Archive for July, 2015

Students – love them, hate them, they keep you going…

July 18, 2015

Students – love them, hate them, they keep you going…

Last week was about the destruction of the profession of teaching, why it has become almost impossible to see a future as part of it. This week, reminded by comments on my blog and the joy that is the student beast, I must write about them, the students: the creatures that frustrate, annoy, winge and complain eternally but ultimately are the centre of joy in the world of education.

Yesterday was the final day at my latest school. It was one of those happy-sad occasions. I am pleased to be moving away from a senior management team for whom I have absolutely no respect, but sad to leave behind some colleagues and my students. The students are where the tears and sadness really reside. As always, it will be the students I miss, the students I remember.


This year’s highlights:

*Liam, in year 10, who has all sorts of social, emotional issues – think Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – spoke for the first time in years, and then offered to read and responded when called upon.

*Georgia, in year 9, who was permanently in trouble, every lesson really, and struggled with the basics, but a bit of bribery, a letter home (of praise), a chocolate and the tide turned and after Christmas – one day I noticed she hadn’t been in trouble since the term began and she was now making progress. Once the change was in it stuck.

*Jack, in another year 9 class, who was an absolute shit elsewhere but good as gold with me.

*Erin, in year 10, a silent sweet thing suddenly came to life with a stunning speech about art and her love of it.

*Lauren’s version of Lennie (from Of Mice & Men) in our court-room drama – one of the best I’ve seen.

*Shennay, of the ‘your an asshole’ who moaned and whined her way through the beginning of every lesson who managed to end the year with a C in course-work and her mock exam, despite very shaky beginnings.


*Ryan, from year 12, was openly homo-phobic, said he would reject any of his children if they came out to him. Another student, George and I embarked on a furious discussion denigrating his position, completely ignoring whatever essential bit of English we were meant to be focusing on. George and I were concerned about Ryan’s ethical and moral soul and so the discussion raged for the lesson. A few days later Ryan confessed that he had gone home and thought long and hard about what we had said and had changed his mind – George and I were right. His homophobia, if not cured, had been smacked about and permanently dented.

*Lauren, Sarah and Kaitlin presented a dramatic re-enactment of key moments from the year in 0-6 with Lauren’s appalling Australian accent – she had the phrases right, though!

*Year 9C lining up to hug me good-bye with gifts of flowers and balloons – even my bad boys – and trying not to cry.

*My 6th form tutor group for their intelligence, humour, recalcitrance, confessions, need for advice, trust and love. It was lovely to spend the first 20 minutes of the day with calm (not really awake) teenagers who don’t have to be shouted at, who can engage on matters in curious and interesting ways. I love them – Y-06, probably my all time favourite tutor group – although my St Pat’s lot were pretty wonderful too. And, you get a whole different level of gifts from older students!!

Yr12 prez

What I am reminded of is that young people matter. That literature and books and writing and spelling are important but it’s the other stuff, the bit about life about becoming a decent human being, one with confidence and a belief in themself that matters. My cards are full of those ideas: thanks for the help, thanks for listening, for being there, for believing, for making me a better person, for liking me even though I’ve been a shit most of the year.

I will miss my collection of Jacks (all cheeky lads), Ruby, Ella, Erin, Shennay, Georgia, Paige, my Liams, Dylan, Harriet, Katie, Kirsty, Paige, the Katelyns, Emily, Lauren & Sarah, Connie, Issy, Beccy, Shaun, George & Ryan and the others who have passed through my door this year. Some will remain large in my memory, others will fade but my memory of this particular school will be based on them, and it will be a good memory.

Flowers & balloons

My students remind me why I do this, why I continue to do this and why I rail against the machine – there is so much more to education than a C in English, or good GCSEs. We must remember that education is about the child, who will become a person, hopefully a decent citizen, one who will make a difference too. Happy holidays all. xx (Images from Private Collection)


End of Term Blues: Why am I still teaching?

July 11, 2015

Why Am I Still Teaching?

It’s nearly the end of another teaching year – too many to count now! But I end this year sad and uncertain: what is my purpose, what am I actually doing as an English teacher in this country, under the latest changes?

