Filling the Cup.

In one chapter of the ‘Elephant in the Staffroom’ I used the phrase ‘manage your energy not your time. Recently I have been relearning what this means. One phrase that has come back to me and stuck with me in the last few weeks during the turn of the year is this one: ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’

The final few months of 2018 were particularly draining. There were many things that required my energy – required me to pour from my cup: a full time middle leadership job, exam board commitments, finishing off an MA, being a parent, and perhaps hardest of all dealing with my dad’s dementia. Whilst I have been able to cut back on some commitments, the truth is that most of these things are not going to go away and rather than reducing the pouring from my cup, I need to find ways of replenishing and refilling the cup so that it doesn’t become empty.

Here’s a few things that I am consciously trying to do:

1. Finding Space: I can’t remember where I read it but I remember someone talking about the margins on a page. Just as a page needs margins and spaces so that we can see these the sentences clearly , so too life needs empty spaces so that we can better understand its content. I need to give myself space. The rules that during my good weeks I live by: one evening at least leaving on time and doing no work, one complete day off at a weekend, taking a proper lunch break. All of these things create the white space on life’s page and the paradox is that the busier you are, the more you need to slow down and seek space

2. Stillness: Linked with space is the need for stillness. This is particularly important to me as an introvert. Starting the day with a time of quiet and stillness rather than scrolling through bbc news, emails and twitter or getting down to work straight away is important in preparing my mind for the day rather than filling it with worries. For me the time of quiet involves prayer; for others it may be meditation or using mindfulness techniques but whatever it is, it’s good to be still and switch off life’s noise.

3. Self improvement: one way of refilling is to take time to put good things in, things that build up the mind/soul. Things that develop us as people. There is a principle that what goes in affects what comes out. I have been listening to some podcasts from Rick Warren, the American pastor who took part in Barack Obama’s inauguration. They give me food for thought and challenge me and I can do this on the go. I am also reading more both on the subjects I teach and reading for pleasure. I am trying to listen to music more too. I am trying to avoid some of the negatives so less time online.

4. Social: I am also trying to be more sociable. As an introvert I don’t do this naturally but it is important to have one thing each week to look forward to: a meal with friends, a comedy night, a Burns Night supper in Staffordshire, and even a midweek trip to the pub with my wife – someone report me to the teacher standards people! I am trying to plan something nice each week If we don’t plan, a week can just drift by. I think there’s a saying about all work and no play.

There is still more to do. I need to exercise a little more and I would love to get back into playing the guitar a little more. So I am a bit of a work in progress.

As teachers we pour out from our cups every day, what are you doing to keep your cup filled?


Navigating the Perfect Storm: thoughts on the Teacher Workforce Dynamics report

I am currently reading a lot and writing a little about teacher retention. Having  used the 2015 NFER report ‘Should I stay or should I go? to underpin chapter 2 of my book ‘The Elephant in the Staffroom,‘ yesterday’s NFER report on the state of the teaching workforce was fascinating reading. It was published the day before Halloween and the headline stats will certainly give a few nightmares to those responsible for staffing institutions. There is a perfect storm in terms of teacher numbers, particularly in secondary education: Rising Pupil numbers, (19% in next decade) a shortfall in trainee teachers (about 80% of  target recruited) and increasing numbers of working age teachers leaving.

Beneath the headline there are a number of other interesting statistics which caught my eye and may have been missed in the small print

