In a world where big voices dominate, we believe even small voices can sound loud when they are saying the right things. We are two history teachers and school leaders determined to fake it until we make it. We hope to inspire introverts to realise their impact and be the best versions of ourselves. A bit of History, reading, CPD and pedagogy. All views our own.
This week I’ve really struggled with planner’s block, the teachers equivalent of the condition when writers experience a “creative slowdown” or lose the ability to write. Asked to plan from scratch a short scheme of work on the Russian Revolution, I was initially excited. I genuinely love planning and can happily spend hours reading around, planning key concepts to concentrate on and thinking about the big questions I wanted to pose. Most of the time I’m lucky that ideas seem to flow and it doesn’t feel like a painful process. But this week, that didn’t happen. Possibly the end of the half term had got to me; I know I was certainly exhausted and obviously that affects creativity. Maybe it was just that I just didn’t know the topic well enough or that I didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off as well being at home (I tried with the 6 year old but that didn’t help!). All I know is that at the end of that day I felt utterly dejected, had achieved very little and just didn’t seem to have any clarity about where I was going. So what’s the answer when this happens? I’m sure I’m not writing anything new with this advice here, but it helps me to write this down and you never know, it may resonate with one of you reading this.
Whenever I feel planner’s block like this the first thing I know I need to do is to step away from the laptop. Just as whenever I suffer from one of my bouts of insomnia the worst thing I can do is stay in bed tossing and turning, when I experience planners block the best thing for me to do is to take a break and there’s actually quite a lot of science behind this. Alice Flaherty, one of the most renowned neuroscientists researching creativity says dopamine is a very important ingredient in creativity. The more dopamine that is released, the more creative we are, she says. In addition, distraction helps relax your mind and can help creativity. These two bits of science help me understand why I sometimes have my best ideas in the shower, on a run or cooking. Hilary Mantel says “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem…..Be patient.”
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the Twitter bubble and presume everyone else is supremely productive and that noone else struggles. In reality we all struggle. The people we often admire most are those that feel these frustrations too. Tolstoy struggled to write for months and years at a time and JK Rowling, Toni Morrison and Neil Gaiman have all written about strategies to overcome writers block or how they reframe the periods when the writing doesn’t flow easily. It’s easy to compare to others and imagine it’s only you that feels this way, only you that doesn’t achieve instant success. As I’ve spoken about before, it’s often when you share your vulnerabilities and insecurities that you realise that many more people than you realise feel the way you do. So I try and take my own advice and step away from the comparisons when I’m feeling planners block. The truth is, I don’t know how many hours have gone into that resource that’s shared on Twitter, or the private wranglings of teachers over their curriculum planning. Perhaps the more we can be open and honest about the struggles, the more solidarity in the community we will have. It’s certainly not a competition and I know I gain so much from hearing how others are wrestling with planning too.
Planner’s block is usually alleviated when I go back to basics. Firstly, I know my best lessons are when I am most confident with subject knowledge, so reading around the topic is absolutely paramount. In this case I reached out to some members of the history teacher community for book ideas, listened to a couple of podcasts such as History Extra, looked at primary sources from A-level textbooks and watched a recommended lecture online. I thrashed out some ideas with my Head of History, going back and forth in conversation about what might work best and also spoke to friends who had taught this topic before for their input, and what the current historiography is. I took some time to just sit back and absorb myself in the subject knowledge for a while and found I had much better ideas about what to focus on afterwards. Secondly, we can easily fall into traps thinking that our lessons need to be completely new and original, when in reality, we usually know best what will work in our classrooms. For me, big questions which run as a thread throughout a scheme, guided reading, graphic organisers and Cornell notes, strategic video clips, strategies like Dan’s Story, sources, scholarship and lots of retrieval practice are what my pupils are used to and what research tells me works, so why feel the pressure to create something unique for the sake of it? Once I had taken these steps, I found the ideas started to flow again and before I knew it I had a rough plan for a scheme of work which I hope will work.
Planner’s block is something that won’t ever leave me and I hope in a way it doesn’t as it makes me think, question my ideas and go back to basics. Ultimately, I get it because I want the best for the pupils in my care. I want them challenged, to widen their historical experience, to make them question their interpretations and to help them understand more of History and so planning in my opinion, shouldn’t always come easily. As I heard Kate Stockings say recently, our curriculum will never be done, it has to be dynamic, and therefore I need the occasional bout of planner’s block to ensure that my lessons always focus on what is most important.
I have always been a passionate reader, a bookworm some would say. Some of my earliest memories are being taken to the library and being read to, and my love of reading continued into my years as a teenager. Every couple of weeks I’d get all 12 books on my allowance out and I read everything from the Brontes to Richard Laymon, from Jeffrey Archer to Toni Morrison, from Margaret Atwood to Agatha Christie. When I went to University however, my appeitite for reading dwindled under the burden of academic articles and assignments and a gnawing feeling that I didn’t know enough, that I wasn’t clever enough to be there. I never completely stopped reading, I even jointly ran a book club for a while and discovered books I never would have picked up otherwise (everything from Down and out in Paris and London by George Orwell to The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro), but as the years rolled on and I got married and had a family, reading fell down my priority list, particularly academic reading. I’m ashamed to admit that there were moments I fell out of love with my subject and even with teaching under the burden of balancing family life with planning and marking.
Rejoining Twitter on maternity leave in 2017 was a game changer for me. Here I was surrounded by people so passionate about Teaching and Learning which I now lead on, but also about History, exploring ideas and sharing resources that I was absolutely in awe of. My colleagues at times were probably rolling their eyes at the plethora of ideas I would share, but involving myself in the Twitter community made me question what we were teaching and how we were teaching long before the changes to the Ofsted framework on curriculum. Twitter got me engaged with books and with academic reading in particular in a way that I hadn’t been for a long time.
This developed further and my teaching was directly reinvigorated when I became a member of the History Teachers Book Group (@historybookgrp) When I saw the tweets about getting involved in reading History scholarship and applying it to the classroom I was immediately excited in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. I remember sending a first cautious message signing up thinking I would never be clever enough to actually say anything in the discussion – I probably wouldn’t even finish the book! Well, that wasn’t the case. I have finished every single book and contributed albeit very very nervously to each discussion (on many occasions stress-eating all the way through!). I have met and bonded with some brilliant and inspiring fellow history teachers and been challenged about my opinions and what I think about History in a way I don’t think I ever have before. I learn something in every book discussion (and in the recent film discussions too) and it is genuinely one of the highlights in my calendar. I have read books outside my comfort zone and books that have changed me fundamentally as a teacher, most notably Dr Fern Riddell’s Death in Ten Minutes and Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five. I am a far better teacher today for engaging in this scholarship and it has made me more passionate than ever to be a better History teacher, despite (or as well as?) being a senior leader. My love for my subject is increasing by the day and I will always be thankful to Simon, Andrew and the group for that. Lockdown has given me new opportunities to read more (around homeschool!) and although I’m finding the whole experience hard, the group and engaging in reading each day is helping me through.
One impact of the group has been in transferring the scholarship directly into the classroom and one example where I have been able to do that recently was when I was asked to plan our first two introductory lessons for Year 7 to replace our old “What is history?” lessons. We wanted to include aspects of a talk by Ben Walsh and Andrew Payne at TeachMeetHistoryIcons in March which really challenged us about the job of a historian, how we should not be dumbing history down and how to engage with archive material with pupils. We also wanted to challenge pupils’ ideas about who may have been forgotten in History and how our understanding of History is always adapting based on new research. I was able to include Hallie Rubenhold’s work in this lesson and the massive impact that she has had about five incredible women who over time have been reduced to being just victims of Jack the Ripper. Their hardship, struggles and collective stories have challenged History teachers all over the country about whether we should teach this unit at all, and if we do to transform the way we teach it. Hallie herself says “The victims of Jack the Ripper were never just prostitutes. They were daughters, wives, sisters and mothers. They were women. They were human beings.” This example shows pupils directly that our interpretation of the past is and should be, always changing, challenged as the research is carried out and published. We need to be brave to question where interpretations have come from and not to make sweeping generalisations about people in the past. In these lessons I wanted to make sure pupils really drilled down into one source, in the footsteps of a historian, to get excited about what evidence can tell us.
