No, you don’t need a fidget spinner break

fidget spinner

Having not worked in a school since July 2016, I missed the start of fidget spinners craze but, after entering the world of supply teaching, I’m pretty much caught up. Fidget spinners are toys that have been cleverly marketed as having stress-relieving benefits. I don’t know whether that’s true or not – it appears that the evidence is inconclusive.  What I do know is that any stress-relieving benefits are negated by the amount of stress fidget spinners cause for the other pupils and teachers trying to work.

There seems to be three different attitudes to fidget spinners in schools. Most schools have taken the sensible approach and have banned them outright. (I feel as though I should be wearing a hairnet and shaking my stick at children running down the street as I write this.) Some schools have tried to embrace the trend and actually give children fidget spinner breaks halfway through lessons. Others have tried to incorporate them into the curriculum and planned maths and DT schemes of work around this new fad.

And some schools have banned spinners only to have replaced them with equally disruptive equivalents. “Feel free to confiscate any fidget spinners if you see them – they’re not supposed to have them in school,” one teacher said, as she showed me to the classroom. She then added, “We’ve given them fidget cubes and stress balls so they shouldn’t need the spinners.” The stress balls ended up being chucked around the classroom or rolled down the side of the hall in assembly and one of the fidget cubes was pelted into the face of an unsuspecting child, which I doubt did much to relieve his stress.

But it doesn’t stop there. Other behaviour management strategies I’ve seen include: Tangle fidget toys, Pause and Walk and Brain Breaks: for every X minutes of work a pupil completes they get a twenty minute break to go and play football, play on the computer etc… I only learnt about this one because a child said to me, “Miss – you forgot that me, Joe and Grace have Brain Breaks. We didn’t have them this morning and we’re meant to have them every twenty minutes.” My response was, “No – you forgot your Brain Breaks this morning which might mean you don’t actually need to take them – look how much work you all did instead!” Whatever the strategy, the message to those children is the same, “Don’t worry you’re not expected to behave the same way as everybody else. If you’re finding the lesson difficult or boring you can just play with this instead.”

Vising so many different schools and witnessing these strategies has left me with this nagging question: when did it become unacceptable to expect children to work for an hour? Most children don’t need a fidget spinner to get through a maths lesson. They need to sit down, listen, think and have a go. It won’t always be easy or fun because learning isn’t always easy and fun but we’re not doing these children any favours by lowering our expectations of them.

I believe we should do our best to engage our pupils and make learning accessible but I don’t believe that pupils have a right to never find something difficult or boring. Learning new things IS difficult and sometimes it is boring: it involves endless practice and repetition and, just when you think you’ve mastered it, there’ll be something new you have to learn. But if the lesson is well planned, if the task has been modelled and scaffolded and there are a number of additional resources available to support the children who need it then there’s no reason why 95% of children can’t get through a lesson without a break.

There has been some research into whether these sorts of toys help children with ASD and ADHD and if that’s the case then fantastic – I’m not suggesting for a second we take away a useful tool for helping those pupils but in the last few weeks I’ve taught classes where EVERY child has a fidget toy. It’s all got a bit emperors’ new clothes. Someone appears to have gone round and said to schools, “I can fix your pupils’ poor behaviour and lack of concentration, all you need is to buy this shiny, gadget.” I can’t blame schools for wanting to give it a go because ultimately all of this is  symptomatic of a much wider problem: behaviour is getting worse and schools are struggling to manage it. 

Behaviour management shouldn’t just rely on individual teachers. This happens a lot in primary schools – behaviour management seems to centre on the teacher’s relationship with their class. And yes, it is worth knowing that Jonathan responds better to humour and the Amy is bolshy until she trusts you and after that she’ll do anything for you.  And it helps to know when your class are producing their best work and when they’re trying to get away with handing in any old crap. This is fine when a class just has one class teacher but ultimately children need to learn to behave for any adult that teaches them which is a why behaviour management should be a whole school concern: centralised sanctions and rewards and a simple, whole school behaviour management policy. Teachers are being left to make it up as they go along which is how we’ve got to brain breaks and individual behaviour plans for over half the class.

