#Nurture1415: my contribution

My best bits from 2014.

1. Becoming a father

My darling daughter Erin joined the world in May. The last 7 and a bit months have been an amazing adventure, she’s brought a new perspective to my world and made me less tolerant of the frustrations I’ve felt for some time and I’ve acted accordingly. She and my wife Ros continue to be the driving force for everything I do.

2. The GCSE results for 2014.

Imagine being head of Maths at a school in one of the most socially deprived parts of England. Now imagine outperforming national averages and being the only school in your borough whose results improved in terms of attainment and progress. That felt pretty good.

3. Blogging

Is it wrong to say one of the highlights of my year was attention seeking? Oh ok then. But only in a well intentioned sort of way. I’m only just getting started but the recognition I’ve had has been heartwarming. When someone tells you that you should write a book you know you’re on to a winner.

4. Seeing protégés flourish.

You know who you are. I couldn’t have got to where I am without you, but I hope I’ve helped you on the way too!

5. Meeting and learning from the Twitterati (Name drop alert).

From a whistle stop tour of KSA to see Bruno Reddy; working with Mark McCourt and Jo Morgan; listening to and learning from Kris Boulton and David Thomas; sticking up for Andrew Smith; Mel Muldowney, Ed Southall, Martin Noon, Steve Cavadino and Jo Morgan (again) helping me with Behind the Mathematician and more; Tom Bennett throwing me to the MFL wolves; even David Didau giving me a nod; chewing the fat with many, many others; and, most importantly Kayleigh Blackburn once again putting up with my eccentric methods for another year: I say thank you to all of you. You made being a Maths leader in 2014 a much easier job.

So what about 2015?

1. New Horizons

New school, new role, new potentials. Can’t wait.

2. Health

I had some pretty shocking news about my health this week. It’s not as worrying as what it might have been, but it means I’ve got to start looking after myself. Good job I started the Healthy Teacher Project then.

3. Writing

I love writing. I love capturing people’s interests and I will continue voicing my ideas and opinions. And, from next week, there’ll be some changes this way. All will be revealed…

4. Resolution

Mindfulness. Paying more attention to my decisions in all respects, and dedicating myself more consciously to what goes on in my day to day life.

5. Family

From early days to a developed routine. Erin already has so much personality and inquisitiveness I can’t wait to see her grow up in 2015. It’ll have challenges all of itself, but I’m looking forward to the roller coaster.

So, there you have it.

Happy new year,

Amir

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The Healthy Teacher Project: In The Beginning

“Money cannot buy health, but I’d settle for a diamond-studded
wheelchair.”

Dorothy Parker

What do you get the man who wants for nothing?

I’m married, I have a daughter, a roof over my head, a decent job, the trappings of middle-class life and a multitude of friends to enjoy it with. I manage to get away at least once a year and be it camping in the Peak District or sunning it up on the Mediterranean it’s more than most people get these days. I don’t mean this in an arrogant way, but as I move towards my mid-30s, things are going pretty well.

What do you get the man who wants for nothing? His health.

I’ll be honest, I’m not in great shape. Over the last 15 years a combination of the fat, flour and sugar triumvirate, copious amounts of lager and a predilection for slobbing on the sofa have turned this once 1500m running, football and rugby playing young man into a card-carrying member of the Beer Gut Association.

Been there, done that…

It’s not to say that I don’t know how to look after myself. I do. Two years ago I trained for a 35-mile charity bike ride around the Peaks, climbing ridiculous hills (including some of the Tour De France route in the north of Sheffield!) and wowing myself with how I coped with it. I’ve got a gym membership, a road bike and a mountain bike, a few fitness apps and plenty of sports kit. So why don’t I bother?

The reason is, I guess, that it’s easy to do nothing. There are amazing parallels between one’s health and one’s career. The only way to become a great teacher is to work hard at it. The people who find behavior management easy do so because they work at it every day. Those with the best subject knowledge never stop learning. The best questioners hone their technique constantly. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – hard work breeds success. Any other route is cheating or luck; I’m not prepared to do the former and I’m amazingly deficient in the latter.

In order to achieve some semblance of health and fitness then, I’ve got to work at it. I need to suck it up and deal with the fact that the horizontal life of eating, drinking and rotting my brain in front of the gogglebox has to stop.

I had a bit of a false start last year. I paid for some personal training sessions and managed in the space of five months to lose a couple of stone. Then darling daughter was born and all of my resources went into getting the family through the first six (demanding) months of her life. But now we’re all in a good routine, it’s time to try to take up that cause again.

