Make the world – or your bit of it – a better place.

This is a version of a farewell evening celebration with colleagues, ex colleagues, support staff, and ex students, perhaps 200+. It was a wonderful occasion thanks to my amazing colleagues, fantastic students and supportive parents, there is no attempt to capture the atmosphere at the National College on Friday just my musings shared with an audience used to my storytelling.

I did my training in Oxford in 1980 to 81 before the majority of you were born, starting teaching in Witney, Oh hang on, no in 1981 I got married and could never have survived without the huge patience of my wife! Wood Green was a rural comp a great school to learn how to teach with wonderful colleagues. Secondary modern teachers who could and did teach really well, I learned the craft. My most telling moment at the end of Y1 invited to the options meeting when lists came out with those who chose our subjects – remember no national curriculum so anyone could do anything – we just had a few rules like ‘you should all do a science’. I picked up the chemistry list and was looking over it. Sat next to me the PE teacher who was hoping to introduce CSE PE. He was huffing and tutting and the deputy boomed “hey Tony what’s the matter?” He was shaking his head….”well I’ve got a right bunch here look Richard Smith, he’s useless he can’t even swim”. I thought to myself gosh I would not like a chemist who say couldn’t write well,or manipulate apparatus and the deputy boomed out. “Tony hey Tony You’re a bloody PE teacher, teach him to bloody swim. ***Colleagues now and again forget Ofsted SLT and heads and ‘bloody teach them’.

Back in 1981. I wanted to teach and inspire children with Chemistry, and science and I saw education helping people escape the black and white dull world of car factories and dead end jobs, maybe even failry dead end existences, where I had grown up. ( …”have life abundantly”)Escape into a bright new colourful world of opportunity, learning, culture, and moral purpose- sorry but I was the idealist “make the world a better place” All very grand.

When I moved to Nottingham I got a shock I arrived in 1985 to find the children were all a year older than I was used to. My Y9 were as streetwise as the Y10 in rural Oxfordshire. I learnt a lesson ***TRY and keep pupils young, help them enjoy childhood as far as you can, allow them to be excited and curious by discovering the world not by inhabiting their pre-adult dream or what is in fact a nightmare. I also met City kids and parents,  having harsh words with Angus, who no one seemed to  control, a colleague asked about my day, I related the story , it had been fine save this bad behaviour. My colleague asked what I was doing now… a class and then a club…”No John you go home, his Dad is …well he lives nearby, he’ll be here soon, you just go home, the last row resulted in 2 staff with broken noses.

I didn’t like the 80’s industrial action meant no one around before or after school or  lunch and no after school events. No chance to talk about my subject my pupils, their learning. Schools became black and white and not what I wanted. It was my lowest point and a time ready to leave the profession.

I looked to one last go at teaching as GCSE came in but felt a need to move school because the head wouldn’t let me teach my preferred GCSE syllabus. The one I felt would be best for our children “will it get us better results Mr Dexter?” How on earth would I know, we didn’t even know at that point know what grades would be used, we had a draft spec not proper ones – sounds familiar! So eventually I came to Trinity moving from County to City in 1989 with one small baby and another on the way Hannah – heck where have those years gone? They are both Drs now.

Bernard Bonner, the headteacher, told me I would be trusted, I could decide what to teach, and how to teach; that I would deliver or I would be sacked. He told me how wonderful the school was – others will recall it wasn’t quite so. We visited a feeder school St Augustine’s to speak to Y6 and one parent turned up, many Catholic families sent their children to non RC schools because…well they were better. In my first y12 lesson after 3 simple questions half the class (3) burst into tears please can you stop asking such hard questions! Literally and metaphorically OMg. They were great years in the 90’s working with other fantastic staff and making science work in the school, lots of innovation and fantastic science colleagues, and helping build a better experience for children more widely.  Introducing Salters’ Chemistry bought me and the pupils wonderful opportunities and results and a chance to travel to Canada and Sweden and to write a book. I wrote a chemistry book for the less able, that’s an old fashioned word ‘less able’.  So when we came to choose new textbooks for the double awards, I got a deal for the head of science, he came back to me I’ve ordered 120 of the texts for the ‘most able’ a copy each and a set for school. And I’ve ordered 10 of yours John they don’t take them home and it’s small classes – that earned me 30p x 10 = £3.00 ( less tax) and a five sides of paperwork about pecuniary interests. I am deeply grateful to those science colleagues who have always looked out for me and put up with my busyness and never moaned about having me in the dept – well not to me anyway!

I have really enjoyed my jobs over those 36.25 years- I’ve taught 7250 days less the 4 I’ve been off sick, so very fortunate with my health. I think that’s about 26,000 lessons plus  a few covers and for my fist 10 years a hell of a lot of parading up and down invigilating. A good few assemblies BUT as head of sixth form they were recycled, well evolved every 2 years, though some moved from using acetate to PowerPoint. I’ve worked with about 300 teachers and loved working with all of them …except 2. And I think I’ve taught just over 5000 pupils, well I say taught we’ve all shared the same space for a few hours – I think great lessons are still a mystery, magical, planned but brought to life. My favourite days were in the sixth form and grateful to those who were tutors with me and deputies. Sixth formers who need a good kick and a good love to get them through.

I came to Trinity and we had less than 1p per pupil per lesson to spend on chemicals; no worksheets copied, a few bandas for very special lessons but a very colourless world in  text and  a few simple diagrams in textbooks. Not much data, just my mark book, and lesson plans. I knew my classes inside out – much like colleagues do now. When I started Trinity had 2 telephones, 2 secretaries a somewhat absent lab tech but great teachers, and a great ethos which many staff, parents and pupils have bought into, experienced and have helped develop. It has been important to me and others to understand that ethos, to work at it, to help children and parents to see it – a moral purpose and a Catholic Christian faith.  I have no doubt those purposes are safe as I leave –Trinity should always help children to aim high, work hard, persevere, participate collaborate, and challenge. It will carry on , I hope we’ve embedded it very deep.

I’ve spoken enough to the staff so I don’t need to pass on any advice it’s been ignored enough already  🙂 but *** please use your teacher instinct your classroom nouse to deliver great lessons. ***Do not allow paperwork and data to get you down. Get a grip – better to know Johnny boy struggles with “this”, and will react well to “the other” and can learn this bit, than to know he is level 8.4.3 and to get to 8.4.4 he needs to cross his t’s, oh but hang on he’s slipped back by forgetting to dot the i, oh right back to FFT he’s now 8.3.4 and heck we must get it written on his progress sheet in purple. Where’s my purple pen? Sometimes educational policy feels mad!

