Paper planes

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I don’t know a lot about the increasingly popular ‘no excuses’ rhetoric that is pervading the edu-landscape at the moment. I am sure it doesn’t mean that we just expect children to behave impeccably – no matter what – just because they happen to be on our side of the school gates. I’m sure it doesn’t mean that, should a child behave poorly, they are immediately disciplined with the underlying message being that they should simply understand how to behave better especially now they’ve just been caught out. I’m also sure it doesn’t mean that the longer a teacher has their high expectations in place, the less they feel they must work at ensuring their pupils reach that standard.

I’m sure a ‘no excuses’ culture does not mean any of that, when it’s done properly. I can’t help feeling though, that some people think that’s what it means. I can’t help feeling that there may be some teachers who perceive themselves to be great teachers simply because they have high standards of behaviour. As if having high standards is a silver bullet that shoots out perfectly formed and well behaved children without the teacher having to do anything.

In my experience this has always been the folly of student teachers or NQTs. They get very agitated talking about the children that ‘just won’t’ behave. I’m sure we’ve all had that awkward conversation with students or inexperienced teachers where we’ve had to remind them that they’re the teacher and getting children to behave is, kind of, their job.

I personally have very high standards of behaviour. I did when I was a teacher too. It was exhausting! Sometimes I used to wish that my expectations were lower just so I wouldn’t have to work so hard. I was always slightly envious of those colleagues (and I’ve only met a few) who would moan about the behaviour in their class but who never seemed concerned enough to do anything about it. They must have had it so easy! Instead, there I was, anticipating when, in my next lesson, certain children would find a way to misbehave and trying to work out how I could make sure they didn’t.

As a Head, I have never used the expression ‘no excuses’ to describe an approach to behaviour management. It sounds too ripe for accountability avoidance for my liking. I like high standards. I’m happy to support, and back up, staff when a child has misbehaved. But I must fundamentally believe that they did everything they could to prevent the misbehaviour from happening to do so. I am very sceptical of teachers bringing me a child who has misbehaved ‘repeatedly’ during a lesson or who has completed ‘next to no work at all. I want to ask them: ‘At what point did you step in and try to change it?’ I don’t want to find out that the teacher’s solution to the poor behaviour is simply telling the child to buck up their ideas. I want to hear about how the teacher put something in place to help the child improve?

I want to hear about paper planes.

Paper planes are things I expect every teacher to put in place every day. They should underpin every activity, lesson, visit, event that occurs in the classroom. It’s very simple:

  • Plan
  • Anticipate
  • Provide
  • Evaluate
  • Repeat

In summary, whatever it is you have planned, anticipate who, in your class, you would put money on struggling with it (behaviour wise) and put in place something that will enable them to get through it without falling foul of a telling off. Afterwards, decide if you could realistically put that in place next time and if you think that you could, do so.

This isn’t about lowering your standards for key pupils. This approach isn’t about mollycoddling naughty kids. It allows them to meet your expectations. And, when you think about it, that’s the whole point of the teacher. We think nothing of differentiating work before a lesson, so, why shouldn’t we differentiate for behaviour. I always think about how I used to take my class swimming. I knew which children to sit next to on the coach, who to send into the changing rooms first, which children needed to get out the pool five minutes before everyone else, and of course, the golden rule to ensure we never missed the coach home: no talking until your socks are on. With all this in place, every child – even the boy who got banned from the swimming pool the year previously – could go swimming every week without earning a detention in the process.

Planning Little Actions Normalize Expectations.

A good teacher builds these paper planes to make sure children behave. A lesser teacher sits back and allows children to fall below the required standard, believing themselves to have been carrying out their job description just through having an expectation that they wanted to be met. An effective teacher builds equity into their behaviour management and has, in storage, different paper planes for different situations. Less effective teachers believe that if a child can behave during quiet reading, they will automatically be able to behave during DT. They are outraged that glue guns, saws and screwdrivers often prompts behaviour that requires a little more effort on their part to keep things moving along without incident, fuss or conflict. A decent teacher understands that behaviour management is a part of the job that never stops. A poorer teacher believes that children should just know how to behave, all of the time, and if they don’t it’s their fault rather than their own.

