Why I am an optimist

Teachers are no different to other people in respect to the fact that some of them will be optimists and some of them some of them will be pessimists. Sometimes when you look around a staffroom or listen in on conversations you could be forgiven for thinking that a higher than average number of pessimists had entered the profession. I’m not convinced that’s the case. I’m sure that most teachers start out as optimists and this optimism is gradually eroded by the comments of government, newspapers etc and sometimes parents, managers and students. It is actually quite easy to become convinced that we’re not doing a good job and that things are slowly getting worse.

Generally I am an optimist. Ok I am human and have my gloomy moments like the rest of us but there are many reasons to be optimistic

1. The students we work with are people. They are not predictable, they may achieve incredible things that we did not expect based on prior performance. We have all taught students who have just clicked in our subject area and made their ‘target grades/predicted performance’ seem ridiculous. Fair enough people also have the potential to majorly mess things up but we won’t dwell on that.

2. We can recall past achievements. Sadly when we do results analysis we spent much of our time explaining those cases when things didn’t go as planned. When we find ourselves gravitating towards pessimism it is worth remembering previous years and the achievements of past students. We have been here before and we can do this.

3. There will always be another day. The future is open. As I write this the sun is shining, the birds are singing in the trees, it’s definitely summer. Who would have thought it as it poured down with rain for much of last week. Situations change in much the same way and very often we have more power to change them than we actually think.

Emotions are strange things and sometimes despite the situation being basically the same as the previous day, we just ‘feel’ differently about it; no reason just a feeling. Of course the next week could be terrible but I’m starting to learn that it is rarely as bad as we fear. Let’s be positive and optimistic, you never know it might be contagious.

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Boundaries

Know your limits. . .

Where does your working life as a teacher end and the rest of your life begin? I suppose for many people it begins on Monday morning – let’s say around 7.30am when you pull into the car park. Well actually it may have begun the previous day as you tried to plan a lesson, catch up with marking and show interest in what the kids were doing.  But anyway that day is a work day until you leave the building at around 5 O Clock for the sake of argument. Although actually you may get out some work once the kids have gone to bed and come to think of it whilst you were washing up, your brain was mulling over a few things that happened during the day: what would have improved that lesson that ended badly? How can you support that student who shouldn’t really be doing A Levels but somehow they’re in your class.

The Hours

The truth is that it is incredibly difficult to figure out where work ends and the rest of life begins. We are rarely totally switched off even when we are not working. In surveys that claim to count the hours teachers actually work an average figure is around 53 hours a week in term time. I’m not sure if it is possible to get an accurate figure but for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that this is broadly right. Assuming that the average teacher does no work at all during holidays that would equate to 2,067 hours each year (53 x 39 in case you ask).

So how does that compare to other professions. In an article in the Times, the deputy Editor of the Economist Emma Duncan claimed that the average Britain works 1,700 hours a year. (I’m guessing that’s 37.5 hours a week with around 5-6 weeks holidays) This figure has apparently come down from around 2,200 hours in 1950. So whilst the rest of the workforce have experienced a reduction in the hours spent working, it’s probably fair to say that teacher’s working hours have increased over the years. When I first entered the profession some of the older colleagues I spoke to recalled a day when it was not unusual to see their older colleagues leaving the building 5 minutes after the pupils and carrying absolutely nothing. It was quite a cushy number if you wanted it to be! Unfortunately many of the people who complain about lazy teachers were probably taught by some of these characters

So exactly how many hours should I work? As we know the phrasing in the teachers’ contract is hopelessly open ended. The phrase 1,265 hours and as many extra hours as are needed to fulfil their professional duties is about as vague and as useless as they come.  On the assumption that we are paid to work 1,265 hours teachers are right at the top of the table, along with lawyers, when it comes to the most hours worked ‘unpaid.’

Boundaries

Essentially this is a question about boundaries and it is complicated all the more the age of e-mail and remote access to school and college networks.  Given that it is highly unlikely that anyone is ever going to come up to you and tell you to work less hours it falls upon us as professionals to have the confidence to set our own boundaries. However what is a reasonable limit. Clearly sticking rigidly to 1,265 hours (which would be 32 hours each week in term time) is impossible. In my experience anyone who tries to argue for this probably doesn’t have the best interests of their students at heart. Our students deserve our commitment but so do our families and friends. Hence we recognise that we may need to work long hours but how do we decide the limits?

