What does it mean to teach?

When my friend Lia told me to read Some kids I taught and what they taught me, my response was to judge a book by its cover – why would I, who lived the world of teaching each day, read what appeared to be a teaching memoir?

I’m so glad I did, because this book is so much more than a memoir. It is a love letter to teaching. Even more than that, though, it provides impressive insights on several areas of education. Below are just a few of my many favourite parts.

Early in the book, Clanchy identifies the driving need of children to fit in. It is a need that goes far beyond the school gates, and will drive their social mobility and overall chances of improving their own lives: “Not to be left behind, never to be the one dressed differently, acting differently, feathered differently, never, never to be excluded: for children, that is a primary drive. It is connected to the inbuilt Darwinian drive to walk with your tribe, stay with your kind, and it is stronger in a seven-year-old than the fear of death.”

Through the story of one student who leaves school and becomes a teenage mother, Clanchy allows us to see this girl as conforming to her tribe’s expectations, in words which ring familiar and true: “Aged only sixteen, she will join the adults of her family, with an income as good as her sisters’. She will meet all her family expectations as firmly as a surgeon’s son getting his place at medical school; most of us do not want more than that. And if she is conscious, as of course she is, that those expectations are different from those of the society around her, what of it? That will only make her feel more inadequate in the world, only turn her further in on her tribe.”

Clanchy tells us stories of the ways children from disadvantaged backgrounds cope with the boundaries of school – my favourite anecdote was the boy who turned up at the school gates each day with a small uniform infraction (shirt untucked, baseball cap on, no tie…): “‘He never gets any better,’ she says, ‘so we have to conclude that he likes a telling-off.’… He comes from a cruel, chaotic home where most attention comes as abuse. He has chosen this engagement with Miss P. Each morning, she and the uniform tell Connor that he is in a boundaried place now, where people care what he wears, and care if he keeps the rules.”

This book is the most insightful I have come across in unpacking modern poverty, as Clanchy tells the tale of two homes – her own, and that of a council-house dwelling ex-student: “Cheyenne’s boast about Christmas presents is not a tragic fantasy, and she is not lying about her BlackBerry or her Burberry shirt, for this is poverty in the twenty-first century, and it’s complicated… Cheyenne almost certainly does have more consumer goods than my children, in the same way that she has more calories and less nutrition; more cash and less financial security.” In this observation, Clanchy prompts the reader to consider the very real challenge schools face: “How do we, as a school or as a nation, educate Cheyenne, get her to adopt middle-class habits such as reading, homework, and long-term ambition, without alienating her from her family? How do you induce her to go through the difficulties and deferred gratifications of studying when everyone around her would say that did not work for them?”

On school choice, Clanchy is unflinching in recounting her own anxieties as a middle class mother trying to balance the need to do the best for her children with her political and moral compass. Ultimately, she chooses to send her eldest to the nearest school, even though it is one of the worst in the area, commenting nobly: “Maybe I should be thinking of what my son could bring to the school, as well as what he could take, about his patrimony as well as his entitlement.” The pain and anguish in this section was palpable, but Clanchy soon moves on to explain the very many positives her son experienced through this route, which should give comfort to parents everywhere choosing secondary schools.

As an English teacher, I found Clanchy’s insights on teaching English fascinating. Her mode is to teach poetry through writing poetry, something I myself did in school but have not invested significant time in my own teaching. Her arguments are lengthy and her explanations inspiring; rather than hatchet them here, I would simply tell English teachers – read, then action.

Ultimately, this book assured me that, as an English teacher who often finds myself surrounded by those with more scientific and research-minded colleagues, that there is a great power in literature, and, specifically, story-telling to provide insight. Clanchy delivers her message not through statistics, facts and figures, but through human emotions, lived realities, and incisive observations.

Teaching at Ark Soane Academy

As part of the Ark network, Ark Soane Academy will benefit from a wealth of expertise on teaching and learning. Ark provides central professional development that is second to none, as well as facilitating teachers to study for professional qualifications like the NPQML or NPQSL. 

But we all know that professional development of teaching is about so much more than professional qualifications.  

Teaching and learning at Soane will centre on a spirit of continuous improvement. Teachers at Soane will always seek to get better at the most important thing they do: teaching. 

We’ll work in the context of cognitive science: we believe that something is only learned when it is committed to long-term memory. We believe in frequent, low-stakes testing to support learning. We believe in clear teacher-instruction, and teacher-led questioning and discussion. We believe in extended practice focused on the core aspects of the subject. We believe in frequent, subject-specific, feedback; not onerous marking. 

 Excellent teaching will be ensured by two central concepts: impeccable behaviour and coaching.  