The second book I was determined to include is one I have only finished recently, but one which had a profound impact on me: Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan. Macmillan outlines how a deep understanding of History is absolutely necessary, but that we must be careful with it. History can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Leaders can adapt it at will to suit their own motives and to justify evil. I wanted the students to get some sense of this, to encourage them to question and interrogate evidence as their journey of studying History at our Academy begins. I discuss two case studies where people have made use of history – for good in the case of Miranda Kaufman who has overturned the myth that there were no black people in Britain before the slave trade, and for bad in the case of the Nazis, who re-wrote History books to highlight Jewish “crimes.” Hopefully this will allow pupils to see MacMillan’s words in action and think about how History can be dangerous. To me, this kind of challenging foundation to the History curriculum can only serve pupils well when engaging with historical sources over the next 5 years and beyond.
A third and more recent example of how I’ve used this scholarship is after reading Liberty’s Dawn by Emma Griffin. I was really engaged in this book which questions whether the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution were always negative for the poorest in society, through using over 300 autobiographies. As soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to create a lesson using it. The lesson gives pupils the chance to explore the positives and drawbacks of using autobiographies, something Griffin writes about in her introduction. It then uses guided reading (originally from @SPBeale) to consider the case study of one man, who managed to escape his childhood world of poverty and find a voice, thanks to the new opportunities of the Industrial Revolution. I know my teaching of this period will be so much richer for having read this book, but I also know pupils will gain a far broader and fairer amount of knowledge through being able to engage with this scholarship in the classroom.
To conclude, reading is and I think will always be, close to my heart. Whether I’m reading a novel, a CPD book or an academic History book, when I read something which resonates, it makes me feel alive in a way no other hobby comes close to. I can’t help but shout about books that challenge me, move me or entertain me and you will regularly see me do that on Twitter. If you’re a History teacher and not a member of the Book Group, I really encourage you to get involved. As I’ve said, I suffer from imposter syndrome and there are far far cleverer people than me in the group. But what I’ve learnt is that small voices matter too and by reading and engaging in discussion about History scholarship, your teaching can only improve. I feel I owe it to the pupils I teach to keep my subject knowledge fresh and not to get stale in my opinions. I owe it to the teachers I work with in my Assistant Principal role to read the latest books and research on effective teaching. For me, reading challenges your preconceptions, broadens your horizons and as I’ve found out through the History Teachers Book Group, can be also an incredibly bonding experience. As George R R Martin said “A reader lives a thousand years before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one.”
Rachel (Currently reading Half a World Away by Mike Gayle – Book 32 of 2020)
Reading was the great love of my life as a child. There was something magical about the process of devouring a new book. Admiring it on the shelf, the feel of the cover, the smell of the ink and the anticipation of the journey ahead. This passion was something I seemed to lose, as the mundane realities of adulthood took hold. Mortgages, double glazing, selecting soft furnishings and the almighty shock of parenthood, all eroded that immense pleasure, and escapism that a really good book had previously fulfilled. Being a history teacher, books have been an unavoidable but necessary, part of my career. An immense source of knowledge, a way of captivating my audience with tantalising tales of gossip and heartbreak, a way of making the past accessible. Sadly, along the way I lost my genuine desire to read. Textbooks and biographies, although fantastic from a professional perspective, were functional, and did not satisfy that craving for adventure and desire to be so completely engrossed in something, that nothing else mattered. That was until earlier this year. A few months ago I stumbled across @historybookgrp on Twitter. I am relatively new to the world of Twitter, I don’t have a mass following and I tend to watch things unfold from the sidelines … I can’t even hide my inner introvert online! In all honesty, following this group (albeit from the shadows), has enhanced both my affection for my subject, and literary desires, more than I could have ever have imagined.
Helen Castor’s ‘Elizabeth I- a study in insecurity’ was the perfect starting point. Much of this resonated with me. This pint sized portrayal of the Virgin Queen, brilliantly exposed how the almost unreadable nature of Elizabeth, should be considered a strength, rather than an obstacle. Hallie Rubbenhold’s ‘The Five’ had me gripped from the outset. A quote included on the opening page from by Audre Lorde, really struck a chord with me, ‘I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we were taught to respect fear more than ourselves.’ This groundbreaking study asks society to question why it has taken 130 years to acknowledge the existence of the five women brutally murdered by Jack the Ripper. It lead me to ask myself some very difficult questions about the glorification of perpetrators and the, almost, morbid fascination with serial killers in the world today (I have recently created a scheme on this, there will be follow up blog soon, it went viral on Facebook, 107 likes, I don’t get quite the same response on Twitter!).
More recently, I got lost in Fern Riddell’s ‘Death in Ten Minutes’. A study into a Suffragette and sexual health activist, Kitty Marion, who I am ashamed to say, I had never heard of before turning the pages. It provides new evidence on the terrorist activities of the Suffragettes and looks at the movement from a fresh perspective. This interest in history’s hidden heroines is something I am keen to pursue myself, both from an academic and professional standpoint. It’s effect on my teaching has been immeasurable (check out my blog post on this, the resources are in my Google Drive https://theeducationalimposters.wordpress.com/2020/05/13/wading-through-the-curriculum-quagmire/)
The group has recently branched out into critiquing historical films, another love of mine. Animated discussions on the ‘Death of Stalin’, ‘Suffragette’ and ‘Darkest Hour’, have proven to be the highlight of my week, especially during this tumultuous period in our own personal histories. Armed with a glass (or two…ok, a bottle, on occasion!) of Malbec, I have gained so much from (finally) contributing to intellectual, well humoured and thought provoking discussions, with a wonderful group of people. Hell, a few weeks ago, I even got involved in my first @historybookgrp discussion reviewing @gregjenner‘s, ‘Dead Famous’, a masterpiece in the history of celebrity. If you haven’t read it, bag yourself a copy. It’s honestly like sitting with your geeky best mate, with a pint, discussing the great and the good of historical show business. Anyone who describes Byron as a ‘talented, pouty shag merchant with lustrous hair‘, has my vote! (Did I mention that Greg Jenner Giffed me? [Aside] I know you felt it too Greg, don’t fight it any longer, the fact that we are both married is just a minor inconvenience).
These books (and films) have made me love history again and most importantly reignited the joy I used to find in reading. What truly interests me about history, is the complexity of human nature. These books have prompted me to re-evaluate everything. To reassess iconography, to focus on the forgotten, to uncover those who have been hidden from the history books. To look at individuals, who are deeply brilliant and deeply flawed, in equal measure. And finally to be more accepting of myself. It has been a real privilege to peel back the layers of these eras and figures that I thought I knew, to begin to debunk the myths and accept that none of us are one dimensional. We all have aspects of light and shade to our personalities, and those who we before us were no different (thank you to Simon and Andrew for all of the work they put in and continue to put in, your efforts do not go unnoticed!).
Katie (currently reading, ‘The Secret History’, by Donna Tartt)
Let me start by saying I wish this letter was not a letter. Since I started teaching I have always written speeches to my Year 11 classes, often created poems about their characters for their amusement and given personal messages for the future. I’ve never had to do this without smiling faces in front of me. So bear with me Year 11 of 2020, things might get a little emotional.
