All change: new KS4 specifications

English subject leaders around the country have undoubtedly been on the same emotional journey as me regarding the introduction of new specifications for KS4 and 5 simultaneously (not to mention the recent KS3 changes and removal of KS3 levels). For a time, I complained it was too much. How could we possibly be expected to take on such an inordinate amount of wheel reinvention? Not to mention the purchasing of new texts from already overstretched budgets.

Then, in a moment of calm over Christmas, I turned off all technology, sat with the specification, and planned. I looked at the assessment, the time, the units, the assessment objectives. And after a while it ceased to be scary.

I’d made my peace with Literature before Christmas. Having chosen to go with AQA (albeit with reluctance), I wanted to stick with as much of the same content as I could. We currently teach both Macbeth and An Inspector Calls, and though neither would be my first choice of text, I’d rather send English teachers into classrooms armed with at least some prior experience of teaching at least some of the texts.

For the nineteenth century novel, I won’t lie: my first impulse was to go for the shortest available. We teach Jekyll and Hyde in year 9, so it would have to be The Sign of the Four (a short story that begins with the injection of illegal drugs? Sounds eminently teachable to me). We want to teach every child the same curriculum in English, and if the exam is closed text, surely the shorter the text, the more manageable?

Luckily, I was dissuaded of my instinct to game by two people: my glorious line manager (deputy headteacher; fountain of wisdom, knowledge and general calmness) and my superstar NQT (so good at what she does already, I am improving my own practice with every observation). Both looked at the text choices afresh, having not been in the room when I was descanting on the virtues of a short, easy novella. Both said “Jane Eyre.

Of course. We teach in a girls’ school, for one thing, and what female (human?) has not felt left out, isolated, unfairly treated? And, of all the texts on the list, which would I most want the children leaving us to have read? It had to be Jane Eyre. Plus, we have time – despite the weight of many exams, the course content is comfortingly manageable. Four texts in two years is no great feat.

That settled, my new worry was the Language specification. Teaching fiction would be straightforward – I stuck the word “seminal” in front of the unit title, and thought we would pretty much teach any “great” literature, thus exposing students to excerpts from the best that has been thought and/or said. The non-fiction reading/transactional writing had the greatest potential to devolve into the current, mostly meaningless skill-drilling of the current AQA language paper (my least favourite exam ever).

Instead of teaching skills, therefore, I thought about what else I most wanted our girls to leave us with. I want them to be confident young women, who are armed with knowledge of the inequalities of our world that might face them, and angered enough to challenge these. I wanted them to be inspired by female role models, and seek to achieve more as a result. I wanted them to understand the journey that women as a sex have been on, and how far we have come. It was thus that the idea of “Women Through the Ages” came about: a scheme of work that would explore female journalism and feminist polemics in the context of works such as Everyday Sexism. The unit is under construction now, and I will write more about it in due course, but I am terribly, terribly excited.

But with eleven schemes of work to write over two key stages (and that’s just for us to be 2015-16 ready), how could I convince a small team to pitch in? I agonized over the department meeting, and spent a good deal of time talking with close colleagues and loved ones about how I would go about dumping a massive amount of work at English teachers’ feet; English teachers who I already have to chase out of the office nearing 6pm on a Friday, where they trudge, still laden with exercise books, home to half eat, half watch television and half communicate with their families while marking.

Under excellent advice, I simplified my initial explanatory teaching grid (it underwent many guises, including one especially confusing multi-coloured moment), and talked teachers through it. I’d spoken to the whole department about the new specs informally leading up to this moment, and I think our conversations were invaluable to trail this meeting. We went through each paper and the mark scheme, but not in a great deal of detail. I then shared a timeline for how and when these schemes would be completed: each teacher was in a team with either myself or the 2 i/c, and each teacher had a deadline for the medium term plan, first week of lessons, second week and so on.

