Shout out to the teachers

Teachers get a raw deal. People constantly make comments about how much holiday we have and how we finish at 3pm. Or we get compared with front line and NHS workers who save lives and how nothing we do is remotely close.

So this post is a shout out to teachers, specifically secondary teachers (because I used to be one so can comment on it), who are extremely busy at this time of year. It’s not meant to be a political post or a comparison with aforementioned NHS or front line workers, or a moaning post about how little teachers are paid. It’s a post to explain what teachers do at this time of year and why comments about long holidays and short working days won’t go down very well right now. It’s prime exam time. The goal is to have all your coursework in before the Easter holidays so that you can mark it all and still have a couple of weeks to get kids to make any changes. But Easter was early this year which means less time for the kids so invariably means intervention days with the kids during the easter holidays, if you weren’t already doing these, and no sleep for the entire of April/May while you mark it.

The government wants your child to be a statistic (ok, slightly political but relevant), so in a lot of subjects, their target GCSE or A-level (or other qualification) grade isn’t based on a teacher assessment or even based on that subject, it’s based on data which comes from primary school SATs/end of year 6 data usually in English/maths/science. So a music target is based on an achievement in science, for example. For many pupils this grade is set too high so they’ve already been set up to fail. Not to mention that the exam syllabi keep changing every 30 seconds and some students were actually having to sit exams for content they hadn’t learnt in years 7-9 and had to have crammed in, rather than having 3 years to learn it because a politician didn’t understand how schools actually work and decreed it.

Because of league tables and how schools are funded by the government, schools need the pupils to achieve their predicted target grades. If you don’t meet your stats, you don’t get funding for that child and if you don’t get the money, headteachers have to make difficult decisions about what (or who) to cut. Which creates an enormous amount of stress for the child and teacher. Note- teachers always want the best from their kids work wise and want them to achieve their targets. But these have to be reasonable and achievable targets, not ones generated by a computer and based on league tables and other random data.

So this time of year is fraught. And students are bombarded every which way because everyone has deadlines to meet and target grades to achieve. It’s too much for them, so at least three times a day you’re trying to support a child who’s feeling broken by the stress of it and has had a meltdown, had a fight with someone or just generally isn’t coping. This is normal stuff that teachers do on a day to day basis, but because it happens more often in exam time, there’s less time in general, so you find yourself torn between making sure the mental health of the child in front of you improves and trying to keep other students on track with their intervention.

Intervention means where a student isn’t meeting their target grade, or in danger of not meeting it, so you put in place support measures for them. These sessions usually take place at lunchtime, before school, in teachers’ ‘free’ (planning and assessment time) periods or after school. Sometimes at weekends too. Students don’t like coming to these sessions so you usually have to hunt them down. Or they’re needed in other subjects. And they feel pulled in all directions so they do what most people do in circumstances like these- panic and stop turning up to any of them.

Which means a lot of hunting and phone calls and, in some cases, turning up to children’s houses to get them to come in or give you their coursework. It’s knackering, both physically and mentally, and the more time you spend chasing one student, the less time you have for the others. But this is time you don’t actually get as extra on your timetable, you’re still expected to teach all your other classes and run all the clubs and do the duties you already had. And you can pretty much guarantee that the student you’ve been desperate to give help to turns up at your door when you’re teaching a year 7 class, but you know if you let them go, you won’t see them again. So then you end up trying to teach a class while also giving intervention to a student. Or 3.

And teachers are humans too. So when stressed teenagers aren’t coping, they tend to shout and swear at the people trying to help them. Which, even though you can understand and empathise, you’re stressed and tired too and no one appreciates being sworn and shouted at multiple times a day. The rest of the school pick up on this atmosphere, meaning ks3 pupils get more fraught and tense and teaching them becomes more challenging behaviour wise. They also still deserve a decent education, they need to have assessments and you still have all their planning and marking to do. Believe it or not, you can’t rock up and make something up on the spot and get away with it!