I started teaching you at the end of Year 9, on my return from mat leave. Things were, let’s say bumpy at the beginning. You’d had quite a lot of freedom and I am definitely a teacher with high standards, some might even say strict 😉 It took us a while to get used to each other, but gradually you started handing in homework and you began to realise it would take a fair amount of hard work for you to get a GCSE. By Year 11 I had to do my “this will not just fall into your lap” rant a lot less frequently, we’d build up a pretty strong relationship and I’m sure some of you even secretly enjoyed the challenge of my Flashback Friday quizzes.
As many have said, you’ve had the rug pulled out from under you. We all have. You thought you had time and an opportunity to prove yourself which has just disappeared overnight. And I feel robbed as well. Robbed of the good luck messages, the last minute preparation and robbed of seeing your faces as you enter the exam hall. I’ve said over and over in lessons how I wanted you to be excited, turning over the paper and ready to show off your 3 years of learning. I wanted you to be that prepared, the months and months of knowledge quizzes and practice exam questions paying off. I feel robbed you won’t experience that. I feel robbed of those final weeks of relationship building, of camaraderie and pep talks. I feel robbed of signing your leaving books, awkward signing of shirts and having to tell you to stop talking about prom in order to concentrate on History. So yes, I’m feeling pretty sad and despondent sitting here at my laptop when you really should be in the middle of an intensive revision session about 1920’s America with me. I’ll miss the comical groans when I set another retrieval homework. I’ll miss your cringing faces as I explain something and launch into my “And this is why History is amazing!” speech which you’ve sat through multiple times before. I’ll miss your happy faces when I give you feedback on exam questions where you’ve nailed the knowledge, and I’ll miss the chit chat as you enter the classroom and I remind you that every minute counts.
However, I’m not completely downhearted Year 11 because these last 3 years are not in vain. I hope some of you will go on to study History next year and that a tiny bit of my passion for the subject has rubbed off on you. I hope that you’ve built relationships that will stand the test of time and that you’ve learnt things about hard work, courage and ambition that no textbook could teach you. And what is my message to you as you begin the next phase of your life? I have so much to say but I’ll narrow it down to just three.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure suggests you’re trying, you’re going places and you have aspirations. Failure is part of the deal in life and goodness knows I’ve failed over the years. Failure hurts, but it reminds us that we are not always in control. Failure teaches us resilience and humility and I always think it is better to try and fail, than not to try at all. You only have to look at the hundreds of examples of brilliant people who experienced multiple failures (from Walt Disney to JK Rowling, from Steve Jobs to Katy Perry) to know that the road to success does not come easy, but give up and you’ll never experience the celebration of the comeback. (If you want to read more about failure, I really recommend “How to Fail” by Elizabeth Day.)
Never stop learning. Your education should not end at school, college or even University. Self growth and an interest in bettering yourself will lead to fulfilment; it keeps you humble and prevents boredom.
Be kind. Too often this phrase is emblazoned on a t- shirt or rolled off the tongue without realisation of what this actually means, especially since the recent very sad celebrity suicides. Kindness can sadly often be thought of as a weakness. But being kind can be incredibly courageous. It means often stepping out of your comfort zone, being compassionate, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, or realising that everyone is fighting a battle you may not be able to see. In this world where people are desperately fighting to fit in, that message can be easily forgotten. I worry as I write this sounds a bit trite, but live by trying to be kind and I promise your life will be enriched. It’s not just about the big acts of kindness but the kindness in the day to day biting your tongue, thanking people, noticing when others are suffering and wholeheartedly celebrating others’ successes.
And on that note Year 11, I’ll say goodbye. I hope I’ll still be able to celebrate some sort of success with you in August, and that I’ll dance with you at prom, whenever that will be and I’ll always be here should you need me. As an X factor contestant would say, it’s been a journey, but it’s a journey I’m glad I travelled with each one of you.
In recent months, there have been so many blogs, threads, articles, webinars, seminars, CPD sessions and workshops about the History curriculum, I have found myself paralysed by inaction and undermined by my own lack of self-confidence. I now understand (to an extent!) Johnson’s approach in Vietnam from 1964. With every piece of advice, he would step further and further into the quagmire, until it was too late to navigate his way back to the shore. This in itself has been a metaphor for my own curriculum journey, I would like to think I am not in the throes of Nixon’s madman strategy of 1969, but my department may tell you otherwise.
This weekend (with some trepidation), I watched and digested the clips and notes, compiled by Will Bailey Watson as part of the #curricularium CPD series. If I am honest, having read some of the posts on Twitter, I was concerned the material would be beyond the realms of my capability. However, far from making me feel even more insecure about my own curriculum choices and methodology, I found the sessions extremely reassuring, comforting even, they left me with a both a sense of satisfaction, that I am on the right path, and a desire to keep reflecting, evaluating and improving.
Each of our curriculum journeys is personal to us; the path we take is underpinned by our own values about education and the context in which we practice. Many of the articles I have read, have given me a great insight into the theories behind crafting my own curriculum, the problem is that there is so many brilliant ideas and advice out there, it’s hard to know where to begin.
I began the process of reframing my Key Stage Three curriculum, just over a year ago. In light of the new OFSTED framework and years of neglect (on my part) of lower school. Our curriculum was stale, uninspiring and lacked any real rigor and challenge. We began with a simple session in a departmental meeting where we each discussed what history meant to us, what skills and knowledge we believed to be non-negotiable and how we hoped students would view the importance of their study of history by the end of Year 8. I formulated our ideas into a curriculum intent statement (stop frowning) and this helped to provide a spring board from which we could start to develop some key areas of focus, enquiry questions and attempt to thrash out which periods of history we wanted to include. Needless to say, a year on and we still cannot agree wholeheartedly on the content. History teachers are notoriously argumentative and fiercely loyal to their specialisms and in the (adapted) words of President Lincoln, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. Essentially, we have all had to make sacrifices in terms of content, but we have tried to remain true to the core principles, those we believed were the non-negotiable elements of our curriculum. I like to see our curriculum as an organic document, something that is never going to be the finished article, something that will always need tweaking and adapting to gives students the best possible experience.
In recent weeks, I have developed schemes of work and resources for some Year 8 enquiry questions, I have to admit that I have thoroughly enjoyed the process, there’s something very satisfying about trawling through archive material and getting up to speed with recent scholarship. Those of you who follow me on Twitter, may have seen a few of my posts linked to my planning. I thought it might be useful to explain the rationale behind a series of lessons I have created about the Suffragettes.
We all have preconceived narratives about the Suffragettes, this militant organisation masterminded by Emmeline Pankhurst, who aimed to challenge the establishment through using ‘Deeds not words’. I had always taught the Suffragettes like this, desperate women who were forced to resort to desperate measures to achieve the goal of universal suffrage. I did the usual comparisons with the Suffragists and then would finish with a piece of extended writing, whereby students had to reach judgements about what factor was the most significant in the passing of the Representation of the People Act, 1918. That is until I stumbled across Dr Fern Riddell’s book, ‘Death in 10 minutes’. The book itself draws looks at the life of militant suffragette, Kitty Marion, Riddell uses her personal diaries to create a dramatic account of a women who was sent across the country, by the Pankhursts, to carry out a nationwide bombing campaign. However, in the aftermath of World War One, radicals like Kitty were conveniently erased from our history, by a proud movement, who wanted to shake off any associations with terrorism. To say the impact this had upon my thinking was seismic, is an understatement. It not only made me consider the moral responsibility of historians to reflect the past as accurately as possible, it also lead me to reassess this ‘sanitised’ history that I had been partially responsible for promoting. Where the Pankhurts as heroic as I had imagined?
Core principles of the scheme
1.The craft of the historian
This quote for me was a eureka moment and I thought it would provide the perfect starter for discussing what the role of a historian is and prompting wider debate about the selective history we study and why certain people simply don’t appear on the pages of our history books. Why is it that we seem to avoid teaching grittier, uncomfortable sides of history? Why have we oversimplified the complexity of the past? Do historians have a moral duty to retell the stories of those who seem to have been forgotten or erased?
