Lessons from Lockdown

The Last Week

By the time Boris Johnson made his announcement on the 18th of March, my school had already made the decision to close to the majority of children from the 23rd. Incidentally, my school being two steps ahead of the government is a common theme of the last three months.

For context, I teach in London. Back in mid-March, we weren’t measuring the “R” rate but predictions suggest it was around 3 at that time. The last week was surreal. Our pupil and staff numbers dropped on a daily basis and there was a slightly manic/nervous energy amongst the staff that were in. We kept things going as normal for as long as we possibly could. The lack of staff meant we were particularly busy: teaching extra classes, picking up additional duties as well as setting work for the pupils who were already off. And every night we’d go home and watch the press conference only to learn that yet more staff and pupils would have to be off the next day as they were now classed as vulnerable. I can’t speak for everyone, but the parents in my class were amazing. I felt like I had my own personal team of cheerleaders greeting me at drop off every morning. From testing out remote learning log ins, to providing reassuring arm squeezes, smiles (and even wine) we worked as a team to keep the children happy, safe and learning.


We moved to Guided Home Learning on the 23rd of March. It’s worth mentioning at this point that my school was in the position to send devices home to pupils who needed them so we could start online teaching almost immediately. For most schools, live teaching is not an option but I think what we as profession managed to set up on almost no notice is nothing short of remarkable.

I have always been sceptical about the technology that is plugged to schools. Since qualifying in 2010, I have encountered very little technology that has genuinely improved teaching and learning. Give me 20 minutes, a flip chart and a bullet-tip marker and I can break down the most complex concepts in to child-friendly steps. I believe good teaching requires excellent subject knowledge, patience, clear boundaries and good relationships. Remote Learning has done little to change my mind about this. If anything, it has firmly put to bed the suggestion that teachers are about to be replaced by AI. However, I put my cynicism to one side and threw myself into online learning: a blend of daily live sessions and pre-recorded videos. There were a few challenges but we soon found our rhythm and developed systems for providing input and feedback etc.

Back to School

Yes there were risks, there always are, but I trusted my school to manage the risks and keep us all safe. It wasn’t easy – it took hours of planning, multiple meetings and the date we had hoped to bring them back was pushed back a number of times as we waited on guidance. from the DfE. But we got there in the end and last week Year 2 came back to school for 5 days.

As well as sorting out bubbles, desks, stationery packs etc, I spent a lot of time planning in opportunities for reflecting on and discussing how we were all feeling. Lock down has been hard on all of us and I didn’t want to bombard my class with maths and English – I wanted to focus on the pastoral side of things. The first day was a half day so a lot of it was spent going through the new rules and expectations. We also had a music lesson and plenty of PSHE – it was a very gentle day and everyone was just happy to be back. But by the end of the day, there were a few (polite) complaints coming from our bubbles:

I had been so focused on the pastoral, I’d overlooked the one thing they really want: as much normality as possible. They were after the same thing I was after: the reassuring routines of opening exercise books, writing the date, listening to a teacher, asking questions. They were looking to us to provide the comforting structure of a normal school day. The next day when I told them we were doing a mental maths test they CHEERED and then worked in total silence. We planned reports about Elizabeth I in English and investigated how plants change throughout the seasons in science. They worked their socks off and asked to carry on into what was timetabled as Circle Time.


I hope that come September we can have all pupils back in classes not bubbles. This isn’t because “I want children’s grandparents to die” (as kindly suggested by an anonymous Twitter account) and it certainly isn’t because I trust Prime Minister Cummings. It’s because I trust my SLT to keep us safe and, more importantly, I have seen how much it means to our pupils to be back in school. How delighted they were to see their friends – even if they could only hug them using sign language. How engaged they were in their lessons even though they were sitting at desks built for pupils four years older than them. 

Of course there are legitimate reasons to feel anxious about returning to school – we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and hundreds of people are dying every day. But in this “new normal” I think the best thing we can provide our pupils is the message that plenty of the old normal remains: the sun still rises and sets, life continues, and mental maths is still on Thursday.

I don’t even know what choux pastry is!

