Fasten your seatbelt.

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It’s that time of year when we spend a LOT of time telling students just how few days they have left until their exams. That’s all fine, but then they panic and then you panic, and then we all go on marking overdrive, as if we hadn’t been doing enough of that already.

On Friday, I put so much marking on the passenger seat of my car that the clever computer told me that said passenger was not wearing its seatbelt.  Even my car knew that my workload was potentially dangerous!

Over the past few years, many people have reported that they are actually marking for several different audiences at once: Parents, pupils, Ofsted, line managers, colleagues etc.  Marking policies vary from school to school but I suggest that whatever you do, commit to the 3 Ps: Personal, powerful and practical.  So here are a few tips that will help make life a little easier:

  • Create a numbered key for those types of assignments such as exam-style essays, which contain all of the usual things you find yourself writing.  Train your students to know what each number means, and then write a maximum of 3 of those numbers at the bottom of the work. They will have to engage with the key, and their own work, and you won’t get increasingly bored of requesting, in writing, capital letters for proper nouns.
  • Decide in advance how many paragraphs you will assess for Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar. A student who really struggles with spelling is NOT going to benefit from a full A4 page of ‘SP’ in the margin, so keep the feedback manageable, and restricted to the first 2 or 3 paragraphs at most.
  • Insist that students spend the first 5 minutes of the lesson in which they’re submitting work, proofreading what they are handing in. Or get them to swap with a peer.  They need to learn to proofread anyway, and having you do it for them teaches them very little.
  • Remember that not all pieces of work need to be marked in depth.  Notes and brainstorms require a tick. The full outcome – essay, speech, presentation – will reveal everything you need to know.
  • Plan your marking. Easily said, I know, but if you’re focussing on GCSE essays, getting year 7 to hand in massive projects will just depress you.  Decide what tasks are easier to assess in class. Your mid and long term planning should include an overview of where the crunch points are on your workload, so plan accordingly.
  • For practical subjects such as Drama and Music, video the performances AND you giving the feedback. The students can then write the feedback down for themselves AND you’re modelling how to give constructive, helpful feedback to your whole class.
  • If you really MUST wield a stamp that proclaims ‘Verbal Feedback Given’, give it to the students to do, or have a very keen stamp monitor.  You didn’t go to university for 4 years to do a task that’s more at home in a scrapbook. Get the student to stamp it AND write the feedback that you gave. Or just lose the stamp in the most creative way possible.
  • Remember that marking tired can be less helpful than not marking at all. I bet those last 5 exercise books will be limited in feedback value. Admit that spending 20 minutes the following morning before school would be much less hellish for you, and more helpful for the student, too.

Lastly, know when to stop. As my driving instructor once reminded me, “brakes to slow, gears to go”. To be safe and consistent, you need to use both.

Happy marking!

 

 

A Valentine’s Message

IMG_3533This article in the TES almost broke my heart when I read it, because it rings so true for so many of us. So many teachers really do love what they do, they believe in it and it is part of their soul. The relationship sometimes grows tired though, because it can feel so one sided and unrealistic

This half term, which coincides with Valentine’s Day, just remember that you are loved. Although they might not show it (and it’s the wiring of their brains that’s to blame, not them), your students need you and many will love you. You’re part of their domestic routine and life: mums and dads everywhere will have spent a great deal of time listening to how you said this, did that, or that what you say is more important/interesting/amazing than anything their parents can manage.

Like any loving relationship though, you need time apart to make you cherish the together times. So this half term, take a break from teaching. Leave the marking in the car, refuse to turn on your laptop, make a to do list for next Monday and then forget about it. This week is yours, to share time with your own loved ones. To love yourself, regardless of what you’ll be doing on Valentine’s Day.

The time of year, and the article cited above, reminded me of Derek Walcott’s poem, Love After Love that urges us to,

“Give back your heart

to itself…

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life”

 

Happy half term, and happy Valentine’s Day

 

 

Finding your person. Or people.

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I recently attended a Wellbeing masterclass, in which Ruby Wax spoke candidly about her experience of depression. A member of the audience asked her “What do you do when it all gets too difficult? What should I do?”. Wax replied, “find your people”.

What exactly does she mean by that? Well, I think I know. She means the people or person who GETS IT. That small but oh-so-important group who can take one look at you and know when it’s gone well, but also when a group huddle is needed. They hear it in a sigh. They see it in your walk or sense it through your body language. They just KNOW.

I’m lucky in that I count some of my work colleagues as my closest friends, but that’s taken time to build. And you have to work hard to find them. You have to send out signals that say “I’m here! I’m happy to be a person for someone, too”. Slowly, gradually, you develop those friendships that mean that whatever the highs and lows, someone’s always got your back.

In modern schools, time is so pressured that it’s easy to get trapped in your department area and not mix with other year groups or subject teams.  But you must.  Find a way (excuse) to introduce yourself, or spend a break time swapping anecdotes and cake with another team.  Arrange to combine department meetings with other subjects to avoid reinventing the wheel, or just hold a social event or a field trip to the pub after school one day.

