360 feedback

360 feedback is a key component of the leadership course I have recently taken part in, both at the beginning and end. 360 feedback is a process where feedback on an individual is given by colleagues; line managers, people they line manage and people they may work closely beside, anonymously, in order to assess an individuals strengths and areas for development. Alongside this, the individual is often asked to rate themselves in very similar questions. (We did ours through Leadership Matters). Conclusions can then be drawn about areas where the individual might perceive they are more competent than their colleagues think they are, or the individual might be underselling themselves, and actually their colleagues may rate them higher than they rate themselves.

I think Andy Buck sums the reasons for doing a 360 like this really well when he says: “Leadership starts with you. Your understanding of yourself: the way you tend to behave in certain situations, what you enjoy and are good at and those areas you should probably focus on if you want to improve your effectiveness. But you also need to take the time to properly understand your situation: the people and the context you find yourself in. Taken together, an understanding of self and situation should enable you to decide what actions you need to prioritise and the best approach to take in implementing them. If you get this right you will create a productive culture and climate that combine to release discretionary effort from those you lead which will lead to you achieving the pupil outcomes you aspire to.”

I’ll be honest though, I was extremely nervous about this process and although I knew I passionately wanted to improve as a leader, and I wanted to get the most out of this course as I could, I was anxious about what would be said. The questions surveys like this ask are those which I believe we wouldn’t naturally seek answers to. How am I doing? How can I improve? What can I get better at? What can I do to make us work more efficiently as a team? I undoubtedly felt trepidation about hearing about areas where I needed to improve and where I needed to hone my leadership skills. I am fairly typical, I believe, in that no matter what positives in feedback I receive, I of course am naturally drawn to anything negative or areas where colleagues felt my performance could be better. My standards for myself are high, and I did not want to feel I was letting anyone down. However, if I did not hear about these areas, how could I seek to improve? I would be wanting to become a better leader with no map to guide me, no way to know if I was working on the right things. There is a lesson here in positive uncomfortableness too, and pushing yourself outside what feels natural. In the same way we ask students to get outside their comfort zone in order to challenge them and help them learn, we have to be prepared to take the same position ourselves so we can learn as leaders. Not all of leadership comes naturally, and while there are some parts of the role I see as straightforward, other parts are difficult and take work and commitment, and if I’m honest I’m not sure I’ll ever get completely right. As Mary Myatt says so eloquently, we are; “Human beings first, professionals second.” We are human, we will make mistakes and as leaders we are always learning. Consequently, I bit the bullet and was careful to choose a range of colleagues who I knew would give me honest feedback.

What I found was that in the most part, my colleagues did recognise the elements of my practice which I also found were strengths – anyone who knows me knows I am good at meeting deadlines for example. There’s no doubt it was lovely to receive praise in some areas, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. There were also areas where I knew I could improve. I’m open and honest about the fact that I know sometimes my passion for Teaching and Learning can overwhelm the need to take a step back and see the bigger picture. What I also found though, was that I did have some blind spots. There were areas where colleagues said I needed to work a bit harder at, where perhaps I had got complacent, or even areas where I had subconsciously decided something was less important, and yet colleagues felt it was something I did need to improve on. One such weaker area was asking for feedback on performance, which maybe is not surprising given what I have said earlier! What the process and the feedback did though, was make me focus and gave me a starting point. It increased my self-awareness and made me create some actions so that I could show improvements in these areas. It also made me really think about people’s perception of me, and hone in on refining my behaviours to be more like the leader I had aspirations to be. I made a point for example when introducing or changing something related to Teaching and Learning of forcing myself to think more about the effects on other areas of the Academy, and whether this really was a priority at the moment. I also tried to ask for more feedback throughout the year, using line management time to ask questions such as “What else can I do or take off you to support you?” for example.

I’ve recently completed the 360 again, about 15 months later. Again, the process created nervousness, but this time I was much better prepared about what would be revealed. What it showed, pleasingly, was that progress had been made. My strengths were, unsurprisingly, still my strengths, but the areas for improvement were rated higher than they had been in the previous process. Again, there were some areas where I still have work to do, but the comments from my colleagues were a massive boost that I am on the right track.

What I’ve learnt from this process, and the course as a whole, is that there is no shame in being told you can improve in some areas, and that actually forcing yourself to listen to feedback like this is humbling, and makes you a better leader in the long run. I’ve also learnt that a 360 like this is a process, it’s not a one off event which I can now tick off. Feedback should be part of our daily conversations if we want to get better. If I want to be a good leader, and I really really do, then I have to make the time commitment and also swallow my pride a little to ask for regular feedback from others. Ignorance is not bliss on this occasion; too often we plough ahead with our own agendas without thinking about what will really make us, and therefore our organisations better. In my opinion, a 360 like this is really worth the investment.

This quote by Doc Rivers, the American professional basketball coach, is really powerful and sums my feelings up well: ““Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want to be told the truth.” I want to have the courage to be told the truth by those I work with so that I can be a great leader, not a good one or even an average one.

Rachel

The power of a word – Admittedly

Since reading The Writing Revolution and blogging about it, I have been thinking a lot about vocabulary in the classroom, and getting students to really think about the words they choose as a focus for improving the quality of writing. This is especially true in the essay questions required by exam boards such as the 16 mark question in AQA GCSE History, like this from 2019 Paper 1: “The main cause of tension between the Superpowers during the 1960s was the Cuban Missile Crisis. How far do you agree with this statement? Explain your answer.”

There are several issues which can arise when students are attempting this question outside the range of knowledge needed to answer it effectively. One of the main ones, is that it requires students to have a clear line of argument. What I have found when marking these answers is that it is easy for students to “flip flop” about, either starting out by saying one factor is important and changing their mind by the conclusion, or starting paragraphs with simple sentences such as “I think x factor was the most important reason because…” “However, I also think y factor was important because…” The Examiners report repeatedly emphasises that for students to get into Levels 3 and 4, students arguments should be more complex than this. The Level 3 descriptor says “Answer demonstrates a developed, sustained line of reasoning which has coherence and logical structure” and the Level 4 descriptor says “Answer demonstrates a complex, sustained line of reasoning which has a sharply-focused coherence and logical structure that is fully substantiated.” This is reinforced in the Examiner’s report – The 2018 report for example says “The strongest answers at this level were effective because there was a clear line of argument that introduced other distinct factors…”

In recent months, one word which has undoubtedly improved the quality of the essay questions I receive, is the word Admittedly, brought to my attention by my fantastic Head of History Lisa Kelly. The Collins dictionary says “You use admittedly when you are saying something which weakens the importance or force of your statement.” Using this one word has forced my students to think about the whole structure of their essays. All students have to use it (or a similar word/phrase such as undeniably, certainly, it must be said) at some point in the essay. If students agree with the stated factor in the question, they could then start their second paragraph with “Admittedly, factor z also contributed…” If students disagree with the stated factor they could start their first paragraph with “Admittedly factor z did have an impact on….” and then their second paragraph would go on to say “However, x factor made a more considerable impact on….” I have then added other connectives which students could use to start their other paragraphs, and modelled how to show how the rest of the essay would look, maintaining an argument through to the conclusion. Somehow, just the use of this one word has helped my students to see the flow of their essay and be able to plan a more cohesive approach. As always, my approach is to model repeatedly, using an I do, we do, you do approach, gradually removing any scaffolds.

Admittedly, using admittedly hasn’t meant that overnight my students are all handing in Level 4 16 mark essays, but thinking about quick wins like this has undoubtedly improved the quality of the writing I am seeing. It’s a format which is simple for them to learn and forces them to step back and think about the argument in the question, rather than abruptly changing tack during an essay, and hopefully will secure them higher marks in their exam.

Rachel

New year, new goals

There is something really nice about a new year. Much like the pleasure in opening a new notebook, it represents the chance to try something new, determine ourselves to not repeat our mistakes of the past, to tweak our practice, change anything we need to change, and set some goals about what we will do or achieve.

“The beginning of the year offers a fresh start and a clean slate,” according to Nona Jordan, a coach who helps female entrepreneurs improve their business. Many of us are also motivated by the idea of bettering ourselves. “Most of us have a natural bent toward self-improvement,” said John Duffy, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author. The arbitrary date of New Year “gives us time and a goal date to prepare for the change, to fire up for the shifts we plan to make.”

Teachers are unique, in that we have an opportunity to do this twice a year instead of just the usual 1st January, and I for one love it. I’ve always been a goal-setter (though not necessarily ambitious). I find reflecting on past achievements or failures important, and I love setting myself a goal or challenge. At the beginning of the year, I decided to take this one step further and purchased a journal to allow me to reflect and check in on my goals throughout the year (see below). I love the fact I have to think about parts of the week I am grateful for, my highlights and things I struggled with, but it also forces me to think how I might have achieved something this week which puts me another step closer to achieving my goals for the year. I also love the focus on kindness to others and there have been weeks where this has been really easy and weeks where I’ve realised I’ve not looked much beyond my little bubble, so it has been a good reminder to look up.

In lockdown, making goals really helped me focus and get some structure at a time when life was pretty unstructured, and helped me deal with the mental turmoil of not knowing what was around the corner (I set myself goals such as 100k steps a week, reading at least 5 books a month, baking once a week etc.) I also think these goals give me a chance to prioritise myself and think about what I want for me, when life can easily be swamped by the pressures of work, family and the sorts of things we all go through and may not speak about publicly. Therefore, September for me represents the chance to plan for the year ahead, to start afresh, and to set professional and private goals for the months to come. Whilst New Year’s resolutions don’t typically have a high success rate, I still think they are useful, particularly if you are careful not to set unrealistic goals. The author and speaker Bill Copeland said “The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score” and I would agree with this. Perhaps this is because of my personality – I like to tick things off a list and get to the end of the day feeling a sense of achievement, but also goals help me prioritise and give me a sense of purpose. I do try and keep any goals manageable and I think the SMARTi acronym for targets is a good one here. In my first week back at school for example, I knew I would not be able to maintain the previous step rate of the holidays so reduced them whilst still maintaining an aspirational goal.