It’s the time of year for options to be made for pupils in the year below choosing GCSE and A-levels. If you don’t have enough pupils recruited, you can’t run the course. But everyone is in the same boat so you’re ‘competing’ for students to be on your courses. I tended to say ‘pick a subject because you love it, not because another person tells you to’ but it didn’t make it any less stressful. You have to offer taster classes, prepare presentations for parents and showcase your department.

Despite putting in the extra work at school, you don’t get to leave it all at school. You have to do all the marking you didn’t do in the day. One thing that people don’t realise about intervention is that it all has to be documented. Every phone call, chat with child, action plan, progress made has to be documented as evidence for people like OFSTED. Which means by the end of the week, you can find yourself having written the equivalent of a primary school teacher’s class worth of end of year reports just about your GCSE class. Every week for the whole of exam season.

Another thing that people don’t realise is that social media, educational social media and emails are used all the time by students. Which is great for so many things and it means you can offer help from home while they’re working on it. Great for the kids, not so much for the teachers. If you don’t reply straight away, chances are they’ll say ‘you didn’t reply so I didn’t do it’. And you need them to do it. So you end up hearing the email ding and picking up your phone straight away to deal with it. Kids like to do their work at about midnight in a lot of cases (not good for them either) so I have been known to be emailing help at 1am when my phone dinged and I woke up to deal with it.

And everyone underestimates the emotional aspect of teaching. You worry about your kids- and they are ‘your kids’. If someone was particularly upset or had a crisis of confidence, you worry if they’re ok. You worry about the kid who isn’t coping. You worry that you’ve not done a good enough job for them. You worry that you’ve failed them by not giving them enough help. I used to wake up in the middle of the night singing pupils’ compositions (which usually meant they were good if they were stuck in my head). You take it personally even though it’s not because even though the government only sees kids as a statistic in a league table, you can see them as humans who are put under an unbelievable amount of pressure to achieve a target grade decided by a computer when they were 11 years old, before they’d even set foot in a secondary school.

GCSE and A level classes make up a lot of a teacher’s timetable, but in my subject’s case, I still also taught all of key stage 3. So that’s 8 classes per year group for year 7 and 8 x 30, which is the average number of students per class. Summer term is usually parents’ evening for year 7/8 in most secondary schools and most of the time, you give them the academic report at the same time so they can talk about it. So that’s 16 classes x 30 = 480 reports. You can’t just write your reports when you want to and you can’t always do this from home because the reports are usually done on SIMs which is one of the most irritating programmes which exists- the ‘session’ is usually only open for 6 weeks and the remote access is so irritatingly slow it’s enough to tip anyone over the edge. So 6 weeks x 5 (working days) is 30. 480 reports divided by the amount of days (30) is 16. Meaning as well as all the exam stuff, you also have to write 16 year 7 and 8 academic reports per day just to be able to get them in before the deadline. This would be a lot of extra work anyway, never mind when you’re already up to your eyeballs in it. And copying and pasting and changing s child’s name isn’t allowed.

Admin and running around isn’t why you became a teacher though. Working with the kids is why you became a teacher. Seeing them achieve and working hard and enjoying your subject is why you do it. When something clicks with a student, it’s a great feeling for both of you. I really liked the challenging schools I worked in, and, thankfully, the schools I worked in placed the emphasis on the students being seen as humans and not statistics and they fought bloody hard for the pupils. But academies and other schools don’t necessarily care if English is the child’s third language. Or if someone’s mum killed herself the year before and the child is still struggling. Or if someone broke up with their boyfriend (which has a massive impact). Or self image issues. Or if it was Ramadan during exam season. Some kids don’t eat breakfast because there isn’t any at home, so I used to do a breakfast club in exam season so I knew they’d go into exams with the best chance.

Notice I’ve never mentioned pay at any point. You don’t get a bonus if your kids get their target or exceed it, like you do in other sectors. You don’t get paid overtime or antisocial working like you do in other industries. You definitely don’t get the support of the general public like the junior doctors do and I think you’ll find a lot of schools have started sneaking in the extra hour here or there that teachers don’t get paid extra for but it takes time away from their prep time. Teachers don’t go into teaching because they expect to be paid well. Teachers go into teaching because they love it and care about the students.

