Reading ‘Little Soldiers’

I recently read Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu. It is part personal anecdote, supplemented by research, and tells of an American couple (one half of whom is Chinese-American) who moved to Shanghai for work and made the decision to enter their son in the Chinese school system. Chu’s insights on the system, particularly those from her personal perspective, are fascinating.

The book opens with note on Shanghai and its status as dominating the world’s academic league tables. Chu at no point questions the strength of Shanghai’s academics, but she does debate the values of the system. Throughout the book we continually see Chu finding herself at odds with the top-performing Shanghai school, and in parts of the book I couldn’t work out whether I sympathized less with Chu or the school.

Chu cites ‘troubling signs’ in her four-year-old son, including a ‘habit of obeisance,’ giving the example of her son, Rainey, saying ‘I don’t like singing, but if you want me to do it, I’ll do it.’ More troubling to Chu is that Rainey doesn’t like eggs, and she discovers that the teacher has put egg in his mouth, which leaves her feeling affronted at this invasion of her son’s choices. Although the episode did make me feel very uncomfortable, the mother’s interactions with the school also contains an uneasy kernel of truth that the Western way is far from perfect: “‘We motivate them to choose to eat eggs,’” she tells the school. “‘Does it work?’ ‘Well… not always,’ I admitted.” What is clear in this, and all episodes, is the Chinese clarity on values, with a black/white sense of right and wrong. The teacher follows up this conversation saying: ‘Rainey needs to eat eggs. We think eggs are good nutrition, and all young children must eat them.’ Conversation over.

At a number of points, the Chinese teacher advises that narrator ‘refrain from questioning my methods in front of Rainey… it is better that the children think we are in agreement about everything.’ I could not agree more. Although parents questioning a school’s practices can provide vital feedback to school leaders, if this is done in front of the children it can be undermining and give children an ‘out.’ I’m always grateful when parents ask to speak with me one to one after their child has left a parent meeting to share their concerns about how an issue is being dealt with.

Indeed, at times I did feel the narrator came across as slightly disrespectful to the teachers – not only in questioning their choices in front of her son, but also when she narrates her husband complaining as they tear and staple their son’s many worksheets of an evening: ‘Shouldn’t this be the school’s responsibility? Or a teacher’s aide?’ I am grateful that the narrator has been so honest, but I found this a shocking insight that parents would be so unwilling to do this kind of admin for their child, especially so given the massive class sizes in China. This factor would mean this kind of task, if done by a teacher, would take vital hours they could be spending more productively, in terms of planning the children’s learning.

At another point in the book, Chu is concerned that Rainey doesn’t want to stand out, for example on the school’s ‘grandparents day’ when he does not have a grandparent available to fly across the ocean and is advised to stay at home for the day (which does, I think, seem a little insensitive). Chu comes in and stands in the place of the grandparent. Chu’s worries this is due to ‘the Chinese cultural focus on the collective rather than the individual,’ but I think this issue transcends culture: in my experience, all children are sensitive to difference, and those who do not conform are often picked on, in nursery and primary schools often cruelly so.

In places the Chinese methods come across as simply shocking. On the first day of primary school, for example, physically placing children in their seats and shouting at them for breaking rules they have not yet been taught comes across as outrageously inhuman. But it is also easy to understand the Chinese argument that ‘with more than fifty children in a classroom, it’s simply impossible to let children step out of line.’

Again, though, it is shocking from both sides. When Chu and her husband visit the school to air their concerns about their methods, they are told during the meeting that their child is mounting other children like they are a donkey and hitting them. If I’m honest, their response is nowhere near as shocked on hearing this as I expected – surely this is a cause of huge embarrassment to them? (“‘Oh,’ I responded, as flatly as I could. [The teacher] looked at me with surprise, as if she’d expected me to recoil with horror. I was concerned, but frankly, I also wanted to laugh.’) Though I admit my experience of teaching reception children is precisely zero, so perhaps this is normal.

