Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Cane: Could I Do It?

I read an article on the TES recently that said 'It's tempting': UK teachers respond to decision by US schools to reintroduce corporal punishment.  It explained that a school in Texas has voted to allow teachers to hit students with a wooden paddle if they misbehave. This will only apply to children whose parents have given permission.

I don't really understand corporal punishment. My parents never hit me or threatened to hit me. Obviously my teachers never hit me. My dance teachers inflicted a lot of pain on me, but that wasn't punishment. So I've never actually experienced working under the threat of pain. But to me, it doesn't seem that scary. Pain is just pain. It doesn't last long. I don't understand why kids would be so terrified of it. However, some of my less white friends have told me that the fear of getting beaten by their parents was very real, and was what kept them out of trouble in school and at home. As people who have experienced it, they reckon it works.

I was watching Orange is the New Black the other day and this line made me stop and think: "Men understand violence. They respect it. They're dogs. If you beat them, they obey you. Not women. Women don't fear pain the way men do. You have to find other ways to break them." Maybe there's some truth in that. Men are more likely to settle their disputes with fists than women. Teenage boys are more likely to respect and fear the strongest, most violent boy, whereas girls are more likely to respect and fear the most emotionally manipulative girl.

To me, hitting people and being hit just doesn't carry that much weight. Some comments on the TES article said things along the lines of "you'd have to be sick to hit a child" but I don't really get it. There are plenty of teachers out there who are cruel with their words and this to me seems far worse. A beating with a paddle is very impersonal. I don't think you would feel that negatively about the teacher carrying out the beating, more just about the beating itself, and that's over in a matter of seconds. But when a teacher tells you you'll never make anything of your life, that will sting for a long time, and you'll probably hate that teacher forever.

I think the thing I'm not considering is that it's not the actual pain that's the disincentive, it's the shame that goes along with being beaten. This would be even worse if there was an audience. But then again, some students would probably enjoy that, and it would add to their street cred, or even make them look like a martyr.

So I don't really know whether the cane works as a behaviour management tool. Are students worse behaved now than before the cane was banned? Whether they are or not, it's not really a fair comparison, because so much has changed in our society and culture since then.

Some teachers commenting on the TES article were saying things like "teach by fear - what a vile proposition". I think this is a strange thing to say. Are students really only afraid of being hit? I reckon there are a lot of students in my school who are scared. Scared of being shouted at, scared of getting a lecture, scared of the exclusion room. And possibly, scared of their parents' reaction when they find out. Is being beaten really that much more scary? I just don't get it. Anyone reading this who has experienced corporal punishment is probably disgusted by the privilege I am just oozing as I write this. I'm sorry. I'd like to understand! Explain it to me!

Now here's another question: would I be able to do it? Let's say a student had carried out a misdemeanor that didn't affect me personally. Let's say they stole something from the canteen. I can imagine that kind of thing deserving a beating, but I'm just guessing. I'm not sure why I'd be the one doing the punishment though... Let's say the student, male, for the sake of argument, was in my tutor group and that's why I was in charge of punishing him. Except my tutor group is 16+ which might make it a bit different... OK let's just say it was one of my year 9s and for some reason I was the one who had to beat him. Could I do it? Could I smack his hand with a cane? I think everyone who knows me, especially my students, would all say the answer is no. I'm always being told (by my colleagues and my students) that I'm "too nice". But hitting might not be that bad. You know what? I have no idea. The whole concept is just way too foreign to me. I'll have to ask a student to be a guinea pig and I'll report back later. (Just kidding, please don't arrest me).

The whole thing is pointless to think about anyway, as there's no way the UK would ever bring back corporal punishment. It is against human rights, and as a country we take that very seriously. This school in Texas will probably find lawsuits being filed against them soon. In fact, I feel kind of bad even reacting to such a clearly click-bait/comment-bait article. Obviously the TES is losing readership because of the summer holiday, so they have to put out this ridiculous stuff. But this topic was on my mind anyway, because someone recently told me a story of being hit by a sports coach as a kid, and how he thinks it actually helped him in the long run, and how he's actually built a great relationship with that coach since then.  Maybe it's different because he's Asian. I would comment on the behaviour management techniques used in Mosque lessons, but I really don't think that's a good idea.

All in all though, I have to say the idea of caning students doesn't disgust me as much as it seems to disgust most of the commenters on the TES article. Maybe I'm not such a nice person after all? Or maybe it's because I've never been on the receiving end of it, and I don't know how damaging it can be. OK, next time you see me do anything wrong, feel free to beat me. Let me see what it's like. I'll report back later.