  1. Time not task: Think of a number. What about 50? Why not limit your working week to 50 hours. Often as teachers we think in terms of tasks. We have a list of things to do but the list is endless. A typical day involves crossing three things off, adding 4 more and not getting any further on the remaining 10 because we happening to be teaching most of the day.  When we are task orientated we tend not to notice the time and we only stop work when we have completed a certain number of tasks. If we measured our working day in terms of time would we really get less done?
  2. Autonomy:  One of the beauties of our job is we do have some degree of autonomy, we don’t do fixed shifts. If we were to work 50 hours each week when would those hours be? What works best for you? Some people aim to do all their work at college arriving early and perhaps leaving late. Some people work at home early mornings or evenings and aim to keep the weekends free. Personally I aim to start at around 6am most weekday mornings and try to work 1 or 2 evenings at the most. Usually this keeps my weekends free and the total adds up to around 50.
  3. Time off:  Hopefully having a limit will give you time off to rest, enjoy your family and develop other aspects of your identity. It may sound counterintuitive but for many of us, working less would actually make us a better teacher. Choosing to limit the time spent working is not laziness but shows wisdom, confidence and maturity

Know your limits and stick to them

Identity theft- I am not just a teacher

There’s something I need to come clean about. I am not a teacher! OK, at first glance that might appear to be a lie. I have certificates that indicate otherwise and have wage slips, resources and other assorted stuff that suggest that this is how I have spent my time in the last 15 years. I suppose my main point is this. I am not just a teacher. It is not the whole story. I am a husband, a father, a son, a Christian, a member of various groups, survivor of some difficult experiences, possessor of a thousand wonderful memories. The label ‘teacher’ only describes part of me. It is not the sum total of my identity. Don’t get me wrong I am proud of the job that I do but it is not my life; however sometimes I carry on as though it is, as though there is nothing else to me, as though my whole identity is found in the classroom. Slowly but surely my identity is stolen.
To be fair, stolen is probably the wrong word. We voluntarily give it away. It’s easy to do it, to forget that our work is not us. The job we do matters and it’s important we do it well. We invest so much time into the job (53 hours a week in term time is the average according to surveys) So what can we do to prevent or relieve the problems of identity theft

1. Criticism – If someone criticises an aspect of your performance in the classroom (or more accurately a comment is made that we perceive to be critical) remember it is just that, a comment on how you have done an aspect of your job. You are not perfect nor should anyone expect you to be. One of our problems as teachers is that our identity and how we feel about ourselves is often wrapped up in how well we do our job, or how well we are perceived to be doing our job. This is a particular problem for us blokes who are more prone to measuring our self-esteem by how we’re doing at work. Remember just because someone thinks you should have done something better does not necessarily mean they are right. And even if they are right that doesn’t mean you aren’t doing the rest of the job pretty well.
2. Contentment – Learn to be content in what you’ve done. Teachers seem to have a default setting that drives them to be perfectionists. Aiming for excellence is one thing but drives ourselves mad in the process and wearing ourselves out ultimately achieves nothing for us and does not benefit those that we teach. Sometimes it takes courage to stop and say ‘this isn’t perfect but it’s good enough and besides I need to stop now so that I am fresh for the next day.’
3. Cultivate – Cultivate other aspects of your identity. Deliberately do other things that are not related to work. Plan an evening with the children, have someone round for a meal. Take up a hobby and plan time to do this, learn new skills. It’s easy to protest that we don’t have time for such things but let’s think about that one. Are we really saying that our role as a teacher is so important that everything else has to be put on hold? And if so until when? Our students connect with us as people and if all we are is related to the job we do then slowly but surely we will start to die inside. We will become less interesting and less effective.

So we are not just teachers. This week, try to make sure that you preserve your identity in a demanding but fulfilling job. I am Chris Eyre – I am not just a teacher. What about you?