  • I have some proud moments – winning an RSC medal and a nominated for a Salters award were good but the best bit was Bernard Bonner speaking to the press – “I’m amazed John won those, I’ve no idea how he did it.”
  • I am proud of the badges we won from external visitors – Ofsteds, HMI, Diocesan peeps though we have never greatly trumpted them, and  I am most proud of the letters and emails and conversations with parents and pupils over the years., and in recent days. We do the job to help children and families not to impress Ofsted – that’s why over 600 families want a  year 7 place this year.
  • I’ve been proud of the schools achievements for music and sport – sixth form county cup winners was a highlight, Sheku at the Barbican was an incredible moment but I’m just as proud of the child who, when the whole of Y9 play in concert to Y7 and Y8, I asked if he was excited to play and he said “sort of, I’m a bit scared”…go on I said…”well Sir can you remind me what those different black dots mean” then he played his part lifting the standard. I’m glad some of my sixthformers got to decent Universities, sad for those who ended up at Cambridge ( speaks a St Catz man) but just as delighted to hear of them being happy with family life, with voluntary work and especially wanting to send their children to Trinity even when they didn’t necessarily have a good experience themselves etc. Twitter brought to melots of ex chemists including one, now a director at CAFOD, email brought me an ex student winning East Midland entrepreneur of the year – he told me I run it like Trinity – I recently appointed a bloke who didn’t interview well but he’s been transformed because we gave him a job and believed in him.

 

I’ve been in leadership a long time 20 years sometimes thrust upon me because I wanted things to be done a bit better but maybe never quite managed that as colleagues will testify.  Many years with experienced wise and very passionate, sometimes too passionate colleagues, hilarious moments, difficult moments, Thank you for all of them. The heads job can be taxing – whenever a leader comes in and the sentence starts “I need to tell you about…” I take a deep breath – great leaders that they are, they nearly always also bring a solution along with a problem but not always and I have often thought —-how do I solve this if those clever, sensible experienced people can’t. Trinity has experienced, wise, hard working leaders, I’m sure staff get frustrated with us at times but we too have the heart for Trinity and a heart for the job you all do. I have to thank each of the 6 of them for tireless work, great personal support and a friendship which of the many aspects I will miss when I leave will be the most difficult for me. Between us 140 years at Trinity

Tuesday was Y7 parents evening two Y7 were awaiting their parents, one said to me “I think I know all the teachers names Sir”, and the other butted in “I think I know your first name Sir its John”….just a small reminder what a big big thing it is finding the teachers name. Then the first said “well that’s obvious it’s printed on the wall there by those photos. Why are those photos there Sir?” Me”well they are the school leaders” “what do they do ( such a good question!) me “they tend to go grey early and earn the most money…and  we try and run the school. Oh I see just like a family then, grandparents, parents…. How perceptive!

 

All of you have had different roles in the Trinity family- I hope you enjoy or enjoyed your time in the family, I hope you will keep in touch and most of all I hope you younger staff will keep that family atmosphere and the high ambition and in time pick up the baton. WE have created something special and I am very proud to have worked so long at Trinity and to have changed lives usually for the better and sometimes in the most unlikely of young people. That’s why I started in in 1980 and now in 2017 I might finish with QED > what we set out to do. “make the world a better place”.

I’ll add a few photos  later

Here is the Link to a few comments on fb

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Friday Period 6 – 10,000 hours or 25 Years -> Greatness?

25thannWe said farewells at the end of term just a few, six colleagues we waved goodbye to BUT we also celebrated three reaching a grand milestone – 25 years. Three highly respected colleagues who just completed 25 years at one school, ours, Trinity.

 

So 25 years ago what was happening – well lots: Labour hated its leader, one Neil Kinnock and the Tories were on a “back to basics” campaign with Mr Major. More important PC world opened its first shop and Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web. So schools themselves look very different today but in a way they don’t – we had great teachers then and we need them now and the tools of the trade might change but the craft and trade do not.

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the WWW

When teachers join any school , experienced or not they are still new and these three join five other colleagues who have also completed their 25 years -thats 8 of us nearly 10% staff. It is a very special achievement and I’m delighted that our governors understand that and reward those colleagues for their commitment. It is not exactly equivalent to a testimonial for a loyal footballer but it is a recognition.

It did make me Unknownthink about Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’ which has been all the  rage in schools, and incidentally well worth a read  – I actually met a headteacher who bought it for the whole of his Y11, then moaned that the girls performance improved but the boys didn’t and then apparently Ofsted had a go at one of their ‘gaps’ getting bigger. Thankfully whether true or anecdotal we are in new Ofsted framework. But back to Syed who seems to say put in 10,000 hours hard work and you get to be really good.  Some have pushed that idea for learners maybe coupled with a bit of growth mindset and Dweck. However it got me thinking about teachers – 25 years must be well over 10,000 hours, nearer 18,000  of teaching in same place and I think he is right these teachers have become experts, really good, both at teaching and at teaching in our school and in leading. People who stay a course like that make the school effective these are the characters in my school who have helped understand the ethos, mission and moral purpose and yet also help create the ethos and therefore also help to sustain the ethos. These are the people colleagues turn to when somebody comes as a new teacher ( well and also old teachers and even older headteachers) and when they wonder ” Is that what happens here? Do they really do that?” for better or worse the answer is known.  The colleagues around say yes that is what we do, it is delivered by an incredible level of consistency. They are without doubt respected by pupils, parents and colleagues. These are the colleagues who have  helped establish traditions, activities which over many years we have evolved and some we changed if they’ve not been effective, some we’ve dropped if they’ve been ineffective. We’ve redone ideas and modified them and we have a rich seam of curricular and  extra curricular whole school activities.  We like new and young teachers, don’t get me wrong, we like their passion, enthusiasm, ideas and approaches and we like to learn and try things out but we also have a bit of an instinct as to what works and what doesn’t. As a church school that includes our whole school events like Masses or liturgies but it includes sports days and swimming galas, music concerts etc it includes prize-giving and it includes a discussion such as ‘should  we run prizegiving this way or that way’. What do we stand for, and how do we live that out? Reliability, longevity, tradition, stability, consistency …outcomes – I think that’s what we get.

Our school has done well in outcomes and it is an outstanding school, it’s also very popular with parents and I could not help thinking the contribution of longstanding wisdom is pretty critical.  High turnover at the top of other organisations including the DfE is what we often see across educational landscapes maybe the lack of longevity brings a lack of stability and contributes to an occasional lack of depth or a frequent lack of understanding and frustrations, maybe even a lack of progress, the fact that the standards are not as high as they should be. My other favourite book Collin’s ‘Good to great’ would lead to a similar conclusion. In my early days (80’s) of teaching you wouldn’t expect any responsibility point or pay increases until a couple of years worth of Y11 exam results were under your belt – prove yourself at the sharp end.gd to g8

Fast turnover might make a business more efficient and it might make a company run better but whether it actually gives better outcomes I don’t know,  but one thing I do know is that these long lasting teachers  hold something very special in their hands because it’s from their hearts, possibly their souls. They have invested a huge amount of time and their life  in the school. It might be why our retainment remains pretty high? We always say to young teachers that rules for discipline are important and they must be applied consistently and clearly, when you’ve got people at school for such a long time, the consistency  is probably second to none. However it is also about accountability for me – whilst I’ve written elsewhere about accountability to governors, to the diocese, to OFSTED, to parents and pupils, there is a greater daily accountability which is to those respected colleagues. As well as being accountable to them for day to day decisions, we have to make the decisions together and these are the supportive conscientious peers, if they make a criticism it is a genuine criticism, it has to be heard because they have given so much of their time energy and yes their life to the work of the school. I just wonder if anybody out there really understands the huge effect of stability and longevity. Our leadership team has now completed 133 years at the school 77 of them in leadership.  I can’t help thinking if something of the success of the school is not down to the fact of the commitments and longevity of those people. I do hope it continues and I do hope stability that we enjoy is something that others can consider in their organisations. Oh and PS we bid farewell to an unsung hero in our office, a secretary retiring – after 27 years with us.

imageTwo years ago I came to teach a lower ability Y10 class, never taught any of them before and as I called the first register I had taught an older sibling or parent of 21 of the 26. When I set them their first homework everyone handed it in save one boy lets call him Ryan –

“Your homework wasn’t done Ryan” Ruan’s shoulders shrug.