So, in the past few days, I’ve been thinking about my goals as a leader, teacher and more personally, and I thought it might be helpful for me to share some here.

Leadership – Writing our Academy Development plan recently, I was reminded of the sheer size and privilege of the job I do and this at times can seem overwhelming. I believe passionately in continuous improvement and this can mean that at times I get impatient and want to see change immediately. There’s a sense of frustration in my role sometimes about planning and leading CPD then wanting, and perhaps expecting to see immediate change, perhaps in the same vein as a teacher; “I’ve taught you it, why don’t you know it?”. So this year, I’m going to make a conscious effort firstly to revisit, in the same way we use continual retrieval with students. Hence for example, we asked every single member of teaching staff to watch 3 short videos showing our CPD from last year and complete a simple google form explaining the key learning points. Obviously videoing these occurred because of our current restrictions around members of staff in the same room, but actually this has an immense advantage in staff could access this at their own convenience, and it maintains a permanent record, should any member of staff, perhaps in a coaching situation, need to revisit any of the material. My ambition is that all staff know that last year’s CPD isn’t over, and avoiding as one teacher I spoke to described it “lurching from one idea to the next without an overall long-term plan.” I want our staff to know there isn’t a throw-away culture in our CPD where we just move on to something different year on year. CPD is exactly that; continuous, so we haven’t “done” Literacy just because we had a major whole school focus on that last year. Our work around Literacy needs refreshed and then embedded continually so we can ensure consistency and make sure it becomes part of our daily practice. When I plan our CPD, we may focus on slightly different aspects each year, but there are long term areas which we will continue to work on year on year. We will never be “done”.

Secondly, I’m going to try and not be as impatient to see change. Real sustained change takes time. Staff need time to reflect personally, staff teams need time to discuss how strategies apply to their subject, and leaders need time to form coherent plans themselves for embedding within areas. David Weston, chief executive of the TDT writes “A common issue we find in schools is of leaders introducing all sorts of well-meaning professional development activities, but their staff feel unable to take advantage of these opportunities. In the worst cases they may even resent them. The most common causes for this discord relate to workload: staff feel they do not have the time to commit to new opportunities, no matter how potentially powerful.” Therefore we as a leadership team need to ensure that meeting times are really focused on pedagogy not admin and that any whole school CPD is always followed by reflection time in teams, then followed up in line-management meetings. I believe good CPD will be continually revisited and reflected upon and tweaked. I was struck by a message in Tom Bennett’s book on behaviour Running the Room about “making it easy for kids to behave” and it struck me it is the same in leadership of CPD. My job is to set the culture where staff want to improve because they see CPD as relevant and they have the time to embed the strategies needed for improvement, and therefore my goal is to be more patient and more proactive about setting the right environment for professional learning.

Teaching – As a teacher this year, my biggest goal is around teach to the top and making better use of scaffolding techniques. As a school we are now pursuing much more mixed-ability teaching, and all my groups truly have a huge mix of prior attainment. I wrote a little about our strategy here and so as a class teacher I want to do more to implement scaffolding techniques like live modelling and an I, we, you approach (see Andy Tharby’s excellent blog here and Greg Thornton’s brilliant blog here) I want to have the highest expectations of all my students. Tom Sherrington’s blog is my go-to on this, and as I was re-reading this at the start of the year, one aspect which really stood out for me was regarding “exemplars of excellence”. Sherrington says: “One of the key messages from the Austin’s Butterfly story from Ron Berger, is that, too often, we settle for less than students are capable of.  Another is that students themselves don’t know what might be possible and so they pitch too low.” Although model answers have been part of my teaching arsenal for some time, I still think I need to make it more regular practice in my lessons to model, whether live or pre-planned, what excellence looks like. Do I really show pupils the length and depth a good answer should have, how a sentence should be structured or how to insert a quote in a meaningful way? As Sherrington adds “Don’t hit and hope…. show them first.”

Personal – In my last conversation with my leadership coach, we spoke about being present, something I admit I am not very good at. You’ll often catch me multi-tasking, thinking about the next job which needs completed or planning ahead for the next thing I need to do, and as my husband will attest to, I’m just not very good at stopping and enjoying the moment! I would like to try and slow down a bit this year, and enjoy the ordinary moments of each day, without always being in a rush to get something done. I want to try and make a concerted effort to focus on one thing at a time, not emailing whilst dishing up dinner or writing down notes for a lesson in the moments waiting for a TV programme to start. I was also listening to an old How to fail podcast with Elizabeth Day interviewing the writer and philosopher Alain De Botton recently, and he said something which has stayed with me since about “seeing the amazingness in the every day.” I want to slow down and be more grateful for the many, many things I have in my life which bring me joy. De Botton compares it to the feeling of recovering after a bad illness and noticing the small things in the world with a new perspective. This is not easy, but one strategy I’ve found recently which has been helpful, came from the psychotherapist Anna Mathur who suggested re-framing “I have to” as “I get to” applying to anything from doing the washing (I have a washing machine, a family to do the washing for etc), to sitting in traffic on the way to work (I get to drive, own a car, have a job etc). It may sound trite, but it really does help me in the moments when I feel tense or overwhelmed.

I truly believe goals give us purpose and a road map for our time, and can act as a brilliant motivator. The aim of this blog has really been two-fold. Writing this has helped me crystallise in my head exactly what I want to achieve this year, but I also hope it prompts you to think about your own goals. I’d love to hear about what yours may be, so please share if you have got this far, and very best wishes for the year ahead!

Rachel

Feedback not marking 2

One thing I was reminded of on my senior leadership training course this year by Nick Lowry, is that when you want to introduce a new policy or change in school, you must always start with the why. If you want buy in and staff to amend their practice, you have to communicate clearly why this change is needed. When we launched a whole school no written feedback policy, the first thing I made sure I did was to communicate why there would be a change in policy, and that this was not a gimmick or an idea which would be launched then forgotten about. This was a change in policy steeped in research which we believed would make a positive impact on the progress of all our pupils in the long term. Like any large group, the staff at my Academy are not homogeneous – some enjoyed marking, some believed it made them a better teacher, and some did not understand how a policy such as the one being introduced could possibly work. We therefore made feedback the main focus of a whole school inset day towards the end of the academic year and spent time discussing the huge benefits of feedback, whilst acknowledging the drawbacks of the beast that written marking had become. I shared our findings that we as teachers had lost sight of who we were giving feedback for (a policy rather than to improve learning), the worry that time marking was preventing thorough planning and the burden on workload. As all CPD at my Academy, this was related directly to research, and we followed up by discussion where the issues in the current system were acknowledged, then we shared the new policy and the key headlines about how it would work, based on conversations with the trial team. We shared expectations for most lessons containing some sort of red pen feedback, and what there was no longer an expectation for (written feedback, evidencing verbal feedback). Importantly, at this point I then also shared some misconceptions and what the new policy would not mean (not looking at books, no one else ever looking at teachers books – something I will explore later, or teachers not being allowed to grade), followed by what it did mean. I shared our expectations that the new policy would mean:

  • Trust put in staff as professionals to judge how and when to feedback.
  • Working in different ways – more time invested in planning bespoke lessons with a variety of feedback methods
  • More in-lesson feedback – verbal, use of visualizer, modelling, highlighting success criteria etc.
  • Books are checked quickly and common strengths, mistakes and misconceptions are dealt with quickly at the beginning of the next lesson.
  • Continued work scrutiny conversations and discussion of feedback and progress in books (this happens openly with the teacher – no books are removed and taken away to be looked at without the teacher).

I then spent time outlining each of the 4 methods of feedback explored in the previous blog post. However, we wanted staff to get a feel for what this would actually look like in the classroom and so with the whole trial team involved, we used a carousel system to showcase some of the methods we had found most useful, including various whole class feedback sheets, examples of model answer critique and examples of live feedback. We shared pupils’ books, and used Iris to show staff the techniques in practice, with lots of time for questions. Of course this could only be an overview, and so all these areas have been reinforced since, but it gave staff a flavour and gave them time to start thinking about how their practice might change. We also shared a presentation of generic proformas staff could use if they wished to to guard against any potential unease about where to start. We ended the whole staff session by outlining the part of the policy with clear teacher expectations with the bottom line being to plan for integration of some form of feedback into most lessons. We asked staff to focus on modelling and whole class feedback primarily, to deep mark summative assessments with a % and grade if applicable, followed by whole class or individual feedback and re-teaching where needed using QLA, to ensure red pen improvement by pupils is visible and regular in books. In addition, we told staff they needed to follow departmental guidelines for frequency of whole class/deep feedback and therefore, we ended the day by giving teams time to discuss the changes and devise a subject specific version of the whole school policy. This, I believe, is vital. A feedback policy in English will not, and should not look the same as a feedback policy in Design Technology and so it’s important that middle leaders had ownership of the expectations of their subject, which I then moderated to ensure parity. The fact that all staff had a say in these discussions was also an important step in ensuring the new policy had buy in. I also provided lots and lots of further reading, which I asked staff to read and discuss in future subject meetings. It was really valuable to have a member of staff from the trial in each team, as this meant they could answer many of the inevitable questions, and each were asked to share subject specific presentations and a folder of resources they had used over the past year. Again, there was also a time to look at books and discuss feedback in a subject specific way. Staff left the day with a target to try one idea in a future lesson, and this was revisited and discussed in a later department meeting.

One of the inevitable questions with introducing a policy such as this one, is what Quality Assurance will look like. Staff were historically very used to knowing what expectations there were of marking e.g. triple impact marking twice a half term. The new policy, whilst there are some subject specific frequency expectations of whole class feedback, leaves a lot of these decisions up to the class teacher, who will decide at what point feedback would be most beneficial for the class, rather than when a policy or a work scrutiny dictates. But what this means, is that QA becomes far more productive and asks the questions which really matter. We had already moved away from a work scrutiny where books are scrutinised by subject leaders behind closed doors to honest and frank joint conversations between class teachers and subject leaders and this had been really welcomed by staff. This was reinforced by the new feedback policy. I carried out some training with subject leads where we discussed the main questions which should form this discussion, and together we devised a list which could be used. (This is not a checklist –  It may be that only 2 or 3 questions are needed in a particular conversation and there is absolutely no grading). Questions subject leaders could ask related to feedback included:

  • What methods of feedback do you use to help pupils improve their work? Are all engaging with this? Can you see improvements in the work?
  • Is there evidence of modelling? Has this made an impact on future work?
  • How is literacy being fed back on and developed?
  • What are the next steps to improve progress for this class?

