Entering Third Year

It’s hard to believe how quickly things move. I can go back on this site and read some of the things on my mind during my PGCE year, and see some of my deleted posts from my (very trying) NQT year. The frequency has dropped as the teaching has increased but, here we are, September 2017 and my third full year of teaching ahead. This is the first time I’ll have gone from one school year to the next at the same school, which has given me a welcome sense of familiarity as I plan for the year – I’m not nervous about not knowing where the loos are, or what the behaviour policy is, or if the department are nice. My department’s awesome, and it will be nice to reconnect after a summer of relaxing and reflecting. The summer has given me the space to think about how the last year has gone, what things I thought went well or where I need to improve, and how to go about it. So here’s my rough thoughts for the year ahead:

Explanations

I feel like, with the help of my team and the wider history network in the trust, our curriculum is really coming along and I’m more knowledgeable about planning and focusing on the ‘main thing’ than ever. Our KS3 is developing much like the Y7 lessons as outlined in the last post – ‘reading’ lessons and ‘writing’ lessons alternating, with challenging texts and regular practice. There will be new assessment principles put into place this year which build a lot on the work that I’ve seen/read from people like Daisy Christodoulou and Michael Fordham, and as a subject we’re really moving in a good direction. Stability and continuity within the department is great too.

On a personal level, the area I feel I need to focus on is in explanation. Ben Newmark’s videos have been a reference point for this, and the excellent book, Making Every Lesson Count. I want to be able to be more clear, more direct and use better analogies to help get across some of these complicated concepts. I think I’m ok at it now, but thats just … ok. There have been times I know that I’ve tried to explain something and I can tell, in the moment, I’ve lost them, or I’ve overcomplicated it, or I’m not focusing on the key part and its taken too long as I double back. Knowing what questions or problems there have been in previous lessons, I want to be able to prepare for these by preparing and knowing exactly how to explain a concept or an answer or whatever needed, clearly and concisely. So that’s a personal focus.

Behaviour

I don’t mean behaviour in the usual sense – managing the classroom, sanctions, building a good working environment. This is vital and something thats a continual work in progress. But I’ve been thinking a lot about three characteristics lately – patience, humility and kindness. On a personal level, I want to be able to model these and try to encourage them in my students. There are times when, both students and teachers, we’re often quick to snap or talk back, to rush instead of to take our time, and I want to be more patient in some of my interactions and to encourage them to be patient with their work too, and with how they deal with each other, to not rush to judgements, to not arrogantly wade in or try to show off. This goes for me too, trying to resist the temptation for posturing twitter comments or complacency in my work, planning, delivery, and so on. I think this is somewhere we all fail, from time to time. I know I do and I hate it when I look back at things I’ve said that reek of arrogance or superiority. I want to better model the behaviour that I value the most, and I want to find a way to encourage students to demonstrate kindness with action (though I’m not sure how, yet. Charity?), and kindness towards each other in the class.

Culture

With our curriculum coming along, I want to help the department in developing a wider culture. We have a fantastic rapport with our students, who regularly come back after school just to finish work, chat, do some random revision and more. I’m proud that our department is one where they feel completely comfortable and welcome. I’d like to help channel that into other things – helping with more trips (we have a trip to Rome this year), or running something extra-curricular in humanities, or perhaps something charity based. Again, I’m not sure of the specifics – its just been part of my thinking.

 

Getting better is hard work and a lot of time I’ll be tired. At many points I’ll be more focused on the minutiae of specific classes, delivering new units and supporting our first cohort through the new GCSE, and personal development takes a back seat. But if, come next July, I’m a bit better at these three things, and all else is in hand, I’ll be happy.

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Reading and Writing with Year 7

Since Christmas, and especially since the West London Free School History conference in March, we’ve undergone a bit of a shift in our planning and delivery of lessons to year 7’s, to incorporate what we’ve seen as good practice elsewhere and to get the best out of our cohort and really give them what they need.