“Why not?” said I, “should I ring your older sister?”

“No Sir please not Rebecca”

“Ok your older brother”

“No No. He’ll be very cross ”

“Ok I’ll call on your Mum on my way home. Ryan:”

“Sir ……can I give it you at break”

Gosh the job just got a little easier.


For those in a church school

2 Samuel 14:20 Your servant Joab did this to change the present situation. My lord has wisdom like that of an angel of God—he knows everything that happens in the land.”

Proverbs 4:6 Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you.

2 Timothy 2:2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.


Some Questions

Q1 What is the right balance in schools of new ideas and older wisdom?

Q2  Is it possible to avoid complacency in the search for constancy?

Q3 What is your experience of the wisdom of elders?

Q4 A qestion raised after a twitter conversation with Jon Thompson @poachermullen  just how will the profession adapt as it ages and as teachers have to work longer? How do we ensure those wise experienced staff remain enthusiastic and able to do the job? How do we plan for that? Looking after each other? How? Secondments during the career? What do you think?

Tuesday period 7 -The importance of being earnest about Subject Knowledge.

This week I had the privilege of speaking to the PGCE mentors at Nottingham University about subject knowledge. We were trying to think about the importance of subject knowledge when training teachers compared to all the other pedagogical an

d classroom management that goes on in helping shiny new teacher trainees as they learn the craft of the classroom. The stuff that inevitably has to go on – behaviour management, question technique etc made me think about the importance of subject knowledge in learning to be a teacherimage. You need a big erudite quote talking to a load of PGCE mentors at a prestigious University so I went for a Cloughie quote. “Players lose you games not tactics. There is so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at Dominoes.” This made me think because Clough’s point really is that there are all sorts of people with opinions and views telling him how to run his team but actually it is players that win games. As a head teacher I am acutely aware we get all sorts of advice, guidance and “this is how to” BUT  it is teachers that make a difference.

  • teachers not systems
  • teachers not policies
  • enthusiastic, inspiring and knowledgeable teachers.

Policies and systems are important but no one decides to become a teacher because of policies and systems, they decide to become a teacher because they were inspired by a teacher or by a subject or both; they love children and now they have a subject they wish to share. My audience were present as PGCE mentors because of a deep desire to help the next generation of teachers, to create more teachers and we head teachers like to find inspiring knowledgeable shiny new teachers.

Some Subject Knowledge Myths

Graduates know everything about their subject when they graduate as though the things they didn’t quite understand when they went into finals having got their 2:1 or even 1st somehow mysteriously drop into the brain. The 30% you got away without knowing is now “in the brain” Well it sure isn’t! After graduation I did one year of reseach and in my first day of lab work used  a chemical (Benzoyl Chloride for those interested] which was described as a powerful lachrymator, but me and my arrogance not wanting to check  at what lachrymator meant just assumed it was the word that meant you went to the toilet a lot. so I took care not to drink or taste it [not difficult] having completed my experiment threw my solution down a sink to find a whole lab of chemists with tears streaming down their faces having to leave the room and as we were evacuated me being totally embarrassed. No the gaps of knowledge are not filled in!

Graduates knowledge automatically updates as the world discovers more about that subject new gaps occur. Or maybe some part of history you have to teach wasn’t covered in HE. Or suddenly as an English teacher you have to understand the new 19th century novel thanks to Mr Gove designing the spec. This can be seen as nuisance or you can have the attitude of my brilliant English staff and see it as a chance to read stuff you haven’t read before.

IMG_2928The school curriculum, the school content never changes hey have in my subject I can tell you a topic like Solubility has come and gone and came back it. The Born Haber cycle was in then out then back in a new form then gone and I’ve not checked the new specs!

 

 

Some Subject Knowledge Truths

Graduates know more about their subject than school students. We hope that’s true after 3 years and £27,000 and all of us should be able to keep ahead on knowledge

Graduates worry about other aspects of the classroom. Shine new ITT people have other bothers:

  • Will the pupils behave
  • Will I cope with the marking, feedback, will I even be able to answer the exam question myself
  • Will their parents moan about me
  • Will my classroom turn into an example of chaos and riot
  • Agh should I be a teacher

It’s nimageot just about knowledge. Back in the day when I did a PGCE we had what we called books and if you were asked a question the answer was in a book so you found it there or bluffed. Now you can google it, so can pupils, but learning is much deeper matter and, it’s really all about

  • Understanding,
  • reasoning,
  • application,
  • synthesis …..maybe more

Knowledge has to fit into a curriculum. Whatever knowledge the graduate has or does not have the demand is in a curriculum be that for Y7 for Y9 top sets or for GCSE or Level and maybe when we get this wrong we underestimate our pupils and maybe there is truth in the Ousted chiefs criticisms of the way we work with bright pupils

Graduates should be able to make a subject “come to life”. OK there is a curriculum but get the  best bits of your subject, the exciting and interesting stuff into the lesson. Children love this and if we keep winning them over they will enjoy the lesson, learn and see they can progress. That is the virtuous circle of success

Stay in the mainstream of being a subject specialist. I am a reasonable Chemist ( hey Ive a degree and an FRSC) Im an OK Chemistry teacher- but when you give me KS3 biology I can kill it. I never did any Biology, in my day an all boys grammar didn’t do Biology.

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Sir I don’t think you know how to use this microscope

I did a little in my degree and sure I can teach it BUT do I know if this lesson on photosynthesis is putting the right emphasis on the right foundations. Bet someone who taught KS4 or 5 would identify better the exact basics to grasp. One reason I think our Maths and English results are so good is because people teaching KS5/4 teach Y7 and Y8 – when they cover adverbs in Y7 they sure have an eye on what will be needed post16 or GCSE and make sure they start building it well. Drip feed complex ideas form an early age.

 

A few challenges

Pupil growth in understanding mirrors yours. There are always better ways to teach better ways to work out how to deliver your subject after a few years of working out that this be the topic doesn’t get a learnt very well in that particular way we is the subject experts can probably sit down and find a better way. in the 80’s I taught Chemistry the same way I had been taught and the same route as my degree. By the time of Salters I was teaching JUST the part needed at a particular stage, we revisited ideas, we did ideas in a circular way that genuinely held learning and it meant we revisited Chemical ideas. It worked and worked well and we  saw that in results in numbers carrying on in the subject and guess what – we saw it in their understanding. Avoid the errors of dropping really difficult concepts and ideas on pupils too early in their learning before they are mature enough to cope.

