Cruelty, thy name is blog.

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I write this a wounded man. There I was, going about my twittering day, trying to add my voice to the collective grunt of agony for a blog about injuries sustained whilst teaching. Having submitted my tale, I awaited in anticipation for the forthcoming anthology of professional ouch.

Finally, the moment arrived. Like an over-excited teenager, flicking through the pages of smash-hits to see if their letter about ‘It’s a sin’ sounding a bit like ‘Wild World’ was going to be the star letter of the week, I quickly scanned through this blog, only to find that my injury…Didn’t. Make. The. Cut.

I swiped back to the top. There must be a reason for this. This blogger had said that they had ignored responses relating to damaged pride, credibility or dreams. They excluded mental health injuries and paper cuts. Well, dear readers, my injury was no papercut! Then, this blogger says that he had researched the more suspicious ones.

Was that it?

Was my tale so outlandish that it beggared belief?

I began to put myself in the mind of the blogger: what lengths would he go to, to satisfy his cynicism? I immediately contacted Mother. Had she received any phone calls from strange gentlemen enquiring about my knees? She had not. I tracked down my old Head, the very man who had covered me in ice-packs to curb the swelling whilst drying my tears with his tie. Had anyone asked him to write a confirmation email confirming my tale? He seemed not to remember anything about my injury and, in fact, demanded to know who I was and how I had got his number, before swearing that BT’s suspicious call blocker service being on the bloody blink again and slamming the phone down.

A setback but not a defeat. As I continued to connect with this blogger’s mindset – like an educational warg – I concluded that, even if he had met such a stumbling block as my forgetful, and potty-mouthed, ex-head, he would not give up. A true traditionalist, he would demand more evidence. So, I contacted my GP to see if anyone had requested my files. They had not. I tried to find the surgeon who had operated on me, but, after conducting a 36-hour stakeout in the hospital parking lot, I was told by a carpark attendant – who was as verbally aggressive as he was certain about the rules of hospital parking – that I would have to leave or face a proper clamping. I left.

Maybe this blogger, whose pedantry for particulars makes the Geneva Convention look like a half-written rulebook for Risk, would look further afield. I got in touch with both my physio and osteopath to see if anyone had been snooping around enquiring about the stretchability of my left knee and my ever-strengthening core.  They shook their heads, helped me squeeze into my spandex shorts and asked if they could give me the phone number of someone who I could, you know, just talk to, if I felt ready.

I was left with only one further option. I had to contact the teacher who had lured me away from my classroom, on that fateful day, and put me in the sphere of danger. We hadn’t spoken for years. She, because of the guilt that haunted her like a demonic IQ evangelist who just won’t quit. Me, because I had moved school and am appalling at keeping in touch. I asked someone who used ‘face book’ to find her, and within moments I was on my way to a ‘star bucks’ to meet, latte, biscotti and chat. She was delighted to see me and asked me many questions about my success. I only had one question. I was a bit disappointed with her reply. Not because it confirmed my worst fear: that this blogger, this biographer of pain, hadn’t been in touch with her at all, but because when recalling the incident, she was cruel, belittling and, in her description of my response to what happened at the time, anything but gender-neutral.

In conclusion, my research suggested that the blogging man had not investigated my tale at all.

This is, and I am not exaggerating, an absolute bleeding travesty.

Don’t fret for me, readers. It is you I feel sorry for. There you were, half-heartedly scrolling down the blog wondering if there was anything of interest to share at the next health and safety briefing, and without knowing it, you were denied a tale that would have quite possibly revolutionised your risk assessment for slightly tall humans sitting in little chairs.

I am not sure one can forgive after this. I believe an apology would be apt. I think I am, nay, we are, owed one. And, I would expect it to be complemented by a sincere explanation for my exclusion. Maybe one day I will face my demons and commit to writing down the horror, in excessive detail, for you. But for now, I will leave you with these bit of advice:

Don’t sit on a small chair and/or try to squish your knees under a miniature table.

May some good come from this.

