Sunday, 4 December 2016

Workload thoughts on the side of a mountain.

It's the weekend and I'm in the hills. Right now. In the beautiful, raw countryside. In a minute, I'll set off and hopefully walk these thoughts out of my head but for the moment they hang like a cloud in a windless sky, refusing to go away.

I've got quite a lot to do. I'm sure you do as well. I don't know any teachers who don't.

I need to work tonight and initially I felt fine about this, a bit of planning, sorting some resources to put online and tidying up a bit. Then I remembered another thing, and another thing, and another thing. Now I don't want to get the laptop out at all because I've got a stark choice, either choose one thing and don't do the other things or try to do all the things and do them badly.

See, it's not like I've been taking it easy recently either and I'm hovering on the edge of being ill. I'm probably a bit 'ill' in a mental way to be honest at the moment though to be fair, I feel no worse than I usually do generally, I just notice I'm more emotional than usual and I react badly to anything unplanned happening. So, what I'm trying to say is that getting a good night's sleep is also important to me.

Therefore, the third option, stay up past midnight to do all the jobs 'to a standard' seems like a bad idea.

As a teacher, I yearn for a bit more simplicity, a bit more focus. A bit more time to reflect and breathe. An opportunity to do a good job on one thing, not a bad job on six.

I'm tired of having no space in my head to think about other stuff, of being cantankerous and stroppy at home because my family seem to have about 10% of my focus.

I'm tired of working with 8 other exhausted people who in all likelihood feel like me. I'm tired of the dark mornings and dark nights. I'm tired of never having an 'easy' day, of never cruising and always challenging, questioning, motivating and pushing.

I'm tired of feeling like I'm behind, even though I've worked to point where I'm yawning all Saturday and in a foul mood most of the weekend. Even though I've no discernable life and think about teaching virtually constantly.

I'm tired of academies and faith schools and pay disputes and pay scales and learning walks and making every second count and no hands up starters and purple pen marking and learning journeys and evidence and inspection readiness and everything else. 

So I'm going for a walk and I'm not going to think about it at all.

I hope these thoughts resolve themselves into a plan. They often do. The best ideas tend to happen when you don't try.

Now, out with darkness and in with light and air.

Nearly the end of term.


Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Work/life balance

I can't sleep.

I know why I can't sleep.

I can't sleep because I didn't work tonight. I did go in work early and work productively all day, (9 hours) but I didn't come home and work more, so I can't sleep.

The reason I didn't work is that I'm tired and I'm prone to becoming insular, grumpy, downright unpleasant and alienating when I work too much. This isn't good for the people around me. Like the 5 year old for example.

The problem is, when I don't work, I become anxious. I get worried that I'm going to 'get found out' or that somehow I'm doing a bad job, being lazy.

But if I counter that feeling by working all the time, I alienate those around me. It's a viscous circle. Here's another one below. I wish we could all think about this one collectively. When did we decide collectively stress was good? What kind of stupid macho pseudo-american dream are we locked into?

Image result for vicious circle

To get to sleep I tried

- writing a plan of the day tomorrow
- 7/11 breathing
- visualising somewhere nice
- the radio

They didn't work.

In the end I wished I'd just worked all night instead as then at least my time wouldn't have been wasted worrying about the 100 million jobs I've got to do.

Sometimes I really, really, really hate this job. I hate working to a timetable, I hate not being able to go to the ebb and flow of my own creativity (I'm the sort of person who works in bursts,) I hate the fact I have to stand in front of people all day tomorrow and try to present a chirpy, cheerful and happy face. I hate the fact I have to be coherent and empathetic, strict and soft, make a hundred human judgements, maintain high standards whilst also showing understanding and all the time be an expert. I hate the fact I'm supposed to do all this whilst simultaneously recording it all and demonstrating I'd anticipated it all beforehand somehow. I hate boiling everything down into grades. I hate chasing learners who just apathetically shrug knowing that teachers will flog themselves into the ground for them because that's what the stupid system has taught them will happen.