When Jesus came to school

Dear Headmaster (I know that Headteacher is the politically correct term but I know that you are a man and you would have been called Headmaster in my day)

I am writing to express my concern over my son’s new teacher. I’m not sure of the gentleman’s full name but he is referred to as Jesus by the pupils. I must say I find this a little informal and am unsure as to the wisdom of him allowing students to know him personally in this sense. My concerns about this man’s methods are in 3 main areas

1) Numeracy: I am all for using real items to illustrate abstract Mathematics but the lesson involving loaves and fish has caused my son much confusion. He now believes that 5+2 = several thousand. Likewise the idea that the more you give away, the more you are likely to receive makes no sense.

2) PE: I was delighted to learn that my son was to have swimming lessons and perhaps should have been more suspicious when his trunks were dry after the first two weeks. I can assure you that, having friends that are experts in health and safety, the practice of walking across deep water is not something that can ever be justified on a risk assessment. In addition there are equal opportunities issues involved in telling disabled children to get up and join in the 100metres race. The fact that they then did so merely illustrates the deep psychological trauma they must have suffered.

3) Geography: Our atlases at home are ruined! It may well be that faith can move mountains but I’m afraid my son takes things very literally. There is now a huge patch of tippex where the Himalayas used to be. It would seem that Mr Jesus’ own geographical knowledge is woefully out of date. I can only assume that the Kingdom of God that he refers to is the old name for some African country in the same way that Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. The homework task of seeking first the Kingdom of God was all very well but I think that France is much easier to find for the average 7 year old.

I am told that Mr Jesus is held to be quite important by people in the school and I understand that there was some excitement as to his presence in the school. Unfortunately I fail to see the significance myself. Like most of the parents at St Sid’s I am not religious and only attended church a few times prior to the admissions procedure. As far as I can tell, this Jesus was not present in the church and most members did not seem to have heard of him. What is currently happening shows a blatant disregard for the accepted practices of education. My child may well be happier than ever and loving school but I am not sure that this new teacher knows which levels he is working on. I am sure that you will agree with me that this Mr Jesus has no place within a church school.

Yours Sincerely

Major Seymour Wright-Whinger

Every end is also a beginning.

Tuesday  3.15pm and I have become emotional. I finished teaching my last lesson an hour or so ago. A year 7 group visiting the college for the afternoon. Our own students left for the summer last week ands so this was the only teaching in the building today. Then it hit me. We are moving sites in the summer and I’d just taught the last ever lesson at Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College’s current site. As I had merrily and with some relief waved the year 7’s away, so had ended 40 years of teaching on the current site. Although I have only been at the college for 7 years I was overwhelmed by a sudden sense of history. It sneaked up on me unexpectedly and so if you’ll excuse I will throw out my thoughts.

It’s very easy at times like this to get nostalgic and remember the good old days. I’m told that the good old days involved 2 hour lunch breaks, playing tennis most of the summer and one member of staff who would set his group work, go for a swim, and return to finish off the lesson. Yet despite these oddities and other things that Ofsted would no doubt deem inadequate, for 40 years many have stood in front of classes in this building and day after day brought learning and inspiration to generations. The horizons of ordinary teenagers in Stoke have been broadened. Students have been set on paths that have taken them to far off places both literally and in a figurative sense. I imagined all those staff who had gone before, both living and dead, sitting in on the last ever lesson at Fenton. What would they have made of this moment?

It would have been quite alien to many of them no doubt. Here a group of 15 or so 12 year olds out of school for an afternoon possibly to give their poor teachers a rest. They fidget and twitch, distract and insult. Yet these are the great multi-taskers. They are also engaged for the most part despite their limited concentration. This is widening participation in action. They love the puzzles on the presentation, the humour, the competitive element of the quizzes, the drinks and biscuits at break time. However none of them have pens and seem aghast that I might actually be trying to teach them something. ‘This lesson is boring’ announces one of them before he enters the room. I am amazed. Does he have a prophetic gift? ‘This is a cheating college’ says a member of one of the quiz teams who narrowly fail to take the prize. In years gone by this might have been an opportunity to use the cane, nowadays we call it the voice of the learner.

