Sunday, 27 January 2013

OFSTED 'Outstanding'... who me? Never!

Observations can be one of the most stressful experiences in a teachers job. As an NQT and well into the first couple of years of teaching, observations were the stuff of nightmares for me. Cold sweats and waking up in the middle of the night were not unusual. I would dread them for weeks in advance. My heart rate would increase every time someone talked about them. A serious case of shaky hands would come on as the schedule for the team's observations arrived on my desk. The nerves were crippling. The thought of getting it all wrong was at the centre of this fear. I had not seen many other teachers teach at the time, and although I had excellent training during my PGCE at The Institute of Education, there was just so much to take in. I felt completely alone - it was daunting.

I was no natural:
I never felt like I was one of those young teachers that could just go into the classroom and 'wing it' with a smile and a story.  My first PGCE observation was a catastrophe. Blind panic meant that I could not remember most of it and I ran out of lesson material half way through the hour! I ended the lesson a quivering mess, wanting to cry. I have now been graded 'outstanding' in observations six times in a row, including once under the new OFSTED framework by OFSTED themselves. I was even mentioned in the school's OFSTED report as an example of 'outstanding' teaching. A stark contrast to the confused nervous wreck I was when first being observed.

I am one of life's grafters. When I began teaching I was most certainly not naturally comfortable while being observed, but I keep getting better and learning from every experience. I work hard at becoming good at whatever I do and really enjoy that process. I am a good student now, much better than when I was actually at school, let me tell you! I hope I never stop learning from all the people I work with at all levels of the profession.

Becoming a magpie:
The more I made time to work with others, the more my confidence grew in my own teaching abilities. I worked with two great bosses who were very different in their approaches to teaching. I became a sponge and soaked up everything I liked about both of these great teachers. I gained so much from working with them. I began to explore their creative approaches to lessons. I observed and trialled their techniques with difficult students, watching the subtleties of psychology you need to employ with the huge variety of young people we deal with day in and day out.

Hard graft and collaborative learning:
I benefitted greatly from working with the long chain of PGCE students that came through the department. Helping them become better and observing them frequently really helped me reflect on my own teaching. Team-teaching with a wonderful Teach First teacher was a great experience too, planning and delivering lessons where we really tried to teach as a team and discuss our approaches in detail. As my experience grew so did my confidence in my own abilities. I have been lucky enough to have had bosses who have supported me in taking part in some excellent training, from the 'New to Middle Leadership' course to 'Teaching Leaders' and everything in between. And I read, boy did I read.  I read all the teaching and learning books I could get my hands on.  Experience and training together have built my confidence enough to take risks and experiment in my teaching, whether in an observation or not. Observations are still daunting now but only because I want to do my best, not because I don't know what the observer is looking for.

The elusive 'outstanding':
A teacher friend of mine, from many moons ago, asked for some advice to help her prepare for a mock-OFSTED that her school was conducting. It got me thinking about how to show progress and what makes an outstanding lesson. After thinking about all the outstanding, and the not so outstanding, lessons I have taught and observed in my time, I passed the tips below to her - she got that elusive 'outstanding' in her lesson observation, well deserved I'm sure.  Now let me be clear, in no way am I saying you should change the way you teach for observations. I believe everyday teaching need not differ from observation lessons, you just need to make certain things clearer to the observer. Often this clarity actually helps the students learn better too.

Top tips for showing progress:
1. A skills based lesson objective - makes it easier to show they have moved on. You could have levelled lesson objectives that they choose from at the start. All from the same skill but climbing up the grades. Discuss this process with the kids.
2. A starter that tests the lesson objective skill. In order to show where they are at the start of the lesson. This makes it much easier to show progress to the you, students and the observer.
3. Mini plenaries intermittently, highlighted to kids and reminding them how well they are doing, refocusing them on the objective and planning for further progress. These should be clearly pointed out on lesson plan. Mini plenaries do not need to be a massive break in the lesson a simple Q and A session or mini whiteboards or thumbs up, middle or down - something like that. Bringing it back to the lesson objective skill in some way.
4. A clear plenary allows the teacher to clearly see who has moved on and who needs more help. This should form the basis of planning for the next lesson.

