How do we address school-wide behaviour in a logical way?

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”

These words uttered by Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan explain to Captain Kirk why the Vulcan must sacrifice himself to save the ship. This harrowing moment in my cultural evolution has always stuck with me.

But don’t worry, this is not an attempt to analyse Star Trek philosophy. I do have a serious point to make about teaching. My argument is that Spock’s logical reasoning is lost in our school system, and currently the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

I am talking specifically about behaviour in secondary schools, and the fact that students who cause major disruption are now put before engaged and committed pupils. Of course, there is always going to be some level of misbehaviour in class – teenagers are teenagers after all, and quadratic equations don’t always set their worlds ablaze. For the most part teachers are good at dealing with this, and young people usually respond in the right way when challenged.

But then there are students for whom this isn’t enough. Take Connor in Year 9, for example. On an average day, he will walk into the classroom shouting and singing loudly. He may even push another student against the wall as he passes. When challenged, he will sit down laughing or launch a volley of expletives at the teacher before being sent to the isolation room. He will get told off by the headteacher and may be sent to an in-house support unit, designed to deal with behavioural problems. Occasionally he will get a temporary exclusion. Then, within a day or two, he is back in the classroom and the cycle begins again.

There are at least 10 more students like Connor in most good schools. Although teachers find these pupils a handful, dealing with them is part of our job. But what about the other 25 kids in my class? Sometimes I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where you are running, out of breath, and getting nowhere. Frustrating does not even begin to describe how that feels every day.

Hailey and Liam turn up for school every day. They are model pupils of average ability. On a good day, they are capable of solid C grades in most of their GCSEs. But they have to sit in a room with three or four Connors, the teacher having to constantly chase, cajole and challenge them until eventually these disruptive students are removed.

They have been learning in this environment for the past three years, and often complain that they can’t focus when Connor is around. They ask why it is that he gets away with as much as he does. My responses are usually generic along the lines of, “You make a valid point and I really don’t know.” Sometimes I might make a good pupil feel better about themselves, “We prefer to spend our time with you guys.” Or more often than not make an attempt to show the Connors of the school some support by saying, “Sometimes the classroom is just not the right environment for him.” But this is often a token gesture. When he is absent, the dynamic of the class is markedly different, with pupils far more settled and engaged. Suddenly it becomes easier for the students to answer questions without fear of an underhand comment. Those that sit on the behavioural fence are no longer pandering to a disruptive audience and therefore knuckle down and actually work harder. Without Connor, it’s no longer uncool to be enthusiastic about learning. Some research has suggested that this improvement is also reflected in attainment.

But what can we do about it? Schools are under pressure now to minimise the number of permanent exclusions and avoid the dreaded red flag of Ofsted. Headteachers try to keep these teenagers in mainstream education to avoid accusations of “poor behaviour” from inspectors, when, really, removing them could be interpreted as adopting a zero-tolerance approach. I would also argue that if given the resources, taking some of these students out of mainstream education might actually give them the specialised support that they often need. The only major drawbacks to this approach are the stigma children undergo when finding themselves in non-mainstream educational settings and often the lack of trained, effective teachers needed to deal with this challenging behaviour.

In an ideal world teachers would be able to offer every individual the specific help that they need. We would spend time with difficult students, stretch the more able and help all those in between. But that would require a huge investment in human resources and teacher time. Schools and outside agencies need more funding to find anything approaching this sort of solution, and with current educational cuts, the situation only seems to be growing worse.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. The truth is there is no magic bullet for this problem but the way we deal with disruptive students must be reviewed. Tough ideas need to be considered. At what point does a school accept that it can no longer provide the resources to cater for all of its students? Since when did it become the right thing to focus on a few disruptive kids at the expense of the rest of  the class? We recognise, of course, that there is always a context to consider when a student has serious behavioural problems, and schools and external agencies work together to support young people with these issues. But we often ignore the impact on the students who do not experience these problems yet have to suffer the consequences anyway.

Surely a school has a responsibility to make sound judgements for its entire population, rather than the small group with the greatest needs. I feel more responsible for the results of the students who are trying to achieve because from a teacher’s perspective, my time with them feels better utilised. I feel like I’m making a difference, which surely is the point. If Einstein was correct in his assertion that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then we are truly going insane.  The system as it stands is deeply flawed because the needs of the few so clearly outweigh the needs of the many. There is no Vulcan logic here.

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We Can Learn Something from the Fascists…

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In light of recent events in the UK Government this week, particularly Theresa May’s speech and the issue of fracking in Lancashire, there are two groups of people I feel the most sorry for.