I hate the fact everybody knows the profession is facing a mental health crisis, a recruitment crisis and a retention crisis and the best we get is a few tips on 'mindfulness' as if that's going to fix systemic problems and the underlying general anxiety of being a teacher.

If I did a 'normal' job, I'd have the day off, I'd take some leave, I'd work flexi-time to earn it back or whatever. I feel like absolute shite. I've not had a day off in 3 years. This is not a normal job. I will not have a day off.

I'm fine with mindfulness. I really am, but it's a sticking plaster on a gaping wound and we deserve better.

Am I the problem. Is my mind the problem?

Rethinking the room

We see a lot of debate, and rightly so about the efficacy of tech in the classroom.

Does it impact on results?
Does it lead to positive measurable outcomes?

That's all fine, of course we should want to prove the benefit or otherwise of technology with something evidence led.

We shouldn't head sheep like towards the future, seduced by vague notions of digital literacy (however self evident the benefits may seem) or by branded visions of a seamless and slick personalised experience with every child at the centre of their own (i)education.

What I believe we should do, is start to look beyond the technology itself and think about the spaces we ask our learners to deploy this technology in. As education becomes (at least potentially) more student centred, the vision of groups arranged in lines or horseshoes (or whatever) seems increasingly anachronistic.

Devices potentially free us from desks, allow us to consume in our palms or literally on the tops of our laps. Should we get rid of the desk? If so, how can we utilise the new found space in our rooms? Perhaps we could divide off part of the classroom for quiet contemplation, for reading or watching with headphones. Maybe we could add a couple of booths for recording documentary voice over, video diary entries and viva voce responses.

In creative subjects like music or drama the 'practice room' is a fairly normal concept - should this be part of life in an average classroom? The project room or spaces, where small groups of learners prepare work to demonstrate to the rest of the class?

That whiteboard? It belongs to the learners. Teachers are able to distribute materials without limit now, so gone are the days of copying or all looking at the projection. That can happen on learners devices so the whiteboard(s) are free for learners to map ideas, make plans, explain concepts and record as photographs.
Come to think of it, shouldn't everything be wipe clean? We don't want to lose handwriting but can't we capture it more creatively? Are your windows potentially a resource for learners?

Does the dark have a role to play? Can we focus learners on their task by turning off the lights and therefore focusing attention on their back lit devices and away from themselves and each other and all that self conscious awkward noise...

And when we put the lights back on and put the devices away, are we actually more likely to have a conversation about our learning (that can be recorded) if we don't have the barrier of desk or little cliques and can sit in a circle. Perhaps desks make much less sense if we don't actually know where the front or back of the room is.

I'm not a big advocate of education following business but I think there is some value sometimes in comparing school to the workplace. Just about the only workplaces I could think of which asks their workers to sit in rows or lines is the call centre, the Victorian Mill or some Dickensian vision of a deathly dull banking job. What does it say when we can still see classrooms, even ones equipped with multi thousands of pounds of technology essentially set up this way?

So, to come back to the essential point. Let's think about how technology can shape our spaces and therefore our relationships. Only then can we really judge it's true impact. Using it in the current setting is crudely like trying to write on paper with chalk. Let's stop breaking our nibs on slate and be brave in our designs for our learning environments.

If we want our students to engage in the technology to its true potential, we have to create the environment that enables it.

All of this rather suggests we should think about doing something about the exam system as well as ultimately having the world's most exciting classrooms counts for nought if we are preparing learners for a series of rote learned memory tests conducted in factory conditions

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Do they REALLY need time to eat? Couldn't they be LEARNING?

Image result for melting clock

I've blogged several times about the mental health impacts of over working and pressurising young minds.
(here and also here)

Today I want to showcase the thoughts of a young mind. (I apologise to said author for describing him in such horribly patronising adult tones) 

A good friend of mine posted their son's thoughts onto a social media site. He wants to point out the absurdity of the demands of the education system and the impact it has on his life. He is absolutely right. I don't actually know the lad in question, but I know he is keen to do well in school and generally motivated. I know his mum has brought him up with all the good stuff we as teachers would want parents to do. The point is, he's a 'good' learner who wants to do what he's told and values his education but has spotted the flaw in the instructions...