General advice for observations:
1, Smile and greet the observer. They are not the enemy, they are there to see how wonderful you and the class are.  Relish the opportunity to shine.
2. Make sure your lesson plan is clear and highlights what you want them to notice. Not too wordy though!  They don't need your life history.
3. Have a class profile with their grades on available for the observer.  Make it clear and simple.
4. Seating plan, have your grouped for learning? Show how on the paper plan.
5. Enjoy the lesson, smile and show your positive relationship with the class. Be yourself.
6. Don't cram too much in to the lesson, keep it focused and simple but still challenging.
7. High expectations all the time. Very important.
8. Not too much teacher talk, get them discussing and working too.
9. Make it fun if you can.
10. Show a real enthusiasm for what you are teaching, it is infectious.

I'm no more of an expert that any other member of a Senior Leadership team that has seen hundreds of lessons, but I know these tips work.  I hope they are useful.

Good luck with your next observation.

Tremendous Teacher Blogs

I love reading other teachers' blogs.  I've written a few blog posts myself but they don't come close to the best posts from my list of top teacher-bloggers.  As with everything in my life, I am constantly looking to learn more about this new medium of expression and yearning to improve.  These teacher-bloggers are beautiful writers, creative minds and passionate professionals.  They are the forward thinkers that we need to help guide the future of this crazy world of education we work in.  They give us hope when we feel there is none.  They inspire the tired and frazzled masses who trudge home, arms heavy with books and croaking voices.  Where would we be without them?

Below i have jotted down some of these great minds. The list is in a Random order, except for saving the best for last.

Pete Jones - @Pekabelo - Deep Learning:
This is one to watch I say.  Pete is an innovator and has some brilliant projects and ideas he is blogging about here.  Posts are impassioned and seeped in deep thought and practice. Also a big project-based learning advocate.  Great stuff. 

Tait Coles - @Totallywired77 - Punk Learning:
Tait has a personal and open style on the blog.  He talks a lot about his ongoing experience in the classroom and the thinking behind it.  I love the visual and step by step approach to some of his posts. He makes it super easy to see how you could apply it to your own teaching.  There is a wealth of amazing ideas to dip into.    His love of learning really shines through.

Tom Bennett - @tombennett77 - The Behaviour Guru: Tom Bennett's School Report:
Tom does not mince his words.  He keeps you guessing from post to post and really varies his style and approach to topics. He keeps it fresh.  He is one of the story weavers and creative bloggers. The blog contains sound advice, a beautiful style  and hard hitting topics. If I was in his class, I would so be behaving!

Tom Sherrington - @Headguruteacher - Headguruteacher:
A real "outside the box" thinker.  No one post is the same and the variety of topics he covers is endless.  I find Tom to be really on the money with what's in the educational press.  Maybe he is the trend setter, who knows?  An interesting read, every time.

Alex Quigley; @HuntingEnglish - Hunting English:
Alex's blog is an essential one for all English teachers.  His love of the subject and interest in development of teaching and learning is infectious. Some brilliant ideas for tech in the classroom and marginal gains.   His posts are thought provoking and well researched.

Ross McGill - @TeacherToolkit - Teachertoolkit:
Well, where do I start with Ross?  While being a twitter phenomenon, he somehow manages to also blog and run various projects.  He does all this on top of the day job!  I love the fact that he blogs himself, but also brings together other people from the teacher blogging community through his projects like #SLTchat and the Teacher Toolkit Thunks.  He is a real shining light.  He includes a practical and useful edge to the posts and projects, always pulling together ideas that are easy for teachers to implement.  I'm in awe of what he manages to do so well.  I bow down to you TT!

John Thomsett - @johntomsett - This Much I Know About:
I just love this blog.  His heartfelt posts are always so thoughtful and inspiring.  I have honestly found myself laughing and crying along while reading. I always look forward to the next one.  I love the fact that he is so focused on improving teaching and learning and can weave this focus into an anecdote from his life. He makes such unexpectedly wonderful links.   I have recommended this blog to many non-teacher friends as I truly feel it is simply a great read.  The best of the best in my mind.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Embrace Your Inner Nerd

As the Christmas holiday drew to a close, myself and my friends gathered together for one last catch up. They all shared their dread at returning to work after the break. I, on the other hand, shared the fact that I was thinking about getting back into things but was certainly not dreading it. My friend's husband said to me, "oh but you are lucky because you love your job though" and we laughed and moved onto our next topic of conversation. Later that evening, I was thinking about what they said and the fact that, actually, I am not "lucky" - I put a lot of thought into what I wanted to do as a job and I work hard at it. I am a strong believer that you get out what you put into something. I love my job, and I don't care who knows it. I feel privileged to have the chance to work with young people and possibly help them make their lives better in the future.