First, my grandparents’ generation because they sacrificed so much in fighting fascists in Europe now only to find themselves in a country that is showing early signs of following the very policies that created totalitarian states in the early 20th Century. Secondly, I feel sorry for my children’s generation who have inherited a world not of their making. A world created by the narrow mindedness, bigotry and lack of intelligence shown by my generation.
If you don’t believe me or think I am overreacting, consider this. Nazism flourished through a process of demonizing outsiders through propaganda, restricting their rights within Germany,  then forcing them to be identified as something different. Nazism was made more powerful by shutting down local governments and moving to a more centralised model so it could control all policies. It changed its school curriculum to reflect it’s own values. It shut down workers who wanted better pay and conditions.
Have I mentioned anything here that the current Tory Government are NOT doing right now?
The most alarming part of this is the fact that the Nazi government took power because a large bunch of people supported them,  but an equally large bunch of people did nothing to stop them.
That’s how dictatorships evolve. Not through evil people taking control of a country by force, but through a slow erosion of the principles we used to hold up as valuable while people stand by and watch and just say “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is.”
If we can learn anything from the Nazis it is this… IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THIS IS NOT THE WAY IT IS.

For the Best Experience – Get Out!!!

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Thinking back to my school days, I can’t remember many lessons. I can’t remember a single Lesson Objective or Learning Outcome. I think the only classroom experiences I remember were when something crazy happened – like when a lesson went totally wrong for a teacher, or one of the more challenging students lost control and caused a spectacle for most of the lesson.

But I remember all the school trips. Most of them I remember  because they were fun – but I remember the actual learning that took place too. In many cases, they sparked my interest in the world because I saw things that a kid from an underprivileged background would never see from home.

In many schools, there is increasing pressure to deliver lessons – skills and knowledge – to students in the classroom. As schools are judged on measurable results, teachers and school leaders are feeling more under-pressure to lead this from the controlled environment of the classroom so data can be generated easily on student progress and outcomes. However, the closer we move to this model of education, the more I feel our students are missing out on what I think education should be about – engagement and enjoyment.

There has been a great deal of research on Education Outside of the Classroom. I don’t wish to summarise the wealth of research out there, except for supporting the majority of it which identified “Out of Classroom” Learning as one of the most valuable aspects of a student’s education. A summary of this research from Ohio University suggested that:

“Students who directly participate during a field experience generate a more positive attitude about the subject.” (Behrendt and Franklin: 2013)

It is clear that the benefits are far-reaching. But rather than focus on research, I’d like to focus more on my own personal experiences. I’m sure there are many teachers who will share my views and I am also sure that there will be some horror stories out there which may have tainted experiences of getting students out and about.

Some of my most cherished memories have come from school trips or sporting events. I also believe they are vital in cementing a fantastic relationship with students. Some years ago I ran a football team for a school I worked at. Much of the team was made up of some of the most challenging students at the school. Young, working class lads, disillusioned with education. After a few weeks of training and playing competitive matches, something changed. Many of these students, with some of the poorest behaviour in the school, were trying harder in my lessons. Their behaviour was improving dramatically. By the end of the year, their progress was a dream. But I was doing nothing different in this class than any other, really. The difference was – we’d bought into each other. As I coached them, I saw aspects of their characters that never came out in a classroom. I saw them pour their souls into trying to win, especially the comeback from three goals down to win the game. I saw their competitive edge sometimes boil over – and they experienced my wrath when this sometimes manifested itself into disrespectful behaviour towards a referee or an opposite player – but in the end they understood my expectations. I saw them help out team-mates who were struggling and lift the performances of some of the weaker players, and how exposed they felt when they faced a massively superior team and were turned over by a huge scoreline. The dignity and character they showed through this humbling experience was profound. A new level of respect was created that year and it stayed between us until the boys left school, long after I had stopped coaching them. Overall it was a hugely rewarding experience and I would urge any teacher struggling to find their feet in a new school to coach a sports team or a club of some sorts.

Educational trips are no different. There is a permanent bond formed between a teacher and a student when you take them on an intensive trip. Some of the best memories I have come from a trip to the WWI Battlefields in France and Belgium with a bunch of Year 9 and Year 10 students. Their curiosity was amazing and they probably learned as much in that week as running a full scheme of work about the First World War. They were engaged for the whole time – asking intelligent questions and fully immersing themselves in the experiences they were having.

