Too old to teach?

Yesterday’s Guardian’s Secret Teacher column caught my eye: ‘I feel too old for the job but I’m trapped.’

Having taught for over 20 years now, reached my mid-forties and this year published a book on teacher wellbeing, I thought I’d share a few thoughts

Firstly a few concerns. No matter what age we are, we have to keep growing and developing as teachers. The writer refers to poor student evaluations of her teaching and her frustration that CPD sessions are being led by younger more enthusiastic staff. I am not convinced that our teaching has to decline as we get older. I think I am a better teacher now in my forties than I ever was in my twenties. Mindset is more important than age

Secondly I am not convinced that the age gap to our students is necessarily a problem. What matters is our ability to connect and relate as human beings not our ability to make references to popular culture or music. Hence I’m not sure that this is as big a problem as it may seem.

Having said that there is actually a valid point that the writer makes and I suspect it is her main point. Those outside the profession don’t necessarily realise the physical and mental energies that teaching requires. The feeling that ‘I can’t do this into my sixties’ is common amongst very good teachers that I talk to who are a similar age to me. I’m not sure whether this is age related or just the wear and tear of having done the job for a number of years. Certainly I will watch what happens with Lucy Kellaway who has decided to retrain as a teacher aged 58 with interest. 

Those who, like the secret teacher, may feel they are becoming too old to teach have some unfortunate evidence for their view. On two separate occasions when speaking to union officials I have heard it said that most capability proceedings are being brought against staff in their 50s. Why should this be the case? Whilst it may be that they become disengaged and their skills decline, I believe it is more likely to be a simple case of the body slowing down and not keeping up with the energy required. We need to find a more dignified way of supporting these colleagues rather than managing them out as ‘failures’ in our compliance led regimes.

Some colleagues may counter this by seeking promotion to senior management. A few years ago I complimented one of our Assistant Principals on his lesson which I had overheard whilst in the departmental office next door. His honest and very modest reply was that given he only taught a few hours a week his lessons should be excellent. He didn’t feel he would have the energy to cope with a full timetable now. I think he would have been in his mid-fifties at the time. Senior leadership is hard work and stressful but it doesn’t seem to bring the same exhaustion as full time classroom teaching. 
Clearly we need to find ways of helping ourselves and each other; some of my own strategies are in my book. (Shameless plug…) We can make some progress in ensuring we have some success and longevity but I’m not sure what the overall solution is. We certainly need to manage workload and expectations nationally; there have been positive signs here and the better leaders understand this and don’t pass on their stress to staff. 

Perhaps we also need to be more open to part time working – and not just for those who are returning after children. Maybe we need to encourage younger teachers to career plan and think about what they may do – indeed what else they may do in later life. In my own case I have never seen teaching as a job for life; I love it and feel I’m doing as good a job as I’ve ever done but it would be naive to think that I could go on indefinitely. I have plans in place to do other things if the moment comes that my energy levels lag way behind the pace of the job but I wonder if that makes me unusual.

I hope that our secret teacher rediscovers her enthusiasm for teaching and is able to maintain some balance in her life. There is nothing worse than feeling trapped in a job you no longer enjoy. I also hope that as teachers we can find a way of harnessing the wisdom and skills of our older colleagues

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Lessons from my worst week 

When you have blogged and published a book on teacher wellbeing you inevitably set yourself up for a fall. When you start a half term announcing that #50isplenty, then even more so. I admitted in the blog that there would almost inevitably be a week in the term to come where I went over the 50 hours. The week before last was that week. 

Having started the week behind on a couple of key tasks including marking, add in two late evening events, a new topic I hadn’t taught before and a couple of other unexpected and urgent deadlines that arose at the 11th hour, I managed to put in around 70 hours and I entered the weekend feeling stressed and dejected. 

This is not something I wish to make a habit of and I have spent some time reflecting on what went wrong. Was I wrong to suggest #50isplenty? What about the other ideas in the elephant in the Staffroom? What can I learn?

Firstly I don’t think I was wrong about the ideas in the book and the blogs. The problem is that it is actually very difficult to do. The theory is sound but practically we don’t always implement them particularly when we get swamped. 

So here’s 4 things I learned the hard way during the week

1. Planning – when you have one of those weeks, you have probably stopped planning your day. Here I was reacting and crisis managing rather than being strategic. I caused some of my own workload by my own inefficiency and lack of planning.

2. Priorities – when you work one of those 60-70 hour weeks you have lost sense of your priorities. Certainly you have lost track of your out of work priorities. For me although going to the gym and checking in on my father were theoretical priorities, the reality was quite different. After all our actions give away what we really value. 