Obviously any policy such as this needs to be revisited frequently and there has been much training this year building on the initial launch. The main thrust of our CPD this year has been developed through Teacher Learner Community (TLC)  sessions held monthly in cross subject small groups. The first term concentrated solely on feedback. Each session is wholly research based, and always starts with a discussion on pre-reading followed by sharing of ideas trialled since the last session (increasingly using Iris technology). Research shared is always followed by practical strategies, and time given for discussion about application in different subject specific contexts. The first session we concentrated on the use of visualisers and their value in live modelling and live feedback, as these had been purchased for each classroom over the summer. The second session we discussed methods of whole class feedback. Initially we decided that there would be no common proforma for this (as outlined in the last post). As the year has progressed and more QA has been carried out, it has become clear that this is the area we most need to develop and that there is some inconsistency in practice. This will be a definite area for development once we are back in school, and while we will still do not insist on one particular format, we will be helping staff by providing generic formats which can be used, and giving more guidance about expectations. The third session was on myth busting and answering queries from staff. We had more time for discussion in this session about aspects such as: How do I still ensure I praise pupils whilst using whole class feedback? How should practical subjects evidence feedback? How can I ensure literacy is a major focus in whole class feedback? Do I need to photocopy and stick my whole class feedback sheet in books? With many of these questions we kept coming back to the rationale behind the changes to the policy. Feedback needs to be manageable, frequent, effective and purposeful. For example, for us, teachers being made to photocopy and stick in WCH sheets did not feel in keeping with the policy. (As I said in my last post, if you’d like more information or any of these CPD resources, please feel free to contact me.)

What then are our next steps? Obviously the current situation in schools has meant our CPD around feedback has been somewhat interrupted. It means that we will need to ensure we go back and revisit the policy, continuing to consolidate and embed the methods of feedback. We plan to do some work whole school using pupil books to flag concerns around the disparity between subjects in the amount of feedback being seen and to discuss tightening up subject feedback policies. As I mentioned, we also want to focus on whole class feedback and ensuring this is consistent, both across and within subjects. 

However, it is clear that the change in policy has had a very positive impact for staff across the school, and hopefully ultimately for pupil progress. I thought I’d finish this post with some accounts from staff who have experienced the change in policy. I hope that if you are a school leader and still using an onerous written feedback policy, that their words might challenge you, and I also hope they explain better than I could, why a policy like ours is a move in the right direction.

Rachel

Brad Williams History Teacher 

“I don’t exaggerate this point when I say that no written feedback has revolutionised my teaching practice. It has literally changed the way I do things in the classroom from marking to planning, and it has redressed the teacher-pupil working relationship. What I mean by this is that feedback is not something I have to commit two hours of my time to doing anymore, but it is something that pupils have to invest more of their time in, in order for it to be effective. My pupils have developed a deeper understanding of History through this feedback, whether it be in the content or in the methodology of essay writing, and the results are there for all to see in the quality of their written work in books and assessments. As well as this, I feel I am able to target pupils who need more support more easily and am able to develop strategies quickly to address any misconceptions or problems they are having in their work. In addition to the obvious benefits in the classroom, I have found the no written feedback has aided immensely with my personal wellbeing. A year ago, I felt trapped. I felt I didn’t have time to create effective lessons which then meant I would open myself up to scrutiny about my work (mostly from myself) and my mental wellbeing took a major hit. Now I’m not saying that no written feedback is the sole contributor to my mental health being better, but it has certainly given me time back that I once thought was lost to nothing but ‘tick and flick’. It certainly is something that as a school is a work in progress, but I can safely say that no written feedback is undoubtedly the way forward both for the teacher and the pupils to ensure effective progress for all. “

Chelsey Wallwork English teacher

“When Rachel first spoke to the staff body about Feedback taking the place of Marking, there was a small part of me that instantly jumped into thinking that this was another year and another teaching gimmick. However, knowing Rachel’s passion for research and drive to improve teaching through practical, reliable and researched methods, I dived headfirst into the new Feedback Policy with trust and optimism.

And I’m so glad I did.

Feedback has transformed my classroom practice; the way I deliver the improvements to pupils; and dramatically changed my work life balance. Marking for me had been a necessary evil, and I often found it repetitive and simply a box to tick with little benefit to staff or pupils. It was time consuming, and rarely did I see improvements from the pupils that made me feel that the Sunday stint I had endured to mark the books was purposeful. At times, marking in the traditional sense had even make me resent teaching and I couldn’t understand who it was for. It wasn’t for the pupils, it didn’t enhance my practice, and I could see no improvements in the data as a result of my marking.  

Feedback, on the other hand, is purposeful. It allows for the re-teaching of misconceptions either instantly in the lesson or in the following lesson. Misconceptions are not given the chance to fester. Under the new Feedback Policy targets can be given in a range of ways and this brings an excitement into the classroom and a freedom that has been stifled within teaching in recent years. By giving teachers the autonomy to not have to write in individual exercise books, and decide their own way to deliver feedback, it gives staff the feeling that they are trusted to be professional and this, is liberating.

While it is still essential for the pupils work to be read frequently, removing the expectation of staff to write a generic and hollow comment at the end of each pupils’ piece of work, allows the teacher more time to read the work and encourages the teacher to gain a passion for digesting the pupils words imagining the creative, beneficial and tailored ways that we can now communicate improvements to the pupils and show them how to progress. Dialogue between the teacher and their pupils has become lively and exaggerated, encouraging a hunger to progress from the pupils that flat ink on white page does not have the ability to conjure.  

Live, in-class, feedback encourages the teacher to proactively and enthusiastically move about the classroom and this has allowed for the cultivation of positive relationships, greater understanding of pupils ability, and the individual ways that pupils work.  The time saved not having to comment in books has opened up time for improved planning, research and reading. The time has led to better prepared teachers, which will lead to better prepared pupils and more successful outcomes.

Feedback is successful because, unlike marking, it is diverse and flexible and allows targets to be set for pupils in unique and inspired ways and therefore, pupils too are enthusiastic to engage, long-gone are the reluctant pupils who can’t be bothered to comment on the teacher’s marking or the pupils who have become lost in the rainbow of pen colour: pink for peer, green for growth!

Instead, Feedback has created healthy discussion between staff and between staff and pupils about how to generate progress; ignited teacher passions that have been stifled or dormant; and created resilient pupils who see feedback as constructive and necessary.

Feedback is a knight in shining armour.”

Jordan Simmons PE teacher

“No written feedback has had a massive impact on my teaching because more than anything it gave pupils ownership of their work and ownership of corrections. It stopped a spoon fed culture. Pupils became more confident in writing answers because they understood feedback would be given and then they could make corrections – as opposed to me as the teacher marking the work and them not fully understanding where they had gone wrong.”

Amy Lloyd Geography Teacher

“To me no written feedback feels positive for both myself and the students. It doesn’t feel relentless in the way that traditional marking did, I believe this is down to having the freedom and trust as a professional to choose a strategy which suits each class best for a particular piece of work. Front end feedback has meant I spend time talking to students about how to structure their work, how and where to include examples, I used to feel that showing an example of how to write an answer was ‘cheating’ for the students, but now I truly see they value and the work I receive from students is of a much higher standard. Instead of asking students to ‘include examples’ I can check if the examples they have used are accurate and can then pick out misconceptions, I don’t correct these straight away, I ask the class to work on it first. 

For whole class feedback I was worried at first that students would know how to read their work and spot errors, I use highlighters and sometimes numbers so that students can see which particular point, example or sentence requires more thought. My experience of this is that we are encouraging students to engage in the feedback, they have to re-read their work, use their lessons notes and actually have learning conversations with their peers as well as me. 

Overall feedback has revolutionised teaching for me, I spend time assessing books but it doesn’t feel like the relentless task that it once did. I now find enjoyment in reading the work that students complete and feel empowered to provide feedback in a way that suits the group of students to promote better outcomes. I do still do some traditional marking when I feel it will add value for example if students have been guided to answer a particular type of question through scaffolds , WABBOLs and WAGGOLs and then complete work independently. I feel the relationship I have with students in my classes is better as I spend time talking to them about their work and spend more time questioning their answers to help them to improve, students see completing feedback as a valuable task and enjoy making improvements to their work before they move on.

I find the only drawback with feedback is that I have very much found my ‘comfort zone’ but this is something I am aware of. One of the most useful tools is the shared ppt of feedback strategies which was developed by the trial team. I visit this when I need to refresh my practice.”