I am a reality TV snob. I have never seen Strictly, I strongly believe Love Island represents all that is wrong with the world, and I still don’t really understand what Gogglebox is about. However, after my brother described The Great British Bake Off as “the comfort food of television” I found myself tuning in for the first time and falling in love with it. For those unfamiliar with The Great British Bake Off, stop reading this and go and catch up with the series on 4OD allow me to explain the format:

Each week the contestants are asked to complete three baking challenges. At the end of all three challenges, one baker is sent home. The challenges are broken into the following categories: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge and the Showstopper Challenger.

This Technical challenge is arguably the hardest as it requires enough technical knowledge and experience to produce a finished product when given only minimal instructions. The bakers are all given the same recipe and are not told beforehand what the challenge will be. They aren’t told temperatures, specific quantities, or baking times. An example of the instructions would be:

  1. Make a choux pastry
  2. Bake

This week, there was a particularly challenging Technical. The bakers had to make a Gâteau St-Honoré. For those who don’t know (and why would you?) a Gâteau St-Honoré is a French dessert with a circle of puff pastry at its base and a ring of pâte à choux piped on the outer edge. Small baked cream puffs are dipped in caramelised sugar and attached side by side on top of the circle of the pâte à choux. The base is then filled with crème chiboust and finished with whipped cream using a special St. Honoré piping tip. (Yes, I copied that off Wikipedia.)

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, here’s a visual:

Whilst watching, our conversation turned to how impossible the task seemed to us:

Me: Where would you even start? How do they know what to do?

Husband: Think how many extra instructions we would need before we could even hope to produce anything of that standard!


And so began a long discussion about how many different instructions we would need to be able to make each part of a Gâteau St-Honoré:

  1. Instructions on how to make choux pastry. Actually, first I would need know what choux pastry is and then I probably  would need several lessons on how to make it because there in no way my choux pastry would turn out ok the first time.
  2. Repeat no. 1 but with instructions for puff pastry
  3. Instructions for caramelising sugar at the right temperature so it doesn’t burn.
  4. What is a chiboust?
  5. Instructions for how to make a chiboust
  6. What do do with gelatine leaves
  7. Instructions on how to use St. Honore piping nozzle and how this is different to a jam nozzle.
  8. What order should I make the different components in?
  9. What temperatures, timings and measurements do I need?
  10. How do I put all the pieces together?
  11. How will I know if I have made it properly? What should it taste/look like?

It would take hours of instructions and modelling and days of practising and failing before I produced anything that looked remotely like the Gâteau St-Honoré pictured above. Without any additional instructions, it wouldn’t matter if I had all the time int he world, I wouldn’t get it right because I don’t have any prior knowledge to bring to the task. The fact the contestants on Bake Off were able to successfully complete this challenge is testament to their expertise and experience.

Early on in my career, I taught a lot of lessons like they were the Technical Challenge: minimal instruction from me, lots of guess work for my pupils. From the very beginning, the messages was that “Outstanding” teaching meant you should hear far more of your pupils voices than your own in a lesson. In my teacher training I was told that the number of minutes of teacher input should be the same as the age of the pupil e.g. 10 years old = 10 minutes of teacher input. Being a very keen, eager-to-please young teacher, I stuck to this religiously.

I once taught an “Outstanding” lesson that had NO VERBAL TEACHER INPUT AT ALL. It was Geography lesson and I wanted each child to find the answers to a variety of questions about a country in South America. I gave each table a different country, typed up some instructions on envelopes and left them on the table. The class came in and read the instructions and then had to work out which resources to use to help them: there were atlases, maps, a couple of books from the library. Every so often I would put a handy hint on the board e.g. page. 75 of your atlas might be useful if you want to know more about land use in Brazil… such fun!

Now, here’s the issue with teaching like this. For the small group of children in my class who had plenty of experience of using atlases, or reading maps, for those who knew about time zones then you could have used the resources to find the answers to the questions relatively easily and you would probably been learnt a bit about Brazil in that lesson. But for the majority of my class, who didn’t have the knowledge or skills necessary to use those resources, the lesson would have been frustrating and they’d have learnt very little. Because, unlike in Bake Off, my pupils don’t come to lessons with expertise and experience to get by with minimal instruction. (What actually happened was they just copied the answers off of the few children who had understood what they had to do which, bafflingly, gave they appearance that they had all made progress in the lesson.)