The book is underscored with the parents’ Western prioritisation of individualism and exceptions – yet their child actually adjusts quickly. As Chu says: ‘unlike me, I could see that Rainey had adjusted. He was finding his own way to get things done. He wanted more water, and he’d discovered that faking a cough was the most effective way to accomplish his goal without triggering the teachers’ ire.’ She finds that when they return to the USA for a vacation, everyone who meets them is amazed at how well behaved their son is and how advanced he is. The son’s pride in these interactions gleams off the page.

As with so many of these cross-cultural studies, it all ultimately comes down to what you value in education. The author cites country after country rejecting their low PISA results claiming that the ‘results don’t measure what we value.’ Chu cites the evidence that American children score far lower in Maths than their Shanghai peers, but follows up with the evidence that the American children who do score highly love it. This raises an important question: what is better, doing well, or loving the subject? And aren’t both outcomes possible?

At one point the father worries ‘we’re losing control of his mind,’ and some of the examples of Communist propaganda are shocking to read about, and a chilling reminder of just how easily influenced young children are. (I’m sure many Western readers will remember stories from Communist Russia where children would shop in their own parents to the authorities.)

It is also unequivocally disturbing for this Western reader to hear children being called by numbers and not names.

Indeed, it is clear that the Chinese system is far from perfect, most notably in the chasm of educational achievement between rural and urban areas. There are deep inequalities, with frightening numbers of children falling out of the system altogether.

At the same time, there is lots to learn. Chu quotes the values of Chinese educator Xiaodong Lin: ‘Americans emphasise achievement without hard work. They believe in the concept of genius. This is a problem. The Chinese – they know hard work.’ This includes training children to endure discomfort and persevere anyway: Chinese schools usually lack even the basics like heating, where, in contrast, an American educator is quoted saying his class can’t even sit still for an hour.

As the book goes on, Chu becomes increasingly positive about benefits of the Shanghai system, at least for her son in his high-performing urban school: over halfway through she writes: ‘the Chinese way is to hire good administrators and trust them to do their jobs; parents were to support the system, take responsibility for as much as possible, and keep petty distractions out of the equation. I didn’t disagree.’ In fact, Chu becomes increasingly concerned that her parenting methods conflict with the school and are potentially negating any advantages of the Chinese methods. All in all, this is a compelling read.

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Top reads of 2016

Education reads:

Doug Lemov: Reading Reconsidered

I wrote at length about Lemov’s book – safe to say, it will revolutionise your teaching. Everyone should read this – not just English teachers. Lemov deeply considers the best way to read with classes, but also how to blend fiction and non-fiction for optimal understanding.

Amy Chua: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

I also wrote at length about Chua’s book, which we now all read at Michaela for our staff CPD. Chua’s book is wildly funny, but also exposes a totally different paradigm for thinking about kids and discipline.

Roger Scruton: Culture Counts

My whole way through university, I thought I was stupid. I didn’t ‘get’ post-structuralism, post-colonialism, Foucault or Derrida. It turns out, there is an alternative way of viewing culture. Reading Scruton felt like a warm blanket. For others, this book might feel like more of a scratchy towel in its challenge. Whatever your values, this is a must-read for anyone interested in curriculum.

Michael Puett: The Path

This book is eminently useful for the way it showcases the Eastern paradigm. I stole an example from it in my speech at the Michaela book launch, with the toddler who says ‘thank you’ mindlessly, growing into the adult who can use the word with thought and understanding, to challenge the idea that explicitly teaching children (knowledge or behaviour) does not lead to adults who flail without the structures of a school.

J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy

Vance’s tome details his life and upbringing, and interweaves through this narrative some fascinating statistics. It gives educators pause for thought on what is really needed to ensure poor kids succeed, and triumph against not only poverty, but the ideas and values that keep poor kids poor.

E.D. Hirsch: Why Knowledge Matters

This is the best of Hirsch’s books yet – a lucid and compelling case for knowledge. It is the number one book to read if you’re interested in the knowledge debate, or if you’re still not sure that teaching knowledge is the best way to raise academic standards for all children.

 

Other non-fiction:

Charlotte Gordon: Romantic outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

If you love the Romantics, and you especially love the Romantic ladies, this is a must-read. An eye-opening lens on Shelley’s life and her mother’s influence on it, with the male poets an intriguing sub-plot (for once).