Importance of the story of the subject (even Maths). All subjects even Maths have a story to tell – a history, a set of characters, set of discoveries, a context, a baddie a discovery. I can name you all these in Chemistry. Have a fund of stores or look at my post on storytelling.

Importance of secuIMG_2943re understanding not teaching to test – PPS (past paper syndrome). No teacher reading this hasn’t had the frustration of a pupil asking “whats in the test?” or doing past papers sometime in January and not doing very well.  We need to use our own deep understanding of our subject to show pupils just how to grasp, understand, learn and progress.
No point doing exam papers (yet) be secure in your knowledge and understanding) and sure we might have to do some simple testing to see if you have and to see how we help.

Using new technologies. I love what I have in the toolbox for teaching so we must keep an eye on ICT or Activites to enhance BUT we use out subject knowledge. I’m reminded of some of the early software I was shown by enthusiastic software salesmen aiming  to show me how wonderful chemistry could appear  on the interactive whiteboard. Watch! You can pull a virtual bottle of acid from here and look you can pull across test tube and choose a bit of zinc or other metal to add. Now, drop it in and click here to open the bottle and look the equation is written underneath and there is the reaction: some bubbles of hydrogen the pupils can guess what it is and the little splint will come over and on imagethe screen appears the word “pop” what do you think of that? It’s quite nice but I’d rather g
et a bottle of acid out give it to my pupils and a test tube and let them do the pop test to see the delight in their faces and the motivation which will probably drive them to work out the equation ready for tomorrow when if they’ve worked it out they can do a few more themselves in real life. Use technology but use your subject common sense

Importance of the keepy uppy in your subject there is the obvious importance of keeping up in the subject and chemistry as in most subjects things has seen dramatic changes. Nanotechnology didn’t exist back in the 80’s. We need to keimageep up with our knowledge, we should enjoy that. It will get us excited: a new material anew discovery, scientist on the international space station. I teach my pupils about DNA and the structure and hydrogen bonding and it’s fascinating and actually give them the 1953 article (a single side of A4 paper) that was in nature and I remind them that in
1953 this won a Nobel Prize and in 2016 it might get them three marks in an exam.Surely there is nothing more important than us keeping up our frontier knowledge to excite and inspire the next generation – cos someone did that for us , a teacher a copy of New scientist a TV programme. Get in touch with your professional subject: ASE or RSC for me.

Delight of discussion of your subjectone of the best parts of the teacher’s job is spending time in the staffroom or on CPD opportunities OR with pupils, talking through some of the issues. How can we make this better? What does this mean? Did you know that? Have you seen this? Hey and if you can draw in other staff, the renaissaince people in te staffroom then the discussion makes the job richer, and all the better

Lifelong learning. You and I dream of creating lifelong learners, and we are lifelong learners of our sunbelt. Use the vehicle of your subject knowledge to sign the deal.


Some Questions

Q1 what importance does your ITT, NQT RQT or frankly your CPD programme place on Subject Knowledge?

Q2 Have we neglected subject knowledge at the expense of pedagogy and lost out

Q3 Should we try and wrestle subject knowledge back to being the “first love”?

7YBA Languages teacher

By Natalie Campbell @ncampbell250

I remember my first languages lesson Monsieur Lewis spoke no English to us whatsoever and we sat wide-eyed and puzzled as to whether this man was indeed French and if we would ever understand what he needed us to do. We followed his waving arms and tried intently to please the French man stood before us. In fact it wasn’t until we passed the staff room later that week and heard him speaking to another teacher that we found out that he was in fact English and le mystère was gone. If it hadn’t been for his gestures and his, what I now know to be routine classroom French, we would have been quite lost his classes at first. This amazing chameleon-like ability to become a different person inspired me. The next year I met Monsieur Clarke and Señor Williams and their passion for language and the culture with the logic mixed in by the grammar was another thing I found really interesting about studying languages.

 

So off I went to la universidad, having studied two languages at A-level, thinking that a business degree would be a good thing to put my with Spanish degree in order to get me an excellent job in the business world. Teaching was something that just happened to me. I had always enjoyed making up silly sentences and had played schools with my sister and friends so becoming a teacher rather than travelling the world as an interpreter became my chosen path.

During my teacher training I remember being surprised that not all children enjoyed learning languages as much as I had. It was a humbling experience and a real time for me to learn how to share my passion for languages with students and how to encourage them to give it a try even when they found it defied all logic and was rather confusing to remember that un ratón was a mouse and not a rat or that accents go both ways in French and can look like hats and tails too!

MFL3

In an inspector pleasing world much emphasis was always placed on gaining as many ticks on a clipboard as possible. I was always keen to make those ticks work for mis estudiantes and so would listen with great interest as the latest great idea was shared with staff. I would be the first to volunteer for any new training that came along. As with all things in education new ideas came and new ideas got passed up when the next big thing came to town.

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During my teacher training I learnt how to make fun little games for an overhead projector I could get thirty children to squeak like mice, chant like robots and learn key vocabulary whilst performing interesting vocal exercises. Then the next big thing came along and we moved to PowerPoint. The same games could be played but needed to be thought carefully through in advance as you had less flexibility than before. Then came the zooming presentation and it is grâce à Prezi that I am in my current job, but that’s a story for another day.

I am incredibly blessed at my current school. For the children, joining in with their language learning it is definitely more valued than before. However, the “everybody speaks English” excuse still surfaces and it is my challenge to keep them going and make them feel inspired.  The most effective way is to give them oportunidades to see languages work in the real world. Going to a market on a recent trip to Seville I saw the light in a student’s eyes as he actually managed to haggle down the price in Spanish and he was very proud indeed of his purchase.

spanish flag

La créativité for me is key. It keeps me interested and engages my students. A job that offers you the chance to be on a desert island one lesson and working in a chemist’s shop the next is great fun. Looking at poetry through the eyes of a linguist not only unravels the poet’s intentions but the complexity of their words on a grammatical plain adding a further dimension to the poem. I love setting up cafes and writing comic strips as well as singing songs that can get stuck in your head for days.

 

GCSEs and A-levels have changed since I trained and I am watching intently the changes that the new GCSE and A-level will bring our way en Septembre. My colleagues and I will take these changes in our stride and plan opportunities to prepare our younger students for any extra challenges it may bring their way. I am optimistic that my students will be able to rise to the challenge and follow other students who have gone on to read languages at Oxford, study Spanish with Business like me or even spend a year working abroad before their degree begins.

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So YBA Languages Teacher?

