time with QTS, in fact a recent idea is to bring in retired people to teach English and Maths. Is it such a simple job?

I’ve just taught a lesson, I did prepare it, despite 30+ years and even several times teaching this lesson it needed preparation. Could I make it better, is there a video an animation , something which helps with this difficult concept? What did my notes from last year say? Can I make the practical work this year? should I do a demo before letting them loose? I’ve also got student work to hand back which, unsurprisingly I’ve marked, and I will go through the common errors and have added a few comments for others who struggled a bit more (this is called feedback). I am looking to see I make enough challenge – push the brightest, stimulate the G&T, support the weaker ones, differentiate, I’ve made sure the pupil premium peeps are getting a fair (or maybe extra fair) deal, oh and looked after those middle of the road pupils who are more tortoise than hare. So after the lesson did the students learn? MMmmm well that depends, some are better Chemists than others, some enjoy my lessons and get it, some enjoy them and don’t and well there are others who hate the lesson but at least try. Some will show they got it in problems they do and in the tests and in their exams. Some I think have grasped concepts today, lose them tomorrow or at least the day before the exam! Some don’t do their work well at home. Learning,it just isn’t linear, it’s just not simple.

Then the learner: some of my students don’t have English as a first language, some have had a difficult time at home, some have recently faced bereavement, and some are distracted, not bad behaviour just stuff on their mind. Some are preoccupied by another subject which has an important test next lesson. Some didn’t understand last weeks build up, some were away ill ….it’s just not simple. I’m not making excuses, I’m in a real world of dealing with learners, learning.

Then there is me, I have already taught this lesson to a different group and whilst I do much the same it goes better. Why? Oh: it’s the morning, oh: it’s a nicer day no wind blowing, Oh: I was more upbeat and smiley as the previous occasion I had a very difficult issue on my mind. Oh I praised them a bit more, no in fact I got cross with them today. [Parents have you tried that spectrum of reactions? Being nice, being mean, being harsh, allowing it, disallowing it and all to see if behaviour might improve –it worked, it didn’t work. Oh it’s complicated being a parent.]

So we come to exam results and those arguments about performance related pay. Great my class did really well. What do you mean? Their progress? Compared to whom? Their achievement? Compared to whom? Their new love of Chemistry? In any case you shared the class. Look at the data – well there is plenty to look at..results, Alps, 4matrix, Raise, FFT..if ever twas true there are lies damned lies and performance data. Hang it this is a person. ( and that rant from someone who tries to use data)

Well that little lad John , he did well in my subject compared to his other grades. Yes but that was his KS3 teacher , no in fact his primary teacher, no in fact the Head of Year who helped him, no his Mum who was keen he did well in Chemistry or damn, it was all down to the private tutor they got for John. No it was his mate in another class who helped him. In fact John hated school but back in Y7 he was in your football team, and he got to like you and because you picked him and gave him a chance he will do anything for you. Pity the other 10 didn’t react like that, I wonder why….oh it’s not simple. Anyway he did meet his target, what target? My target, his FFT target, his DfE target, his EFA target his funding target, our dept target his own target, his families target…… STOP. Wait. He is a person and a complicated little person growing up in a very complex world. I hope someone is keeping an eye on that and not just making him into a simple data point, meeting a target. Is he happy , healthy, outward looking, optimistic, unselfish, knows his moral duty etc ? WHAT? You can’t measure that it’s not simple. Hey and that is one of the 25 in my class! SO shall we discuss the next child along?

So can we measure teachers performance, we have those teacher standards but if I judge myself I hit some targets on some days and ….well it’s a bit complex, some I do but only with help from other people. I have read about what schools are doing since Mike Cladingbowl’s Ofsted article on the use of observations. People seem to be considering lots of factors (as many have written in blogs recently) we can make some judgments about teachers via observations, reputations, results, children’s responses, colleagues response’s but I’d like a lot of evidence because I think it’s complex this teaching and learning. Now don’t misunderstand I’m not arguing against accountability, not at all, nor ambition, nor driving aspiration – I will always do that, I am not comp[lacent< I came into the job to make a difference but please, please, please it’s a complex job.