Emma x x x

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

How and Why I Decided to Become a Maths Teacher

If you've been reading my blog for a while and are a hardcore fan, you will know that one really annoying question that I get asked all the time is "Why are you just a maths teacher?" I've written two blog posts on the topic already (part one and part two) but what I've never written about is what made me decide to become a maths teacher. Someone asked me this question the other day and I realised I had to think quite carefully before I answered. I don't think I'd ever really thought about it until then. I wasn't completely happy with the answer I gave, so I made a mental note to think about it again properly when I wasn't in the middle of a chess match. 

I know that when I was 7 years old I wanted to be a teacher. I know this because it's written in my first holy communion booklet (yes, I'm a recovering Catholic). I remember that I used to play schools with my dolls and teddies. My dad has always worked in education, as a teacher and as a consultant. My mum also trained as a teacher, and has done some teaching. But the reason I wanted to be a teacher was probably because I really liked my teachers, and I loved school. It wasn't until year 4 that I met a teacher who I didn't like, for reasons that are obviously far too scandalous to disclose on this blog (OK, it was because she made me stay in at lunch once for talking even though I was just trying to explain to another pupil what they had to do. What a bitch.)

Anyway, I remember fairly clearly that in year 7 my ambition was to be an English teacher. English was my favourite subject, because all I remember doing in lessons was reading, writing stories, and performing. Those three things were and still are pretty much my favorite three things to do in the entire world.  I don't think, however, I'd actually thought much about what teaching really involves. 

I started hating English as soon as I moved into year 8. Although we still spent a lot of time reading (and we were reading Holes which is one of my all-time favourite books) and writing stories and performing, I didn't like my English teacher, and I found the lessons boring. I remember sneakily taking Holes home with me instead of handing it back in, and staying up all night reading the whole thing. I then had to spend the next 8 weeks of lessons totally bored whilst we read it as a class. You know a brilliant way of ruining an amazing book? Read one paragraph per lesson, and thoroughly analyse all of the linguistic devices as you go along. Urgh. 

I think that for the rest of key stage 3 and 4, the careers I had in mind were a bit more interesting. I read a book about stock brokers and decided I wanted to be one. I considered acting and dancing professionally. I considered being an author (actually I still am considering that) and I also really liked the idea of working for a magazine. But mostly, I just wasn't thinking about my career. I was too busy thinking about important teenager things like will my boobs ever grow and does that boy like me back? (Spoiler: the answer was no to both). 

The first time I remember considering studying maths at university was in year 10 when I first read the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. If you haven't read it, you should. It was the first time I read about maths. I'd always enjoyed doing maths and I'd always enjoyed reading, but I'd never put the two together before. It was a revelation! It made me definitely want to pick maths and further maths A Levels. I chose French and Economics too, because I still wanted to be something to do with finance and trading. I was never really that bothered about being rich, but I liked the idea of working in such a challenging and stressful industry.  I also picked Psychology because, and I'm sorry if I'm insulting all psychologists around the world by saying this, I liked doing those personality test things in Cosmopolitan magazine. 

In year 12 I got really into maths. I started reading maths books for fun (not just for my UCAS personal statement). I was especially into codes, and I decided I wanted to be a cryptographer for the government. I loved all of my teachers for all of my A Levels, and being a Maths teacher was my back-up plan. I did briefly consider studying Psychology at university though. The main reason I didn't was because I thought that there were fewer people who were good at maths than were good at psychology, which made maths superior somehow. I know that's a load of rubbish. 

During my first year at university I wasn't thinking too much about what I would do after graduating. I think I had vague ideas about going into banking. In second year, we were offered the opportunity to do the Student Associate Scheme which is a three week paid teaching placement in a local secondary school. I wasn't intending to do it (too much effort) but then at the last minute I decided that if I did want to go into teaching, it would be really useful to me. I think that's what sealed the deal. I wasn't totally passionate about being a teacher, but it kind of felt right. Well, it felt safe and it felt comfortable. Also, this was around the time when there was a big problem with unemployment and the credit crunch and I knew that maths teachers were in short supply, so I'd basically be guaranteed a job. And applying for a PGCE was much easier than doing internships and work experience and appling for a job. So basically, I became a Maths teacher because it was the easy option. 