Feedback not marking

Right from my NQT days I was that teacher that always marked. I felt a sense of pride that I was a “good teacher” because my books were always marked up to date. We used a typical triple impact marking system and I worked incredibly hard, not just to make sure that my books were marked up to date and that the pupils completed a follow up activity which I then marked and sometimes gave feedback on and ……you get the idea – (I heard Michael Chiles sum this up brilliantly as the marking mayhem). I rarely thought about the impact it was having on pupils and just presumed it was what you had to do to be successful as a teacher and to ensure the pupils made progress. And over the years my good results seemed to confirm this. The unbearable workload at times just seemed part and parcel of the job. Of course I had the usual issues of writing the same comments multiple times, of pupils not responding, pupils still repeating the same mistakes and of course the weekend guilt of sets of books sitting in the car knowing I needed to mark them before school on Monday. About 2 years ago I started investigating schools who were making the leap of exploring whole class feedback rather than traditional marking, partly because I was becoming more interested in evidence based teaching and partly at the encouragement of my then headteacher, who I think was interested in the wellbeing aspects of such policies. I read the EEF report A marked improvement and the subsequent Independent Teacher Workload Review Group’s Eliminating Unnecessary Workload around Marking. I also read The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers about the Michaela school in London and was utterly blown away by their approaches to teaching, and in particular marking. Jo Facer’s chapter “Marking is futile” challenged me in a way I had not been challenged before. Was there really a point to the countless hours I was spending giving written feedback? Was there possibly another way? Since then multiple books, articles and blogs have convinced me that this is the right direction for schools to move in for all sorts of reasons, from the obvious benefits to wellbeing and the removal of that guilty feeling I mentioned above, to the more obvious benefits in progress for pupils. There are too many of these books and blogs to mention here but I recommend the work of Sarah Larsen, Victoria Hewitt, Kat Howard and Mark Enser, Greg Thornton and Jo Facer’s Simplicity Rules if you’re interested in reading more. This pair of blog posts is not to explain that research or justify a change in policy but my attempt to explain how I, alongside my SLT team implemented a ‘no expectation of written feedback policy’ at my Academy. I’ve been encouraged to share as over the past few months it has become clear to me that Twitter is a bubble, and there are still many many schools employing ridiculous marking policies with multiple coloured pens or writing verbal feedback or just spending hours creating long comments multiple times, which pupils often can’t or won’t read. The policy, and it’s implementation are not perfect and I will outline the mistakes or wrong directions we took as I always aim to be honest and those bumps in the road are for me, an important part of the process. I am not sharing this to say you must implement a policy like this in this way, or to say this is the only way to improve practice around marking, more a record of our journey for anyone that’s interested. I am also sharing this because I know many schools will be investigating more about no written feedback approaches, given the current situation with Covid-19. Obviously, this changes some of the advice I would give below which was written before the summer, but it is hopefully still relevant!

The first thing that I would recommend if you are looking at implementing a change in policy like this, is to go and see it being done first hand. I was lucky enough to go and visit a high school not too far away and they were generous with their time and resources. I must wholeheartedly thank Tarporley High School for this, and their ideas definitely helped me form an opinion of the direction I wanted the Academy to move in. I was able to see first hand in lessons the different techniques teachers used and it was abundantly clear that the policy was working. (They were part of a government research project and randomized trial).

The second tip I would give is to take your time. I knew there was no point rushing in to a change in policy of such magnitude like this, so requested time and staff to run a whole school trial. I asked for volunteers, one from each department or faculty in school to be part of a team who trialled a “no expectation for written feedback” policy. Staff were not told they could not mark, but we explored together different strategies for feeding back without writing comments. We used the ideas gained from Tarporley as a starting point and over the year added our own. We met at least monthly, brought books to every session and spent time sharing techniques we had used and the effect they had on pupils. The main strategies we found we were using repeatedly were; Whole class feedback, whole class questioning, sample feedback and modelling/use of success criteria, so we decided to make these our pillars of the policy. All improvements for any of these methods were completed by pupils in a different colour pen. We chose red, and all staff have a box of these used by pupils every single lesson. This makes any improvement highly visible, for us but also for the pupils. It means that feedback becomes more metacognitive, it forces pupils to reflect on the feedback and choose how best to improve their work. It’s important that  circulation during any time for improvement is given to allow the teacher to speak to some pupils individually and to answer any questions.  The four strategies in more detail are:

  1. Whole class feedback – essentially taking all the books in, having a read of a specified piece of work and making notes to feedback to the class to help them redraft or improve it. Now you can download versions of these sheets ready made or even buy pads, but actually this works just as well with a blank piece of paper. I tend to note down the names of pupils whose work stands out, pupils who have misunderstood the work completely who have not done it, where I need to have an individual word, misconceptions, SPAG errors and aspects of the task the  class has done well. I might even at this stage just concentrate on great phrases or sentences and highlight these and I usually find myself still circling spelling mistakes or writing the odd word. I can then ask the next lesson, why is this phrase or word highlighted? – let’s discuss what a good opening sentence looks like etc. I then talk the class through this feedback the next lesson. This might involve me re-teaching something or addressing a key misconception. Frequently, I also use a model answer at this point or one of the pupils own work to do this. It might even involve me changing my scheme of work, or amending the planned lesson to make sure a concept was definitely embedded before we moved on. This whole process is usually far quicker than writing multiple comments on work, even with the time spent replanning, but the time feels productive and meaningful.
  1. Whole class questioning or register feedback – obviously this is something used frequently in lessons anyway, but this just formalises it. One example is to set homework on something like researching and learning vocabulary definitions – I might then call on each member of the class individually to give me a definition, or a spelling or synonym. Pupils can be adding to their lists or tweaking their responses based on what they hear from their peers.
  2. Sample feedback – this might involve taking in just 4 or 5 books at the end of the lesson to complete a process similar to (a). It might also involve live feedback during the lesson. The way I use this frequently, is to ensure pupils have time for independent work, and make sure I circulate, reading work and giving verbal feedback. If I notice several pupils with a misconception or making a similar error, I will stop the class to give immediate feedback which pupils are then given time to act on. Now we all have visualisers, this process has become much more effective. I can select a book and we can discuss as a class what has been done well, or what mistake has been made and how we can fix this. This kind of culture where pupils are comfortable with discussions like this does take time to build, but can have an incredible effect on progress. 
  3. Modelling/success criteria – again something we used to do all the time, but we recognise this now as a critical part of the feedback process. Pupils will regularly spend time critiquing, marking and ranking model answers, highlighting where success criteria have been used and then applying that knowledge to their work. We also spent time improving deliberately poor answers. I’m also a huge fan of the “I do, we do, you do” approach and this is something we are trying to implement whole school. (See the brilliant @MrThorntonteach for more of this. There are also some examples in my google drive.)

As a trial group, we were rigorous in these meetings and challenged each other about the impact we were making on all pupils – were lower prior attainers, or pupils with an SEN accessing our feedback? Were we feeding back enough? What difference was it making to our planning?  It was very clear to see early on that already the policy was having an impact on wellbeing. The team were not necessarily spending less time working but the immense marking pressure was off. There was no longer the guilt of needing to mark books because a policy dictated or a work scrutiny was coming up. The team felt they were treated more as professionals, able to decide when and how they should give feedback to pupils on work, and what the next steps would be. Ironically, they felt that feedback was becoming more frequent, since it had become a speedier process.

Below is a summary of the main things we learnt at the end of the first year:

  1. Although it’s obviously extremely difficult to measure, having no written feedback in books made no difference to pupils’ performance and in many cases, progress improved. Pupil feedback in discussions was good overall and has been since in every questionnaire or sample session held. Pupils like their errors being pointed out as a class rather than having to read my handwriting or trying to figure out what I meant. They liked the fact feedback could be more frequent as it took considerably less time for teachers to do, and they liked the time to redraft and improve work with the help of more model answer critique. Pupils frequently tell me that they understand where they have gone wrong and how to improve more than they did under the old policy. There will always be pupils that like the individual comments in books, but many responded well once they could see the difference in how their work improved. In addition, verbal praise was really important for these pupils. Not writing comments in books doesn’t mean you can’t still circulate and give 1:1 praise or encouragement.
  2. We definitely wanted this to be a whole school policy – we took a proposal to SLT and governors which was thankfully approved. All members of the trial team felt their wellbeing had improved and some were somewhat evangelical about the difference it was making to their teaching (see the next post for more of this!) As the year went on, I was approached by more and more of the staff team who wanted to get involved and many teachers trialled some of the strategies long before it was shared with everyone. 
  3. Visualisers were an essential item if we were going to make this work when we launched the policy whole school. Visualisers make feedback far more effective, especially for the live marking and live modelling I outlined above. I’m pleased to say we were able to purchase one for every classroom, which has made a huge difference this year.
  4. It’s important to vary your feedback strategies. We found that pupils responded much better when we varied between whole class feedback, live feedback, questioning and modelling. 
  5. Communication with parents and pupils was important. At the beginning of the trial we wrote to all parents to explain the rationale and the process. I held assemblies with each year group to explain the changes to what their books would look like, and the responsibility they had themselves to improve their learning. I set up an email address where parents could express comments or concerns so the lines of communication were kept open, and I held regular sessions with pupils to look at their books and talk to them about their experiences with the policy. We also found that it was important to regularly tell pupils that their work was being looked at, despite the lack of comments in books. I will still often explicitly say to a class as I feedback “I’ve had a read of your books and this is what I found…” Parental feedback has been very favourable on the whole, the important thing is to share expectations so that parents know not to look for multiple comments by teachers. Sharing example exercise books is one way of doing this and we have maintained this since, through parents forums.

We knew that selling the policy change to staff would be the easy part. The hard part is ensuring we stay consistent, that feedback is thorough and that pupils make the necessary improvement in learning based on that feedback. In the next blog post, I’ll share how the trial was launched whole school, and the next steps. If you would like access to any of the material I have mentioned as part of this post, please feel free to get in touch. 

For further reading on the rationale and some further fantastic strategies, I highly recommend the new book by Michael Chiles The Craft of Assessment which has an excellent chapter on feedback and feedforward, encapsulating the principles and thought process behind this strategy.

Rachel

The Writing Revolution

Like a lot of other teachers on Twitter, I was totally inspired by the blog Kristian Shanks wrote on his reading of first part of The Writing Revolution by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler. I had heard of the book but naiively presumed that it had little to help me in my teaching of History. How wrong I was! Kristian’s explanation of what the book had made him reflect on was really thought-provoking, and I immediately ordered the book. (You can read his excellent blog here). The book really is incredible. I’ve done a lot of work alongside my Academy lead for Literacy on embedding the teaching of vocabulary and Disciplinary Reading, but I’m not afraid to admit, have barely thought about the explicit teaching of writing. This book has completely challenged me, and made me reflect on some of the mistakes I’ve made in my years of teaching, which I will expand on below. Writing is a skill that a lot of pupils struggle with. Even pupils who find reading easy may find writing difficult. This is something I’m struggling with at home with my own son. He is an above-average reader and can power through a Sea Quest book in a day, but trying to get him to write is torturous on occasions! Hochman and Wexler write: “Many students who are good readers struggle when it comes to writing. Unlike reading, writing involved seciding what to say, which words to use, how to spell them, perhaps how to form the letters, and what order to place the words in – and that’s just at sentence level.”