Whether we like it or not things are different. As teachers we now have technologies available to us that former colleagues couldn’t dream of. We can select videos clips on anything within seconds. We have more data than we know what to do with. However something of this job is timeless. The key to doing it well is still human interaction. The ability to be in front of a class and hold their attention, give them an enjoyable experience and inspire them on their learning journey. That’s something that technology alone cannot supply. Technology is the icing to the teaching cake. I have worked with some great characters over my career at the college and in school. I hope to continue to work with a new generation of great teachers.  I hope that the Ofsted microchip falls out of some of us and we rediscover the creativity and originality that makes a great teacher. After all it’s the teachers that are different that inspire us.

Anyway enough rambling but as we bring this chapter to an end, we inevitably begin a new one. Every end is also a beginning. To quote one of my pastor’s favourite sayings; “hats off to the past but coats off to the future.” Every end should be marked and celebrated not lamented. It’s easy because we’re busy to rush ahead without pausing to reflect.

There’s much to celebrate and many people’s contributions to remember. They got us here but it is for us to take it further. The baton is passed. Tomorrow’s a new day; there is a new building, with new opportunities and challenges. How will we do?  I look around the staffroom and somehow think we’ll be fine. Now who fancies teaches the first ever lesson in the ne building?

The Lost Student

Recently at college I re-enacted the Parable of the Lost Sheep. For those not familiar with the story it involves a shepherd who has a hundred sheep. One of them goes missing and the shepherd, having secured the 99, goes looking for the lost sheep, finds it and has a big party to celebrate its return. And so to the college version. One of my students is lost. Not literally of course because we actually know where he is. He is at home in bed. Next day is the exam and we need to know where we stand. Will the lost student turn up? Only he hasn’t been to college for over two weeks. We need to know so that he can be withdrawn. If he doesn’t turn up he gets counted in our figures. A telephone conversation earlier in the week with his mother she revealed that although there were minor health worries he was well enough to be in but he didn’t appear.
Hence I decide to take time out to ring him personally. We have 3 different numbers for our lost student: 2 mobiles and a landline. I rang all three without a response. Suddenly something snapped. Having availed myself of the services of multimap, I got into my car and headed for his house. I parked up in the heart of one of the more interesting areas of Stoke-on-Trent. Having kissed my car goodbye I headed to his front door. Past the couple shouting in the front garden, past the barking dogs and up the path. A light was on in the living room and (although I cannot be sure) a shadow seemed to move. I knocked several times loud enough the shouting neighbours to look but to no avail. Back to college and the logging of information and alerting of pastoral staff. For me back to the classroom.
Fast forwards 2 hours and the Pastoral Team have played a blinder, They have found mum on the phone and been able to ring the student’s new mobile number. I get to speak to him. He assures me that he has been in all day and that no-one has called round. After a brief pantomime style argument about whether I really did knock on his door, I move the conversation on to tomorrow’s exam. I assert that he may be better to withdraw given his poor attendance but he informs me that He had intended to sit the exam. I ask which topics are on the first paper. He gets 1 of them correct. (We have gone over this just a few times this year!) I have done some revision he says. The faculty achievement tutor scribbles me a note to the effect of ‘can he pass? What do you think?’
Here lies the dilemma. He’s a reasonably capable student who with good attendance and effort could be a C grade candidate. But he has bombed on several timed assessments. Whatever he does will probably count against the department in terms of value added, retention or achievement. It seems unlikely but there is a slight chance that he could pass. He’s also got 5 days to get his head around the paper 2 materials. We will take the chance; it’s the right decision for him. Not sure about us.
What do we learn from this modern day parable? Whilst it is undoubtedly right that we make every effort with all the sheep in our care, I think my story differs from the Biblical one in three key ways:
1. The Sheep that refuses rescue: In the Biblical story the sheep is glad to be rescued. Some of our students are like the alcoholic who drowned in the vat of whiskey. They bravely fight off the rescuers. Still we reprint the notes they have lost, put on extra sessions for those absent, ring them to ask if they wouldn’t mind awfully attending an exam. Would my student who assured me that it was his intention all along to come to the exam have made it without the phone calls? Somehow I doubt it.
2. Are the 99 safe? In the Biblical story we are dealing with a very good shepherd who secures the 99 prior to looking for the one. When it comes to lost students I’m not entirely sure the same ratio applies but my real question is whether the 99 are actually safe? In total I spent over two hours on this one student. In between I taught a slightly under prepared lesson whilst my mind was on other things. I wonder how often as teachers our focus on the minority who are lost and seem not to care for their own progress detracts from our work with the majority.
3. Thinking, Knowing and not realising you’re lost: In the Biblical story it is obvious that the sheep is lost. The sheep itself knows it’s lost. Our students aren’t always that easy to read. The underconfident student spends much of the year seeking attention and telling me how much they’re struggling but actually they’re basically fine. They just need to up their game a little. For others the confident ‘it’ll be fine, I’ll revise for the next assessment’ hides a sea of confusion sometimes coupled with erratic attendance as they try to ignore or avoid the reality of how lost they are.