For context, the majority of our Year 7’s come in with a reading age below their chronological age. I work in a school and trust that is hugely supportive of a rigorous, knowledge-based curriculum that attempts to help close this gap – enabling us to put together a KS3 history curriculum that focuses on the concepts and knowledge which help to improve students’ literacy. This is not new, but reflecting upon our practice has been aided by working with and learning from experts in the discipline, such as those present at the WLFS History Conference, and the session run by Rob Peal was particularly interesting as a way of planning lessons that incorporate complex texts and give lots of space for reading and writing.

I’ve tweeted before with some initial thoughts about how we’ve incorporated Rob’s planning and made it our own. Worth noting here – we don’t have his textbooks. For each of the topics, the reading material is written by us so we ensure it has exactly what we want – keywords, background information, etc. – so that it is situated perfectly into the scheme of work. While this takes a little time, once it’s written, it’s written – and is no more than 600-700 words per topic. Examples from our small unit on Medieval Life:

Medicine in the Middle Ages

Religion in the Middle Ages

Each of these readings would be gone through as a class (same reading for all sets), with relevant and appropriate images to support and help explain. As I know their reading ability and level of knowledge, I can select students to read more or less complex parts, with the result being that all students can read. Example: in my lowest set, one girl said to me earlier in the year, ‘I just can’t read. It’s my dyslexia.’ Having started with these, she wanted to read the small boxes which had key words. Her confidence boosted by these, she now wants to read smaller paragraphs and the impact on her has been immense.

With two lessons per week at KS3, the routine is set much like Rob’s – a ‘reading’ then a ‘writing’ lesson. The reading lesson is aimed at establishing the knowledge – reading the text as a class, answering some comprehension questions or annotating a map or something similar – it focuses on embedding what needs to be remembered. The writing lesson adds a bit of depth – such as from a source, a short video, etc. – before making them apply what they now know to a piece of extended writing. This gets around some critique that might be levelled that its ‘low level’ with no challenge, etc. The routine is there to be broken if needs be – if a lesson topic is more suited to some other form of delivery, do it. But in general, read then write.

So what has the impact been? With the caveat that we’ve only been doing this with Y7 so far, I am extremely encouraged and pleased. With my lowest set, they enjoy the routine – I’m having girls who earlier in the year were storming out of class and swearing now asking others to focus so they can get on with the reading, and tons of volunteers. They are proud of what they know, and a recent test on the Medieval Life unit was really encouraging. They are reading through the same texts as the top sets and it just takes a little more explanation from me to help them understand. Backed up by regular quizzing and encouragement, I’m getting more from this class than I have all year.

Alongside this, the use of regular quizzing and emphasising key knowledge has improved their ability to connect things together. Two examples recently came up in our lesson on Thomas Becket. A previous lesson on Medieval Law and Order had introduced them to Henry II and his attempts to reform justice, bringing in Trial by Jury, wanting a Common Law, etc. Another previous lesson on Medieval Religion had discussed the role of the Pope and the way they would give legitimacy to Kings, provide a blessing, etc., and that this meant the King needed to remain on good terms with the Papacy. In our Becket lesson, the role of Henry II and reforming law and order came up when discussing Becket’s opposition to Henry’s reforms – the information wasn’t new, it was just presented in a different way and with a particular example, helping to clarify and embed it further. Following this, I showed them an image of Henry II being whipped as penance and asked them why he might be doing this, and a number of students referred to him needing to keep the Pope onside while dealing with the rebellious Richard and John. This previous knowledge gave the image extra context and helped them, again, understand the role of the Pope and the relationship between Church and Crown in a new light. Knowledge helped build new knowledge.

Now I’m not saying this can only come about through this style of planning, but I do believe this style of planning has helped us to focus on the knowledge rather than the activities a lesson might contain. It’s a lesson stripped down to its core purpose and none of it is new. However, this type of planning and delivery is something I was trained to avoid, both on PGCE, with mentors and as an NQT. Everything was based around activities.

I know there are some who are uncomfortable with the teacher or the class getting on with a reading, rather than letting the students do it independently. I feel this myself, especially with older students who’s literacy and knowledge is better developed. However, at Year 7, the benefits outweigh any concerns I might have had. With students who have a reading age that is in single digits, being able to hear someone read to them is helpful, and in doing so I can anticipate the questions and provide explanations as I go along. It is efficient and inclusive. In my recent lesson on Becket, I did it differently with my top 2 classes – one I read to, one I had them do it independently. Both had to highlight the text as they read to identify examples of the Church challenging the power of the King. With the ‘independent’ class I simply had too many questions that I, frankly, had to go over the entire thing with them at the end any way. The only way to have avoided this would be to make the text less complex so they can handle it ‘independently’ without key explanations – and I get the feeling this is where literacy problems may have their origin.

