Wednesday period 5 – Homework, trying to make it work better.

As a classroom teacher for a generation, I’ve always set homework, doable, purposeful homework. As a chemistry teacher my favourites involve some experiments at home ( testing pH etc) but I do like research too – it’s what we chemists do of course. Many a pupil having loved to ‘find out’ – they either tell you so or else their work is the proof. But frankly there is a lot of bread and butter homework too: finish this, annotate that, read up here, a test on that…..

Homework itself covers a multitude of activity and areas, the debate over primary pupils doing homework is likely to be different to those in key stage 4, so let’s try and be pragmatic. As a teacher I think there are lots of reasons for setting homework and they have to outweigh the hassle of ensuring its always done. My top reasons are to do with widening interest, bringing more enthusiasm and passion for my subject, getting a clearer understanding and testing that understanding and my worst reason is ‘following a school policy’. However as a senior leader I think it has to be articulated carefully to parents and children as to what they have this homework to do and a duty to make sure there is not too much, its active and manageable and support offered where necessary.img_3648

Our main reasons for setting homework are:

  • To establish good habits and in due time to help create independent learners amongst our students.
  • To complete activities and work that aren’t covered in a lesson or are carefully designed by teachers to enhance learning.
  • Because we think children can expand their horizons with some learning activities done outside the classroom.
  • There isn’t enough time in school (25 hours) to do everything and we like to offer as broad a range of curriculum as possible. So there really isn’t enough time
  • Homework works – it helps to deliver success.
  • The government and Ofsted seem to think it’s a good idea and actually so did our pupils too!Academic research concludes: “homework contributes to achievement at secondary level and the effect is stronger amongst older pupils”.
  • it might just help build self-respect and some resilience

So during the 2015-16 academic year we carried out some simple and definitely non-scientific research into an important aspect of our school life homework. this at a time when some schools declared NO HOMEWORK

imageWe began by asking our pupils a series of questions – we did make an important assumption that our community of parents, pupils and teachers see a value in homework so this wasn’t about forgetting or abandoning homework. It was more to pinpoint any stressful areas for each group and see what improvements we might make.

Understanding the importance pupils attached to doing homework was pleasing to read and we were even more encouraged by the number of responses and the ‘common sense’ shown by everyone. A few pupils managed to contradict themselves but the general message was ‘homework routines are about right’.

picjumbo.com_HNCK3576The following action points came from the pupils:

  1. Please set homework early in the lesson and not in a rush at the end.
  2. Please set realistic deadlines–sometimes all our teachers set homework with short deadlines.
  3. When we have two teachers in a subject (e.g. in Geography or in most sixth form lessons) please don’t overload us.
  4. Make it clear how we can get help in your subject.
  5. If teachers can do so, please balance harder homework tasks with easier ones and longer tasks with shorter ones.

We discussed these with teachers and most are achievable and manageable. However, for different subjects there are different issues for example, number 4 above, some pupils found it difficult to log onto a site in a subject, but some just found the content difficult, so they each need a different type of ‘help’. We were pleased to see there wasn’t very much moaning about ‘worthless activities’ which showed pupils value their homework and our teachers avoid time-wasting undertakings. We were proud that our pupils approached homework (and the survey) in such a mature manner.

Parental responses were high: 59% Y7; 70% Y8; 64% Y9; 71% Y10; 25% Y11; 17% Y12&13. We expected the sixth form and parents of older students to give a different response as their private study work is completely understood to be intimate with their work in lessons and a huge factor in any success in those very demanding post 16 lessons or in order to aim higher with success at GCSE.

imageThe following action points came from parents.

  1. Please could teachers spend some time explaining how to revise and study your subject?
  2. Can teachers avoid ‘research’ which is just a general “use the internet.” If possible give some specific websites to work from.
  3. If teachers know useful books or other resources please tell pupils about them.
  4. When there are two teachers in a subject (say in Geography or in most Sixth Form lessons), please do not overload the students. Communicate with colleagues if you share a class.
  5. Be realistic about the amount of time a homework task might take.
  6. Try not to overload pupils with too much holiday homework.
  7. Please try to turn around homework/give feedback fairly quickly but at least in a reasonable time.

Once again we think these are all manageable and we are pleased so many parents are involved checking books or checking diaries and of course giving support and help on occasions. Most homework is communicated to our parents via a child’s contact book even if that says“science homework–see exercise book”. We understand sometimes as a school we seem to say homework isn’t complete and that a parent may not know what it is the child hasn’t completed. Occasionally parents ask us to email the work. In very exceptional circumstances we might consider that but it is quite onerous and we are in danger of the pupil being left out. It is the pupil who needs to be clear and if he or she is struggling we should attend to those reasons which might range from confusions through lack of understanding to…laziness. There are several ways we think parents can  help:

  • encourage a good attitude to learning the value in doing some further study beyond school lessons
  • helping with routines to do homework, a space at home or a time and of course a look over books and an interest in the work being done
  • support the work – don’t do it for them but for example if a pupil is stuck often it is follow up work from what was done in the lesson have a look over the material a few pages earlier in exercise and text books
  • help pupils to see homework enhances what they did in the lesson.

