Sunday 27 November 2011

Being a Postman

Last Tuesday me and my colleagues had a very interesting conversation. Me and another NQT were talking about the heavy workload and how we never manage to get everything we need to done. As soon as we feel on top of everything, we find out there's something else that we should have been doing all along but haven't (like emailing TAs with lesson plans and instructions. Whoops.).

We were hoping for the more experienced teachers to reassure us that after n years (where n is nice low number) you stop feeling like that and the workload becomes a doddle. To our despair, that's not what we were told.

My head of department (and mentor) raised an interesting point: that as teachers, we wish away our present and live in the future. We tell ourselves that at the weekend we'll have more time so we'll finally be able to catch up with work. Then by the weekend there's too much work to do in the time we have. We tell ourselves that during half term we'll finally catch up and even get ahead, but again this fails. We wish away every day as we wait for the summer holidays: the only time a teacher can truly relax (but not for the whole six weeks, and with relaxation comes I-should-be-working guilt).

One of the most experienced teachers in the faculty admitted he sometimes dreams of being a postman. A postman has a bag of letters to deliver. When the last lettter has been delivered, his job is done. He knows it's done because there are no letters left. He can draw a line under the working day. He then goes home and spends the rest of the day however he likes. He does not worry about tomorrow's bag of letters. He does not have to prepare anything for tomorrow's circuit. He doesn't have the pressure that a letter he delivered badly today may ruin tomorrow's delivery. He can't be held accountable for any letters' futures.

It's tempting, isn't it?

I asked him why he doesn't become a postman. They get paid less than teachers, but it's enough to live off. He thought about it for a second, and then simply said, "I just couldn't. I'm a teacher".

I thought of all the hundreds of jobs I could do instead of teaching. Some better paid, some worse, mostly shorter hours, but some with longer. I thought of having a job with no "homework", a job where you're not emotionally invested. I thought about jobs where you shut down your computer at 5pm, pick up your coat and you're instantly free until 9am the next day. And what conclusion did I come to?

I just couldn't. I'm a teacher.

Emma x x x

Sunday 20 November 2011

The End of Starters

All of my lessons start in exactly the same way: the date, title, learning objective and starter are projected onto the IWB, the pupils copy them down and then do the starter. They know this is the routine, by now they don't need to be told.

Sounds brilliant doesn't it? You might even be jealous that I have such a wonderful and consistent system. One of my colleagues and fellow-NQT sometimes admits to me guiltily that she sometimes doesn't do a starter. She beats herself up about it, thinking she must be a failure because we all know that for a lesson to even be satisfactory, there HAS to be a starter on the board the second the bell goes. To skip the starter altogether is surely the number one teaching sin.

I discovered this week that that's a complete load of rubbish.

This fortnight at my academy is one of the most stressful for teachers: observation time! The academy leadership team have given all of us a two-day window in which any one of our lessons could be formally observed and graded. Mine has been and gone, with little stress, but for some the pressure still looms. The atmosphere in the maths faculty office has been somewhat more tense than normal. As an NQT, I'm used to being observed regularly, and I'm also used to being told I'm doing stuff wrong, so I wasn't particularly worried. But for the best teachers,  it can be very stressful.

My observation went fairly well. My pupils were well behaved and on task. We were doing about answering wordy maths questions, which is a key focus for our faculty due to the crazy new-style exams. The feedback I got after the lesson was out-of-this-world amazingly useful. The senior teacher gave me so many ideas which I know are tried and tested and easy to implement and will probably work. None of this rubbish making me come up with ideas, she actually told me what to do. Although in doing so I also came up with my own ideas. Now that's good teaching!

One of the things that I realised in dissecting the lesson (although it wasn't commented on until I brought it up myself) was how ineffective my start of lesson routine is. I had assumed that what I was doing was 100% the perfect thing. I had always been told the pupils should have something to do the second they come in, so they can start as soon as they're ready without waiting for other pupils to come in and unpack. I don't know whose stupid idea this was but I've realised now it doesn't actually work or make sense!