Ten years in to my teaching career, I don’t teach like that anymore. But how often do we fall foul of treating our lessons like they are a Technical Challenge? Whether that’s by withholding vital instructions, not allowing time for practice or not modelling the process to our pupils? Do we make sure they always know what a good example looks like? How often do we assume our pupils have the prior knowledge necessary to access the content of the lesson without actually checking. Then we walk out of the classroom, frustrated that they haven’t “got it.”

At the end of the day, our pupils deserve more than: “On your marks, get set, bake.”



Lessons from the classroom

Next year will mark 10 years since I embarked on my PGCE.  In 2009 I was an overenthusiastic 21-year-old with an romantic view of what teaching would be like. Since then, I’ve taught 100s of children and held a variety of positions from hapless NQT to SLT. Now seems as a good a time as any to reflect on the last decade and share some of the lesson that I’ve learnt.

1. Keep it simple

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that, 75% of the time, a knowledgeable, passionate teacher, a flip chart and a projector hooked up to a PC are all the resources required to deliver a really good lesson. In the early days of my career, I would spend hours cutting out (and laminating!) endless resources: cards to sort, spinners to generate numbers, bingo boards and cards with Velcro, word wheels etc… These resources created hours of extra work for myself and would often be used once or twice, adding very little value to the learning. However I continued to make them as I was frequently told this way of teaching was “outstanding.” The more laminated shiny resources – the better I thought.

Thankfully we don’t grade lessons any more and it would seem the general consensus about what makes “good teaching” is changing. It’s less about an all singing and all dancing lesson with loads of beautifully laminated resources and more about what the children actually learn in the lesson. (If this hasn’t changed in your school, it might be time to consider changing schools.)

Don’t over complicate it. Just planning, marking and delivering good lessons takes around 40 hours a week so don’t add unnecessary tasks to your workload. Decide what it is you want your class to learn and then think about the simplest way to teach it. Which leads me nicely onto my next lesson…

2. It’s OK to teach from the front of the room.

I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing this ten years ago. “Talk and chalk”, as it is often called, was seen as old-fashioned, boring and slightly draconian. I’d been led to believe that good teaching meant letting children discover things for themselves (using the carefully cut out and laminated cards mentioned in the previous paragraph.)  Depending on which head teacher you ask, good teaching also meant: always working with a guided group, never using worksheets, never being at your desk, teaching using a “learning carousel.”

Only in the last 8 weeks of my career has a member of SLT EVER said to me, “It’s OK to stand at the front of your classroom and teach.”

“It’s not a choice between the two, but if it were the case that you could only ever teach through standing at the front and talking to your class or only teach by being the facilitator for pupils learning independently then standing at the front and talking would have the greater impact. They’d learn more.” 

Top tip: make sure there are students in the classroom before you start teaching.

I was struck by the fact that in a decade of INSETS, training, lesson observation feedback, pupil progress meetings, CPD sessions and courses nobody has ever said that me before. It’s not even been presented as an option. The idea you can just stand at the front of the classroom and tell your pupils the things they need to know shouldn’t be a  revelation but it really was. And best of it all it really works.

Small caveat: that’s not to say my class don’t do group work, role play, independent research or inquiry or have opportunities to create and explore. With careful planning and scaffolding, these will always have a place in my class.

3. There will always be lessons that go wrong

Like most things in life, teaching gets easier the more you do it. After a few years you find your feet and everything takes less time. That said, whether you have been teaching for 2 years or 20, there will always be lessons that go wrong.

It happens to the best of us.

Whether it’s technology failing you, or you find yourself fifteen minutes into explaining how to multiply fractions using modelled examples and simple steps but your class are looking at you like you’re speaking a different language.

Lessons like this do not mean you’re a bad teacher. They happen to everyone and as a profession we’re fairly self-deprecating so don’t be afraid to say if a lesson didn’t work out. Have a think about what went wrong, ask for advice and plan to tackle it again tomorrow.