Three is the magic number

When considering how to begin this ‘fix my health’ project, I realised that it’s not going to be enough to concentrate on just my physical health – there’s my mental and emotional health to take into account as well.

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me confessing to some demons that haunt my world (although we all have our foibles) – I just think that an aggregation of improvements in the whole sphere of health and fitness will have exponential benefits. So as well as looking at my diet and exercise through this (hopefully continuing) series, I’ll be considering things like mindfulness, organisation, habit-forming and managing stress. They all contribute to the greater health – or otherwise – of oneself, and by taking all of this into account, I feel that I’ll be able to improve quicker.

Now, this is going to take a lot of effort. It’s almost going to be a career in itself, except it’s not a paid job and I’ll both be the worker and the boss. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, if all the other parts of my life seem to be in place at the moment, then perhaps it’s the best time to go for it?

Hold up, wait a minute…

Before I start, I make no promises. Nothing I post up here will claim to be proper scientific advice and if it works it only works for me. I’m not going to try any fad diets or programmes, or mad fitness regimes, all I’m going to be doing is trying to make small but significant changes and looking at the results. If it works, great. If I crash and burn, I’m not going to beat myself over it.

What I will be doing is setting myself goals on a monthly basis. As the saying goes: How do you eat an elephant? The answer is one bite at a time. Each month will be a bite.

So my goals for the month of January 2015 are:

  • Set up and start a habit-forming system to record my progress
  • Start the Couch to 5K running programme (I know this is a fitness regime but it’s been highly recommended because it’s relatively easy to get started and continue).
  • Lose at least 8 pounds.
  • No alcohol (this will be under constant review).
  • Start writing a reflective journal

Up there are a mixture of targets for physical, emotional and mental well-being. Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at each of these goals, how I progress against them and the impact on my teaching practice.

I’ll of course be continuing the other series on this blog, but this is the biggie for 2015. Strap in and enjoy the ride!

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The Art of Leading a Department: Persevere

“If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.”

H.G. Wells

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series. This is a short post to wrap everything up. Enjoy!

I said, right at the very beginning of this series, that the role of Head of Maths is the hardest in secondary school. My aim with this series was to offer advice on how to make leading a department an easier job so that you can cope with the demands. If there is one concept that I think underpins all of what I’ve said, it’s the idea of perseverance.

Never give in!

I have often come across teachers new to the profession who have a few challenging classes, and are on the cusp of the downward slope to packing it in. The challenging classes are basically doing anything to get their way – in other words, what the teacher is facing is a control issue.

My advice to those teachers is to keep turning up. Keep planning lessons, keep setting expectations, keep expecting them to be met, and treat every lesson as a fresh start. Only when the job is completely unmanageable, and you’ve exhausted every possibility of relief, should you then start considering what the future holds for you.

That principle can be translated to leading a department. It’s bloody hard. It often places doubts in one’s mind about one’s capability, because there are times where nothing seems to be going right.

But the fact is that, especially in the early days, if you act as if you’re always learning, then it places a different perspective on things. I’ve met HoDs who’ve been doing the job for longer than they care to remember but they admit that the frequency of changes in curriculum and policy mean that they’re having to adapt all the time. Survival is the result of adaptation. Tweaking your practice and being situationally aware is the key to being a successful leader. But you have to be there in order for that to happen. No matter how difficult it feels at the time, that feeling is often only temporary.

As a head of department, the challenges are greater but likewise so are the rewards. Seeing students and staff alike succeed because of the input you yourself have had is incredibly fulfilling. It’s a long, hard game but one that makes a massive difference to people’s lives.

Good luck in your endeavours!

Amir, December 2014

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The Art of Leading a Department: Network

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

Helen Keller

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

The Sword of Damocles

I’ll happily tell anyone that I’m quite an ambitious sort. I want to get to the very top of my profession. I’ve always wanted to. It’d be the same for whatever career I decided to take part in. I know there’s other people who don’t feel this way and are happy to get to a certain level and not move on, because they’ve got other priorities, which is fine.

But, with such ambition must come an acceptance of the fact that as you move up each level, the responsibility becomes greater and the impact of one’s decisions become more significant, and as such unless you know how to manage it, the stress and scrutiny increases – this is the ‘Sword of Damocles’ of ancient legend.

