Work/Life Balance

I came into teaching as a mature student, having spent a couple of years working in schools as a TA and Business Manager whilst my son was younger. Previously I had worked in offices and then for myself as an artist /graphic designer.

I love my job, and I’m glad I chose to re-train as a teacher. I now work in a lovely, very small rural school with people I like; mainly supportive parents and generally well-behaved, enthusiastic children. My colleagues are supportive and everybody gets along well.

It’s a good job I love what I do so much, because the constant pressure to do more, be more, and achieve more seems to be mounting daily.

This week has been an incredibly long week, for no particular reason. However, it’s not that dissimilar to most weeks in term time.

Saturday
9.30-12.30 housework
12.30-2.30 planning
2.30-4.00 run with the dog
4.00-6.00 planning
6.00-7.00 make and eat dinner
7.00-8.00 planning, emails, admin for school
8.00-9.00 watched some TV, fell asleep

Sunday
10.00-2.00 marking, preparing resources
2.00-4.00 run with the dog
4.00-6.00 re-planning due to TA timetable changes, completing information gathering survey for HT
6.00-7.00 make and eat dinner
7.00-8.00 planning intervention groups for TA
8.00-9.00 sat down to read a book, fell asleep

Monday
6.30-6.45 emails
7.30 leave home
8.15 arrive at school
8.45-10.45 teaching Y2/3
10.45-11.00 break
11.00-12.00 teaching Y2/3
12.00-12.35 marking/prep for afternoon lessons
12.35-1.00 lunch
1.00-3.15 teaching Y2/3
3.15-4.15 planning with colleague for team teaching afternoon on Thursday
4.15-5.00 working wall, displays, prep for Tuesday
5.00 leave for home
5.45-6.30 arrive home, walk the dog
6.30-7.30 dinner
7.30-10.00 changing planning because of more changes to TA timetable, preparation, resources
10.00 Bed

Tuesday
6.30-6.45 emails
7.30 leave home
8.15 arrive at school
8.45-10.45 teaching Y2 booster
10.45-11.00 break, changing planning due to last minute change in Y3 activities
11.00-12.00 teaching Y2/3
12.00-12.40 marking
12.40-1.00 lunch
1.00-3.15 teaching Y2 booster
3.15-4.15 marking, photocopying
4.15 leave for home
5.00-6.00 arrive home, run with the dog
6.00-6.30 housework
6.30-7.30 make and eat dinner
7.30-10.00 changing planning because of more changes to TA timetable, marking, prepping resources for Wednesday
10.00 bed

Wednesday
6.30-6.45 emails
7.30 leave home, stuck behind lorry
8.25 arrive at school
8.45-10.45 teaching Y2/3
10.45-11.00 break
11.00-12.00 teaching Y2/3
12.00-12.40 Parents’ evening meeting with one parent
12.40-1.00 lunch
1.00-3.15 PPA
3.15 leave school for nail appointment – me time!
7.00 arrive home, cook and eat dinner while working,
7.00-9.15 marking, preparing resources
9.15 sit down to watch tv, fall asleep

Thursday
6.30-6.45 emails
7.30 leave home
8.15 arrive at school
8.45-10.45 teaching Y2/3
10.45-11.00 break
11.00-12.00 teaching Y2/3
12.00-12.30 prep team teaching lesson with colleague
12.30-12.45 marking
12.45-1.00 lunch
1.00-3.15 team teaching afternoon with colleague, teaching 2 classes and reflecting on learning/teaching
3.30-4.45 staff meeting
4.45-5.45 planning with colleague for next week’s teacher swap session, prep for Friday
5.45 leave school
6.30 arrive home
6.30-7.00 make and eat dinner
7.00-8.30 prep, emails
8.30 sit down to watch TV, fall asleep

Friday
6.30-6.45 emails
7.30 leave home
8.15 arrive at school
8.45-10.45 teaching Y2/3
10.45-11.00 break duty
11.00-12.00 teaching Y2/3
12.00-12.35 marking
12.35-1.00 lunch
1.00-1.40 chance for some photocopying and prep whilst my class have PE with specialist sports 1.40-3.15 teaching Y2/3
3.15-4.00 Reflecting on team teaching afternoon with colleague, making notes ready to type up over the weekend
4.00-6.30 classroom displays, photocopying, tidying my classroom, finding resources for next week
6.30-10.00 PTFA Quiz Night (we won!)
10.00 leave school
10.45 arrive home
10.45-11.00 sit down, fall asleep

I was going to sit and add up all the hours spent doing different things each week, but I think it’s plain to see that preparation, planning and marking take up most of my week, followed by teaching and travelling. Time with my family is way down there, and time just for me is virtually non-existent.