Maybe I’m wrong and turning 30 has turned me prematurely into a grumpy old woman with no sense of fun. But we do pupils no favours by making endless excuses for them and offering them alternatives to participating in lessons.

Universal Free School Meals Could Make Schools Poorer

8613046833_a89fd6e80c_b

Whilst it’s nice to see a Labour Party policy dominating the news agenda for once, I can’t help but feel disheartened by their universal free school meals policy. The plan is simple: charge the parents of children who attend private schools a tax of 20% on their fees and use the money to provide a free school lunch to every child in a state-maintained primary school.

What initially sounds like a progressive idea, taking from the wealthiest to give to the neediest, quickly crumbles under scrutiny. It’s more take from the wealthiest to give to the slightly-less-wealthy. The threshold below which a family is eligible for Free School Meals is currently a household income of £16,190 – I would argue that should be raised. Means-assessed benefits are never perfect and need to be refined and developed to ensure people who need support don’t slip through the net. We need to make sure that all children who need free school meals get them but universal free school meals is a clumsy solution and has unexpected costs to many schools, especially when they have had to expand their kitchens. This is fine but they have had no additional money to pay for it.

On one level this is a debate about universalism and means-assessed benefits. One of the arguments for universalism is that it removes the stigma from benefits and helps to build public consent for the welfare state. Having taught dozens of Free School Meals children one thing that was clear was that they didn’t know they were receiving free school meals. They just knew they were “school dinners” as were many of their peers. I can’t comment on whether there is more of a stigma at Secondary school but this policy wouldn’t affect them anyway.

One aspect of this policy that I haven’t heard being discussed is the impact it could have on Pupil Premium funding. Introducing universal free school meals would inevitably result in parents no longer applying for them – because, why would you? The Pupil premium is worth around £1,300 per child every year and is allocated on the basis of the number of children claiming free school meals (or who have claimed them at any time in the last six years.) Combined with the fact that schools face a real terms cut in budgets of 8% on average by 2019-20 the implications of losing pupil premium funding could be severe and it would be schools in the most deprived areas of country who would be hit the hardest. We saw this happen in 2014 when free school meals were introduced for all KS1 pupils. The number of parents registering for FSM dropped by as much as 50% in some schools and leaves schools having to chase up low income families and ask them to register for the extra funding: this is can be a very costly bureaucratic process.

So what could Labour have announced instead? One idea is funding free breakfast clubs for Pupil Premium pupils – as they do in Wales. Research has found that attending a breakfast club improves concentration and raises attainment.  Over the last few years I’ve provided breakfast for over a dozen children on a daily basis. I provided cereal bars, loaves of bread and cartons of juice as I knew that there were children in my class who hadn’t had a proper meal since their school lunch the previous day. The average breakfast club costs just £4,000 a year to run which makes it a more affordable policy than universal free school meals and would benefit those who needed it the most.

I think what it comes down to is that this policy is just a bit lazy. It doesn’t solve any of the problems schools are facing today and suggests that Labour aren’t tuned in to the current debate and aren’t interested in addressing the very real issues school are facing: a teacher recruitment crisis, savage budget cuts, an assessment system that simply doesn’t work and an alarming “feeling in the air” about what’s happening to pupil behaviour as hard times continue to bite for many families. I wonder how many school leaders and teachers they ran this policy past before announcing it? I wonder how many ideas from professionals they really listened to first?

