Saturday, 6 February 2016

We are all doomed

I am not a big fan of ‘Dad’s Army’. It was thrust upon me as a child and I have yet to wash away the mental scars of being forced to watch it weekly; my father hogged the television and insisted he watched the episode he had seen twenty billion times before. The recent film adaptation has only served to reawaken those memories. My adulthood was not signified by anything other than having my own television and insisting that I did not have to watch any ‘Dad’s Army’ or any dull programme with a truck in it – my childhood was full of joy and trucks. If you have ever met me, you’d understand that trucks and I do not have much in common. Anyway, during those joy free twenty-five minutes of enforced watching of the show, there was one bit that always made me chuckle. The home-guard often got themselves into a pickle and then up pops one voice saying, ‘We are all doomed!’

We are all doomed. I am a bit fed-up of hearing how bleak, depressing and miserable the state of education is. It is doom this. It is doom that. And, I am fed-up with it. I’m that fed up I have felt the need to blog about it. There have been some shocking things that have happened to teaching. I have listed them for ease:

[1] New GCSEs systems rushed in faster than a speeding bullet and so quick that the exam boards are scratting around to find bits of the course on their desks.
[2] Tighten school budgets and limited resources.
[3] A new grading system that is like plucking numbers out the air.
[4] Another system taking grading away at Key Stage Three.
[5] A new system for judging the success of a school called Progress 8.
[6] A shift in emphasis from attainment to progress.

But aside from new GCSEs, limited resources, new grading systems and a change of emphasis, I am still happy. Happy not in the sense of denial and it hasn’t sunk in yet, but generally and genuinely happy. I am not signally the death knell of the state education system yet. Nor am I oblivious to the changes for I am in the centre of the storm, looking at all of these things daily.

Why am I happy? Well, I could go all soppy and say it is the fact that children say they love my lessons – they don’t; it would scare me if they were to do it. In fact, there are several reason why I am enjoying teaching more than ever.

It is about the learning and not the teaching  
The change in lesson observations has had a big impact on me, personally. No longer am I having the equivalent of a yearly ‘driving test’ in teaching. No longer am I getting a cross for not using assessment for learning in my lesson. No longer am I getting a cross for not writing the objective on the board. No longer am I getting a cross for not having a card sort in my lessons. At the centre of lessons now is the learning. Yes, the teacher is integral, but the change in focus from teacher to student has empowered me. It is not what I do, but what they do and how I can get them to do it better or quicker.

It is about learning rather than the doing
When I think to how I was taught to teach English it was heavily focused on ‘doing stuff’. My old schemes of work were crafted around doing stuff. Oh, I haven’t done a newspaper article for a while, so I will get the class to do one. There was some learning, but there was more doing stuff rather than learning stuff.

Now I think I am more focused on the learning than I ever have been before. I used to teach stuff, but I didn’t repeat it or revise it enough to commit things to memory. The whole new wave of looking at memory and making sure students commit more things to memory has enlivened aspects of my teaching. I am looking at models for how to develop memory and suggestions for a lesson model based on memory and a lesson model based on skills. Furthermore, I am looking to speak to MFL departments and use their skills and knowledge to help support the English department.

For years, I think we have constantly been saying, ‘Why don’t they remember…?’. Now, I think we are starting to scratch the surface of that question, or, at least, getting closer to some ways of dealing with it.

The English Collective
When I started teaching, there were very few places you could go for new ideas and resources about teaching English. I used to scour the cupboards and search though dusty photocopies of things. Now, I have daily new ideas and resources to use and thing about. Admittedly, there might be too much stuff out there, but at least there is a collective pool of ideas. Not only that, but the English Collective are solving problems. One person’s ideas feed another’s and the result is a solution.

I feel that there’s a real community of English teachers out there (and I include other honouree members) and we are working together to help, support and guide each other.  

The New GCSEs
The new GCSEs for English have brought with them new texts and new questions. How many times have I taught ‘Of Mice and Men’? It was a nice refreshing change to teach ‘A Christmas Carol’ and it was great to work slowly through the text and not have to worry about getting a bleeding controlled assessment in before the end of term. I do think that people forget that most English teachers are teaching two GCSEs in the time it takes other departments to teach one.

The new GCSEs have also brought us a new set of exam papers with different questions. The enjoyable thing I have found from the experience is that the papers have made me look seriously at how I teach most things. For example, the focus on techniques has made think how I can make sure students remember technical terms. The new focus on justifying an opinion on a piece of prose has led me to explore how I can get students to offer their opinions on books more.

The new GCSEs have made me think differently about things.  

Challenge
The raising the bar of texts has led to a re-evaluation of texts taught at KS3 and KS4. This term I have started a Year 7 class with George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. This book had always been reserved for Year 9 classes. Currently, the Year 7 class love it, and rightly so, but they love the idea of doing a ‘challenging’ book.

Added to this we have introduced the opening chapters of ‘Jane Eyre’ to Year 7 and ‘Macbeth’ to Year 8 successfully. The students have coped and enjoyed the texts, so much so that I am considering what else I can introduce - we already study several Shakespeare plays and ‘Great Expectations’ in KS3 already.

The use of more sophisticated texts has raised the speed of things and the depth of study. Plus, students have enjoyed it.
I stand by the following mantra: teachers want to teach and students want to learn. The problem is that people and systems prevent both aspects happening. We need to work on making sure teachers teach. The one thing I think is integral to all this is ring-fencing the classroom teachers and protecting them from all the stuff that is happening.  Middle leaders and leaders need to protect the teachers, so they can teach and the students can learn. There is a great problem that the classroom teachers are bombarded, through the media, and sometimes through middle leaders, with new initiatives and criticisms. If I am honest, teachers need to have things filtered out. They need leaders and middle leaders to sift and protect them from the rubbish and the pointless stuff. They need to know only what is important to learning.

Somebody made a comment about how challenging things are at the moment and I responded by saying: yes, it is, but we have a plan and hopefully it will work. If it doesn’t work, we will try a different plan. Pressure is helpful, but it isn’t good all the time and constantly. A teacher will always want the children in their class to succeed. The more pressure you but on a teacher for a class to succeed, the more they will focus on things that are counterproductive. Get them to teach. Get them to try things, but if it doesn’t work, give them something else to do.  

I don’t mean to be glib about the situation, or your particular circumstances, but I think we need to have less of the ‘doom and gloom’ attitude and more of the ‘K.B.O.’ spirit. Yes, we have to do it. If it doesn’t work, then we will try something else. Focus on solutions and not the problem. I love teaching because it gives me endless problems and I have to spend time looking for solutions for the problems. If I spent all my time worrying about the problems, I wouldn’t have the time to work on the solutions. Focus on the solutions and not the problems. I accept the problems and look for solutions and I am quite happy.

We are all doomed. We might be this time, but next time we will try something else instead.

Thanks for reading,

Xris

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