Up until recently I have been confident about the importance and purpose of my subject and my job. English is central to the life opportunities of the young, as is Maths (yes, and other subjects are important too!). English is about the basics: reading and writing, but it is so much more than that – it is about communicating, thinking, creating, exploring, arguing; using the imagination. Well, it was, and maybe it still is at home, in Oz. But in the UK, with every change that is implemented English becomes an impoverished subject; ironically like most of the students whose life chances it purports to support.

In the reaction to the endemic cheating or gaming of the system through Course Work and then Controlled Assessments, key questions were not asked. No-one scratched their head and said: Hey, why are all these schools and teachers cheating to get better results? Why is this happening? Dots were not joined and so we have a subject that should be about nuance and thought, time and consideration, about planning and editing and drafting that is being wholly externally examined. My subject has been bastardised by people who have no idea about English and certainly not the first idea about young people. My subject has been hijacked by people who did not struggle at school, who have not listened to teachers or parents, who reside in some sort of alternative universe where education is stuck in the 1950s.


Here are some questions that should have been asked before the latest changes were made.

1. What is the point of English in schools?

2. How can we make this subject relevant to non-readers, to those who don’t write, or see much of a future for themselves?

3. What skills and knowledge do we want them to have?


I used to think the point of English was to foster a love of reading, to encourage students to read for information, for pleasure, to develop their own language and ability to extract meaning from a text, to think about ideas and meaning and come to their own considered opinions. Fiction’s purpose was to start a dialogue, to tap into their experiences and move them beyond that, to consider other views, other world’s, other ways of being and seeing.

Reading lead to discussion, exploration, arguing, justifying an opinion. It led to accepting there were other points of view, other ways of seeing and understanding things; it also showed you were not alone, not the only one feeling the way you did. Reading lead to writing – personal responses, essays, critical analysis and creative responses, a story, a letter to a character, an extra chapter, and alternative ending, something original using an element from the text. Writing meant thinking, planning, writing, experimenting, crafting, drafting and editing before producing a final product worthy of ‘publication’ or assessment. Not a tick box exercise about triplets and wow words and as much punctuation as you can shove in to get an extra mark.

How many skills can you identify from that paragraph?

There is a large body of evidence that shows that reading fiction, especially good quality well written fiction, is good for us. It enhances empathy, our ability to connect to others, to understand people and how to work with them. Reading also develops our ability to concentrate, to sustain activities, as well as develop our vocabulary and understanding of how language works – the nuts and bolts of punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary choices and effects. We learn how to be good writers from being good readers.


But the new curriculum is not about love of anything – certainly not books or kids. There is nothing modern or particularly accessible on the new list for GCSE – a raft of Shakespeare, as to be expected, 19th century texts that many will never access – Great Expectations is a great story but too long; Pride and Prejudice a bit too much romance and marriage; Jekyll and Hyde may be short but its language is impenetrable. Most of the 20th century texts stop short of the 1960s. I’m not sure what these texts bring to a modern child, how they will find reading less of a chore, a king-size bore from the xenophobic list created by Michael Gove, the master educationalist.

I’m not sure what future the politicians see for young people, I’m not sure what they think they will achieve by a retro Sabre-tooth Tiger curriculum that takes no account of the modern world, of the impact of technology on language, on the way we create and receive information. I wonder what world these students are being ‘prepared’ for.

dead angel

I wonder how I will connect texts and tasks to their experiences, to make them see the relevance of what we do for 5 hours a week. I wonder how I can resist the pressure to make everything we do about exam skills and preparation, because that will be the push, the fear from above about exams now that we have nothing else to tell us how students are progressing.

I wonder how much longer I can do this job, dictated to by idiots and fools who have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager, to be at school, to be constantly tested, to prepare for a future from within an education system that is not fit for purpose. (Images from Private Collection)

10 Ways to be Professional

July 4, 2015

How to be Professional

While we’re on the theme of work, let me ruminate on this idea of professionalism. You’re being unprofessional is one of those phrases managers and workers like to throw around, it most definitely intended as an insult, and it is taken as one. But what do we really mean by professional, by professionalism?