No wonder I’m permanently exhausted.

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Contexts for learning

A few years ago I attended a CPD event aimed at linking primary schools in England with similar schools in France, to give children a real-life reason to practise the vocabulary they were learning: to give what they were learning in French lessons context. The course deliverer talked about the ‘importance’ of learning, and I was reminded of this last night during a Twitter conversation with @imagineinquiry, @redgierob, @educationbear, @MissHorsfall, @nancygedge and @michaelt1979. We were discussing the fine distinction between giving learning meaning and giving it context.

The course deliverer talked about a recent bathroom-flooding incident he had experienced. Forgive me if the detail is hazy – I am not and do not want to be a plumbing expert. He told a story where a friend had advised him to change some specific plumbing part (the word ‘olive’ rings a bell?) in his bathroom. He said he had paid little notice because he wasn’t interested and didn’t really need to know about this special olive. A few weeks later, after his bathroom had been flooded, he was keen to know exactly what this olive was, where he could get a replacement and whether or not he would be able to fit it himself. This new learning, all about the olive, was now important and had a very real context.

This is the definition of providing context to learning that rings true with me, and I’m pretty sure the fantastic proponent of MoE teaching Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) agrees, so I feel I can’t be too far wrong.

A few years ago, in my then mixed Y3-6 class, we investigated suitable fabric for making waterproof clothing for a puppet which was being taken to Antarctica by a teacher as part of a project to investigate science in the real world. (Visit Ricky the puppet’s blog at http://antarcticapuppet.primaryblogger.co.uk/). I could have just asked the children to investigate a range of fabrics to find which were waterproof and which were not. The investigations and the results would have been the same, but the ‘importance’ element would have been missing. Ricky the puppet (the context) was relying on us!

For me, the context makes the learning purposeful, and whether that context is real or imaginary is not really important. My Y3-6 class also wrote a very real guide to a local nature reserve that was being constructed on the edge of the school site. Again, their learning was important and their writing and maps all the better for it. There was a real client, and the children produced a real outcome which had a real purpose.

The Twitter conversation last night stemmed from a discussion about ‘topic’ teaching in primary schools, which I’m also a big fan of when the links are not forced and tenuous. I do believe, however, that topics are even better when real contexts can be threaded through them. In our recent Australia topic in Y2/3, some of our learning was necessary to answer questions sent via Twitter by a teacher currently working in the outback there. The questions gave ‘importance’ to our learning and almost rendered me a bystander: the children were so motivated by the context that much of the learning was child-led. That they were also co-constructors asking their own, very informed, questions via Twitter, was the icing on our cake!

Levels of learning

Recently, I was accused of using an educational ‘buzz word’ when I mentioned that providing children with rich, contextualised and real-life learning opportunities promoted “deep learning”.

I am certainly not one for bandwagon-jumping in education (in fact, quite the opposite: I tend to run in the opposite direction if I see the latest trendy bandwagon steamrollering towards my classroom.) However, I do believe that there is a distinction between levels of learning, from a very surface level ability to reproduce a taught skill to a deeper, transferrable understanding of what has been taught.

In his inspiring and thought-provoking book What’s the point of school? Guy Claxton points out that:

…the idea that a teacher can see a child do something and then tick a box to say they “possess” the relevant skill or ability is simply nonsense. You cannot observe that someone did something –solved a problem of one kind, in one context, for one purpose, on one day- and conclude that they will (or even should) be able to “use it” on any relevant occasion in the future. You can’t conclude “does” from “can”… (2009:85)

I’ve been thinking about these levels of learning or understanding recently, in relation to one particular pupil in my class, and trying to work out ways of moving their learning on from the very surface level, to a deeper understanding where it can be transferred to different contexts and situations.