As with any difficult role, sharing one’s worries and burdens is an essential part of dealing with them, as much as ‘working smarter’, ‘prioritising’ and the like are. This is where networking can be so powerful. Continue reading

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Actual Maths: Total Recall

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

It has been 10 years since I last taught A-level Mathematics. I was good at it, and I had to be, because I was teaching Oxbridge and ‘red brick’ university applicants. I taught up to Mechanics 4 and Statistics 2, which was a challenge but a successful one. It was a challenge for two reasons really. The first was that my confidence wasn’t great – I’d had a terrible time at A-level myself and done relatively poorly, despite rectifying those efforts and blitzing my Mathematics modules at university.

Sidenote: I studied Mechanical Engineering, but the make up of my degree was more on the theoretical and design side of things rather than the ‘break stuff to see how it works’ side. Hence my maths skills had to be top notch. They were that good I was offered the chance to do Pure Mathematics instead. Didn’t take them up on it. Should have, looking back. Anyway, I digress…

The second was that these students were amazing. They had a thirst for Maths that often times I struggled to sate, which was incredible to think of when these days I’m often working with ‘crucial’ C/D borderline and A/A* groups (which isn’t a problem – I like these sorts of groups)! Since then, that part of my repetiore has gone awry. I’ve not really practiced much since, and up until only recently when teaching the Level 2 Further Mathematics Certificate have I got to really test my teaching practice.

My new school is an 11-18 which offers A-level Maths and Further Maths. I’m not timetabled to teach any of it as yet – phew – but I do want to be in a position where if I need to, I can take up the reins and teach at least A-level Maths (Further would require more time, really).

Now they say the best way to remember something is to teach it, but for my own piece of mind I think I’m going to do the learning bit first, and then go through my thought processes on here.

I’ll be using things like Hegarty and Corbett Maths, MyMaths and Khan Academy for the homeworks and tests, a nice notepad to do my working out on and Desmos as a graphic calculator.

In a way, it’ll be a little bit like a golfer rebuilding his technique from scratch. I want to clear out any bad habits, and make sure if and when the time comes, I’m ready to take a class on confidently.

If anyone has any tips or advice on this I’d be most grateful. Eventually I might look at beyond A-level and try some degree level stuff, but for now, I’ll stick with this plan.

Thoughts welcome!

 

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Rebloggable: 12th December 2014

Spreading the love for brilliant content, every week…

Resources

Colleen Young has updated her annual Christmas ICT-based Maths resources. Extremely useful for the last week of term.

Maths Teaching

Dan Meyer loves a whiteboard.

General Education 

Laura McInerney on 8 things you might have missed in the latest OFSTED report. The last point is very interesting.

Leadership

John Thomsett is a wise sage. Here he talks about the madness of treating colleagues punitively. It’s a sentiment that I heartily concur with.

And Finally…

I’m very aware that I rely too much on metaphor, analogy and terrible grammar in my posts. So here’s something I’m going to use to help me sort this.

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Thinking Aloud: There’s Nothing Like Common Sense

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

Tim Burton

Bip, Bop, Bip, Bop…

Time for another analogy. People complain – rightly – about moving goalposts, and how it’s harder to achieve standards when the expectations change seemingly month on month. There’s a two-pronged issue here. The DfE have one agenda, OFSTED another. With this in mind, it’s like the whole education system at the moment is one giant game of Pong; the paddles being the government and OFSTED, and the education system being the ball.

All that’s happening at the moment – be it a College of Teaching, Mr Wilshaw’s constant ‘stick deployment’, the Workload review, the recruitment crisis – they’re all symptoms of a lack of trust in teachers.

What amazes me is that qualified teachers must have been through some sort of education to university level. In other words – they’re not thick. So why is the governance of education so patronising?

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking. Does it really have to be so difficult? So I started to formulate a five point plan…

1. Teaching should be a profession, and stay as a profession

To quote Wikipedia, a profession is a vocation that requires specialised educational training. So this includes lawyers, accountants, doctors, architects, engineers, etc. As soon as the government advocated the wave of unqualified teachers that are now presently in our midst, the concept of teaching as a profession was finally lost.

I say finally, because it has been a process that has been happening for years. I know one shouldn’t rely on Wikipedia, but it makes some good points about the elements of professionalism:

  • Regulation. Well, this is the one thing that seems to be determining the professional status of teaching. We have the DfE, OFSTED, OFQUAL, HMI… In fact teaching seems to be one of the most regulated bodies around.
  • Autonomy. Ah. Here’s the first problem. Teachers have very little autonomy. If anyone can tell me a subject that has the slightest hint of true autonomy and I’ll happily pay you £2000.
  • Status and prestige. Hahahahaha… sorry. The political football that is education, and the media spotlight that seems to blame teachers for everything, means that the status and prestige of teaching have never been lower. In other countries, they have Teachers’ Days (Teachers’ Days! Perish the thought!) that celebrate the contribution that educators make to society. I feel in the UK there is an anti-intellectual movement at the moment, where celebrity is promoted over real contributions to society, and the bashing of teachers is central to that.
  • Power. Our power as teachers stems from the trust of those who we serve. As I said previously, there is very little trust from who we serve, so therefore we have no power.