 

My reasons are as follows:

  1. Only 5% of the world speaks English as a first language.
  2. Only 25% of the world speaks any English at all.
  3. Languages open doors to amazing opportunities and better trade which our industries need.
  4. You learn more about the world when you experience it. A language makes that possible by breaking down barriers that shouting slowly in English at a person can build up. (Most of us have tried to pay a bill abroad this way I’m sure!)
  5. It keeps our minds nimble and helps us learn more about our own grammar. Did you ever really think about the different past tenses in English until you had to learn them in other languages?
  6. Creativity is so much fun and when you get past the zooming presentations and other tricks to keep students engaged there are so many opportunities to be creative that language teaching can offer you on a daily basis.
  7. You get to share what you love about languages with the future game shapers of the world and influence their path.

Chemistry Practicals in the new world

There has been an interesting debate on the MyRSC  “Talk Chemistry” and twitter and various blogs which raise an important question for the RSC, for academics teaching and designing courses for Undergraduate Chemists and for schools and teachers.

There is always change – I’m only in touch with the changes to A Level Chemistry, AS Level Chemistry, and around the corner GCSE Chemistry; the profound changes over practical work.

Universities will have changed too, new techniques, scrapping old pracs, developing new skills – I am slightly guessing at this though.

So will new and young teachers in school have the skills to deliver practical work and perhaps more broadly motivate pupils as they once had or actually need in this “new world”? Can they do a good demo? Can they deliver the organic prep the new spec demands? Have they even used the kit they find in a school under financial pressure where Chemistry puts most of its capitation down a drain? Seeing some of the nonsensical practicals suggested for AS and A or at least the slightly odd quantities will teachers (old and new) know where to turn for proper advice – CLEAPSS, RSC, ASE – sure but exactly WHERE – they are busy people?
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Is it time for the RSC to take a snapshot of practical work at UG level and bring together the skills developed in UG courses and design any necessary training courses for potential and actual teachers in secondary. What role “old hands” like me who should be able to help show how show a good demo ( patter and all) or point out the pitfalls.

Over my career of 34 years in comprehensive school classrooms – the magic, the mystery of Chemistry is delivered through a range of activity but practical activity caught me in school and I daresay caught you – is anyone making sure practical work isn’t sidelined to the side bench?

We know sometimes physics or biology colleagues struggle with doing some of our Chemistry practicals – probably easier and more comfortable to hit youtube – so Chemists let’s stand up and be counted and ensure whether it is assessed, sidelined by exam boards or rubbished – that we maintain experimental Chemistry at the heart of our lessons, our teaching and our future workforce of Chemists.

Meanwhile let’s see just what the score is!

Monday period 4 – Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin

This is blog to put storytelling back into the heart of outstanding work in school. However you wrap it up much of an attention grabbing, motivating, challenging moment is – a story.IMG_0640

I can see it being a challenge in Maths but beyond that storytelling should be at the heart of great lessons, great assemblies and purposeful conversations with pupils and parents. If I am honest it’s what I will miss most when I eventually retire – telling a story and engaging learners to start their journey of Education. In fact for some may even evoke memories ( hopefully good ones) of storytelling times.

And a big thank you for a tweet from Gareth Williams (@gwill72)
“Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen suggested our genus should be Pan Narrans, the Storytelling Ape

 

Why?reading

  • Stories hook pupils
  • Stores fascinate pupils
  • Stories stimulate curiosity
  • Stories grab attention
  • Stories motivate
  • Stories allow the teacher to light up the classroom

Stories underline challenging learning, introduce it, develop it, help with recall and stories can be short and brief and pointed, they generate curiosity

In the classroom
time for learning is precious, literally every minute is important so as a teacher you need to justify the storytelling. I think there are plenty of reasons (above) but a few minutes of a well told anecdote and gripping story grab attention, fascinate, drive up curiosity and frankly are at the heart of learning. I do apologise a little as I think my subject (Chemistry) has the very best stories! In fact since 1992 I have taught my lessons by stories. Those are highlighted separately but as part of my plenary, part of my conclusions or as the meaty part of the lesson are *stories* to help understand, build knowledge, motivate and synthesise. I want to say a very daring thing – we sort of know what makes a bad lesson turn out bad, we know what needs doing to turn the learning around from inadequate to satisfactory ( hey I know Ofsted use RI but this isn’t ofsted speak this is classroom speak). What I am not sure about is making good lessons become outstanding but I reckon decent storytelling sits at the heart. Not only grabbing attention, but hooks to help recall of knowledge and also to challenge pupils – if X really thought that back in the 21st Century – who is doing that now. If Y discovered that, then so might I. If this solved a problem of drug development, then I might be able to do that. To me it adds a moral purpose too.

Chlorine-LAnecdote > Chlorine- saved incalculable numbers of lives by purification of water; ridding us of cholera and other diseases but misused in WW1 cost many lives too. We have got a story worth telling and with some Wilfrid Owen poetry brings us to a position where pupils listen all the more carefully to my lesson on Chlorine “it’s properties and reactions” – and remember it and may even challenge them into their future career directions, or choices.

Assemblies
I guess this is more obviously where a good story tells the message. Elsewhere I have written of the disproportionate effort necessary for good assemblies but at their heart is brilliant storytelling

Here are two examples:

1 During the Football World Cup I saw an interview with Gary Linekar saying he practiced penalty taking 50 -60 times after yes after everyone completed training. So while others tired and exhausted went for their showers, he stayed out maybe on his own, and the secret = practice = hard work. Check the stats on his penalty taking too! Wow I thought we can help children understand greatness cannot be achieved overnight but needs hard work and with hard work -who knows?FullSizeRender

2 I once read of a Uruguayan rugby team who were lost in the Andes and had to consider eating the flesh of the dead to survive.  “Alive” is a great story full of drama and tears, with a continuous unfolding of the. Story from the 70’s to date. This became the basis for one of my very favourite post 16 assemblies ” when is it right to do something which is wrong?”

Pupils
As a long serving teachers, SLT ( and many others)  have all seen pupils “turn it round”. Pupils that are a bit like the pupil sat in front of you: yes the upset pupil, the bullied pupil, the bullying pupil, the “I’m not sure any more about A Levels” pupil. The poorly attending pupil, the one with special needs not being addressed, the one with stuff happening at home. So have a story to uplift, to bring hope, to challenge and to help. It’s not the main discourse with the pupil that’s much deeper but the view that there was someone like you who….got through, made good, turned it around, found an answer….might just be important to this pupil.

Parents
The same is true of discussions with parents. This is more challenging but knowing your parents and their story it might help to have an anecdote and a story to hand. I try never to conclude a fixed term exclusion meeting without sparing a separate word for the parents. I don’t try and engineer a story but I do need to help them – I might need to challenge them, to tell them a home truth, to put something up to date before them and a story might help.

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Cover
I’ve never been much good at cover lessons. I feel bad for the children that their teacher is missing and so I always try and teach them, especially as a senior leader I think it is really my duty and only rarely with other stuff pressing down have I said “sit down, shut up and do this work so that I can get on”. Of course I try and do the tasks set by any absent staff where that has been left, but peppering with stories can really help bring a lesson to life which might otherwise be dull.