Safe to say therefore, that I highly recommend this book. What it’s made me realise, is that just as teaching reading skills is, I believe, the responsibility of every teacher, so must the teaching of writing. Whilst I believe any teacher who implements these strategies would no doubt have a positive impact, Hochman and Wexler explain clearly that in order for The Writing Revolution to be really transformative, it needs to be part of a bigger plan than just one teacher working in silo. The guide is so practical and easy to understand, yet filled with gems of advice on every page, taking the reader from sentence formation, through to paragraphs and then multi-paragraph pieces of extended writing. At the back are brilliant templates that can be used with the strategies in the book. I cannot see how a teacher could read this book and fail to see several strategies which they could immediately implement (an with very little planning) to strengthen their teaching of writing, which surely can only have a positive effect on outcomes. Below are outlined just some of the main reflections I had and suggestions of aspects I will be changing in my own practice. However, there are many more which I could have written about!

  1. My first reflection on reading the book was that I have been far too quick in my teaching to jump straight into writing essays with pupils, and failing to see that the writing process needs broken down. Hochman and Wexler take you through a masterclass in sentence structure and techniques such as fragments, because, but, so and using appositives, to help students learn how to form really good sentences. Writing a whole piece of extended writing needs building blocks first, a foundation of well-crafted sentences in order to sustain a quality piece of extended writing. This is something I will definitely be using in my teaching from now on and I know Kristian has some superb examples of how he has already embedded it into some of his.
  2. My second reflection is that writing is driven by the content of the curriculum. Hochman and Wexler make clear that to maximise the benefits of writing instruction, students should practice on topic embedded in content, giving even stronger evidence that teachers in subjects like mine should be teaching writing in the surroundings of a challenging History curriculum. In addition, students should have a good knowledge base before we get them to write: “You can’t write well about something you don’t know well” Hochman and Wexler write. But, the actual process of writing about a piece of knowledge also deepens their understanding and helps embed it in their long-term memory. I need to make sure I don’t ask students to write too quickly in the gathering of knowledge, but also fremember that writing is important in the cementing of knowledge in memory. (Hochman and Wexler also give evidence that this should be done on pen and paper rather than on an electronic device.)
  3. Hochman and Wexler make it very clear that all the strategies in the book should be modelled first, and also consolidated with verbal practise. Modelling is something I have been working on a lot and is now standard practise for me, often using my visualiser. However, I have reflected about the verbal aspect and realised this is something I don’t do enough of. When helping pupils form an exam answer for example, do I get them to practise verbally first? This is something I will be working more on in September.
  4. I was really struck by the section of the book on note-taking. Note taking is something I must have been taught at some point, I think looking back perhaps when I started my A-levels. Why don’t we teach students how to take quick, effective notes earlier? I know it’s something I still use all the time, and find really helpful. As with every section, the book shows the power of each strategy. In this case note-taking not only boosts comprehension, but it helps students draft, and enables the absorption and retention of information: “Converting text or speech to notes is one of the most valuable skills you can teach your students…It’s a way of forcing students to process and understand what they’ve read, heard and learned.” Hochman and Wexler therefore devote a whole section of the book to note-taking, with some helpful abbreviations students can learn, such as upwards arrows meaning something is increasing. I can see this being really helpful for students when summarising articles, or taking notes from a video or podcast perhaps, especially when used with Cornell notes, which is a technique I have started using in the last few months. As with every section, there are practical tips to guide you. For example Hochman and Wexler advise using a pen or pencil to underline phrases rather than a highlighter, understanding the point that students have a tendency to highlight too much, plus it makes it harder to annotate as students have to keep swapping between pens.
  5. Hochman and Wexler also emphasise the important skill of summarising, again something I have been guilty of assuming students would just know how to do. They made me realise how often I do it without thinking and ask students to do the same, without specific guidance about why or how they should do it. Again, they empahasise how powerful this skill is, not least in boosting reading comprehension: “In studies of students in grades 3 to 12, researchers found that writing summaries about a text had a consistently positive effect on comprehension…Writing summaries worked better than simply having students read a text multiple times, read and study it, or receive instruction in reading skills.” Hochman and Wexler take the reader through practical ways of implementing this, such as getting students to ask who, what, when, where, why and how questions, leading to a summary sentence. This is something I will definitely be implementing in my classroom.
  6. The final reflection I wanted to write about was the focus on introductions and conclusions in The Writing Revolution. Again, this is something I have just made presumptions that students must already know how to do, and yet if I’m honest I have read many very poor conclusions that are just a regurgitation of the main body of the essay, or inrroductions which start “In this essay I will..” Whilst many of the GCSE questions don’t require an introduction, it is often required at A-level and is a good habit for students to get into, and so I think useful at Key Stage Three as well. Hoffman and Wexler first introduce the idea of a thesis statement; “a statement which conveys the main theme of the entire composition” A thesis statement could be a number of different things, from a personal judgement to an argument or an interpretation. This thesis statement is crucial as it will help form part of the introduction and conclusion. I found this, alongside the set guide for conclusions and introductions which they explain, really interesting, and could help guard against the poor examples I mention above.

As I said, this is just a snapshot of some of the aspects I took away from my reading of this book. I would highly recommend it to teachers of any subject, particularly those where there is an element of extended writing. I sat immediately pondering how I could use each strategy and share what I’d read, so I created a bit of a CPD/template guide which I hope to cascade, perhaps starting the the Humanities faculty. A copy is here if you would find it useful.

Most of all, this book has filled me with a passion for my students to write better, and the realisation that my job title of History teacher does not exclude me from teaching this, in fact it implores me to do this explicitly in order to improve comprehension and knowledge in my subject. I don’t want my students to complain when I ask them to copmplete a longer piece of writing, but be excited about the opportunity to express their knowledge and ideas. As Doug Lemov says in the book’s introduction: “Successful writing gives its practitioner the mystery and satisfaction of constant invention and construction.” I truly believe implementing the strategies in The Writing Revolution will ensure my students can write more competently, easily and in a deeper way, which surely can only secure better outcomes, as well as enjoyment.

Rachel

As well as Kristian’s blog, I know several other teachers on Twitter are masterfully implementing some of the TWR strategies – I highly recommend you have a look at the work of the incredible Greg Thornton and the brilliant Tom Pattison, both of whom have been a huge support to me over the past few months and are producing some fantastic resources.

The Lost Girls: Our Takeaways

I have just finished reading the brilliant book The Lost Girls: Why a Feminist Revolution in Education benefits everyone by Charlotte M Woolley and have taken so much away from it that I thought it a good idea to write down my thoughts.

I’m a huge fan of the brilliant Boys Don’t Try by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts and can absolutely see the rationale behind their book, but in the introduction Charlotte makes it abundantly clear that we have a need to still have a focus on girls in education, despite their better academic performance. Even in 2020, we still have a glass ceiling for women in the world of work and there is still a gender gap in aspects of work and family life. Charlotte neatly summarises: “For all of the progress made between the suffragettes in the early 20th century and the mid 1970’s…we seem to have slowed to a crawl when it comes to changing the narrative about gender. Too many girls are still pushed into positions that restrict them, limit their opportunities, and, quite honestly, trap them into a spiral of anxiousness, because of the conflicting messages that society is giving them.” Charlotte’s introduction is a real call to arms for all educators about addressing some of this imbalance in society through looking at our curriculum choices, our language, our biases and how we can empower girls to find their own voices and identities. The introduction struck me particularly as it is something close to mine and Katie’s hearts when starting this blog. As women in education we felt that even though our voices were small, we should still share. We believe that even small voices can make an impact, and in the 4 months or so since we started this blog, I believe we have, in fact more than we ever imagined! How powerful to think we could also encourage the girls that we teach to have such a voice. Charlotte ends the introduction with the rationale for her book: “What is required is a revolution in gender expectations, and there is no better place to start than in our schools.”

I have lots of takeaways from the book but I’m going to narrow it down to 3 areas: the impact on my own teaching in History, Language and oracy, and Leadership. There are also sections in the book on thinking in various curriculum areas such as PE, English and STEM and I will definitely be sharing the book with leaders in these areas.

1. A Feminist education in History. Charlotte writes a detailed chapter about extended writing and the importance of this, explaining that this can have repercussions for girls, especially those that struggle with perfectionism, or “getting it wrong.” She explains that girls can struggle emotionally to accept feedback and may also struggle with the cognitive load required in extended writing. As extended writing is a key part of being a good historian this was something of real interest to me and Charlotte offers a number of solutions to address this in the classroom. From this I came up with some key strategies which I already use, but will use more consistently, and some that I don’t do but perhaps need to try. The first is what Charlotte calls “repeated planning structure.” It’s really important I help reduce the cognitive load and ensure that my students know that certain types of questions will always require certain formats, then students can focus on the knowledge and content that is needed, rather than wondering how to start the answer or how many paragraphs are needed etc. As history teachers, I think we are quite good at this, but I do think it’s worth reinforcing. Graphic organisers can help here, or some sort of visual cue to remind pupils of the success criteria. Structure strips as a form of scaffolding can also be useful, if removed when students confidence has been built up. Secondly, Charlotte suggests backward planning, using a model answer to determine what the plan would have been and to help pupils have clear expectations of level of detail, vocabulary etc. I’ve found tasks like the one below really useful in this type of thinking. I’m not sure who to credit with the original structure (if you know let me know!) but this is something I’ve adapted and used repeatedly so my students are familiar with the format. I have often used this as part of feedback after students have produced an answer and I have read it, but Charlotte has made me think about doing this more often as part of feed forward and planning. The example below shows the kind of modeI I use. Sometimes I change the questions or elements in the boxes but it really helps pupils get to grips with why this answer is good and how it meets the success criteria. The example below is for a utility question. You can download this here.