So yes. We might get 13 weeks holiday on paper. We might technically finish at 3pm according to school bells. But while you’re actually conscious, and even sometimes when you’re not, you don’t stop working during those apparent free times, meaning comments about holiday and working hours will not be well received at this time of year! 🙂

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My past 

Day 27 of the 30 days of gratitude challenge is my past. Something which I definitely took for granted at the time, along with the majority of the population, was my education.

Not everyone in the world has access to an education up to 18 years old, it isn’t always free and it’s not always available to girls. So the fact that I had a full school education is something to be grateful for.

On the whole, I had caring teachers and a good school life. Having been a teacher, I can see how easy it would be to walk out of my classroom on the bell and sit in the staff room at breaks, and refuse to deal with anything that doesn’t involve actual lessons. But lots of my teachers didn’t do that, if we were interested or had problems, they made themselves available. As tiring and as stressful as being a teacher was, I tried to make sure I was always around when I was needed. 

I was allowed to study the things I found interesting. Today STEM subjects are favoured by our government and arts subjects and languages are seen as a ‘waste of time’. How sad. 

I had the chance to go to university. I learnt more than a subject while there, it taught me a lot about living, friendships, living by myself and all the boring things which come with being a grown up. But at least I had housemates to commiserate about these things  with rather than being thrown in at the deep end by myself! 

Having worked in challenging schools, I can see how easily influenced pupils are. Even really well intentioned pupils can find themselves on the ‘wrong path’. I don’t know whether it was my doing or my teachers’ guidance, but I stayed on the ‘right’ one. 

Music Teachers are Awesome

Most teachers are awesome and go above and beyond for their ‘kids’. You’re even more so if you’re a music teacher, because:

  1. You’re performing all the time. Ofsted call it modelling, but you spend most of your time demonstrating ‘what a good performance looks like’.
  2. You have to be pretty fit. The pupils can’t easily bring their work to you, so you end up doing laps of your classroom all lesson. More so if there are pupils working elsewhere or in practice rooms.
  3. You’re giving your kids weapons. Literally- beaters. That’s all I’m saying.
  4. You need to be a mind reader so that you know they’re actually doing work in the practice room and not playing on Facebook.
  5. You have to put a lot of trust in your pupils and have earned their respect. See number 4. And the fact that you’re handing out expensive equipment every lesson.
  6. You put up with hours of noise. From about 8am-5pm most days. Yes, they might all be playing music, but when you can hear 5 different songs (and more) going on at the same time, it starts to become noise. And all through your ‘break’ times.
  7. You’re sometimes not as good as the pupils you’re teaching. It happens. There’s always a pupil who can play the piano or sing better than you. Guitar is definitely my downfall. But they do come in handy for modelling…
  8. You have to keep up with the charts so you know what your pupils are listening to. I happen to love Taylor Swift. Justin Bieber and Rihanna less so.
  9. Your classroom management needs to be amazing so that you can get all 30 instruments quiet at one time and don’t end up putting them all away yourself at the end of the lesson.
  10. You need to be able to play piano, sing and correct behaviour at the same time. This also earns you massive respect!
  11. Your hearing has to be amazing so you can spot who’s got the keyboard demo going without looking. And so you can tell what they’re doing in practice rooms through 2 walls and a door over the other ‘noise’.
  12. You’re inventive in repairing broken kit. Gaffa tape is amazing. Or you manage to persuade other people to do it for you for free!
  13. You have to be able to play random requests on the spot. My best on the spot rendition was Dappy No Regrets on a diatonic glockenspiel with two notes missing. I accidentally managed to get the right key and avoid needing those notes by sheer fluke! It earned me a fist bump though.
  14. Your party trick is being able to tune several guitars in 30 seconds by ear without going near a piano and even with missing strings.
  15. You’ll probably end up choreographing dance routines at some point. Glee and Pitch Perfect have a lot to answer for…
  16. You have to be able to fill in for anyone or anything at the last minute. Even if it means learning trumpet in 15 minutes because someone was sick before the performance. Or dancing aforementioned dance routine.
  17. You willingly give up your evenings and weekends for concerts and performances, on top of all the ‘normal’ teacher activities.
  18.  You play the role of motivator, counsellor, and parent on concert night, as well as stage manager. Not everyone’s mum can make it. At least one will cry from nerves. Someone will have an argument (again because of nerves).
  19.  You’re able to piece together a PA system with key bits of kit missing and without blowing anything up. And still make it safe in time for the concert.
  20. You’re simultaneously the most nervous and proud you’ve ever been when you’re watching your pupils perform. Because pupils doing well on-stage makes it all worthwhile.