  1. Retention – around 12% now leave profession each year – it was 8-10%. In addition 10% move schools each year SO total staff change in an average school is around 20% of teaching staff each year (excluding retirements)
  2. The percentage of staff leaving teaching (12%) is higher than those leaving nursing (9.9%) and the police. (7.7%) Given that I would consider both of these professions equally if not more demanding than teaching, this is an interesting finding. Is the slightly earlier retirement in the police force a factor?
  3. Age and years experience are the most important predictors of why people leave teaching. Lack of experience in the first 5 years where around 40% leave the profession. The authors cite a parallel study on nursing where nurses come out of university enthusiastic but find the front line tough – there may be evidence that this is also the case in teaching. How do we prepare people for the intensity and rigours?
  4. Age becomes a factor the older people get. We are losing older teachers. In 2010 23% of teachers were over 50; this is now 17%. Of those who leave teaching after 50, 60% retire early. The idea that teachers will eventually work well into their sixties seems almost laughable.
  5. Part time workers – particularly in secondary schools are more likely to leave teaching (18%) than full timers (12%) Part time teachers are not accommodated as well as they are in primary schools. However, and here is the twist, part time work may be a way of saving struggling teachers (22% teachers WOULD if given the option go part time for less pay as opposed to 14% nurses, 9% police) The report also discusses other options for flexible working such as compressed working and working from home. Education is not as flexible as other industries
  6. A key reason teachers leave is lack of job satisfaction. Here is another tension, job satisfaction is actually high (80% teachers) yet those teachers who leave are not satisfied. Why not? At first it may seem to be to do with workload and long hours.
  7. Teachers work just over 50 hours a week on average – but work more intensively across fewer weeks. (police 44 hours , nurses 39 hours) This is still higher than the other 2 professions if holidays are averaged out – teachers would still work an average of 45 hours per week. Teachers also report that they are  more dissatisfied with their leisure time than other professions. (40% teachers – 25% police, nurses) Yet working hours doesn’t affect leaving rates- those who work longer hours are slightly more likely to stay! So working hours is NOT a proxy for workload. Workload feeling unmanageable is the reason for leaving. Hence we have to do what we can to make work manageable but also address the very real feelings that high workload bring.
  8. The quality of school leadership, a sense of autonomy, feeling supported and valued, and whether workload is manageable are all important factors within job satisfaction – there is low job satisfaction where some or all of these are absent
  9. It’s not about the money – when teachers leave, their pay is on average 10% less than when they were teaching. So higher pay would help but action on workload is far more important in terms of improving retention. However there has been a 12% decline in pay in real terms since 2010 – The average police officer now earns more than the average teacher per hour actually worked (but this is largely because teachers on average as a profession are younger.) so it may be that some teachers feel that their pay does not justify the considerable effort expended.
  10. Finally Ofsted – of those leaving the profession. the rate is  12% leaving outstanding and good schools, 14% and 17% RI and Inadequate respectively. For those moving schools the rates are 8% leaving outstanding schools, 9% good, 12% RI and 15% inadequate. An inadequate school could lose 1/3 of its staff each year!

Hope the above thoughts are useful and that those wiser and more practical than myself can turn them into useful actions to prevent the worst excesses of the storm.

Navigating Change

There is change happening, some good, some bad. I have in the last few months attended 3 funerals including one – the most positive and uplifting of the 3 – of a person the same age as me. This prompts a lot of reflection and there is much to reflect upon

One reflection is around change itself. It occurs to me that in addition to going through change over the years, I have often been part of leadership teams that have had to navigate times of turbulence and change in various workplaces, with exam boards, and in churches. How do you navigate periods of change in your life and how do you help others through it?

1.Keep Facing forward – the harder the time you are going through, the harder it is to do. It is easier to look at the past and the present, but hope requires that we look forward rather than keep going round in circles. When times are tough, it is very easy to ask why things are as they are, yet the braver question is ‘what now?’ When we go through storms it is important that we face forward, and as hard as it is, we keep going forward.

2.Be clear on what matters and stick to it – in challenging times, I find myself asking what matters and why this change is happening or needs to happen. Often when we don’t know what to do, we need to go back to our ‘why’, our core purpose or the key question/problem we are trying to solve. It is also a time to stick to your core values. It is about integrity. What are you prepared to do to reach the goal, what are you not prepared to do even if you lose money, friends or position?

3.Focus on the people – it is important to accept that change is hard and, for some people, is experienced as bereavement. In fact the Kubler-Ross change curve was initially designed to explain how people coped with bereavement or trauma. Whether we are thinking of schools, churches, community groups or families, they are not the houses, buildings or structures; they are the people within. If you lose the people, you lose everything. There is a famous African proverb that says ‘if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.’ It is important not to go too fast and lose the people around you but it is also important to keep going.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once observed, the only thing that is permanent is change. As we go through change, it is important to keep going, travel well with integrity, and as far as possible take those around you with you.

Workload, Popes and Bears.