Finally, in our survey/research we put these points to staff and had about 80% response:

  1. They agreed there could be inconsistency across subjects about how much homework is set (e.g a subject seeing pupils once a week might not be able to set homework every week).
  2. There is a workload issue – we try to turn work around in a reasonable time but it can be a challenge at certain periods e.g. If a teacher has other classes who are preparing for exams, or when we are writing reports. We don’t want to ‘not set’ work.
  3. A lot of teacher time goes on chasing up homework – often it’s the same pupils and often despite sanctions.
  4. There is extra help available during lessons or lunchtime and after school–quite a lot of pupils don’t take up the opportunity.
  5. Homework often looks like it’s been left to the last-minute and is rushed.
  6. Some of our pupils need to see their homework as important, shown by:
    • Handing it in on time.
    • Understanding there is less help if we are chasing you, more help if you try to more progress that way too. No one was ever shouted at for not understanding.
    • Not being rushed.
    • Being properly completed – including being well presented.
    • Not being just copied and pasted from the internet.

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We will be trying to make sure teachers explain clearly what to do if pupils are stuck with homework. We have a homework club after school each day Monday to Thursday from 3.30 to 4.30 with staff and Sixth formers supervising,there are even refreshments. This club operates for Y7/Y8/Y9. For other years there is a similar arrangement  but students work on their own and in silence using the facilities in the School library. Again research shows attendance at school based study support is associated with positive effects.

Overall, it was good to see a general confirmation of the processes we use and a common understanding of the value (and snags) with homework. A big thank you to everyone who contributed.

….and for the few cycnics check out this story of the boy who did homework by the light of a local McDonalds in Cebu the Philipines_84190737_daniel

Some Questions

Q1 How does your school encourage pupils to engage in homework?

Q2 Are there other benefits to setting homework and are there other annoyances?

Q3 What other ways might we help young people become lifelong learners?

Monday period 3 – Qualified Teachers – What exactly do we mean by qualified?

There has been much discussion about qualified teachers and unqualified teachers in schools. Let me start off by saying I am qualified I have a degree in chemistry from a reasonable RG University (at the start of the river Thames)  and I could probably be a Masters but I never paid my £15. I have a PGCE and I did my NPQH. So I am I qualified I think.

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So does that mean I’m a good chemist? I hope so or at least I was.

Am I a good teacher? I’d like to think so.

Am I a good  headteacher?Well that remains to be seen.

  • There is a distinction between a qualification and the practice and ongoing CPD or training so I was glad to do my PGCE before I got started as a full-time teacher. However it didn’t prepare me for every eventuality. By the time I finished my first year I knew that I could survive in a classroom, I could manage behaviour and yes I could teach pupils some things if not most, but some parts of my subject I could not teach very well. In my second year I taught some things again and inevitably they were a bit better but it was in my third year where I really thought I could do with doing my PGCE again. There were some aspects of Chemistry and some children I just couldn’t manage to teach.

graduation-caps-in-airI hadn’t taught these topics or children successfully  in the first year or the second or third time and I faced up to “I really don’t think the class are going to be able to get this topic and I don’t know what to do about it” – and there was no internet, blogs or twitter.

During my NPQH I quite enjoyed the reading and research it was good to revisit and understand some proper educational research however during the whole of my time I didn’t meet a practising secondary headteacher ( save my own) only a lot of aspiring headteachers. There were aspects of headship I was worried about such as the competency regulations or managing budgets weren’t really touched upon but more than that. I was looking for some inspiration some passionate headteacher who would tell me that the job was better than the job that I was doing, a job which I thoroughly enjoyed .image

Well we aren’t strictly qualified for many things we have to do in school:

  • I have had to do pastoral work in areas that I’m a little uncertain about and whilst quite experienced now (=old) so I have seen most things but in my early days I worried about some of the sessions I had to lead on relationships/news and sone questions were bounced away.
  • Sometimes I had to cover lessons in fact I think I probably covered every subject I’m not really qualified for every subject so some of those cover lessons were not very good. My favourite cover lesson was an English lesson, I went in and the work set was carry on reading the novel. the pupils duly took out copies oftake a copy of the Wolves of Willoughby Chase. imageI sat down to do some marking I looked up all the class was staring at me, what was the matter. One boy said we don’t really read the book on our own. My next suggestion was to read around the class. “Why don’t we start with you Robert you can start reading.” Nothing happened. “OK ” I say so I started reading a little bit of the book with a view to asking them to carry time in due course – “No! Sir, you have to do all the accents.” This polite young teacher “Oh shut up and read quietly!”
  • Sometimes I’ve taught other subjects which for me includes Biology – I have no qualification in Biology. At my school (all boys ) we didn’t do O-Level Biology! Ok so I’ve read it up but it’s just not the same, I’ve no idea how important basics are in fact unsure what basics are. I’m a little better at Physics but when we had a shortage of ICT staff and I taught that I was literally two lessons ahead of my Y8 class. I have an ability to kill interest in any other subject – compared to what I genuinely feel I can do in Chemistry. It’s now 2015 and a long long time since I did my PGCE, so I do hope and so do my pupils- that I have moved on since 1981, after all I only had chalk, blackboard, and a delightful banda machine and a few textbooks – no IWB No internet, mind no data, no microchemistry and little contact with other teachers.image 2(3)
  • Sometimes I’ve spotted a gap in my lessons of a pupil’s literacy knowledge or maths skills; maybe these are not done in the other subjects  or maybe they are done badly maybe not understood or more likely finding it difficult to apply the ideas in a different room with a different teacher. I’m not a qualified mathematician but I sure can teach the Maths my way to help my Chemists. ( Something very important in the new world where we have 20% Maths in Chemistry BOO)
  • Most of my career I’ve been a “head a sixth form” and over some 20 years and many a time I’ve said to myself I think I’ve seen every scrape a post16 person gets into, then just before I finish that sentence a situation will present itself which I’ve probably never had to cope with . No qualifications help but experience, some little wisdom and a good instinct is what we rely on.

So it is more than just qualifications, but dont get me wrong  I’m a headteacher and I want qualified people – those with a subject they love and a passion for young people.

My best teachers were my Mum and Dad they had no formal qualifications and at home we had very few books or resources, I have blogged elsewhere about going to the library weekly with my Dad. So my parents fostered curiosity, integrity, discipline, character, diligence. They set high aims and ambitions – I wish I knew how. They seemed to produce a son interested in Chemistry and Science yet they had no scientific background at all. How? Well I suspect that was about partnership my parents and their attitudes and my teachers with their “expertise”. My classes at school all had 32 boys in – the same 32 every day every year but at home it was just me and Mum and Dad and their questions and interest in me. That made them very special teachers – we can all learn from people like that.

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

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

Questions

Q1 As it is obviour we cannot be prepared for every eventuality in a school, do we rely too much on “qualifications” ?

Q2 Are qualifications overrated? The most highly qualified person might not be the best teacher, let alone be able to communicate with the pupil who finds the subject very challenging.

Q3 Design the qualifications necessary for the job? – or get proper investment in CPD?

For those in a Church school

Daniel 1:3,4: Then the king ordered his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.

Hebrews 5:12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!

Proverbs 5:13 I would not obey my teachers or turn my ear to my instructors.

 

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.

Tuesday period 6 – “How was school today John?”

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This is my Mother who sadly passed away in March 2016 having just turned 96. I am very proud of her, and although she was a little more frail in her final days, she was as sharp and good humoured as I can ever remember. I spoke to her every day, and our conversation had a reliability about it. She always asked me ‘how was school today?” it’s a question I have heard from aged about 5 to 18, and it re emerged as I started my PGCE back in the 1980’s. It’s a genuine question about me, about the day, about the children I teach and the colleagues I work with. In some ways it epitomises my Mum and perhaps a good parent. It didn’t end there, at tea time, oh No. Any spellings or vocab was tested to destruction, my books were looked at, not checked just read with a genuine interest, delight and conversation. Of course as a very little person I was read to, and listened to with glee, with enthusiasm and with endless patience. She did of course have to tell me off occasionally but I’m sure for every harsh word were a hundred of encouragement and hope. She was the eternal optimist and there was always bags of encouragement to me and my friends: ‘never mind pick yourself up, there is always hope’ there spoke a survivor of the Coventry Blitz.