Photo: Stock Google Image

Why Arts Education is Important

I feel really disheartened when I hear the words ‘I don’t think I’ll take music next year, X says it’s not as important as other subjects.’ I fully see where they’re coming from- everyone from high up Government Officials to their parents are saying that the Arts are a waste of time, and a lot of courses have been scrapped or made incredibly awkward to pursue. It makes my blood boil, because a lot of the curriculum is outdated; our current education system doesn’t take into account the fact that almost every child carries around a world of knowledge in their back pocket, in the format of their SmartPhone. Rather than learning how to calculate obtuse angles, we should be teaching them how they can find out answers for themselves. They can Google the word ‘tributary’ and watch a YouTube video about it quicker than they can commit information to memory in a Geography lesson. Do we actually need to know everything off by heart anymore? *NB I don’t think pupils should stop learning Geography or Maths, they’re important subjects.*

Anyway, I digress.With so much information at our fingertips, I know I very rarely use most of my Secondary School curriculum knowledge in everyday life. Even Maths, in the form of budgeting, which I used to do frequently, I can now tell my phone to do it and it works it all out for me. And then sends me push notification updates if I forget to check it. Same concept, different skill. But I do encounter the Arts everyday for a significant portion of my day. Aside from the obvious benefits, the Arts teaches you so much more than face value.

It teaches you to be creative. I know the current government thinks that creativity is an unnecessary use of time. But all of the technologies or advances in medicine we have now came about in the first place because a scientist thought outside the box and was creative. They saw a problem which needed solving and thought creatively to come up with a solution. Yes, there is creativity and innovation in science, but scientific minds also tend to be very good at music as well- that can’t be coincidence.

You learn how to work in a team. You can learn this in other subjects, like PE, but in music, drama and dance particularly, you regularly have to communicate your idea to a group of people, negotiate with others and persuade them to go with it, make adjustments to your work and evaluate your progress made. I became a pupil for a lesson once, you can read about it here, and it’s actually quite challenging to be creative in a team with a time-limit.

Your emotional intelligence grows as you develop artistically. You learn how to express your feelings and responses in an appropriate manner. Performing or creating a piece of art should expose part of the communicator’s soul. Others should be moved to feel something because of it. It teaches you empathy.

You learn how to take constructive criticism and persevere. X-Factor made my job more difficult because suddenly lots of students were saying ‘my mum says I should go on X-Factor.’ I never lied to pupils about their work, it doesn’t actually help in the long run. If it could be improved on, I would tell them how. There’s nothing wrong with criticism, it’s how you learn.

It teaches you acceptance, that it’s ok to be different. There’s a piece of music, a play, a style of dance, a film genre, a painting etc out there for everyone. It teaches you tolerance of other people’s views and helps you reason as to why you have your own.

It’s an outlet. For some pupils, it’s the only reason they come to school.‘If I didn’t have music lessons at school, I might just kill myself’ is a phrase I’ve heard many times. Sometimes it was over-exaggerated teenage angst, but a few times it wasn’t. A lot of my job as a music teacher wasn’t teaching them how to play set pieces, it was teaching them how to talk about music and what it meant to them, and helping them find a way of communicating their issues and problems. In drama, we’d talk about drawing on personal experiences to show emotion in our work, which also helped them to process their feelings. If a serious safeguarding concern came up and music/drama wasn’t a pupil’s ‘thing’, I’d abandon my lesson for a bit and we’d do colouring or writing poetry- whatever they needed to help. I’m not saying this kind of thing doesn’t happen in other subjects, but fewer disclosures happened in my French lessons than they did in my Performing Arts lessons.