Appraise your appraisal

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Like the daytime schedule on BBC2, there are some topics on Twitter that are as predictable in occurrence as an episode of Cash in the Attic. And, just as you don’t need to check the Radio Times to know that at half-ten this morning there will be another set of pensioners failing to fund that holiday in Crete by selling some old tut they’ve just rescued from their loft, you need never refresh your Twitter feed to see if we’re all still bickering about behaviour, progressives, traditionalists, Ofsted, the ethical implications of subtweeting or the statistical significance of a Twitter poll. The answer to all the above is: of course we are.

One topic however, resurfaces on an annual basis: staff appraisals. These threads are less Cash in the Attic and more Celebrity Masterchef.  It only happens once a year and each year you try to make it bigger and more effective with the promise that everyone will be ‘better’ by the end of it.

The question Headteachers, and presumably Gregg Wallace, always want to know however, is how to improve upon last year’s format so that you don’t have to repeatedly taste burnt risottos?

Actually, this is where the Celebrity Masterchef analogy probably ends. Why? Because Headteachers really don’t want to taste the educational equivalent of burnt risotto, and, the aim of appraisal is to try to get everyone through it and not have teachers crashing and burning (pardon the pun, Gregg, unless we’re talking home economics?) throughout the year until the school is left with only one teacher. That would not be a good appraisal system. In fact, appraisal is almost the complete opposite of Celebrity Masterchef. Setting up ridiculous challenges (teachers, you’ve got thirty minutes to plan a three part assembly to present to 900 kids and the four most highly regarded headteachers in the country…Go!) that will result in at least one person failing is not effective performance management. Although it might make good telly. No, forget Celebrity Masterchef. I only thought of it so I could use the phrase ‘don’t over-egg the pudding’ later on.
But, Heads are always interested in revamping their appraisal formats. Each year, the desperate plea goes out on Twitter: ‘please share your performance management arrangements, because I got nothing!’

I go through the same managerial crisis every year. I think back to the previous year, when I was so cocksure that my new system was going to revolutionise teachers’ professional development. Only to find that by Easter, nobody could remember where they saved their bloody targets let alone remember what they were.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled with getting teachers to set all the targets, you know, so they have ownership. I’ve tried setting all the targets myself, you know, so I have ownership, plus, the teachers last year complained that them having ownership was too stressful. I’ve set up multiple mid-year review processes that unanimously fail to happen, resulting in an inevitable July panic. I’ve tried giving four targets, two targets, how ever many you want targets, shared targets…these all seemed like good ideas at the time. I’ve given data targets. I’ve purposefully not given data targets. I’ve spent approximately 50 hours of my life explaining to governors why targets based on data are a necessity, followed by a further 103 hours telling them that they are now ‘not’ a good idea. I’ve linked target achievement to pay. I’ve graduated people’s targets linked to their position on the main pay scale. And, one year, I forgot to set any targets at all and just told everyone that Sean Harford had tweeted that this was a good idea.

In short, there ain’t nothing I don’t know about how to make appraisal not work.

True to form, this year, I’ve got it cracked. But, rather than bore you with the actual format, allow me to share with you my simple 5 rules (plus one) that inform my appraisal process.

Rule Number 0 – performance isn’t static.

There is nothing more depressing than setting appraisal targets for a teacher who does not believe they have anything to learn. There is nothing more dangerous than a school culture where teachers are wary of development as they fear it will be used as evidence against them. The appraisal process must be honest and open and, for that to happen, everyone within the organisation must understand that levels of performance are not static. Teachers don’t become ‘good’ and then ‘bad’ and then ‘good’ and then’ bad’. But teachers can change just as the class in front of them changes each year. Each change brings a challenge and some are harder to overcome than others. Leaders must not create a culture where a teacher is scared to admit they are struggling in case they stop being ‘judged’ as good. It is the purpose of the appraisal process to embrace contextual changes and adapt a teacher’s performance management based on the needs that they face right now. Teachers must be open to development and leaders must be ready to support. Everyone should be excited at the prospect that by the end of the year they will be in a stronger position than they were in September.

Rule Number 1 – link it with achievement.

I know, I know! This isn’t the done thing anymore and please don’t tell Jim Pembroke. But, I, personally, don’t think it’s a bad idea to focus teachers’ minds on getting as many children as possible ‘on track’ by the end of the year. I don’t care about measuring progress measures. (Total waste of time and, let’s face it: fiction.) I care about teachers making children even more on track and ready for their next year ahead. So, we look at where the children are and we look at their potential for the end of the year and set a target. The target will be aspirational. But only because I follow rule number 2…

Rule Number 2– it’s about professional dialogue.