I applied for a place on a PGCE course, and was pretty happy with my decision. Once the course started, I really began to fall in love with teaching. Not the actual standing in front of a class bit, but the thinking that goes into planning lessons, and the psychology behind learning and understanding. The actual teaching lessons bit of it was my least favourite. It was really hard! But I loved talking about teaching and I loved talking about maths. By the time I finished my training year and got my first job, I was a fully-dedicated and very passionate maths teacher. And I was 100% confident that I had made the right decision.

I've been teaching for six years now. It's had its ups and downs. I've considered changing careers quite a few times. I'm generally happy, but I still can't help but feel I might be missing out on something. And I do still want to write a novel. And write non-fiction too. And part of me still believes my youtube channel will really take off one day. Part of me would like to work for the DfE. Part of me wants to work for Ofqual. Part of me would like to write textbooks and resources. Part of me wants to stay in school and be the head of sixth form. And a very small part of me wants to live in a cabin next to a lake filled with baby swans and play chess all day and not interact with humans.

I suppose the question of "what do I want to do when I grow up?" never leaves you. Or maybe we never stop growing up?  

Emma x x x 

Why We Should Get Rid of the Long Summer Holiday

I'm about to say something that all teachers are going to hate me for.

I think we should abolish the summer holiday.

It's my third proper day of the holiday, and I'll admit I'm enjoying myself a lot, with Pokémon Go and late night chess and sitting in IKEA writing blogs (free coffee on weekdays!) And of course there's also the fact that I don't have to be around children. But as much as I love my six weeks of freedom, I think British society in general would be better off without it.

Why do we have a long summer holiday anyway? It's not unique to the UK, in fact all countries seem to have at least 6 weeks off school in the summer, and some have much longer. For example, in the US they have a glorious 3 month holiday every year! This is because, back in the day, farm children would have to help out with the harvest during those months so they would miss school, and state schools in America were almost entirely populated by farm children, so they influenced a lot of the developments of the free education system there. In Japan, where they only have 6 weeks off like us, the farm children that made up the state schools did not have to stay home to help with the harvest, because rice, the main crop of Japan, does not have an intense harvest period like corn, the main crop of the US, and is instead harvested more regularly throughout the year. In the UK, our summer holiday is shorter because our farm children didn't have much influence on the development of our school system.

But even though our summer holiday is relatively short in comparison to other countries, I still think it should be shorter. I would keep the number of school weeks the same (39 weeks on, and 13 weeks off) but I would redistribute them. I'd have smaller breaks more often. (I would also make sure there was always a week off for both Eids, but that's a separate issue).

Why do I think the summer holiday is so bad? Well for one thing, it's bad for children's health. According to a recent study by ukactive, children lose 80% of their fitness (ability to run a certain distance) over the summer holiday. This effect is apparently much more pronounced in less well-off families. Low levels of activity are not just linked to poor physical health, but also to a lower attention span and worse social skills, both of which affect a children's ability to learn and progress academically.
“Our research with Premier Sport suggests deprived children are being plonked in front of screens for hours on end, while their more affluent peers are able to maintain their fitness levels through summer camps and other activities." Dr Steven Mann, ukactive
In my opinion, anything that causes such a huge gap between children of different socio-economic backgrounds should immediately be thrown into question. How can we justify such an injustice?

In addition, students who usually receive free school meals during term time may find themselves not eating as much, or not as much high-quality food during the summer holidays, leading to worse health, and hence lower educational outcomes overall. If we distributed the holiday weeks more evenly, the continuous length of time a child may have to go without decent food would be shorter.

Another thing is students forget stuff during the holiday. They forget how to write (I remember experiencing that myself), they forget how to do maths. But some students are affected more than others. There is evidence suggesting that two-thirds of the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and well-off students can be explained by the long summer holiday, although this research is mostly American, where the summer holiday is twice as long as ours. There are plenty of studies that have measured the achievement gap over many years and found that the summer holiday appears to be mostly to blame. The reason for this seems to be that middle-class children are more likely to be taken on educational trips (like to the zoo, a museum, or on holiday abroad), are more likely to be encouraged to read and be members of the library, less likely to watch TV, and less likely to be left without parental supervision. Whilst we can create summer programmes for deprived children to give them all of these experiences, attendance would still be optional and self-selecting, so the students who need it the most would probably be those least likely to get it.