4. That I’d been doing differentiation wrong

You know how right now “mastery” and “depth” are buzzwords in education at the moment? Well In 2009 it was  differentiation. That meant up to five different activities centered around one objective (and in some cases separate objectives.) There were so many problems with this. Firstly, if you only ever give you put all your “less able” pupils on a “less able” table and give them easier work then they are never going to catch up with the pupils that are “more able.” Secondly there was the awkward situation of trying to divide the class into ability tables. You’d end up with three tables with a wide range of ability that you’d put together as “middle ability” and given them “middle ability work” (whatever that is.) And finally, there was the issue of workload: planning for this took hours and you’d find yourself saying things like, “What activity could the tops do?” rather than, “What do I want my class to learn this lesson?”

Dealing with a range of abilities is a huge challenge but now I stick to the same objective for everyone and my differentiation is the support each child requires to meet that objective. Set the bar high and get every child over it.

5. A change of school is as good as a rest

As someone that has walked away believing, wholeheartedly, I would never teacher again, trust me, a change of school can change everything. There are a whole host of factors that can push teaching over the line from a challenging job to an impossible one: pupil behaviour, pressure for results, the fear that you’re not doing well enough. Nearly all of these factors fall at the feet of your head teacher.  You’re never going to find a head teacher whose every decision you agree with – that isn’t the aim. What you need is a head teacher whose vision you buy into and who you agree with on the “big stuff” e.g. behavior policy, monitoring, curriculum, teacher autonomy etc..

So don’t stay miserable – make a change. It can be all to easy to stay and moan but I find it baffling when a member of staff stays at a school year after year, moaning about every decision the head teacher makes. The times that I’ve found myself being the “moaner” I’ve taken it as a sign that the school wasn’t the right place for me and I’ve left.

“The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.”

Albert Einstein

Albert sums it up quite nicely here. For everything I learn, I am all too aware of everything I have yet to learn. There is every chance that, in a few years, I’ll look back at this post and cringe at my ignorance and naivety but that’s OK. As teachers, we get to start afresh every year: we get the chance to reflect on our mistakes, try out new ideas and hone our practice.

One of the great pleasures of teaching is watching young people exercise their freedom to learn, grow and change. It is a freedom that we as teachers should not deny ourselves.

This must be how people feel when they grow their own carrots or give birth.

When I was a younger I had three ambitions:

  1. To be a teacher
  2. To be an author
  3. To be a Blue Peter presenter

What I like about the ambitions of my 8-year-old self is that they range from very achievable to “highly unlikely.” It’s like I was looking out for my future self by giving myself the best possible chance of achieving at least one of my ambitions. Becoming a teacher was just a case of getting the necessary qualifications and securing a job. Actually staying a teacher proved much harder. And, whilst the Blue Peter dream has yet to come to fruition, last week the advance copies of my book were printed and it’s fair to say I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. I can only assume this is how people must feel when they grow their own carrots* or give birth. It is still really hard to believe that my words have been put into a book that will be sold in actual book shops.

It’s been a long process: by the time the book is published it will be almost two years since I got that first email from Bloomsbury.

There have been a number of barriers to writing this book, none of which were particularly unique but, when facing them for the first time, seemed hugely overwhelming and almost impossible to overcome. First barrier? Finding the time to actually write a book.

Nobody has time to write a book

Some writers have very specific routines and structure their day around writing. Haruki Murakami, for example, gets up at 4am each day and writes for six hours before running 10k or swimming 1,500 metres. Then he reads, listens to music and is in bed by 9pm. Perhaps the only similarity between myself and Murakami is the 9pm bedtime. WH Auden worked best between 7:00 – 11:30am after a strong cup of coffee. He would often continue writing until late in the afternoon but always stopped by 6:30pm for a strong vodka martini followed by a large dinner and copious amounts of wine.