Personal Stories? Maybe
Can we share personal anecdotes, stories from our own lives or families? Well I guess this is controversial and its up to colleagues to be comfortable but the occasional story can help with engagement. I have told of stuff that has happened relevant to the lesson.Perhaps mostly about incidents in my own journey with Chemistry – where I inadvertently made a few crystals of explosive Nitrogen Triodide, or where I met a Nobel winner and nearly embarrassed myself.image 2(3)

So here are some headings I drive around my brain finding for Chemistry Stories and watch for a post with some of these in more detail.

  • Origins of chemistry
  • History of chemistry
  • The story of an element
  • Characters  in chemistry
  • The obviously famous chemists
  • The less well known chemists
  • The bad chemists
  • The controversial chemists
  • Preset frontier chemists 
  • Events in chemistry
  • Discoveries in chemistry
  • Inventions in chemistry
  • New products from chemistry
  • Changed ideas in chemistry
  • Prize winning chemists
  • Daft chemists

Some Questions

Q1 If you are a teacher does your subject have great stories? And do those stories bring a magical enchantment to your pupils in your lessons?

Q2 If you are not a teacher, do you remember lessons, or school or teachers and is any of that memory from stories or anecdotes ?

If you work in a church school

Proverbs 1:6.  –for understanding proverbs and parables (stories) the sayings and riddles of the wise

Matthew 13:13     This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘ though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

Genesis 39:17 Then she told him this story

 

part 4 – from good teaching to great teaching



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I am deliberately avoiding calling this “Good to Outstanding”. Ofsted can do what they wish but I want to see great teaching and learning and do very often. We teachers always try and produce good lessons and positive learning but we have bad days, pupils have bad days; whole school stuff disrupts, SLT disrupt! However we can consider moving from good to great with a sustainable manageable approach, bringing inspiration, inspiration, inspiration – that get’s pupils learning by definition! Here are my top ten:

 

1 Great teachers know their subject inside out

Not only do they have good knowledge of their specifications, they have a wide grasp of their subject. They understand it very well, they can apply ideas and synthesise them. This is not about pedagogy (yet) it’s about wisdom in the subject. It’s about keeping up to date, reading, identifying interesting stuff in the news or other media. It’s about maintaining a network of contacts to follow the latest developments. It might even be about visiting places of interest like museums or going to lectures, of picking up podcasts. It might even mean rereading text books. Always try to find time to read and expose yourself to new stuff in your subject.

 

imagesCA5QXQ852 Knowing the tough topics and lessons

It takes time to suss out what pupils find hard and of course it varies by ability and age but this is the next critical aspect to make a sustainable difference. What topics pupils find hard and challenging ; what skills they need that prove difficult to develop. Its about knowing the best introductions to topics, the best conclusions, the most effective assessments ( formal or informal) that help build confidence and show the teacher what needs to be done next. Our big duty as teachers of KS4 and KS5 exams is to ensure our pupils know what they have to do to achieve a given grade and then teach them to those standards. Be absolutely clear what they must do to get that A* or that E whatever is appropriate. Phrases like “they need to work harder” or “just understand more” are probably correct but of little value to the pupil who is willing and works hard. However knowing what they need to know and do, we work backwards to build that into the day to day week by week lesson plans. I’m not keen on lots of past papers and exam practice I’m very keen on my students understanding my subject. This is a big challenge when we all face new specs but hang it we all face that – so look out for blogs, read exam boards support stuff and  well much won’t change – if pupils find equilibrium difficult now in the GCSE spec, they probably will next year with the new spec.
3 Maintain enthusiasm, humour and jazz

imagePupils love a teacher who knows their stuff, they enjoy the relevant anecdote or story telling and they like a touch of humour. (Great teachers do not grow old they just lose their class) They like to try and distract you and …you know it. You have taught for a good while now, so you know what works, what goes down well and you should milk it for all it’s worth. Hone and refine the skills – you should feel like the conductor of the orchestra.

4 Know your pupils inside out

G0414677Some of the older pupils you taught when younger or came across in your football team or orchestra, maybe even had a run in as a head of year. You might well have taught an older sibling. So you understand the dynamics of the family and you know how they are likely to respond and for those you don’t know so well, you know your school community better. You also know how to handle the reactions. If you have to call home about homework there are after all only a few responses from parents: “thank you for telling us/so what/we don’t have any issues from other staff it must be you”. So you know what to say in response, you know who else to mention on the SLT if necessary. Exploit this to raise standards, to flush out more work and better quality work. All that investment in the craft of the classroom over recent years should after all bear fruit. It really isnt a blank canvas. You should know the G&T the SEND and more-so you should know what works and what doesn’t, so take it in your stride.

5 Systems

You know all ISS_Flight_Control_Room_2006of the school systems such as those for behaviour management and discipline those for reporting problems and those for reporting achievements and awards and merits etc. You know when reports are due and mocks or tests come along BUT by now you should be able to work a system which suits you and your subject. No whole school assessment system can suit every subject, so where do you need to branch out? When do you need your own mock, when do you need an extra assessment. You also know the rhythm of school and seasons, for example it’s not a good idea to leave a really difficult 3 week topic to mid winter; you know when illness is at its worst and can sort out work around it. You have a sense of the need for a really really outstanding lesson to lift spirits ( yours and theirs). You know what to do about ill pupils, about those who get stuck ( see me after the lesson? – not really going to work is it; what does work?). So within this class this group add a layer of your own systems to supplement the schools

6 Confidence and Resilience image

You can be confident in the classroom, a confident teacher, a confident behaviour manager, a confident leader. Ooze that confidence to your pupils and ooze it so much that your pupils pick it up. They need more confidence and resilience, make sure you pass that on to. How? Well by inspiring their progress and pointing out how far they have come -as much as the distance they still have to go. Help develop them as independent learners; it wont be easy and it definitely wont be less work but it will likely be a greater impact on their state of mind. Tell them -this topic is tricky and tell them when they’ve got it and of course when they have not got it. They need to go into your exam full knowing a) this subject is tricky b) I have to work hard but I have worked hard and c) I have been well prepared and can perform. It’s no different to the big football game or England vs Australia for the world cup ….oh hang on.

Then there is resilience, the ability to cope with stuff thrown at you and designed to throw you. You cope quite well with that, have a think how you do so, think what wisdom has brought you to the point of coping better now than the last time you faced that issue. You need to bottle this, not least for yourself ( see end of post) but also to start to work out how to pass this on to those pupils who need to develop it all too.

7 Activities and resources

You have plenty now, as above you know what works and what is still weak. Look ahead if that Powerpoint didn’t work last year it needs a tweak. That lesson which was rather boring and lost the pupils, does it need something extra. SOmetimes though, be frank the topic is boring the lesson can be boring and this bit of learning is boring that’s how it is but you should know this now.You alos know the subtle bits, you know sometimes that some content isn’t covered so well and needed more time but it’s now time for revision. OK you are the wise professional balance the time carefully for the pupils. When they say ” have we finished the spec yet?” reply confidently “not quite yet but we will and more importantly how do you feel your understanding of the spec is going?”

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8 Talk, converse, chat, discuss…..