Now, I reckon the summer holiday is particularly damaging in terms of maths. I doubt that many parents, whether middle class or not, consider enriching their children's maths skills during the summer holidays. They'll happily encourage their kids to read, to visit museums, to observe nature, to experience different cultures, and so on, but are they encouraging anything mathematical? How many children out there get a bedtime maths session? Exactly. And yet a bedtime story is synonymous with good parenting. There are actually loads of opportunities for parents to keep their children's maths strong over the summer, and none of them involve filling in a workbook (side note: I used to love filling in maths workbooks during my childhood summer holidays. I also used to make my dolls and teddies do them too. In fact I'm kind of in the mood to do one now...) For example, baking requires lots of measuring and scaling, and also involves eating baked goods, so that's a win all round. Whilst driving to the seaside, talk about speed, distance and time. Play board games that involve calculations like Monopoly and Yahtzee, or geometric reasoning like chess (no blog post is complete without me mentioning the benefits of chess). Construct some pretty geometric patterns like mandalas with compasses and colour them in. This book has got lots of nice mathematical art activities.

I just realised that the above paragraph looks like I'm telling parents how to parent and that's always a very dangerous thing to do, especially for a committed child-free person like myself. Parents: I bow to your superior knowledge and expertise. These are just ideas! Please don't roast me. Thanks.

The long summer holiday is also bad for teachers. You don't believe me, do you? You probably think that the summer holiday is the only reason you're still alive. But think about this: do you ever find yourself, during term time, putting off doing something because you're too busy, and telling yourself you'll do it in the summer holiday? Or feeling tired/anxious/depressed, and telling yourself you'll feel better in the summer holiday? Or feeling like you have way too much work to do, but telling yourself you'll catch up during the summer holiday? When do you start counting down to the summer holiday? Seven weeks before? Do you ever stop to think that this focus on the summer holiday is unhealthy, and that as teachers we're actually wishing our lives away? During my phase where I was really into researching happiness, I came across the idea of the "arrival fallacy", a term coined by Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier. It's the way we always think "I'll be happy when...". For example, I'll be happy when I've lost 5kg, I'll be happy when I get that promotion, I'll be happy once I've got a boyfriend, and so on. It's a fallacy because by the time you arrive at that state, you have already expected to reach it, and you've already got used to it, so it doesn't actually make you feel any happier.

If we constantly chase after the summer holidays, we will never actually experience proper happiness. And even if the summer holidays do make us happy, is it really OK to only be happy six weeks out of every fifty-two? If we had more holidays but shorter ones, less emphasis would be put on the summer holiday and maybe we'd be able to enjoy ourselves a bit more throughout the year. Then again, maybe we'd just end up doing more revision classes.

Additionally, everything I wrote earlier about children becoming unhealthy over the summer is probably true to some extent for teachers too. I know that my health has already suffered this summer due to poor sleep patterns, not eating regularly, and spending way too long slumped on the sofa watching anime. If it weren't for Pokemon Go I probably wouldn't leave the house. When September comes back around it will be really difficult to get my circadian rhythms back in place and it will be a huge shock to the system. The entire first half term always feels like an uphill battle.

So, should we get rid of the long summer holiday and make it just two weeks? Let me know what you think!

Emma x x x

Friday, 21 July 2017

Why Getting Rid of AS Maths Could Be Good for My Students

September 2017 sees the launch of the new Maths A Level course. All the other A Level courses changed a year or two ago, but the Maths changes were delayed because Maths teachers were already getting to grips with the new GCSE course (how considerate of the government, giving us two whole years to cope with the overhaul of two massive and important qualifications). The content has changed a little bit in some areas and hugely in other areas, but what I really want to talk about in this post are the implications of de-coupling the AS from the A Level.

Up until now, our students have sat 3 AS Maths exams in year 12, then 3 A2 exams in year 13, and then the two sets of results are added together and used to produce an overall A Level grade. The AS exams are obviously easier, but they are equally weighted. You can resit as many of the AS exams as you like in year 13, and your best grades count. From next year, students can take the AS Maths exams, and bank an AS in Maths. But if they decide to carry on and do the full A Level, the AS exam grades will not count for anything. 

The first cohort of students I managed as Key Stage 5 Coodinator produced a very surprising (to me) set of results. Their AS results were, on the whole, pretty bad. I felt like I had failed completely as a teacher and as a leader. Most of my students were below target, and our ALPS grade was really low. Some difficult conversations were had between me and the head. Then, one year later, those same students miraculously gave me our best set of A Level results ever. Is it because that talk with the head inspired me to turn my life around and become an amazing teacher and relentless pursuer of added value? No (I respond badly to criticism, anyways). I didn't really do anything different. So why did my students do so much better in the end? 