Below I share his post, (in his own words) as he has expressed the absurdity very succinctly. 

"At school all teachers say we should read through our books for twenty to thirty minutes each night to reflect on what was noted last lesson. Altogether I have eight subjects each day and if you do the maths, school think I should read for 4 hours each night then taking in the factors of maybe extra curricular activities and other clubs in which we may participate which can take up to and hour so, altogether 5 hours is spent doing homework and activities. We leave school at 3:25 then depending on your bus journey to wherever you live, could potentially be another half an hour . 

So let's say you arrive home at four then add on the 5 hours from before, and it's nine o'clock. The average amount of sleep should be ten hours for a person my age taking in the fact that you might have to wake up early to catch a bus.

On an average night I will go to bed at nine to wake up at seven, that is exactly ten hours so that's good but that means on most nights there will be no social activity or leisure.

So for five days straight you're practically being drilled by work and other things that may be on your agenda so your only free time is your weekend and at the end of maybe a seven week term you will have a lot of tired students that cannot perform to their maximum capability. 

Hang on though I haven't even got time to do any of my set homework or even eat at the end of my day."

You can stop reading now if you like as that's the main point really, but I've got a few thoughts below.  

1) If we train learners that overwork is 'normal' then we are not setting a good precedent for healthy lives in work. Even if a 15 yr old is 'tough' enough to last the course in education, continue to work all night every night and sooner or later the black dog is going to come knocking. 

2) If our learners have no time to engage with news, culture, friendship, family, hobbies or whatever else how are they going to relate their knowledge to anything? How are they going to develop the ability to question anything they are told? How are they going learn anything deeper than the textbook? 

How are they going to cope when the net of school is taken away and their time isn't planned and mapped out? 

3) As a teacher I bemoan my lack of time. I feel anxiety when unscheduled events happen as my life is a never ending attempt to balance work and personal duties like sleep and occasionally acknowledging the existence of people like my child and elderly frail grandmother. 

How does the child of a chaotic home feel? The child who is a carer, the child who suffers a trauma, the child for whom the demand of a 10/12 hour day is plain ludicrous. The child who struggles in a 'normal' day to get to school but is being told consistently that it's 'not enough' 

I chose my career, I'm mature enough to have developed strategies and I still wobble close to the razor's edge of mental health all too often. 

Learners haven't chosen their path, they haven't the pragmatism, the coping methods, the CPD and often the support network of caring and experienced colleagues who keep me sane.

If constant long hours and draining, intense days leave us empty, then why on earth are we making learners go through the same thing

In conclusion (a slow build to a rousing crescendo)  

I'm not going to say 'there's no place for homework' - there is, clearly, some place for learning and working and thinking between lessons especially at certain points in the year and as learners move higher in the system, they must learn to work independently. 

However, it's reaching an absurd situation when it takes a pupil to point out to a school that they haven't factored in time to eat. What is the collective salary of that school's management? This lad isn't even sitting his GCSEs yet and he's worked out your advice is bobbins. 

It's an absurd situation when 7 yr old kids are practising exams at home. WHAT FOR?! WHAT THE HELL ON EARTH FOR?! It's an utterly ludicrous disgrace of elephantine proportions when a thoughtful, clever, witty, worldly wise A-level student says to me "I don't have time to read anymore" - There's more knowledge and wisdom in the works of a great author than most a-level syllabus' combined.  

Have we lost sight of what we actually want? It's not just about 'children being children' - that's an overly romantic and sentimental way of approaching a wider malaise. Deep down it's about understanding the value of wonder, play, daydreaming, rest, philosophising, exercise, friendship, exploration and freedom for all of us.

It's about our humanity. We are not just empty vessels to be 'filled up' by someone else - We are the sum of our experiences and the less time we have to have them and understand them, the less human we are. We learn all the time, from everything and education must be a focal point for making sense of our lives, working out who we are, what we want, helping us with choices and bringing clarity to thought but it must not be our lives. 

Work does not make us free. 