Although me and my friend are being a little flippant, sometimes black comedy is necessary in education, this weekend’s speech by Damien Hinds suggesting that teacher workload needs to be decreased was welcome. The tone was just right and he has recognised that teacher recruitment and retention is the number 1 issue and that workload is the key ingredient. A good start but what is going to be more difficult is the practical task of doing something about it. When we discuss workload and write about stress and wellbeing – as I and others – have done, what is clear is that we are dealing with at least 3 significant players: the government, school cultures, and teacher’s own mindsets.

Here’s a few thoughts

What can government do?

1. Government and other bodies can stop sentences that begin with the words ‘schools should….’ where what follows is a desire that educators fill the gaps vacated by other sectors. There have been cuts to counselling, social care, benefit payments etc. Schools, and sometimes teachers out of their own pockets, are filling the gaps. Recent newspaper headlines announce that schools need to do more on mental health, more to tackle obesity, more to prevent radicalisation, more to stop female genital mutilation. I could go on. One key narrative in schools and colleges in the past few years is the story of staff increasingly becoming parents, social workers and counsellors as well as teachers. Government needs to fund these agencies properly so that in schools, the main thing can be the main thing. Teachers and others who work in education are just too caring to say it’s not my job and they are currently filling many of these gaps.

2. Leave the curriculum alone for a while: It was recognised by Damien Hinds that government needs to stop the constant change to curriculum. Whether or not GCSE and A-level required substantial reform is another matter; what it did not require was for GCSEs and A-levels to change at the same time and for those reforms to be staggered so that some subjects change and others change the year after. This has led to an enormous workload for staff. Let’s leave the curriculum largely as it is so that in five years time we can assess which of the many changes have actually had an impact.

3. Look again at mechanisms such as OFSTED and league tables. These mechanisms both rely on the principle of competition; they set school against school and, with performance related pay, set teacher against teacher. Why should I collaborate with my colleagues if in 12 months time they are going to get better results than me and I lose out on a pay increase or my school is the one that requires improvement? Let’s aim to have a system that gives the benefit of the doubt so that the majority of teachers and school leaders aren’t living in constant fear and worry.

4. Pay and stuff… Yes, teachers’ primary motivation is not money but like everyone else they have bills to pay. In the case of younger staff there is often large student debt and little prospect of getting on the housing ladder. In addition to giving all staff, particularly those at the lower ends of the pay scale, a decent above inflation rise, can we look at a scheme where student loans are cancelled for those who teach for at least a few years and a scheme where teachers can have help with housing?

What can schools do?

1. Schools need to consider what it is that is adding to the workload of their staff. There are a number of practices in some schools such as excessive marking policies and high-stakes graded lesson observations that are adding to stress without necessarily improving the outcomes. Schools need to look at email protocols and protect their staff against the expectation of 24/7 availability. Although there are no easy answers, each new initiative needs to include what we should stop doing in order to do this new thing.

2. Ensure that they are developing the staff that they have. It is frustrating that so many much of a high quality CPD that I have experienced has been on the Saturday at conferences attended in my own time. Debra Kidd’s recent reflection on Northern Rocks and the possibility of a national training day(s) are interesting. Could schools in an area plan CPD days together so that collaborative time built into the system? Could schools give credit where additional Saturday events are attended, could schools credit staff with time off in lieu?

3. A culture of ‘Love over fear’ – Hopefully school leaders are aware of John Tomsett’s excellent book. In a time of teacher shortage, schools need to manage their staff well. If they don’t, staff will feel brave enough to look elsewhere knowing that teacher supply is not keeping up with demand. Schools need to start with the premise that staff are hard-working and trustworthy and support them. As John Tomsett puts it ‘look after the staff and the staff will look after the school’ make sure that staff are able to attend their own children’s events, medical appointments, are allowed time off for funerals etc. It seems obvious but a glance through edu-twitter and comments on forums suggest that poor people management is rife in many places.

4. Look at your marking and feedback policy and consider how it can be streamlined. Reading this from @mrshumanities may start some conversations. As Dylan William has recently said, we need to get across to parents that the expectation that everything a child does is marked, is not realistic and is not even good teaching.

BONUS What can I do?