The premise of the book helped me to frame an enquiry question with a different emphasis to my previous approach. After much deliberation, I decided on, ‘To what extent were Suffragettes early Twentieth Century terrorists?’. Some might consider this a purposefully provocative hook, but it genuinely reflects the main emphasis of recent scholarship on the movement. Students need to consider what terrorism is, analyse a range of evidence from contemporary archives, historians, films and documentaries to enable them to reach an informed and substantiated judgement. I hope through the delivery of the lessons to really get students to think about what is to be a historian, how they research, what information they rely on , how they decide if something is valuable, to make them aware of how their own lack of objectivity colours how they see events, often without them even realising it. I anticipate that in going through this process, it will help them to become more critical, more open-minded and less willing to give up in the face of obstacles along the way. I also want them to ask themselves some challenging questions, for instance ‘Is it appropriate to apply modern day definitions of terrorism to actions of a group of disenfranchised women over 100 years ago?’. One I continue to grapple with myself.
Riddell’s work made me change my mind about a movement I had such entrenched views on. It completely challenged my preconceived notions about the suffrage movement about helped me to realise why I am so passionate about this subject. I really hope to communicate this to my students through the scheme. Fundamentally history really is amazing; its fluidity, its complexity, and for me the uncomfortable acknowledgment that “False idols are the most dangerous gift history can give you. If we choose to ignore or sanitise the actions of those who founded our societies … we choose a life of ignorance and lies”.
2. Historiography and scholarship
One of the things that my students struggle with at both GSCE and A Level, is understanding how to tackle historical intrepretations effectively. Throughout Year 7 and 8, I am going to endeavour to encourage students to look at recent historical scholarship and use their own contextual understanding of events to reach judgements of about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different schools of thought. I appreciate that this is going to be challenging, but I believe with appropriate questioning and understanding of language, it will be an immensely valuable skill for them to develop. I found a fantastic resource produced by the Historical Association, it is a mini-enquiry designed for use at A-level exploring current interpretations by historians working on the suffrage movement. It looks at the relationship between their interpretations and the evidence with which they are working. As my own enquiry question centres on this notion of terrorism, it seemed appropriate for students to look the views of two conflicting historians on this issue. I selected Purvis and Riddell. Students will be given short biographies and outlines of the main arguments from this two historians and asked to discuss and summarise their views, reaching overall judgements on which they consider to be the most convincing and why. They will need a lot of guidance, but I am hopeful that once they come to write up an answer at the end of the enquiry they will feel confident in using historical scholarship to support their own ideas. If they are also able to consider the way in which the evidence a historian chooses to focus on affects the way they construct their interpretation of events, I will be massively impressed. I feel the current examination specifications do not address this skill effectively, it is only through their coursework in Year 13 that students are given any scope to consider the research, influences and context of historians. That is why I am making it one of the core principles of my curriculum planning.
3. Contemporary sources
For me one of the most satisfying learning experiences I had was back in 2003. I was researching the history of the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter. Whilst rummaging through the archives I stumbled across an absolute gem, during the 1940s, some of the jewellers in Birmingham were being paid (secretly) by the Nazi Party to produce intricate parts for the Luftwaffe. What a find! I was beyond excited. Looking through archive material and analysing contemporary sources is one of the things that makes history so unique. The joy I find in following the thread of a collection of spidery handwritten letters, old photographs, parchment paper and film footage is genuinely incomparable (ok, the birth of my children comes a close second!). I really wanted to replicate this excitement, through my classroom practice. I was fortunate to attend the TMIcons History CPD day in Sheffield back in March. Andrew Payne and Ben Walsh did a brilliant session on using complex sources with students to essentially enhance their understanding of historical events, to challenge their thinking and really reignite a genuine love of history. I took so much away from this session and decided that where I could, I wanted to expose students to more original documents, and in some way replicate that buzz associated with uncovering something new or finding a connection. The National Archives is an absolute gold mine for materials like this. I found a superb set of documents linked to the activities of the Suffragettes that lent themselves really well to my enquiry question. The materials ranged from advertisements, to photographs, prison reports and police records. My aim is for students to use these to compile a table of evidence both in support of and against the premise that the suffragettes could be considered a terrorist organisation. They can identify links between the sources to help build up a bank of knowledge and use examples to support their key arguments in their final piece of extended writing.
4. Local history
Local history is not just important from the point of view of student engagement, it also helps in the quest to find out about our place in the world. I believe that looking at something from a local angle allows a degree of depth that simply is not possible in more wide-ranging studies. It enables students ‘under the skin’ of a historical community, to understand peoples’ relations to one another in much more detail, to understand more about the lives of their ancestors and important developments that have shaped their communities over time. On a micro level, I am planning to bring in a little piece of local history, through each of my enquiry questions. This can just be as simple as a picture from the era of a place that my students may be familiar with, I found a corker from 1908, that captured a Suffragette rally, just across from the Liverpool Empire Theatre. I have also enjoyed finding out about local people, and their involvement in national movements. Having done some research, I discovered a women called Kate Sheppard, who was born in Liverpool in 1848, she later moved to New Zealand and now appears on a bank note, because contributions to the Suffrage movement. Her sharp mind, excellent writing skills and impressive public speaking put Kate at the forefront of the campaign and soon she became the voice of women across the country. I felt a sense of pride, and dare I say it, local patriotism, at uncovering a woman with such international influence. I hope that the adding a local dimension will enable students to understand the relevance of the movement to them personality and contribute towards building this ‘imagined world’ that at Mike Hill so eloquently drew my attention to through his superb presentations as part of the #cirricularium.
5. Forgotten individuals
Similarly, I want to make concerted effort to expose my students to a more diverse experience of history. Moving away from the traditional Churchillian approach of ‘History being written by the victors’, namely wealthy, white men. I am keen for the curriculum to be more representative in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, geography and chronology. Dr Matthew Williamson asserts, ‘by integrating these simple, important historical facts within the history curriculum, we will begin to provide all children in English schools with a history education that enables them to engage knowledgeably with themselves, their classmates, their country and the rest of the world’.I have to admit I am finding this balance difficult to strike at times, but as it is something I am increasingly mindful of, so I am hopeful I will eventually do it justice. I have always taught diversity in a tokenistic fashion, I now striving to avoid this through my new schemes of work. In terms of the suffrage scheme, I wanted to do some justice to the less well known, Kitty Marion.
Who was Kitty?
Kitty arrived in London at the age of 15 after fleeing from her abusive home in Germany. Her mother had died when she was an infant, leaving her alone with a violent and unloving father. She lived with her aunt, uncle and cousins in east London, and quickly learned English. By chance, she stumbled into the energetic and vibrant world of music halls and for the first time, the teenager felt a sense of belonging. She began her career as an actress and a singer, then became what could be called a frontline solider in the suffragette movement. At one point she was force-fed 232 in one day. She engaged in what could be described as methods of terrorism, she was not alone, and yet figures like her just seem to be conveniently hidden from our peripheral view of suffrage history. Riddell’s book centres on Kitty and she is keen to assert that she is not trying to tarnish the reputation of the movement.
“I am so in awe of these women,” she says. “But we cannot shy away from what these women were in their entirety. There’s an age-old saying, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ That is the same here.”
“Kitty desperately wanted her story to be told and I’m so proud to finally be able to do that for her,” she says. “Everyone should know what difficult, troubling choices these women made for us to be free.”
For these reasons we have a duty as historians and history teachers to embrace diversity and be a mouthpiece for those who have been forgotten, especially those like Kitty. Her experiences give us an authentic insight into the real sacrifices that were made, at the forefront of the campaign that has arguably been unfairly purified by historians.