Howard C. Cutler: The Art of Happiness

This was the year I decided to try to calm my mind and quell my anxiety. Spoiler: I have not succeeded (yet). But this was one of the most helpful books in providing a different perspective on happiness, with some genuinely excellent advice to be mindful of in a modern world obsessed with acquisition and status.

Jon Ronson: So You’ve Been Publically Shamed

I read this book in the summer (and if you know anything about Michaela you probably don’t need me to explain why) and found it both hilarious (in its tone and humorous examples) and troubling. Why do we feel like we can hurl insults at people on the internet in a way we never would in real life? Anyone interested in this should also watch the latest series of Black Mirror on Netflix.

Simon Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs

Undeniably the most fascinating royal family in the history of the world, Montefiore’s tome explores the very beginning of their dynasty right through to the bloody and harrowing ending. This historian’s gift is to render those of the past in a convincingly human light, with details and insights from correspondence carefully chosen to humanise the fated monarchs. 

Fiction:

Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Drabble’s central character in this little book defies every expectation of her society. A virgin when everyone around her is experimenting, then rapidly reversing to become an unwed mother who keeps her child against all the advice. The heroine will fill you with hope and admiration at her calm perseverance.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

This book deftly interweaves ideas about race, class, history and geopolitics. The central character’s experience of moving from Nigeria to America and back again, with all the cross-cultural difficulties anyone who has lived overseas can empathise with, is intertwined with a quite beautiful love story. The shifting lens of the story is beautifully crafted, as we follow the heroine, who tells much of her lengthy tale to us at the salon, revealing her hopes, dreams, and fears in the most beautiful prose I read all year.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Light Years

This is the first of a long series of novels that document the lives and loves of a family living just before the Second World War. The cast of characters is large, but through different chapters you slowly begin to sense them knitting together, as they negotiate the start of the greatest upheaval of modern times.

 Elizabeth Von Arnim: The Enchanted April

I bought this book on an absolute whim, loving the idea of four strangers on holiday in a castle in Italy. A wonderful period piece, the whimsical nature of the chief perspective lends a childish delight and joy to all she sees. A life-affirming read. 

Zadie Smith: NW

This is my favourite of Smith’s novels yet. I loved the setting – near my school, I felt this gave an insight on the area I’m starting to get to know – and the relationships between the characters. At the centre is a strange relationship between two schoolgirls who have grown into very different adults, and surrounding them a cast of eternally intriguing others.

Joanne Harris: Different Class

This is a fantastically fun read, with a twist mid-way through that led me to frantically re-reading the first half of the novel to work out how I could have possibly missed it. Set in a traditional private school with a relentlessly modernising Headteacher, this novel also contains pertinent insights on education! 

Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express

Despite my shameless love of murder mysteries, I had never read a single Agatha Christie novel before this year. A summer holiday to Devon changed all that. (Prior to reading ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ my other choice for this slot was ‘Gone Girl,’ which is great by the way.) Christie is the absolute master of this genre. I’m now totally addicted to her novels. 

Anne Bronte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I’ve spent a lot of this year working on (and teaching) nineteenth century fiction, and I’ve come to enjoy it more than I could have possibly anticipated. Anne Bronte is the lesser read of the sisters, and this novel is disconcertingly modern: dealing with a painful, disastrous marriage, and forbidden love, you quickly forget that this is a novel not set in our own time. I would only caution do not read the blurb of the book which will absolutely ruin the plot twist. 

William Boyd: Any Human Heart

The wonderful Liz Cowley gave me this book, and it is now one of my all-time favourites. We follow the central protagonist through his journals, experiencing his life and all its adventures, longings, desires, failures. Deeply moving.

Top reads of 2015

Non-fiction

Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth

This book is a scathing attack on the messages the media sends to women about how they should look and act. It made me really angry, in a good way.

Matthew Syed – Black Box Thinking

Syed explains how we learn from failure, and if we don’t, we are idiots. This is great for getting a new perspective on the ‘gift’ of feedback.

Susan Scott – Fierce Conversations

Sarah Donachy, the smartest person I’ve met this year, told me to read this. It really challenged my tendency to be a bit too cuddly rather than having the difficult conversation that is needed, and I’ve revisited it lots.