It gives some pupils the chance to be ‘good’ at something. Some pupils aren’t academic. But they’re bloody good musicians. Some pupils have terrible behaviour and hate school, but they find their niche onstage where they get the spotlight attention for good performance that they crave. Other pupils have been rapping and doing street dance with their ‘crews’ (their word, not mine) for years and have never seen it as an art-form until they’re allowed to showcase it at school.

It’s a type of communication. Freedom of speech is key in a democracy yet the government are trying to silence some of our children’s primary methods by making the Arts a ‘bad choice’. Professor Umbridge’s classes in Harry Potter spring to mind.

It’s integral to our culture. Do you watch TV? Go to the cinema? Listen to music? Read graphic novels? Dance at parties? Do you have photographs in your house? Take photos on your iPhone?  Do you wear designer clothes? That’s all art. It’s not just about performing or going to view it. It is everywhere. And if you cut off formal education of the Arts, we’ll soon find ourselves without actors and designers and musicians etc and we’ll be culturally stifled. It doesn’t matter if you’re not actively ‘doing the arts’ you are engaging with the arts every day, and a lot of the time, without even realising it.

Many courses are being scrapped nationally after this coming exam season. Some courses still exist, but a lot are weighted now to be more theory based. Learning about the theory of something is good in some ways and is a useful foundation, but it doesn’t mean that you will suddenly be a talented artist. It needs to have practical elements. Nobody should be forced to learn the Arts at GCSE level or above. But the option needs to be offered. Science, Maths and Engineering are clearly important for the innovative, technology-driven society we live in now, no question of that. But we, as human beings, are just vessels of factual knowledge without the arts to teach us how to communicate it.

Photo: Stock Google Image

10 Behaviour Management Tips for that Challenging Class

As a secondary teacher, we’ve all had a class which just won’t settle down. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. Granted, it happens less the more experienced you get but everyone has had a tricky class. Don’t take it personally- there’s always that teacher who says ‘oh but they’re always fine for me’ in the staff room!

Day 19 of Blog Every Day in May is ‘out of your comfort zone’. Teaching is definitely within my comfort zone, but there’s always that one class who pushes you out of it. So here’s some tips I’ve picked up along the way to help with that really challenging class:
1) Be really prepared. I mean Powerpoint is on, computer logged in, chairs set out, resources on your desk, any potential ‘weapons’ removed. Be one step ahead. Meet the class at the door. Say ‘hello’ and positive comments as they walk in. If a pupil is wearing a coat and they need to take it off, keep it positive, saying something like ‘I love your coat, is it new? It does need to come off though’.

2) Shake up the seating plan. It’s tempting to put the chatty ones at the front so you can keep an eye on them, but think about putting some of the ring leaders at the back so that they can’t turn around and attract attention. If you can, give them a desk to themselves. In music teaching, I prefer having the class sat in a circle in boy girl boy girl- it’s quick to do and you can see everyone. Whatever you choose to do, explain to the class in the corridor what you intend to do and say that you will hear ‘comments’ once everyone is seated, not before. You’re obviously not going to change your seating plan unless someone points out a massive error, but if you make them feel like you are listening to them, they’re more likely to cooperate. Listen on your terms though- only once everyone is seated and they’ve got their hand up.

3) Don’t shout. It’s tempting, but you lose everything. Shouting should be a last resort. Lots of pupils, sadly, are shouted at at home, so it’s the way they’re used to communicating and you’re supposed to be readdressing their behaviour, not reinforcing it. Keep calm. Don’t be a pushover, you can raise your voice, just don’t shout. Use deep, clipped tones when you’re asking for attention and change back to normal once you have it. When talking to individuals, it often works if you say ‘I’m not shouting at you, why are you shouting at me?’.