One final point about this on the students: my lessons have more discussion than ever. I always thought I encouraged it before, but now, with a complex text and explanation as I go along, there are just loads of questions or comments to be had: students linking to previous lessons, some wanting to clarify what a word meant, asking how things link together, wondering why someone would wear a hair-shirt, and more and more and more. They are so inquisitive because they are being given knowledge and want to make sense of it.

This has been quite a long post so I will leave it here, but I do have more to add about year 7 and 8 and practice with writing, so there might be a (shorter) part 2 coming during the week.

Biting the Behaviour Bullet

It feels like there’s been about a hundred behaviour blogs over the last 3 weeks so here’s another. I’ll start this by saying I think I’m pretty good at managing behaviour, as far as an individual teacher can in the framework of a whole school. I manage my space, follow the policy, try to model the behaviours I want and deal appropriately, I think, with those students who are unwilling to follow. However it has to be said that this year has been the hardest in my short career for it, and this is mainly because I’ve been fortunate – I came from a school which, in its recent OFSTED report, had behaviour rated Outstanding and justifiably so. The school culture was terrific, the support from SLT was so strong and clear, that everything fell into place. But it took time to get there.

My current school is working to get there, and by all accounts progress has been made. Staff members who were there over recent years have told me about how things were a couple of years back and before, before improvements made after a trust takeover. Behaviour for the vast majority is very good, but not quite great and its a small number that are presenting the biggest challenge (as in any school), and while senior leaders and year heads and the relevant staff work on improving this, I recognise that my spall space could still improve too. Pretty good is, with some classes, still not quite good enough.

The impetus to do something about it came with the new term, and this blog by Tom Bennett. Nothing in it was new, but coming when it did seemed sensible. A chance to reset. A chance to refresh their minds about what was expected. The blog was also clearly and simply written – the key points, much like the excellent behaviour post by Tom Sherrington. Straight to the meat.

My focus is on Year 7. I teach every year 7 student and due to smaller class sizes, the sets I have etc, I don’t find my other groups need the reminder, but Year 7 being new and easy to fall into bad habits early, I felt that the new year was the time to bite the bullet and start doing things I’d seen other teachers do approvingly, but never myself. Starting with routines.

My old routine: line up outside the class, give a quick instruction, send them in to sit down, ask 2 to hand out the books, get them to write a date/title and complete a task. But this often meant students chatting, waiting for a book, dawdling, someone would try and move seat. It’s easy to lose time and in 55 minute lessons, the first 5-10 can quickly disappear without a trace.

New routine: line up outside the class, send them in to stand silently behind their chairs and take out their pencil case, equipment, etc. They then sit when I ask. Until this is done right, they keep practising – as we have done this week. Once sat down, the books are ready at the 4 tables at the end of each row. They take their book, and pass the pile along. Within 30 seconds everyone has their book. At the end of the lesson they are collected in the same way so each book is in order along the row, and I’ll pile them up with alternating spines so I can easily place them on the right row.

The response was positive this week. I put a bit of competition into it by writing on the board my timer for each class for handing out the books. They all wanted to be the quickest. I explained why it was happening, the need to get the small things right so the bigger things are easier to tackle, so there’s no time wasted, so we don’t fall behind anyone. To maximise their potential. This will take time to embed, and I will need to make sure I don’t fall out of bad habits myself, but I am hoping that once this becomes second nature, the start/end of lessons will save so much more time, meaning I’m teaching for 55 minutes, 45.

Secondly, on classroom behaviour itself. Our classes are set and behaviour gets progressively poorer as you go further down the chain, but all classes have something to work on, not least the chattiness and willingness to call out in the top 2 sets. By accepting this last term, I endorsed it. So I decided to go back to basics. I started it by following Tom’s advice and framing it in a positive light. I got all year 7 classes to imagine themselves in 2021, just 4 years away, when they are leaving school having completed their GCSE’s. What sort of person did they want to be? How did they picture themselves? What did they want to go on and do?