3. Pride – I noticed that several people including my line manager tried to help and offered support. Like the monty python knight I declined  ‘it’s just a flesh wound’ I noticed that it was my own stupid sense of professional pride that brushed off the concern and help. Heaven forbid that I should be seen as not managing.

4. Principles – generally my principles – particularly keeping my word and honouring existing commitments – are a strength. However given two unexpected urgent/important additions to the things to do list, this may have been an opportunity to offer apologies. Principles are general rules that occasionally throw up exceptions; I failed to see that last week needed to be the exception.

In the last week and a half I have got back on the wagon. 50 is plenty and sometimes things don’t get done. The alternative as I have discovered is far worse!

50 is plenty

Recent news stories of 60 hour weeks,  Debra Kidd’s honest reflections on her experience and the subsequent debate on Twitter have led me to a thought on teacher workload – 50 is plenty. This is something I’ve said for a while, suggested in my book, and have tried to live by. But now I want to argue it little more strongly. 

Here’s the solution – what if we just stopped each week once we reached 50 hours? After all if the problem is too much work, logically the solution has to be less work.  If the problem is too many hours then the solution must be fewer hours. Am I making sense? At the start of each week we would plan when the 50 (or less) would be and would stick to it.

The figure of 50 hours a week is not as arbitrary as it sounds. Studies in industry productivity suggest that this is the maximum amount of time where we can be fully effective. Hours after this diminish in value and over 56 hours a week adds no more than 55 would. We have all experienced those weeks where we overdo it and things start to take twice as long. This is unpacked in a little more detail in the book (last plug I promise)

Secondly, this is still conscientious and professional. If you were to generally work up to 50 hours a week it would be very difficult for an intelligent member of SLT to accuse you of being unprofessional. In the past some of those who have stood up for teachers rights have perhaps sought unreasonable things and in doing so have sounded unprofessional. Of course that wasn’t their intention but that was the effect. Note that I am also NOT saying that teachers must work 50 hours a week, merely suggesting that this becomes our self imposed limit.

Setting a limit may sharpen your time management. @thatboycanteach’s idea about #teachertimesheets could be relevant here. It will require good time management to ensure that we get the best out of each hour. So the Covey Quadrant and the practice of spending 2-3 minutes planning your list each day are invaluable. Equally where things aren’t done we should be prepared to share our timesheets with our line managers. If a manager is able to look at our working practices and suggest how we could use our time more efficiently surely we would welcome that, wouldn’t we? If we are being asked to do X and Y, which is the priority and what else can be left? Often our line managers are not aware of all the things we’re doing. 

As professionals we can also decide to some extent decide when those hours will be. For me four 10 hour days in college and one 7-8 hour day means little work at home except perhaps a couple of hours at the weekend. Of course other patterns are available, we are professionals, we decide. But without a limit things can expand to fill the space – we’ve all sat in meetings where there was nothing to discuss but the meeting took up the full time. Setting the limit may improve our time management

Like any good talk or article, the killer point comes last. We can talk about energy and professionalism but this is about our health and longevity as a professional. ’50 is plenty’ is a principle not an absolute rule and no doubt there will be a week in the near future where I will go beyond 50 hours. In health terms as a one off that may be fine; the body can stand brief periods of flat out activity and stress. The issues come when this is chronic – week after week, term after term. To be blunt your body isn’t built for chronic stress and you will do yourself damage. This point is made brilliantly in James Hilton’s ‘leading from the edge.’ We could also make similar points on relationships; your significant others can accept one busy week but if they hardly see you every week that is a different matter.

So does our health or our relationships matter? Like any rules or principles whether they are followed or not often depends on being aware of the consequences. That’s why the rule about driving on the left tends to be obeyed. The catastrophic consequences are obvious. Yet it is also why many people continue to stupidly ignore laws about mobile phones and driving. They just don’t see that the consequences may one day affect themselves or those they love. Could our workload be similar to the latter case?

So suppose we all decided that #50isplenty and tried it for the next 6 weeks, what’s the worst that could happen? I know that in my own practice as a full time teacher that when I am rigorous in imposing this limit,  my work actually improves. 

The truth about the 60 hour week

This week’s headline education story is the news that some teachers are working 60 hour weeks. It’s not really news to those of us in the job. For those non-teachers reading the story the first thoughts might be ‘surely that can’t be right? Why don’t they just do a bit less?’ In writing the Elephant in the Staffroom – a stress and wellbeing survival guide for teachers – a few things came to light.

