An open letter to Tristram Hunt

Dear Mr Hunt

My alarm went off an hour earlier than usual yesterday morning. That’s not what usually happens on Saturdays, but today is one of a series of six Saturdays this year where some colleagues and I travel to London for a day-long subject knowledge course run by the Prince’s Teaching Institute. I needed to leave the house at 6.15am to make the train; some of the other teachers on the course left even earlier to reach London from places as diverse as Somerset, Dorset and even Cornwall. It was a fantastic insight into ways of making the 19th century novel relevant to KS3 pupils and well worth the effort, even though it demanded a personal sacrifice; I missed out on taking my daughter to buy her first pair of pointe shoes, something I would have loved to share with her.

I’m not saying all that to whinge. Like most teachers I know, I don’t whinge at giving up my own time to do something that is going to directly benefit my pupils. I’m saying it to put some  context around how I reacted when I opened my newspaper on the train and read that you believe that we are so little to be trusted with our own professional development that we need ‘licensing’ to ensure that we keep on doing our jobs properly.

Most offensively, you said: “ If you’re not a motivated teacher – passionate about your subject, passionate about being in the classroom – then you shouldn’t really be in this profession. So if you’re not willing to engage in re-licensing to update your skills then you really shouldn’t be in the classroom.”. Conflating being willing to engage in professional development (which every teacher I have ever met does as a matter of course) with being unwilling to take part in a scheme which seems designed solely to fulfil the “show the public we are doing something about lazy teachers” category of grandstanding is indicative of both sloppy thinking and a particularly offensive brand of political cynicism. Where is the evidence that you have consulted with the profession and found out what we actually need and want to do our jobs better? Or am I being naïve in believing that education policy should be founded on research into what will actually help us to help children learn?

My school does a brilliant job of supporting my professional development. This week alone, I have received two hours training so that I can use Iris Connect, a system where I can book out video cameras to record myself teaching and upload to a secure website so that I can watch them later and learn (and cringe!) in total privacy. I also attended a before school session where seven or eight experienced colleagues got together to give us newbies the benefit of their classroom management tips and tricks. Oh yes, and as a whole staff we got together for an hour after school to exchange tips on our best marking strategies. So that would be almost 10 hours of CPD logged this week then, less than a third of which came out of my directed time.  

My school is fantastic, but it is far from unique. It offers a huge range of professional development opportunities in half-hourly or hourly sessions, many of them run by colleagues who want to share their own good practice or specialist area of expertise.  Just this week, my offer to run a session on using Twitter for professional learning was eagerly accepted.

There is a petition doing the rounds at the moment that challenges Michael Gove to teach in a primary school for half a term. I’d like to throw down a similar challenge to you. Come into schools, look at what real teachers are doing in real classrooms, and talk to us about what we need to be able to do this demanding job even better. Hostile soundbites, that  make assumptions based on myth rather than reality, just undermine the teaching profession further in the  eyes of the public.  Is that really what you think a shadow Education Secretary should be doing, Mr Hunt?

#Nurture 1314

13 from the past

Looking back to January 2013

This time last year I was trying to avoid making New Year resolutions. I had been unemployed for a whole term after finishing my PGCE and I knew the answer to finding an NQT post was to commit to moving my whole family to another part of the country, far away from our lovely friends and the beautiful home we had created for ourselves in Devon. As my husband is self-employed and works from home he was quite flexible and happy to go where the work led me. But how could I uproot my children for the sake of my career?

The job hunt

For various reasons, we decided to focus my job hunting on an area of the country 200 miles away from where we were living. In January, I applied for jobs at four schools which l felt I could offer me the kind of working environment and learning experience that I needed as a newly qualified teacher. To my amazement, the first school I applied to phoned up to ask me to attend an interview two days later. I’m going to put that down to having followed to the letter the advice on executive summaries from the marvellous TheoGriff on the TES jobseekers forum.

My first NQT post

I’m not going to gloss over anything here. I went for the interview and the lesson didn’t go exactly as I had planned. It could have been a good lesson with a different class, but it wasn’t pitched exactly right for the group of learners I delivered it to and I wasn’t quick enough to pick up on that and adapt it. As a result, the pupils didn’t make the progress they should have done. When the interview panel asked how I would grade the lesson I had just given, I decided honesty was the best policy and frankly said: “Inadequate”. They agreed. Job lost, I thought. Wrong. The dreaded phone call came and instead of kissing me off, they offered me a job. I figured a school that was willing to take a chance that the ability to reflect on my mistakes trumped an inadequate observation was a school I wanted to be part of.

My amazing children

Once I’d secured the job, I had to break the news to my children that I was uprooting them and dragging them halfway across the country to pursue my midlife crisis career change. They were amazing. It hasn’t been easy for them to leave all their friends and start completely afresh at a school where they knew nobody at all, and where their Mum is a new member of staff, but they have coped with it magnificently. They make me proud of them all over again every single day. Selling our family home was a huge wrench and it didn’t go smoothly, but even after having to spend three months in a tiny rented flat with most of our belongings in storage and our beloved cats in a cattery, they came up smiling.