4) Work through the consequences system, or make up your own if there isn’t a school policy. I like warnings- getting to ‘warning 3’ means 10 minute detention, ‘warning 4’ means half hour detention. I let the pupils ‘work them off’ in particularly difficult classes. This is because some pupils could potentially get to warning 4 in the first 10 minutes of the lesson, and if they know they’ve already got a detention, why would they start behaving all of a sudden?  Don’t, whatever you do, forget to reward the well behaved ones.

5) Don’t get into arguments in front of the class. This is how you lose respect and you dig yourself a hole. Someone at some point will complain about the warnings they’ve got. Say ‘I’ve heard you, if you’d like to talk about it, we’ll have a chat in a minute, but for now we’re doing…’. Sound like a broken record, repeat the same thing over and over again- they’ll get bored before you do. You also might have got it wrong if there’s lots of pupils to keep track of and you will need to apologise for that. But on your terms. You can also do consequences without saying anything, just stand next to the white board writing pupils’ names and warnings on or ask a trusted student to write the names down when you ask them to. And keep giving out rewards to those who deserve it!

6) Ignore them. Freeze your interactive whiteboard and pretend to get on with something else, periodically adding to the consequences and rewards list. Or set a timer going on the board and sit and watch them. Or give them a minute on the board for every time they don’t settle down when you’ve asked them to. Stand looking pointedly at your watch. Don’t enter into discussion, you asked for quiet and you didn’t get it. The amount of time they waste, is the amount of detention they get as a class. And then make them do the detention, preferably with the support of a more senior member of staff for backup. Use your discretion though- if there’s one pupil who genuinely didn’t do anything wrong, they shouldn’t have to do the detention.

7) Ring home. You can’t ring home for everyone, you’ll be there all day. Choose the worst 3 and the top 3 and ring home. Word will get round that you ring home for good behaviour too.

8) Use detentions to build bridges. First of all, show you mean business by collecting the pupils for detention, either by sending another pupil from your P5 class (scary year 10/11 always come in handy) or going yourself if you have a free. Ask them why they think they’re in detention. Be prepared for the fact that you might have missed something that you should be doing to help them e.g. worksheets photocopied onto blue for dyslexic pupils, and this is why they’re messing around. Chat to them about what they like to do– find something in common and then mention this to them in passing in the next lesson to show them you remember. I like to finish detentions with an agreement, the pupil will do X in the next lesson and I will help them by doing Y. You’re possibly already doing what you’re agreeing to, but they don’t need to know that. You can (quietly) refer to your agreement if they’re causing problems in the next lesson: ‘That’s not what we agreed, I said I’d make sure I gave you positive points and you had to quieten down quickly to get them. If you continue I’ll have to give you warnings, and neither of us want that’. Handshakes mean a lot to pupils- if you agree on something, shake on it.

9) Ask for help from your colleagues. Is there a behaviour specialist or Ed Psych in school? Get them to observe. Do any other teachers teach the same class? Observe them. Do you have on call in school? Ask them to wander by every now and then or call them if you need to. Ask your head of dept if you can send some pupils out to them for one week once they get to warning 4. It is not a failure to admit you’re having trouble with a class, in fact, it only improves your practice getting new ideas.

10) Have a task sheet which explains the whole lesson so you don’t actually have to ‘teach’ them directly. Pupils who want to get on with it can. You keep those pupils on side, and you can focus on the behaviour of the others for that lesson. Reward the pupils doing the work. Let the well behaved choose a song to listen to or play (education) games at the end of the lesson. 

You’ll find several problematic pupils will ‘switch sides’ and start doing the work.

Remember: you are the adult in the room. Things happen on your terms. However, it doesn’t matter which way you look at it or how unfair they’re being, you are the adult. This means you don’t let your emotions or feelings get on top of you which make you act in anger or frustration- how can we ask our pupils to manage their emotions if we don’t do it ourselves? Children aren’t born naughty, something has made them behave that way and it’s our job as teachers to work it out as best as we can. Start every lesson with a clean slate. If you’ve tried everything and nothing worked, start from the beginning and something will work the next time. Stick with it, lots of the pupils who tested me most at the start have nearly always ended up being some of my favourite pupils.