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

Monday 10 July 2017

What Happens to Our Students After They Leave Us?

As teachers, we work so hard to prepare our students for their exams and we put in a lot of time and effort to make sure they get into a good university. On results day, we heave a collective sigh of relief when all of our students are safely onto a course (sometimes easily, sometimes after going through clearing) and we wave them goodbye and wish them well. We can then sit back feeling satisfied and think "my work here is done."

But what happens to our little baby swans after they have flown the nest?

I don't want to talk about my own ex-students here, because I'd like to respect their privacy, so instead I'll talk about the worrying statistics I've read recently about university drop-out rates among students that are from a similar background to my students, i.e. ethnic minority and/or with a poor socio-economic background.

A recent article in the Telegraph says that the dropout rate for disadvantaged pupils has increased.  Around 9% of students from deprived backgrounds do not continue to the second year of university. Universities are encouraged (basically forced) to recruit more economically deprived and ethnic minority students in an effort to widen participation, and many universities do this by lowering the grade requirements for students living in a deprived area. However, encouraging these students to join the university is completely pointless if the universities are not going to make any effort to support these students once they have joined. 

Universities, especially the traditional ones, like to talk about higher education as being very much about independent learning and no "spoon-feeding". However, there is a difference between "not spoon-feeding" and simply leaving someone to starve. My A Level students were very well-supported throughout sixth form. My colleagues and I invested a lot of time and effort into ensuring they got the best grades and developed the skills they would need at university. I don't think I spoon-fed them. I think I gave them the support they deserve. My students needed more support than white middle class students would need, so I gave it to them. People who call that spoon-feeding need to check their privilege. I call it levelling the playing field. 

But I can't support my students once they have left school and are studying miles away in an old building made of red bricks. When they find they don't fit in because most students are white and went to private schools and can afford to waste money on entertainment and fast food and alcohol and nights out, I can't do anything to help them. And most students have parents who can support them financially if something goes wrong, and who don't have to get a part-time job to support themselves, and who don't have to live with their parents and commute to lectures everyday because their family still needs them to help look after younger siblings and help around the house. Are universities helping my students the way I would? 

The worst thing is, the universities that are the worst for supporting people like my students are generally the most prestigious and highly-ranked universities! There are some universities that have excellent provision for ethnic minority students. For example, at Aston University 57% of new students are from ethnic minorities. Aston is rated as the second best university in the UK for teaching, and ethnic minority students are much more successful there than at other universities. Coventry university is similar in that it also has Gold Standard teaching according to the recently set up Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and greater than average ethnic diversity. The TEF judging panel has said that Coventry has "consistently outstanding student support services to all students, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, that support retention and progression".  However, if I encourage my students to apply to these two very good but not really prestigious universities which are on their doorstep, am I simply perpetutating the problem? Am I encouraging brown students to go to local brown universities and leave the fancy white universities for the white kids? If I do that, will the problem ever go away?

What I need to think about now is what I can do as a 16+ form tutor and A Level teacher to ensure my students are successful at university, and not just worry about getting them there in the first place. And I don't think it's just about getting them to learn "independent learning" skills, because I honestly think my year 13s who left a year ago were really good independent learners by the time they left (although they were awful at the start of year 12). I think it all comes down to that very trendy word "resilience". Learning how to deal with failure, or possible failure, experiencing struggle, and feeling the fear and doing it anyway. I think Duke of Edinburgh is very good for this. But seeing as I am directionally challenged and hyperventilate at the thought of 24 hours without wifi or 4G reception, I'll leave that to someone else. AS exams used to be a good way to help students experience failure and recover from it, but my school will no longer be doing those. I am going to think long and hard about this. If you have any ideas, please let me know!

Sorry this blog post is even more rambling and unstructured than usual. As you can probably tell, I'm still trying to process all of my thoughts about this topic. Maybe I'll come back and edit it once I've figured some more things out and done some more research. You know what, I'm probably over-reacting massively to this and it really isn't much of a problem. In fact, here's a quote from one of my ex-students: "I love being the only brown person at uni. White people love me!" 

Emma x x x 

PS Another interesting article I couldn't quite fit into this blog: 
It’s delusional to think tuition fees are fair. Poorer students are being penalised (The Guardian)

Friday 7 July 2017

Why Can't I Beat My Students? [Chess Update: Lessons 4-7]

That's definitely a question my maths colleagues and I have asked each other after an afternoon double period... But in this case I'm talking about beating them at chess.

Now that all of my students understand the rules of chess, I have been able to spend lesson time playing against my students instead of walking around the classroom reminding little Billy (not actual name) that Queens can't turn corners and that Pawns should not be used as false fingernails. My first attempt at duelling a student was actually in my Pokemon/Yugioh/and now Chess club after they had had their first three chess lessons. He beat me. He reminds me that he beat me every time he sees me in the corridor.