I have taught for 34 years but I still love chatting Chemistry to my colleagues. Still asking what I might do to improve. Still observing an NQT or a student and thinking that is clever. Still talking about classes. I recently had a Y13 who were very quiet and so I spent much time with a colleague discussing what we might try to do, even discussed them with other subject staff. Talk to SENCO, talk to HoYr talk to parents and most important talk to the pupils. Check you spend as much time talking children and subjects as you do moaning about me (the head/SLT) or the government or the weather. However do have a moan. we all need that.

9 Data, pupils or surprises

imageYou must know by now there is a lot of data for you. FFT (new)  Sims, prior knowledge and especially exam board performance data on question level etc etc Use it but not without care or discrimination.  Your own analysis of previous pupils performance tells you a lot – do they do better on exams or coursework; this bit of this unit is really challenging. When you check how your pupils performed on Q3 of paper 1 last year that was to inform you as to what to do this year – the same or different. Yes maximise those marginal gains. Data should show no surprises. I had a conversation the other day ” We were disappointed not to get more A*”. Should some pupils have got A*? Did they get A* in other subjects? Were their various targets A*? If the answer was their prior performance  predicted no A*, like everyone be the optimist and sure “aim high” we all need that. However stop beating yourself up, be realistic, be of sober judgment, sure aspire, we heads love all that but the job needs to be sustainable and enjoyable as well as all the inflicted pressures – try not to add to that yourself or on your colleagues. However more important then being level 5b or blue ladder 6 or smiley face yellow is “you know this, understand that can do the other and NOW to improve you need to do this….” Knowing pupils not knowing data is critical. Data should avoid surprises – I had no idea she was that good/bad/struggling etc

10 Inspire, Reward and Challenge……and honesty

You teach a great subject, yes? You teach generally great pupils yes? You know how the classroom heart beats yes? Good, good, now capitalise on all that inspire them, praise them and when they slip challenge them or when they get it challenge them even further. Oh and you make a few mistakes, the odd idea doesn’t work – you are big enough now to admit it, share it and sort it, not under the table but on the table.

other responsibilities

My last point isn’t advice but challenge. My guess is you also have responsibilities three

1 Family – don’t neglect your rightful duties to families not just children but parents and grandparents too and friends who need you. It’s a challenge

2 Other responsibilities in school . After 4/5 years you might well have other responsibilities: pastoral as a heads of year or academic as a subject lead or other jobs like student mentor etc etc. You need to fulfil these duties swiftly, clearly and deftly but the key difference you make is as a classroom teacher and that is in the day to day in the classroom.

3 Yourself. I’ve seen too many people who end up burnt out, or cynical or the poorer in the job. It’s never simple to say why but make sure you look after yourself. Personally this is the one I find hardest. Getting to the gym, taking enough time off, reading for pleasure etc etc check out the #teacher5aday and enjoyreading what others are thinking about and doing and check yourself. Why not get a critical friend to help you? My previous head often emailed me at 10pm saying get off that **** computer and talk to the family.

imageAND be uplifted to be a GREAT teacher isnt even rocket science you can do it and be the great teacher you can be.

 

 

 

part 3 – from NQT to RQT

This is a bit new, even to me, the term RQT presumably a “Recently Qualified Teacher ( as opposed to retired, or rare, reformed, regular, revolutionary , and hopefully not yet a regretfully ..this could go on.

So with a full year (or maybe two) under the belt, what now?

1 Improve your teaching

You should be confident by now that you can sort out basic issues with learners. Like behaviour and background disruption. these are never going to go away but the mistakes of PGCE/training and even the odd error of judgment last year are put behind. By all means read, research, listen and then try new things but the basics of classroom craft should be learnt. Now ask yourself ” is there a better way to teach X or Y”. Relentlessly try to improve your teaching.

2 Improve the lot of learnerspareto_principle_improve

You have many resources, you might have a Y11 class following  their Y10 time with you and therefore new content but a majority will have been taught once. Get those reflective planners at the ready and where you put *** Must improve this if I ever do it again then…improve it. Oh you didn’t do that annotation, shame! Still revisit and re-edit and talk to experienced staff. You have tried one activity in the classroom to help learners on this unit/topic, so what else might work? Really work out what works in your classroom for different groups: SEND Gand T, PP, EAL after all you know the acronyms and know the children so sort out even better learning experiences for them. You are the true professional now…nearly.

Oh and another important matter, you have taught some of these youngsters before. You know their family a bit but you know them well, you know what they find hard or easy; a richer information than any data number – so really rock and roll in pushing their learning. It will not be easier, if anything it’s harder but it’s much much more effective teaching.

3 Keep even better records

Plan, annotate, add resourceIMG_2499s and spend a bit of time searching for new ones. Talk more with staff and pick their brains. think and plan ahead, ask around, join twitter or the TES forums and networks, get to a teachmeet. Hey throw that weight around and move from good to great!

 

 

4 Share

You felt like you were the end of the queue, and you were but you aint no more, so share your idesparkleras of what worked too. Do that in department meetings, tutor team meetings and mostly just in conversations in the staffroom. build some self confidence as a teacher professional in helping others. I had a great RQT colleague a few years ago and she showed me some new resources and ideas….yep teach the old dogs in school, new tricks.

5 Volunteer

You might have a label RQT but most pupils think you are a wise, experienced and knowledgeable member of staff. SO get stuck into some new things this year, take on a bit of responsibility that you are genuinely interested in. it could be extra curricular, sport drama music. It could be within the dept, there is plenty to do: use of data, work with EAL or SEND pupils. help with the planning of a new GCSE or a new  A Level. It might be within the pastoral work? are their seeds of your first promotion in getting to know much more about…..x, then get on with it.

6 Stimulation

The last two years had pressure now it’s you as an autonomous teacher ploughing ahead in the fields to plant in the minds of enthusiasm sat before you. What challenges do you need for yourself? Which classes have had a bit of a raw deal from you? tackle them. Check out the teacher standards, identify your weakest three areas and sort them.

7 TransparencyimageAll of us feel there were things we just about got away with, what were yours and what do you need to do about them? Did you not prepare for a parents evening but fortunately they were mainly pleasant. Did you let a pupil off but they didn’t bring any extra issues? Did the head ask for something and you forgot but heck so did she? What things must you do better?

8 Challengechallenge

Teachers can be professionally socialised by their schools. You have probably been in the same school for a this year and NQT year. There were things surprised you – the Y7 data collection came very early, you wondered why but obviously kept your mouth shut last year. Maybe you jot down a few questions like this to help improve the school. Share with an experienced colleague or even the SLT link you know best. Dont be afraid for a asking a sensible challenging question. there may be a good sensible answer but you might just have asked a really good one.

8 Keep talking

talk-clipart-RTAk5EqTLThe PGCE or training courses (remember them) have structures to support and help and encourage you. So too, NQT year BUT now you have made it to RQT and they all disappear. No more meetings about you it all becomes informal ( save number 9 below). So please keep talking to those you have found helpful or found as critical friends.