My pupils know that when they come in they have to write down the date, title and LO and do the starter, but they do so at their own leisurely pace. They start it when they're ready, which for some means as soon as they're unpacked, for others means after they've talked to the person behind them about the match last night. There's no clear start to the lesson, it just start of gradually blends into existence. After I think 90% of pupils have finished the starter, I begin the "actual" lesson. This can sometimes take 10-15 minutes, and most of the time the pupils have learnt nothing. How pointless!

Consider this method instead (often used by my aforementioned colleague, who feels guilty about it): the pupls come in, there is the LO on the board which they can start to copy. As soon as every present pupil's bum is on a seat, the teacher instructs the class to turn to their homework. The answers are then discussed, and some probing questions are asked and answered. Any late pupils realise they are late because the teacher is at the front talking and the class is quiet. They must walk to their seats quietly and shame-faced. Pupils always do their homework because if they don't they won't be able to participate in the first 10 minutes of the lesson. The activity you would normally do as a starter is then done afterwards, but the teacher can actually explain how to do it verbally rather than having to explain it in three lines on a PowerPoint slide.

Can you see immediately how much better that would be? The only barrier would be the pupils arriving in dribs and drabs. I say wait until 50% of the class is there and then start. As the pupils get used to this, I bet lateness would decrease. If you have the corridor space, you could have the pupils line up outside and that would solve the problem too.

From now on this is how all of my lessons are going to start. It will encourage me to remember to set homework every lesson (as is my academy's policy, and most schools' policies these days) and should also improve homework completion. It will also save me marking homework. But most of all, it will give my lessons a much more purposeful and swift start, setting the pace for the rest of the lesson.

What are your thoughts on starters? Do you find them useful? Necessary? How do you use them?

And to anyone with observations looming: remember this is a brilliant opportunity to realise things about your teaching and lesson structure that you weren't aware of. It has helped me immensely.

Emma x x x

Sunday 13 November 2011

Thank You for the Maths: Dedicated to my Maths Teachers

As a teacher, I've noticed that although you're changing peoples' lives every day, it's quite rare to be thanked. I know I've not been in the game long, but I've yet to have a proper, sincere, thank you from a student.

I can't really complain about this though, because when I was a student, I never thanked my teachers. And I have a lot to thank them for: outstanding GCSE and A level results, a maths degree and a postgraduate qualification. They did good. (OK, except maybe my English teacher...)

So here it is, long overdue and probably misdirected: my thank you to all of my maths teachers.

When I started secondary school, maths wasn't my favourite subject. I did like it, and I knew I was good at it because they'd put me in for the level 6 paper in my year 6 SATs. I seem to remember saying that English was my favourite subject back then, because I loved reading. At some point in my school career, I went from not really caring about maths one way or the other, to absolutely loving it. Who's responsible for this transformation? It had to have been my maths teachers.

I don't remember many particularly fancy lessons. We didn't have an interactive whiteboard and the most kinaesthetic we ever got was cutting and sticking. But the care and support my teachers gave me got me through my GCSEs, A levels, and degree with good marks, and inspired me to become a maths teacher myself.

When I was in year seven I did something pretty bad. The worst thing I've ever done to this day. And my maths teacher was the victim of it. What I was so grateful for was that she put it behind us straight away and still treated me the way she would any other student. A few years later she taught me AS maths and she did a truly excellent job, delivering what I realise now is a very tricky syllabus in such a straightforward way. I owe my success in C1 and C2 to her and my other AS teacher. What this has taught me is that when a pupil does something bad, even if it feels like a personal attack, I should try not to let it ruin the relationship. Because that pupil probably doesn't mean it at all, and will appreciate everything I've done for them in ten years' time.

My A level maths teachers (2 for AS, 2 for A2) greatly influenced my life as it is today. It is because of them I chose to do maths at uni, it is because of them I chose the particular uni that I did, and it is because of them I'm now a maths teacher. A lot of the teaching techniques I use I subconsciously picked up from them. Their teaching is still helping me today, as I use lesson ideas I picked up from them 6 years ago.