Impeccable behaviour will be ensured from day one at Soane, with children inducted into the school’s behaviour policy for one whole week at the start of year 7. A centralised detention system will support teachers to enforce high standards. Plenty of whole-staff training will ensure that teachers are as consistent as possible when applying sanctions, to ensure we can be completely fair to those in our care. Impeccable behaviour means teachers can focus on the most important thing: teaching their subject to children.  

Our coaching model will support and stretch teachers at all stages of their career. We know that one-size-fits-all professional development alone will not deliver world-class teaching. At Soane, all teachers will teach with their doors open; a signal to their fellow professionals to come and look at what’s going on. Teachers will provide feedback on teaching to all members of staff, regardless of the supposed school hierarchies. Every teacher will observe another teacher weekly – a short observation, just 10-15 minutes – and give feedback and an action step to improve teaching.   

We can all always get better at what we’re doing. If the idea of continuously improving, while supported by strong school systems, appeals to you, we’re hiring now. 

Leading at Ark Soane Academy

Starting a school from scratch is the opportunity of a lifetime. You have a blank slate on which to project your every hope of what a child’s education might be. While those limitless choices might seem daunting, we are lucky to be surrounded by a group of highly successful schools with Ark, including a number of successful new-start schools. There are no shortage of smart, experienced educators to guide Soane’s way.

What would you do if you could start a school with only year 7? What would the ideal behaviour policy, curriculum, lesson look like? What systems would need to be in place to make that happen? Which parts of all the best schools you know of would you take with you?

We already have a clear idea of the kind of school Soane will be: a rigorous curriculum delivered by subject experts who plan lessons with the lessons of cognitive science in mind, high expectations of behaviour, and opportunities to build cultural capital through enrichment. The large-scale values are in place.

What is not yet in place is the fine detail.

We are looking for exceptional teachers and leaders to lead at Soane. Every teacher we hire for September 2020 will be a leader: unlike a long-established school, the founding teachers always have a special place in a new start school. Whether they choose to pursue promotion or to stay in the classroom, no other teachers who join us later will have created the founding systems of the school. No one else will have as strong a sense of the school. No one after will have made the school from its foundations up.

If you believe strongly that every child is capable of academic success, that every child has the innate potential to be an upstanding citizen, and that the highest expectations of behaviour allow children the freedom to learn, leading at Soane may be the right place for you.

Over the coming weeks, we are welcoming applications from motivated teachers at all stages in their careers to join the founding team to begin our school. It will be a rigorous process, because there will never be a more important team than those who found our school. You will need to be an excellent classroom practitioner, have a strong understanding of the science of how children learn, have a mind for detail and a wish to create and perfect new systems at all levels of school life. Most importantly, we are looking for people who love their subject and who love children.

Please see the ‘vacancies’ tab on our webpage to explore current opportunities with Soane.

Responsive Teaching

It’s probably not going too far to say that an observation from Harry Fletcher-Wood altered my teaching in the most dramatic way possible. In 2012, he visited my classroom and offered feedback in the gentlest manner possible – with a series of questions: ‘do you think they were focused on the work? Do you think they can handle doing everything in groups? How did you make sure everyone was working? Was anyone opting out from learning? Do you think your weakest readers were also reading in their groups?’ It was through his eyes I saw that teaching everything through group work (as I had been trained and advised to) was not working, and was not going to work.

So it is no surprise to me that Harry can see what is happening in a classroom, see how to make it better, and then kindly suggest how teachers might make that leap. I can imagine no human better placed than he to be an Associate Dean at the Ambition Institute, a body that is working to improve classrooms across the country. I am ever in awe of his humility and constant drive to learn, despite his eminent authority in education, and his most recent book, Responsive Teaching, offers much to the development of our profession. 

The book opens with a typically humble introduction that identifies three main problems in the author’s past teaching practice: ‘assessment seemed to hinder learning, skills seemed more important than knowledge and Assessment for Learning seemed to be just a collection of techniques.’ He moves through addressing these problems, to considering how we can genuinely work out what children have learned and what they are struggling with, and how we can rebalance to ensure children learn both skill and knowledge in their subjects.

Each chapter follows a clear pattern: it outlines the problem, the evidence, the key principle, the practical tools to improve classroom practice, and then the words of individual teachers reflecting on their own practice in each area.

One of the key take-aways from me were the warnings against ‘extraneous cognitive load.’ I definitely need to think harder about paring my lessons down to ensure children are focusing on the crucial aspect, rather than being overloaded by material that is not yet essential for them. I also need to script model examples more frequently – students always need to see lots more of these than I ever think they do. As Fletcher-Wood writes: ‘Overcoming ambiguity by showing what success looks like seems to particularly benefit lower-attaining students.’