 

 

9 Performance Management

You now come under the appraisal umbrella. Chat to others about how it works, read the school documents. Do not see it as a threat, just find out what others do, prepare for you first meeting with an appraiser, who will hopefully know you well. Maybe look at what I said in 6 above and ask for some extra training in an area, or try and spend a lesson observing someone to fit the direction of travel you have set. Oh you haven’t set a direction? Shame cos in the rough and tumble of teaching if you don’t choose, the winds will blow you around.
storm

Tuesday period 2 – #LoveChemistry, #LoveSalters’, Love Investigations

imageSo this post is about practical work in science, it’s not a review of the proposed changes to GCSE practical or those already in hand for A Level. It’s just my little world of practical work as a Chemistry teacher, and it is what I will be doing on Tuesday’s period 2 for a few weeks.

There are different types of practical work in science. When I used to plan on a scheme of work, we had various codes : PP pupil class practical; PD Pupils help in a demonstration.TD Teacher demonstration. AP assessed practical. I am so old that when I did my A levels we had science practical exams. In Chemistry this was usually a titration and mostly oxalate /permanganate ( ethanodioate/Manganate VII for the younger reader). We knew what to do, I had after all done one about a dozen times. We also had some analysis to do, a so called unknown and a few simple tests, flame tests and maybe some solubility tests to show this was Potassium Sulphate ( lilac flame, ppt with Barium Chloride). BUT oh how far we have come.

Let me tell you about my Yr 13 who have done practical Investigations now since 1994 and for a good few years of them I was also a moderator for Salters’ Chemistry. They have to choose their investigation, describe it including relevant chemical ideas and then plan the methods. In recent years we have had a new mark her for the difficulty and challenge of the topic, so if they choose an experiment we have done as an activity it scores low down. Modify the practical, use ideas beyond A Level and bring in a series of other skills and you might move to 4/5. Once planned we teachers have to mark the first sets of skills: planning, communicating, researching, risk assessments, references etc. The students work very hard, they score a full range of marks but maybe at the higher end of their grades. Why? Because they are A level chemists and quite good at this. However an Investigation means testing skills they don’t otherwise have

Mr Dexter at the RSC EIC 50th. School chemistry over 50 years

image Mr Dexter at the RSC EIC 50th sharing some differences between Chemistry in 1963 vs 3013 photographs from (c) Royal Society of Chemistry

So then we get going, usually three weeks of lessons and plenty of extra time. Students pop in during their free if staff allow, they come down at lunch or after school and we sometimes do a long twilight and Pizza. They start slowly in fact the first week I always wonder if they will make it but week two sees much progress and week three I see…experts! So now they have some results and observations to report ( and score) and they can analyse them (and score) and finally they do a decent job on what I usually think is the hardest area, evaluating what they have been through – scientifically evaluating that is, not a series of moans!imageBefore you say it cannot be assessed, I disagree the Salters’ mark schemes work. They work because back in the early 90’s teachers and boards worked together. They work because there were trials and developments. They work because there were good Chemistry teachers (who will remain nameless but you know who you are, ensuring marking and moderation worked.) but mostly they worked for being well designed, well thought out and because of the reactions we saw in our students ( not chemical reactions!!)
Why do I like Investigations?

  • It does feel as if this is what proper chemists and maybe research chemists actually do. A mix of researching methods, designing an investigation, carrying it out and persevering when it doesn’t quite do as it’s told.
  • We all learn lots of Chemistry, the students, the staff, the lab technicians but most of all the students. Even those who can just about understand concentration, dissolving, diluting etc get a much clearer understanding by doing it and by doing it AND being assessed.
  • The quality of work can be amazing. I recall in the early days of moderating seeing some truly wonderful investigations, given a relatively free rein it showed just what A level Chemists could do. they were ambitious, clever and often original. I even recall showing Professor David Waddington a project he diligently read it.’ What do you think?’ I hoped he would say it was ‘very interesting’ or’ innovative’, his reply: “probably worth a first”.
  • It’s one of the few bits of assessed work students enjoy. I know they also get stressed about the marks but if they plod on they usually enjoy the experience, usually do quite well and genuinely understand chemistry better.
  • They become mini experts. When we resume ‘normal work’ and revision they can teach their peers on kinetics, on errors, on calculations etc. I often turn to them ” tell us how you solved that”, explain how you worked ‘that’out.
  • It can inspire and motivate. In my day whenever did an A Level practical, let alone an assessed one, persuade me that Chemistry was exciting or innovative or frontier, though to be fair it showed me it was very useful. I have seen young people carry out their practical project and want a rethink on their HE choices. See n many of them get to grips with this fascinating subject in new ways.
  • It builds skills, all sorts from the practicalities of problem solving through to the softer skills of perseverance (though maybe if I say ‘Character building ‘ the politicians will listen). They also work on their own not in a pair or a group but independently – hey a bit like real Chemists?
  • It is perfectly assessable. Our students get a range of marks, from many 4/5 or 5/6 right down to 2 or 3/6. That’s a tribute to a good mark scheme, fairly properly applied, internally moderated and externally moderated. Practical work vital to my subject, should and can be assessed.
  • The hardest aspect back in the early days was researching ideas and practicals, it so often depended on getting the right books or articles, but what a great opportunity to raid the ASE and RSC cupboards. Now of course we can go on the internet. AND sure I know that’s why some people feel the whole of practical work can be cheating but really – have you ever met Chemicals?
  • No one gets a practice. You can’t do a four week project twice, you can’t rehearse, you can’t spend weeks researching and planning and then change your mind. It’s a good test!

imageAnd if Investigations ( let alone practical work) disappear?

I, for one , will be sad, I can’t think any other assessment building skills, showing off Chemistry, motivating and contributing to the student learning experience. ( although I do know learning for an ordinary test or exam does concentrate the mind). Maybe we can still do them, say the end of Y12 (Oh No) the skills won’t be quite so well developed and hey the AS is gone or going or something. Maybe we can do a mini project (Oh No)– you need four weeks, is there really that much spare time or are we refilled with extra content in the new world? Maybe there is after school, the Chemistry club – Oh No – how disappointing that something which should be done in lessons is reduced to ‘after school’ or ‘ in the holidays’.

If you are an examiner, assesor, moderator reading this, don’t worry we Chemistry teachers will make whatever yuou give us work, its what we do, but me, I am still allowed to mourn.

I never did an Investigation when I was at school, and it never did me any harm. I didn’t do one in my three years as an undergraduate maybe that didn’t do me any harm, but I did a part II whole year of research which I adored. That was back in the day without the resources we have now, I think I’ll just be that sad old Chemistry teacher…..”oh in my day”

My plea, please don’t throw out the baby with the waterbathimage

You might like to read other posts from my timetable of teaching – each is set out from lesson in the school week, before or after school or at the weekends, appropriate to the time of day. I have also started a  class lists or “set lists” which was to answer the questions: “why be a teacher?”or “why have other responsibilities in a school?” Shortly I am starting a new area about progress from one role or experience in teaching to another with hints and tips about successfully moving on in the job and your teaching career.