One possible explanation is that when my students take their exams at the end of year 13, they are much more mature, both emotionally and mathematically, than they were at the end of year 12. Most of my students resit at least at least one of their AS modules, and they usually improve their grades massively (S1 by 30 UMS on average - 3 grades, C1 and C2 by about 20 UMS on average - 2 grades). Everything they found difficult in AS just seems to automatically become easier to understand after learning the A2 course. I sort of expected this with C1 and C2, as C3 and C4 are mostly extensions of those. But it really surprised me that my students managed to improve S1 by so much, as S2 is very different and could probably be learnt without having learnt S1. I didn't do any S1 lessons in year 13, the students re-learnt it and revised it all in their own time. There isn't any reason they would do better in it after a year of self-teaching compared to a year of professional teaching, other than the fact that they are more mathematically mature. 

With the new system, there will be no such thing as resits. But I don't think it was the fact that they had two chances at a module that helped my students, I think it was the fact that they were able to do AS modules as older and wiser year 13s. As all of the content will now be assessed at the end of two years, it's a bit like retaking all three AS modules in year 13, but without having 4.5 hours of extra exams. This means my students' performance should really be better. 

Another benefit of the new system is having a much longer and more flexible period of time to teach all of the content. Every year, we struggle to squeeze in all of the AS content, often having to teach some of it during May half term, and every year we finish the A2 course around Easter and spend the last term doing revision, which students steadily become less and less engaged in as it drags on. With a two-year course and no half-way exams, we will have the flexibility to spend longer on the first year course if we need to. We could also choose to leave all of the mechanics and stats until the second year, or teach all the course in topic blocks with no distinction between what's year one and what's year two content. If you only have one maths teacher in the entire school who understands mechanics (and I know there are a lot of schools in this situation), but you have two groups of students, you could get her to teach one group one year and the other group the next year. It makes planning your scheme of learning a lot easier because of the added flexibility.

For this particular cohort of students, if they had not had AS results, that might have helped them get into university. Almost all of my students achieved a higher grade in their overall A Level Maths than they did in their AS. I had a student go from an E to a B, I had a student go from a C to an A*, and only two students out of nineteen went down. Their low AS grades stopped them from applying to some of the top universities or caused the universities to reject them. Our UCAS predicted grades (which I've complained about already here) were mostly the same as the AS grades, because we had no reason to believe their A Level grades would be any higher (although we know better now). It's not really a good thing that almost all of our students beat their UCAS grades, because it means we have limited their choices and decreased their chances of a Russell Group education unnecessarily.

One benefit of the old system was that the AS exams acted as a filter, weeding out the students who were never going to make it through the full A Level. This is good for those students, because it means they waste only one year of their life rather than two. It's good for teachers too, because it means that in year 13 the spread of understanding is usually less wide, which makes the class easier to teach. At that point the less motivated, lazier, and more disruptive students have usually left.

However, as someone who has a growth mindset, and as someone who strives to be inclusive, there's something about the paragraph above that just doesn't sit well with me. It sounds like I'm saying that the purpose of AS exams is to eliminate the students that we don't want, which almost sounds like we want a certain number of our students to fail. Also, a student failing (or doing badly in) their AS does not necessarily mean they are incapable of succeeding in A Level maths. It might just be that they have a differently curved progress trajectory.

For some students, adjusting to the demands of post-sixteen education is challenging and can mean that their progress is slow at first. These students would benefit from a two-year course because it allows more time to find their feet. Therefore I'm not completely sure that the "weeding out the weak" argument is fair or valid.

Another argument for having AS exams is that it can serve as a wake up call for some of the less motivated and more lazy students. There are always students (usually boys) who do well in their GCSEs with minimal effort, and assume they can get away with a similar level of effort at A Level. When they do their AS levels and inevitably get a lower grade than they were hoping for, this can be the kick up the arse they need to step up their game. One of my favourite manga series, Assassination Classroom, references this: (it's Japanese so read right to left)

I think this particular argument is quite a strong one, as I've seen it happen with many of my students. That student who got a C in his AS and an A* by the end is one example. He's extremely stubborn by nature, and after being disappointed with all of his AS results, he started working ridiculously hard. Without this lightbulb moment on results day, who knows what grade he would have ended up with in the end? And he wasn't the only one: I reckon around half of the class experienced something similar, just maybe not as strongly. 