At a time when many newly built schools do not even have a communal staff room, and there is not a culture of eating lunch together, it is extremely easy to feel isolated and lonely. We take on so many different roles, and so much baggage each day that it is essential to find someone with whom you can offload (and your partner or spouse will thank you for it when you get home too). It can do wonders for your humour and confidence to find that you are not the only one who struggles with a particular student. A shared passion for Benedict Cumberbatch has led me to get to know a number of fabulous teachers. Whatever floats your boat, you need to share in order to stay afloat.

My tendency for rhyme may make this sentiment appear trite but it’s absolutely key.  In the mental health profession, counsellors and therapists have regular supervision sessions where they can share their experience within a certain framework. It can be a vital sounding board, a way of ensuring  they’ve made the right choices and to talk through next steps but most importantly, I think, it’s a way of keeping them safe. We see and hear so much in our work lives that, without sharing it, we are at risk of carrying too much weight, emotion and responsibility and that’s not healthy.  It might not be such a formal framework in the teaching profession, but you need to nurture those relationships so that you have a safety net as and when you need it.

As a Gray’s Anatomy fan, I leave you with this clip, that shows just how we, as teachers, feel a great deal of the time.

Ruby and Meredith get it so right: find your person. And cherish them.

 

 

Ross Kemp, and me, on gangs

On the first Friday in my new, albeit temporary, teaching job, I had a complete sense of humour failure. Some kids were rude. Others beyond rude. They seemed to find every single weak spot and PICK AT IT. Change is tough, no matter how long in the tooth you are, and sometimes it’s not much fun.

On the way home that day -convinced it was the last time I would be driving that route because THAT. WAS. IT. – I thought about my new year 11 class who are fascinated by an unexpected inspiration: Ross Kemp, wading into gangland territory.

So I invented a new game.

The rules are simple. When you find yourself taking things too seriously, too personally and too far, adopt the persona of your favourite TV host in your mind and pretend you’re making a groundbreaking documentary. In my  case on the occasion in question, Ross Kemp. Take an objective step back from the situation, and ask yourself, “what would the voice over be at this point?” Allow the camera in your mind’s eye to take in what’s around you, rather than simply succumbing to the red mist that’s threatening to descend.

Then, adopt the  voice of a scientist or analytical expert (again, preferably just in your head rather than out loud). “What does this example of the species tell us about the way they live and behave?” What, indeed, would David Attenborough say…? What awkward and faux innocent questions might Louis Theroux ask to calm the situation, but to highlight to the viewers at home  that he is giving his subjects an opportunity to expose themselves for the oddballs they really are?

Whilst you might not ever be a BAFTA winning documentary maker (Essex, Yorkshire, Cardiff already having been educated, after all) it will allow you to become a little bit more objective about your role in whatever is happening. It will allow you to see it with a little more clarity and a lighter touch: less of a cloud to loom over your evening or weekend.

Without a doubt, there will be something that perhaps you hadn’t noticed before, something that might make you laugh or realise why certain things had happened. You might at least be able to extract a learning point from what you replay in your mind, rather than ruminating over it for so long that your blood pressure rises and you shout at every motorist with whom you share roadspace, on the way home.

There are some incidents that we come across that absolutely have to be taken seriously. Ones which make us cry, or angry, or frustrated. The highs and lows are what make the job so varied and interesting. But by treating ourselves, and our subjects (in all senses of the word), with a  deliberate lightness of touch, we encourage curiosity and awareness rather than carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.

How’s my documentary coming along?  Well. As part of my ongoing ‘experiment’, I’ve spoken to some supportive parents. I’ve had some lovely feedback from staff and students so I’m clearly not a total disaster area. And I’ve got my own gang: all of the fabulous teachers with whom I work, and have worked, who share this most fascinating of life processes. They’ve got my back.

As one Channel 4 documentary sponsor tells us: The more we look, the more we learn.

Empty threats

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I’m really lucky to be spending 10 weeks at a new school. Term started yesterday and I have a very different role to my previous HoD position: my sole responsibility is to do the very best that I can for the students in my care.

The night before I started my new post, I CRIED. I was sad because I wasn’t going to see my close and brilliant friends who I’ve seen at work for the past 7 years. I was scared and nervous about the change, the unknown, despite the fact that I was also very excited. I suddenly doubted my own abilities even though I’ve now been teaching since before many of my new students have been alive.

Strangely, though, I find I wasn’t alone. Colleagues and friends who were simply returning to their usual workplace reported poor sleep, anxiety, fear, dread and the almost convincing feeling that they had somehow had forgotten how to teach during the two week holiday.

At the age of 38, my biggest worry was “will they like me?”. And by ‘they’, I mean staff and students. For other people it was, “will I still be any good?” and “what am I going to do if x happens?” . So if I feel like this, how do my students feel? And it’s all down to the pesky amygdala – that threat seeking system in your brain that I’ve talked about before.

Teenage brains don’t have the strength of connection between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex that helps regulate emotion. The amygdala is -for the moment anyway – king, queen, president and dictator in this fledgling relationship. Anything that threatens a young person’s sense of self is not going to be a welcome addition to their day. It will be rejected, ignored, kicked and punched (hopefully only metaphorically) and railed against. This could be outwardly in the form of arguing, swearing and the odd tantrum, or turned internally into negative and self-critical thoughts – “why would s/he like me? I’m useless”.

