Saturday, 4 April 2015

The Power of Walking

How do you have those difficult conversations that you sometimes need to have as a Head of Department? 

Image result for the power of walkingI’ve been a Head of Department for only 1 year and 1 term, though until Christmas the department was just myself. However since moving to my new school my department is now made up of myself and 2 other members of staff, one of whom I directly line manage and appraise, and I would say that this has been the greatest learning curve and challenge over the last term in my new school – learning how to formally line manage someone and be a leader!
Leading myself I’ve always found relatively easy because I can be pretty determined and focused, but leading and appraising other people, especially those who are more experienced and older than you, can be bit of a challenge (and is made even worse when you’re in a new school and learning the ropes yourself!)

This term I’ve had to do my first formal lesson observation as part of an appraisal cycle and give formal feedback and whilst there were some good points to the lesson, both myself and another member of senior staff felt that it wasn’t as good as it could be and was of concern.
Having that conversation with a more experienced and older member of staff was difficult, especially when they may not agree with it, and whilst we discussed it and I used some coaching skills that I had learnt previously, it still felt immensely uncomfortable for both of us and rather awkward, and led to a little bit of awkwardness and tension over the following few days. 

Now any other advice to improve this would be great! However the other night, whilst driving home listening to Simon Mayo on Radio 2, he was talking to Clare Balding about a book that she had written, “Walking Home”. As they chatted Clare shared that she had discovered that the simple act of walking alongside someone for a prolonged period of time (not just walking to the staffroom) causes them to open up more deeply than they might have otherwise (especially sat in a classroom!)  because not only the lack of eye contact involved helps reduce any sense of awkwardness, but more importantly the act of walking together to a shared goal or destination as opposed to walking alone. 

And this got me thinking…whilst I was at Uni I was President of the Christian Union and was leading a committee of 5 other people, alongside jointly running a small group, and that whenever I wanted to talk to someone in depth about something, which sometimes may be uncomfortable for either of us, we use to go for a walk along the seafront in Pompey. 

Now I'm a keen mountain walker, and love heading to the Lake District, donning a rucksack and books and heading off for the day exploring and getting lost on the hillsides, but I've always walked alone (except for the trusty ipod) and whilst this is great sometimes, you can get a sense of loneliness. So at Christmas I took my girlfriend up to Keswick for a few days and even just us, walking side by side around Grasmere and Buttermere led to us chatting about things that we have never done before and the shared goal spurned us both on, and even more recently me and my dad have completed the Wainwright Coast to Coast walk, and walking alongside each over for 2 weeks led to us both opening up and sharing more than what we might otherwise have done. 

So the question is this, would lesson observation feedback and discussions around that, rather than being given in a rather awkward, fixed, staged classroom  sat on school chairs at a desk or table, be more effective if we went for a walk? Can that uncomfortable walk out after sometimes an awkward meeting and possible sense of loneliness actually be changed to one of walking together towards a shared goal? 

Now I haven’t yet tried and experimented with this yet (I mean what happens if you go too far, it still gets awkward then there’s a long walk back!) but certainly am going to over the next term, and will share my findings. I'm very fortunate in that despite working in inner Lewisham we have a woodland walk located directly behind our school so can get away from the hustle and bustle.

But I wonder if we make this wider and if other people give it a go what would the effect be? Even if it is just round the local housing estate. How might going for a walk for line management meetings and coaching conversations and feedback, change our departments, and schools, if we all just simply took a walk together, as opposed to going it alone? 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The power of a hammer, drill and 3 inch nails!

I remember, as a kid, being so excited when my dad asked me to help him do some D.I.Y; being allowed to use a hammer, or a drill, before looking on so proud at what I had helped him make, even if it was just putting up a shelf!

Those feelings of excitement and pride can be really powerful emotions, and can be really useful for helping engage pupils who may otherwise be distracted. And it is those feelings that I wanted my pupils to feel and experience, particularly those who I may struggle with inside the classroom.
Rural to urban migration is a typical, traditional Geography topic which I’ve taught across both KS3 (often when looking at countries such as Brazil or India) and as part of a GCSE specification.  As usual there were some pupils who never really engaged with the content in the classroom. Alongside this I wanted all of my pupils to actually start to empathise with people who live in slums, and understand just how appalling the living conditions can be in some cases, and so the building shanty town lesson was formed!

A simple trip to my favourite shop (B&Q….though others are available) provided me with wooden stakes, garden canes, rolls of duct tape, 3 inch nails, blue plastic tarpaulin and some rope (with the drive to school the next day slightly precarious, particularly as the wooden stakes stretched from the boot, over the handbrake and into the passenger footwell…next to my poor, unsuspecting girlfriend!)