One further aspect of practice outlined in Responsive Teaching that I’d like to think more carefully about is student misconceptions. At Ark Elvin Academy where I’m doing my NPQH placement, a subject expert has listed key misconceptions for every lesson the teacher delivers. It’s an incredible resource for novice teachers, or those teaching out of specialism. I think this is a hugely worthwhile task. Perhaps a group of subject experts could club together to write ‘the book of English misconceptions’, for example?

As always, I could go on, and add more detail on what I learned from this book, but to avoid plagiarism I will simply recommend this book whole-heartedly.

Mission Possible

I started teaching in 2010, the same year the documentary Waiting for Superman came out. If you haven’t seen it, you should: it’s a polemic on the American school system, starring the Charter school superstars. You hear from Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, along with Michelle Rhee (ex Chancellor of Washington DC’s schools; proponent of performance pay) and the founders of the influential KIPP Charter Schools. The message of the documentary is that the school system is broken, but there are ways we can fix it.

When I first watched this documentary, I remember feeling that our school system was ‘at least not as bad as America’s.’ But I’ve come to see that working in London schools for eight years blinded me to the challenges of rural communities who cannot choose their school; schools who are dependent on one bus a day to transport children to it (making any kind of detention system extremely challenging to implement); the impact of grammar schools on student self-belief; and the funding of small-town secondaries.

But mostly, I’ve come to think that we probably are failing children, on a system-wide level, in a similar way. We don’t have the annual benchmarks of success, but in the schools where we have run the NGRT (a nationally standardised reading age test), the results have been damning. The amount of children not achieving a basic pass in English and Maths GCSEs at 16 is damning. And the number of children leaving school at 16 is damning. I remember being horrified about the ‘drop-out rate’ of American schools, thinking ‘at least we get everyone to the end.’ But 16 is not the end, so we don’t. In fact, allowing children to leave the school system at 16 (and I know colleges and apprenticeships exist and I know these have their benefits) is deeply troubling to me.

In this post, I’m not going to tackle these monumental system problems. I used to worry a lot about the education system, and what we could do to improve it. Now, I look at what we can do in schools to improve the lot of the children we work with, in spite of those poor systems (something The Teacher Gap has really convinced me of). And what Mission Possible does is to examine what goes on in a successful school, in this case the Success Academies in Harlem, New York.

The defining principle of the authors, shared by many in the charter movement, is that the quality of the school and the quality of the teachers are what make the difference to children’s results. The book opens with the impetus to make schools a ‘magical place’ to be, which I found an interesting word to use. While I wouldn’t prioritise some of what the authors consider important (notably, expensive trips and impressive classroom displays), I would totally agree with their other aim of encoding success for students so they want to come to school every day and succeed (and what is continual success in academics if not ‘magical’?).

The writers make much of the rigour of the curriculum, and the urgency required to ensure children catch up with their wealthier peers. Furthermore, the pages on letting children ‘do the thinking’ I ultimately agree with – not in terms of guessing answers or discovery learning, but certainly ensuring they do the bulk of the work in the lesson. In general we are moving, in so many schools, towards teacher-led lessons (something I wholeheartedly endorse); yet it is crucial this does not result in children sitting passively. It is too easy for children to tune their teachers out. Rather, our teaching must be continually asking students questions to ensure they work hard.

This book has helped to shift my thinking on parents. Of the two extremes on this view – shut parents out at the gates versus give parents autonomy to influence the day-to-day of school – I leaned in the past towards wanting parents to let teachers teach, smiling on from a distance. Yet this book is persuasive in the possibility of parents really transforming their child’s academic success. I’m always amazed by how much parents are willing to do to support their child’s learning if you only ask them.

The book also ranges over rigour, reading and pace, but the chief takeaway for me was on the professional development of teachers. Again, the authors implore us to focus on the adults, and begin by asking school leaders: how often do we fix the children when we should fix the adults? I’m certainly guilty of this: walking into a lesson and using non-verbals to remind the students of their teacher’s expectations, or even just standing there (when you’re senior enough), waiting for the class to behave perfectly and then leaving… Only for the class to immediately start to murmur again.

Instead, at Harlem Success, leaders practise live coaching. Instead of ‘fixing’ the children, the observers whisper to the teacher, or hand them a note (‘Ali is doodling; Tommy is looking out the window’) and then watch how the teacher ‘fixes’ their own classroom. They don’t intervene at all – or, with training teachers, they model the first two ‘fixes’ and then watch how the teacher does it. After the lesson, they feed back on how effective the teacher’s actions were and where they might improve. Doing this would require huge teacher buy-in, but I do think it would be far better for the overall quality of teaching.