I like talking to teachers. I enjoy watching them work and helping them. I want teachers to talk to me about their struggles and challenges. So, when we’ve set an aspirational target for a pupil and it’s not going well, despite the teacher’s best efforts, I like to know. Obviously, I like to know when it is working too and I learn a great deal from teachers who are having a positive impact on their pupils. For me, the decision regarding whether a teacher has met their achievement target is not about statistical success but about teachers’ professionalism in, and around, their successes and failures. If they tried everything to support a child and we’ve both reviewed the evidence, and, we have some insight for the next teacher so that they might succeed better next year….then I say that teacher has done a fine job. The success is not measured through cold data but through the quality of the professional dialogue that surround it.

Rule Number 3 – keep it real.

I always have a teaching target. And, the teaching target is pretty basic. Something along the lines of: teach brilliantly. The key to the teaching target’s success is in the tactics you ask the teacher to deploy in order to strengthen their practice. This will be informed by lesson observations, work monitoring, professional dialogue, etc. I’ll never ask a teacher to ‘do something’ that isn’t an organic part of their development. The beauty of this is that these tactics can get added to throughout the year. A great teacher may have, by the end of the year, worked on multiple tactics, way more than are captured during the first appraisal meeting. By the end of the year they will have robust evidence to show how the tactics impacted upon pupil achievement. If they don’t, or they can’t, then, well, that will be picked up by rule number 4.

Rule Number 4 – leaders have responsibilities too.
I fundamentally believe that it is the job of school leaders to identify if a teacher is in danger of not fulfilling their appraisal targets. And, if so, they have a duty to swoop in and support. It is not good enough for a teacher to carry on their year not knowing that in July I’ll be telling them they haven’t ‘passed’ their appraisal. They should know in advance and be supported so that that conversation never happens. If a teacher fails their appraisal then it may be that they were failed by their leaders.

Rule Number 5 – make sure leaders know about rule number 4.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it. But make sure it forms part of leaders’ appraisal. They have to know that it is expected of them to not only monitor but also support. Everything they do must be centred around the belief that they are improving teaching. Any monitoring must be about focusing on impact – and not just checking that systems are in place –  so that teaching across the school is truly strengthened.

And that’s it.

Simple. Streamlined. Reflective of the school’s needs and capturing where teachers naturally are in their own professional development. The phrase you want to hear most of all, at the end of the first appraisal meeting, is ‘that actually reflects what I’ll be doing every day’. If you hear that then you know you haven’t over-egged the pudding. (Boom!)

They may not mean to, but they do.

 

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They fill you with the faults they had… 

 

Philip Larkin was right. How many times have I heard teachers lament the negative impact some parents have on their children? Teaching would be easy, if it weren’t for the parents has been a commonly expressed mantra across many schools up and down the country. 

I’ve worked in ‘challenging’ schools within ‘tough’ areas of the city. I have, as have many teachers, done my very best to support children from struggling families. Families who live their lives as victims of chaos. The chaos that comes with living alongside poverty, addiction, abuse, dysfunction and fear. This is where, as a teacher, you are motivated by equity and a desire to restore safety to the lives of powerless children. It starts with how you work with their parents. Informally or through the ‘system’. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the parents can see the light and are desperate to get closer to it; sometimes though, they appear to be content in the dark. In these cases, you will sometimes walk away, after a long day at work, shaking your head muttering ‘What chance has the kid got with parents like that!’ 

Don’t judge a teacher for thinking this. It’s a private thought – a momentary exclamation of frustration – that will allow them to come back to work the next day refreshed and ready to support without judgement or prejudice. Whether you agree or not, with the reality that schools are now expected to take on more than their fair share of society’s burden, you cannot take on this responsibility if you don’t, at some level, care. Of course, you care for the child but you must also extend that care to the parents. The ones that, to a tabloid reader, are the problem. They are not ‘the’ problem; they are problematic. Empathy, although difficult to maintain at all times, is key if you’re going to keep the window of chance open and maybe make a difference to the child. For these children are not just victims of their parents’ faults. They are victims of circumstance and they are worth fighting for. 

 

They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you. 