We demand a human education system, not a factory education system. If you're a teacher reading this, make it happen now. It matters. Stop being pathetic and bleating 'oh the government, oh the targets, oh my career development' - WE are the education system, not them

Now read a good book and have a good night's sleep. You deserve it, you've worked damn hard today. You did your best. Tell yourself this more often and you might find the courage to tell your learners the same more often. They might not look so drained and the energy might be infectious. Hell, we might even enjoy ourselves from time to time. 


Monday, 3 October 2016

Finally some tech!

If you don't know me, I'm one of them tech teachers. The ones who go on about tech like it's going to change the world.

Well, it is, it has and it will continue to do so, so shut up, sit down and listen.

I bought a new laptop, for myself. I've used Apple stuff for a long time and have experienced a slow falling out of love with their ecosystem. Their devices are nice enough, it's just a shame they see fit to fill them up with laggy bloatware operating systems and nagging reminders to update x or y every time you move the mouse.

I have bought several Chromebooks for others. I've recommended many more, but I've never actually owned one myself. I use Google's ecosystem constantly. Hey, I'm even a 'Google Super Admin' - get me!

I wanted a Chromebook. I wanted a cheap laptop that I could use myself, something I could pick up that wasn't stinking all over with the sweat of work and was my own. That didn't cry 'check your work email' seductively in my ear when trying to do something for myself.

So, I bought an ASUS flip.

Why? Because loads of people said they were really good. Because I wanted something that would work a bit like my tablet but had a keyboard. Because I couldn't be arsed buying a PC laptop and putting linux on it.

Is it any good?

I love this machine. It's light, fast and the keyboard is perfectly respectable. It feels slightly cramped if you think about it, but it's more than adequate. This entire blog is written on it and if you've read it, you'll probably testify to the fact I can go on a bit!. The trackpad is small but responsive and feels very natural - it's a world away from the horrendous excuse for a trackpad on some of the PCs I've used. They've got the 'tap to click' function exactly right. That bit works better than my MacBook pro (work machine.)

The keyboard isn't backlit, which is a minor shame, but the quality of touchscreen is a revelation. I thought it would be a bit shonky. I was expecting not much better than the old pressure based phone screens but it's lovely. It's seems more 'slidey' than the the iPad air2. I don't know why, but it seems my finger glides better across it.

The screen is probably the weakest part. It's an IPS screen, so it's got lovely viewing angles but it's only 480p resolution. That's not a massive issue as it's only 10" - I wouldn't watch 2001 Space Odyssey on it, but it's fine for watching iplayer or something. For typing and web browsing it's perfectly good.

Chrome OS is so simple and slick. I knew that already though. But it is. It really is. It deals with loads of tabs well. (I'm a tab-whore) and the 4gb ram lifts above a lot of other Chromebooks about which are slightly under powered in this department.

The integration with Android apps is excellent. I've not found anything that it doesn't deal with. An app like 'medium' feels like a native app. Oddly, the tablet element feels more natural at times in laptop mode in certain apps. It's lovely to rest it on my knee and use the screen at the normal laptop angle in certain apps. Drawing feels more natural this way somehow. I don't know why, but it does. Apps do occasionally glitch, but I was able to play GTA SA on the Chromebook with no major issues beyond a glitch if I switched it to tablet mode. I was also using in for a long time in developer mode.

The flipping aspect is well designed, the bezel is solid and tent mode makes a mockery of those horrible tablet cases which never properly stand up.

It's a lovely machine to look at in full aluminium and the real joy (in comparison to a tablet) is the connectivity - two USB ports, HDMI out and a micro SD slot. It can deal with my (android) phone perfectly well and I can add music/files with no fuss.

The speakers aren't bad. They're laptop speakers. What are you going to say about them?

It boots up in 7 seconds. I can switch between accounts in 7 seconds (switching between accounts on my Macbook often requires a full restart as MacOS grinds to a halt when I ask it to do this)

In short, I couldn't really be happier with it. It's a device I use to consume but it's also (and this is key here for anyone interested in edtech) a lovely device to produce on. The fact I can scribble on the tablet OR use a full fat version of Google Apps with a responsive keyboard OR turn to the Android market place gives it a real edge over a tablet for me.  

