“A myriad of tiny details”

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I received an email from a colleague very early this morning that mentioned the “myriad of tiny details” his role was requiring him to consider.  The phrase stayed with me all day, in part because my colleague is thoroughly dedicated, and I know exactly how hard he will be working to get each of those myriad details just right, both for present needs and also so that there is a coherent system in place going forwards.  The other reason that the phrase stuck in my mind was because in the twenty minutes before I read his email my own mind had been involuntarily reminding itself of a series of moments – a myriad of tiny details, if you like –  from the first two weeks back at school.

It was unusual and uncontrollable.  The adrenaline of a good start to the new term led to memories hastily racing through my fresh morning mind.  These are just a few of them that I can still remember recalling earlier this morning:

  • A Geography teacher who was giving the most perceptive advice and praise to her hockey team throughout a match.

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  • A Head of Year at a Parents’ Presentation Evening who already knew so many families in his year group really well from having supported and/or taught their children in previous years.  There were 200 sets of parents.
  • Three teachers each refereeing a rugby match last Saturday, every one of whom combined their roles as referee with a commentary of advice and encouragement to boys from both teams. Thoroughly professional and impressive, every one of them.
  • One of those rugby coaches responding calmly and helpfully to a nasty injury that required a hospital trip, and who later that night telephoned three families to check on the condition and progress of their injured sons.
  • A couple of helpful emails sent in the small hours by colleagues who woke early or who couldn’t get to sleep until they had something good in place ahead of the coming day.
  • Two of our Year 10 students giving me stick in the Refectory queue: “It was only that Louis Suarez why Liverpool had a good season, sir. If you lose against Norwich, Rodgers is out.”
  • Our coach drivers reacting to problems after a breakdown, and gridlock, and doing whatever was required to get our students in to school or safely back home.
  • The relieved and very happy reaction of a student who had thought he might have to leave us, but whose parents had found a way for him to stay.
  • Our school nurse, who is contracted to 4pm, staying until 6:30 two nights this week because there were students who she felt needed help.
  • A video that the Outdoor Learning team had shown of the L6th devising their own leadership courses, persevering when it got tough, and all pulling together to come out the other side. “Putting more jam in their doughnut”, as the course leader tells everybody.  Erm, yes, quite.  He is brilliant.
  • A few different support staff colleagues who just get it done, whatever it is, instantly and without it being a problem, and who then send me a smiley face email or give me a simple, affirmative “Yep!”.
  • The programme of non-examined classes that teachers here have put together for our L6th, voluntarily, just to enrich and broaden their studies beyond their A level subjects. I defy anybody to read the list of 32 courses that are on offer, and not to then pick the courses that they would like to take.  ‘The Gender Games’ was at the top of my own wish list.
  • The Head of Year (a different one) who took students new to our school out for dinner before the start of term, and who also organised lunch for them all and for a number of colleagues two weeks in, just to help them all settle here, feel welcomed, and to give us teachers a more personal sense of how they’re each getting on.
  • The two young teachers in the French department who are always still in at six each night, planning lessons, going over pastoral issues, writing house assemblies, and getting excited about the weekend debating trip. They both absolutely get it.

In and of itself, the items on this list might not appear spectacular.  Dedicated and professional, but not necessarily spectacular.  And that was the point when they came to my mind.  It’s the cumulative effects of this myriad of tiny details that combine to make a first-rate school and a learning community that we are all proud of.  The small things can make a big difference to the atmosphere around a school, and if everybody gets the little things right then it makes the educational journey a richer, more productive experience for all.

I have recently been appointed to a new role at my school.  Alongside @parker_neal, I am the co Interim Head of @TheGSAL until next April, and this is a responsibility that we each take extremely seriously.  I am not a man who gives praise cheaply; I just can’t say it if I don’t mean it.  But I have found myself wanting to gush and effuse in recent days.  And I list this morning’s memories above for no reason other than they overwhelmed me on waking, including more of them than I can remember now tonight because they all turned up mob-handed first thing.  I reckon it was nothing more complicated than an overwhelming sense of pride in my school.  In the students, who have an attitude and approach that best helps everyone to learn, and in the teachers and support staff who lead very busy lives in term time, working extremely hard for our children.  A myriad of tiny details – that’s the wonder of school.