My equally amazing husband

He has been behind me every step of the way, never complains that the 70-hour weeks I’ve been putting in mean that he has now got to do 70% of the housework and is happy to sit in front of the TV laminating resources till midnight to help me out. Believe me, I know how lucky I am.

A term of supply

After I got the job offer, I managed to pick up supply work to keep me going for the rest of the year. Well, that was interesting. The first term I mostly did daily supply at a school where the long list of names in the sign-in book for supply teachers told its own story. I toughened up a lot in the course of that term. What I learned above anything else was how not to treat your supply staff. Sitting in the corner of the staff room eating your lunch while people talk around and over you and never once ask you how your day is going is bad. Having a teacher take the work her class has done for you and throw it in the bin without glancing at it or making eye contact with you is so far beyond bad that I don’t know how to categorise it.

Another term of supply

A maternity leave cover this time in a supportive school with a lovely English department who treated me like a proper colleague. Behaviour management was a steep learning curve, but the head of department took the trouble to help me with my trickier classes. Without this experience, my NQT year would have been off to a far shakier start.

My walk to school

I can walk to school from my new house. Even better, my preferred route to school is along the seafront. Ten minutes of watching the waves break against the shingle as I make my way to school every morning is as good as an hour’s meditation. I get to school refreshed and energised to start the day.

My tutor group

We’ve had some run-ins in our first term together. They thought I was a bit soft. Then I toughened up and they thought I was too harsh. (I wasn’t.) We had to readjust our expectations of each other, but we are nearly there now. And I think they are awesome.

Austin’s Butterfly

I’ve been trying to get peer assessment right for a while now. When I showed my classes the video of Austin’s Butterfly it really captured their imaginations. We use the Butterfly Scale in class now to measure how much pupils have improved their work in response to detailed and specific comments made by their peer assessment partners and it is beginning to make a real difference to the quality of their redrafts. It is still work in progress but I am encouraged enough to keep plugging on with it.

What have you done today….

Those pieces of work that knock you out. Doing a war poetry unit with my Year 9 class and seeing some of them come up with some really moving poetry of their own. A short story by a quiet Year 7 child that displays the emotional maturity of an adult. Or a child who ‘hates English’ proudly handing you ‘the best piece of work I’ve ever done’. So many moments to celebrate this term.

And finally… 13 wonderful Tweachers

Twitter has transformed my professional life. Being able to interact with all those passionate, committed education colleagues has enhanced my teaching so much. I’ve been given ideas, resources, moral support; anything I’ve asked for has been made available instantly in 140 characters or fewer. So to round off my 13 blessings for 2013 a huge thank you to 13 people on Twitter who have helped me so much this year, whether you know it or not. Drumroll… @emmsibo, @Gwenelope, @atharby, @TeacherToolkit, @englishlulu, @chocotzar, @DavidDidau, @h0cken, @Edutronic_Net, @funkypedagogy, @LisaFarrell3, @KBedson, and last but not by any means least @BadHeadteacher who can make me smile even on the worst day.

14 for the future

Work life balance

There has been precious little of that in 2013, but in 2014 the 70-hour weeks are going to go.

Teachmeet

I’ve read the tweets and blog reports enviously and promised myself that this year I will attend a Teachmeet.

Bringing teachers to Twitter

I’m going to be brave and volunteer to run a CPD session on becoming a tweacher this term.

Smarter marking

After reading some excellent blog posts on the subject, particularly @chocotzar’s, I am going to make marking a real focus for 2014. No point doing it, if you are not creating maximum impact. Which brings me to…

DIRT time

I don’t feel I’ve been making enough time for this. In 2014 it is going to be a regular part of the schedule for every class.

Stickability

I plan to use this concept from @TeacherToolkit’s 5-minute lesson plan to ensure that my lessons are always planned around learning rather than activities. Should cut down on the time I spend planning too – I am acutely aware that being activity-focused eats up vast swathes of planning time.

Sailing

My Christmas present from my husband was a voucher for a weekend sailing course. I can’t wait. It’s all part of that work-life balance thing that people keep banging on about.

The big 50

Yup, 2014 is the year I celebrate half a century on this planet. You might well wonder why someone would decide on a radical career change this late on in their working life. I often do. But so far it has been a really rewarding decision, so I am going to make 2014 the year of no regrets.

Chalk  pens

A little Christmas present to myself. I’m going to cover my classroom windows with aspirational vocabulary.

Classroom management

This year I will be sweating the small stuff a LOT more.

Thunks

My tutor group love these and my Year 7 classes do too. I am going to roll them out more regularly to the rest of my groups this year.

Praise

There can never be enough. Sometimes I’m uncomfortably aware that maybe in my classroom there isn’t.

Making time to read

I’m an English teacher. It’s fine for me to be caught reading the latest teen novel sensation. In fact, it’s practically work, dammit.

Blog and be damned

This is my first post on this blog. I’ve been very wary of blogging about work under my own identity, but an anonymous blog has always seemed a bit of a cop-out. This is the year I am going to have the courage of my convictions and blog openly about my successes and failures in teaching.