Take learning number bonds of ten, which is what this particular pupil has been focusing on this week. After the TA repeatedly modelled choosing two digit cards to represent a bond of ten and using Numicon to check, the child could do the same, mostly correctly. The child was very pleased and enjoyed experiencing the success of being able to complete the task. The TA commented that the child had “got it”. The next day, the TA repeated the activity with the child in a spare five minutes, and once again the child could take two digit cards to make ten, and use Numicon to check that they were right. If we were using APP to assess children summatively in my school, one more instance of the child doing this would mean a tick or a highlight and the belief that the child was secure with number bonds of ten.

The next day, I gave the child a tower of ten unifix and asked them to find as many ways as they could of making ten. The child looked at the cubes, looked at me and then back at the cubes. They did not know where to begin using them to find bonds of ten. I reminded the child of the work they had done over the previous two days finding pairs of numbers that made ten. Nothing. I modelled breaking the tower into one cube and nine cubes and recording the number sentence 1+9=10 and showed the child how, if I had one cube and nine cubes and put them together in a tower I had ten cubes all together. I then broke the tower into two and eight and asked the child to record the number sentence. There was a flicker of enlightenment and the number sentence was duly written. When I returned to the child a little later, they had independently written all the number bonds of ten, in order.

In many schools that would represent a tick or a highlight on an APP grid, and yet I know that the child does not yet have a real understanding of the link between the two activities or can transfer either skill to a problem requiring bonds of 10 to be used.

As Claxton says,
We can’t just assume that something learned in one context, for one purpose, will automatically come to mind wherever and whenever it might subsequently be useful. (2009:84)

Piaget’s theories support this view:
We have done things to and with the child. In time, the child changes and learns. Therefore our actions “caused” the child’s development. No, says Piaget: the child’s understanding arises out of her self-directed actions upon the physical world. The question we must turn to now is how self-directed activity leads the child to construct his or her own understanding of natural phenomena. (1998:53)

It is, I believe, this personal construction that leads to deep, transferable knowledge. As teachers, if we can provide children with real opportunities to apply taught skills, we are on the way to facilitating that personal construction.

References:
Claxton, G. (2009) What’s the point of school? Rediscovering the heart of education, Oxford: Oneworld Publications

Wood, D. (1998) How children think and learn, 2nd Edition, London: Blackwell Publishing

Why do primary teachers “lie” to their pupils?

On Monday, the first day back after the Christmas break, my Y2/3 class came in to find a packed suitcase and my passport. We were going to go on an expedition, but I needed them to help me work out where we were going.

Item by item, the contents of my suitcase was revealed and discussed. They knew we were going abroad because of the passport: we just needed to work out where. They examined some currency, a flag, items of clothing, sun block, sunglasses… eventually they worked it out: we were going to Australia!

We spent the rest of the morning busily making passports and tickets, researching some of the places we could visit, and packing suitcases full of appropriate clothes and supplies. We found Australia on globes; looked at it in atlases; and worked out how we could get there, and how long it might take. There was a determined, excited buzz about the room.

After lunch, the children came back into the classroom to find that the tables had been moved and the chairs had been set up in rows, as if on an aeroplane. They handed me their tickets and passports, found their seats and off we set. We watched a video of a plane taking off from Heathrow on a grey, wet day and then an in-flight safety video. We worked out what time it would be in Sydney when we landed and what time it would be back in the UK when we landed. Then we watched a video of a plane landing on a sunny day in Sydney. Now we had arrived we needed to find out what we could do in this foreign country: we set-to with travel brochures, large outline maps of Australia, scissors and glue, and made large collages of the things we hoped to see and do.

At no point did I say, “We’re only pretending to fly to Australia”. There was a tacit understanding that what we were doing was ‘make-believe’ and the children bought into it fully, immersing themselves in the excitement of going on holiday to a foreign country. At 3.15 many of the children came and told me that this had been one of the best days ever; that they had loved flying to Australia and that they wanted to learn more about the country. The next day they came in with photos, books, souvenirs and a thirst for knowledge about all things Australian. They were hooked and wanted to learn more.

So why, I wonder, do some teachers regard such activities as dishonest and duplicitous? Last night @oldandrewuk tweeted (about another blogpost):

“This is the 2nd time I’ve seen a blog about primary teaching based on lying to the kids. Are people okay with this?”

I couldn’t help but reply, and an interesting “debate” ensued, where @oldandrewuk tied my words in knots and tripped me up over semantics.