It cost...


Which I think is really quite a bargain.

Image result for asus flip chromebook

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Wanted! Depressed and anxious adults to look after young people.

This is my lunch break from marking. It's Sunday and I've already alienated my family because of work and am missing the sunshine. Oh woe is me. (tiny violin) I really hate moaning teacher stories. It does my head in.

I know why they moan, but the lack of direct organised action is pathetic and the same people who moan are the idiots who mark all weekend and make the job impossible for everybody else who wants a sense of balance in their lives...

Wait a minute. Um... Er... 

I have become the thing I hate. Next I'll discover I drive an estate car and have a mortgage! 

Anyway, on a day when my 'happy place' is a bit difficult to find, I'm consoling myself by trying a new way to mark more efficiently and effectively (oh, the delicious irony of preaching efficiency on a Sunday) and listening to Terry Riley. The latter is wonderful and is just about the only thing stopping me driving to Dundee in my bare feet. The former seems to at least have novelty value that makes the mind numbing task of saying the same thing again and again with slight variations slightly more bearable. It's a bit like being Terry Riley. (one for the fans of avant garde neo-classical composers there.) Hey - I've got another one for you - wait for it.... Should I give them all a C? For slightly different reasons? (that's 95% of the blog readers gone then. Still, the joke was worth it)

Anyways, I was just chuckling wryly to myself as I stood by the kitchen window, allowing myself the guilty treat of seeing outside for a minute and thinking about teacher mental health in a different light.

Imagine the outcry if the government announced they were specifically going to employ people with mental health issues to teaching positions.

Could you imagine if a core requirement of the job description was to be 'currently experiencing or recently have experienced chronic stress, crippling anxiety or a total sense of hopelessness and overwhelming misery'?

Oh, we're all for inclusion of people with mental health issues in wider society but 'what about the children' etc...

It makes you wonder doesn't it? What if the powers that be deliberately constructed a situation in which young people were looked after by people experiencing the symptoms and reality of mental health problems? What if indeed? It makes me chuckle wryly. Or slightly insanely. I don't know any more.

The essays aren't bad to be fair. There's always that. It's worth flirting with semi permanent clinical fed upness for. I get paid I suppose.

File this under 'top teacher banter'

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

National Education Service and one reason why it matters.