6. Extended writing and development of language
Finally through exposing students to scholarship, archive material, news articles and podcasts, I hope to improve their command of language. I aim to use our curriculum as a way of providing students with the tools they require to articulate themselves effectively, both verbally and in written form. For historians the construction of written accounts remains fundamental to their craft. It also lies at the heart of current assessment systems, which means that young people similarly need to be able to create effective historical accounts of different kinds. This scheme culminates with students being required to write up an essay in response to the original question. This essay will be based on the evidence that they have accumulated throughout their study of this unit, I want to encourage them use appropriate historical terminology, evidence from historians to support their claims and precise examples from primary sources to advance their arguments. I want them to write like a historian. Thanks to @historychappy for putting together these superb literary aids (shown below), my students have made great progress through utilising these in the past. I look forward to end of lockdown and being given the opportunity to deliver these lessons and evaluating the impact my new approach towards curriculum planning will have on my students and their progress.
If you have got this far … well done! I am not usually a big talker and I feel like an imposter!
Like many of us history teachers at the moment, my department are currently rewriting our KS3 curriculum to fit our long term vision for our Academy. One aspect of this we keep coming back to is to ensure in whatever we teach, wherever we can we need to make sure our curriculum is diversified and represents as many forgotten voices as possible. We don’t want tokenistic inclusions, but for diversity to be a consistent focus. We believe in a curriculum with depth and variety and one which exposes pupils to small voices as well as big ones. This has prompted me to read around my subject more than ever and despite homeschool, lockdown has meant I’ve done more reading. I recently finished Bloody Brilliant Women by Cathy Newman. Newman writes about hundreds of British women from the last 150 years or so, who may have been forgotten about or whose impact has been sidelined in favour of bigger voices or more popular figures. This prompted me to write about some of the women that encouraged me, challenged me, made me laugh and most of all made me think whilst reading this book. Obviously the conclusions drawn are based on the women in the book, but I believe many, if not all of these could also be applied to men. Reading the book certainly made me reflect on our current society, the role of women in education and my own strengths and weaknesses and as Katie and I are constantly discussing and passionate about the place of women in the curriculum, I thought it appropriate to share.
Firstly, I was struck by how many of these quite brilliant women we hold as role models and have images of of them which stray into perfection but many were so complicated, often contradictory, frustratingly hypocritical and even dangerous. One example is the archaeologist, traveller and writer Gertrude Bell. Born in 1868, she was the first woman to achieve first class honours at University (though not a degree), had a passion for Arabia that led to years of travel, writing books and maps. During WW1 she set up an intelligence operation in Cairo and after the war, believing in Arab self-rule, she organised elections, founded the Iraq National Museum and worked to establish a constitutional monarchy. However, Newman ends the section talking about Bell with an encounter between herself and another woman on a boat discussing suffrage in 1909. We read that Bell had a deep dislike of the suffrage movement and even became Honorary Secretary of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. Bell believed she was as good as any man, and refused to conform to society’s expectations of her and yet did not believe she needed or wanted the vote. Obviously it is difficult for me to understand, over 100 years later, but this seeming contradictory nature does baffle me and shows the complications of society and women’s own expectations of themselves.
Of course, Newman also writes about the suffragettes in detail and the lengths they went to in order to achieve their aims. I’m writing this soon after reading Fern Riddell’s “Death in Ten Minutes” and there are huge parallels between their writing. Neither shy away from how dangerous and violent these campaigns were, and how this is far from the stereotypical view of suffragettes harmlessly chaining themselves to railings or marching with a sash like Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins singing Sister Suffragette. Hence my enquiry question as part of my Year 8 suffrage scheme of work: Is Fern Riddell Right in describing the suffragettes as terrorists? Riddell sums this up brilliantly for me when she says “I cannot excuse the actions of the suffragettes, but I will always support their reasons for fighting. So I have learned to accept one idea above all others:history is not supposed to be comfortable….False idols are the most dangerous gift history can give you….heroes can be corrupted, leaders can make terrible choices, but each moment, each action – whether questionable or justified – has led us to where we are today.”
There are countless other examples in the book, not least the imposing figure of Margaret Thatcher and her feminine handbag, but the other woman whose contradictory nature surprised me was a woman called Margery Hurst, founder of a secretarial agency which became a very profitable company in the 1960’s. Her journey from being a drifter and told she was good for nothing at school, is impressive to say the least. Her self belief was incredible “I never thought for a moment I could fail” she declared. Brook St was floated on the London stock exchange and branches in America and Australia followed. She fought off calls for a male chairman of her board; “I felt I owed it to women at large to show it could be done.” But as Newman acknowledges, she was “a mass of contradictions. She disliked the sexist things men did and said, but also disliked the way successful women who needed to make headway in male-dominated industries lost what she thought of as their soft, feminine qualities.” This subtle anti-feminism by women who are brilliant trailblazers is a thread which weaves its way in every aspect of the book and I found it fascinating.
Secondly, I was moved by examples of camaraderie and sisterhood between women fighting against injustices. Although there are undoubtedly examples of women achieving great success individually, I loved the stories of women fighting and succeeding together. Obviously the women fighting for female suffrage feature, but there are plenty of other examples. One in particular which stood out was the Dagenham strike of 1968 which has now inspired a film and a musical. The strike became one for equal pay as the women said “We’re just cheap labour, like most women.” Although there was definitely a split of opinion and not all women supported the strike, the 187 women involved displayed a sisterhood and united nature which eventually resulted in the Equal Pay Act of 1970. I also loved the story of the women who won seats in the 1945 Labour election win, 21 of them Labour. The account of Megan Lloyd George (daughter of David) and Barabara Castle pushing their desks together and dancing the can-can in the Lady Members Room definitely made me chuckle. However, the stories of women being more combatant and even bitchy were also striking. The account of Helen Clark, one of Blair’s babes in 1997 stood out. Newman quotes Clark who says she felt “excluded and patronised by a little band who were really snooty and snotty….They were the poster girls and they got jobs because they were always going to get them…I could have done the most wonderful speech. It would never have made any difference. I was always going to moulder on the backbenches.” I think this is something we all feel at some point, and it was interesting and sad to read that even amongst women who achieved so much, there was a tendency to divide at times rather than unite.
Many individuals also inspired me who showed such tenacity and intelligence and bloodymindedness. There are far too many to mention here but one or two who impacted me included Claudia Jones, the American journalist and activist who insisted a carnival in Notting Hill could encourage social cohesion in the face of great opposition, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell who in the 1960’s discovered pulsars, rotating stars which had reached the end of their lives and run out of fuel, which led to the discovery of black holes. The MP Barbara Castle’s name popped up again when I was inspired by the story of how she became a male-hate figure in 1967 for introducing the 70mph speed limit, breathalyzer tests for those suspected of drinking and compulsory seat belts in new cars. She suffered horrendous abuse, and yet in the year after the test was introduced, road deaths dropped by 1,200. Another example is Elizabeth Nyamayaro, Senior Advisor for UN women and the public face of HeforShe who came from a small village in Zimbabwe. HeForShe, launched by Emma Watson, is as Newman says “a successful, feminist, social media-driven awareness-raising movement”, inspired by Nyamayaro’s ambition and dedication. Yet it is interesting how many of these stories result in women’s contribution being overshadowed, women reluctant to claim responsibility or celebrate their achievements. Burnell’s supervisor was awarded a Nobel prize for their discovery in 1974, but she was not singled out. Yet she did not quibble this instead declaring “… actually I think I’ve had far more fun than if I’d got a Nobel prize.” In 1996 she admitted that she thought “the element of bravado is stronger in men than in women.” This is a pattern we do see repeated throughout the book.