A radical, modern Labour Party would address those issues rather than fall back on a favourite policy that was first implemented over 100 years ago. What was true in the imagined post-war golden age of Big State Britain is still true now: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

 

The Grey Area

grey

Over the last 18 months, politics has become more emotive, polarised and tribal than ever before. If you’re to believe social media, it would be easy to think the whole world divides neatly into two categories: you’re either a racist Brexiteer or a liberal Remoaner, a Corbynista or a Blairite, a Globalist or a Nationalist. The days of moderate, reasoned debate with people with opposing views are long gone. This is highlighted by a piece of research that found that 51% of voters who voted in the referendum felt disgust towards those who voted differently to them. It has stopped being about convincing others of your opinion and instead it’s about insisting that our “side” is right.

And it’s not just in politics. Increasingly debate about education is presented as binary choices: you’re either a traditionalist or a progressive, you can believe that the curriculum should be knowledge heavy or skill heavy, you believe learning should be teacher centred or child centred. Those debates aren’t new but recently we’ve gone further as we try and present how these two apparently opposing philosophies work in practice. There are no excuses, no PowerPoints, no worksheets, no textbooks, no teacher talk and, in some cases, no talking at all. Silence is either golden or oppressive, your desks are either in rows or grouped like a science lab, children should only be studying the classics or staring gormlessly at “Where’s Wally?” books. For someone who worked for seven years in the grey area, it’s maddening.

I’ve worked in schools that expected their teachers to have PowerPoint slides up for EVERY lesson. So you’d see teachers painstakingly creating slides to shoehorn into the lesson just so that box was ticked. More often than not these slides were a waste of the teachers’ valuable time and added nothing to the lesson. But that’s not to say I’d never use a  PowerPoint or that it can’t be a useful resource.

I’ve also worked in schools where teachers are always expected to be working with a guided group. Sometimes this worked brilliantly and provided an opportunity to work intensively with a small number of pupils. However there are plenty of examples that I can think of when the most useful place I could have been was at the front of the class. It wasn’t the guided groups that were the problem it was the fact that we had to ALWAYS be with  group that lead to it feeling restrictive.

I’ve also worked in schools who banned worksheets and others who expected them for every lesson.  These schools all believed they were doing the right thing for the children. They could provide you with justifications and probably at least one piece of research to support their ideas. But ultimately when you insist a teacher always or never adopts a certain method or practice then you are ignoring the fact there is always an exception (and there IS always an exception.) It ignores the grey area.

My first ever head teacher once told me he believed that a school should be like a laboratory. Every teacher would work away in their classroom with their class on different projects and trying new things and every once in a while a member of staff would stick their head out of the door and shout, “I’ve got something great – come and have a look.” We were free to teach how we wanted and it brought the best out of the staff. That school was, and remains to this day, outstanding by any measure.

For me, it’s the grey area where the learning happens. The teacher who one day imparts knowledge from the front of the class to children sat in rows but later that week pushes the tables together for group work. The teacher who knows that worksheets and PowerPoints are neither a silver bullet nor the root of all evil and uses them as and when they judge to be beneficial. It’s the teacher who has high expectations and understands that, “my dog ate my homework” is not an acceptable excuse but that doesn’t mean that there are no excuses. It’s the teacher who knows that silence is sometimes essential but a noisy, bustling classroom can be equally effective.

The problem with teaching in the grey area is that it’s complicated and messy. It’s a skill one hones over time which means sometimes getting it wrong but I believe, ultimately it creates a more skilled teacher than one who has never been encouraged to take risks, or explore the possibilities. It takes a strong school leader to leave their teachers to teach how they see fit. My favourite head teachers to work for have always been the ones who have said, “as long as I see evidence that what you’re doing works – you’ll be left alone.” But it takes a bold and brave leader to do that because it means they won’t always know exactly what is happening in every classroom.

As with so many things in our society at once, the debate about education is becoming a needlessly polarised debate between two arbitrary and absolute camps. Learning means coming to terms with complexity and understanding that what holds in one situation doesn’t necessarily hold in another. Beware the absolutists on both sides- freeing people from that sort of rigid thinking is one reason we have an education system in the first place.