Irvin Yalom – Love’s Executioner

Joe Kirby told me to read this when I was feeling a bit stewed up. It’s great for giving perspective, and making you realise your emotions are in your control.

Eric Kalenze – Education is Upside Down

Since Research Ed 2015, I haven’t stopped hearing about this book, and it lived up to the hype. A great exploration of why education is set up to make disadvantaged students fail, and what we can do about it.

Anna Funder – Stasiland

I read this in Berlin, and it really brought to life the reality of living in the German Democratic Republic. The injustices suffered in East Berlin and East Germany in general astonished me.

Daniel Willingham – Raising Kids Who Read

Having listened to Katie Ashford, the guru on reading, for 2 full years, this was the year I finally began to grasp the reality of how children read, and this book really helped.

Daniel Koretz – Measuring Up

Daisy Christodoulou recommended this book at Research Ed in 2014, and it explained excellently the flaws in our current assessment model, and a better way forward.

Doug Lemov – TLAC 2.0

The first ‘Teach Like a Champion’ changed my life, and yet Lemov has improved even on this. The only guide a teacher needs for improving their classroom practice.

Fiction

John Steinbeck – The Red Pony

I read this and wept. A wonderful exploration of growing up, told beautifully in Steinbeck’s ever-complex simplicity.

Somerset Maugham – Of Human Bondage

This novel has stayed with me more than any other I’ve read this year. The horribly flawed characters and their ghastly choices felt so real and so close as I read it.

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Unbelievably, even better than ‘The Secret History.’ An astonishing tome of a novel, feeling epic in its scope.

Ian McEwan – The Children Act

This book has one idea, and it explores it in great depth. A searing look at love and relationships.

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

My last line-manager recommended this book to me. I adored the narrator’s innocence which was gradually eroded throughout, and the ideas of class and community.

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Leadership

Having trained with Teach First, I felt like I had heard enough about “leadership” to last me a lifetime. Prior to moving into a role as Head of Department last September, I thought I knew much on the subject – I could parrot, for example, the line about the difference between leadership and management; I could recite the vignette about the boss seeing where his people were heading so he could lead them.

But there’s a world of difference between knowing the shorthand and actually being an effective leader. Having heard the depressing line: “if you’re telling me to do it, I’ll do it,” I knew I needed help. I resolved to attack the problem the only way I know how: by reading all the books.

Of course, this is not the only way, and a lot of what I learned did not come from books. I’ll write soon about what I feel leadership is, at this uncertain moment of new enlightenment, but for now, here are some of the best leadership reads.

Leverege Leadership

The first book on leadership I read, this was perhaps pitched too far from my world of middle-dom; but nonetheless I gleaned some useful insights here, not least the resounding message that the key is focusing on great teaching. Bambrick-Santoyo lays out the ideal of principal as “instructional leader” and some examples of how this might work in practice. There’s a helpful distillation of data-driven leadership, as well as plenty on culture and vision.

Switch

Here’s the essence of Switch: people know a lot, but are still mostly driven by their emotions. To make people change (or, in my case, specifically change to wanting to follow you) you have to engage their emotions and activate their trust. The book sets out strategies for making people want to follow you, and steps for pushing positive change through.

 

Leadership Plain and Simple

The amazing Jill Berry recommended this book, and it could easily be the only leadership book you have to read. Amazingly straightforward, the book turns on the assumption that leadership means: engaging others in your vision of the future, and the plan you have to get there, and then delivering that plan. It is fuzzy on delivery, but that’s probably because delivery will be massively varied in different scenarios.

Leading in a Culture of Change

Although this book does contain some grating “management newspeak” (such as “simplexity” – definitely not a word), it is written clearly (useful for the midnight reading sessions of a first-year wannabe leader) and is full of awareness of the wrong turnings a potential manager/leader might take, as well as balancing concepts of confidence and humility.

How to be an Amazing Middle Leader

This is one of those “does what it says on the tin” books, and is a great primer for someone new to middle leadership. Occasionally over-specific, it enumerates tasks and activities you might do to hone your vision and create your action plan. Probably one to read the holiday before taking up a post.