I want my teachers to know how much I appreciated the comments they wrote on my work and on my reports. I realise now how long they take to write, but they really do have an impact. I still remember many of the comments they made at parents' evening, and every now and again I like to read my school reports and I still feel that warm glow of pride. Unfortunately I also still remember the time my year 9 geography teacher wrote "Is this some kind of joke?" next to the essay I'd written for homework.OK, so I'd written it on the bus on the way there but it wasn't that bad!

I wish I'd said a proper thank you when I was still in school. Not the day I left sixth form, but way back in year seven, and eight, and every year after. Once a week, every lesson, every time they marked my work, the first time they got me to explain something at the board (that was the moment I knew I wanted to be a teacher). I didn't say it then so I'm saying it now: THANK YOU!

What would you thank your teachers for if you could go back in time? What do you think your students will be thanking you for in 10 years?

Emma x x x

Saturday 5 November 2011

My Top Ten School-Related Novels

I'll let you in on a big secret. There is something I love more than maths. I know, big shock, right? That something is reading. I love to read. I'm not sure if I particularly enjoy books about school, although many of this list are my favourites. If there are books on this list you've not read, consider yourself a bad teacher and go and read them!

10. Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

Christopher Brookmyre is a Scottish crime writer with a dark sense of humour. I find him hilarious but sometimes heavy-going. You have to be quite clever to get him sometimes.

Pandaemonium is a book about a class of pupils in their final year of secondary school, so they're 16/17, who go on a "bonding" trip to one of those outdoor pursuits team building places, which they later discover is also a top-secret MOD facility. At some point the story turns into a huge zombie-fest, and there is a HUGE amount of guts and gore and paranormal science and religion, but that's not what I'm interested in.

Every other chapter of the book is based in some lab somewhere and it's about demons and religion and stuff, which I found boring. Every time I re-read this book I skip those bits. The other chapters are about the school kids and it is pure comic genius. There are loads of different characters, all of which are interesting and engaging. And the characters were actually somewhat realistic. Often books that are set at school are so out of touch with reality (Cathy Hopkins, I'm looking at you!) but this was perfect.

The only slight problem is that after reading this book you will NEVER want to organise a school trip.

9. The Wayside School Series by Louis Sachar

These books are about a class of pupils from an unusual elementary school. Each chapter fouses on a different event, so each book feels like twenty short stories rather than one longer one. These books are written for kids, maybe 7 - 11 year olds, but the wordplay is so unbelievably clever and the stories are so original, I absolutely love reading these books even at my age. There is even a chapter which would make a good maths lesson. These books make me laugh at loud, and also go "ooohhh" because the logic is so brilliant. I haven't described these books well at all, you'll have to read them to understand.

8. The Twins at St Clare's by Enid Blyton

I loved these books when I was about 9 years old, and I still loved them when I decided to re-read them aged 18. These six books are about two girls' careers at boarding school, from year 7 up to year 11. Sadly Enid died before she could write about the twins in sixth form, although Pamela Cox has written what I'm going to underminingly call a "fan fic" book about the twins in sixth form, which I don't like simply because it's not cannon.

 The books cover lots of typical schooly things: lacrosse matches, lessons, exams, failing, doing well, school plays, midnight feasts, making friends, bullying, falling out, teachers... Oh yeah, a weird thing about this book is that bullying is seen as a good thing. A big group of girls get together and bully another girl to "teach her a lesson" which is really quite awful. But in the book this is celebrated! I guess that's the difference between the 40s and now.

There's a teacher at the school called Miss Kennedy, who is highly qualified but not very good at contolling the class (sounds familiar...) and the girls all play pranks on her because she was an easy target. Miss Kennedy told the form tutor and she punished the whole form because of it. Now this is starting to sound way too familiar! This exact thing happened to me this week! In the end the girls stop terrorising her because the twins overhear her talking about giving up her job and then not having enough money to help her sick mother. Hmmm, a plan is forming in my head...