Teachers should never feel guilty about creating some time during trips for “fun” stuff. Why not take some time out for shopping? Recently, a group of Year 12/3 Marine Biology students were taking time out of school for their trips, which I would always raise a sarcastic eyebrow at because wetsuits and the odd surfboard would be seen accompanying the students. But why not? They were still doing Marine Biology and from a “results and outcomes” point of view, the students are certainly heading in the right direction because they have been fully engaged with the subject. Next term, I will be running some Geography field trips to the coast looking at coastal processes and I can feel a surfboard or two coming out during those!

One of the biggest challenges for teachers on trips can be behaviour. However, in most cases from my experiences, most students have the ability to step it up during trips. I think its about giving some of them the responsibility that they maybe don’t get in the classroom. Let them out – trust them – and mostly they’ll repay that by just getting on with it. Rarely have I been let down by students during a trip. Teachers can manage situations really well by being low key. Accept that the excitement of a trip might initially be a lot to handle for some. My golden threat is that any misbehaviour warrants half a day with me – and I can be the world’s most boring human being. It usually works. Clear boundaries, easy instructions and a good sense of humour can work wonders in managing students on trips.

I would say to most teachers – do more trips! If you can find a way of getting the kids out of the classroom, do it. There are clear benefits to their learning – even indirectly. There are hidden treasures. After eating a school lunch in a French school, my students never complained about our dining room ever again!! After seeing the serious lack of litter in Belgium, my students realised how messy they really were!! But apart from the educational benefits, there is a huge advantage on returning from a trip and having that shared memory with the students. They get to see that human version of you which doesn’t come out as much in the classroom! You might find that they’re more engaged, buy into you a little more, want to give you that bit extra that was missing, and help you develop that relationship with them that makes the whole process of getting them through the tough stuff more effectively. From this angle, I think the value is invaluable.

Dear Mr. Gove…

Dear Mr. Gove,

Please accept this letter as a heartfelt plea to withdraw from the Conservative Party leadership race, suppress any further ideas of becoming Prime Minister, and seek immediate help for your narcissistic delusions. I understand why you clearly think that you are the right person for this job. However, my understanding of his is based not on your ability nor your track record of perceived success, but your worrying history of delusional self-righteousness when you have been given positions of responsibility. There seems to have been an emerging pattern in your behaviour where you are absolutely unable to accept that there are people in this world who actually know more than you and on the basis of that knowledge, disagree with much of what you have attempted to do.  I would like to help with your recovery by highlighting only a small number of these instances.

In 2006 you published Celsius 7/7 to extremely mixed reviews. However, one of the main criticisms of this book was your attempt to dilute the issue of Islamic extremism and terrorism into an emotive package that was really just a reflection of pre-existing prejudices held by many. The worst part of this is that you wrote this book with the absolute belief that you were somehow an expert on Islamic extremism and terrorism, and in that process you tried to argue against the real expertise of scholars such as William Dalrimple and policy advisers such as Marc Sageman. As a result, much of Tory policy towards combating extremism was based on your flawed ideas.

This, however, seems incomparable to the work you did while you were the at the helm of the Education system. Your track record speaks for itself as you single-handedly dismantled the entire system and left it in an extremely poor state of health. You also lied about your thought towards professionals here. While you claimed to value the work of professional teachers, you increased the numbers of untrained teachers which had a very damaging impact upon education on the whole. Even Professor Sir Richard Evans said, “Gove presided over the disintegration of our school system; he opened up teaching to untrained people in state schools, because he had contempt for professional educationalists.” See the pattern emerging here, Mr. Gove?

Even when you brought yourself to consult with experts, you then ignored all of their suggestions. The History curriculum is a good case in point. After consultation with some of the top history educators in the country, you ditched their ideas and came up with your own ridiculous patriotic version of events to ram down the throats of our next generation with little regard for the skills they should learn in the subject. Furthermore, against all advice, you changed the GCSE system in 2012 making it much harder for students to compete with those who had sat the same level of exam in previous years. Then when results dropped that year, you blamed the very people who you ignored – the education professionals.

There has been an abundance of research about behaviour in schools, and engagement, and student well-being…. but you disregarded the lot in a bid to recreate your own school experience because, of course, all children in schools are just like you were, and if it worked for you, then it will work for every child in the land. Well, guess what, Mr. Gove, it didn’t work for you at all. You might have little pieces of paper with some qualifications written on them, but you have a long way to go in understanding people. For example, in a bid to improve discipline in schools, you pushed for getting more ex-soldiers into teaching roles. Is this what kids really needed? A sergeant-major figure shouting at them to get them to learn more? Clearly your ideas about school discipline are contrary to much of the current research, especially when we take into account your views about writing lines as a form of punishment. During this whole process you have presented yourself as an expert in learning and behaviour management despite the advice from those who have worked in this field for longer than you have been an adult.