I had no such routine. The first half of this book was written in the first half of 2017 in our attic apartment in Amsterdam. I was writing full time and most days my book was all I had to work on. It was such a luxury: living in one of the most beautiful and inspiring cities in the world with little to do other than research, write and edit. Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 08.43.11At this point I want to say thank you to Village Bagels on Vijzelstraat. I have some very happy memories of enjoying many a goats’ cheese, walnut and honey on a sesame bagel, starting out at the canal and mulling over my mornings writing. By contrast, the second half of this book was written whilst I had a full time job and at one point, was doing supply and living with my Mum before we moved back into our flat in London. During this time I wrote wherever I could.
I wrote on trains, at my Mum’s kitchen table, in Wood Green library, in classrooms at lunch time whilst doing supply, at any cafe with a power socket in the N22 area and later, having returned to teaching full time, in Zizzi on Finchley Road before the school Christmas concert. I used any window of time available. Because the truth is nobody has the time to write a book and work full time – you have to carve the time out. It means saying no to invitations and not seeing your friends and family as much as you want. It means blocking out days for writing and stubbornly defending that time. It requires a lot of patience and understanding from your friends and family (thankfully mine are wonderful.)

Nobody thinks they’re a brilliant writer

The next barrier to writing a book is a much harder one to overcome: self doubt. That nagging voice that tells you that you’re not good enough, your writing is crap and that writing a book is a complete waste of time because nobody will want to read it. To defeat that voice you need several things: an excellent editor, a supportive family member or friend, techniques for telling that voice to kindly piss off.

Earlier this year I emailed my editor Hannah telling her I couldn’t write my book any more. I was completely stuck and thought it would be best if we pretended none of this had ever happened and I’d just run away and forget all about it (or words to that effect.) She suggested that instead I met her for a coffee and we talked through what I felt I was stuck on. A few months later I emailed  her asking her what we’d do if nobody like the book enough to write a testimonial for it. Once again she reassured me that wasn’t something I had to worry about and once again she was right.

If you don’t have an editor find a patient friend who would be willing to take that role. When my editor wasn’t available I was fortunate enough to have a husband who not only is an incredibly skilled writer, but understood the subject matter of the book well enough to make useful suggestions. He was able to be the positive voice that drowned out that nagging negative voice. When he read sections that he thought were good he would say so, when he read parts that needed work he would suggest how I could improve them. Without his reassurance, advice and the many, many cups of coffee he made, this book would never have been finished.

Because one thing I have learnt since I started this blog three years ago is that it doesn’t ever go away – that feeling that your work isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter how many people read what you write, how many people share it on Twitter or whether you have a contract from a publisher – there is always that feeling it isn’t good enough.

What next?

Like my friends and family, my blog has been severely neglected since I started writing this book. Now it’s done my plan is to return to blogging regularly about teaching and education and there may even be another book in the pipeline. But for now we return to Amsterdam, where this journey began, for a much needed half term break.

*I’m told carrots are particularly hard vegetables to grow.



From Miss Honey to John Keating: the narrative of the martyr teacher has to come to an end.

A friend and ex. colleague of mine recently asked me for some advice. She is currently working as an Assistant Head in a particularly challenging school: high levels of deprivation, tough behaviour and the sort of data that has you living in fear of “the call.”  She is a fantastic teacher: skilled, hardworking and completely committed to her work. “I know I’m making a difference where it really matters.” She said, “I can see the impact of my work which is fulfilling but I have no life and the stress is wreaking havoc on the other areas of my life and my health. But looking for a job in a less challenging school feels like selling out like I’m letting my pupils down. What do I do?”

My friend didn’t come to me because I am some sort of fount of wisdom, she came to me because she knows I was in the exact same position just two years ago. I was an Assistant Head of a challenging school in East London, regularly working 70 hours a week, which isn’t uncommon. Recent research carried out by the Guardian found that a third of teachers work over 60 hours a week, with over 70% believing it impacts on their mental and physical health.

working hours

Of course my situation was my own fault as much as any one else’s. New to senior leadership, I was committed to leading by example: I wanted anyone in my phase to be able to walk into my classroom at any time and see exemplary practice. My books were always (triple) marked and up-to-date, my displays relevant and my classroom tidy and organised. I met every deadline and said yes to anything and everything I was asked to do. I ran clubs, parent workshops and even holiday revision sessions (never again.) I was responsible for teaching and learning in KS1, leading English, the performance management of five teachers, mentoring an NQT, carrying out a full programme of monitoring every half term, coaching and team teaching with struggling staff and producing written data analysis every six weeks. Oh, and there was also the small matter of being a full time class teacher, desperately trying to get 30 six-year-olds, only 2 of whom had English as a first language, to meet National Expectations.