When the class proceeded to walk into the room to the sight of me holding a hammer in one hand and a drill in the other even the ones who were normally loud and chatty looked on (though admittedly I’m not sure if it was fear…or bemusement). Anyway once in groups and equipped with a box of stuff, an hour and half later round the back of the school we had our own shanty town settlement, with surprisingly the kids who are normally disengaged, and can be “difficult or disruptive” around school, leading their teams, safely drilling holes, hammering in supports and generally having fun.

The real power of the drill came in the debrief and subsequent lessons. Not only had they all developed their team work and problem solving skills, but when discussing whether they’d like to stay in them over night many of them really began to grasp just how difficult a life it would be, and even those normally disengaged were able to recall the lesson and apply their learning into an exam question, and have since been dramatically more engaged in lessons (admittedly with the promise of future trips and construction projects!)

So, if you teach slums, or any other topic for that matter, have got a DT department to borrow hammers from, a local B&Q and a scrap of land round the back of your school, can I encourage you on just how powerful a learning tool a hammer, drill and 3 inch nails can be. 

Monday, 12 January 2015

A Balanced Increase?

 Is Geography the preserve of the select high ability? My old school prevented lower ability kids from opting for the subject, and whilst there has to be a need to balance what they need at the time, for example additional English, do I really just want to be teaching people who are going to get a A*-B grade, or does everyone deserve to understand our world?

This week saw the news that GCSE Geography is continually becoming more and more popular, receiving the 5th highest percentage increase in uptake of subjects despite a 4% drop in overall uptake, making it the 8th most popular subject (just behind history in 7th).
Similar results have been seen over the last 3 years (coincidentally when I began teaching…no correlation!) however Geography was not always in such a good position. For my dissertation (submitted May 2012) “The Geography of Geography Education” I researched the impact of the RGS’s Geography Ambassador Project within inner city schools in Portsmouth on raising GCSE Geography uptake. This was born out of 3 things:

1)      My volunteering as a RGS Ambassador during my 2nd year of Uni
2)      My desire to become a teacher and do a dissertation focused around education
3)      A worrying trend at the time which was showing that GCSE Geography uptake was declining (so really an investigation into how secure my future career was!)

During the time leading up to 2012 Geography GCSE had been having a pretty rough time, falling dramatically by 30% between 1996 and 2004, and then again 15% to 2009, leading for The GA and the Royal Geographical Society to create the Geography Action Plan with the Department for Education.

Now I do not want to re-write my entire dissertation here, (though feel free to email or comment for a copy) but it showed that by demonstrating how useful and relevant Geography was both in terms of employment and practical reality, was one of the main drivers to help encourage uptake of the subject at GCSE.

Whilst I believe that the Action Plan and Ambassador Project has done incredibly well and had an impact, I would query how much of the recent increases have actually been down to the EBAC, and pupils being forced into the option? I know from my previous school that top ability and attaining pupils were forced into an EBAC pathway, and had the study either Geography or History. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m always keen for Geography to spread further and for me to have a bigger audience in which to share my passion for maps, but there’s some key questions I would like to ask:

1)      How much of the increase is down to the EBAC / schools encouraging or even pushing pupils into specific options?
2)      How geographically distributed is this? I came into teaching with a passion of teaching disadvantaged inner city kids from ethnic minorities – are these picking Geography? Or, as I saw during my dissertation is it still a majority of middle class, often rural, white British kids? Kids who have been to a beach before, or have been to a river and the countryside? And if so, how do we change that?
3)      Is forcing kids into a subject they don’t want, maybe don’t like or have an interest in the best for them? Whilst I was forced to do English and Maths at GCSE I did hate them, and whilst I now see the value, had I been forced to do a language over one of my preferred options I would probably have failed and hated those lessons for 2 years (I still can’t speak any other languages!)
5)      How do we increase female uptake? Surprisingly Geography is male dominated, how can we encourage more females to get muddy in a river?
6)      If the political gimmick of the EBAC changes with successive governments, how will this impact on Geography GCSE uptake? Is the increase a real demonstration of improvements in the subject, or is it just results due to politics and head teachers meeting targets?

I don’t know the answers to these, and would be interested to research (maybe with some others?) to try and find out because I believe that without knowing the answers to some of these key questions risks Geography’s future. It equally serves as a warning to us who teach Geography not to become content with bulging departments and increased budgets. 

Moving in to my new home

So I’ve survived! My 1st week in my new school, Bonus Pastor Catholic College. I felt just like I did back when I first begun Teach First 2 and ½ years ago, not knowing anyone, what on earth was going on, what was where, how to use the photocopy, even where the loo was. I had a car full of boxes, globes, maps and other stuff to unload, my room was…a rubbish dump, having been used by a cover teacher for the previous term, and to top it off I was teaching 4 hours of year 11 on my first day, 2 hours with the assistant head and ex Head of Department!