However hard he tried to make me look foolish and question my ideology, @oldandrewuk cannot convince me that we are “lying” to children in any sort of sinister way and that immersing children in their learning through drama or simply through setting up scenarios that encourage them to suspend their disbelief is a practice that needs “justifying”.

Whether teachers engage in Dorothy Heathcote-esque Mantle of the Expert scenarios or enterprises that last for days and weeks, or whether they arrange to “lose” the class soft toy so that the children write authentic wanted posters and character descriptions, immersing young children in experiences in this way creates an enthusiasm for learning and contextualised situations for children to apply knowledge and skills. It’s also great fun, builds on how children themselves role-play to learn, and enables children of all abilities to access learning on an equal footing.
In the past few years I have found WWII kit bags in the school grounds; built meerkat burrows in the school hall; buried (and dug up!) Roman artefacts; written letters to the school from the government; discovered secret fairy doors; opened a cursed Egyptian chest and engaged in all sorts of “make-believe” with my pupils. Why? Because setting up these situations and scenarios works. They engage and enthuse children. They give them situations in which they either need to apply knowledge and skills or work out what skills and knowledge they need, before learning them and subsequently applying them.

If you want your pupils to write a newspaper report, you can either show them what an exemplar newspaper report looks like and ask them to write about the school fair that happened three weeks ago and no-one really remembers, or you can find a WWII kit bag in the school grounds (just up from the genuine WWII Prisoner of War camp on the edge of the school grounds). Then, in order to write a newspaper report, they will need to work out what skills they need to write about this exciting discovery; what a newspaper report consists of by examining contemporary and historical real-life examples; take photos; interview witnesses and school staff and plan and prepare their final reports for publication.

I know which I’d rather do. I know which my pupils would rather do. And, more importantly, I know which situation will enable the children to write the best newspaper reports.

However much @oldandrewuk and others of his ilk try to convince primary teachers that setting up learning situations is “lying” to children I will remain convinced, through my own experience, that taking children on these exciting learning journeys is an effective way to learn. And if it’s more fun for everyone too, that’s an added bonus.

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During the course of my discussion with @oldandrewuk, the notion of deep learning also surfaced. I think I’ll ponder on this for a few days before a new blog post begins to stir…

#nurture1314

I’ve read so many inspiring and interesting #nurture1314 posts over the past few days; I thought I’d give it a go. It seems like a good way to start a blog, although I’m not sure I can begin to compare with some of the achievements and successes I’ve read on other blogs.

13 reflections on 2013

1. My lovely (and very tall) son managed to get himself good enough GCSE grades to do his chosen subjects at Sixth Form. This is all down to him, although I like to think my sporadic nagging had a little impact. I just hope he’s learned that a little hard work pays off and translates a “little hard work” into a “bit more hard work” for the next two years to get even better AS and A level results. I need to dedicate more time to helping him see that, and showing him how successful he can be if he tries.

2. I adopted a beautiful rescue dog, Bella. It had been over a year since our beloved Boo had died and time to fill the dog-shaped void she had left. Bella is filling the void nicely. Now all I need is for her to behave all the time, not just when she chooses! Again, I need to dedicate more time to helping Bella achieve this. I can see a pattern beginning to form already…

3. In my second year in my current post, I feel settled and happy at school. It’s only my second teaching post, and very different to my first, desperately unhappy position. It’s taken me a while to adapt and relax, but I think I’m there now. I’m lucky enough to work with some fantastic people, in a very supportive environment.

4. I’ve got to grips with teaching a different age range. Again, adapting from a whole KS2 class to a Y2/3 class took a little while, but I really think I’ve got it this year. The children’s results have been good and I know I’ve become a much more reflective teacher who is able to plan more personalised, responsive lessons.

5.  Planning. It took me a while to be brave enough to free myself from the constraints of my previous school, but I’m there! @TeacherToolkit’s 5 minute plan really freed me up and I was incredibly proud to have one of my early examples shown on @SparkyTeaching’s site. I’m now spending less time planning better lessons: that’s got to be a good thing however you look at it.

6. I think I’m slowly beginning to make an impact in school and do something positive in my role as English and ICT co-ordinator. I needed time to find my feet and develop my confidence, but I’m now beginning to be a little more proactive. I’ve started a whole school blog; set up a school writing portfolio on LendMeYourLiteracy; arranged iPad inset for a cluster of small schools in February with @ICT_MrP; arranged a poetry workshop; organised a book-swap event in school and played a large part in writing a new grammar and handwriting scheme of work incorporating progression through @alanpeat sentence types. I’m feeling quite proud of myself!