Why did I do it? The simplest answer is I didn’t want to let anyone down. And I WAS making a difference, which in itself was satisfying. The children in our school had such chaotic and challenging lives and I believed that dedicating my entire life to them was the honourable thing to do. There were children whose only meal between school lunches was the breakfast I brought in for them each day.  They needed me and I genuinely believed I would be letting them down by doing less. Not to mention that there was also the very real threat of academisation hanging over us if our results didn’t improve.  I was convinced that the level of work I was doing was necessary to “save the school.”

Other members of staff would comment on how organised I was, they would ask how I managed to Martyr Complexget everything done and I’d just sort of shrug and say, “I guess I’m just very organised.” When really I just wanted to scream, “ALL I DO IS WORK & SLEEP! I’VE LOST 10lbs THIS MONTH BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE TIME TO EAT! MY IRON LEVELS ARE DANGEROUSLY LOW BUT I DON’T HAVE TIME TO GO TO THE DOCTOR! THAT’S HOW I GET IT ALL DONE!” 

Looking back, that would probably have been more reassuring to my colleagues than pretending I was coping with a completely unreasonable workload. I was setting an example but it was unfair to expect anyone to follow it. But I remained determined to keep all the plates spinning – and I did a pretty good job of doing it and looking like I was coping. I was in full martyr teacher mode and everyone around me praised me for my hard work so I didn’t question it. Even when I called in sick to spend two days sleeping, I just told work it was a stomach bug and returned to my old routine once I was back. Even when I was crying as I drove to work, partly because of the stress and partly down to exhaustion, I didn’t think there was a problem with what I was doing, I just berated myself for not coping better. Reflecting on this now, it is no wonder I was ready to walk away from the profession by the end of the school year.

The problem is that we still celebrate martyr teachers; it’s the most damaging narrative in our profession. You see them in films and read about them literature: from Miss Honey to John Keating. Miss HoneyThey’re the teachers who sacrifice everything for their work. We are surrounded by the message that to be a good teacher, to truly make a difference, you must sacrifice your evenings, your weekends, your holidays, your time with your family and friends along with any hobbies or interests. And all for an average salary of £24,525.

15 months away from education gave me some much needed perspective. When I started toying with the idea of coming back I promised myself I could only do so on the understanding that my job would never be more important than my health or overall quality of life. I still work hard: on average 50-55 hours a week – but I don’t take any work home (apart from report writing.) My weekends are my own and I use my evenings to write, exercise and see friends. It’s not that I’m working less, I’m just working more effectively, learning when enough is enough and saying no more often.

It’s very easy for me to say, “I used to work too much and now I don’t and now life is much better” but it took retreating from the profession for over a year to realise that this was possible and to understand that leaving at 5pm doesn’t make me a bad teacher, or any less committed to my class. Once I’d accepted this, I then had to find the right school to return to. Last September I still had half a book to write so I wasn’t going to be able to give over my weekends to school work, even if I had wanted to. I needed a school with a realistic marking policy (no triple marking), a pragmatic approach to monitoring and a leadership team that would encourage teachers to have a life outside of work. The last one is easy: I think every head teacher would say they want their teachers to have hobbies, interests and time with their friends and family but this can sometimes be at odds with their policies and expectations. If we’re going to get rid of the martyr teacher complex from our schools it has to start with the expectations from the leadership.

I used to wear my 70-hour-week as badge of honour: it was worth it just to see the impact I was having and I would glow with pride whenever comments were made about my commitment and dedication. Now, I take pride in turning up on Monday refreshed and full of stories about my weekend to share with my colleagues and class.

I’m no Miss Honey, but that’s OK.