With these questions in mind, I asked them – what do you need to do to achieve this? And what do I need to do, as a teacher, to help you? I told them how much potential they had and their dreams of going to university, of being a (from my list) surgeon, palaeontologist, dress maker, engineer, journalist and so on, these dreams relied on them getting the chance to do well. And that chance only comes with a room I can teach in, and they can work in. So I emphasised the good behaviour I wanted to see, and the poor behaviour I didn’t, and said what was to be expected. For most classes, this is no change – but for the bottom 2 it will require repetition and persistence to really, really drill it. Especially for the bottom – this class is a source of difficulty throughout the school and needs some radical, consistent work done.

Lastly I told them that I wanted to be able to reward good behaviour more. I rarely give out merits (as I forget) and the students who cause no bother, who sit and quietly work and somehow ignore the storms that occasionally surround get no recognition. I wanted to rectify that. So with the bottom 2 groups I have added my own wrinkle to the behaviour policy. Everyone comes into the room with a merit – you can only lose it through poor behaviour. If you reach a final warning on our behaviour system, the merit is gone. I’ll also give out whole class merits for situations where I think they have been earned, and a new space is dedicated on the board for writing individual merits for students during lessons. At the end of each half-term, the 5 students who have gained the most will get a reward, and we will reset for the next half-term.

This had an almost instant impact on the bottom set, who never get them, and I had some of the most talkative and troublesome students sit behave excellently when they realised I was handing them out to others who were doing the same. When they saw what they could do to get them, they participated.

Again, this will take time. I need to make sure I don’t fall out of bad habits, and I need to really, really reinforce the positive and not accept any slip in standards. At the same time, I need the support from the school and buy-in from the students. I hope that by easter or the end of the year I can talk about improvements.

Teaching the Romans – Part 1

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One reason I was excited to join my new school in September was the way their KS3 history curriculum was being rebuilt. The school was moving from 1 lesson a week, for 2 years, to 2 lessons a week for 3. That sort of contact time for a humanities subject is getting more and more rare, and the chance to see Year 7, 8 and 9 students twice a week and give them access to a detailed curriculum was one that really motivated me. The chance to help design that curriculum, even more so.

Previously, Year 7 had begun with the Romans (once a skills unit was out of the way), and we decided to keep it. However as I was the only teacher who taught every year 7 class (2 of which were split), and since we had more contact time, it made sense for me to take more control over what a ‘redesigned’ Romans unit might include. I also had just read SPQR by Mary Beard and so was pretty enthusiastic about getting to work on it. With the unit coming to a close and the holidays coming up, I’m going to put together a couple of posts about what I aimed for, what we taught and whether or not it worked.

Firstly, the aims. I wanted the students to learn about specific concepts – Republic, Citizen, Dictator and Empire – not just for their importance in Roman history but for their links to future units we will study, such as the British Empire, French Revolution, rise of the Dictators, etc. My thinking had been prompted by others, especially Michael Fordham and Christine Counsell, who reference the ways that our knowledge of concepts and ideas is strengthened as we cover them in different contexts, over different time periods, etc.

With the concepts in mind, I focused on what is I suppose to most famous period in Roman history – the decline of the Republic and the establishment of the principate/empire. This period is so incredibly rich with individuals and events that I wanted them to share in it. A focus on this period introduced another concept to cover – tyranny. The main assessment that students would complete was titled ‘Were the Liberatores justified in assassinating Julius Caesar?’ This brought together the republic, the Roman idea of dictatorship and fear of tyranny, and following this question we would move onto Empire, exploring what one actually is, how it is different to a Republic, and a smaller assessment point would ask the question of whether or not Rome was already an Empire before 27BC. This would enable them to use the knowledge of the unit so far and apply it to a new concept.