I don’t know about ‘no excuses’. All I know is that, in my experiences, the best teachers develop a 360° awareness of their class’s needs and are therefore able to manage them effectively. Over time, fewer paper planes are needed because the children, not only know what is expected of them, but also know what these expectations feel like. In the end, there is no need for excuses. Not because your pupils are perfect but because teachers and children are both working hard to make the expectations a reality.

Sometimes the paper planes crash and the child misbehaves. When that happens, deal with the fallout and, remembering that you’re the teacher, build another one.

The Thinker

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As I lay in bed wondering if I would ever walk again – having been cruelly crippled by chronic back pain and reduced to a whimpering husk of a man, desperately trying to cease all bodily movement until the time inevitably came to shuffle over to the side of the bed and wee into a bucket – it seemed an appropriate time to consider the changes I would have to make in my potential new life as a, now bedridden, beacon of education.

The harsh reality seemed clear to me: I was never going to be able to stand up, let alone walk, again. How would I continue? Would I have to face-time my assemblies and staff meetings? Would I have to employ my own special Hodor to carry me upon his back as I went about the school observing lessons? Did I now have a legitimate excuse to miss governor meetings? More importantly, could I, considering the school’s financial position, buy a new wee-bucket on the school’s credit card?

The saving grace was that I could still access Twitter. By propping myself up on a mountain of pillows, and using my copy of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ as an arm rest, I could just about hold up my phone and swipe through my timeline. All was not lost.

And so, in agony, I purveyed the Twitter landscape. I stumbled across a blog entitled ‘Nobody’s actually against knowledge are they?’ by a little known blogger called @oldandrewuk. In it, the writer discusses the debate in education around traditionalism vs progressivism. Specifically, he considers how some progressive folk are denying that there is even a debate going on anymore. Some Progressives are coming out and saying that they too are in favour of teaching knowledge and they’re now wondering what these Traditionalists are getting so hot and bothered about.

This, to many Traditionalists, is bloody annoying. You see, the argument between Traditionalists and Progressives used to be so simple: traditional teaching = teach knowledge; progressive teaching = teach skills. Now it’s all being muddied with Progressives backtracking on all this ‘skills’ stuff and claiming that they don’t have a problem with knowledge. But, according to the writer, they can’t really be in favour of knowledge if they are against testing it, or, teaching an awful lot of it. If you’re against testing the amount of knowledge a kid has in their brainbox, or, want them to solve imaginative problems that will make them use and strengthen their understanding of the knowledge, then, you’re nothing more than a Progressive in a Traditionalist’s tunic.

I suddenly began to feel queasy. It wasn’t the fact that I’d taken ibuprofen on an empty stomach or that I’d lost sight of the wee bucket. It also wasn’t because I disagreed with the blog. It was because I was questioning my own mind. I thought I’d always maintained a nuanced balance regarding what I considered to be important in education. A subtle blend of the traditional and the progressive. But was I kidding myself? Had I, in fact, changed my stance and become more traditional? And if so, why was that? Had I seen the light? Or had I simply conformed, been beaten down by the curriculum, the tests, the tedious battles on Twitter between the two armies that tend to, in my opinion, be won by the Traditionalists only because they have the energy to keep on going when everyone else has gone to bed?

When confronted with change in physical form, as I was now (would I ever walk again?), I could consciously adjust my thinking (forget my holiday to climb Everest, I need to save up for a Stanner Stair Lift). But when ideological and educational reforms surround me, am I unable to consciously adapt? Or do they warp my thinking until I have convinced myself that not only was I right before, but I am also right now?

There was only one way to find out. I had delve into the deepest darkest depths of my mind. I closed my eyes and began to recite an old Tibetan chant that would bring about a zen like state and allow me to transcend my own consciousness. Then I realised that not only was I not The Ancient One but it would also probably be easier just to re-read some of my oldest blogs.