All of the other points in this manifesto stem from these principles.

2. Lead us from the front

In conversation with a very experienced colleague yesterday, he likened the decision makers in education to the Russian military generals in WW2. Their methods were thus:

  • Tell the soldiers what to do.
  • Watch the soldiers do it from afar.
  • If they got it wrong or were unlucky, they died.
  • If they refused or ran away, they were shot.

He said something had changed in recent years, and this template could be applied to leaders today. I don’t necessarily agree, because I think this scenario is not a fault of leaders but of the constraints they are in. I think that, again, this is a symptom of the lack of trust in teachers. Compare this with Henry V sort of ‘band of brothers’, ‘we happy few’, ‘once more unto the breach’ leadership, where the leader stands with their teachers and shares the burden. Whilst there has to be accountability in any profession, at the same time those who make the decisions have to take responsibility for them, in a collective sense, so teachers need to be worked with, rather than against.

This is the same with OFSTED and HMI. I wonder if at times the inspectorate have a sense of the influence their judgements have over the future of the careers of so many people. I don’t think they do. This is increasingly worrying considering the subjective nature of an inspection, despite obvious attempts from the top of these bodies to rectify the situation.

When I mean lead from the front I don’t mean for leaders and regulators to be soft. I mean that by through their decisions they value the contribution that teachers make, rather than question and judge, and ‘remove’ on a constant basis. Give teachers autonomy, and watch them thrive.

3. Realise that educators are not childminders or surrogate parents

It’s a brutal truth that many families have both parents working. Childcare is therefore an issue. However the increasing cost of childcare has resulted in an expectation for teachers to take up the slack, somehow. The classic example of this is the ‘snow day’. When a headteacher deems it unsafe for school to open, it is for safety and well-being of everyone on the site. Yet this fact is ignored, and they’re lambasted for closing a school because parents subsequently have to go out of their way organise childcare. Well forgive me, but if you have a child, they are your responsibility first: schooling should come secondary to parenting. Also what would happen if a child suffered an injury when a school stayed open? Exactly.

Likewise I lose count of the amount of ‘issues’ that teachers are expected to deal with in schools – citizenship, nutrition, extremism, racism, entrepreneurship, grit, resilience… I’m 100% behind the idea that schooling should be about developing character as well as academic skills, but it is not a solution for all of society’s ills, especially when the tools and resources to deal with such problems are taken away from us (like closing the Connexions service: what a travesty). There has to be some part on the parent and other organisations to support teachers in this regard. I’m not saying teachers should not play a role in improving society – I’m saying they should not be the only ones responsible.

4. Get the incentives to teach right

There’s a belief that to get people into teaching, you’ve got to lure them with financial incentives. Presently you can get paid more to train as a teacher than to be a first year teacher. Insane. All this does is create a scenario where people train because of the money, and then are put off by the workload, negative status and sheer grind of the job.

As Dan Pink, Dan Airely and many other behavioural economists and researchers have found, there is a point where financial incentives do not work. I’d go as far as to say that most successful teachers don’t go into it for the money. In fact, they’d be mad to, because there’s a wealth of other jobs that are better paid, less regulated and less bureaucratic.

Most teachers join the profession because they want to make a difference to students’ lives. A noble ideal yes, but the truth, ultimately. There are other perks – the holidays for one, apparently, although tell me of a teacher who doesn’t do some sort of work through them. Likewise the ‘hours’, but as we’ve seen from the teacher workload survey you’ll be hard pressed to find a teacher that does under 50 hours of work a week, a large part of that at weekend. Oh, and there’s the pension,but that seems to be getting chipped away at every year as well!

So the incentives have to be different. So what about external incentives like free or subsidised healthcare, childcare, and so on? Internal incentives, like reduced teaching hours in school to allow time for proper CPD to take place; reduced paperwork (much of what we do is duplication of other stuff); and daft as it might sound, I’d bet my bottom dollar that a free school dinner, tea and coffee (and some nice biscuits) would make life just that little bit easier for staff. I’m just hypothesising, but I hope you can see where I’m coming from. I’m not saying teaching should be easy, as any fulfilling job has to be challenging. What I’m saying is that everything possible should be done to allow teachers to focus on the challenge of improving students lives, rather than dealing with the daily drudge.