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As a young teacher I was a little scared about parents’ evenings, I had all my facts and wondered what I might be asked. I soon found and continue to find most parents want to know the same things wrapped up in many a question, it boils down to: how their child is progressing, how well they are doing ( just compared to where I think they should be) if their child is trying and what they as a parent can do to help – I need my Mum there to tell them! Over many years of such evenings and other meetings with parents I think this is what most conversations distil out at. Of course for some they really do want to know “what they can do” with something of an air of despair – perhaps about behaviour, or effort or attitude. Then there are a few who just want to have a go at the school, if not me personally but very few.image

Once I had got over my fears of meeting parents I moved into the rather arrogant place of wanting to tell some parents just what to do! I still hear some teachers say ” wait until I see the parents of ‘ ‘ and I’ll certainly let them know what their child is like and what discipline is necessary. I rarely hear this from teachers who have their own children. Once I got one of my own to bring up I understood how tricky, how tiring and yet rewarding and challenging is the whole parenting thing.
I have a little theory that many children behave better at school than they do at home and we might work on the assumption that the smaller indiscretions or bad habits in school, the more that will be on show at home. This means parents, often without the backup of a big organisation ( no tutor to refer to, no head of year, no SLT, no green referral system no access to sims) their tasks are even more difficult.

imageI am a strong believer in the vital link between pupil, parent and teacher. I am also keen on the support of the wider community, it’s one of the best bits of working in a faith school. However it just isn’t easy bringing up children, even now with my two grown up I keep thinking I’m glad not to be doing that bit again, especially in this generation ’twas ever thus’. However schools must work closely with parents, we must communicate sensibly with them. We have lots of data and lots of jargon – some of it we find confusing. Think of the word ‘target’ we might wrestle with ‘predicted’, ‘actual’, ‘FFT’ (which one again oh D) in school I do hope staff are clear but we need to keep it simple for parents. This goes against some of my other blogs where I argue a complex organisation like a school should not be summed up in a word or a number. Our reporting must be simple BUT not just data never ever just numbers – ‘oh she is secure level 3′ perish the day. I think it’s why parents get fairly incensed when they sense teachers use phrases from a bank of sentences on reports. I think they understand it must be difficult writing 30 or 60 reports etc but they really want to know we care, that we know their child and we can show that to them in an annual report and at a parents’ evening or if we bump into them

I realise there is another post here about dealing with awkward parents (awkward in being unsupportive and awkward in being helicopter parents) but I’m considering the majority, those who want to see their children do well and genuinely trust the school. They really want their child to succeed, discover their interests for themselves turn from children into young adults. They probably know there will be a few bumps in the journey, they will probably take their child’s view more often than we would like ( it’s our job to help show them there are 2 sides). It’s also worth reminding ourselves how intimidating school can be for some parents, especially if the school has had to have ‘a word’ with them about behaviour – already scared to come up to the school, they now expect an evening of ear bashing and don’t come.image

Key to me is the relationships built up with parents from the year 6 welcome evening to Year 11 or Year 13. Formal stuff like parents evenings, letters, emails, web stories, local media stories, imageand informal at the school show, or on the touch-line for sport or after the concert. In fact I think it even goes beyond Y11 (Y13) beyond that. We should ‘keep in touch’ not formally but as opportunity arises, a kind of ‘once a X school parent and pupil, always a part of the community’

imageEx pupils and parents are the future parents and grandparents, maybe the future teachers, or support staff, or governors, or political leaders. That’s why community is important, and ethos and expectations. Year 6 welcome gets easier when a majority “know” what a school stands for, and expects of their children and of them. They might want help too on bringing their children up – help with e-safety on substance abuse, on bullying etc. A headteacher visit from Brazil recently told me he had school part 1 and school part 2 where parents went to school in the evening for basic skills ; literacy, numeracy, IT etc I know we are beyond that but the school commitment to parents was a vital part of the role.

Our recent visitors from China wanted to know how we communicated our ethos into our children and I found it difficult to explain – we just do! In thinking of an answer I realised again the importance of considering the parents and carers and remembering they too have bothers, concerns and stuff happening in their lives. I’m not saying we compromise behaviour because of what happens at home but we need to consider it, support, help and educate.

Parents please engage, schools can help, pupils can grow in confidence. Last words to my Mum “How was school today John?”

I first wrote this on a Friday in February 2015 and sadly on Saturday night/Sunday morning my Mum fell in her flat and broke her hip. We spent most of the day being wonderfully looked after by the NHS – thank you Queens Medical Centre. After an ambulance ride, A and E, assessment and onto a ward, they decided to get her a new hip ASAP. So by Monday lunchtime she was with the surgeon and by the evening she had a new hip and was sitting up in bed chatting away, drinking tea and guess what? Yep she straight asked me “how was school today?” 🙂

Some questions to consider

Q1 Do young staff need specific training in speaking with parents’?

Q2 What do the most effective schools do to engage parents who are scared of school, hate school or are not so interested in their child’s education?

Q3 Do parent teachers make better teachers?


 

If you work in a church school:

Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Colossians 3:20  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

Exodus 20:12  Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Proverbs 6:20 keep your father’s command and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

 

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.