It took some time (my word I’ve written a lot of drivel) but eventually I found something I’d written in 2013. In a blog entitled ‘Goodbye Mr Chips, Hello Mr Squeers’ I gave my opinion on this ‘new’ curriculum of ours. I didn’t appear to be a massive fan:

This, as I see it is the biggest disappointment of the national curriculum: it’s just a list [of facts] that he [Gove] wants children to know… This expectation for mass content knowledge coupled with a lack of thought on curriculum skills may, I fear, mean that topics as I know and love them will disappear.

So, I thought to myself, I was a massive Progressive after all! I was exactly the sort of person Traditionalists in 2013 loathed. I even dared to raise the idea that you could get children to learn about historical events, personalities, bias, politics, and culture through art rather than by memorising facts. I can only imagine how I survived the inevitable onslaught of derision that this post must have garnered on Twitter as I appear to have blocked it from my memory completely.

Near the end of the blog however I start talking about pub carparks. I couldn’t quite grasp why until I remembered that this was written at about the time that Richard III was found buried underneath one. My main objection to the new curriculum, at the time, was that although knowledge is great, too much emphasis on ‘facts’ result in a weak level of understanding. Simple recall, without any application, evaluation or opinion, does not a learned person make. If all we do is teach single-subject facts, we will produce nothing more than a nation of expert pub-quizzers; learners able to demonstrate a veneer of knowledge at the drop of a hat but without the deeper understanding of why what they know is important.

I still believe this. But I am glad to say that my prediction was wrong. We are not producing ‘knowledgeable but ultimately useless eggheads’. And this is not because either the Progressives or Traditionalists have won the great educational debate. It is also not because I have changed my stance or because I believe in knowledge without testing. Testing is fine. Just don’t tell me that a perfect SPAG score means you’re an effective writer, or that because you can name all the Tudor monarchs you’re a historian, because that’s just silly. Instead, I think the biggest impact on children developing a deeper understanding of the knowledge they are learning is because of life beyond levels. As I said in May 2016, in a post called ‘Metamorphosis’.

We are no longer teaching a ‘progress’ curriculum; we are teaching a ‘knowledge’ curriculum. I like the move away from vertical progress. I think the opportunity to play around with the highest level of knowledge you currently have – challenging it, stretching it, strengthening your understanding of it – is rather liberating.

You can’t gain masses of knowledge without some traditional teaching methods. However, you can’t strengthen your understanding of said knowledge if you are not free to explore and try it out before you are tested on it. Schools are now free to do this in a variety of cross-curricular, imaginative and progressive ways because we have been freed from the shackles of vertical assessments. The 2016 SATs may have been a shambles, and the standards may have been ridiculously heightened but, so what? Continue to teach a well thought out and challenging curriculum effectively and most pupils have a chance of getting there by the end of key stage 2.

It was therefore with a sigh of relief that I closed my eyes and smiled at the realisation that I had not changed. I had evolved my thinking but, deep down, I was still as subtle an educator as I ever was. I realise that may make me twice as irritating to twice as many people, but hey, it’s only Twitter.

With that, I heaved my legs over the side of the bed, grabbed a walking stick and pushed myself up to a standing position. Bellowing a great howl as I straightened my back, and putting one foot in front of the other, I elegantly hobbled to the toilet. Because some things are not meant for the wee bucket.