(originally posted some weeks ago elsewhere) 
I’m sorry - I’m going to post a political viewpoint. I’d like you to read it. That’s the way social media works I think. It’s quite long. I think you are supposed to tweet or post memes and that.
I work in education and have done for nearly 15 years. In that time, I’ve seen funding come and go but never really felt like a politician really did anything because they 'get' education especially.
Politicians always focus their ire on 'standards' as if setting targets will have a miraculous impact on educational standards and teachers are lazy, poor, lacking in ambition for their learners and so on.
Increasingly I’ve seen students pressurised by this target driven culture - if you give teachers targets, that passes on to students. I know as I am a teacher but it’s obvious really, even if you weren’t. I could write more, but I don’t want to get into details, you all get the idea if you have a kid or have a passing interest in education. Targets have perhaps driven standards up in some ways, we certainly coach exams better, but are they effective in developing genuine literacy, critical thinking and autonomous learners. I’m not sure. I’m not saying that targets don’t have any place. Clearly some teachers and some leaders require oversight, I’m not daft, I’ve worked with and been taught by poor teachers but its as if targets have become the entire education policy.
I am convinced that this target culture is having a detrimental effect on mental health. The health of young people and of the adults in 'loco parentis.' If you really want to know more about target culture and why it’s the great white elephant of our time, please watch 'The trap by Adam Curtis. It explains it better than I ever could.
But the targets keep coming and crucially, vitally and disgracefully, the second chances stop. Targets and standards. Cost effectiveness. Rigour. No resitting, access to HE and University costs. A lot. An increasing amount. Access to basic skills and adult courses slashed, costs increased.
This increases the pressure on students. Not only are they being pressured by teacher to succeed in an outdated, outmoded system that only tests a small proportion of their human potential, they are also clearly and economically told 'If you don’t get it right now - you don’t get a second chance'
In my life I’ve met many people, from being 15 in Wigan with mates who were cleverer than me but never went to college, to going to University and sharing a house with an older bloke who left school at 16 with one GCSE and won an award for the quality of his degree work and was fighting off offers from the university to stay and become an academic and all that, to the kids who are brilliant, witty, incisive, who understand stuff in an instant but can’t write an essay, to the managers and colleagues I’ve had who’ve told me they failed first time round who have convinced me that branding people for life by their achievements at 16/18/21 is a failed endeavour.
That no amount of hot air, pressure, investment or pedagogy is going to make EVERY CHILD SUCCEED AT THE SAME TIME. None.
I try hard, I try very hard. Some of my colleagues try so hard I think they’ll burn out, some of them have and yet our kids drop out, pick wrong courses and even occasionally fail. We do our best.
The girl I taught in Stoke, who was utterly wonderful who I couldn’t believe had joined the college 4 years ago without a single GCSE and was now doing a foundation degree. What happens to her life if there’s no second chance, no access to adult education, no stigma about not getting it right first time? Does she have to scrabble around trying to find a course and if she’s lucky pay through the nose just to make up for suffering debilitating eating disorder which nearly *killed* her? Did her teacher 'not care?' - or is the truth that in this case and many, many others, she just wasn’t in the right place at that precise point.
There is no panacea, no world in which every teacher is the perfect teacher and every child overcomes the barrier. All that is a useful thing to aim for, to try to achieve, to want, an aspiration. But when that becomes the only hope or option, lest kids get frozen out the system and aren’t on 'top form' at exam time because of a broken heart, or the death of a parent, or an eating disorder, or just not getting it right there and then or misreading a question or being a bit immature or getting into drugs or being a carer or having to work too much or whatever else we are in a situation where the education system is letting these kids down. Not the teachers there then and now but the system which should, could and must be there for them when they are right and ready.
There is no excuse for not trying for kids in the now. None. That’s a million miles away from my point. This isn’t defeatist rhetoric saying teaching isn’t important, of course it is but if want a real effective education system it has to be a life long thing.
Which is why, Corbyn’s promise to restore universally free education to all should be being rejoiced and praised to the high heavens by people who care about learning and the prospects of young people. A society worth anything would give people opportunities. Progress, culture, technology requires risk, a by-product of risk is failure. Only an education system that has a safety net for failure can ever really produce the country where the population meets its potential. A system where blanket targets reduce kids to statistics being coached desperately to pass exams for the sake of passing exams that have no meaning other than labelling 'success/failure' and that further to that, seems to be gluing those labels ever more securely, making it harder and harder to remove or replace them will only ever produce an insecure, uncertain and unhealthy population. This much Corbyn gets. No matter if he’s scruffy or cantankerous or too laid back or not as witty as Dave or as 'strikingly leader-like' as Teresa, he actually gets the fact that education really, really, really matters and you can’t just shout 'do it better! ofsted! standards standards standards, league tables' - that education is about EVERYONE, not just schools.
Life is education far more than school. That should be only one bit of it. School matters, but you are old for a long time. Adult education matters more to working class people and minorities than it does to people who are middle class. That is a statistical fact. The more culturally alienated you are from the white middle class values of the school system, the more it labels you 'thick' and the more you deserve a second chance. Similarly if you are have a barrier to learning or perhaps discover later in life that you have. Or if you are in a job and the job ceases to exist. Like they do.
It also matters if you, like me and millions of others think you’d like to learn something new to contribute to society, the economy and increase your employability but can’t afford to even think about it.
I don’t think I’ve ever believed in anything as much ever. Sorry for the long post. Just shit matters and that and too much in my head and all and people are trying to make out that not sitting in a train carriage matters and believing a private rail operator is a really trustworthy news source when it comes to rail privatisation and I don’t know about that because I wasn’t there, but I *do* know about this and it matters more than shitty spin and stupid press games and Westminster.