What Should Children Be Reading?

childrens-books-1246675_1920

I don’t remember learning to read. I consider it a huge privilege that I only have memories of being a reader. I think it’s because I was quite nosy and once I’d mastered talking (which those that know me won’t be surprised to find out was at a very young age) I didn’t want to be locked out from this world the adults could access for a second longer than necessary. Walking came late, reading came early and that is reflected in how my spend my leisure time as an adult. I was surrounded by books growing up; they lined the walls of every room in our house. Whole worlds, carefully hidden between battered, worn covers just waiting to be explored. Reading introduced me to new ideas, people and places, some real and some fictitious, it enriched my life and fuelled my imagination. So it’s with interest that I read Katie Ashford’s article about what children should be reading. This is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. And, as part of that thought process, I have decided to reflect on my own “reading journey” and the teachers who guided me through it.

By the time I got to school, I would proudly announce that I could read “by myself” to anyone who would listen (I was probably quite annoying as a child.) My Reception teacher, Mrs Woodhams, gave me books from her own collection to take home once I’d worked my way through the class library. At home we’d read the Ahlbergs, Shirley Hughes, Jill Murphy,  oh and a book called “Bad Mood Bear” before bed. I read whatever I could get my hands on but there are a few books that stand out in my memories of my school years.

I think I’m right in saying that the “Puddle Lane” books were the 80s equivalent of “The Magic Key” series. I have a distinct memory of bringing them home and reading them to my brother. Lucky him. I remember being thrilled to be given the chance to read, “The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark” aloud to the class in Year 1. In Year 3 I became obsessed with the “Flossy Teacake” books – I must look those up again – they were brilliant. Bel Mooney’s “Kitty” books were another favourite, oh and not forgetting Jill Murphy’s “Worst Witch.” There was a series of books by Nigel Hinton that I loved called, “Beaver Towers” it was about a boy called Philip and his adventures with a family of beavers. Whenever I ran out of books – I’d scour my Mum’s bookshelves for anything I thought looked interesting – which is why by the time I’d left Primary School I’d read more Libby Purves than most 11-year-olds. Nothing was off limits. There were no “good books” or “bad books” there weren’t even “hard” or “easy” books there were just books to be enjoyed every day.

In Year 5 I read my first classic. As a class we read the “The Hobbit.” There was no film to rely on in 1995 and, even if there had been, we only had one twenty minute session in the TV room a week, it would have taken nearly a term to get through it. Instead we were skillfully guided through Tolkien’s Middle-Earth by Miss Fry. She would read it to us every day and photocopy chapters for us to read at home. We drew maps of Middle-Earth and even created a “life size” Smaug out of chicken wire and paper mâché. (Which I’ve since found out was rolled out to greet Ofsted when they turned up. It is my belief that all schools should have an Ofsted dragon.) This sculpture was so enormous that we had to move it out into the playground so we could all work on it. As well as grappling with Tolkien we were also treated to a poems by Michael Rosen and Spike Milligan. Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Tennyson were introduced to me in Year 6 and I loved them but after school I’d have my nose in the latest Babysitter’s Club or “Animal Ark” book.

Secondary school was where I was introduced to the big guns: Orwell, Hardy, Dickens, Austen and Keats. Some I loved and some I found insufferably dull. For GCSE I read, “The Handmaid’s Tale” the book that started my love affair with Margaret Atwood. 6 years later I wrote a dissertation about it.  Conversely, for  A-Level I had to read Thomas Hardy’s, “The Return of the Native” and I could not get to grips with it. My form tutor at the time, who was an English teacher herself, listened to me moaning about how complicated the plot was and how difficult I found it to keep up with what was going on. Her response was perfect and has always stayed with me: “Oh Zoe, come on now, the plot is no more complicated than the plot of ‘The OC.'” (‘The OC’ was a programme full of teen drama that I watched avidly at the age of 17.)