However when thinking back to my first ever week back as an unqualified teacher I now recognise just how far on I’ve come and grown, and just how much I’ve learnt. Not only teaching strategies, although I’m sure my lessons this week were a damn sight better than 2 and ½ years ago, mainly featuring jelly babies as population, but also in terms of developing relationships with both pupils and staff.

And this is the crux of my advice to anyone else changing schools or starting out teaching; invest time in developing relationships with both those you teach, and those you work with.  However frantic and manic it is don’t forget the smiles in the corridor, plucking up the courage and taking time to chat to someone new over the photocopier, grab a drink and 5 minutes in the Staff Room (once you’ve found it of course!) Shout good morning to kids down the corridor (even if you don’t teach them) and just get to know people. Because whilst this week has gone pretty well, and I love my new school, it’s been made a lot easier by having help from my new colleagues, and being welcomed by the kids.
So here’s my top 7 bits of advice for anyone starting new.
1)      Invest in relationships, both with staff and pupils, even just smiling and morning in the corridor (particular those in your department)
2)      Be organised – think and plan ahead
3)      Get to know your line manager (a valuable source of support)
4)      Gut your room and make it home
5)      Make those first lessons count – we say about kids giving us good or bad first impressions so we should be the same to them
6)      Venture out around your new home – Go explore!
7)      Take a break (and maybe even go for a drink!)

This move I’ve been relatively lucky as I am good friends with my new line manager who is one of the Deputy Heads (though admittedly they were away in the first week!) but also my partner works at the school. Whilst this helps give you some of the basics, and I’ve had a really warm welcome this last week, I feel like the school could have better prepared me, and is a common problem I’ve found from chatting to colleagues and seeing new colleagues joining my old school. The reason for this is that I think that whichever member of SLT is in charge of new staff, often hasn’t been new staff themselves for so long they’ve forgotten what it feels like, so here’s my top tips for you, to help improve the experience of new members of staff in your school:

1)      Get them in on a productive induction day the term before
2)      Organise all of the practical admin stuff beforehand e.g. get them a laptop, room key, show them how to use the photocopier, take registers, give them class lists – all the jobs that take up valuable time in the first week when they are stressing about other things, or stressing about not being able to print!
3)       Regularly check in with them throughout the week – check they’re ok!
4)      Have a “new beginners” checklist which both you and them use to make sure everything gets done!
5)      Welcome them to as many people as possible (preferably over a drink on the Friday night)

Overall, my first week has gone incredibly well, and I have loved the new challenges, people and just exploring a new place. I’m half way through redecorating my room (and there’ll be a post on that and its importance soon) I’ve made some new friends, and some kids have learnt some stuff too! 

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Who I Am...

Christian - Geographer - Explorer - Teacher - Head of Department - Mountain Walker - Allotmenteer - Chef - Boyfriend

So I'm a 23 year old (yes that makes me a 90s kid!) Head of Geography and Business Studies Teacher at Bonus Pastor Catholic College.

I always knew that I wanted to teach. When you ask kids "what do you want to do when you're older" I had 3 answers; a MI5 Spy, a High Court Judge, and a Geography Teacher. The first one really is a pipe dream (though do try to persuade the kids sometimes that I am one, undercover...). I got as far as studying A Level Law then gave up, for my true passion, Geography.

Geography fascinates me. It touches every aspect of everyone's lives. It's multifaceted, and the complexity, the dynamicity and explosiveness of the relationships, processes and patterns between humans, environments and each other is what makes me not only want to delve into it, but teach it.

Having delved into Geography at Portsmouth Uni I began to explore my interest in teaching through my dissertation project, involving my work as a RGS Geography Ambassador, to understand why pupils, particularly those in inner city schools, picked, or as was often the case, didn't pick, Geography at GCSE.

From the endless reams of questionnaires, many said they didn't choose Geography for 3 key reasons. 1) A lack of enjoyment - "it's dull and boring sir!"
2) A poor understanding of how it would be useful and relevant to them later in life.

From my reading it came out that Geography is often a very much middle class, sometimes rural, white, subject. And this turned my attention towards Teach First. I wanted to make Geography fun, relevant, useful to kids who may not have the desire or opportunity to study real Geography!

Teach First placed me in an inner city school in Lewisham - Prendergast Ladywell School - with a high percentage of FSM and low GCSE results. Yet I worked with and trained under one of the most inspirational Geography Teachers ever: a crazy, ginger-haired Welshman called Simon Jones, who inspired a passion and enthusiasm within his pupils which was infectious.