Mindset

I am aware this is not a book on leadership, but if there is one thing I know for sure about leadership it is that it is all about your core values. You have to know what drives you as a human, and how that translates to what you are doing in your job. I’ve written before on Mindset but suffice it to repeat: I believe in the uncapped potential of every single child without any exception to succeed, and believe it is my job to create the conditions for success.

Finally, leadership in a school context is perhaps best served by the many wonderful bloggers out there. Stuart Lock is one of the most generous, encouraging and humble senior leaders I have met, and writes plenty that is both heartfelt and sensible on schools. Keven Bartle, a new headteacher, has written copious amounts of genius words on leadership at all levels. We are all waiting for Jill Berry, an ex-head and fantastic speaker, to begin her blog – in the meantime, she says many wise words on Twitter. Finally, Mary Myatt is a school inspector and writes with clarity on all issues Ofsted – always helpful.

Wellington Festival

Having suffered from the genuine man flu all week, I certainly was not looking forward to a 5:40am wake-up call on a Saturday. Yet by the mid-morning I was already regretting not requesting a Friday off to have attended both days of the education extravaganza that is the Wellington Festival of Education. Here’s my round-up of the best Saturday I’ve had in months:

Arrival

Being met at the train station by a courtesy mini-van was a lovely touch, and crammed inside a school van really brought on some nostalgia. Upon entering the hallowed gates of Wellington College, however, it was clear that this was schooling from a different planet: it was like entering some kind of National Trust facility; all manicured lawns and ancient turrets. A few friendly chats as we signed in assured me this would be one of those “share and have the chat” days. The relaxed atmosphere, strengthened by hay bales and plentiful coffee stands, made it feel more like a day off than I had expected.

Session 1: David Starbuck: Growing a love of learning in your school

Mocked mercilessly by my friends for insisting we arrive super-early for this session, I watched as the room filled to standing room only. I had really wanted to attend this session, as I’m a fully paid up member of the Mindset club; however much of the session was explaining what mindset was rather than how to grow it on a whole school level. If nothing else, though, the slick delivery of this engaging session assured me that sessions like this do help to convert teachers, and really – you have to get the teachers first. Starbuck was also good enough to provide some interesting resources from his own school on this topic, which I greatly appreciated.

Session 2: Alex Quigley: Twilight or Middlemarch?

I think this was the session I was most looking forward to. I’ve followed Alex’s blog religiously and been very inspired and influenced by his thoughts, yet never met him. This session was moderately interactive, but mostly Alex shared his new KS3 curriculum and the thinking behind it. Even though I’m sure I’ve seen it on his blog before, there was something about it up on a big screen that made me just think: wow. This is an inspiring curriculum. He explored some of the tensions in creating a curriculum: what makes a piece of literature “great”? How can we practically engage with literature in the limited classroom time we have? How can we foster subject knowledge in our departments? I especially liked such gems as teaching spelling through stories, teaching “She Stoops to Conquer” to year 8 to explore comedy, and the four threshold concept AOs – reading about this hadn’t convinced me, but in person (and again that massive screen) I really got it, and that is the beauty of hearing people talk about their ideas rather than just reading about them.

Lamenting after that I was hugely jealous of Quigley’s curriculum, a friend said: “just steal it.” I sighed. The thing isn’t actually the curriculum itself; it’s the deep knowledge he has of his school, the excellent relationships within a motivated department, and the skill he has in leading people to consensus that has resulted in this curriculum. More than anything, I felt like this was a curriculum made by a team, and you can’t just “steal it” and expect it to work. Alex reminded me I have far still to go in moulding a department.

Session 3: Kris Boulton: How a codified body of knowledge could make teaching a profession

I won’t hide that I really really like Kris as a human being, so my view on this session may well be biased. Beginning with the awesome words: “I’m just a teacher”, he proceeded to wow the room with his confidence and well-thought-out schemes. He began by pointing out that the very fact that there is a debate over whether teaching is a profession undermines it as a profession. The decision to come at the argument from the perspective of a parent of a child was masterful; we must always keep our key stakeholders at the forefront of any thinking we do on our profession. Through his talk, I was brought back to my first fretful year of teaching, not quite knowing what to teach or how – as Joe Kirby mentioned later, you study English at university, but you’re not teaching Foucault; you’re teaching how to read sometimes. A degree is certainly not enough.