From then on she would ask me every day how much more I’d read until I finally got to the end. I am forever grateful to her for doing this. It got me the grades I needed to study English Literature at university and proved to me that I was capable of sticking with a book (a skill I had to draw on often when studying Anglo-Saxon literature in later years.) However, it was also the first time I’d ever had to really force myself to finish a book I wasn’t enjoying and it put me off reading Hardy for years (“Tess of the d’Urbervilles” changed my mind.)

I think we need a two-pronged approach when it comes to introducing children to books. The first thing we need to do is completely surround them with books without preference or prejudice. Picture books, graphic novels, classics, nonsense poems, everything from Jeff Kinney to C.S Lewis.  I disagree that “hooking” children in to reading with books based on their interests won’t lead to a life long love of literature. My brother grew up on a literary diet of football magazines, Liverpool FC annuals and the occasional “Goosebumps” book until the age of 14 and now reads widely and regularly. Let children read whatever they want at home, show that you’re interested in what they’re reading and encourage them to bring in their favourite books and share them with the class. Recommend other texts they might enjoy and please never tell a child, “you’re a bit too old to be reading that.”

This is not to say that children should leave school without any experience of the classics – they absolutely should. But it can be a two-pronged approach. Whilst the works of Shakespeare, Tolkien and Dickens should not be the preserve of the most able pupils, neither should they replace “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” It is our responsibility to guide pupils through these more challenging texts and make them accessible. I’ve taught “The Tempest” to 6-year-olds. It was the year of the 2012 Olympics and the class had seen Kenneth Brannagh read Caliban’s speech in the opening ceremony. Given that they were already interested in the speech, I decided to run with it and introduce them to the play. I taught from both an abridged children’s version and the original. As Shakespeare plays go, “The Tempest” is a good one to start with as it’s full of magic, a wizard, a storm and a monster. I know people will pipe up with, “But if you feel that you have to “sell” Shakespeare to children you are suggesting it isn’t interesting or worthwhile.” I’m not. I’m suggesting that if you want six-year-olds to read Early Modern English don’t expect them to be immediately interested. That’s not a new, radical idea – the first children’s Bible was published in 1759 in an attempt to make it more accessible to children.

By the end of that term, the entire class knew Caliban’s speech by heart and we took turns performing it from the top of the playground equipment. Gimmicky? Perhaps. Sugar coating? Possibly. But there are 30 children who are no longer intimidated when they read Shakespeare. That particular class also know Michael Rosen’s “Chocolate Cake”  by heart because we read it so many times and they in turn introduced me to the delights of “Mr Gum.”

I hate this notion that some books are too “easy.” Learning to read isn’t easy and it isn’t always interesting and I don’t believe that it’s selling children the assumption reading is dull by finding them books they’re interested in. The books you first read for yourself and actually enjoy are so special they stay with you for the rest of your life. A book that sparks interest and inspires a child to pick up another is like a magic key (not that one) that unlocks the world of reading.

All that said, I am the teacher that hid the “Where’s Wally?” books from my Year 5 class…

 

 

Do I Miss Teaching?

teacher

Next week it will be six months since I taught my last lesson. That sounds a bit like an AA introduction doesn’t it?

“Hi my name is Zoe.” 

“Hi Zoe!”

“It has been six months since my last lesson.”

And then you all clap. I think. I’ve never been to AA but I’ve seen films.

Last year my resignation letter caused far more drama than I’d anticipated. I wrote it on a Saturday night whilst babysitting my nephew (he was only 18 months old at the time and asleep – I wasn’t just ignoring him for the whole evening.) It had been in my drafts since I’d told my head teacher I was leaving in the January (much to the disappointment of one breakfast TV show that rang to ask if I’d like to resign live on air – no I bloody don’t.) I posted it at about midnight and went to bed. The following morning I woke up to nine missed calls, a flurry emails and an invitation to go on BBC Breakfast the next day. By the time I got hold of my Head of school he told me he’d already read the post because a member of his family had shared it on Facebook. The week that followed was surreal and hugely overwhelming: from press turning up on my Mum’s doorstep,  to supportive phone calls from the wonderful Kevin Courtney and Martin Ellis-Hall.