We also see stories where the relative fame and notoriety of some women has overshadowed the bravery and dedication of others. Again, this aspect fits well with Fern Riddell’s book, as this is seen nowhere better than in the example of the Pankhursts and the Suffragette movement. Newman says “they’re synonymous with the fight for suffrage to the point where most people aren’t aware that anyone else was involved.” And yet to think this would be to deny the stories of the thousands of women who marched, the hundreds who went on hunger strike, those who were separated from their families and imprisoned, and committed violent acts for this cause they were so passionate about. Another example is that of Christina Broom, without whose photographs we would not know so much about the suffragette rallies or women’s work in WW1. As well as the examples here, Riddell’s book about Kitty Marion, one of these working-class suffragette women, helps to redress the balance.
You can’t escape the examples of sexism throughout the book and many of them were more recent than I naively thought. From the rape gags and jokey threats against women in the 1960’s James Bond films to the story of Kate Adie, the chief news journalist for the BBC, who had unflattering stories told about her, for example, scrabbling in the sand for her supposed lost pearl earrings, Newman exposes stories of blatant discrimination and prejudice. Verity Lambert, producer of Doctor Who felt she had to work “twice as hard” and when she was introduced to someone “they thought I was sleeping with the head of department, I am sure they thought that, and people did ask me.” Harriet Harman’s story also surprised me. Promoted under Blair, she “was made scapegoat for one of New Labour’s most ill-advised policies, the removal of a benefit premium paid to single parents.” She ended up losing her job in a reshuffle in 1998, stating: “You tend to be more exposed in this kind of crisis if you are a woman.”
In exposing this and telling the stories of these hundreds of brilliant women though, Newman does not lose faith that better times are coming. The ending of the book for me, was a celebration of the way these women have paved the way for mine and my daughter’s generation to succeed in hopefully ways they could only dream of. I hope this short post has interested you and inspired you to find out more about the women of history whose stories deserve a place in our curriculums and in our conversations. I’ll leave you with her final words which felt to me as a call to arms:
“I’m optimistic that today’s women are built for the long haul; they have what it takes to smash through glass ceilings, be heard over the massed ranks of haters and follow in the footsteps of the women you have just been reading about. So let’s raise a glass to strength, usefulness and not fading on the stalk – and the coming generations of bloody brilliant women.”
Failure is something we all have in common. Whether it’s failure to pass a driving test, to break the 25 minute barrier on a 5K run, to win a coveted award, to keep the house tidy or whether it’s more significant “failures” around relationships, children, friendships or work, we all experience failure. I’ve been a big fan of Elizabeth Day’s podcast series How to fail for some time now, and I’ve just finished her book. It is no underestimation to say it has blown me away. Day writes in such an honest, frank way about some of her biggest failures including infertility, marriage, work, and her body, but at the same time manages to write a book that is ultimately uplifting. She reminds us that it’s not the failure that’s important, it’s the lessons and experience we gain from it and how it shapes us as people and ultimately makes us stronger. The book has made me reflect on some of my own personal failures and what I have learnt from them. Day writes “..instead of fearing failure as a calamity from which it is impossible to recover, maybe we can build up the muscle of our emotional resilience by learning from others. That way, the next time something goes wrong, we are better equipped to deal with it. When you hear a successful person…be open about their failures, it is inclusive, not exclusive.” I hope that by opening myself up and writing about some of my failures in teaching and leadership, that you may feel less alone and realise that failure is learning to succeed better.
One of my first failures in teaching was the failure to get a job. As the rest of my cohort all seemed to manage to secure positions, I went to a few interviews where it seemed I did well, often getting down to the last two applicants before not being chosen for the position. My references were good, I was told my lessons were good and yet time ticked on, and before I knew it, it was July and I still had nothing for September. I think one of the issues was that my subject of History is a popular one and jobs were not as easy to come by as in some subjects, but at the time I felt an overwhelming sense of failure. I couldn’t help but feel rejected, and it took me right back to never being picked for PE teams at school. Interviews for me as an introvert are highly uncomfortable. I don’t like having to sell myself, I forget my achievements and dwell on my failures and spend hours afterwards analysing what I’ve said. Perhaps my shyness came across in interview, or perhaps I just wasn’t a right fit for the schools I applied to. I will never know, but each and every one of those failed interviews taught me something; whether it was about lesson pitching, how much to attempt in a 20 minute lesson, experience of varied questions in interviews or just not to wear that particular skirt which digs in and makes you uncomfortable. Ironically, when I eventually got a job in early July, I initially thought about not applying as the job was a 50% RE timetable and a temporary contract. I went along to the interview anyway, was honest and open and not as nervous as I had been in the others, and was offered the job straight away. Perhaps I had been trying too hard to fit in, perhaps I just found my groove, perhaps it was meant to be. Whatever the reason, I think I needed to experience that rejection before I got the job I did. It made me more appreciative of the responsibility I have as a teacher. It made me realise how important finding the right school for you is (when I look back I don’t think some of those schools would have been), and it made me more determined to prove myself.
My second failure was around relationships with pupils, something I think many if not all of us experience. My first year was extremely difficult. Of course, as I’ve outlined in a previous post, I started the year full of great intentions to make a difference, to inspire and to be the next LouAnne Johnson or Erin Gruwell. I ended up with a very apathetic Year 9 form class who had already been passed from pillar to post and thought of me as just another short term stop gap. I also taught them History as a form group, along with a couple of other groups who did everything they could to try and break me it seemed. Lessons were an exhausting hour and twenty minutes and on Thursday mornings I taught the two most difficult classes back to back in a double. By Thursday lunchtimes most weeks you could find me crying at my desk convinced I would never make it through the year I regularly considered whether teaching was right for me. It didn’t help that while I did have some support in the school, there were teachers who worked closely with me who did little to help, telling me I needed to toughen up and not spend so long on my lessons because “they’re not going to do it anyway”. I think looking back, I did toughen up, perhaps not in the way they expected. I raised my standards and kept them high. I stood my ground and worked on the little things like entrance to the lesson and routines for speaking in class. But more than that, I worked on relationships. I realised that these pupils needed me to know I was invested in them, that I cared and that I believed in them. I spent time getting to know them, finding common ground and showing I had seen their potential. Relationships take time to develop and it was definitely not something that improved overnight. In fact, relationships are still something I need to work on even now 19 years in. But that initial year of seeming failure taught me so much about the kind of environment I wanted my classroom to be, the kind of teacher I wanted to be and the support I wanted to be for colleagues going through an experience like mine in the future. I’m proud to say that many of those pupils, some of them now parents themselves, have been in touch over the years and have thanked me for believing in them and challenging them, opening up about tough times they were going through. You see, it was never really about me. It wasn’t personal, and that’s the other lesson I’ve taken away from that incredibly difficult year.
I always set out to be the best teacher I could be, but it’s only now looking back that I see another failure I had was in failing to understand how pupils actually learn, and therefore how best to teach them. To be fair, this probably was a failure of my training. Much as I enjoyed it, I don’t remember ever being taught about memory or cognitive load, and therefore how could I best structure my lessons to ensure that pupils would learn in the most efficient and effective way? Over the years my head was swayed by the latest fashion in teaching; poundland pedagogy, kagan, thinking hats, competition, VAK and limiting teacher talk to no more than 5 minutes (I was once timed at an interview). I vividly remember teaching some lessons using playdough where I doubt pupils learnt anything at all, and got sucked into wanting my observations to always be “outstanding” – I remember crying once when I only got “good” (obviously knowing now these gradings mean absolutely nothing). And yet it’s only over the past couple of years when I have spent so much time investing in research and evidence based practice that I realise that much of what I had been doing was at best a waste of time and at most overloading pupils cognitive load and preventing actual learning taking place. Reading amongst others Daniel Willingham’s Why don’t students like school, Tom Sherrington’s The Learning Rainforest and Rosenshine’s Principles in Action, Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts Boys Don’t Try, Mary Myatt’s The Curriculum, Kate Jones’ Retrieval Practice, Mark Enser’s Teach like Nobody’s Watching and Making every History lesson count by Chris Runeckles have utterly transformed my teaching. Teach to the top and scaffolding down, high challenge low threat, frequent retrieval practice, direct instruction, a focus on challenging texts and scholarship in the classroom and whole class feedback have replaced the gimmicks of the past, which were only failing the pupils in front of me.