7. Love Lessons by Jacqueline Wilson

I love a good Jacqueline Wilson book. It's almost tradition that I get one for Christmas every year. Sadly now that I have my Kindle I won't be asking for one. Actually I might do anyway. I'd always unwrap it in the morning along with my other presents, and then whilst my mum cooks Christmas dinner and my brothers and dad play with their new toys, I'd read my JW and eat my chocolate raisins. The books are so short I'd always finish before dinner was ready.

Anyway, this book is about a 14 year old girl who is homeschooled by her over-protective father. After the LEA or whoever investigate and decide she isn't being educated well enough, she starts at a normal secondary school. She finds this hard because she'd never been to school before and because her family are very old-fashioned, so she was dressed oddly and didn't fit in with the other kids.

She develops a crush on her art teacher and tries to spend more time with him, offering to babysit for him (wait, did he really have a baby? This makes the story even worse) just so he can drive her home afterwards. At some point she confesses her feelings to him and well, here comes the creepy bit: eventually he reciprocates! They actually kiss a little bit too. I can't remember the details that clearly, but the school finds out that something was going on. Now here's the awful bit: the teacher is not fired and put on the black list! Instead the girl is moved to a different school! Sorry for spoiling the ending, but it is quite predictable anyway.

I seem to have dissed this book quite a bit in my description above, but actually I loved it. The main character is very original and well-written. The idea of her falling in love with her teacher is believable and a little bit thrilling, although the idea of him reciprocating is not believable but still, to be honest, a little bit thrilling (but when I first read this I was a student, not a teacher). If I read this book now and enjoyed it I'd probably feel guilty.

Reading reviews of this book on Amazon is quite funny. The mums have all given it 1 star and said it's disgusting and not suitable for girls under 16, but reviews from 10 year old girls all have 5 stars! As usual, I'm with the 10 year olds on this one.

6. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This is one of my favourite books of all time and is the original riches to rags story. It's about a little girl called Sara who is dropped off at a very expensive boarding school by her amazingly kind and rich widowed father. As her father is so rich, she is treated like a princess by all of the staff, and given her own bedroom and sitting room, expensive clothes and food, her own servant, etc. The staff and older students dislike Sara because of this, assuming she is snobbish and stuck-up, but most of them are won over by her politeness, thoughtfulness, and intelligence. But then her father dies suddenly after losing his entire fortune and Sara's room, servant and posessions are taken off her, as well as her right to attend lessons. She is allowed to remain at the school but must work as a scullery maid and sleep in the attic where there are rats. Sara's amazing imagination means that she survives this change and adjusts to her new life with a positive frame of mind.

This is such a nice story because it teaches you that you don't need to have money to be happy and that whether you have money or not you are still the same person. This book is set in a boarding school in the late 1800s and I loved reading about what school life and lessons were like back then.

5. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I read this book when I was about 17 and still secretly into the Enid Blyton type books about boarding schools and midnight feasts and the like. Prep is sort of the grown up version of that: it's about an American teenager who starts at a boarding school, and about her problems with fitting in and all that. It's really really well written, and almost has a Catcher in the Rye feel to it. It's like an edgier and better written version of your usual high school book (Gossip Girl and the like). It was interesting to read about a modern boarding school as opposed to the 1940s version from the Twins at St Clare's.

4. The Harry Potter Series by J K Rowling

Maybe you'll disagre that this is a school-related novel, but I think it is. Obviously most of the story is set at Hogwarts, and the main characters attend lessons, take part in sports, and take exams. Reading about the lessons is fun. Like Professor Binns' incredibly boring History of Magic Lessons (exactly like my own history lessons in year 7 and 8) and Professor Trelawny's lessons which felt so pointless and irrelevant (as art and music were to me) and all the rest. I liked hearing about the huge amount of homework they got in fifth year, and about them revising before their end of year exams. You know in the American version of the books, they change "revision" to "research"? What the heck is research and why would you do that before an exam?! Why didn't they just say "studying" if the word "revision" was too foreign?

