I Wish I Taught Maths

I was terrible at Maths. I had never learned the basics – times tables, long multiplication – nothing. When I sat the entrance exam for an assisted place scheme to go to a local private school, I scored almost nothing on the Maths paper. The kind Headteacher led me through the paper question by question, one to one, and decided to offer me a place because I seemed to understand it, I had just ‘never been taught it.’ Once ensconced in the private school that changed my life, I was sent to top set Maths. I struggled. I made my teacher, Mrs Meadows-Smith’s, life a misery. I asked stupid, time-wasting questions. I hated Maths.

And so the next year, I was placed in the third set for Maths. And I loved it. Finally, I could understand what was going on. Mr. Shepperson’s explanations were clear, and his enthusiasm was encouraging. I spent a term in set 3, before being propelled again to set 1. Where again, I hated it. We took a half-termly test, and every half term I came bottom, or second from bottom. On the eve of year 11, I heard someone say in an off-hand way: ‘The kids at the bottom of set 1 will get Bs; the kids at the top of set 2 will get As.’ That was it. I petitioned the Head of Maths, and got to join set 2… Again, with Mrs. Meadows-Smith. That poor woman. I had learned nothing in terms of behaviour, and continued to be distracted and annoying. She persevered. She never once raised her voice. She was kind and patient, even though I was her literal nightmare. I have no idea how I managed to get an A at GCSE Maths, but I imagine it was 5% due to me, and 95% due to Mrs. Meadows-Smith.

By the end of year 11, I loved Maths, because I could do Maths, and Maths is incredible when you can do it. I asked the Head of Maths if I could do Maths A-level. The response was categorical: no. I may have ‘scraped an A’ at GCSE (code for: we have no idea how this has happened but we are very happy for you), but I could only hope for a C at best in the AS level, not to mention the even harder A-level.

He was right. But when I walk the corridors of any school, I always linger a little longer in Maths classes. Maths is different to basically every other lesson in schools. The operations required are different. The method, in many ways, is different. Children do not encounter Maths in any other lesson apart from Maths: Maths teachers have the hardest job in terms of getting children to understand their subject.

 Reading Craig Barton’s How I Wish I’d Taught Maths has only convinced me more that I wish I could teach Maths. But the book is about so much more than Maths. Barton’s journey is one many readers will recognise: ‘mid-career’ he hit a ‘crisis’, whereby he realised that much of what he had done was actually ‘wrong,’ and did not lead to greater student understanding of Maths. He embarked on a mission to find out how to do it better, and this book is a record of that mission.

Each chapter follows the same helpful pattern: what Barton used to think, what he has read on that particular subject (always an astonishing amount of books, journal articles and a few blogs thrown into the mix), before a useable summary of his ‘takeaways’, which, because they are written by an actual teacher who teaches actual children, are completely actionable and never require bonkers amounts of effort.

So much of this book is helpful beyond Maths – chapters on how children learn, the novice/expert issue, what motivates learners, how to get better at instruction, cognitive load theory, worked examples, deliberate practice, formative assessment and long-term memory all include a useful précis of the science involved plus applicable insights for teachers of all subjects.

For example, in a chapter exploring what motivates students, Barton talks about the balance between struggle and success, something that every teacher will recognise: while we do want children to ‘struggle’ a bit, so they find the work challenging, and endure the kinds of difficulties that ensure their thinking is engaged, we also need them to succeed so that, long term, they will be more likely to persevere. Yet we don’t want them succeeding too easily, or all the time. Barton’s exploration of tricky issues like this, with his perspective as a working teacher, is invaluable.

One example of a transferable, useful and research-informed trick Barton shares is to get students to give each answer they write a ‘confidence score’ out of ten prior to marking. The idea is that it makes the children think about how much they think they know something. When they then go through and self-correct, they are more likely to take in the mistakes they have made and remember to not do it that way again. This is the ‘hypercorrection’ effect, whereby ‘errors committed with high confidence are more likely to be corrected than low-confidence errors.’ Another of my favourite insights is that student learning is significantly improved following self-assessment, but students who have peer marked do not experience as much improvement. This is a great nugget of research that will save countless minutes of class time across the land (‘I don’t have a partner’/‘no, that’s a 2 not a 3!’/‘Miss, he’s doing it wrong/making a mess of my book!’).