One of the highlights of this session for me was the questioner who brought up sharing and developing subject knowledge in department meetings, something I have embarrassingly never even considered doing but will now be pursuing in full force (especially as my department adore English and all read plentifully in their free time – there is a vast well of untapped knowledge there to share!).

Session 4: Geoff Barton: The Habits of Literacy

 Mr Barton is the Headteacher of a wonderful school in my hometown, and is also a bit of a local (and increasingly national) teacher celebrity – I knew I would have to call into his session, if only to tell my Mum (a huge fan of his frequent columns in the Bury Free Press – bastion of local news). Barton began by exploring the word rich/word poor dichotomy, and explaining we needed to “make the implicit explicit” in order to help the latter develop the skills of the former. He also noted “language carries power”, and it is of course our duty as teachers to ensure this power is more fairly spread. He moved on to share some useful strategies: ask questions and give students a chance to “orally rehearse” their answers, explicitly teach students how to make their writing “not boring”, share great examples of great writing and talk about what makes them great, demonstrate the process of writing in all its messiness (I felt for the first time superior and not ashamed of my board-writing: so messy as to be almost-but-not-quite illegible), and naturalise the process of reading.

To say I was inspired is an understatement: at the close of this talk, my close friend both agreed we needed to quit teaching because we’d never, ever be this good. (After lunch we had cheered up and resolved to just try a bit harder.)

Session 5: Joe Kirby and Katie Ashford: Our School System is Unjust

Again here, I am going to flag up a severe case of confirmation bias: I am entirely on board with what Katie and Joe said on this front. This session was beautifully engineered, with Katie and Joe tag-teaming perfectly, and again starting with the children. The premise of this talk is that students from wealthier backgrounds have a double-advantage: they are supported at home to be school ready, and then go to better schools. There were some strong words about the training provided by Teach First, which didn’t surprise me but did interest me – on being asked as a block of audience “do you think Teach First prepared you as well as possible to start teaching?” I was too shy to be the only person putting up my hand, but I definitely should have. Admittedly, I did try to supplement the training by reading a lot of books (as both Katie and Joe did, I’m sure), but part of me feels that the only way to be a great teacher is to do it a few hundred times. Yet Joe’s argument against this might be that children are too important for us to try, fail and reflect – we must get it right the first time around for them. Hard to argue with that.

The conversation segued into some exploration of what texts to teach – Joe mentioned being told to teach Cirque du Freak, and rebelling in year 2 to teach Oliver Twist instead. I empathise with this, as similarly I was uninspired in my first year (I might even have taught Skellig, but I’ve blocked that from living memory) and went on the following year to photocopy the entirety of Animal Farm in a desperate bid to be a better teacher. I’d actually argue it’s easier to teach richer texts – have you tried analyzing the language in the AQA GCSE language paper? There’s nothing there.

Session 6: Gary Wilson: Boys will be brilliant

You might know that I have only ever taught in girls’ schools, so my attendance at this session was part of an effort to up-skill myself in the other. Wilson began by noting that Scandinavia is the only place in the developed world where boys achieve on a par with girls, which is of course shocking. Noting that only a barely believable 4% of the teaching profession is male and under 30 (and the majority of those in secondary schools), Wilson remarked that we cannot wait for male teachers to join en masse and lead by example. Explaining how he had taken a group of “at risk” boys and engaged them in peer mentoring in local primary schools – but cooking, reading and dancing with the primary school boys – Wilson heightened my awareness in the other part of schooling – we’re not only there to get results. We have a greater duty to these children. Much of what Wilson said concerned combating sexism and labeling of “troubled” boys, and made a lot of sense.

Other highlights:

  • Reuniting with an unexpectedly large crew of teachers from my last school, and remembering why I loved working with them so much.
  • Meeting my first Leadership Development Officer (Teach First Mum) again, and her telling me I hadn’t changed (“at all”).
  • The Mr Whippy van at lunchtime.

What I want from an education in English

I write to think. It has always been this way.