The very first time I had an inkling of my true passion was during my life before teaching. I was working in a very lovely marketing and advertising office in Liverpool, having fallen into the job after university. I loved the team I worked with, got loads of perks and was promoted twice in a short space of time. You would think I would have been very happy indeed. I was not. I was bored, there was just something missing. What was I doing this for? I didn't care about it! So I started to search for my passion in life - that thing that would make me happy. There it was - teaching!   They thought I was mad and perhaps I was. 

My life changed completely when I was accepted on to my PGCE teaching course and moved to London to study at The Institute of Education. I was completely inspired, excited about what I was doing and eager to learn. This experience was a vastly different to my time spent in advertising. I had found my passion. This was the thing that had been missing. I felt sorry for people who were "just going to work to get money for the weekend" as I was getting money and loving what I was doing. Now let me be clear, it was no smooth ride and teaching teenagers certainly ain't for the feint hearted or the easily offended. I loved what I did regardless.

I think I really began to appreciate how wonderful it is that I have honed in on my passion for teaching and learning when my father was diagnosed with cancer in my NQT year, one year into teaching.  It really does help put things into perspective when you are faced with experiences like this.  I reflected a lot on life and the fact it can be taken from us in the blink of an eye.  It made me realise I was doing the right thing following my passion, making my family proud and making a difference.  I was in a challenging inner London school at the time and OFSTED visited that same week.  If that is not enough to test your passion I don’t know what is.  That is when the real spark was ignited, I knew I wanted to do this crazy job.

I have developed my passion for teaching in many ways over the years; working for hours at home in the early days, training courses, working with other teachers in my teams, listening to my bosses and learning as much as I can from them, researching and reading books on teaching, reflecting on my practice in the classroom, trying new things in the classroom, taking risks, listening to others, adapting what I am doing and the list goes on. At the heart of what I do is getting the very best for the students I teach and I have done this in every school I have taught at so far.  Teaching brings me great joy, even on a tough day and for that I must be truly grateful that I made the choice to take up this profession.

I have great friends and family and a real passion for what I do as a job, so I know I really have so much to be thankful for in my life. I am not lucky though, I have chosen to spend time with people I love, work in a job that I love and I work hard at it every day because it makes my life richer.

Developing teaching and learning both in my own practice and others is my passion and I am a full on teaching and learning nerd, and proud.   You can make a living out of your passion, whatever it is. If your passion is sport become an athlete. If your passion is food work towards becoming a top chef. If your passion is animals become a zoologist. If your passion is clothing become a designer. The world is your oyster go grab your dream.

Tips for finding or embracing your inner nerd:

1. Don't know what your passion is? Think back to when you were a child. What were you passionate about then, what did you love? "You are what you repeatedly do"

2. Do one thing every day that follows your passion. Schedule it in if necessary as life is hectic and you can often focus on the stuff that will never make you happy.

3. Your passions may change - be ok with that.

4. Make a creativity board to focus your mind on what your passion is all about. It will allow you to become creative within that passion.

5. Make a list of people you admire that are involved in your passion, so you can emulate what you like about how they work. Do some research if you don't now who these people are. It is always good to have a role model.

6. Research your passion, you might be surprised at what you find out there.

7. Envision the end of your life. What do you want to have achieved? Work towards that.

8. Reflect on your passion. If it changes how can you use all you have learnt from your first passion to develop alongside your new one?

9. Ignore the haters. People will always nit-pick, laugh at and mock what they fear or don't understand. More likely than not they have not found their passion or they would most definitely understand. Feel for them and be yourself.

Life is too short to be doing something you don't love, sometimes that takes hard work but boy is it worth it.

Embrace your inner nerd and be proud of what you love.