With that rough plan, I began to think about what I needed to teach to make sure they could do it well. For example, they can’t explain what the Republic was and why some felt so strongly about it needing saving, unless they knew a little about the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and what replaced it. This helped them to understand the Roman fear of kings and why Caesar, wearing purple and minting his face on coins, would have made some uncomfortable. Similarly, Caesar being dictator for life and wanting to choose consuls himself makes little sense on its own, but understanding the role of Dictator more, through the story of Cincinnatus, helps to understand what an overreach this was. Finally, judging whether Caesar was destroying the Republic isn’t fair if he’s presented in isolation, and so the story of gradual change/decline has to be told, with a small focus on the impact of Marius and Sulla and their breaking down of Roman conventions. This gives a base of comparison for analysing Caesar.

So a plan came together, roughly along these lines:

  1. Romulus and Remus – introduction to Romans and foundation myth.
  2. Who were the Romans? The creation of the Republic and overthrow of the Kings, how the republic was structured, who the citizens were, senate, consuls, patricians, plebeians, etc.
  3. Why was the Roman Army so effective? Beneath the general points here of discipline, tactics, training etc., I wanted to establish two things: the growing power of generals and why soldiers would be loyal to them first, and Rome second (land gifts, shared wealth, etc); and the fact that Roman soldiers were supposed to stay out of Rome itself. This sets up…
  4. What can be learned from Roman Wars? Development of Rome from Cincinnatus, Samnite Wars, Punic Wars, Social War and Marius/Sulla. A certain amount of information on each (varying by class as we have sets), but to get across a narrative of Rome’s growth, and some key points: role of Dictator, destruction of competition, ruthlessness and start of Civil Wars. Sulla/Marius especially focused on with top 2 sets to give them context – soldiers marching on Rome (despite what they learned previously), Dictatorship changing (despite what they learned previously), growing power of generals, decline of Republic’s values, etc. By this point there’s lots of layers going on.
  5. Were the Liberatores justified in assassinating Julius Caesar? The story of Caesar, the events of 49BC to 44BC, the arguments for each side and an essay assessment.
  6. How did Rome become an Empire? Story of Octavian transforming into Augustus, what is an Empire and was Rome already and Empire before Augustus?

The numbers above aren’t lessons, but general topics/knowledge that I wanted to cover before I moved on. Point 5 for example, on Caesar, took 4 lessons to do. Point 2, about the Republic, took 1.

What I’ve Learned

Before I do a further post about what they learned and how they did on this redesigned unit, a little about what I learned in planning and teaching it. Firstly, about how important subject knowledge is. I’ve always known it, but it was hard to explain why. Being more knowledgeable about history seemed to be its own justification. Now I feel better able to articulate it. Simply, less knowledge = more genericism. I didn’t want the unit to wallow in the general, and I wanted it specifically to be more challenging and more content heavy than a Romans unit might include at primary school, even though it’s their first unit of Year 7. If I don’t know enough about the Republic, Cincinnatus, Sulla, Brutus and more, then I won’t teach it, and trying to get across those concepts – about Dictatorship and Tyranny and Citizenship and Empire – becomes much harder, or doesn’t happen at all.

Secondly, students have been very positive. The top 2 sets have soared, and while the arguments being made by the third are weaker, they are showing so much interest in class and able to argue about the merits of each argument with each other in a way that really encourages me. However it has to be said, for some it has been hard to access. It has been a challenging unit with lots of concepts and knowledge to retain. I’ve tried to lower the burden with constant reference to previous learning, showing where connections are, scaffolding and so on, but some – mainly the weakest set – have struggled. More needs to be done next year to ensure they are able to sink their teeth into it in the same way most did.

Finally, because of the focus I have set, there’s a lot which I haven’t covered. Again, this is partly a conscious decision to try and avoid things that might have come up at primary, but there’s a whiff of ‘great man’ history to the unit and we’re focusing on the narrative and the historic figures, leaving other voices unheard. We’ve not spent much time focusing on day to day life in Rome or Roman Britain, the impact of the Empire on its subjects, the decline of the Roman Empire, etc. There’s gaps, and that needs to be addressed when we move on to the Norman conquest, to show how the Romans fit into the big picture rather than leaving them like an island at the start.

With all this in mind, in the next post I’ll put up some examples of how the lessons were taught, how I tried to scaffold difficult concepts and ideas and how the students actually did at the written assessments. I was trying to help develop writing skills and I’m really not sure if I had any success at all on that. So that’s to come.