I could not believe the response from the team. They nodded along during the meeting, chipping in helpfully, and making positive and enthusiastic comments. When I broached the making of SoWs, no-one flinched. When I asked them to go and have a think about any they might be happy taking on and let me know by the next week, one burst out with: “can I do Jane Eyre?” I wanted to explode with gratitude.

The following week, I approached my team to see if they wanted to sit down and clarify their schemes prior to beginning the medium term plans. Each member surprised me by showing me nearly fully finished plans, three weeks prior to the deadline. There was no fear, no concern; just seeming excitement and graft at the task in hand.

I could not be more grateful to the team of amazing teachers I am privileged to manage. I was expecting resistance, struggle and unhappiness; instead, the department feels invigorated, stoic and almost merry. Long may it last.

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Things I have learned this term

This has been one of the most fulfilling terms of my career, and also one of the most challenging – how often these two seem to go hand in hand. It has been something of an adjustment, having to learn how to manage a department as well as take on new whole-school responsibilities. Not to mention trying to teach. Here are some of the things I have learned this term:

How to do duty… And how to not do duty

In the early days, I felt ridiculous doing duty. I’d knock apologetically at classroom doors, and teachers would scowl as if I were interrupting them – which, of course, I was. Now I’ve done my duty periods enough times, I think I’ve worked out which classrooms I can pretty much leave alone, and which benefit from a “casual walk-through.” I think back to myself as a new teacher, and how I’d have liked SLT to approach my classroom; I’m tougher with the students who are clearly taking advantage; I’m tougher if it’s a supply teacher or an NQT – I tend to haul students behaving less than perfectly away from the former in particular with little discussion. Especially as we come to the end of term, I feel like they are the ones who most need a calmer classroom. I’ve also realised that the more visible you are, the easier it becomes. Serendipitously, a spate of SLT sickness has allowed me to take on more duties; practice makes for some fast improvements.

How to teach less, but well

It has been a big adjustment going from having four classes to three. You wouldn’t think that losing four periods would have such a big effect, but the remaining 15 hours a week I am teaching have become my favourites. I really miss my year 9s, who (I’m almost sad to confess) are racing up to me at lunchtimes to fill me in on how much they are learning with their new teachers and how well they are behaving. Now, I feel grateful every lesson I can shut the door and just be a teacher. At the start, it seemed like this was the least important part of what I do, but after a bit of a battle with my year 10 class, I realise it is the most important. It is worth spending extra time making those 15 hours my best of the week. The fewer issues I have in my own classroom, the more helpful I am in the rest of my roles.

How to take feedback

I am so blessed to have a plain-spoken member of my team who simply does not sugarcoat: I know when I’m doing a good job, and I definitely know when I have to do better. A few weeks ago, she told me, in much more couched terms, that I wasn’t a presence in the English department at the moment; I wasn’t supporting teachers enough. After recovering from this blow, I resolved to do better. How can I ensure I check in with all the teachers I am responsible for, so none of them feel like she felt that day? How can I rebalance my responsibilities so I don’t let teachers down?

How to keep my sanity

That said, the English office is always a place of sanity for me. It’s amazing to have such a team of motivated individuals. We share the office with the Maths department, so they also deserve kudos for keeping our spirits up at the end of a long term. In particular, there are four or five of the teachers who have been permanently stocking the office with chocolate, Haribo and donuts. I need to exercise more restraint in future, but this term these have been all but essential to a healthy spirit.

My favourite thing this term has been observing the three colleagues who have opted into the “Leverage Leadership”-style “developmental observations” – 20 minute drop-ins with brief and focused feedback following (Harry Fletcher-Wood has written about this in helpful detail). It has been really something watching each colleague grow and improve as term has gone on. The Headteacher is fond of telling me that when she is feeling stressed, she goes and “walks around year 11 English lessons.” I know exactly what she means – there is nothing so soothing as watching great professionals at work.