Having endured many ‘co-planning’ sessions, I, like Barton, was perplexed: why does all the research suggest co-planning leads to better teaching, but every session I sat through seemed like a total waste of time? Barton’s insight is that planning a lesson together is less helpful than writing questions together. To transfer this out of the Maths domain a little, we might think of this as creating the lesson content together, rather than the logistics of a lesson together. Indeed, I increasingly think the best way to support teachers is to give them (or co-create with them) the lesson content, and then use coaching to ensure they are delivering that content in the best possible way.

Obviously, all of the examples in this book are of Maths, and I’m afraid I am unqualified to share my insights on how helpful these are; though I defer to two readers, Kris Boulton and Dani Quinn, whose Maths skills are, in my view, unparalleled: their effusive praise for the book speaks volumes (Maths pun attempted).

One of my favourite things about reading excellent books are their citations. After reading Barton’s book, my Amazon wishlist is absolutely bursting with education tomes, which works well with my new year’s reading resolution to read more non-fiction books.

So what will I do now? The plan to get a Maths A-level looks to have legs, thanks to Kris Boulton’s ‘Up Learn’ project, and, life-logistics depending, I’m hoping the next five years will see me re-engage with Maths in a more formal way. In the mean time, I will continue to lurk in Maths classrooms, and lend Barton’s book to everyone I know who actually does teach Maths (and to a few people who don’t).

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Being the teacher Year 10 deserve

I have what has been termed as an “intervention” group in year 10. Last year, when making the set lists, I decided to make a top set and then mix the rest of the year; it was then decided that certain students would take one less GCSE and have three extra lessons a week: one in English, two in Maths. So the two intervention groups came about, and I took one.

Why do these students need extra English? It’s not because they’re stupid – but then, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a stupid child. It’s not because they’re illiterate, although I do wish they would read more. They seem to be behind their peers, in terms of their raw data, and for that I can think of many reasons, which I would imagine are the same reasons any “intervention” child is behind. What it boils down to is time and effort. At some point, for some reason, these students have lost time in English. They have missed lessons, or they have been in lessons in body only. Many of them aren’t the well behaved angel children I am accustomed to dealing with (joking – though my year 11 class does seem fairly rammed with angels).

The bottom line is that these children deserve the best teacher. They have to cover more ground in less time; they have less than two full years, and time is ticking.

But I’m filled with doubt. Am I the teacher they deserve? Can I dedicate enough time, energy and effort myself? With all my other classes exam classes, with running a department, and with the additional responsibilities of being a member of the SLT, can I be that teacher?

These children need to be inspired. They need to feel awe and wonder in their English lessons. They need to be thirsty for knowledge, keen to read and learn and close the gap. Can I muster the energy to inspire them six times a week?

These children need to be nurtured. They need to be comforted when things go wrong, they need to feel safe in my classroom, they need to know that they have the space to get things wrong because that is what learning is. They need to be cared for, and their parents need to be told when they are wonderful, every time they are wonderful. Can I care for each and every child individually?

These children need to be in the room. They might behave in ways which eventually lead to being sent out, but when they do that in every lesson every week, it is clear that they are desperate to avoid the learning. They need to be sanctioned in multiple ways, outside classroom time, and those sanctions need to be both horrible and long. Can I improve my planning and pedagogy to the extent that I can ensure no-one needs to be sent out of my classroom? Can I follow up every sanction relentlessly?

These children need to receive excellent feedback. They need to fill their books with work they are proud of, with paragraphs that improve every week, where they understand the next steps towards achieving in English. Can I mark every book every week, let alone every lesson, with comprehensible guidance to lead them in the right direction?

I don’t think there is a teacher in the world who hasn’t had a class like my year 10. In fact, there probably isn’t a teacher anywhere in the world who doesn’t have this class right now: the class where every moment is vital, every interaction make or break, every comment taken to heart. This week, I have invited teachers into my lessons and taken their feedback, tracked down students in between lessons to smooth over issues, phoned parents and re-read parts of my go-to teacher manual Teach Like a Champion before and after every class. Next week there will be more visitors to the class, and more phone calls, more emails, more marking, more reading, more encouraging, more consoling, more understanding.