Some schools have decided to enter their students for AS exams for this very reason. However, I worry that now that the AS exams don't actually contribute towards the final grade, students will treat them as mock exams, and not give it their all. Then, when their AS grades are below target, they will just say "yeah, well, I didn't really try that hard, I'll try harder in next year's exams and I'll be fine" which means they haven't received the full benefit of failing. I am also concerned that entering students for exams that don't even count is a big waste of money, in a time when education is critically underfunded. 

What we really need is a way to give our students that wake up call in a genuine way. Most students do not care about mock exam grades. Most students do not care about class assessment results, or working at grades or teacher predicted grades. They think they know better. 

Unfortunately, I haven't worked out a solution yet! Sorry if your were hoping for one! I've always been more of a questioner than an answerer. 

Emma X X X 

PS OMG I didn't mention chess for this entire blog! 

Monday, 17 July 2017


After school today we had the first round of this year's 26 leaving speeches. They were entertaining as usual, and mercifully short, and, like every year, I found myself coming away feeling a little bit inpired. Inspired to be a better teacher, to be a better colleague, to drink more, and to write a blog post.

One thing that one of my colleagues said that really stood out to me was about saying thank you. I've thought for a long time now that teachers don't get thanked enough. Senior leaders don't thank us enough, parents don't thank us enough, and the government certainly doesn't thank us enough (a pay cut every year for 7 years!) Occasionally students thank us. However, what I never considered until today was that senior leaders in school get thanked much, much less often than regular teachers like me. 

Not being a senior leader, I can't really confirm that it's true, but I feel like it probably is, because I honestly can't think of any time in my six years as a teacher when I have gone out of my way to thank anyone who is above me in the food chain. 

As much as I love to complain about some of the policies they thrust upon me, I have to admit the senior leaders at my school do their jobs very, very well. And although I would love to take the credit for every Maths GCSE and A Level grade that my students receive, I should remember that without the systems and the structure and the environment of the school being as they are, those grades might have been impossible for me to achieve. I'm also willing to bet that a lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes that I'm completely unaware of. I have to remember that, although they may get paid significantly more than me, senior leaders are not fat cat CEOs. They're teachers like me and they are driven by the same things as me: getting the best outcomes for our students to ensure the best possible futures for them. 

So my new school year resolution is to remember to thank those above me. This will be difficult, because I'm too scared to talk to a lot of them (yay for social anxiety!) but it will get easier the more I do it.

If you're a teacher, I urge you to do the same!
Let's all spread some love around the staffroom next year. 

Emma x x x

PS thank you for reading! :)

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Should Teachers Show Their Emotions?

I tried to write a blog that has nothing to do with chess but I did not succeed. 

I'm an emotional person. I cry after bad lessons where I feel I haven't managed to teach my students enough. I cry after (OK, fine, sometimes during) meetings with senior management when I feel like I'm not doing my job well enough. I cried this year after I left my year 11s in the exam hall, about to start their first Maths GCSE paper, and I cried last year on results day when I saw my year 13s' A-Level results. I'm a crier. My colleagues love me for that.

I'm not just a crier though. I experience a whole range of strong emotions whilst in school. I experience extreme annoyance, when I feel like I might spontaneously combust. I rarely experience anger, but once or twice in the past year I have properly screamed at a student to leave my classroom and never come back. I experience elation, when I am so happy about my job and my students that I can't stop laughing.

I recently attended a short CPD session about behaviour management, focusing on de-escalation techniques. I thought it was a really good session, and that it all made a lot of sense. However, one key point that was mentioned has really made me think. It was: never respond emotionally, always act detached, objective, and professional.

On the one hand, I can see that this makes a lot of sense. If you are trying to de-escalate a situation, adding your emotions to the child's emotions is probably not a good idea. Additionally, there are some children who misbehave purely to elicit an emotional response from someone, because their family life lacks emotional responses and they need to get it from somewhere, even if it is negative. Students become very good at learning exactly what triggers you, so that they can be rewarded with a strong and immediate emotional response each time. Therefore not giving them this response removes the incentive to misbehave.

But although I know this all makes logical sense, part of me feels like there's something not right about it. Teachers are human beings. We have feelings. Students learn about human interaction and feelings from observing us. If we choose to wear a poker face when a student calls us something nasty, how will our students learn that their words can hurt other people's feelings?

More importantly, is it really possible for a student and a teacher to form a relationship if one side shows no emotions? Would students even be able to think of you as a real person if you didn't show human emotion?