 

Do you remember David Laws? He once promoted ‘sharp elbowed middle-class parents’ who would fight for their children’s interests. He said that every parent should be like this. Now, whereas I’m not suggesting Laws meant that every parent should be a self-centred prig, I would argue that there is a growing parental body who have sharpened their elbows to samurai levels. Parents who have mistakenly confused ‘being aspirational for their child’ with bestowing their child with godlike status and expecting everyone else to do the same. Parents for whom social decorum and basic etiquette are things that they have neither the time nor inclination to pass onto their children. Parents who would happily take their local primary school to the court of human rights if it meant being able to get their way. 

Their children are victims of middle-class parenting gone awry: where 21st century commodities have spawned an unrealistic sense of entitlement. They have absorbed the promises of the modern bourgeois lifestyle (through social media, advertising and ever-advancing technology) and applied them to the world of parenting. Like a hungover Pinterest binge, this form of parenting is immersed in the modern sensibilities of instant gratification, unsustainable indulgence and a lack of responsibility. For these kids, childhood has been replaced by a set of whims that must be met, insular demands that must be granted. A twisted version of growth-mindset where the only thing that is allowed to grow is the ego of the individual. 

This is the contactless cohort. Children who believe that the world should be at their fingertips just because they want it. Parents who abandon practicalities when it comes to what they think others should be providing for their children. Children who believe that they have all the rights but none of the responsibility. Parents who tut at the mum in the supermarket for allowing their toddler to eat the chocolate before paying for it, whilst their own seven-year-old sits in the car updating their snapchat profile. These families may spend all their time taking selfies, but they are all too heavy-handed with the filters to be able to see their true image. 

I believe that these children are becoming increasingly vulnerable to life’s realities. They have become blinded to its dangers by their parents’ misguided priorities. These poor kids delude themselves that they invincible. They are impervious to guidance and yet often crumble in the face of criticism. They imagine themselves to be cynical and all-knowing when in fact they have merely been over-exposed. You could say that they have grown up too-fast but it would be truer to say they have grown up too artificially. They haven’t so much missed their childhood as grown up thinking they were always too big for it. What do you expect though, when you’ve been raised by sharpened elbows? 

 
Man hands on misery to man… 

 

There is some scepticism around the growth of mental health concerns in schools. Lines have been blurred between mental health issues and an expectation that children must have the emotional competency of Buddah. Mindfulness and growth mindset have been offered to the teaching establishment as silver bullets against children’s unhappiness and apathy. The contactless cohort of parents fully support this concept and are only too happy to pass responsibility onto schools. We’ll pass on the misery, you deliver the cure. 

And, here’s the rub: their inability to reflect on their parental choices really is creating a new wave of mental health concerns. Their child’s inability to cope, when the real world beats their augmented reality into submission, is something teachers are having to grapple with every day. However, the parents only demand is that we combat their child’s emotional fragility, they are less interested in us addressing the cause of it. We are expected to build resilience whilst never being allowed to reframe their sense of self-entitlement.  

And so, it becomes a vicious circle. Except, instead of being victims trapped in a cycle of circumstantial chaos, this contactless cohort are victims of their parents’ boundless expectations. They are caught between an unshakeable belief that they are entitled and an inability to measure perspective: all they have heard since they were very young is ‘whatever you want, now!’ 

I am deeply worried about what the future holds for these children. We know, from statistical evidence, what the future may be like for many children who, by our current measures, are disadvantaged and vulnerable. But, for the contactless cohort, we will be entering uncharted waters as they enter adulthood. Will they ever shake off the shackles of unrealistic expectations? Will they forever believe that the world is theirs by right rather than through toil? As they become parents themselves, how sharp will their elbows become? What new misery will be handed down to their children for  teachers to fix? 

Because it will be up to us. Concern for the emotional well-being and mental health of children will only rise and we will respond. Any opinion we have of the parents, standing outside the school gates, must not deter us from caring and taking on the challenge. It is our duty to unlock those gates and set up lines of communication that are professional, open and honest. Some parents will embrace us, some will despise us, but all will know we are there. We can never give up because we have to believe that we can make a difference. Even when the tools at our disposal, for getting these children ready cope in the real world, are about as effective as toothpicks against a dragon.
 

This be the verse.