I don’t know anything

At the start of my second full year, I’m beginning to understand the quote Plato attributed to Socrates – ‘all I know is that I know nothing’. I feel hyper aware, each term of how much I still need to learn and despite my attempts to educate myself and improve, I still feel vastly uneducated about key parts of my job and how to do it well.

Specifically, I feel like I know nothing about assessment, at least assessment in history.

In my first PGCE placement school, assessments were roughly once every half-term, and could vary in style. There would be no specific preparation, except that the class was told that the piece of work they were about to start ‘would be levelled’ and so they had to do it in silence. One piece was a letter from the trenches, another was a very traditional essay on the Battle of Hastings. The levels were NC levels, with the usual rough guide of 3 = identifying things, 4 = describing, 5 = explaining, 6 = analyzing and 7 = evaluating.

I found marking these pretty hard because I was a student teacher and I was thorough, and I’d see an answer which had evaluation of factors (such as why William lost) but without much analysis. I didn’t really know what to do.

In my second PGCE placement school, assessments were more structured. Each assessment came with a cover sheet with a set of criteria for each level. The more you did, the more chance you’d get a 5a over a 5c, for example.  Students were given 2 class lessons to plan and begin and then they had to finish them at home. Our lessons were directed towards them and it all felt more structured and thought through.

Marking them was easier but that’s because of the cover sheets. Students knew that by including or attempting something in the level 5 bracket meant that was ticked off, and the more they did, the higher the level. Even if that thing wasn’t done well, we’d be encouraged to ‘tick it off’ because it helped show the sublevels of progress that were needed each and every time. When I gave some students lower levels than a previous assessment, the usual class teacher ‘moderated’ and remarked them to push them higher. None of it really felt.. real. It all felt artificial.

In my NQT year, assessments tended to be in self-contained lessons, rather than using knowledge based on the whole unit. The HoD believed that assessments/history in general was about the development of skills, and so an assessment on the Spanish Armada was done with 1 lesson on it, based on source analysis skills, etc. NC levels were still applied.

Assessments were done slightly differently too – they tended to be 3 or 4 smaller questions than, say, one long essay. There was a focus on source analysis. It felt like the old SHP source paper where you ‘didn’t need any prior knowledge’ to do it – your assessment was all in the sources in front of you.

In my new school, NC levels are being phased out with only Y9 using them and Y7 and Y8 bringing in a ‘mastery’ assessment style. This has led to a lot of different abstract criteria based on second-order concepts, and using evidence, etc. Over the course of KS3 students should be able to tick off each of the criteria to show ‘mastery’. I don’t know what this shows mastery of. Assessments are more frequent and are geared to ticking off a couple of these criteria each time, which means they aren’t directly comparable, as one might be focusing on a ‘diversity’ criteria with some ‘change and continuity’ (e.g, Romans) and another might be looking at part of ‘significance’ with elements of ‘cause’. This is a problem history has always had but now its been atomized so there’s 7 skill-based concepts, each with a bunch of criteria.

My understanding of mastery was that it was knowledge/content based, not skill based. It’s also been given sub-categories of ‘emerging’ and ‘developing’, so each lesson has its own mastery criteria, just like any lesson objectives, and therefore each lesson has an E, D and M criteria. Which sounds to me like a rebranding of all, most, some.

My confusion mainly comes from the fact that I’ve seen different assessment styles in different schools and no one really knows which one is best. Or what they are really assessing, or how they know they’ve done it, or how they know it’ll be remembered later in the year, or things like that.

I honestly don’t know, of the four examples I’ve described, which school did assessment best. I am at least glad that my new school is not focusing on NC levels but I’m not convinced that mastery, as I thought I knew it, is the mastery that is being implemented. We want a knowledge based curriculum, but we’re assessing skills. Questions to me that seem important – what do they know, how do you know they know it, how do you plan for them to remember it, how does the curriculum fit together and sequence – are not really addressed.

Its worth noting that the KS3 curriculum is being rebuilt – there’s much more contact time and this means a lot of things are being planned as we go along, and a change in school management within the last couple of years means we’ve inherited staff and some units/things from the old lot which, perhaps, haven’t been addressed.