Ultimately as teachers we can also be our own worst enemies. We can be guilty of perfectionism, and because we are busy, we don’t always stop to think about what we are doing. I have written about some of these things before on this blog and in my book but briefly

1. Set clear boundaries -including not working more than 50 hours in any one week and having clear and planned time off. (See my #50isplenty blog)

2. Look at your plan for marking and feedback: have a year plan, and decide when and what you will mark.

3. Read things about time management and organisation.

4. Accept that it will never be perfect, there will always be more you can do, and just STOP.

Finally, I wish Damian Hinds well. I think he understands the issues. It remains to be seen whether practically he can do anything that significantly improves things or whether the solution comes from within.

Delivering RS Linear A level – the home straight

In what may well be the last of my series on the new OCR A level Religious Studies course, we are now entering the home straight. Having made rapid progress through the spec we are now (early March ) beginning the 28th and final topic on our course. The mock exams are now out of the way and although they were in some cases a little disappointing it has at least reinforced in students minds what is required in terms of preparation for exams and writing answers under timed conditions.

Where are we now?

As I explain to students you could argue that there are four stages:

1. Ignorance : not knowing that you don’t know.

2. Fear : knowing that you don’t know and it’s scary

3. Preparation : Getting on with filling in the gaps in our knowledge

4. Practice : once we feel confident on a topic, having a go some possible questions on this topic and getting some feedback.

We have realised that in many cases we are somewhere between stages two and three. We have been revisiting past topics periodically and have had regular quizzes using kahoot and socrative – there is even a league table of quiz scores with prizes!

What now?

As we finish the spec the focus has changed. The main work set outside of class is review of past topics. Can we spend at least 4 or more hours each week actively revising a few past topics?

1. RAG Rating: We have encouraged students to RAG rate each topic. Green = with a glance through my notes I could write an essay. Amber = I would need a couple of hours to get my head around the topic but basically ok. Red = really struggling and don’t know much at all. Once we know where we are at, that enables students to prioritise and organise their week.

2. Free writing – Each week the students name a past topic that they are going to revise that week, then in the third lesson that week they write for 15 or 20 minutes without notes and in bullet point form all that they can know about that topic remembering that there is AO1 and AO2.

3. Once the spec is finished, the plan is to have 1 essay question under timed conditions most weeks and to train students to mark them. I will of course be floating around to confirm marking.

4. Other activities in class will include more regular quizzing, the production of knowledge organisers – I’m going to divide up the topics and get the students to make these , a word wall, and some learning grids.

Revision is…

Finally a word on Revision sessions and Revision guides

Revision guides are now also available. There is the Oxford RS guide by Libby Ahluwalia which is an all in one volume, and then there is our series written by myself and fellow senior examiner Julian Waterfield for the Hodder My Revision Notes series.

These guides are great to give you the key ideas but the message is that you will need to go beyond these to get the top grades

Revision sessions are also running – 1 hour a week mainly focusing on topics where more students are ‘red.’ These sessions are useful but see the comment above on revision guides. These are not the main thing. The key message has to be that it is the hours of private study done (or not done) between now and June that will make the difference

As I find myself saying regularly to my students it is time for them to take the baton and ‘do something that their future selves will thank them for.’

Leadership lessons from the Greeks

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for UkEdMag on lessons for teachers from the thinkers of Ancient Greece. Recently I have been thinking a lot about the strange nature of leadership in particular the question of why I – an experienced middle leader who has at times applied for more senior roles – would want to lead at all. Here again I want to look to the Greeks for help

1. Aristotle and right ambition.

When we enter the teaching profession it seems to be drilled into us that being ambitious for promotion is a good thing; the new ‘get into teaching’ ad supports this. It may well be good but it is not the only good. Aristotle develops a theory of human virtues or goods in which he argues that the virtue – or good character trait – lies at the middle of two extremes. Hence Aristotle talks about ‘right ambition’ – the midpoint between a complete lack of ambition and a ruthless over-ambition. I think it is possible to be overly ambitious. I remember working with one teacher many years ago who applied for every assistant head position that came up within a two hour radius. He spent over 20 days out of school on interview one year. Whilst he alone knew his motives I worry at someone so desperate to achieve a promotion. It is important that we are careful when it comes to ambition as often this is more about our ego than a desire to do good.