Almost 6 years ago, my Dad died aged just 69. I am the oldest of 4 and looked up to him immensely. He was the kindest man you could wish to meet, he had a big heart and would do anything for anyone, he loved to laugh and make mischief, and he could fix anything at all. He was fit, healthy and having just retired from being a minister, seemed to have a happy retirement ahead of him. And yet, one day he visited the doctors complaining of nausea and just not being himself. The doctor took one look at him and sent him to A and E with jaundice, and he never really came home again, bar a brief weekend. 12 weeks later, he died in a hospice from tumours in his bile duct and liver which were inoperable, too weak for any chemotherapy or other intervention. It was a huge shock for me and my family, and my next failure relates to how I dealt with that grief, especially at work. I took the course of action of burying my feelings and throwing myself into work, going back far too soon and believing that as Head of a large faculty in school, to show how I was feeling would be a sign of weakness. I became hardened to the pain and didn’t really talk about how I was feeling. In retrospect, I know those feelings had to come out at some time, and they eventually did, when I lost it at school one day and could not stop sobbing. It was my then headteacher who took me to one side that day and spoke to me at length about what I was going through. He asked me why I was pretending not to suffer, and challenged me about why I thought showing how I was feeling would make me a weaker leader. I’ll always be grateful for that challenge. Since then I’ve read a lot about authentic leadership and how being aware of your emotions and being honest about your weaknesses can be a positive thing as a leader, often strengthening people’s belief in you. Having gone through the experience of losing my Dad, I hope that makes me a more empathetic and compassionate colleague and leader but I also hope that next time I suffer in that way that I’ll know showing grief or pain is not a weakness, that it is not something you can repress or bury. As Peter Greig says “honest weakness takes courage, eliciting kindness, humanity and grace.”
The last area of failure I have been reflecting on is my failure to have confidence and belief in my own capabilities, a topic I explored in my imposter syndrome blog post. As I mention in the blog, it’s hard to feel at times you have something important to say and in the world of teaching, particularly on Twitter, it’s easy for your voice to get drowned out, or not to have the confidence to say anything at all. This crippling fear has prevented me from going for promotion or new jobs at times and led to deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy. Comparison really is the thief of joy, and as I look back on my career so far, I wish I hadn’t failed at times to see my strengths or been scared off by opportunities. As I’ve got older and learnt techniques to deal with my imposter syndrome, I’ve got stronger and more confident, more able to push myself beyond my comfort zone, and the results have been far more than I could have imagined. Starting this blog with Katie is just one example. Sharing my imposter syndrome post and having so many people express similar feelings is a success borne out of failure, much as I hope this post will be, and takes us right back to where we started; failure is inclusive. I know failure will and does still happen to me and there are many more failures I could write about. I’m a leader and teacher who makes mistakes frequently, but it’s important to acknowledge we all have those failures. I’ve learnt that failure can be turned into the greatest achievements, that mistakes can lead to the greatest growth. I write this post in the hope that even just one person feels less alone and that what I’ve talked about resonates, that it helps us become more connected. And I hope it shows that failure can be a force for good. I’ll leave the final words to Elizabeth Day, without whose book I would not have written this post: “What does it mean to fail? I think all it means is that we’re living life to its fullest. We’re experiencing it in several dimensions, rather than simply contenting ourselves with the flatness of a single, consistent emotion. We are living in technicolour, not black and white.” I know I for one, want to live in technicolour.
I can see you now stepping into the staff room, seeing your name on the pigeon hole, collecting your planner and walking to your very own classroom. You feel excited beyond belief. You’re a real teacher, about to meet your new classes. You’re looking forward to building up relationships with pupils, encouraging them to become historians and being the kind of teacher who inspired you. You might not have the charisma of John Keating or the dogged determination of Erin Gruwell* but you want to do your very best to motivate these pupils and help them succeed.
Fast forward 19 years. 19 years continuously in the classroom, with just a couple of six month breaks for maternity leaves. What would I tell my 21 year old self? What do I wish I’d known? Honestly, there are many many pieces of advice I’d tell myself at 21, but on the professional side I’ll whittle it down to just 5
1.There will be difficult classes, difficult days and difficult lessons. There will be days you will cry and eat a full tub of Ben and Jerry’s in the vain hope of making yourself feel better. You are not a rubbish teacher and sometimes teenagers will press your buttons. They may say some unkind things. It may feel as if they are deliberately trying to antagonise you. Don’t take it personally. In years to come many will stop you in the street, write to you, speak to you at open evening and even come to train as teachers with you. They will apologise and tell you it wasn’t about you, that they know you just wanted the best for them and thank you for showing you cared. Continue to have high standards of behaviour. Smile, get to know them, but be consistent and don’t worry about being the “popular” teacher.
2. Build relationships with your team and wider staff. As an introvert you will naturally want to sit in your classroom at lunchtime and are nervous of the staff room, but get in there. Talk about something other than teaching, have a laugh with your colleagues, enter that baking competition, volunteer to join the PTA, sign up to sleep in the woods overnight in October, (yep I did), go on that trip, attend that staff do, do that lip sync battle as Bon Jovi (yes and there’s video evidence) and ask about the caretaker’s mum who’s had an operation. Thank everyone, smile and say hello when you pass in the corridor and give compliments with ease. Be kind and give presents whenever you can. Those little things matter. Schools are families and you cannot do this job in silo. You will enrich your life and others by building those relationships.
3. Never drop your standards in the classroom. While there may be a temptation to dumb down the challenge at times or give in to an “easy” lesson, don’t do it. Children secretly love thinking hard and that sense of achievement when they accomplish something they didn’t think they could do, or understand a concept that seemed baffling at first. Get pupils reading challenging texts and asking big questions about history. Get pupils handling real evidence and questioning the sources, expose them to the work of historians and get them excited about the significance of people and events in the past.
4. Don’t fall for the latest fads in teaching. Whether it’s kinaesthetic learning, every lesson having a kagan technique or a no writing day, a 6 part lesson, triple impact marking or no more than 5 minutes teacher talk – just stick to what the evidence says works. Teach to the top and scaffold down for those who need it. Focus on reading and vocabulary. Ask lots of questions and probe for understanding. Revisit material frequently, build good relationships and routines and give timely feedback. Challenge misconceptions and expose pupils to big questions. One day you will even be in charge of implementing a whole school no written feedback policy that will help shift the culture to one where teachers teach and feedback for pupils, not for observers. Trust in your gut to teach without gimmicks.
5. Look outside your school for ideas and inspiration. Join your subject association, go to your local network meetings and get on Twitter. Follow the work of people who write about research and people with experience. Challenge your preconceptions and read widely. Badger your CPD lead to invest in a teacher’s CPD library and take the opportunities to try ideas in the classroom. Don’t be afraid to make links with other schools and share resources, however nerve-wracking it may be. Dylan Wiliam famously said “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Take this to heart. Don’t get complacent. Always want to be better. Your love of teaching will still be there 19 years later.
*I’m a sucker for Dead Poets Society and if you haven’t seen Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell, Do it now! Amazing and inspiring film and if you don’t cry quite simply you have no soul.