The Norton Teachmeet

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Last Wednesday 1 July I visited Norton College, an 11-19 academy, for #TMNorton, a TeachMeet organised by @KerryPulleyn.  The drive took over an hour at the tired end of term but @HYWEL_ROBETS was the first keynote speaker and, as ever, his twenty minutes asking ‘How do we hook children in?’ was well worth the drive there and back plus the figurative price of admission all on its own.  Hywel’s slides such as the cow laughing at a trapped horse never fail to entertain and prompt a few thoughts, but it is also Hywel’s reflections such as ‘It’s sad that we talk about teaching in terms of survival rather than in terms of influence’ and questions like ‘What excuse is there for a curriculum that’s disengaging?’ that make him such a pull.  He should be forced to present at every single TeachMeet and conference up and down the country until every teacher has seen and heard what he has to say to us as a profession.

@seahamRE had the tough gig of following Hywel, but he is definitely a man up to that challenge, and his presentation on the benefits of conflict and controversial views in order to lead students into a pit of challenge and then onto their own independent thoughts was wonderful.  I have once seen a video of a school in New Zealand that deliberately led students into “The Pit” in order to build resilience and develop stronger learners, and Barry was onto something similar here through his excellent talk.

The presentations throughout the entire evening were of a high standard, including many practical tips such as @mrlairdatnorton’s active engagement strategies and @missbsresources’ ways to bring numeracy into the curriculum.  I particularly enjoyed @paulrowilson’s ideas for using images to make learning stick, such as a learning bookmark that employed key images as an anchor to allow pupils to then recall key information throughout the school year.  He was convincing in his argument that deep learning comes from repeatedly revisiting these images in different ways to require the learner to actively engage their memory.

One of the wonderful things about TeachMeets is that a teacher can offer the room an idea in three minutes that changes how you will approach and plan future lessons.  I think that the short presentation by @khunterTandL  was my personal favourite from the evening.  She talked about developing self-regulated learners who develop metacognitive skills all through the simple and ingenious idea of a pre-mortem whereby students are shown a crime scene of a future point in their learning, e.g. the crime scene for their next assessment, and are asked ‘What went wrong?  What killed it?’ They then have to fill in metacognitive pre-mortem sheets that list ways in which they could have failed to develop knowledge or skills and/or failed to apply these properly in the test.  A wonderful task that helps ensure students don’t subsequently ‘murder’ their next assessment because as they go through the stages of this lesson they become increasingly conscious of ways in which they need to self-regulate and develop as better learners.  Inspired and inspirational.  Thank you, Katie.

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There was no sense of the evening dragging or the presentations dipping in the final hour.  @mrsjacksonmusic talked about the benefits of project week at Belmont School, and this has already led to conversations with colleagues at my school about how we can get more from our learners in the final weeks of term following internal exams.  @lisajaneashes  is always an excellent speaker, and was great on communication, confidence, and how a teacher sets the tone in the classroom.

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The evening ended with a finishing keynote by the deputy head at Norton College, Simon Carson.  I don’t think that Simon has a social media presence, but I wish he did because he was extremely good; a man that you wanted to work for after hearing him talk for only ten minutes.  It wasn’t just what he said but the way that he did it, however the essence of Simon’s message was that we all need to read the research and then think about it, test it, challenge it, because the hardest thing for us to do as teachers is to change what we do in ways that aren’t superficial.  I suspect (and certainly hope) that the evening at Norton College at the tired end of term leads me to change what I do next year in ways that are not superficial.  Particular thanks are due to Kerry for organising the evening.  Apologies to the speakers if any of my interpretations are inaccurate and do not reflect your intent – the above is just my take on a few of the notes that I made while you were talking.

#TLAB15 – The Leadership Workshops

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Summaries and overviews of last week’s #TLAB15 can be found by @nikable here and @thosethatcan here. Both posts offer an excellent overall impression of the day, and so I will not post something similar here.  Instead, I’m blogging about just a few thoughts that followed the two leadership workshops I attended at #TLAB15: the leadership panel of Heads and Principals in discussion, and @tomboulter’s session on “Re-culturing” a school from the perspective of a Deputy Head (the slides from Tom’s session can be found here). Both sessions were extremely good, they were scheduled back-to-back, and they took me through from mid-morning to lunch during which time any themes that emerged in my own mind came out of the two sessions cumulatively, and so that is how I will present things here.  I could quite easily have written about half a dozen further areas because so much of what was said set my mind off, but have focused on just a couple of overlapping strands. Apologies to the speakers if any of my interpretations are inaccurate and do not reflect your intent – this is my take on a few of the notes that I made while you were talking.