Charlotte also recommends time for planning, which is something I know I need to do more of. Allowing students to plan in pairs then share their ideas is something which I know would boost confidence. Similarly, allowing students to see me plan and write, modelling my thinking and sharing my own frustrations is something I need to do more of. For students who struggle with perfectionism, seeing their teacher not get it right first time can be very powerful. Charlotte also highlights the process of going from plan to paragraph which is a step often skipped: We “assume it’s a case of putting the plan into sentences, rather than explicitly modelling the shift from notes to writing academically.” In History, Greg Thornton’s I do, we do, you do format works really well here – I really recommend reading his blog on this. My other takeaways in relation to my own History pedagogy relate to making my feedback very specific, and when it comes to revision, ensuring I focus girls in particular away from writing things out multiple times or highlighting multiple pieces of text, which we know does very little to help students retain knowledge, and focusing instead on strategies like summarising and low stakes retrieval quizzes.

The other focus in terms of History is in thinking about the curriculum. Although Charlotte doesn’t include History as a specific chapter, there is still lots to think about. Firstly, we need to ensure that girls are exposed to female historians and allowed to see that History is not just a subject for old white men. Hisdoryan has a brilliant blog on the top 10 female historians which you could look at as a starting point. My own Academy Head of History has ensured scholarship is a focus of all our schemes of work and we highlight the work of Hallie Rubenhold, Dr Fern Riddell, Jasmina Ramirez and Miranda Kaufman amongst others. Secondly, we need to ensure we get women’s place within the curriculum right. We need to “challenge the idea that women in History were rubbish” as Charlotte says, and get away from pigeonholing women as victims. Alex Fairlamb’s talk at TMHicons on “Blended not binary” is a real masterpiece in getting us as History teachers away from tokenism when it comes to women in our schemes of work. She focuses on John Hamer’s Gender issues in History teaching paper and the stages of not just integrating women, but in ensuring multicultural, social action and awareness. I really recommend checking out her work, and in particular her WW1 scheme of learning to see this in action.

2. A Feminist education in language. Charlotte writes an excellent chapter about oracy, and the section on classroom coversations I found particularly helpful: “Everyone – both boys and girls – benefits when whole-class discussion is academic, thoughtful and collaborative.” She gives some really practical advice about how we can aid this, through the use of no-hands up questioning and giving students a structure for talk. I know, as an introvert, I struggled at times with speaking in class. Jamie Thom’s book A Quiet Education explores this in depth with lots of ideas about how to build confidence and not alienating quieter students. One idea Charlotte also suggests is to make questions as low stakes as possible and seondly to encourage thinking and planning time where the questions carry more weight. Karen Knight produced a “talk like a historian” format (adapted from an original idea by Kate Atherton) which I have found invaluable for helping all students craft their answers more carefully and also to scaffold discussion and debate and this will definitely help build all students confidence, but particularly girls. We also need to think about challenging sexist language. Even in very recent history, girls see their Prime Minister calling other leaders in our country “girly swots” or the former Prime Minister David Cameron telling shadow Treasury chief secretary Angela Eagle to “calm down dear in the House of Commons.” This completely unacceptable language needs challenging and we as educators should be doing this in our own classrooms and corridors. This really made me think about my own biases. Am I equally as quick to call out someone telling a boy to “man up”, as I am when someone is called a “pussy”, or when I hear phrases like “Don’t be such a girl?” We absolutely have a responsibility call out language like this, and model the language we expect. Charlotte shares a really helpful list of forms of sexist language and harassment as well as some really practical advice about how we can challenge this, from questioning and confronting the language to using phrases like “This school doesn’t tolerate sexist language like this.”

3. Feminism and Leadership. The last area for real personal reflection for me was around Charlotte’s section in the book on leadership. As well as sharing the statistics about the lack of female leadership in education and the barriers women often face, Charlotte outlines what feminist leadership is and gives advice about the positive traits associated with feminist leadership. Too often it seems we navigate to presumptions about leadership being about aligned with male characteristics or seeing leaders as “individual visionaries.” What I’ve taken away from this section of the book is that feminist leadership is about authenticity, humility, collaboration and kindness. These are all characteristics I work on having and I believe, like Charlotte, have real strengths in schools. Humility is something I have been thinking about a lot recently in particular. The best leaders I have worked with are confident and wise, but also know that they cannot and do not do the job on their own. They recognise that they can fail and are never so arrogant as to not see others part in their success. Charlotte sums this section up really well: “For me this humble leadership is encapsulated in the public eye by Barack and Michelle Obama. Both appear completely confident in their own position; they are never arrogant or self aggrandising, but generous in their praise of others.” This is the kind of leader I want to be. I want to continue to be authentic and have my own voice, confident enough not to feel like I have to fit in, knowing that I will fail, but I will learn as I do so. I want that for the students I teach as well, for the girls in my school to know feminist leadership is possible. Charlotte goes on to disucss the complexities behind the “juggle” of family life and a career, something I know only too well, but gives real hope about more family friendly career possibilities. It’s so refreshing to hear women like Kat Howard and Emma Turner pushing for more flexible working in education and seeing how this is possible, something which did not even really exist 7 years ago when I had my first child.

In conclusion, this book is amazing. I learnt so much, have been so challenged and feel reinvigorated about having the highest expectations for all the students that I teach. I will absolutely be ordering more copies for our CPD library and sharing this with staff in school. As a mother of a girl it also spoke to me as a parent and while I feel I absolutely try and challenge stereotypes with my daughter, I know I can do more.

Charlotte argues so passionately that ” a feminist education says to everyone you matter.” How could I not want that? Charlotte starts each section and chapter with some incredible quotes. I’ll leave you with this one which has stayed with me.

“Teach her that the idea of ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense. Do not ever tell her that she should or should not do something because she is a girl. ‘Because you are a girl’ is never reason for anything. Ever – Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.

Rachel

My Takeaways

Yesterday (thanks to a recommendation from Rach) I read ‘The Lost Girls’ from cover to cover. Rarely do I venture outside of the remit of subject specific or pedagogical literature, but this really appealed to me. I am the product of an all-girls secondary education system and I have taught in one for the last 13 years, the book highlighted a number of the internal struggles I have endured personally, and those that my students struggle with on a day to day basis. It made me feel uncomfortable at times, as I saw echoes of myself in some of Charlotte’s descriptions (especially in the chapter on perfectionism), it also made me feel proud of the approaches that my school has adopted to rise to the challenge of creating an empowering feminist education.

The figures in relation to girl’s academic performance appear, on the surface at least, to speak for themselves. In 2019 5.4% of girls achieved a GCSE at grade 9, compared to 3.9% of boys, yet there is glaring disconnect in the world of work. Where are all of the women in the top positions? Why are girls outperforming boys academically, yet still not going on to become CEOs, politicians and leaders? Woolley highlights the inconvenient truth that girls under-achievement is a long-term issue, she also tries unpick reasons why this is.

She throws down the gauntlet on the biological arguments for these differences, scientific studies show that there are more differences within sexes than between them. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman claimed ‘There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex, one may as well speak of a female of liver’. I continue to grapple with the idea of social constructs, how much of who I am today has been determined by what society has historically wanted women (and men) to be? Do I feel empathy, humility and sensitivity because of my biological makeup or because society has socialised the gender issue for hundreds of years? Regardless of my own views, we have a responsibility to teach our girls that gender specific roles are nonsense and that ‘because they are a girl’ is never a reason not to do anything.  

It really got me thinking about my own life journey. I was a high achiever at school, although painfully quiet, the support of one women really helped me to unleash my academic credentials and build up my confidence. She was my cheerleader, she had high expectations, was staunch feminist and helped me to see my worth, at a time when I did not feel like I had any. She was bloody scary, don’t get me wrong, but she really invested in me and that something that’s at the centre of my teaching philosophy to this day. She has been integral in shaping who I am and where I am today. We need to be there on the sidelines and cheer our girls on, celebrating their victories, no matter how small, it goes a long way in terms of building up their sense of self worth. It is essential in a society where validation seem to be based on approval from others, to give our students the necessary skills to validate themselves, a theme that echoes consistently throughout ‘The Lost Girls’.

But in all honesty, how good am I at validating myself? Why do I constantly feel the need to be validated by others? Why do I not apply for promotions, despite the fact that I meet the criteria? Why do I rarely venture outside of my comfort zone? Why do I forever feel academically inferior? I don’t have all the answers, but this book has helped to reflect on some of the reasons why I have these doubts and how I can help myself and my students find ways of overcoming them. As teachers and (both male and female) we have an important role to fulfill to help our ‘lost girls’ smash through the glass ceiling and unleash their true, real world potential.

I recently completed the brilliant @futurelearn course ‘Beyond the Ballot’. Fittingly the last section centred on the continuation of barriers towards equality between the sexes. Despite legislative equality and the success of the feminist movement, women make up just 1/3 of the MPs in the House of Commons. Harriet Harmon, Jo Swinson and Nicky Morgan spoke very candidly about their experiences as female politicians. All agreeing that politics is still deemed as ‘male occupation’, they recounted the abuse they had all received from being in public eye, mainly centred on gendered or sexualised comments, linked to their appearances, rather than their competency and credibility. All described at times feeling ‘intimidated’ by the political arena, but still resoundingly committed to continuing to promote the importance of women, on all sides of the political debate, in encouraging others to stand for office. Politics is about people and female voices are just as important as male voices, our ‘Lost Girls’ have so much to offer and are more than qualified to take on this mantle, we just need to instill in them the sense of worth that we know they deserve. To be the change, they have to see the change.

Feminism is not a dirty word, being assertive does not make you bossy, you will never regret the opportunities you took, only those you were too afraid to embrace. Feminism is an ideology based on the belief that society is characterised by unequal gender power and status, we should ALL be proud feminists. As T. A. Graham asserts ‘men should be feminists too, they are not excluded from the fight for equality…sometimes stepping aside, sitting down and listening is the most powerful support you can give’. We all need to step up and help our students feel like anything they aspire to is within reach. We owe it to ourselves and our girls and boys to create a feminist curriculum that empowers them to be anything they want to be.