Anyway. Now I’ve left. I didn’t have much time to process that over the summer as we were finishing the preparations for our wedding. Then we took 10 weeks to channel our inner-Palin and circumnavigate the globe and now we’re now settled into our new life in Amsterdam pursuing careers in writing.

amsterdam

An entire term has passed by without me entering a school. Do I miss it? Yes. I miss the teaching. Those sacred hours between 9am and 3pm when it was just me with my class hammering out how to multiply fractions, reading endlessly and learning about the world. I miss seeing children succeed and make progress, not always in neat, measurable steps, but progress nonetheless. I miss finding new ways to challenge my pupils, researching new ideas and trying them out. I miss laughing with (ok sometimes at) my class every single day.

monsters
I miss these monsters.
I miss the colleagues: teachers are some of the smartest, funniest and most interesting people I’ve ever met and our colleagues from the six schools we’ve worked in made up over 70% of our wedding guests and remain our dear friends. I miss the sense of community and camaraderie that comes from working in a school.

I don’t miss how much of my life I had to sacrifice to do the job well. I don’t miss: leaving the house before 7am, working until 7pm, working some more at weekends, inputting data, analysing data, feeling guilty about the data. Worrying about the results, worrying about forced academisation and worrying about Ofsted. I don’t miss the fear. The fear that’s felt by both my head teacher friends and my NQT friends.  Fear of being caught out, or of failing – because there is no time to fail any more. A head teacher cannot have a bad set of results and an NQT cannot have a bad lesson observation without questions being asked. I appreciate this isn’t true of every school. I was part of a new SLT who were hired to help improve an “RI school”  – which let’s face it was never going to be a straightforward job but it isn’t just RI schools feeling the fear. I don’t miss the frustration at having to tell parents of able writers that, because their child hadn’t used what the DfE call exclamation sentences, they were not meeting national expectations. Actually whilst we’re on it – I don’t miss the DfE at all.

I now have two things I never have as a teacher: time and energy. I exercise every day. There are some incredible people that can do that as well as work a 60 hour week but I was never one of them. I have time to speak to my husband – as in properly speak to him for hours. He’s one of my favourite people in the whole world but when we were both senior leaders we’d stagger through the weeks barely acknowledging one another, sleep and drink through the weekends and repeat. Now we have time to visit new places, go and see exhibitions, I even stay awake when we go to the cinema. I’m not too tired to answer the phone. The number of phone calls I didn’t answer simply because I couldn’t face talking. Not talking to that person just talking in general. I really noticed it this Christmas. In the past the Christmas holidays were a lighthouse in a rough sea that called to me throughout that long autumn term. It was a time to recover and recharge. This year I relaxed and took three days off from responding to emails etc… and I actually had enough energy to get out and see people. I was present for entire conversations and not thinking about work.

We have one life and I am determined not to spend mine working 60 hours a week for 40 years. I just can’t. Not because I’m afraid of hard work – I got my first job at 14, held down two jobs whilst studying at University, helped set up a business in my year out and then went into teaching. I am happy to work hard but I will no longer sacrifice my relationships with my friends and family, my health and my wellbeing for my career – no matter how worthy or noble the profession. Life is too short to only work.

I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this thinking, “What a load of crap – teaching doesn’t have to be like that and it isn’t at my school.” And that’s great. But it was very much my experience. The hours and energy it required were just not sustainable long term.

But I do miss it. And if the time or school came along where I could do the job well on a 40-45 hour week and if we ever get past this high-stakes testing and schools being judged on their ability to jump over an ever-raising bar then yeah, I’d be back.