It’s coming to the end of what most teachers would say is the longest term; certainly any NQTs and Teach Firsters out there will find this term longer than any other. Students are tired. Staff are tired. Things that would leave you unruffled in September, and even November, now cause undue stress and anxiety. You can’t smooth over disagreements with cheeriness. There is no cheer left.

These are the dark days of teaching, both literally and metaphorically. We wake up in the dark, get into school in the dark, leave school when it is dark, walk down dark roads to dark homes. I have a tendency toward very painful headaches at this point in term, normally on Monday and Friday evenings, so there are several times when I sit in the dark. It’s a gloomy old time.

I’ve found myself this week feeling like I don’t have a vision. I don’t know where I’m going, or why. I am a product of Teach First and Teach for All’s sessions, which have shaped me, and I truly feel that without a vision I am purposeless; anchorless.

You can’t go into school every day just to pick up a paycheck. Teaching is too hard for that, too demanding, too exhausting. I’m finding I seem to know more and more people who are leaving the exhausting and frustrating world of state education for what seem to be Elysian fields of private schools: a curriculum they have control over, a trust concerning their professionalism, shorter school years and higher pay.

I’m writing to think today, and I’m trying to think out this “vision” business.

I can start with my students, because when all else fails they are my bright shiny beacon of hope. I’ll start with the students who miss a lesson and track me down to pick up the work. They brighten my day endlessly.

Because I want my students to be independent. I’ve loved Lucy Crehan’s post on Canadian schools here: our students should be encouraged and led towards this level of independence and motivation. At the moment, there are 35 students in Year 11 who are on a D or below in English. All of them could be on a C. What is missing is not intelligence, but motivation.

And then there are the students, and I usually find this out when I call home or meet parents at parents evening, who “are always talking about English.” They love it. They enjoy it.

I want my students to have joy in reading, and joy in exploring texts. Of course I want them to achieve high levels and high grades, but I definitely don’t want to drag them across the level 4 threshhold or D/C borderline kicking and screaming. I want them to drift there naturally, as the cumulative result of reading and enjoying their learning; wanting to do more and go further.

The students who bring a book to detention, and it is one I have recommended. The students I see reading while queuing outside their next lesson. Even the students who I catch reading when they should be doing their task.

If my students don’t love reading when they leave me, I will have failed. And I’ll admit that every year I fail many, many, all too many, students in this respect. It is something I need to work harder and smarter at, because too many students leave secondary school and never pick up a novel again.

What does that mean?

  • Students who are self-motivated and want to succeed.
  • A love of learning.
  • Education not as a means to an end, but a joyous end in itself.

There is another aspect of this vision business, which I alluded to earlier. It is contentious among my friends and colleagues. All children, they contend, deserve an amazing education. I have to agree.

But I also have to work with students who might not have the advantages that others grow up with. Because it is a cruel and unusual thing that students will go further the better off their parents are. It is undeniably wrong that the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots is refusing to close. I adored Stuart Lock’s post about why he wants to be a head; I would echo all his sentiments, which are too eloquently put to summarise here.

Education needs to become the equalizer. For all the talk about what a teacher is not, and the reasonable expectations of a human doing a job and having some kind of life, I accept that there are times when teachers have to play the social worker, the state, the parent even. We have to pick up the responsibility, even if it is not our responsibility, because it is the right thing to do.

There are children who will leave school without qualifications, who have despised their education, who will never fulfill their potential. And I will work every day to make sure that that doesn’t happen for one less child.

It’s definitely not a vision yet, what I have written above. I write to think, and I am grateful you have read.

Behaviour

I was in a workshop during my teacher training where we were role playing behaviour management with our peers. (Doesn’t that sound horrific? Since my first year of university when I unexpectedly contracted “the fear” and walked out of a read-through I’ve had a problem with anything acting-related. This workshop was therefore more nightmarish that you can even imagine.) Yet having observed a thousand teachers and read a million books, you would think I could handle this. Hardly. I clammed up; I was speechless. I had no comeback at all for my partner.

I remember that evening, in despair, calling my “leadership development officer” (basically our mum for 6 weeks), in tears, telling her I didn’t think I could do it. Amy was amazing. After giving me the phone equivalent of a massive hug, she told me something along the lines of “you will. When there is a child in front of you, you just will.” “What if I cry?” I asked. “You just won’t.”