7. I’m really enjoying being on Twitter. I’ve learned so much from teaching colleagues, and, having lurked for a while, am now brave enough to interact with others; ask and answer questions, and generally get involved. Twitter has led to my class joining an on-line wiki learning about Christmas around the world; my class skyping an Erasmus student in Italy and planning to tweet a teacher as she travels around Australia in January, amongst other things.

8. 2013 for me was the summer of running. I started with a vengeance in early spring, and kept the momentum going until mid-September. I looked forward to every run, enjoyed it while I was running and felt good about myself afterwards. I’m cross with myself that I let my momentum waiver and allowed dark nights, being back at school and a few other things to interfere.

9. I built a stronger relationship with my sister. We’ve both really needed each other this year, and as a result we’ve become much closer and much more understanding of each other than we’ve ever been. I’m very glad to have her as my sister and we’ve both realised that we love each other very much.

10. Wrestling with work/life balance. I made a resolution in about October that I would not spend both weekend days working. I’ve managed to stick to it so far, mainly due to 5 above, but also by believing in my teaching more. I do not need a completely scripted, planned in minute-detail lesson plan to be able to teach well.

11. I achieved that holy grail of teaching: an outstanding lesson grading for my latest PM observation.  The bit I’m most proud of is that the observed lesson wasn’t a show, it was my ordinary teaching. Ok, maybe there was a little extra planning and polish, but I’m confident that the feedback I’m getting, and the reflecting I’m doing, is helping me to move more and more towards being an outstanding teacher.

12. I lost quite a bit of weight this year, and managed to keep it all off, despite my running motivation taking a bit of a nosedive. It’s given me a little more self-confidence and I am determined not to let it slip back on without me noticing. The huge amounts of cheese and chocolate currently in the house are not helping me in this.

13. I made a stupid decision earlier this year that I regret every day. The consequences are beginning to look like they may be irreversible and that makes me feel very sad. It’s had a real impact on my life and I want to be able to learn from it, but at the moment I’m finding it very hard going.

14 wishes for 2014

1.  To spend more time with my son, not just doing his school work, but just being. He started school as I started working in schools, and has spent his childhood watching me get my degree, complete teacher training, achieve my MA and begin teaching.  I should have spent more time with him, and this year I hope to do so.

2. To find a trainer who will help me with my dog, and dedicate enough time to her training for it to really work. She’s not naughty; she’s just over-exuberant and easily distracted. For all our sakes, I need to help her learn how to come back every time she is called.

3. I want to continue to make a positive impact at school, especially as we begin to explore the new National Curriculum. I passionately believe in Talk for Writing and using stories as a basis for all writing, and I feel that this is such a good opportunity to put stories at the heart of English teaching across school.

4. School has kindly received a donation big enough to purchase two iPads. It’s a small start, but it is a start. I hope our inset with @MrP_ICT in February will kick start our use of technology in school to enhance teaching and learning and that I can help it to develop as the year goes on.

5. To attend a TeachMeet. I was due to attend one which was cancelled, and then due to deliver a micro-presentation at another which was also unavoidably cancelled. This year I am determined to at least attend one.

6. To go out more. I can count the number of times I went out in 2013 on the fingers of one hand, and still have several digits left over.

7. To run more often, more quickly and further.

8. To get off my plateau and kick-start my weight loss again. I’d like to lose about the same again, and then maintain it.

9. To go on holiday.  I can’t remember the last time I went abroad, and my last UK holiday is also a dim and distant memory.

10. To investigate how I can become published. During my MA a few years ago, I became very interested in journal writing. Maybe now’s the time to really think about it seriously.

11. To make the effort to see my sister more, and build on the good relationship we’ve developed this year.

12. To make a big change. I’m not sure which direction this one’s going in yet, but it’s definitely needed.

13. If I’m able to, I’d like to take on an ITT student at school.  I’m comfortable enough now with myself as a teacher to be able to help a trainee develop their own practice, and would like to be able to put my coaching and mentoring skills from my MA to good use.

14. To be the best teacher I can be, for every child in my class.