In response to the question, “What is the most important aspect of leadership?”, @stephenperse sensibly said that, “You have to have a shared vision of education. Education has to be about values that are shared in the community. Not come from the Head but come from staff over a number of years”.  This was very similar to @headguruteacher’s reply that, “You need to understand the community that you are part of, the context of that community. See yourself as serving that community.”  It’s not hard to like and support these sentiments, although in truth they haven’t been explicitly addressed and put into practice successfully in many of the schools where I have worked.

This idea of striving to understand your community, of getting to know the actual lived culture and daily experience of teachers as opposed to what is written down somewhere, and of then responding to the needs of that actual experience, was also addressed by @tomboulter.  In Tom’s school they asked teachers what they each thought this day-to-day experience was like, typed up responses before trying to make sense of it, and found, unsurprisingly, that the highest frequency word was “time”, as in not enough. Learning from this, Tom and his colleagues devised just three principles for professional learning.  Just as importantly though, they then consciously aimed to respect teacher capacity, to ignore stuff, to narrow the lens, and to restrict focus.

In each of the four schools that I have worked in there has never been enough time, and I doubt that there is a school in the country where this is the case. There are quite possibly very good and/or inevitable reasons for a large amount of the term-time intensity and pressure we all experience.  For the majority of my teaching career, my responses to colleagues’ concerns about time have included thoughts such as:

  • teaching is a vocation; we don’t enter the profession for a 9 to 5
  • unlike many other dedicated employees we enjoy very good holidays and so we should work extremely hard in term time; it balances itself out over the course of a year
  • falling over the finish line at the end of each term means you have paced yourself well (not my best thought, I know)
  • if we are really serious about wanting term time to be less intense then we should either have fewer holidays and longer terms, or more time in school after the students break up to set ourselves up for the next term

Understandably, such thoughts have not have always been popular with some of my colleagues.  I get that.  I should add that I am aware of and agree with more enlightened views too: @headguruteacher has written very well about workload here and Keven Bartle about how SLT can best support people here.  As @KerryPulleyn has rightly reminded me, if teachers don’t have time to do the basics properly then there’s a problem.  But I would be lying to claim that I have not held and expressed thoughts such as those listed above while an NQT, class teacher, and Head of Department.  It is as a member of SLT for the past three years that I have been less inclined to state them.   I do still think that there is something of merit behind this line of thinking, but I have become increasingly aware in recent years of the extent to which the intensity of our working lives can take its toll on the most dedicated and hard-working of teachers.  It was after hearing Tom’s talk in particular last week that I remembered and returned to something a teacher told me in my first year in my current post: that I should not underestimate the power I have to help or hinder teachers in real ways, and most importantly by extension, to help or hinder learners, through my part in the decision-making process of a school.

Tom Boulter

Respecting the capacity of teachers was a great phrase that Tom used and which has stayed with me all of this week.  Part of my responsibility as a member of SLT is to best help the students by shielding staff from being spread too thin.  In every school I have known, including my current one, teachers are pulled in many directions: dedicated form tutor, committed House tutor, leader of co-curricular activities, class teacher with seven or more classes a week to prepare for, mark, assess, prepare for, mark, etc.  Schools need to decide what to focus on and what to ignore, what they are about and most value and what has less priority for them, rather than trying to be all things to people and expecting nothing to give.  Making certain decisions to prevent teachers being pulled so strongly in too many directions will, perhaps paradoxically, be unpopular with some of the busiest teachers because they greatly value their role with House activities, their co-curricular work, etc.  But there is a quality/quantity tension in many schools and we cannot serve all masters. Governors, headteachers, senior leadership teams, middle leaders and class teachers should all always be mindful of this.  Education has to be about values that are shared in the community, everybody in a school community has an important part to play in devising a school ethos, and no vocal minority should overly dominate in the setting of the school’s strategic direction.

I am not a Headteacher and I do not lead on deciding a whole-school culture. But in my current role I am responsible for overseeing the learning and teaching at my school, and in Tom’s talk he stated a simple but nonetheless valid set of views that I have become increasingly conscious of over time: however well-intentioned they are, if initiatives to improve learning are too diffuse then there is less likelihood of there being coherence; asking teachers to look at too much stuff restricts the quality of improvements that will take place.  I need to play my part in ensuring that at my school we narrow the lens and consciously restrict the focus.  I will be serving my community and our students more successfully if I can help us together to better understand the few things that we agree will make the most difference to improving learning.  #TLAB15 was an excellent, inspiring conference, really well curated by @nickdennis and the team, and an undoubted success in its aim of stimulating thinking that one hopes can lead to useful change in schools.