First things first. The stat is about right. The average hours worked according to the DFE’s own workload diary survey of 2013 is 59 for primary teachers, 55 for secondary. For headteachers (and they are teachers after all) it is 63 hours. So yes, the numbers are about right. In fact the most important piece of data that has not been widely reported is that of the 55-60 hours each week, only around 19 are spent in the classroom. You know the 9am-3pm with an hour for lunch that teachers allegedly work according to some.

But surely the holidays compensate? I’m not so sure. Here’s some Maths. If teachers work 55 hours each week for the 39 weeks of term – that’s 2,150 hours. Suppose someone in another job had four weeks holiday. If they were to also work 2,150 hours in the year that would be 44-45 hours a week. Still above average hours in most jobs. 

The hours are increasing as are teachers stress levels as the non-teaching hours get longer and harder. Each of the 19 or so hours teaching needs preparing and work needs to be marked. Inceased class sizes mean more marking, removal of mental health support means more care for student welfare. There is always more that can be done. If we add in syllabus changes – significant ones – rushed in at GCSE and A level, league tables which rate schools against each other, and performance related pay based on the above it is easy to see why many in the profession are so stressed and why it is becoming harder to recruit teachers. And when things go wrong – and they do occcasionally – the teacher is the convenient scapegoat. 

Because teachers care, and possibly care too much, they keep going. It does not occur to them to do a bit less. Yet the evidence is that working over 55 hours a week crosses a threshold – nothing useful is added. Studies in industry have shown that working a 60 hour+ week achieves no more than what a 55 hour week would. If the case on energy levels does not persuade then consider the effects of long term stress. Our bodies can stand extreme stress for short periods perhaps even the occasional 60 hour week, yet this can’t be done over a long period of time, week after week without harming our health. 

One of the key arguments of my book is that given the system we find ourselves in we have to take our wellbeing into our own hands. One recommendation is that teachers self-limit to no more than 50 hours a week. So as a teacher as you look to the week ahead why not plan the hours you are going to work. When will they be? Which evening(s) will you go home early? Will you get enough rest at the weekend? Are the hours you plan to work no more than 50? Remember if we look after ourselves first then we may actually do a better job in the long term.

The elephant has landed

As you may be aware my book on teacher wellbeing  The Elephant in the staffroom has just been published. Previously I have co-written a couple of A-level religious studies textbooks, but this has been my labour of love.
I have been passionate about teacher well-being for number of years having seen a number of friends and colleagues struggling under the weight of expectations and workload. When The opportunity came to write this book I jumped at it with both hands.

The subtitle ‘how to reduce stress and improve teacher well-being’ is perhaps ambitious. The publisher suggested that having ‘how to’ in the title may increase sales.  Hopefully it will but there is a danger in seeming to suggest that teacher wellbeing is an easy issue and that there are magic wands that can solve it. 

There are no magic wands. Nationally the situation on workload remains as difficult as ever, there are thousands of teachers leaving the profession each year and many thousands more struggling on on the point of exhaustion. Of course there are things that schools and colleges can do on an institutional level although even this is limited given the national agenda. Perhaps most importantly there are things that teachers can do in order to help themselves. The book looks at the psychological struggles of being a teacher and some of the more practical things that we can do in terms of managing our workload.

Each chapter is less than 1500 words long and there are 40 of them – you could read one a day – each one has some questions to reflect on at the end. No magic wands but those willing to reflect on their habits and thinking will find a number of nuggets here to sustain them and help them to flourish in the years to come.

One of the things that I am most proud of about this book is that it has been written whilst teaching a full timetable. There are too many non-teaching experts (including some who have never taught) who are keen to line up and tell us what we should do. Yet as with other issues in education the solution needs to come from within. I hope that in this book I have made a contribution to that.  

An incredibly brief guide to time saving marking and feedback

As teachers marking work and providing feedback our aim is to ensure 2 things

  1. That we deliver good and useful feedback that helps students to improve
  2. That we do this without it taking over the rest of our lives – we have time and energy for planning and our lives outside college

Assuming that the work set has to be marked (not all of it does) and assuming that it has to be marked by you (not all of it does – peer marking can be used) the following are a range of useful strategies that I have discovered or seen used by others over the years. Some come courtesy of @mrsHumanities (Victoria Hewett) whose excellent session on time saving feedback I attended at #pedagooHampshire16