Dear NQT Katie,
Rewind 5,708 days, your stomach is churning, you are brimming with nervous anticipation, as you board your Merseyrail train to make the journey to your first day at school. You have wanted to be a teacher since time began (maybe a mild exaggeration, at one point you wanted to paleontologist, until you realised you struggled to hold a chicken drumstick without gagging), you were completely hooked in by the stalwart of a woman, that you know today as Kate Dickinson. This formidable, intensely articulate, beacon of stoicism had been an inspiration to you since the start of secondary school. Now you were being given the opportunity to make a genuine difference to the lives of your own students. The prospect of this mammoth and incredibly exciting task, left you overwhelmed but determined, you made many mistakes along the way but you also made a huge amount of progress. With my old (ish), experienced head on, what advice would I give to my NQT self, 16 years on?
Don’t underestimate the value of positive relationships with your students. Relationships really are at the epicentre of a meaningful teaching career. Positive relationships based upon trust and clear boundaries, go a long way towards securing successful outcomes. Take time to get to know your pupils as individuals, invest in them, play to their strengths. Pay particular attention to the introverts, they may be quiet, but they have a lot to offer, you just need to reassure them that their opinions are of worth. Thank Molly on the back row for bringing that book in for you on ‘Brazen Women’. It will make her day, she will go on to take History A Level. Realise that your words may have a lasting impact. This can be hard in the heat of the moment (trust me, I know!)
Ask lots of questions. You are not expected to know everything, in fact you never will. Eliminate the idea that asking a question is a sign of weakness, in reality no learning takes place without questions. Ask about the behaviour policy, the NQT programme, the curriculum and the resources. Questioning is a sign of strength and reflection, as we tell our students, there are no such thing as stupid questions. Be that bit braver and ask if you are uncertain, there is always someone willing to help (as long as you haven’t taken their seat…or worse still, their coffee cup from the staff room!)
To quote Socrates, “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing”. You might feel overwhelmed by the seemingly ridiculous levels of subject knowledge that some of your department have. You’re in your first year of teaching, your main priority is to plan engaging, focused and well structured lessons. Yes, knowledge is important, but as your love for the subject grows and you read more, your knowledge will grow. Don’t feel humiliated by not being able to answer David’s question about the different state electoral rules regarding the conduct of Primaries and Caucuses in the USA. It still baffles me today. Look it up, ask him to look it up, turn it on it’s head. Accept that you are not the finished article …. get concerned if you ever think you are!
Organise a school trip, go on as many as you can with your department and pastoral team. School trips enrich the learning experience for all involved. Not only do they play an important role in the acquisition of knowledge but they help to develop important interpersonal skills, that classroom teaching doesn’t necessarily lend itself to. For me trips are one of the highlights of the job. You get to see students and staff at their very best, I’ve forged the most unlikely, life long friendships on residentials in Europe’s worst youth hostels. One of the proudest achievements of my NQT year was taking a class of 13, Year 7 boys, all with specific learning difficulties, to the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. The look of awe and wonder on their faces was priceless, some had never set foot in a museum.
Take time for yourself. You are not defined entirely by your job. Try to maintain healthy habits. Get sleep when you can, exercise, eat well, spend time with your friends and family. One of my saving graces in times of pressure is walking down to the beach, breathing in the sea air and watching the waves crash onto the rocks. Sometimes I am amazed at the fact that nature seems to slow down time, this human construct that is responsible for the creation of so many of the stresses in our lives. (And finally… don’t get totally blot-toed at the staff Christmas party, it’s never a good idea! I’ll remind you of the story one day, as if you could ever forget it!)
If you want to read more about what people wish they’d known earlier in their careers, Rachel really enjoyed this book by Sarah Mullin (@MrsSarahMullin).
I am the first to admit that I am never fully content, I am always striving for perfection, the next challenge, the next big project, that might just make me feel complete. For many people lockdown has presented itself as period of productivity, completing CPD courses, listening to podcasts, refining schemes of work and creating amazing resources. For me it has been the antithesis of this.
When lockdown was announced 4 weeks ago, I was devastated. Work gives me a huge sense of self-worth, I thrive off being in the classroom, I love the interaction with my students and the satisfaction I get from helping others to be successful. From a purely selfish perspective, how was I going to survive looking after my OWN children? I had struggled during my second bout of maternity leave. At points, I felt completely overwhelmed, as if I had lost all sense of myself. I had a newborn baby and an 18 month old, both entirely dependent on me for survival. The thought of lockdown left me genuinely frightened for my own mental health.
Lockdown has presented me with many challenges. Sometimes I feel overcome with inertia, because my children need me, and maybe because I am my own worst enemy. I am unable to be as productive as I would like. My tiny humans need constant supplies of snacks (I’m talking every hour!), nappy changes, entertaining and refereeing. I feel suffocated at not being able to be with my parents, to go on play dates, to just get on with simple tasks- like putting washing in the machine (I’m not even joking!). The house is in chaos, I am drinking too much, my screen time is out of control and if I hear ‘Alexa play the poo poo song’ one more time…I might just explode!
But has it really been that bad? Lockdown for all of its lows has also given me the opportunity to be more reflective. The slower pace has given me time to address what’s really important to me. I’ve learnt things about myself. Some days I feel like superwoman…in fact I am superwomen, other days I just don’t want to get out of bed, but I have no choice. For all of us it’s about survival on some level. It’s so important not to compare our experiences to others. Comparison really is the thief of joy, and there is a lot of joy to be had, despite these difficult circumstances. We must not forget that what people choose to post on social media is merely a highlight of their day. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to heavily filtered snap shots of a single moment in time, we should not use it these images to measure our own value. We should not allow these snapshots to make us feel inadequate.
Here are few survival strategies that have kept me relatively sane:
Exercising has helped to keep me on an even keel. Exhilarating runs around my local park, early in the morning, have got my endorphins going and allowed me to escape it all, even if just for half an hour. I never really realised the beauty all around me, until now, and thank goodness for this unseasonably great weather.
Smiling knowingly at strangers. A real feeling that ‘We’re all in this together’ (I hate High School Musical, but it just seemed apt). Conversations with neighbours, I have barely spoken to before. A prevailing sense of community spirit and cohesion.
Having time with my children. Watching them play together (and occasionally strangle each other) has brought me so much happiness. My youngest is finally starting to talk. It’s made my heart burst to see them grow closer everyday.
Reaching out to friends, being honest about my highs and lows and not being judged. Family quizzes, books, films and box sets (check out Unorthodox on Netflix- it’s phenomenal),
Watching other people thrive (EduTwitter and the History teaching community are just smashing it- I salute you!) and if you are not smashing your curriculum planning, does it really matter?
Listening to music I loved as a teenager, a feeling of reliving my lost youth. Skunk Anansie, Idlewild, Stereophonics, Ash, Symposium, Alanis Morissette (feminist icon). It’s been liberating. Evoking those feelings of teenage angst and the joy of a sweaty mosh pit, has proven a great distraction.
Accepting that I can only do what I can do. That I am enough. Trying to appreciate the now, being in the moment and being thankful for all of the things that are both wonderful and challenging in my life.
We are all trying our best to navigate our way through these difficult times. Let’s try and support each other, ‘A rising tide lifts all the boats.’ Reach out if you feel like you are drowning, I’ve been there.
You only have to google imposter syndrome to realise that although suffering from it makes you feel as if you are alone, actually it is a very common condition. Imposter syndrome (Clance and Imes 1978) is the belief that in which you doubt your own abilities or achievements and feel at any time you may be called out as a fraud. It can affect anyone, although typically it affects women more than men. Some have suggested this is because women produce less testosterone – the confidence hormone. Many women and men I admire suffer from it, such stalwarts as Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, David Bowie and Tom Hanks, all talk about overwhelming feelings of self-doubt at various points in their lives. Hanks, for all his success in TV and film said: “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?'”