But basically I feel like I don’t know anything about assessment other than ‘I want them to remember what I teach them’ and am planning lessons accordingly, and sort-of assuming the official ‘mastery assessments’ every half term do something else.

Beauty in Ordinary Things

On Thursday I went to Hadrian’s Wall with 32 year 7 and 8’s, three members of staff and a lot of caffeine. This was the first overnight school trip I’ve taken part in as a teacher and our itinerary included drilling the students into the Roman Army at Housesteads Roman Fort; a trip to Vindolanda, a working archaeological dig just a short way behind the wall and location of a Roman settlement; a trip to Beamish, an open-air museum documenting life during the 1800’s and early 1900’s; a trip to Metrocentre to allow them to do a bit of shopping, and finally a tour of St James’ Park in Newcastle before we came home. Our residence was an English Heritage country house built next to a Roman Fort, right on the wall.

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You can see a couple of the students walking along the old fort walls on the left. The surroundings were spectacular, and it was the sort of experience that a few kids from the rural coast wouldn’t ordinarily have. The chance to move around 2000 year old ruins, to visit an archaeological site, to move amongst the bones of Roman citizens, to go down a coal mine and breathe the air – these things stick.

On the trip I had the chance to talk to students and find out more about them, beyond their school life. The different backgrounds and expectations of what awaited gave us a truly diverse group – boys who wanted to shop in metrocentre, girls who wanted to swordfight in the Roman ruins, kids who had no idea what to expect and despite the frequent showers, powered through with enthusiasm and no little awe.

For me, I was exhausted. Early starts, late nights, trying to get 32 students to shut up and sleep, managing injuries, timings, meals, bus trips – it’s all encompassing. At no point can you switch off, and I didn’t have the worst of it – that honour goes to the trip organiser who was permanently on edge. Going away with other people’s kids will do that.

What stuck with me was just the little snapshots of life on the verge of teenager-dom. Some 11 year olds bouncing around the Roman fort, waving wooden swords and letting their imaginations do the rest. A girl wondering whether to spend the last of her money on a present for her mum, or make-up. She chose her mum. An incredibly bright and sweet year seven girl, and Muslim, who panicked on one coach trip because she forgot to pray that morning. A year eight noticing a student had come on the trip despite none of her friends coming and acting like a big sister for four days. A boys room engaging in a farting competition after light-out and trying not to laugh so much that we would find out, unaware that we were in the corridor trying not to laugh hard enough that they would find out. Flashes of generosity and kindness and humour.

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Frontier life for the new recruits

Our return was delayed, much to the frustration of parents, and I finally made it home by half-nine on Sunday night. Ten hours later I was back in school and running on fumes, and the students on the trip dragged themselves in, bleary eyed. I have just three weeks left at school, a school I have found difficult to fit in at times, but a school I will sorely miss due to my rapport and relationships with these students. This was no more clear than when I saw my Year 10 historians after break.

They have been particularly vocal about my departure – less than complimentary about the school I am going to, ribbing me about leaving them, and generally being sweet. They are a fantastic class – eager to do well, bright and teachable. I didn’t always find them this way – the first half-term was hard. The class has 6 or 7 vocal boys who are all friends, and it took me a few weeks to get the dynamic right, and to recognise the fact there was no trouble in there. Just teenagers. Fun, sometimes gormless, occasionally moody but generally happy and wanting to enjoy themselves. When things settled, they flew, and they are a class I will sorely miss when I leave.

When I entered the class they all started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and replaced Birthday with the name of my new school. They gave me a card, signed by all, and 3 gifts. A Norwich City mug with my name on, as they know I’m a big fan. A little portable fan, because I spend most of my lesson in our hot classroom stood by a big fan. And a new tie, because they give me stick about the ones I wear, which are apparently too floral, and don’t match. It was incredibly kind and completely took me aback, not least because we still have three more lessons, but they wanted to give me the things early as one of them was going to miss our final lessons and didn’t want to miss out.

I have to admit to needing to compose myself before speaking, and the lesson never quite got to where it should, but frankly, who cares. It was a kind gesture and I was happy to let them derail a lesson because they have worked their butts off for me this year.

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The aftermath of a monsoon – during which students carried on outside regardless. 

