What will I stop doing this year

This time of year usually sees a volume of aspirational blogs and Tweets about how teachers and leaders will improve in the next academic year. I have written such material in the past too. This year I thought it would be better to focus on what I will not do this year. I believe that doing less will make me better, or at the very least release time to do more of what matters. I’d encourage all teachers to think in a similar way, rather than bringing further pressure upon themselves by committing to doing more. Pledge to do things differently, instead.

  1. Mark books because “it has been a while.”

    I am guilty of doing this. I would like to think that my formative assessment is quite effective. Providing feedback is a complex process, which can take many forms. It is rare that effective feedback can be characterised by taking in a class set of books and writing all over students work. I do this, in spite of the fact that I have my finger on the pulse and can be reasonably confident what my students can and cannot do and plan my teaching accordingly. I think there is a ‘fear’ factor, that a lay observer might pick up my books and be horrified that there simply is not enough ink on the page. I know that’s not how it works. My students know that too, I think. My senior leadership team know it. I shall safely stop taking in exercise books without reason, and focus on providing the feedback I deem my students need, when it is best given, in the format I consider to be most effective.

  2. Write in full sentences on assessments

    This is quite similar to my first point. I have done a lot of work in my school, leading an assessment working group, in separating out formative and summative assessments. Next year I will be clearer with my students about the difference. With the reforms my school is making to the assessment reporting cycle (fewer data entry points, which will be based upon cumulative judgements on students’ knowledge), I will be clear about what a summative assessment is with students and its purpose. It is extremely rare that a student will provide a unique response. Most students’ errors in summative assessments can sorted into a handful of groups. I can scribble some thoughts on a post-it note for a whole class, and focus on effective moderation. At present, I mark a few assessments, moderate them endlessly, or put them through a process of comparative judgement, and then write all over them. This last step adds nothing, but takes away a lot of my time.

  3. Hold meetings because they have been scheduled on the school calendar

    Meetings are usually held because they’re scheduled on the school calendar, irrespective of when they’re really needed. In my experience, colleagues fill up the time discussing administrative issues that could be far more efficiently dealt with through emails or very brief chats. This is an extremely inefficient use of colleagues’ valuable time. Meetings that I hold, as a head of department, will have a singular focus on making us better teachers. This will involve discussing students’ work and collaborating on how to teach specific aspects of the government and politics course better. If I have to take up colleagues’ time, I am going to make sure they find it useful and leave a better teacher than they arrived.

  4. Ignore the important because of the urgent.
    Urgent tasks are usually those that have been put upon us by somebody else. It is rare that I leave something I consider important until the last minute, anyway. To ensure that the important still gets done, I will carefully plan my time this year, planning my use of PPA slots and so-called ‘gained time’ to work on planning and my strategic goals for the year. Urgent tasks that threaten important priorities will be dealt with by way of:

    – Negotiating an extended deadline;
    – Explaining the consequences of my meeting a freshly imposed tight deadline.
    – Seeing whether the task is closely monitored. If it isn’t, it is unlikely to have been that important, and some de facto extension on getting it done might become possible.

    These potential solutions are ripped off from Harry Fletcher-Wood’s magnificent Responsive Teaching.

  5. Use the mornings to finish off yesterday’s trivial tasks

    I like to arrive in school very early in the morning and leave early in the afternoon. Apart from anything else, this beats the traffic. I am most productive between the hours of 7am and 8am. I fall off a productivity cliff pretty quickly after that (that’s a bit of hyperbole, but I know I am far less productive after lunch). It is great that I am aware of this. However, this last year I’ve found myself spending this golden hour of productivity finishing off tasks from the previous day’s to-do list. If these tasks weren’t important enough to do yesterday, why should I do them today? I shall continue to triage each day’s to-do list and call time when I’ve had enough in the evening. What doesn’t get done, can get written off. I can’t imagine anyone noticing. I’ll see how this plays out.

  6. Make exit-tickets out of paper, on the fly.
    I’ll write more about this in my next blog post. I like exit-tickets, a belief that has been reinforced by the aforementioned book Responsive Teaching. On too many occasions, I’m ripping up lined paper in a haphazard fashion, to collect in from students. The tatty look, I suspect, translates into students treating the task far too cursorily. In future, I will make use of checklists for my lessons. I will walk in with a clearer sense of what evidence I will extract from students, and how. Exit-tickets will be designed in advance, with a clear structure to elicit better evidence.