Some thoughts for the term ahead (the year ahead feels too enormous to contemplate):

I will keep writing

Like almost everyone, I suffer from melodramatic crises of confidence, and I have found it increasingly hard to write this term. Or rather, to publish – I’ve written copious posts which now lay strewn in various folders, achingly missing the special something which would allow them to flow freely into the digital world. I’d like to write better, of course, but at times it might be worth just chucking it out there (like this post in fact, which I never intended to publish).

I will support teachers

I have come to realize that my time in school needs to be spent being completely available to the teachers I am responsible for. They need to be supported, and their needs must always, always come first. I know, and must never forget, that it is harder to be a teacher on a full timetable than any of the positions I have been lucky enough to hold: I have never been so viscerally exhausted as a HoD or member of SLT as I was teaching, even with some years of experience, a full timetable. That is the real hard work.

I will be great at my job

In the past, I’ve tried to be all things to all people and have taken on far too much outside school. This led, last year, to a five-month long cold I just couldn’t shake and needing a pair of crutches to move around (a very long story). I need to remember that my first responsibility is to my school, and no matter how exciting the opportunities I might be offered, sometimes it is better to just say no, and instead be great at the day job. After all, I have a long way to go to be “great”!

… but I will take time to do other things

The Head of Maths and I have been talking about going to meditation classes for about six months. I have a tendency to race from thing to thing with little thought or reflection – 2015 is the year to stop this nonsense. I will also see my friends more, even if they choose to live in far-flung suburbs or crazily West.

New year’s resolutions

Every August I make New Year’s resolutions for school. Occasionally, by week four, I realize these were entirely misguided. The ones which don’t seem to work are usually the ones which go against what is naturally right for me. I’ve mentioned that last year’s resolution, which was essentially to be more stern, didn’t work so well. I’m a smiley person. I have to have a bit of a joke with students, or they can tell I’m just pretending. Undeterred, I continue to make resolutions.

1. Happy teachers

I love my department, both collectively and individually. I genuinely believe that teachers are better at their job when they are happy. For some people, happiness cannot be found within their particular school for one reason or another; and of course, some will always decide to move on. Yet I want to strive this year to ensure all teachers are as happy as they can possibly be. To me, that means supporting, rallying and knowing when to stop talking. It also means listening to concerns and needs, and changing practices which are causing unhappiness. This might sound overly simplified, but I do think it is that simple. Happy teachers, happy students, happy school. 

2. Empowered department

My department is amazing. They have the results to back it up, and should be shouting from the rooftops about their amazingness. There are many ways to empower a department, and I’m going to start with meetings. I have run too many department meetings. It is time to supportively delegate. I’m definitely not the last word on very many (any?) practices, and have learned so much from my colleagues already. I’d like to assess where we are at the start of the year, and then explore who is nailing it in areas we’re not all nailing it. For example, in my year 11 this year no child achieved an A in either language or literature. This is a first for me, and I’m worried about bringing my future students to that high level. Conversely, in one of my colleague’s classes, every single child achieved an A or A* in English Language. I’d like to know what she did, and I’m sure the whole department would.

3. 100%

I’ve written about 100% very many times, so it should come as no shock that I’d like 100% of our year 11 to achieve A*-C in English Language. Yes, I know that we really need to be aiming for Bs; yes, I know I should be thinking about Literature as well. But we need to begin somewhere, and this is where I will begin. The new year 11s are inevitably a different group, with different starting points. They are also tenacious, hard-working and committed. These attributes have long triumphed over “prior attainment”, and I see no reason why they cannot this year.

Self-evaluation: a year in review

For any of you who do not know, this has been my first year as Head of English. Having previously trained on the Teach First programme, I would still maintain that the first year of Teach First is the hardest. But this year has felt more like that year than I had expected it would.

