Only Connect

I can be the most technically gifted writer in the world, but if I don’t engage with my readers, they won’t read what I write. I have a duty to engage with them, because otherwise my words will lie dusty on a page. If I want people to engage with my writing, it must do something for them: inspire emotion, be useful, practical, interesting, thought provoking. I must speak to my readers so they want to listen to me (not harangue them about their perceived shortcomings, or pretend I am special ‘cos I wrote it down). I must gather up all the ideas I can find, sift them thoroughly, and then present them in a way that shines a light. The odd thing, though, is that I don’t write for my readers. Not really. The words just have to be written. And once they’ve been written I have no control over what people will make of them. (This is not a problem, this is permission to fly!) Because if I edit really carefully, hit just the right note, we might just, possibly, only connect.

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True Grit

I like to think of myself as a resilient person. There’s not much that upsets me. I have no particular fear of what others say or think about me, my teaching or my books. I can bounce back from knockdowns with a smile on my face. And so, I’ve been trying to work out why all this talk of ‘instilling character’ makes me so uncomfortable. Why the term ‘resilience’ makes me grind my teeth. Because it does, and over the years I’ve learned that it is important (to me, at least) to take my instinctive reactions into account.

When I think back to my own childhood, it’s pretty easy to identify the things that toughened me up, that made me resilient in later life. And none of them are things that I would wish on my own children, or on anyone else’s. One was the messy breakdown of my parents’ marriage. As a young child this was painful, distressing and confusing to me. We went from playing (apparently) happy families, to a long, dark period of anger, depression and hardly any money. Then there were several years of being schooled in a climate of fear – terror has a habit of toughening a small person up. After that there was verbal and physical bullying at secondary school, and some other stuff that I don’t like to talk about. And to top it all off, there were the incredibly exacting demands of training as a professional dancer – being told you’re too fat, not good enough, that kind of thing.

In many ways, my own children have life soft and easy. We expect them to be polite, and to take responsibility, but we rarely shout at them. They are most certainly not afraid, of us, or of their teachers. We have helped them become adaptable, and learn to cope with change, by travelling a lot. But we don’t put masses of pressure on them to succeed in academic terms. Above all else, we want them to be happy. And if that means they are a little softer, a little squishier than they might otherwise be, then so be it.

Childhood is a very short and precious part of a person’s life. It is a time when the pressures of the adult world are (or should be) far, far away. This should be a time of friends, and joy, and laughter, and play, of the Tooth Fairy and of Santa. It is deeply sad that there are so many children who do not get to experience their childhood in this way. Now I have no doubt that there are many schools out there doing the most wonderful work in helping their children become strong, and tough, and resilient (not least because teachers are so great at making silk purses out of whatever sow’s ear the government hands them). But let’s just be careful not to wish away this most special, incredibly fleeting part of our children’s lives. Let’s not tell children that there are “no excuses” for not being good enough. (Especially when some of them come from a background where grit is already being thrown at them in spadefuls.)

Character is not something we can impose, nor is it something we can instill. Character is in everyone already, and so it is something we must draw out, and nurture, and tend, and encourage to grow. Because too much grit has a habit of destroying your paintwork. And you only need a tiny bit of grit in an oyster, to end up with a pearl.

Posted in Resilience | 1 Comment

The Kitten Manifesto (1st Draft)

The Kitten Manifesto was born out of an animated discussion among a group of Twitter users, about the way in which a very masculine terminology is pervading education (see here and here). The Kitten Manifesto is an attempt to put forward some ways in which we could ensure more equitable representation in all walks of life, and specifically in teaching. As teachers, we believe that we have a particular responsibility to ‘blaze a trail’ on this subject, because we are in a position to influence the next generation. See also the brilliant work being done in this area by @LetToysBeToys and @5050Parliament.

The Kitten Manifesto

1. Representation does not mean homogenisation.

Under represented groups should not have to take on the mores, language and attitudes of over represented groups, in order to ensure equitable representation.

2. Be aware of your privilege; use your privilege.

Be conscious of all the privileges you have encountered throughout your life. If you are in a position of privilege, use it to help others up, not to keep others down. Recognise that gender privilege is multi-facted and can be adversely affected by other characteristics, such as ethnicity and disability. It is the combination of these characteristics that can determine how much privilege you have.

3. All groups should be represented equitably, everywhere.

In education, this means it is as much about the equitable representation of people from black or minority ethnic backgrounds in SLT, or of men in early years settings, as it is about women on conference panels.

4. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

“No women put themselves forwards,” is not an excuse – look for them, encourage them. “We chose the best person,” is not an excuse, especially if those doing the choosing are from an already over-represented group. “Don’t read too much into that,” when under representation is pointed out is not useful, as it closes down the viewpoints of others.

5. It is not necessary to be rude to effect change.

It is always possible to model the behaviour that we want to see, and that we want to receive, even when we are deeply frustrated by the attitudes or behaviour of others.

6. Pick the words and images you use with the greatest of care.

In the Internet Age, a single image or quote can quickly make its way around the world. When we use words such as ‘feisty’, ‘nag’ or ‘bossy’ to describe a woman who speaks out, or when we draw attention to the clothing of women in government, we unwittingly reinforce an outdated view of gender. When photograph after photograph shows us a specific gender or cultural group as ‘leaders’, this reinforces the view that leadership is particular to this one group.

7. Inanimate objects and school subjects should not be ‘marketed’ as specific to gender.

The campaign to Let Toys Be Toys is calling for changes in the way that toys are designed and marketed, so that it is not suggested that only one gender of children ‘should’ play with them. As regards school subjects, there should be no gender divide – while the focus is currently on getting more girls to study physics or maths, equally we should encourage more boys to study arts or languages, if they so wish.

Thanks to @JulesDaulby, @LCLL_Director, @benniekara, @DiLeed and @EquitableEd. Follow the hashtag #genderedcheese to join in the conversation.

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Not Enough Kittens

Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels as though the language, attitudes and rhetoric around education are going through a peculiarly masculine phase. Grit, resilience, DIRT, rigour: there’s definitely a lack of fluffy kitten type words such as empathy, kindness, compassion. Even though four out of five staff working in schools are female (see 3a here), I regularly see images of panels at education conferences made up mainly or solely of men. Male voices dominate the discourse on Twitter. The terms ‘master’, ‘mastery’ and ‘master teacher’ are thrown around, as though these words have no possible gender connotations. And now, we are told, the government plans to expand its programmes designed to instill a ‘military ethos‘ into schools. I have absolutely nothing against people from other fields coming into education; I had a couple of other careers myself, before training as a teacher. But to prioritise and fast track entrants from one specific field seems odd, especially when so few appear to be taking up the opportunity.

I have no doubt at all that there are wonderful ex-service personnel, doing a fabulous job in schools. There is no reason at all why ex-service people should not enter the profession. Values in the forces, such as respect and responsibility, are ones with which all educators would concur. But we cannot avoid the fact that the services are a masculine environment, and that this is a career in which people are required to kill other people. We cannot close our ears to stories of bullying, sexual harassment and harsh training techniques in the army. We cannot pretend that conformity is not a key part of the way discipline is instilled. This is categorically not to say that I believe ex-services personnel would bring such things with them into schools. But equally I don’t think the government gets to pick and choose which parts of the military approach they mean, when they use the term ‘military values’. Because, to my ear at least, this term describes a powerfully masculine view of the world: and it’s a world in which there are absolutely, certainly, most definitely not enough kittens.

Posted in Schools | 3 Comments

I’m Just Not That Into You

I’m really sorry, Maths. People try to get me back into you. They talk me patiently through cashflows, urge me to take the right mindset to our relationship. We rub along okay together, don’t we? But you and me, if we’re honest, it’s like wading through mud. I have no real answer to where we went wrong, Maths, but I can take an educated guess. Do you remember when we were young? Pouring water from jug to jug, squelching in puddles on the floor. Sunlight spilling through the classroom windows and dust motes spinning in the air. We went with a few friends, do you remember that? Into the secret place that was our head teacher’s office, to talk through some puzzles. We were happy then. We had no fear.

But later, do you remember, things started to go wrong? You put me on the spot, insisted on answers I just didn’t have. Told me you were numbers on a grid, that I must remember (or else). Then later on, someone said you weren’t really for girls, anyway. And that was me done. We began to lose touch. We drifted apart. But do you know what swung it? It was when I met Miss Ladd, and Valerie and Hilary. They showed me how words could open up my world. That I could use language to make sense of my thoughts. And that was me, gone. Yes, I honestly believe you are beautiful, and magical, and full of wonder, Maths. But I’m really sorry to have to tell you this. I’m just not that into you.

Posted in Learning | 8 Comments

Burning Down The House

“I’m an ordinary guy. Burning down the house.”