When I was oodles younger I remember coming across professional in the context of sport – amateur sportsman could compete in the Olympics, professionals couldn’t – so American basketballers because they earned money, were out and most athletes were strictly amateur, in it for love and glory not money, like most people I knew who played sport religiously and devotedly Summer and Winter. Oh, yes, the world of sport has changed massively since the innocence of my youth.


So professional is about being paid for what you do. Hence a number of us who potter about in the artistic community – artists, performers and writers – don’t tend to call ourselves by those names until we have been paid. Professional is linked to money, to profession – to doing something.

My beloved Collins Compact Dictionary says: Professionn, a type of work that requires special training, such as law or medicine; the people employed in such an occupation. Professionaladj, of a profession; taking part in an activity, such as sport or music, as a means of livelihood; displaying a high level of competence or skill.

It is the latter definition, about high levels of competence and skill, or lack thereof, that links to being unprofessional. But it is too loosely applied and has come to refer essentially to actions or behaviours at work that other people simply don’t like. Accuse someone of being unprofessional and prepare to call the troops for reinforcement – yes, it is a red rag to a bull, most especially if the accusation comes from some incompetent up the food-chain.


So, lets look at how to be professional, to avoid the accusation of unprofessionalism, so we can self-monitor our own performance better

1.Know what your job is – there will be a description somewhere, read it, make sure you understand what the various expectations mean. Make sure you are very clear about your rights and responsibilities and discharge them to the best of your ability.

2.Be adequately and appropriately trained – basic training is one thing but all professions are constantly changing, so go on courses, read in your area, get involved in PD. Aim to be highly skilled, an expert in your area.

3.Do your job. You’re being paid for a specific purpose and you need to do your job – so meet deadlines, chair meetings that have agendas and clear purposes, circulate memos and minutes – yes, inform and advice your team, write reports, complete all your tasks to the highest possible standard within the time frame.

4.Learn from those around you – watch your managers, how do they act, what do they do when things go wrong, how do they treat their staff, how do they interact with their managers? Note: this only works if you have good people to model from!!


5.Accept criticism and learn from it. Being professional doesn’t mean being perfect. We all fuck up from time to time, take the feedback, consider it and learn from it.

6.Apologise. Same idea – you’ll get it wrong with those you work with, be the bigger person and apologise. It helps keep relationships on an even keel, gets things done, gives you credibility and a human side.

7.Respect – for yourself, for the work you do and for your colleagues. This means simple things like saying good morning, informing people of matters that concern them. It means treating people as if they matter, as if they are important to the enterprise. They’ll work better if they feel respected and valued. It also means avoiding gossip and back-stabbing and keeping clear of office politics.

8.Manage things – budgets, clients, teams, children, your environment. Being professional is about keeping things under control, making sure things don’t go pear-shaped and when they do getting them calm and back on track as soon as you can. Often your level of professionalism is judged on your ability to manage such crises, as well as doing the basics of your job.

9.Lead by example. No matter where you are in your profession, you should aspire to be the best you can. Don’t expect others to do what you tell them if you aren’t doing it yourself. How can you expect anyone to meet deadlines if you consistently miss them? Be innovative, share your ideas, invite others to be involved in change, in decision making – let yourself be known by doing everything to the best of your ability – be a model for others to aspire to.

10.Keep your emotions under control. You should avoid crying and swearing at work – neither is good, so watch that (note to fucking self!). Work is a place for calm and considered behaviour. If you’re upset about something – be it work related or other (our life does spill over from time to time) – then try to find a way to avoid situations that will make it worse: focus on simple tasks, avoid people who push your buttons, go outside, take a walk, take deep breathes, have lunch with like minded colleagues, have a strong cup of coffee. Oh, and avoid work-place romances – they really do compromise your professionalism!


We like to think of ourselves as professional, as taking our work seriously. We want others to think well of us – that’s a very normal human desire. But to avoid the accusation of unprofessionalism we need to be aware of how we comport ourselves at work. If we work with good people it is easy to do our jobs well. If we work with people who haven’t the first idea of what a professional does then we will struggle.

A professional person is highly aware of their skills set, their strengths and weaknesses – they strive to be better in what they do and, importantly, they want to make others better too. So, the next time someone utters those ghastly words – you’re being unprofessional – you’ll know the truth of the matter, won’t you? (Images from Private Collection)