  1. Live marking/verbal feedback – if the class is suitably compliant and small it may be possible to get around and mark the work with the student sitting next to you. There is evidence that verbal feedback can be more effective than written. As I ‘walk through’ their work with them I am able to explain how an examiner might think about that essay. I convey more than a few handwritten comments ever can. I encourage the students to take notes on what is said.
  2. DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) If you have asked students to do improvements to their work it is far better that this is done in class with the teacher present to guide than on their home at home. If you have already seen it in class then there is no need to take this in.
  3. The self-marking quiz – It is possible to devise quizzes that test subject knowledge and embed them on the VLE or to use Socrative or Kahoot. Once they are set up (that’s the time consuming bit) they deliver great assessment for learning and can be used for several classes and for future years.
  4. Use the mic. – On many devices including the iPad there is a microphone. If work is submitted in Google docs or classroom, use of the microphone allows speech to be recognised and it converts to text. It is worth checking what is typed as the occasional alarming mishearing occurs
  5. Yellow Box Marking (via @teachertoolkit) – you can either draw a yellow box around the part of the work that needs attention or draw a yellow box after the work into which the redraft can go. The size of the box determines how much students are expected to write.
  6. Dot marking – (via @mrshumanities) Put coloured dots rather than comments on the work to which you wish to draw attention. You could even colour code them eg) red for error of understanding, blue for needs more AO2 etc.
  7. Feedback Grid – (via @mrshumanities) Hand out a grid or markscheme with the success criteria for the task in a table. Use two highlighters – one for things done well, one for areas to work on. Students can then visually see what they have done and what needs to be worked upon
  8. Marking Codes – There are probably 9-10 things that you find yourself constantly saying. Why not devise marking codes that are shared with students. These can be used to annotate the work freeing you to only write the key message(s) at the end rather than copious notes all the way through.

BONUS: As I am using the IDoceo App as my main markbook this year, I am able to as well as recording marks make brief notes on each piece of work. It is often 2-3 key words eg) poor AO2,  just to remind me of what the issues are. I am hoping this will help as we go forward so that future planning and intervention can be a little smarter.

Delivering RS Linear A level – January 2017 

Previously I have outlined our choice of spec, made some baby steps and how we organised our first topics, we have now done a term into October and I have taught 5 topics: the Ancient Greeks, Augustine, Mind, body and soul, death and the afterlife and Reason and Revelation. I wonder if next year I will start with reason and revelation. 
One thought that keeps me sane is that most of the topics particularly in Y1 I have taught before. So same topics -perhaps with increased depth – but think old A2 essay writing. The messages that we need to do more skills work and that we need to periodically interleave old topics once we get a bit further along are informing my planning. We lost a few students in the first weeks – more than we would normally do – I wonder if I have got the level of challenge about right (A level not AS) or whether I am going too hard. At some point students will need more independence, it may even be that they do some of the content in their own time so that we can focus more on skills in class – but we’re not ready for that yet.

Delivery Guides

As we are already a term in some teachers may rightly be wondering what support is available to teachers. It is great to hear that teachers are supporting each other through twitter, dropbox accounts and resource sharing. In terms of exam board support we are gradually getting there. The late accreditation of the course in May, the fact that the key people who would be writing support materials were flat out marking in June and July, combined with an illness and staff changes at the exam board have meant that it was September-October when delivery guides were being written. There are ones for Hinduism, Philosophy of Religion and Christian thought. Ethics is on its way. Remember most of the people doing this are also working as full time teachers.

Moderating and Sample Essays

The exam board has already appointed Principal Examiners – I am one of them – and the team has met together. A number of us are in semi-regular contact including showing each other some of the essays our students have produced and having a go at trying to apply the markscheme. Hopefully by the time we arrive at standardisation meetings in May we will be of a similar mind and not trying to find the standard from scratch. In October I said that we hoped to be able to make some essays and rough marks available on the website. 

JANUARY UPDATE : we are almost there with sample AS essays for Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Christian thought. These are for the questions on the specimen papers. The caveats are that the marks are approximate as no two papers are exactly the same and grade boundaries are only determined once  ost papers are marked. So treat the exemplar scripts as rough guidance; remember the standard is A level standard as it was on the old spec. There will be full A level materials but these may come later in the year.

Textbooks

There are now two textbooks available for the new linear Year 1. The Hodder book by Wilkinson, Wilcockson and Campbell is written by current or recent examiners. It is hard in places but even if your students aren’t up to it, it is worth the teacher getting a copy. The Oxford University Press book by Ahluwalia and Bowie although only at the preview stage also seems good. Some of us would like to write something at the level of the old Heinemann textbooks that might support the middling-weaker candidate but we need to find a friendly publisher.

Hope all is going well for people teaching the new spec and as a final thought if you do want to get a better understanding of the AS and A level, why not join us as an examiner this summer.