Schools are complex communities. They aren’t a business, we don’t have clients or customers and a product, we have people. People with all their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, their bad days and good days. We have teachers who are great but human and get ill, or inspiring, or now again we teachers also have a lot to manage in our lives and despite this  I am working hard trying to develop curiosity. We have children who want to learn and some who don’t, we have some who have chaotic lives at home and school presents a consistency and hope. We have some pupils who have very,very difficult times at home – if you are a teacher reading this you know some or many – and we probably only know the half of it. Some pupils need lot of help from EAL staff, SEND staff, pastoral staff, senior staff, tutors and teachers. This is what makes the job a challenge and frankly makes it enjoyable, we can bring hope. Some pupils need to be watched because of their behaviour; some mature and learn some don’t. Yes the learning is not simple. I got cross: my lesson got hijacked by a concert rehearsal, the concert was wonderful. I got cross: my lesson got cancelled because of (competitive sports day) the day was wonderful – some pupils I teach I didn’t know that side of them, they are brilliant, their peers cheer them. I got cross: my lesson got cancelled whilst they set up to raise money for CAFOD – they raised £400 –it makes a difference in the world. AND tomorrow in my lesson they’ll have their heads up in the air and they will actually learn better, I couldn’t achieve that alone in my class. Mmm this taking part, contributing, this extra curricular, this paired reading, this charity fundraising, the time spent prepping our form assembly, hang on where was all that in my training. Ah well schools they aren’t simple they are a community…..of people.

I wonder is it the age? Let’s sum up the complex in a tweet, let’s make the pupil be a data point x on a graph. Let’s sum up in a sound bite, move on. 140 characters, then next? Let’s do it because we can measure, and those we cannot measure let’s give in because that’s complex. Let’s sum up the 80,000 odd formal lessons and maybe another 10,000 extra curricular, outside of lesson hours as…..”good” Ohps sorry “requires improvement”. I agree with Sir MW we make a difference we can bring hope, it’s why I was and still am a teacher but it’s just not simple. There are sometimes simple things some schools need to do and common sense isn’t so common and such changes make a difference, just recognise jobs are often complex.

I am happy to be made accountable, but I resent the media (including some politicians and Ofsted) summing up my work in one word, or summing up our children like that. Most of the time, most of my teaching and most of our children are ……………..sorry it’s a complex world and Iv’e got lessons to prep, staff to support and a school (a complicated living organisation ) to try and look after. BUT if you wish to know about my school, give me an hour and read about us on our website. It’s a little glimpse into our little community of 1200 pupils, and 120 adults, it might not be simple but I reckon it’s great.

Links
Here is a great article from Tom Sherrington (@Headguruteacher) which takes my very basic points into a much more serious arena, and hits the right tone.

Some questions to consider
Q1 What accountability measure should be used for schools?

Q2 How do we reflect the complexity of the job to help policy makers think about Education sensibly?

Q3 When the job in the classroom feels over complicated what are the simple things which keep us going?

Q4 Here is an INSET bug – give four things which would simplify the job>

From someone in a Faith Community:

Deuteronomy 4:9
Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.

Thessalonians 1:3
We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope

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17 thoughts on “Friday Period 1 – Simple? Not really

  1. Absolutely agree with the sentiment behind this, John!

    For example, I’ve always felt strongly when those (outside AND inside the profession) talk about ‘poor teachers’, as if those teachers formed a discrete and easily identifiable group that could just be ‘got rid of’ and replaced by better teachers if only we had the guts. The situation is SO much more complex than that! I wrote this for the Guardian Teacher Network ages ago but still feel the same:
    http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2011/nov/09/poor-teachers-ofsted

    It’s a complex business, this Teaching and Learning lark….

    Like

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  3. Dear John,
    Have you thought of politics…? seriously though, change comes from within….
    common sense is often far too scarce with ‘the powers that be’ in education…everyone in education, needs to understand how education, that community works..or doesn’t ..

    great piece, thank you!

    Like

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  7. This made me smile and feel much better after a knock-back from a lesson observation, for a job I went for yesterday. (I am a PGCE – Primary NQT looking for my first post).
    Despite getting a free reign to teach the lesson of my choosing; it being 4 days before the end of term; being given about 18 hours notice and very limited information about the class; being promised that the children would have name badges, and then didn’t have; major technical problems (not of my creation) at the start of the lesson; teaching a “really interesting and enjoyable lesson”; staying back 45 minutes after the lesson to mark work, I was told my lesson was “not rigorous enough [and] … we are looking for someone with more experience”. I was also reassured that they would be happy to take on an NQT and they had the right structures in place to support a teacher through his/her induction year. All was not lost however, as I received the confidence-boosting, “I’m sure you’ll go on to be a fantastic teacher”!
    Believe it or not, I was actually grateful the school had been decent enough to get in touch with me, otherwise I’d be still left hanging now.
    Mark Rowley.

    Like

    • Kind of you to take time to reply and good luck with job hunting. The profession needs teachers who have some passion and a shed load of common sense. Ironically my post on schools being complex was not supposed to explain a situation that you found on interview. Appointing is sometimes rushed for various reasons but I think it can always be fair and straightforward for all concerned.

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      • Agree John – but fair and straightforward, … without agendas, I think is difficult to achieve. I might have it totally wrong, but for now I have a gut feeling that there is something in it. Only time will tell. Anyway, thanks for your reply.

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