I was, and still am, a crier, so I’m not sure I believed her, but I stuck with Teach First. And she was right. I have never ever cried from managing a tricky child, or a tricky class. Not even nearly. More than this triumph, I never clammed up. I always had something to say.

Obviously, it wasn’t always the right thing to say, but you live and learn.

Now, no book on behaviour management will fully prepare you to teach. Even after several years of teaching students will do and say things you can’t even imagine. Some of my personal favourites are so inappropriate I simply can’t write them here. I think reading these books during your first placement, or first term of teaching, is actually more helpful than reading them pre-term time.

So, onto some of my favourite books on behaviour management.

Classroom Behaviour by Bill Rogers

This was definitely the most useful book for me prior to teaching. It is replete with phrases you can practise saying, and above all in the early days you need some stock phrases to fall back on. Rogers espouses a gently gently approach, always aiming to avoid confrontation and focus on the positive. There are some real gems here; rather than “take off that fluorescent orange balaclava” saying “what’s the school rule about scarves?”; adding a “thanks” to the end of an instruction rather than a “please” (I have never done this, because I am a stubbornly traditional user of English sentence structure, but I hear it works well) and advice on when, who and how to tactically ignore.

Assertive Discipline by Lee Canter

This is an example of a book I read and all but dismissed during training and only came to appreciate when I entered the classroom.

“Assertive Discipline” is an ideal solution for the problem of praise: feel like a bit of an idiot praising the one person with their book and pen out? Canter instead advocates “behaviour narration” rather than judgement. Rather than a “well done for doing the absolute minimum I expect of you” you narrate it: “Chanelle has her pen out and is ready to start learning”. This then draws attention to the positive behaviour and nudges others towards following it. To non-teachers this might sound crazy, but it works supremely well, at least in my experience. (There are other tips, but this one is my favourite.)

Why are you shouting at us? by Phil Beadle and John Murray

I began teaching in the halcyon days of Teachers’ TV, and was a bit of a fan girl for Phil Beadle, one of their vanguards. His charisma and creativity was everything I wasn’t, and I loved reading his book “How to Teach” (though his insistence on the efficacy of marking as a sure-fire way to change achievement even when your classroom is a bit chaotic led to me neglecting planning in favour of an unimaginable amount of written feedback, with disastrous consequences. By my second year I marked less and planned more and found it worked. This is almost certainly my error of interpretation, not his writing.)

I know not all teachers are Beadle fans, but I think he is great. Driven by a strong moral purpose and with all the skills you would expect of an AST, this co-written book is a superb round up of effective behaviour management. At 130 small pages the text is lighthearted enough to be read speedily and joyously. It is also fairly honest about what kids can do and how you can combat it.

Less useful are the charisma based methods – I’m not sure I have ever managed to calm a truly angry child with a joke, though I wholly endorse the anti-shouting pages (quiet seething is far better for your health, if less immediately effective).

Reluctant Disciplinarian by Gary Rubinstein

Rubinstein was trained by Teach for America, and this book is the better for the honesty with which he reveals his classroom mistakes; an honesty which comes partly from his subsequent successes in the classroom. I related to this book as Rubinstein, like me, is a self-confessed “softy”.

Acknowledging that behaviour management can never be adequately taught (not least, I would argue, through role play), this book takes you to the possible pitfalls of your initial months in the classroom and shows you the light at the end of that tunnel.

There are some traditional methods explored here in a clear way, for example meaning what you say – something I found surprisingly hard in my initial term of teaching. This is possibly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, or if what I was doing was right; therefore I really didn’t mean what I said all that often. I will always remember a fellow teacher telling me that it was during her bout of laryngitis that she had become a better teacher; she had so little voice that she needed to mean everything she said.
Of course, the best “behaviour management” comes from familiarity: you with the kids, and the kids with you. It can’t happen straight away or overnight; merely sticking it out, turning up and following through with every consequence you say (at first even if you immediately regret it; only later with a conversation and apology if you were wrong) will work. It will work. It will.

Eventually.