Katie

Take this pink ribbon off my eyes
I’m exposed and it’s no big surprise
Don’t you think I know exactly where I stand?
This world is forcing me to hold your hand

The moment that I step outside
So many reasons for me to run and hide
I can’t do the little things I hold so dear
‘Cause it’s all those little things that I fear

No Doubt, ‘I’m just a girl’

Teach to the Top

There have been two things which have prompted me to write this today. First, I saw a teacher share some brilliant work, but which had differentiated learning objectives on it. Second, I listened to the 5th episode of the Boys Don’t Try podcast on high expectations and was reflecting on whether mine are high enough. Differentiated objectives (All, most, some or Must, should, could, or even bronze, silver, gold) are something I have absolutely used in the past, but no longer do. I might have had something like; All of you will describe the causes of the peasants revolt, Most of you will explain those causes with factual detail and Some of you will assess how important these causes were. Now I look back at this with horror. It shows a huge confusion with Bloom’s Taxonomy but it’s also about the way I wasn’t challenging all my students in the same way. I thought many schools, like us, had stopped using differentiated learning objectives but over the past few weeks on Twitter and Facebook, I have seen repeatedly that unfortunately not all schools have moved on so much in terms of attitudes to differentiation and high expectations. Differentiated learning objectives are apparently still a thing.

The Boys Don’t Try episode reminded me how important it is that we don’t limit our pupils and how we must show that all pupils could, and should aim for excellence. By having differentiated learning objectives or outcomes (which Matt Pinkett calls “an abomination” in his blog Learning Objectives: A waste of time) we are instantly saying that not all the work is achievable for all. Tom Sherrington says in his blog Rescuing Differentiation from the Checklist of Bad Practice that this sort of distortion of what differentiation ishas the effect of explicitly setting lower expectations for students at different levels within a class.  Some parts of the curriculum are only for ‘some’ – not all.  It’s explicit. Intentional.  And this is wrong-headed. A recipe for systematic underachievement and gap-widening.” In my example above, it would seem to suggest that understanding that causes have different weights attached to them and some are more significant than others is an aspect of history that is just too much for some students. It not only places a limit on students’ capabilities, it also encourages laziness and a lack of motivation. As Matt says: “After all, why would you do the trickiest option, when you could do the tricky one and still have time to piss about.”

I would also argue this extends to tasks within a lesson. Another failure I used to make was to bolt “challenge” on to a slide or worksheet. I still see resources shared or observe lessons where this is the case. The main task will be set for all students, but for certain students there is an additional challenge. A lot of the time this challenge is never explicitly mentioned or shared, it just sits on the slide. Again the presumption is that this task is just too hard for some pupils, putting a lid on their knowledge and progress. Ross Morrison McGill says “Putting on challenge at the end of the lesson means it failed to challenge in the first place.”

So what’s the answer? We need to stop thinking about different routes through the lesson or a scheme of work. We need to teach to the top of whatever class is in front of us and scaffold where appropriate. Tom Sherrington says “We are all aiming for the top of the mountain, but some of us will need more guidance, more time, more help.” We need to have the highest of expectations for all students no matter what their prior attainment, and accept that some will need slightly more scaffolding in order to get there. Now when I plan a lesson I start by thinking very carefully about my goal. My goal is not just to the top of the class, it’s about more than that. It’s about taking all learners to the next level of learning and scaffolding to support learners get there, creating the conditions to enable all to achieve success. Some students might need more explicit vocabulary teaching and some might need the work chunked up more explicitly. Some students might need more explicit success criteria and some might need a I do, we do, you do approach to exam questions. Some might need to hear you live model your thinking as you answer an exam question and some might just need more time. But in my classroom, the expectations are high, we will all do the same work, have the same learning challenges and my job is to provide the conditions to enable them all to be successful. Over time, just as the stabilisers come off the bike, I remove the scaffolding. The scaffolding is temporary, not permanent. In the latest Boys Don’t Try podcast Matt Pinkett, Mark Roberts and James Trapp all talk about occasions where students have suceeded remarkably because the expectations were ridiculously high. James talks about a top set class he had where he said to them at the start of the year that they were so good he was going to teach them the A-level curriculum instead. Because the expectations were so high and the motivation was there, the pupils produced increduble results. Mark talks about teaching his bottom and top sets exactly the same content with just more scaffolding for the bottom set and again students in the bottom set outperforming the top set. If the conditions are right, pupils will rise to the challenge.

So going back to differentiated learning objectives – what’s the answer? Well I still think it’s absolutely useful for students to know the big picture of the lesson. How does this lesson fit into our overall big enquiry question? What is the aim for the end of the lesson? Why are we learning what we are learning today? Again Matt’s blog has some brilliant advice:

“Yes, it helps students if they know why they’re learning iambic pentameter. Or the causes of the Wall Street Crash. Or quotations from Genesis. But, rather than wasting time with Learning Objectives, just tell ’em. 

“We’re learning about X today because it’s going to help you with Y next week and one day you’ll be able/need to use it for Z.”

So this is what we do. Every lesson has a learning goal. It’s not copied down (what an absolute waste of time) it’s just communicated to the students in a straightforward way and then it’s straight into the learning. So if you are still using differentiated learning objectives or using “challenge” as a bolt on please think about lifting the lid off for your students. All students can get to the top of the mountain if we support and motivate them to get there. As Mary Myatt says “We like doing things that are difficult, as long as the conditions are characterised by high challenge and low threat.”

Rachel

For more on this I really recommend episode 5 of the Boys Don’t Try podcast and chapter 5 of the Boys Don’t Try book.

This video by Mary Myatt on differentiation and scaffolding is also superb.

On courage

An online friend remarked to me this week, “You’re so brave”, and this completely stopped me in my tracks. Me; brave? Certainly if you’d told me at the start of lockdown that I would be presenting to up to 1000 History teachers at the Seneca/TeachMeetHistoryIcons event on Saturday or have my own blog alongside Katie, I never would have believed you. I’ve written before about my imposter syndrome, and how as an introvert I do really struggle with stepping up and sharing resources or presenting, especially outside the relative comfort of my own school. And yet Iittle by little maybe I really am becoming braver.

Courage is defined as the ability to do something which frightens you; to have strength in the face of pain or adversity. Interestingly, the root is actually from the Latin word for heart, “to speak one’s mind while telling all one’s heart.” Courage is not the absence of fear, it is being able to overcome that fear, to quieten the negative voice so it doesn’t stop us taking action. Having courage doesn’t mean you’re invincible. We all have doubts and fears but it’s tackling them head on that means we are brave, it’s putting our pride on the line and taking a risk. We are all born with an innate sense of courage, whether it is to take the first step towards a parent with outstretched arms, or to read our first words. However, for some of us more than others, bad experiences or memories begin to hold us back. I know if I trace back my lack of courage in my teens and twenties, I am drawn to experiences with bullies at school who made me feel inadequate. My voice was unfairly silenced and my fear of being vulnerable or getting something wrong began to swamp my thoughts. I did take steps of course; becoming a teacher then a middle leader and eventually a senior leader, but fear has really impacted my career and my social life at various points. I saw a post from Matt Haig the other day that said “You can sound confident and have anxiety. You can look healthy and feel shit. You can speak well in public and be a wreck. You can be privileged and not mentally privileged. You can lift barbells and be weak. You can be a man and cry. You can have everything and feel nothing.” These words resonated with me so much. I’m sure colleagues and friends would look at me and think I was confident, had it all sorted and worried about nothing. And yet, at times the opposite was true. Fear would keep me awake at night (and still does!) and the negative voice in my head would become a shout. I would replay negative moments and convince myself I was a fraud.

So what has happened to help me find my courage? As with the lion in the Wizard of Oz, I’ve realised that I’m not a coward, I just needed to believe in myself and make a concerted effort to look within, to let myself be uncomfortable and try and rearrange my thinking. I’ve developed several strategies that have helped me and I thought I’d share in case they may help you.