2. Plato – only the best will do

Ultimately a better reason to lead is the recognise that we are in a position to much greater good and have more of an influence than if we did not. This brings us to Plato’s point. Plato argues that the philosophers should rule his ideal theoretical state – the republic – as they have greater knowledge. However one problem Plato discusses philosophers will not want the job; they would rather spend their days thinking about life, the universe and everything. Nevertheless Plato thinks that they would be persuaded as they would see it as their moral duty if the alternative was to be led by someone who was less competent and skilled. Of course I’m not arguing that philosophers should run governments or schools (even though in some cases they couldn’t do a worse job) I am suggesting that the is something in Plato’s argument. If you don’t want to be governed by idiots and you have the ability to do a good job then perhaps you ought to step forward.

Of course this is easier said than done. I have discovered that some of the cleverest and best leaders I know have bouts of self-doubt and often wonder moe about stepping down rather than stepping up.

3. Diogenes – allowing others to shine

Finally, one of my favourite stories from Ancient Greece is the story of Diogenes who reportedly, despite being the greatest thinker in the Kingdom, lived his live in a barrel. When the king addressed him asking what he would have him do for him, Diogenes according to legend merely replied ‘Get out of my light’ to the King who had dared get in the way of the sun. If as a leader we want the light for ourselves- and we all have an ego whether we like to admit it or not – that is not a good thing. Others that we lead are often shining and we need to get out of the way if they are doing a good job.

So, if you do aspire to leadership can I encourage you to check your motives before stepping forward and, if you are in a leadership post, periodically review why you are doing it. Recognise that periods of self-doubt are normal particularly for those who are deep thinking. And if you don’t aspire to leadership, that is also fine.

New Year proverbs

This year rather than a series of aims or goals – and I do have a few of those – I offer a few proverbs and principles as I head into the new year. Some are cheesy, most are borrowed but each in some way is pertinent for the year ahead. Perhaps some of them will resonate with you also – hence the ‘we’ rather than the I.

2017 was a difficult year but also a good year. It is likely that 2018 will offer more of the same. Perhaps this is true of all years. So here are

Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out – anything that is worthwhile tens to require long and sustained effort. There are those who look to make an impact with high profile projects that are more style than substance but I have always been a bit more of a plodder. Yet I do get there in the end and I generally outlast the hares that I’m racing against. I don’t propose to change this; there is a value in longevity. This year it is important to just keep doing the right things regardless of what others are doing of whether the things we do are flavour of the month or not. Linked to this …

Do something your future self will thank you for – this is one I often say to my students. Whether it is fitness related, study related, a career goal, or involves our relationships, it is important that we think long term not short term. May we focus on the long term in the year ahead and not get distracted by those things which are quicker or easier.

Get out of your own way – a song title borrowed from the new U2 album! As I get older I become more aware of my character flaws and realise that I am my own worst enemy. The main barrier I face is me! I am prone to imposter syndrome and can retreat into my shell when pressured – and those are just the two I’m admitting to! Being aware of our issues is the first step to overcoming them. May we in 2018 get to know ourselves more quickly so that we can master ourselves.

This is not my circus and these are not my monkeys – perhaps a surprise addition to the proverbs – and nearly omitted as I’m aware it sounds harsh. One further character flaw I have is becoming burdened with other people’s issues and trying to be responsible for and fix things that I can’t fix. I think it is a teacher trait – we often care far too much. Perhaps each of us acquires unnecessary baggage this way. The holiday has enabled me to reflect on a couple of areas where I need to step back so that others can take responsibility for their own actions and more crucially I can actually use my time on things I am responsible for! May we in 2018 take responsibility for the right things and step away from other people’s dramas or unreasonable demands.

Dogs bark when the sun shines but the sun keeps on shining – I love this saying which I think originates from an old Welsh Pastor. It is about criticism. It seems that the brighter we shine and the more good we do, the more criticism we attract. Criticism often says more about the person criticising than it does about us. Whatever we do, we are likely to upset someone so we may as well do what we believe to be right. May we in 2018 have the courage to keep shining anyway!

You can only play one ball at a time – like many of us when we look ahead, the year with its challenges both in and out of work looks overwhelming. We feel quite inadequate in the face of its challenges. Fortunately the year comes to us broken down into 365 chunks called days. We can’t do everything all at once but like the cricketer playing a long innings I intend to focus on doing the best with each day that I have. May we ensure that we don’t become so overwhelmed by the future that we forget the present.

Hope some of the proverbs strike a chord with you also – and best wishes for the new year.