  7. Spend my PPA slots drinking tea and procrastinating wildly.
    Or will I… this one is healthy. Up to a point.

    If a PPA slot spent idly drinking tea, listening to the radio or reading a book makes me happier, and approach my lessons with more energy, is this such a problem? I’m also proud of the relationships I have established with colleagues in support roles, or teachers who work outside of my own building. If I lose a little PPA time in conversation with these people, that isn’t necessarily time spent badly. I just need to be aware of the cost and ensure that such PPA time isn’t lost too often. This was a problem for me in the middle of year. At least I recognised it, set myself some strategic goals, and worked with incredible focus during the ‘gained time period’ after my exam classes had left.

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Are we too confident that we’ve got the teaching of Peterloo right?

Billy Bragg suggested that history teachers have something of a ‘top down’ approach to history, that has not celebrated the actions of the ordinary people, that we might typically characterise as ‘bottom up’ history. In less than 280 characters, Bragg quickly exposed an interesting side to the online history teaching community. Some of the responses to Bragg worried me. My personal reflection, after Bragg’s tweet, was ‘do I need to give this more prominence?’ I wonder how many others reflected in the same way. I fear not very many, and that’s a problem.

Greg Jenner had perhaps the most thoughtful ‘thread’ on Twitter. Jenner reminded his more general audience that school history has finite time, and the national broadcasters (BBC and Channel Four) cannot be relied upon to ‘top up’ school history with interesting documentaries, given the rise of online streaming services. Ultimately, Jenner suggests that there is no right way to teach school history, and that it involves a series of choices. For every minute spent on Peterloo, is a minute less spent on something else. It is important that we stand back from our history curriculum and ensure that we’ve laid the right foundations, the right ‘broad brushes’ of the past have been covered. This is not to suggest that ‘any content will do’, it is important that working class protest and organisation is covered, in some form, of the curriculum. Has this trend, which could be demonstrated by all manner of historical events and phenomena, been covered in some form?

How much of this professional theorising took place? The response among the history teachers I have seen on Twitter, where this debate seems to have been concentrated in recent days, can be divided into two camps.

  • You’re wrong, Mr Bragg. Michaela’s Head of Humanities, Michael Taylor, suggests that Peterloo features prominently in the new GCSE specifications, ensuring that his audience were reminded that this was at the instigation of the coalition government. The respected Dale Banham adds to this, suggesting that the teachers he knows situate Peterloo within a strong offering of dissent and protest. Paula Lobo even tweeted a very interesting scheme of work, demonstrating where Peterloo features in her teaching of revolution and protest.

    It is with good grace that Mr Bragg acknowledged that he had “not done his homework” on the teaching of Peterloo.

    Yet I was a little uneasy at how satisfied many were with their teaching. I much preferred the second group of responses, from:

  • Those asking searching questions. I must confess that I preferred Jason Todd’s approach. He asked whether his Twitter colleagues taught Peterloo, “if so, when and how”. I wonder whether teachers such as Taylor, cited above, ought to have asked themselves this very question. Is Taylor satisfied that Peterloo appears only in his GCSE, beyond compulsory history education? There is no right answer to that question, but I do hope this question has been asked. I’m sure it has been, but that simply wasn’t the tone of discussion on Twitter. Others raised questions of what else might have to give way, that is critically under-discussed in school history.

 

I was a little concerned about the tone of the responses. The second group of teachers, mentioned above, asking questions about Peterloo and its role/place/importance within the history curriculum is characteristic of the history teaching community. Those defensively guarding their practice and quite firmly rebutting Mr Bragg suggested a sense of accomplishment with their history curriculum. Some responses were somewhat political in their outlook, ironic given history teachers’ traditional contempt for political influence on the curriculum.

 

What I’d really like to ask, is not ‘who teaches it?’ but who has a grasp of this country’s tradition of protest and how many can situate Peterloo within such a history, aged eighteen? Aged thirty? Only then can we sit back with a sense of accomplishment, or reflect on what we might need to do differently.