When therapists work with those suffering with anxiety, they often highlight the two key elements of managing those anxious feelings.  Anxiety (and stress) thrives on two things: Overestimating the threat, and underestimating our ability to cope with it.

In terms of wellbeing, remembering this can really help you remain calm in interaction with students, and in your own preparation before each term. Poor behaviour is often a response to a student feeling threatened and anxious. Have a look at these questions that you might like to ask yourself when you feel threatened, and consider how they might help:

  • Am I physically safe?
  • I feel sad (or any other uncomfortable emotion) – that’s a normal emotion and I probably feel that way because…
  • What’s the worst-case scenario?
  • Will what I’m worried about matter in 5 years’ time?
  • What positive action can I take right now? (Sometimes it can be physically removing yourself from a situation or location, distracting yourself, putting your energy into a fairly extended physical activity. Other times it may be completing a difficult task)
  • This short term discomfort is temporary – it can help to remember that. Nothing lasts forever.

So next time a student is kicking off because they feel ill done by, and before you get sucked into the debate, STOP and ask yourself “what is threatening them?”. In that moment of pause, you can come up with a way to prevent your temper from rising and instead thinking about the pace, volume and content of what you’re going to say in response. Hopefully, any confrontation will be shorter, calmer and more positive.

I’m not promising rainbows, glitter and unicorns everyday, but your blood pressure might thank you for it.

Winning the Lottery

Yesterday I was flicking through a recently published book about teaching and looked up the word ‘wellbeing’ in the index.  I jotted down the page numbers so I could return to them later. It was like jotting down the winning lottery numbers.

However, happiness and wellbeing in teaching shouldn’t be a lottery. It should be an ongoing choice, with predictable and positive outcomes for all. Over the coming months I’ll be going into more detail about all of the roles a variety of different stakeholders can play in ensuring wellbeing in schools, but for now, here are five ideas if you’re looking for a SMART new year’s resolution:

 

  1. If someone is struggling, a helpful response is, “what can I do to help?”. Chances are they’ll reply “nothing, I just need to get through these tasks”. But that person will feel supported, a little more understood and a lot less isolated. Slip them a cup of tea or coffee and you’ve made a best friend for life. It doesn’t mean taking on more things yourself – it can be as simple as providing another perspective on a task, sharing good practice  or making that person feel heard. This one is particularly important if you are in any kind of management or leadership role.
  2. If you really must take work home in the evening, only take what you can manage with one hand. That means ONE pile of essays on loose leaf paper. or ONE carrier bag of exercise books to mark OR your laptop to deal with those admin issues you didn’t get done during the day.  Abandon that habit of taking everything home ‘just in case’. All it does is glare at you from the corner of the room and make you feel guilty, anyway.
  3. Book something you can’t miss once a month, each week or whatever is realistic for you: an exercise class, date night, walking with a friend etc. That’s YOUR directed time.
  4. Develop your assertiveness by having some pre-prepared responses for when someone offers you an ‘opportunity’.  For example, “That sounds great, who else will be helping?” or “can we book some time to talk about this?” (rather than just saying yes or no straight away). Both of those allow both you, and the person approaching you, time to plan and reflect on what’s being asked of you. It also allows you to check your job description if you really do think that the request is beyond what you’re prepared to do….
  5. If you haven’t already got one, start a box or a book of happy teaching memories. I’ve got cards, t shirts, poems, letters from parents etc all stacked up for those days when I really don’t know if I can be a teacher until I’m allowed my pension. It reminds me of why I do the job, and the positive impact it has on students, and on me. Then it reminds me that whilst the institution for which I work is responsible for looking after me, I’m also able to ensure that I can maximise that positive impact by doing a few things for myself.

I wish you a fantastic new year, and hope that 2016 brings you love, luck and happiness both within and beyond the classroom.

 

Live, love, laugh

It hasn’t seemed appropriate to post over the past few days and it has definitely been a period during we can reflect about perspective and the things in life that truly matter.

So in this brief post, I urge you to put down your marking, eschew your planner and spend time with the ones you love. Send a card to someone you miss. Make plans. Give someone a hug. Watch cat videos on YouTube and find a way to include one in a lesson. Learn to dance. Kiss someone passionately and with abandon. Say thank you. Have an extra glass of wine, in the company of someone you think is great.

In the world of mental health, something that has been proven several times over is that emotional wellbeing can be improved by spending some time each day cultivating our sense of gratitude. It’s not about being thankful for how much cash we have in the bank, or how great our car is, but more about the finer things in life. Those special moments that make you realise why you do the job that you do, and why you work as hard as you do. Because it matters.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given on teaching practice was to keep a box for all of the cards, notes, emails etc that I was sent when parents, colleagues or students said thank you. When times get tough, those things remind us of the value of what we do.

Maybe you can send such a token to someone else who might need it. Maybe you need to take a trip down memory lane. The life we live is the only one we have. So do what you can to make it great.