The book goes into significantly more detail on teacher development, and I’d recommend reading it for those chapters alone. Although not everything in Mission Possible chimes with my beliefs, there is much to admire here.

Making Kids Cleverer

David Didau’s most recent offering is his most compelling manifesto for closing the advantage gap yet. Making Kids Cleverer eloquently and persuasively asserts the worth of an academic education, and adds much to the current discourse. Brilliantly, Didau has not lost his connection with the classroom: so frequently in books written by non (-practising) teachers I find myself dubiously asking – ‘yes, but what about year 9 period 6 on a windy Friday?’ Not so with Didau.

The book’s power comes from the meticulous logic of its argument, developing from the initial question: ‘given the choice, who wouldn’t want to be cleverer?’ It is the coherence of this argument that propels this to being my favourite education read so far this year.

Although the central thesis of the book might be ‘more knowledge equals more intelligence,’ Didau adds crucial caveats: not all knowledge is equal; not all practice is equally effective.

One of the highlights of the book is the chapter on the purpose of education: schools, of course, can’t do everything. I found the idea that academic education is character education a revelation: we can (can we?) teach generic skills of hard work, perseverance and resilience… Or we can double up and make children learn really hard stuff, and lots of it, from which they will (hopefully) develop those character attributes along the way.

Although I loved the unpicking of what intelligence is along with the relationship between genetic inheritance and our environment, for me the most directly useful chapters were those on school culture. In particular, this book gave me a lot to think about in terms of motivation. Didau writes: ‘if students simply struggle they will learn to hate school.’ While struggle might be the optimal way for children to learn most, the reality of human psychology is that they simply will not choose to learn anything if they feel constantly defeated. Didau’s caution to ‘encode success’ prior to introducing those ‘desirable difficulties’ is something I’m taking into my practice explicitly from now on.

There is so much that is great in this book – from an exploration of the theories of ability grouping (Didau leans toward mixed ability and I find his argument challenges much of what I believe, in a good way) to how to move children beyond ‘just knowing stuff’. I would absolutely recommend this as a must-read for teachers.

Balance

I’ve not been a very balanced person in my life. A few years ago, I wrote a post about how I had approached teaching called ‘At What Cost?’ It was the start, for me, of a new way of thinking about education. I was sinking hours and hours and hours into my job, and although I was seeing benefits for the students, I was starting to wonder if it was possible to maintain.

Unfortunately, I continued to sink hours and hours into work after writing that post. Although I thought seriously about how to simplify teaching, and started writing about making teaching a sustainable profession for the long term, I was not living by those principles. Ironically, when I wrote the most about simplicity, I was putting in some of the longest hours of my teaching career: arriving at 6am, leaving at 7pm, and working weekends and holidays.

It’s true, not all of that time was focused on school work. Some of the ‘work’ I’ve lumped into those above hours and days was spent writing a blog, then writing a book (it is out in May and I am very excited), then writing book chapters or contributing to education groups or speaking at conferences. I was living a deeply unbalanced life.

At the time, one of my closest friends compared their calling to education with those called to other causes in history. Nelson Mandela, they liked to say, sacrificed his life for the cause he so believed in, and all for the greater good.

It is very hard to argue with Nelson Mandela.

And you know, if people want to be that teacher, that is absolutely fine. I started teaching the same year the documentary ‘Waiting for Superman’ came out. I saw teaching as a vocation too, and I saw my own life as merely the conduit for improving the lives of others.

The problem always comes when reality confronts the ideal.

I probably would have continued to sacrifice my life for my calling, had not a confluence of bad news in 2017 – personal and professional – led to me feeling like I had lost everything in my life. With the disruption of my career, I felt like I had lost all meaning.

For a long time I struggled with that meaninglessness and emptiness. I struggled to work out what to say in my blog, so I didn’t, or what to say at conferences, so I didn’t.

And then I got used to a new balance. I got used to getting to work at half 7, and leaving at 4, or 5 at the latest. And never working weekends. And not even checking work email on holidays.

For a while, that made me feel empty too.

The me of five years ago would have filled that emptiness with work. But instead I recognised, at long last, that I needed to fill that emptiness in other ways. Here’s what I did instead.

I read more fiction. I went to the theatre. I met up with friends. I invested in my relationships with people. I got a dog. I wrote for myself, not for other people. I enrolled in a creative writing class. I auditioned for an amateur dramatic society. I called my parents more.

Put bluntly, I got a life outside work.

So I haven’t written a lot on this blog for a very long time, but that’s ok, because I haven’t had much to say that I haven’t said in my forthcoming book (please read it).

I’m starting to find balance, and I’m here to tell you it is a lovely way to live.