The subject of creativity is endlessly fascinating (to me, at least). How does it happen? How do we do it? Why do some people do it well, while other people don’t? With enough time and effort, most of us can gain the bedrock of technique, discipline, understanding that is needed to be creative. And yet, even when we have gained it (in whatever subject), many of us do not go on to be creative with it. Why is this? What causes the gap between being able to write, and actually becoming a writer? I suspect it is about:

* an obsessive desire to work at it (whatever ‘it’ is) until you get it right

* a certain ‘stickability’ – refusing to give up when you find it difficult

* feeling secure enough to take risks, to experiment, to get it wrong until you get it right

* a willingness to throw lots of ideas away until you find the one that actually works

* looking for links and connections, especially ones that no one else has noticed

* looking for the right questions, rather than expecting to find the right answers

* coming at questions from a fresh angle, to see what things look like elsewhere

* a willingness to go over the top, being unafraid to make a fool of yourself

* not caring what other people will think or say about what you have created.

This last one is, to me at least, the key to unlocking our creativity. We must silence the internal editor that sits on our shoulders, nagging in our ears. “What will people think?” the voice says. “You’ll look really stupid if you say that,” it whispers. “Weirdo!” it shouts, if it thinks you’ve been ignoring it too long. But by its very nature, creativity often looks very strange at first glance, because it is ahead of its time. So, a word to the wise, for any prospective writers out there. When I hear that nagging voice in my ear, I send it packing, with the words: ‘I think you’re mistaking me for someone who gives a shit.’

(And I strongly suspect that David Byrne does the same.)

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W.A.I.T.*

* Why Acronyms In Teaching?

In my first year as a secondary school teacher, there was something called AR&R. The school had a deputy head teacher responsible for AR&R. It was the phrase on everyone’s lips. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea what AR&R meant. Not wishing to look stupid, I spent several months in blissful ignorance of what AR&R was, before I plucked up the courage to ask. (Assessment, Recording and Reporting, since you ask.) The world of education is extremely keen on acronyms. Overly keen, some might say. As with so many other aspects of teaching, we go through phases in our love affair with acronyms. Just now, we’re passing through an especially acronym-heavy phase. Often, acronyms stay in fashion for 3 years or so, then get discarded, to be replaced by an entirely different set of letters. But other acronyms limp on for years, acquiring extra letters until they seem sure to collapse under the weight of our expectations. I do feel rather sorry for the originally succinct PSE, which attracts new letters of the alphabet as though it were magnetic.

The Benefits of Acronyms In Teaching (or, BAIT)

* Saving time: Given that we spend so much time agonising over what the Office for Standards in Education do/want/say/mean, the acronym OFSTED saves us literally weeks in time each year.

* Saving space, saving face: When we use social media (especially Twitter) we need to condense what we want to say to fit it in. We might want to use an expression that we don’t like ‘saying’ out loud. FFS being a prime example.

* Selling an idea: An acronym can make something fairly mundane sound cool, modern and important. As teachers, we sound more professional if we can reel off a few acronyms that are peculiar to us. Selling an idea by using an acronym can make sense when it’s about persuading the kids (DIRT, DEAR, FAIL). Although a word to the wise: the novelty has a habit of wearing off quickly.

The Dangers of Acronyms In Teaching (or, DAIT)

* Selling an idea: an acronym can give an idea more weight or importance than it might perhaps merit. Maybe we’re tempted to chuck in an extra word to make our acronym sound really special. Yes, it’s useful for people to look at teachers when they are talking, but do they really have to nod as well? What if they don’t agree with what you’re saying?

* Brain parking: When an acronym becomes a system that everyone is asked to adopt, this may result in us parking our brains at the door. APP, VAK, AFL, NLP, SMART, SLANT. We know what the letters stand for, but we risk not thinking about what the terms mean. Acronyms can encourage us to take ideas on board wholesale, without questioning whether they really work for us and our children.

* Speaking in code: For those new to the profession, acronyms are baffling, they can alienate the very people who most need to access what we mean. Acronyms also risk keeping parents a step removed from their children’s education.

* Missing the big picture: When I read a phrase such as “the % of FSM with SEND” I give a little shudder. I feel like I need a sticker saying “A child who just happens to have …” so I can go around sticking it on DfE documents, and school policies, and anywhere else that the word ‘child’ has gone missing. There is a very real danger that the way we think about children is altered by our use of acronyms to describe them – that they become what we call them in a slow, drip-drip kind of way.

I was waiting to set up for a training session the other day, in a school hall, when a child came into the room. “I’m a Seefree,” he said to me, “where do I go?” I did a double take. “You’re a what?” I asked. “A Seefree,” he repeated. I have to confess that I completely failed to process the word. I had no idea what he could be talking about. Eventually, someone arrived to take him to his Level 3 Consequence (or ‘C3′) detention elsewhere.

Posted in Systems, Teachers | 3 Comments