I’ve become used to people asking me: “were you Head of English in your last school?” At the start of the year I heard this question several times a day. I saw it as a challenge, and felt defensive when explaining that I wasn’t. I see now that the questioners were nervous about their school; English (along with Maths) is a great driver of a school’s success, and they didn’t want some idiot at the helm of it. Now, when people ask me this, I see it more as an opportunity to be proud of what I have done in this first year, as it has less the tone of “and do you have any idea what you are doing?” and more with the tone of “and you have done it for a whole year without me yet asking if it was your first?”

I’m still worried that I’m also apparently Head of Media Studies, although you wouldn’t think it from the two fantastic Media Studies teachers in the department. They have run the subject together, and the synergy between them is absolutely gorgeous. Constantly co-planning, sometimes co-teaching, always refining what they are doing and turning (unprompted) all of their amazing lessons into wonderfully transferrable Schemes of Work, I know I have to do better by them next year.

The walk to and from school has never seemed more important. As a teacher, and especially as a trainee teacher, I took for granted being able to moan, whine and cry to those in my immediate vicinity. Making mistakes this year has often meant upsetting or inconveniencing those people, and so moaning, whining or crying to them would be particularly misjudged. I’ve taken the walking time to try to put the day in perspective, but too many times I have marched home in anger, or shlepped home in defeat.

It took me a long time to recover my vision, which had seemed crystal clear at the end of last year. In those first weeks and terms, I felt like I was stumbling from crisis to crisis without a long-term view. Two aspects helped me regain this: one was my line manager’s vision (more of which below), which seeped into my bones through constant repetition, and the other was blogging, taking assemblies and speaking at events, where I have been forced to clarify what I am doing and why.

I have been nothing but blessed in the incredible team of teachers who form my department and make it work. My overwhelming disappointment is that I have not harnessed their talents at too many points this year. As the year has gone on, however, we’ve started to move as a unit, which is the only way to make a department work. They have picked me up at my lowest points and been more lovely than they had to be to me throughout this year. Sharing an office with them means no day passes without true, belly-laughter and feeling awed by the generosity of humans, who are brilliant teachers, who give infinitely more to their students than any contract stipulates.

Apart from these crucial colleagues, I couldn’t have survived the year without:

  • Dance – I’ve made a core group of dance friends who have often picked me up after a hard day, made me laugh and talked through my many problems selflessly. I can also continue to attest to the necessity of having a hobby where you can lose yourself and become a completely different person, if only for a short time. This has been central to retaining my sanity.
  • Twitter – This is where I go to be inspired, and to also be challenged in the work I do – is my direction right? What are other people doing? Wow – other people are doing that? How can I do that? Is that better than this? I have also loved the warm exchanges I have had with so many countless Twitter-ers this year.
  • My own students – each of my classes have made this year easier for me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I haven’t worried about them, because you always worry about your students, but I’ve never had such a reassuring bunch of classes. They have all ticked over, being quietly amazing, and have made my life as a teacher incredibly easy. My kids this year have believed I teach them well, even when I have had a million other priorities; they have been beautiful in lessons and have made incredible progress because they believed in themselves and worked very, very hard. I’m lucky to carry two of these classes forward to next year, and desperately sad to be losing my adorable year 7s, who have always made me laugh and smile.
  • My line manager – at times this year, too many times admittedly, I’ve been standing in the middle of a metaphorical road transfixed by oncoming headlights and he has gently pushed me in the right direction. He listens to all my ideas, and gently guides me towards the better ones; always refining, and challenging me to refine, my thinking. The clearest visionary I have met, he asks of everything: “is this the best thing to serve our children? Are we doing right by our children by doing this?”
  • My family – by which I mean my parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles – from near and afar their support and love has never meant more. They have always supported me, and their belief has helped me through the darkest of times.

Next week will be a calmer one, with around 50 year 6s at our summer school, and following that I am resolving to take a chunk of time off. Although already I am desperate to begin formulating plans and shaping ideas, I know from experience now that too little rest will undermine my best intentions. Happy Summer, teachers!