Taking over from him as Head of Department during my NQT year was a rocky road - though I managed to increase our fieldtrips 5 fold, getting inner city Lewisham kids into the local river, building slums in the grounds, around the Crystal Exhibition, down to the sea (for many the first time ever!) and some even to the top of Skiddaw!

However as the school environment changed, I felt it was time to move on, and in January 2014 started as Head of Geography and Business Studies at Bonus Pastor Catholic College - where I hope to settle, grow and hone my trade.

Throughout this exploration my faith in Christ has helped guide me and kept my moral code in check as it permeates through everything I do, and models the relationships that I want to have both with my pupils, and colleagues.

But once the work is as done as it can be (it never is really finished) I spend time with my girlfriend, head down to the allotment, cook something we've grown, and explore the world further.

This is only the start of my career - and I started this blog as I began at Bonus Pastor - to document my experiences and Geographical Education Explorations as I further adventure into my Geographical teacher career.

A Change of Home

I first began teaching 2 and a half years ago, joining the Teach First programme and being placed in my school, Prendergast Ladywell School, in Lewisham. Knowing that as part of the programme I would be in my school for a minimum of 2 years, plus my personality of being habitual and not liking change, I began my first term with the mentality that I would treat my school like my home. I would decorate my classroom (see the next post for more details – especially as I might be spending up to 11 and a half hours a day in my room!), establish some good routines, and most importantly, build some good relations with the staff, and more importantly, the kids.

And I did. Even over only 2 and a half years my room was decked out with barely any wall space visible, (and like home, a Christmas tree during the festive season each year). I was part of a good department and good group of friends among staff, and had some good, though took a while to develop, relationships with some of the pupils, particularly my tutor group who I had for the entire duration of my time.

However this Christmas has brought a change, and I have now left the school in which I had settled and made home, and am setting out on a new adventure to become Head of Geography and Business Studies at Bonus Pastor Catholic College.

In my entire life I have moved home 3 times, once to University Halls (and believe me the amount of stuff I took it was like moving home!) out of halls and into a small terraced house in Southsea during my 2nd and 3rd of Uni, and then finally up to Gravesend in Kent where I now live. And each time I remember having a feeling of excitement, about a new exploration and adventure, and the chance to establish some new routines, relationships and decorate a new place; but I also remember feeling a little pang as I left the old behind. Taking down the posters from my uni wall, losing contact with some of the people I knew, old friends, colleagues etc, old routines all left a hole. And I hope that, as I left, a hole was left in that place too and the place changed (as any good geographer would no doubt study about).

Leaving my school at the end of this last term has been very similar. I packed all my room of Geography posters, globes, maps and rocks and cleared the filing cabinet. I said goodbye to some amazing friends and colleagues who have trained and supported me over the last 2 years.

But the hardest of all was saying goodbye to the kids. I struggled to tell them of my decision to leave, and didn’t so much as tell them, but as any good teacher does, gave them a hint and a problem and let them work it out for themselves. Once they knew it became even harder, particularly when with my Year 11 Geographers and tutor group who I would be leaving at such a critical time.

Now yes to some extent we as individuals are important to the kids lives as teachers, in that I was my tutor groups form tutor, writing college references etc, and to my Year 11s I was their GCSE Geography teacher, and whilst that is important, those are replaceable. The Pastoral Manager for my old year group can write some of their references, and there is an outstanding Geography teacher taking my place. However one thing profoundly hit me, said to me by one of my Year 11s in all seriousness was, “Sir, I’m going to miss you because you’re like a big brother, you’re always here”. And other comments like “Sir we know we can come to you,” “Sir, we know we know you’ll help us out” showed me the real important thing that we can do as teachers, is not just to teach our subject well, and help our pupils to achieve well, but is to sometimes just be there for them. I’ve worked in an inner city Lewisham school with over 60% FSM, and it’s showed me how much kids can rely on us as teachers for their stability, their support, and just regular routines. Always being there, having the same high expectations but equally being able to draw alongside them, caring for them and have a laugh.

I’ve had some awesome times with the kids that I’ve taught over the last 2 years, both in the classroom achieving some good grades, but also outside. I remember being with my tutor group at the London Dungeons and being petrified with the kids and us joking about it later. I’ve been up to the Lake District with some of them when they’ve climbed their first mountain and seen their first cow, or their first time diving into the sea whilst on the North Kent Coast.

A change of home can mean moving away from friends and family, and as a teacher this move has reminded me just how important we can sometimes be to lives of the kids who we not only teach, but support and care for.

I can’t wait to start at my new school, and will post about my experiences during my training and reasons for leaving, and how my first couple of weeks go. And I look forward to decorating my new classroom, establishing new routines, developing new friends and relationships both with staff and kids. But I will always have a hole from my first school and those who I’ve worked with and taught there. And would urge all teachers to remember how important our pastoral work is alongside our academic teaching.