  1. Accept it could go wrong. When I’m feeling scared about taking action on something or pushing myself outside my comfort zone, I often ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” The majority of the time it isn’t actually as bad as I might fear. Take for example sharing a resource on Twitter. Firstly, I rarely post anything without sharing with a trusted colleague or friend as a protective move. Second, the worst that could go wrong is that someone in the teaching community poses a question, or criticises my resource. Sometimes that criticism may be valid, and I will amend and the resource will become even better. Sometimes the criticism might be unfounded, in which case I would probably agree to disagree, accept that not everybody will like everything I design and move on. Even if someone is deeply unkind about my work, what is really the worst that could happen? Sue Cowley in the WomanEd book 10% Braver also addresses this: “It might sound strange to take a negative viewpoint like this. But what happens is you realise your worst thing isn’t that bad.” It’s highly unlikely I’d be laughed out of the teaching community (something I honestly have a fear of sometimes!) so I mustn’t let my mind take that direction. The reality is that it’s often nowhere near as bad as we fear. Often I’ll also think about the inverse – what would happen if I do nothing? I know if this option is not preferable that it’s right to step outside my comfort zone. As Bene Brown says: “We have to be able to say, Look I don’t know if I’m going to nail this but I’m going to try because I know what i’m sure as hell not going to do is stay quiet.” Lastly, I’ll try and reframe my worries to “What’s the best that could happen?.” This also often motivates me to take the bolder step.
  2. Learn to discern between an unfounded and irrational fear and a helpful fear. A certain amount of fear is helpful – it’s the fear that stops us jumping off a cliff or not put our hands in a fire. Sometimes though our fears though are illogical. I’ve spent many wasted nights lying awake thinking “What if…” when actually the fear is completely unfounded. What if I can’t remember anything in my presentaton? What if everything I’ve planned is wrong? What if the pupils in my class start fighting? These things may happen, but they are extremely unlikely and lying awake at night thinking about them certainly isn’t going to make them less likely to happen. When I have moments like this, I try and do two things. Firstly, I share my fears. Somehow getting things out in the open makes them appear much more ridiculous. Secondly, I take action. If my fear is about Year 9 starting a riot P5 on Friday, I’ll ensure my lesson is planned extremely well. I’ll go through my lesson step by step, ensuring my subject knowledge is up to scratch, that I’ve planned my questions and responses and thought about potential misconceptions. I’ll ensure my seating plan is right, that I greet at the door and use praise to motivate pupils. These are all simple actions which I can take to allay my fears.
  3. Have someone who keeps you accountable. In my life I’ve been lucky enough to have close friends and mentors who have often said just two simple words to me: “Why not?” I remember when I was discussing a temporary Assistant Head post which had come up at my school and cautiously voiced my thoughts about whether I could do the role. The colleague who later became my mentor and is still a close friend to this day uttered those exact words to me. She made me believe I had as much right as anyone else to throw my hat in the ring, and to give it a shot. She was not a yes woman who would just tell me to do anything, she was someone I trusted but who made me stop writing myself off and made me believe I could do more than I had ever dreamed of. She held me accountable in a way I really needed. I’m so lucky to have supportive colleagues at school and on Twitter who are not afraid to challenge me and tell me not to hold myself back. I honestly believe starting this blog would not have happened if Katie and I were not each others “Why not?” colleagues. It’s important to have someone in your life, who pushes you even slightly outside your comfort zone and makes you believe you can. Surround yourself with supportive people or networks and people who will uplift you. If you don’t have that “Why not?” person, get in touch, I’d love to help.
  4. Understand that courage is about a single step. On the wall of my office I have the quote from Martin Luther King “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” This is a great motivator for me. Courage for you might not be presenting at a conference, it might be sending an email with a resource to another member of your team. Courage might be volunteering to help someone out with organising the school play. Courage might be not staying quiet when a member of staff tells a boy to “man up.” Courage might be running a 5 minute CPD session for NQT’s, or offering to lead the sharing good practice section of your departmental meeting. I love the WomenEd motto of 10% braver and understanding that courage is taking an action, however small towards your goals and that every step along the path counts. Cowley writes “It’s not about being pushy, or shouting how great you are; it it just about trying something that has always frightened you, or doing something to boost your self-image.” Again, Bene Brown uses a lovely illustration here: “Dr. Brown tells a story about her daughter joining a year-round swim team, and how the coach assigned her to the 100m breast stroke, which is a tough race, and not her daughter’s strongest stroke. She was upset and said her friend told her she could scratch her heat, which means she could pretend not to hear her heat get called and miss her race. She asked Dr. Brown if she would get grounded if she scratched her heat, Dr. Brown said no. Her daughter said, “I’m never going to win this race,” Brown responded, “You will never win this race, but maybe winning for you is getting off the block and getting wet.” The day of the race comes, her daughter shows for the heat, and it was ugly. She was so behind that everyone was out of the pool and waiting for the next heat to start by the time she finished. She was devastated and crying, when she reached Dr. Brown. She looked down and said, “But I was brave and I won.” Brown summarizes the meaning of the story, “Vulnerability is hard and it’s scary and it feels dangerous. But it’s not as hard, or scary or dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and having to ask ourselves: What if I would’ve shown up? What if I would’ve said ‘I love you?’ What if I would’ve come off the blocks? Show up, be seen, answer the call to courage and come off the blocks. Because you’re worth it—you’re worth being brave.”
  5. Remember that courage is a habit. Once you take the action to move outside your comfort zone once, it becomes slightly easier to do it the next time. You become more resilient. One blog turns into two. One resource shared leads to a scheme of work. One CPD session becomes a new leadership role.

Nelson Mandela said “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” It’s okay to feel afraid. It’s okay if your knees tremble or your stomach is filled with butterflies. It’s okay if your hands shake or your voice wobbles. Courage is being able to take that step anyway, to overcome those moments of trepidation using whatever strategies best suit you. I have written before about the rewards that can come when you overcome imposter syndrome and I think that applies here too. Without overcoming that fear and making your own mould you do not know what possibilities await you. When was the last time you enlarged your comfort zone and did something to make yourself 10% braver?

Rachel

For further reading I really recommend 10% braver, the WomenEd book edited by Vivienne Porritt and Keziah Featherstone.

‘Someone said that mums are the rocks that never crumble, I don’t think that’s true, ‘cause I do’. Some musings on teaching and motherhood

It is 4am, I am on the third night feed, I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since 2016. Tomorrow will be my first day back at work after having my second baby, just 18 months after my first. I am exhausted beyond all comprehension. I then hear that awful barking cough, from the room next door. I know what this means, my 2 year old has croup again. I bundle him up into the car and make the drive to the A&E, thankfully, he is seen quickly. I pick up the prescription, and manage to get home for just after 6.30am. I jump in the shower, make myself a super charged coffee, drop the boys off at my parents and make my way to work. I feel like I have fought a war before the day has even begun.

There is something strangely liberating about this journey. I cannot remember the last time I was in the car by myself. Then I start to think about the past 2 years. I feel a little jaded. I have not cherished every moment, I have struggled through much of it. At times I have felt isolated and alone, like nobody really understands just how difficult my life is. I have felt suffocated, my self-esteem has plummeted, I don’t really know who Katie is anymore. I down the last remnants of my coffee (and frantically scramble around for a baby wipe, as I notice there’s a delightful deposit of baby sick on my left shoulder). I have a quick glance in my mirror, I look like the creature from the Black Lagoon, there are literally 50 shades of dark circles under my eyes, and just like that I am a teacher again.

I bump into a colleague on the corridor, ‘You look amazing, motherhood suits you! How are you?’, I look like shit, but I know she’s trying to make me feel better, ‘Thanks, I’m fine’, I reply. I am not fine. I make a dart for the ladies, I can feel myself starting to crumble, I have a little cry, I take a deep breath and dust myself down, ready to face my audience. I miss my little limpets, it’s ironic really, as they have driven me to despair for months! That day I certainly did not set the teaching world on fire, but I got through what I perceived to be the impossible. Many days ahead would feel impossible, then I sort of just kept going and kept going and eventually the impossible became possible.

Before I had children I had a complete lack of empathy for mothers. I couldn’t comprehend how they could just rock up at school before the registration bell and then disappear, as if by magic, at 3.45pm. I didn’t understand why they had to slink out of HoDs meetings as 5 o clock approached, or why they miraculously left the premises after phone call from reception, informing them they had a sick child. I feel ashamed in hindsight and all I can say is, I am sorry for being so insensitive. Since my return to work, I have battled with the idea of motherhood affecting me professionally. The truth is, it has, sometimes in a negative way (the sleep deprivation, pressures of running a home and department have taken their toll) but primarily, motherhood has a made me stronger and helped me to prioritise the things that are truly important to be.

It has taught me that I love my job. My home life is so chaotic, that control I have at school, gives me some semblance of normality. I feel respected and my opinions count for something, I don’t get that same level of validation from my pint sized tyrants! In my classroom, I can be me. I am not just ‘Alex and Henry’s mummy’ from toddler group. I can be an actress, a storyteller, a swash buckling adventurer, a voice of reason, a social justice champion, a confidant and a self esteem builder. Holly McNish wrote a fantastic poem called ‘What’s my name again?’ (have a listen, you won’t be disappointed) the first time I heard it, I sobbed. One of the lines in it rings so true, “We are parents but we are people, we are not snot-rags, and we are dreamers; we are queens and we are cleaners, we are kissed, and we are screamed at.” Being back at work has enabled me to get back part of myself again, I am more than a snot-rag and I will continue to live out my dreams, albeit vicariously through my students.

I thought I would share a some tips that have helped me to juggle parenting and middle management. When Rach and I discussed this, she made a great point, that she never really feels like she does justice to both in one week. Some weeks we excel in a professional capacity but we feel we fail as mothers, other weeks we are as on point as Topsy and Tim’s mum (anyone else hate her?) but could conceivably star in ‘Bad Teachers’. By no stretch of the imagination have I cracked this insanely difficult juggling act, but here are a few things that have helped me keep some balls up in the air;

  1. Work smart – go back to basics with lesson planning. Keep things simple and effective. Long gone are the days of spending my evenings guillotining and laminating cards sorts, for activities that last no more than 7 minutes. Join support networks on Facebook and Twitter. There is a wealth of resources out there, use them and adapt them to your context. Textbooks are your friend.
  2. Limit your take home marking – Engage students where possible in self and peer assessment activities. I have found using my visualiser helpful to model best practice. Whole class feedback pro formas have significantly reduced my marking load and benefited the my students understanding of assessment criteria.
  3. Delegate – Relinquish some control to your team. It’s the best thing for everyone. I used to feel as a Head of Department it was my responsibility to do absolutely everything, I don’t have the time or inclination to that anymore. In fact, I would say that approach stilted the development of my team. Allocating specific tasks to team members, facilitates individual progress, it gives people a sense of ownership and creates a more cohesive, collaborative unit. It has been an effective way of helping my team to develop and work as a collective.
  4. Prioritise– Think carefully about the best use of your time. In the past I would spend days on my examination analysis documentation and weeks on my Departmental Improvement Plan, and to what end? Now they take me a few hours, I keep things concise, focused and to the point. I spend time on things that I value. During lockdown, Key Stage Three curriculum planning has been my priority (in addition to remote learning) because I enjoy it see how it will benefit my students.
  5. Consider flexible working arrangements – I am fortunate enough to have a very supportive SLT. For the past 3 years they have enabled me to work a part time contract and continue in my role as Head of Department. This has helped to ease the guilt associated with putting my children into nursery full time, not to mention the financial implications. I enjoy my mid week day as mum, and it gives me an opportunity for some quality time with the boys. I am going back up to full time from September, as my eldest starts school and I feel like I am ready to re-enter the rat race.
  6. Acknowledge that you can only do so much and ultimately family comes first – Although we might feel like Wonder Woman at times, none of us are unbreakable. None of us really have our shit together, it’s just some people are better at hiding it than others. As mothers we try and keep up this pretence of stoicism, but the reality of it is that (to quote Holly again); “Someone said that mums are the rocks that never crumble.I don’t think that’s true, ‘cause I do.I cry hidden in loos, I scream alone in my car, and when I’m woken once more and desperate to sleep, I weep watching the stars”. It’s ok not to be ok all of the time, we have so many demands on us, that it’s normal for the mask to slip. Allow yourself to accept that motherhood is all encompassing, but it is not the only thing that defines you.

We need to change the conversation around motherhood and work. For too long we have tried to minimise this aspect of our identity. Motherhood has changed me, sometimes the weight of it is too much to bare, but for the most part it has made me a better leader and better person. Through being a mother I have found strength I did not know I had and courage that I did not know existed.

Katie

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