My next attempt was in their fourth lesson, when they were just playing friendly matches against each other in preparation for the tournament starting from lesson 6. I was very evenly matched with this particular student (let's just try to forget, for the moment, that I have a degree in mathematics and his highest qualification is an "expected standard" pass in his year 6 SATs.). We ended up with just three pieces left each. I was struggling. I asked the university student who is helping me out with this project to advise me. This does not count as cheating, because I taught him for five years and was his form tutor, so his knowledge is actually my knowledge, if you think about it. Unfortunately, he got called away at a crucial moment and I managed to give away one of my pieces. After that I wouldn't let him leave me until I had won, which I managed to do with just my King and a Bishop. I'll admit, it wasn't the sweetest victory I have ever tasted.

In the next lesson I played against a student who, in the past, I might have described as "not all there", perhaps accompanied with a circular gesture with my hand near my ear. He destroyed me.

This week in Pokemon/Yugioh/socially awkward club, I re-matched the student I had played against last week. He beat me even more embarrassingly than last week. Then, students who are not in my class but who have a vague understanding of chess said they wanted to play me. I got beaten three times in quick succession. In fact, I was so rubbish that my older students simply took over my games, because my moves were so bad it was painful for them to watch. I pointed out to my students that I never took their exercise books off them and solved their equations for them because their algebra was too painful to watch. They then pointed out that actually I do do that. They were making fun of me and my pathetic strategies (or lack thereof). I pointed out that I don't laugh at them when they fail their Maths mock exams. They pointed out that actually I do do that too. I should probably stop doing that.

All of this leads me to ask the question: why can't I beat my students at chess?

I am usually good at stuff. It's pretty rare for me to try something and not be good at it straight away (obviously this does not extend to stupid things like map reading, long jump, and the bus stop method of division). So I'm really frustrated about this. The only positive spin I can put on this is that I must have taught my students really well. I'm not even convincing myself with that line.

So I've made an account at and I've started working my way through their online tutorials. So far (two hours into my course), I've learnt how to do my first move. If I'm White, I know exactly what the (statistically speaking) best move is, and if I'm Black, I know six possible first moves I could do. I also learnt how to do the four-move checkmate and how to fianchetto. I refuse to be beaten by 11 year olds!

Anyway, back to my Chess lessons at school. In lesson 6 we started the tournament. I paired students up systematically and separated all of the desks. The students found their opponents and started playing. Originally, the plan was to play two half-hour matches per lesson, but then I realised that an hour was a more appropriate length of time. Students who finished their matches were told to just play friendly matches for the rest of the lesson. Most matches seemed to take around 40 minutes.

Challenges I've Faced

Noise! My students are not quiet chess players. They celebrate every capture with a loud noise and sometimes even a dance. The only silver lining is that at least they seem to have finally stopped dabbing. I may have to impose some volume rules, although I can't really ask for silence as students do often need to talk to each other during their matches.

The concepts of Check and Checkmate. For many students, this is difficult to grasp. Many students are claiming they won by killing their opponent's King.  They are not telling each other when they are in Check and often they don't even realise they're in Check. This is why it's important to have adults walking around and checking for checks and getting the students to move themselves out of check if needed. I have three wonderful assistants with my class now (a trainee plus two of my favourite ex-students who have finished university for the summer). I could probably just about manage with just myself, but I'm glad I don't have to. Especially because I still find myself occasionally wondering whether it's the Bishop or the Rook that moves diagonally.

Missing pieces. Every lesson starts with having to re-distribute pieces that have ended up in the wrong boxes. Despite only having bought them a week ago, some chess sets are now using multi-link cubes as stand-ins for pawns. I need a better system for keeping track of all the pieces. Any suggestions?

Moving Forward

For the last two weeks of term, my students will just be playing their tournament matches. They will get three points for a win, two for a draw, and one for a loss. They get zero if they're absent from the lesson or if they display unsporting behaviour or if they misbehave. If there isn't a clear first, second and third by the end of the two weeks, we'll do some deciding matches between the top few.

Now for the really exciting part: my boss read my previous blog post and decided she really liked what I was doing so has offered to buy us more chess sets so that my colleagues can teach chess to their year seven classes too! And we're going to teach chess to our new year sevens next year too, although I'm not sure exactly when in the year that will be.

Have any of you tried it yet? Let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Emma x x x

Saturday 1 July 2017

How and Why I taught my Year 7s to Play Chess

Last Monday I stumbled upon an article in the Guardian titled "Schools teach chess to help "difficult" children concentrate". Whilst I wouldn't describe my year 7 class as "difficult" (at least not on a public and non-anonymous blog), the article did strike a chord with me when it talked about how "as schools grapple with screen addiction and short attention spans, chess is also seen as a way to encourage 'digital detox'." All of the year 7s in my school were given the opportunity at the start of the year to buy an ipad mini at a very very very reduced price. Almost all of them have one, and it appears to me that an alarmingly high percentage of them are addicted to it. I see them walking through the corridors with their eyes glued to the screens. They sit in the canteen at lunch time staring at their devices, not talking to anyone, not noticing anything that's going on around them. In my lessons, where I have a strict no-ipads-on-the-desks rule, I see my students reach for their ipads every few minutes, just flick the screen on and off, as if to reassure themselves that it's still there. I was frustrated when I would give my students an open-ended task or a puzzle to solve and they would look at it for five seconds before declaring it "impossible!" and giving up, and turning their attention to their fidget spinners instead. The Guardian article gave me hope that chess might be the solution to all of my problems. And so began the ---- ---- Academy Chess for Success Project.