After getting into school at half 7, the morning after a four day trip to the north, we stayed around this evening to watch the school summer concert. I have watched every musical event this year and this was to be my last as a member of staff at the school. I have always enjoyed them – I like to see the extra things that my students do, be it sport or music or art. I like to see the whole of them – not just the person who sits in my class, then has to leave to go to a flute lesson. It gives me a chance to meet parents and congratulate them for their performances. For me, getting to know many students outside of the classroom has led to the rapport that I value so much inside the classroom.

And there is just something a bit special about it. Parents do their part, sitting through each students little section, waiting for the moment their own son or daughter goes up and the whole 2 hours is suddenly worth it. And I see it a little differently. With no children up there, I remember what they’re like in class. The student who has terrible literacy but has a place in the keyboard ensemble and can play like everyone else. The boy who never makes a fuss and never gets much attention but can play three instruments and is vital to a range of groups. The girl who finds academic work easy but struggles to do music and just wants to show her parents how far she’s come.

These events give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. Parents seeing their children on stage, showing off their talents and their hard work, each with hopes and dreams and ideas of what they want to do in the future, each with possibility. Tonight, after four days on a trip with students, and the kindness shown by my Year 10’s during the day, that feeling was especially warm, and during our singers’ performance of Amazing Grace it especially hit me. It is bittersweet to leave such a place. But what I’ve found in my brief teaching experience so far is the kids are great everywhere. They’re funny and kind and maddening and generous and inquisitive and hopeful and not cynical. Why on earth would you ever want to work with anyone else?

Improving on my NQT year

It’s really quite alarming to find I’m only 7 weeks away from the end of my first full year as a teacher. It’s been tough and tiring, but my overwhelming feeling is one of success. I’m not quite at the finish line – I have another observation, my final one of the year, and my NQT report and sign-off meeting has to be done. At that point I’ll be fully qualified. With that in mind, I find it eye-opening to sit and thinking how much I’ve already changed since the start of the PGCE back in September 2014.

And while I think I am still improving, and I know I am better than I was in September, I still feel daunted by the total tonnage of what I don’t know. The experiences I’m yet to have. Life without the PGCE/NQT safety net, performance management, OFSTED, exam results, targets and so on. The professional life which has yet to really begin while I remain cocooned in this… gestation.

My thoughts have turned to next year, and what I need to do to improve. Reflecting on how things have gone, considering lessons, marking books and so on, I need to improve:

  • Routines. As a naturally relaxed person, I unwittingly allowed an overly relaxed demeanour to influence the start of my lessons. The first few minutes are a general hubbub and while I hold a strong rapport with my classes and classroom management is no concern, it’s still lost time. What makes me want to focus on it is the fact that my new school has 55 minute lessons – losing the start of every single one will have an impact.
  • Teaching for memory. My head of department and NQT mentor has said to me this year that I needn’t worry about what they remember ‘the first time around’. Everyone forgets things, just get the basics in and the rest can be topped up by revision. The more the year has gone on, the more I dislike this sentiment, and I’m convinced of the need to go slower but embed properly as we go along. The more I’ve read from people like David Didau, Willingham, Make it Stick, Heather Fearn, Lee Donaghy etc., the more I am convinced that I’m not alone – plenty of teachers out there are making it stick, for the most part, the first time around.
  • Modelling. I’ve done more and more of this as the year has gone on and, especially with Y7 and Y8, I am noticing benefits. The modelling chapter from the brilliant Making Every Lesson Count book by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby should be on every training course going, and has given me impetus to model in more constructive ways. The idea of shared construction of a piece of writing is one I haven’t yet done, nor have I yet written out answers and explained my thinking and development as I go along so they can see what ‘experts’ do and learn from it. I have used model answers, good and bad, got them to analyse and explain and improve and apply to their own etc.,  and I am seeing the benefit, but in this area I think I can improve more, and that it can have a big impact on literacy and extended writing.

Those are my 3 focus areas, I think. Next year will be a challenge on its own – new school, shorter lessons, teaching to 2 different GCSE specs and being responsible now for my own Y11 class, and all that comes with it. Hopefully by developing those particular areas, the benefits will be clearly seen.