The tigers who came to tea

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I’m sure you all know the story about ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’. A family are perfectly happy, going about their day, when a tiger rocks up to the front door and starts behaving in a way that, quite frankly, beggars belief. He wanders around their house as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. The sheer brass of the giant feline causes the family to accept his demands without question. He wants a drink. They make him a cup of tea. But that isn’t good enough for the tiger. He has slightly higher expectations. So, they let him drink the entire contents of the teapot. But even that hasn’t quenched the beast’s thirst. This is only achieved after he has drained all the water from the taps. And the family, who now have no means to hydrate themselves, keep clean or maintain any decent levels of sanitation, don’t question it. They don’t protest. They just let the tiger behave in this way because, well, he’s a tiger, isn’t he? A big, loud, confident tiger. Victims of the tiger’s gall, the family continue to cater for his every whim. He eats their dinner, their food in the fridge and all the tins and packets of food in their kitchen cupboards. And all the time he has a look on his face that suggests this is all quite normal, and, hadn’t the silly family realised what it took to entertain a tiger properly? And then, he leaves. You would think the family would now report this gross invasion into their world to the authorities, or, at least take some preventative measures to safeguard against it happening again the future. But no. They are, apparently, enthralled by the tiger and his incredibly high standards of entertaining. To the extent that they buy in some special tiger food in case he pops around again! It is an unbelievable story and one that never fails to shock me no matter how many times I read it.

I read another book recently. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’. It tells the story of a group of teaching tigers who have opened a school. The story is written by many of the tigers who teach at the school and they each have much to say about how they teach and run their school. It runs on similar lines to the children’s story mentioned earlier, insofar as these tiger teachers have higher expectations than everyone else. They are the tap drainers to our tea drinkers. If you expect your children to walk quietly into assembly, they expect silence. If you run a residential trip, they run a boot-camp. If you have high expectations of behaviour, they have no excuses. If you have happy children, theirs are happier. It’s like reading a story written by that friend who must always go one better: you know, you’ve got a headache, they’ve got a tumour, that sort of thing.

The way in which their storybook presents their approaches to education is incredible. I found myself drawn to paragraphs where, after whatever it is they’re writing about (homework, marking, kindness, behaviour, lunch), they write about how this makes their school so special. Paragraphs that begin:

‘One of the things that may strike you when visiting Michaela is how happy the children are.’

‘At Michaela, we highly value adult authority and children’s politeness and respect.’

‘Our mantra is ‘work hard, be kind’’.

It was during these passages that I kept thinking back to the ending of the ‘The tiger who came to tea’. The bit where the family buy a tin of tiger food. These guys think they’re feeding their kids tiger food whilst the rest of us are spoon feeding our pupils ‘whiskers’. They seem unable to grasp the notion that – and forgive the expression Team Michaela – there is more than one way to skin a tiger. These tiger teachers really believe that they are special. I mean, I know we all think our schools are special. But these cats really believe that they are more special!

And I’m not sure why, when, so much of what they’re actually doing is pretty unremarkable. I hate to break it to you, tigers, but a lot of the ‘Michaela Way’ is just a normal way to run a school. That’s not to say that, in my opinion, you seem to lack a level of operational subtlety that I personally feel is vital for running such a complex organisation as a school. I also find the ‘top of the pyramid’ drills a little over zealous for my tastes but, hey, I’m not your target reader am I? Who is I wonder? Is this book’s publication part of your recruitment drive? Is it a ‘Michaela Way’ SEF? Or is it a fairy tale that you can read to yourself at bedtime to help you forget about all the anti-Michaela tweets out there?

Whatever the motive, you’ve written a bold and passionate story about your school. And, do you know what? Loving yourself is not a crime. Being excited about where you work is great. Believing you’re doing good, and making a difference to the world, is what helps get us all out of bed in the morning. But guys, seriously, couldn’t you have kept it to yourself for a bit? Saved it all for your newsletter? Uploaded it onto a blog? Did you really need to write a book about it? Don’t get me wrong,  your school may be fabulous. You may be proved completely right. But not yet. What you’ve done is, you’ve written a gospel when it should have been the first part of a case study.

In writing your book you’ve invited yourself around for tea, presuming that we will gladly give up all our food and drink for you, just because you’ve told us that you are tigers. You have declared superiority through your evangelical self-righteousness and you expect us all to listen and take heed. You can’t see that you are, in fact, sucking on an empty tap as we observe you from a distance, drinking our tea, waiting to see if you’ll make it to breakfast.

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