Let me give you an example. This is, of course, fictional, because I would never write about a real incident in my classroom on a public and non-anonymous blog, would I? Lets imagine I'm teaching a year 8 class and one student says something nasty to another student. I of course tell the first student off, and warn them not to say anything else, and follow the school's behaviour policy perfectly. Let's say that student then makes another nasty comment to the same student. I of course follow the school's behaviour policy and deal with the situation professionally. Then let's imagine that by this point the recipient of the nasty comments is starting to look a little bit wet around the eyes, and let's imagine the commenter then goes in for the kill and says something absolutely horrible to the same victim. How do you think I responded? How do you imagine I might respond?

Option A: Calmly refer to the official school behaviour policy. Robotically give the stock phrases from the handbook and ask the student to step outside, call for a member of staff to come and escort the student to the time-out room, and go back into my classroom, pick up my whiteboard pen and carry on simplifying my fraction as if nothing has happened.

Option B: Scream between gritted teeth (yes that is possible) "get out of my classroom and never speak to one of my students like that again!" (Adding two extra words between the "get" and the "out" but only saying those internally). After the student has left, apologise to your class for going mental, sit down for a second, wait for your face to stop resembling a tomato, then pick up your pen and simplify your fraction.

Is option A definitely the better option? It is definitely effective at de-escalating the situation. You are unlikely to end up with broken property or fisticuffs or verbal abuse towards you. There is a slight chance, with option B, that the student will shout right back at you. If that happens, taking control of the situation will be more difficult. They might respond by throwing a chair or kicking a wall, in which case you may have put your students' safety at risk. OK, when I put it like that, I'm actually starting to think Option A really is the best approach. Should I even bother continuing writing this?

Let's talk for a moment about the downsides of Option A and the benefits of Option B. Think about the other students in your class, the bullied student and the onlookers. What are they thinking and feeling during all of this? Let's start with the victim. They're feeling upset at first because they're being bullied. Their self esteem is getting lower and lower. They're trying desperately not to cry. They feel slight relief when the teacher takes action the first time. When it happens again, they're losing faith in the teacher's ability to protect them. After the third time, when the bully is removed, they feel a sense of relief, but they may worry that this will happen again in their next lesson. Their opinion of you as a teacher is that you can keep them safe in this classroom. The onlookers may be feeling quite neutral throughout all of this, and may not even be aware that anything is going on. Their feelings towards you as teacher have not changed. Now what about Option B? The victim may feel like you care about them. They might feel grateful that you stuck up for them. They may see that you understand how they're feeling, and that you see how painful it is to be called names like that. The onlookers see that you don't tolerate bullying, and they see that bullying is a serious matter.

The great thing about writing a blog like this is that it allows you to reflect. Looking at it now, I can see that Option B is unwise. It is an example of only looking one move ahead. Looking two moves ahead, you realise that blowing up like that could cause the situation to escalate and get out of hand, putting your students at risk. This forces you to look for another option, an option that involves two moves rather than one. And that's this: apply Option A. Once the offending student has been safely taken to the time out room, show the remaining students your emotional response. Tell the class that you despise bullying and that you won't tolerate it in your classroom and you can even say that you almost screamed but that you had to hold it in in order to deal with the situation in the best way. Maybe talk to the bullied student one-on-one and tell them how much you empathise with them and how sorry you are that they had to experience that in your classroom and how you're going to try really hard to make sure that never happens again. Talk to the bully, maybe at the end of the day or the next day, and explain how upset you felt on behalf of the bullied student, and that their actions made you feel angry.

I think what I've realised, by writing this, is that showing your students your emotions is good, but not spontaneously. Think it through. Emotions without an audience are also probably better. Talking about how you felt in the past is also probably better than talking about how you feel right now. "I was really angry yesterday when you said ---- to ----, do you understand why?" This allows them to understand that what they did was horrible, but they can look at it more objectively because it's like you've both taken a step back and they're on the outside looking in.

Of course I'm now thinking that me being so emotional is the reason why I'm not as good at chess as I'd like to be. Maybe I respond too emotionally and I'm being too reactive? In case you're wondering, I played three matches yesterday against real people, and lost all three. But I'm losing better than I used to lose. I played against the computer yesterday and today (on level 3 now!) and won both. Because computers don't have emotions? Probably not, actually. I think of the computer as a real person, and have been known to swear at him once or twice.

What do you think? Should teachers pretend to be emotionless, or should we try to resemble human beings as much as possible?