I recruited a former chess club champion SCITT trainee and a chess-loving ex-student who owed me a favour, both of whom have been invaluable in setting up this project because, well, did I mention I had no idea how to actually play chess?  I wasn't too worried about that though, as in the timeless words of Marge Simpson, "I've just gotta stay one lesson ahead of the kid!" So during a year 13 Further Maths lesson I got a particularly nerdy student to give me my first and last lesson in chess. I learnt how the pieces move. I learnt about castling. I learnt that to win, I needed to trap my opponent's King. But I had absolutely no idea how to go about doing that.

I decided that I needed to think carefully about how to teach my students how to play chess. I knew from my experience of learning chess that knowing how the pieces move isn't enough. I had an idea of how to do it and after doing some research I found a WikiHow article (method 2) that was similar to the idea I had had, so I decided to go with that.

Here's exactly how I did it:

Lesson 1

At this point I only had one chess board for every 6 students (scrounged from the library). I started the lesson by explaining the benefits of chess and telling my students why I had decided we were going to abandon our scheme of learning for the next few lessons and play a game instead. Then I gave them the pawns. I told them where to place them. I explained the movement of the pawns. And then I told them their objective was to get one of their pawns to their opponent's end of the board. (I feel it is my duty at this point to warn any teachers planning to do something similar that the word "pawn" will be very amusing to some of your students, and I encourage you to develop a semi-Scottish accent if possible). The students played 3 v 3 and were immediately engaged in this game, which does sound rather basic but is actually still quite a rich source of critical thinking and strategising. The disadvantage of only have 5 chess boards became an advantage because it forced students to communicate with each other and verbalise their thought processes.

About half way through the lesson I introduced the Bishop. I explained the Bishop's movements, and told them their aim was still the same. They learnt how to use their Bishops to defend their pawns.

The lesson was a big success, with students that usually spend more time in the corridor than in the lesson actually engaged and concentrating for long periods of time. To my great surprise, absolutely no flicking/throwing/inserting into orifices of chess pieces occurred during the entire lesson. The students left already looking forward to their next chess lesson. And I was too!

Lesson 2

By this point I now had 9 chess boards (thank you Amazon Prime) and a ratio of one board to every 3 students. Interestingly, some students still chose to play in bigger groups. I started by introducing the Rook, and letting them play for a while. A third of the way through, I introduced the Knight, and then at two thirds I introduced the Queen. The aim was still to get a pawn to your opponent's edge of the board. The students were still really enjoying it. Several students told me they had gone home the previous day and asked their parents for a chess set. A few had installed a chess app on their ipads (sort of defeating the purpose, but oh well). A few students had even come up to the maths area at break time and lunchtime asking if they could play.

I told the class that the following week we would be having two tournaments taking place at the same time: a competitive one with prizes for first, second and third place, and a friendly one for those who don't like to compete. Several students got really excited about this, and were determined to win.

Lesson 3

As soon as the students came in they grabbed their boards, set up, and started playing. They could hardly wait! I had to interrupt them almost straight away though, as I had a new addition to make. I introduced the King, and crucially, introduced the new objective: to kill your opponent's King! I did not at this point mention check or check mate (concepts which I think are a little bit challenging), and one of my students who had already known how to play chess did give me a slightly incredulous look when I talked about killing the King (and he turned to the trainee teacher and they exchanged a look that basicaly said "pah, n00b"). After playing for around thirty minutes I approached individual games and explained check and check mate to them. In the last ten minutes or so I mentioned promotion, and with that I had pretty much finished teaching the rules of chess. I will casually drop castling into lesson 4, and some advanced players will be taught en passant too (once I have learnt it myself).

Lesson 4 is on Monday, so I'll have to let you know later how that works out. But I should have 5 more boards arriving, which means finally the students can play one on one.

What I've Discovered so Far

Everyone in my class seems to be enjoying playing chess. This surprised me, I thought that at least one or two would hate it, or would resist learning it because they perceive it as boring or difficult.

That student that I've described as "incapable of concentrating on anything for more than 5 seconds" is actually on his way to becoming a grand master and can sit in a zen-like state of deep intellectual thought for a good ten minutes as he considers his next move. So maybe it's my maths lessons that are the problem, not him?

Chess brings people together. I have never seen so much collaboration and communication in my classroom before. They are all talking about the game. There is next to no off-topic chatting and the students are talking to the people on their assigned table, who are not necessarily their friends.

The students actually feel like they're becoming cleverer. My students are proudly telling me that their memory is improving and they are becoming better at concentrating. This is probably the placebo effect but that's fine with me!

Moving Forwards

I will keep you updated with how the project goes. I'm sort of planning on spending all of my year 7 lessons until the end of term on this project. I'm lucky in that my academy is allowing me to ignore my scheme of learning and do this. I really hope some of you reading this are inspired to try the same thing in your school. If you do, let me know how it goes!

Emma x x x