The pupil-teacher relationships are really interesting too, especially Snape and Harry's. Actually what would be even more interesting, which we didn't really get to see, would be Snape and Draco's. Because SPOILER ALERT Snape was on the good side not Voldemort's side so Draco's father would have been his enemy, but he had to pretend to be on the bad side so he had to be seen to favour Draco as part of his cover. That must have been really hard to do, especially when Draco was insulting Harry's mother, whom Snape was in love with.

Obviously the Harry Potter boks are amazing and as I am so awful at book reviews (see above) I won't bother going into that. But yeah, I love them.

3. The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe

This is one of my favourite authors and this book is one of his best. It's about a group of kids in the 60s. Over the course of this book and the sequal (The Closed Circle) we see them grow up from kids into teenagers into adults. This book is mostly when they're teenagers though, so there's loads of school scenes. Obviously school in the sixties was quite different from how it is now, with the cane and O levels and there only being one black person in each class. The school scenes are hilarious and the storyline of both books is incredibly clever and all fits together really nicely. The characters are brilliant, especially as you can see them change as they grow up.

Please please please read this book, I really can't emphasise enough how amazing it is.

2. There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar

Yes that's the second Louis Sachar book on this list but that's because he is so amazing. Did I mention he wrote Holes? Brilliant book.

This book is about a fifth grader called Bradley who is a troublemaker. He's the kid in the class that nobody likes. He's a bully, he doesn't do his work, he's a nasty piece of work. The book is told from his point of view (although in the third person, if that makes sense). We learn that Bradley doesn't know how to make friends. We learn that after not doing his school work for so long, Bradley doesn't know how to start. The school hires a counsellor, and Bradley starts having sessions with her. Through this Bradley starts to see hope. This is really quite a heart braking book, even though it's not heavy going at all (it's really written for 9-12 year olds). As a teacher reading this would help you have some empathy for that kid in your class you really wish you could get rid of.

There's this scene where Bradley tries to do his homework for the first time and it's maths and you get to hear everything that's going on inside his head as he's working stuff out and that's really interesting. And then after doing his homework, he throws it away instead of handing it in because it's too much of a big step for him to make. My heart really ached for him at this point. It has a happy ending though :)

1. A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre

Another Brookmyre, because, again, he is one of my favourite authors. This book is absolutely brilliant. It's about a class of boys and girls starting in Primary One, all the way up to S6. It alternates between the past: the seventies/eighties when the kids are in school, primary through to secondary, and the present, where a murder has occurred and we are made to suspect that the murderer(s) and/or the murdered are from this class. Through the course of the book you get more clues until you can work out who's who in the present, although obviously there are twists along the way.

The best thing about this book is the humour. It is hilarious. All of the scenes from school had me laughing out loud. The characters are brilliant, especially the head teacher. There are things I recognised from my own school days, despite not going to school in a) Scotland or b) the seventies. There is also an underlying socio-political message which makes the book even better (I often like to ignore political themes in books. For example when I read Animal Farm I took it completely literally).

The whole murder-mystery thing makes this book really moreish and the ending is satisfying without being too predictable. It's the perfect coming of age story where almost every line is a one-liner. Please read it!

So there you have it. You can tell now why I'm a maths teacher and not an English teacher: my literary analysis is laughable. There was no Point Evidence Analysis and I used the word "really" eight times. Looking back I didn't even tell you the storyline of some of the books. You're probably thinking, "OK, you want me to read The Rotters' club but you haven't told me what it's even about!" Well yeah. But I can do integration by parts really fast.

Can you think of any more school-related books that you think are really (that's nine) good?

 I'm currently reading IQ84 by Haruki Murakami which sounds quite impressive and intelligent, but as I mentioned before, I'm ignoring all political undercurrents. As it's almost all political, what I'm left with is a soothingly bland Japanese book. It's the Mao Feng tea of the literary world.

What was the last good book you read?

Emma x x x