Things are improving, but I’m not the teacher they deserve.

Yet.

What we say to our students

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what we say to our students, and what that says about us.

I’ve spent a good deal of this year encouraging Year 11, as a cohort, in assemblies, classrooms and corridors. But it occurred to me recently that they might not see my words as “encouragement.”

John Tomsett’s excellent blog here made me wonder how year 11 heard me. Did they hear my words as encouraging – “we’re putting on extra revision sessions for you”, “we’re looking at your coursework and we want to help you improve it”, “your speaking and listening exams are over the next couple of months” – or was I actually berating them?

All year, teachers and SLT have reported that the year 11s are feeling “stressed.” For most of the year, I was fairly dismissive of this – after all, it’s year 11. It’s not going to be a cakewalk. They just needed to work harder.

This week, like all weeks, I looked at the data. Instead of being terrified about the 35 or so students who aren’t on track, I decided to look in a “glass half full” manner this term. John Tomsett in the post above wisely says:

“It’s pointless berating Year 11 at this stage, just love them instead. The die is largely cast by now and what they attain in their GCSEs this summer will not be improved by relentlessly getting on their case. Make them feel special and trusted and they might just find a little more enthusiasm for their revision over the next couple of weeks.”

I’ve tried to take this to heart.  Each time I’ve spoken to the year group this term, I have emphasized how positive their position is. On Friday, after a long few weeks of moderation, I told the year group something along these lines: “I’ve looked at all your coursework. It’s brilliant. I’ve looked at your speaking and listening exam results. They’re brilliant. You don’t need to do anything different to achieve amazing grades – just keep doing what you’re doing.” Before, I wanted them to be afraid. I now wonder if this is counter-productive, and has actually made them reject work.

And it’s not just year 11. Students come to school with all kinds of preconceptions; the number this year who have referred me to the received wisdom that “some people are just naturally smart” has made me feel incredibly depressed. I’ve worked hard with my own classes to emphasise effort; one of my happiest moments this year came at an Easter revision session (where targeted students across the year group were invited) when one of my students replied to a student who said the above aphorism by finishing my sentence: “It’s not how smart you are-” “It’s how hard you work!” I’ve had a year 7 say she doesn’t try because she “always gets it wrong”; trying to explain that failing is learning is taking time, but it is valuable to have that conversation every time, I think.

Of course, the caveats placed on “teacher talk” can seem endlessly numerous: never say: “brilliant!” without qualifying your praise; never talk about “work” (it is “learning”); never say a child is a level (they are “working at level…”); say thank you instead of please to encourage compliance with instructions…

I automatically bristle at such rules. They seem to discount the fact that students and teachers are people, who use language to communicate. The over-analysis of tiny words seems like mindless minutiae.

But then there are the students who pick up on our un-thought-out words. In my first year as a teacher, it was not long before I was met with the phrase familiar to all teachers: “you hate me, don’t you?”

Now, I’m one of these method-actor teachers. I’m an open book, and find it impossible to lie or fake an emotion or response. I have to love all students, because if I didn’t, I just couldn’t teach them. I’m also of the firm belief that all children have something lovable in them; something great – if only great potential. So I could face the student in question and quite honestly tell her: “of course I don’t hate you.”

We’re an emotionally oppressed profession, because we can’t tell students we love them, even though we do, and even though we freely tell our friends (every teacher I know has used the L-word about their students).

I know a teacher who bends over backwards for her class; who is in school before 7am and out of school after 6pm; who comes in on Saturdays to work with almost many of her targeted students. And yet one of her students, who I also teach and about whom we have frequent chats of our concerns, believes this teacher hates her. Nothing could be further from the truth. I won’t pretend every teacher loves every single student, but I don’t believe any teacher truly hates any student.

So, above all, I think we have to communicate that love to our students. In short, my resolution for this term, the most difficult term, is to strive to communicate the love I have for my students to my students. Let none say: “Ms Facer hates me.” I don’t. I really, really don’t.

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.