Emma x x x

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Are Our Students Failing Enough?

This week I've been thinking a lot about resilience. It's become a very trendy word for teaching and learning experts to throw around, but I do believe it is important. It's not just about being able to persevere with a question when you gt it wrong the first time (although that is obviously a useful quality), it's about taking whatever life throws at you and dealing with it. It's about not being manipulated by the media or caving in to peer pressure. It's about surviving emotional turmoil. All of these things are essential qualities for happy, well functioning human beings. And therefore, as teachers, it is our duty to develop these qualities in our students.

One occasion this week that really made me think about resilience was Sports Day. Without wishing to offend anyone involved in the planning of Sports Day, I do have to say that I was completely unimpressed by the students. Why were there students walking in a 300m race? Yes sprinting 300m might be difficult, but jogging it is not. And why were the students slowing down when they got close to the finish line, not speeding up? This worries me. Students who walk a 300m race and place 8th, 9th or 10th, have not really lost. Technically they have lost, because they came last. But they won't feel like they have lost, because by walking half of the race they have actually removed themselves from the race. Therefore they do not experience failure. This may seem like quite a clever defense mechanism, as failure is painful and our brains try to avoid pain if possible. However, if we don't experience it, we can't build up coping mechanisms and ways of dealing with it healthily.

Interestingly, the only race that was even slightly exciting to watch was the relay race. One person from each year for each house ran 100m, making a 400m race in total. Every student in this race actually looked like they were trying to win. This has some implications: students care more about their team winning than themselves winning; students are less afraid of failure when they have the support of a group who will fail with them; and winning is more valuable when it can be shared with other people. This suggests that one way to start building up resilience in our students is to focus first on group failure.

Lately I've become obsessed with chess. I'm spending almost all of my leisure time on, learning strategies and playing against the computer (level 2 out of 10 now!) When I'm not playing chess, I'm watching my students play chess, or I'm thinking about the educational benefits of playing chess, or I'm writing a blog about chess. I think chess is a really great game for helping students get used to failure. Chess is played one on one, and for one person to succeed, the other person must fail. Because somebody has to fail, I think that makes it feel like it's OK to fail. In a maths test, nobody has to fail. It is not inevitable that someone will fail. So if you fail, you feel bad. But in chess, 50% of all people playing must fail. There is no way around that. So failing is OK. You should still feel bad about it. You should still feel that sting of disappointment or that flare of anger or that flush of humiliation. You should still throw your Bishop at your opponent's head (that deffo wasn't me in Japanese club last week...) But it's like you have permission to feel those feelings. You are experiencing safe failure. And if you can experience safe failure enough times, it might just prepare you for the real, scary failure that awaits you in your life outside the classroom.

Do we model failure to our students? Do we show them how to fail properly? Do we demonstrate, the same way we demonstrate nice manners and good literacy and integrity and respect, what good failing looks like? Do we tell them that we failed our Art GCSE, or do we only mention the nine A*s we got? Do we talk about the fifty times we entered dance competitions and lost, or do we only mention the three that we won? Do we ever say to our students, "I taught you really badly yesterday, I'm going to try and do better today"?

We can't protect our students from failing forever. We can give everyone "participation medals" on sports day and we can remove their grades from the front of their mock exams and we can tell them that Art isn't a real subject anyway, but we can't stop them failing their first year of university or not getting the jobs they're applying for or struggling with debt or having to handle a leaky roof.

The classroom is not a big enough place to gain that kind of resilience. Students need to gain it from taking part in sports, theatre, Duke of Edinburgh award, organising charity events, work experience placements, taking themselves to summer schools or master classes on the train, and the list goes on and on. Unfotunately, these are the very things that are being cut from our students' timetables. With more and more focus on getting the grades they need in their GCSEs and A-Levels, D of E becomes purely UCAS bait and everything else is thrown away completely. In almost every school across the country, the laughingly named "enrichment" timetable is mostly made up of revision classes, intervention sessions, and homework help. Students can't afford to miss lesson time to go on trips or do anything that isn't examinable.

We may look at the system and think that there's nothing we can do. But we are still in charge of what takes place in our lessons, and we can still find ways of achieving this goal, we might just have to think a little bit longer and harder about it. I've found some great ideas from watching TED talks and reading various blogs and from conversations with colleagues in the corridors. I'm excited to try out some ideas, and I'll report back if any of them are successful. Actually, I'll report back if any of them are not successful too, because, after all we can learn just as much from failure as we can from success.

Emma x x x