Finally contrast today’s events with another one of my students. On paper the weakest member of her group yet after 3 of the 4 modules of the A Level she has the highest aggregate in the group. Her marks are well deserved. She’s passionate about the subject, determined to succeed, and keeps going. One word, character! For others when life gets a little tricky and the course is no longer easy they crumble particularly if no one comes to their immediate aid to spoonfeed them. Some students have the character to succeed, others don’t yet have it. The problem is that we are dealing with people and it often takes us the whole year before we can spot the difference!

Playing the long game

Most of the things that really matter in life are not instantaneous. For instance parenthood is a long commitment. It will last at least 18 years and that’s being optimistic. Take relationships as another example. Friendships, marriages, business partnership all take time to nurture and develop and can probably be destroyed within minutes! Consider also talents and skills. To repeat a much used analogy David Beckham required repeated practice to develop his skills at free kick taking. Eric Clapton did not leave the womb playing the guitar to a high standard. It all takes time and energy.

 1. Turning students off the instant: Unfortunately one of the big problems we face in educating students is that society has increasingly gone the way of the instant. Coffee is instant, food is fast, a world of information is available on hand held devices. Our students are often ill equipped when it comes to the good old fashioned discipline of perseverance. If a website does not yield the required information in a second then we are away to the next site on the list. Likewise if an area of study is difficult, our students are turned away to the more immediate and easy. But education and learning as opposed to the automatic rememebering of facts to pass exams is important and significant. Like the other important things in life, it takes time. Education is a long game. 

2. I must be getting good by now: I can’t remember where I first heard it but I was reminded the other day of what business experts call the 10k principle. Put simply it’s this. If you want to be truly exceptional at something then you have to put in about 10,000 hours doing that thing. In 18 years of teaching I reckon I must be close on to that amount of time. I think I am a much better teacher than when I first started but I’m not sure I’m exceptional! Much of what I do is now instinctive yet there is always room for improvement. Often one of our difficulties as teachers is that unlike athletes or musicians we rarely have the luxury of being able to sit down and assess our performance. Those who could provide genuine coaching, as opposed to the ‘I no longer do this myself’ type of expert, are busy exhibiting the art of teaching in their own classrooms. If teachers were a little freer from admin and willing to be vulnerable enough to observe and be observed by peers, free from career threatening judgements, then I suspect that the quality of what we all do would rise. 

 3. Losing the battle and winning the war. Finally we have to remember that the long game of the academic year or the two year GCSE course is much more important than the individual lesson. Sometimes we have to be pragmatic and accept that each lesson we teach won’t be outstanding. It’s not physically possible to be perfect. In my 18 years, I’ve seen a couple of colleagues who were truly talented be perfectionists and work themselves to the point of exhaustion. Perhaps some of their lessons were better than mine but they had more time off sick, more tears in the staffroom and ultimately ended up leaving teaching. The importance of pacing yourself cannot be over emphasised.

Remember teaching is a long game, the day itself is not as important as we believe. It is the result of the whole year that matters. Teaching is a long game.