5. Education policy should be determined by academics, rather than politicians

Michael Gove’s great failing was not his decision-making methods. Michael Gove failed because his ideology was (is?) outdated and attempted to place a template of ‘old school’ education on present society. The irony of this is that the ‘old school’ was very much the ‘secret garden’ that James Callaghan spoke of and Margaret Thatcher knocked down the walls of.

I liked some of his ideas. An attempt to create a national exam board for each subject was a principle of pure genius. The GCSE reforms were absolutely right and fair (I’m not sure about the idea of changing the grading system, but that’s another discussion).

The problem was that it was all a case of ‘I know better than you do’, and this was the problem. He didn’t. There was a lot of doublespeak in terms of ‘Finnish models’ but not actually employing any of their concepts. The Shanghai project clearly has merit but it seems to be done out of spite – “British education is failing so it must be the fault of our teachers – let’s go ask the opinions of a people whose culture is completely different from our own”.

Much of what politicians are swept up in when it comes to education is anecdote and hearsay, thought experiments and hubris. Policies should be based on sound academic research that take into account actually what happens on the ground in schools every day.

I’ve mentioned my fears of an anti-intellectual agenda from government and it appears to be coming into reality. There is a short fall of engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses, architects in the UK. Why aren’t they coming through? Our education system does not allow for it to happen. We value personal ‘wants’ over the national ‘need’, and curriculum choices reflect that. Another one of Gove’s master strokes was to knock the BTEC ‘worth 4 GCSEs’ phenomenon on the head. For me he didn’t go further enough but at least there was an acknowledgement that academic rigour was being lost in the system.

To address the anti-intellectual agenda, and to take education from being a political football to a centrepiece of modern Britain, we need to give policy over to the academics. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Education policy at the moment changes so frequently that we’ve got a generation of students who might have similar grades but know completely different things, at varying levels of difficulty. For example, and I’m only talking from personal experience, the GCSE was meant to be standardised. It is no longer the case. Policy needs to be longer term, so that teachers’ and leaders’ stress is reduced because they what will be coming up in 1, 2, 3 years time rather than the monthly whims of a policy wonk in Whitehall.
  2. It creates a scenario where education policy is based on evidence rather than ‘stuff’. I’ve seen all sorts of ‘revolutionary’ ideas. BrainGym, PLTs, Learning Styles, Emotional Intelligences all have come and gone because in most cases the science is either a) non-existent or b) needs more work. ResearchED are trying to make moves in this regard, but processes like this need backing from the decision makers. Something like a ‘National Education Research Board’, perhaps?

My ideal scenario would for policy to be decided by proper academic research, and then driven by – and I know some people will not be happy about this – a ‘bulldog’ like Michael Gove. I think sometimes when policy is brought in teachers are too often treated with a softly softly approach, but what happens is that the impact of the message is lost by treating us with kid gloves. If the policy is shown to be working, and it’s proven with proper evidence and not blind belief, then it needs to be implemented. We cannot let our beliefs cloud our capabilities to improve.

So, in essence…

Teachers are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The competing agendas of government, policy makers, OFSTED, the media and industry are creating a debased and unstable education system in the UK. Part of this is the slow destruction of the professional status of teachers – the removal of autonomy, status and prestige in tandem with increased and tighter regulation. Leadership of teachers needs to be through positive example and use of the ‘carrot’ as much as the stick. Don’t treat struggling teachers like deserting soldiers. Treat teachers as educators, not childminders or factory staff, and they’ll feel worthwhile, and turn the corner.

Likewise, the incentives for teaching need to be beyond the pay, ensuring that teachers can concentrate on the job of improving students’ lives rather than ticking boxes and producing reports. Finally, policy should be grounded in proper, relevant scientific research, and implemented swiftly to maximise impact.

Will the College of Teaching solve this? I’m not so sure. I’m worried that it’ll become a glorified GTC. A College of Teaching could be my ‘National Education Research Board’ if allowed, but if it becomes a political football, well, it’s going to go the same way as the GTC did.

Presently, the efforts to improve standards in education can be boiled down to “if it isn’t working, use a bigger stick”. The time will come soon where those in charge won’t be able to wield the stick! Also, choose the right ‘carrots’. Throwing money at the problem usually attracts the wrong people. Teaching should be a lifelong vocation, not a job, and government needs to facilitate this.

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