Finally, the only time you have actually referred to any type of model to underpin your ideas was when you suggested that schools should be open 51 weeks of the year and until 6pm in the evening. Here, you cited school systems in the Far East as being models to which we should aspire to, with absolutely no regard for the cultural differences between British and Far Eastern students and the fact that the “Far East” covers a very diverse cultural region within itself. You failed to include the fact that the rote learning that often takes place in Chinese schools has rendered many Chinese students unable to deal with creative and critical thinking required at the highest level of education. But then maybe that is exactly what you would like to achieve because we all know how dangerous critical thinkers can be, don’t we? After all, you have spent most of your career trying to undermine them.

I sincerely hope you will consider withdrawing from this leadership contest. Your track record of such a high disregard of those who really know what they are talking about is disturbing to say the least. Are you threatened by people who you are more equipped with knowledge than you? I don’t know.

What I do know is this. I am no expert in politics or education. I am not as experienced as you in government affairs. Whilst I do have more qualifications than you, please don’t feel intimidated by this because they were gained long before your reforms took hold and in your eyes are probably meaningless. I do know that I left the teaching profession and the UK in part as a result of your reforms, and I was a half-decent teacher, despite the ridiculous restrictions you were placing on my practice. But given that I am not a recognised expert in the field, and with your clear history of rejecting the views of experts, maybe this time you will listen to someone who is far beneath you in your perceived pecking order and you will do the right thing and retire with your destructive legacy intact.

Yours Hopefully,

A former UK Teacher.

 

A dark day for democracy

I don’t normally blog about politics per se but in the current climate and the thought processes behind this article, I thought it was very relevant for education and society.

Pinkie Brown

The ‘United’ Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union by a margin of roughly 4%. After approximately 40 years of involvement in the European project, the UK will now plot its own course into uncharted waters.

Some are hailing this decision as a victory for democracy – the people of the UK taking back control of their destiny not just from the EU but also from the domestic political classes. They see a popular referendum as the very epitome of democracy, and feel that the turnout of around 72% represents a step-change in political engagement in the UK. But this is problematic on a few levels…

Firstly, ‘democracy’ is a misnomer for what we have just witnessed. Pure (i.e. Athenian) democracy was not just a case of the citizenry (demos) voting on political issues with the majority carrying the day. Nor was it the domain of people who kept their…

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Independence Day: a pointless celebration?

Tomorrow millions of Americans will be letting off fireworks, attending parades, eating good food and not going to work as they celebrate their national holiday of Independence Day. July 4 is always a day to be remembered. I will remember my first July 4 in the USA… a failed firework display at Mount Rushmore in 1998 which sent most Americans home in tears after the whole event was cancelled due to thick fog. The Brit inside me felt the mild ironic amusement of the fact that of all things NOT taken into account when planning the display was the weather – something the British would have surely done if we were still in charge of our former colonies, given our obsession with weather. I was, however, sympathetic to the thousands of Americans that had traveled from afar to witness a cloud of fog; feeling particularly sorry for those Californians who could have simply gone to LA to see something similar!

But this cancelled event made me think… why do Americans celebrate their independence on this day? This is not a glib question. So let’s consider why.

First of all, the Declaration of Independence was suggested on July 1 and kind of agreed with the next day. Then hours and hours of work ensued until by the July 4th, a final draft of the letter was agreed upon by the Continental Congress. But not by everyone!! New York didn’t agree to accept this until July 9th, and that saw riots in their city which was occupied by a serious British contingent at the time!!

Next, no one really signed the letter for almost a month. Most of the signatures appeared on August 2nd, and the last person to sign it did so on November 9th!!

Next, let’s just put into perspective what this letter actually was: it was a letter to King George III saying “We don’t want to be in your club any more because you’re basically horrible to us and we could do a better job than you anyway.” That’s it really. A letter.

Did this grant American independence? Not a chance!! King George didn’t just reply, “Okay then, I’ll pull all of my troops out of MY colonies and hand them over to you.” In fact, in response to this, he escalated troop numbers. By 1776, when this letter was written, it could be argued that the Continental Army was actually losing the War of Independence, so I hardly think a letter would turn the tide and give the Americans what they wanted! It certainly didn’t work for me when I wrote to the British government refusing to pay my tax fine of £100 because it was their error, etc, etc, etc… We can pretty much say that the British government have a track record of rejecting letters, especially when it comes to taxes.

So basically, Independence Day is a celebration of writing a letter to a person who then rejected that letter completely and the outcome of that letter was that nothing changed really, in fact it just got a bit worse!! Is that really worth a celebration? Maybe not.

