Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Beauty and truth...#Nurture 1415


I will have been SLT lead for Teaching and Learning across two schools for five years this coming January. For the last two years I've been Vice Principal at a large and complex secondary school just outside Cambridge. I've learned a huge amount, been faced with a number of very demanding and sometimes distressing challenges, written two timetables, steered a path through PRP, developed a brand new curriculum and had countless transformative and delightful experiences. I hope that along the way I made a difference to the school and to the experience of the students. I hope that some of my colleagues benefited from working alongside me. I certainly learned a lot from them and shall miss the community and its creative, dynamic approach and ethos very much. The image below is the plaque on the side of the building I spent most of the last two years in. Although I've always struggled a bit with it as a general aphorism, I've always quite appreciated it where it sat by that door - there is a brutal truth to working in schools (children and teaching assistants are the most honest people you'll ever encounter!) and that truth, plainly expressed through hard work and collaborative effort is, more often than not, in the final analysis, rather beautiful.

From January I have the exciting challenge of leading Teaching and Learning across a growing Academy Trust. I will be working in and across a number of schools, helping to shape a common vision and approach, working with teachers and leaders on improving the quality of provision and experience for a growing number of students. I can't wait to get started.

I'm an infrequent blogger and I've resolved to change that too many times to be hopeful of being much more prolific in 2015, but I thought I'd share a good old list of things I think I've decided about leading Teaching and Learning, and then a few practical reflections on my own teaching over the last twelve months or so. I hope they are of interest to some of you.

Ten things I thought about leading Teaching and Learning in 2014...

1. To approach a complex challenge simply, there isn’t much more to leadership than inspiring calm, confidence and kindness. Work hard and be nice to people.

 2.     I was too sceptical about the role of research in teacher development for too long. It can work but it must benefit the school and the students as much as it does the teacher. One person researching DeBono’s thinking hats probably only benefits one person. A school-wide culture of research, informing planning and training, generates real improvements to teaching and learning.

3. In an accountability-heavy system like ours, schools should invest in enabling and encouraging teachers to be examiners. We need to make sure that the system has credibility. To do that, we have to play our part.

4. Improving the quality of instruction and questioning is the most difficult but most impactful work any teacher can do. But they can’t do it in isolation. Constructive, formative observations are essential and we need more of them.

5. It is right that there is a fierce focus on the quality of written feedback. Books should be marked regularly and usefully – it has an immense impact. But let’s not forget workload – teachers should not be editing work for students. It has no impact and breeds dependency and sloth.

6. Schools hobble teachers with unreasonable expectations, poor behaviour policies and bad management. Teachers hobble themselves by not building effective relationships

7. Collaborative planning time is difficult to find but essential if we are to improve subject knowledge and the consistency of experience within schools.

8. The term ‘Middle Leader’ should be scrapped.  It is wholly inadequate and pretty insulting. There is nothing ‘middling’ about having energy, enthusiasm and ideas. We need less hierarchy and more high thinking.

9. The lack of guidance and oversight of performance related pay is poisonous for our schools. It must be either scrapped or reformed.

10. Trying to make everyone teach or plan in a particular way is futile and foolish. Ensuring every teacher understands what your school expects great lessons to comprise of, is the first step to school improvement.

Five things I’ve done more of as a teacher this year: 

Slow writing. I’ve worked in more detail on guided writing and getting students to very closely re-draft small chunks of writing before setting them off on longer tasks.
Marking. I have never been very good at this but I’ve consciously tried much harder to be more frequent and formative.
Talking. I’ve never believed that teacher-talk is bad and never will. I think I’m pretty good at leading discussion, dragging everyone in, giving everyone a voice and a role, and I have the skill and experience now to do it with greater confidence.
Screencasting. I’ve been pretty impressed with some of the teacher-generated presentations that have appeared on YouTube and have produced a number of them myself to set as homework or to help students with revision. I’d like to learn more about flipped learning in 2015.
Pictures and images as fascinators or stimuli. I take pictures and squirrel images from twitter and the net, using them all the time as starters, fascinators, stimuli or just for a laugh. I find they help me to punctuate ideas and to keep the tone and pace light.

Five things I’ve done less of as a teacher this year: 

Teaching to targets. I used to map my teaching a lot more closely and explicitly to target-grade skills and criteria. I find myself doing this less and less; I tend to model A* skills only, occasionally drafting down to demonstrate how excellent writing can be dulled by lazy vocabulary, a lack of focus or simple errors.
Whole class reading. I have mixed feelings about this; I still think we gain a huge amount by reading together and used to very confidently spend the bulk of an entire lesson just reading and discussing. Increasingly I am conscious that relying too frequently on this approach is too easy for some students to passively inhabit. Not so much that it lacks challenge, but that it lacks demand. I’m also harder on and more rigorous with checking when ‘A’ level students haven’t kept up with their independent reading.
Objectives on the board. I’ve almost given this up. Usually I’ll define the success criteria (how they will do well), but I prefer to share over-arching objectives for a unit or use a ‘big question’ for a single lesson. They never write them down for me.
Giving students a choice. Earlier in my career I would more frequently offer a choice of two or three activities. I tend now to direct much more confidently – I’ll modify a task to differentiate because I know better the skills that a particular student should be working on.
Moving on. I used to teach new terminology or skills far more chronologically and sequentially, assuming that there would be greater retention and application than in fact there was. My understanding of how we learn has been informed by a lot of reading over recent years and I now find myself revisiting the basics of, for example, parts of speech, with students more often. I make fewer assumptions about what they have definitely learned.

Some things I really enjoyed doing this year:

In January Cambridge University Press published the third editions of their School Shakespeare range for Twelfth Night and Much Ado, edited by Anthony Partington and I. This was the culmination of a huge amount of work and we were really chuffed to see such beautiful finished products.

In March I was really pleased to be involved in the first ever Cambridge SLTeachMeet. I presented on our new curriculum at IVC - the ICE programme. It was hugely well attended and a real success. The kind of thing I'm looking forward to doing a lot more of in my new role.

In April I spent a day teaching in a US High School - Freedom High in Morganton, North Carolina (my wife's hometown and former school). They were delightful and indulged me by pretending to be very interested in my thoughts on Shakespeare. Their teacher, Tim Fossett, very kindly repaid the visit when he came to Cambridge in July. While I was there I rather fell in love with his funky chairs and convinced my Principal to buy some for IVC - they look like this and sixth formers LOVE them…

Most of the summer was lost to writing a new text book for Cambridge University Press. The hastily prepared new GCSE specification demands new publications, so we spent much of August (and a chuck on September and October!) - writing a new book. We'll be excited to see what it turns out like come January.

September was IVC's 75th anniversary. There were lots of events such as this mammoth whole College photograph, a gala weekend and a 1939 day in College that was fantastic fun. The story of Walter Gropius, Henry Morris and the Village College movement is such an inspirational one and well worth a read about to those unfamiliar.

In October I was successful in securing a new position as Vice Principal leading on Teaching and Learning across the Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust - a fantastic opportunity to join an organisation that contains some brilliant and hugely talented people and that has a vision and ethos for schools that excites me massively.

In November, I took a team of debaters to the Houses of Parliament. I've always loved debating and led a team to the final of the Bar Mock Trial competition in Belfast at my previous school. This lovely lot did brilliantly well and we had a fantastic day in London. I wish I had time to do more of this sort of thing.

So here's to an exciting and successful 2015!

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