So when could America postpone its celebrations of July 4th and pick a more appropriate date for the purpose of pandering to my over-pedantic sense of historical well-being? Well, there is a debate over the first country to formally recognise America as an independent nation. Some say it was Morocco in December 1777 when a Royal Moroccan ship saluted an American vessel. But most say it was France when they officially allied themselves against Britain in the War of Independence in February 1778. This is more convincing to me because there was a formal thingy signed. But this was still in the context of fighting a war for sovereignty over Britain, so just because France said, “We’ll help…”didn’t really make America an independent nation.

So what did? Well, even after the decisive American victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, there was a lot of box-ticking to do, largely because King George refused to accept the war was over. This wasn’t finalised until the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3rd, 1783, where Britain, the former rulers of the American colonies, agreed to give up its claims on the region, thus accepting that Americans were in fact capable of choosing their own leader and governing themselves – an acceptance that is now under serious review given the current situation involving Donald Trump as a Presidential Candidate!

So, Independence Day? Probably not July 4th. Possibly August 2nd. Maybe November 9th or even February 6th. Most likely September 3rd. I would suggest that Americans should be more savvy about these dates and petition the government for them ALL to be celebrated in the spirit of Independence as public holidays! That way, there can be no argument!

So, my last message to my American friends is: enjoy your pointless celebrations on July 4th – signed – the Brit that can’t let go!!!

A World Without Ofsted

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Three months ago I moved to a world without Ofsted.

Not a bizarre, made-up fantasy world – like some futuristic utopia where schools and teachers and kids and parents and everyone learns stuff and lives happily ever after. No… this place is real. Its a different country. And there’s no Ofsted. Its weird and wonderful. Especially having been immersed in the English education system for my entire, not very long, career.

So here are my initial observations.

First, for a good teacher I think this is a blessing. Increasingly in England I was beginning to feel that bigger chunks of my time were spent compiling data that was simply serving Ofsted to show that my school was actually doing its job. I was spending less time actually teaching, and less time still actually thinking about teaching. In my final year in England I thought that I was a worse teacher than three years ago, which doesn’t make sense. But without the senseless monitoring and data collection, I can now teach. I teach good lessons mostly and great lessons sometimes. I’m now finding that my great lessons are becoming more abundant because I have more time to plan and resource them. Ask my students.

As a Head of Department I feel that every decision I make is about the students. I feel liberated as an educator. Of course I test my students. Of course I gather data and track the progress of everyone in my department – but its all done to improve their learning and to inform teachers (myself and my staff) what areas we need to focus on. And I don’t have to show progress through individual lessons or points within lessons. And I don’t have to get the students to document everything down so when an inspector comes knocking we can all prove to them what a great job we’re all doing. Some lessons involve discussion. Sometimes we even go out of the classroom to observe something in the real world related to what we’re learning about. And the students love it. They’re engaged and excited about my subjects. I’m happy and they’re happy.

The final analysis comes with results – a topic that has driven teaching for many years now. Like it or not, teachers and students live and die by their results. But what I’ve come to find is that if I can engage the students, grow their strengths, help them address their weaknesses and give them the time, space and support to develop, the results will come. And they are…

Is it all good? Well, I never thought I would say this but, no! There is space for something like Ofsted. Without it has been a liberating experience for me. But it has come with its frustrations. Some teachers clearly need an oppressive framework like Ofsted to motivate them to do well. Without it, I have seen some fall into a malaise of lazy practice. Dull lessons produce disengaged students, which I have witnessed during this transition. In some cases, I have been reminded of some of my own teachers back in the 1980s where the lesson plan said, “Copy pages 57-63” and that was as much input as a teacher gave. I can’t help thinking if Ofsted was around, you’d need to up your game!

So what are my final observations? I think most teachers are in the profession for their want to make a difference in peoples’ lives and this serves as the motivation to make the learning experience fantastic for their students. Furthermore, most teacher really care about teenagers which informs their day-to-day interactions with them. We don’t need an Ofsted to monitor this. Most of us do a fine job. But we cannot escape the fact that some teachers might just like the holidays, or knocking off at 4pm, or are that complacent about their practice that the care has just seeped out of them. Maybe this is where Ofsted come in. Overall I don’t think the constraints put on most teachers are necessary. I think if schools develop a good system of supportive coaching for their staff, most would be fine. A more efficient Ofted-less model might be to use a network of schools to perform checks and balances on each other – like a supporting friend – that can help teachers that are struggling but avoid putting constraints on the ones that flourish in a liberal environment.

I don’t know the right answer. What I do know is that I’m enjoying my world without Ofsted.