Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Hidden Ill

There are days when the blogs have to be written, where the ideas are mounding up!

I'm assuming, if you are reading this, you're a lovely person with the wellbeing of their staff at heart. You are the Head who sent the flowers, who knows when someone has had an accident and broken something, who is trying their best to reduce the demands so their staff can have a work-life balance. You put things in a caring, human, way rather than ticking lines off a policy.  And this is great. The education world needs more of you.  But I wonder, have you noticed the Hidden Ill? Those staff who aren't toting crutches and bandages but inhalers, testing needles, painkillers? The ones whose immune systems are attacking them from the inside out? The ones who go home every night and cry because they can no longer manage their job but see no noble way out? The ones who don't want to make a fuss and just want to get on with things? 

How are you supposed to know they exist? What can you do to help? 

First off, a disclaimer, (as the days of Usenet used to say) I am not a lawyer. I can write from personal experience (with a happy ending) in the hope that another teacher can use this information to make their lives a little easier.  If you are a Head, you employ lawyers, if you are a (sensible) teacher, you are a member of a Union and they are great at advising.

The staff I am concerned about here are the ones that could fall under the Equality Act 2010, they are defined as "disabled"  That word possibly brings to mind certain images, certainly not hidden illness. However, a whole pile of people fall into this category:

"You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities." (Useful site)

Some illnesses are automatically covered (cancer to name a sadly common one) and some might be included depending on the severity (ME/CFS, asthma, arthritis, heart disease, mental health conditions) Many schools have an Occupational Health Service who might be able to advise, plus the member of staff's medical team will often write if the illness, in their opinion, would come under the Act.

I think a school should know if a member of staff falls into this category. As you can see, most of these illnesses cannot be seen, so it relies on a great relationship between a named senior member of staff and the rest of the school. Remember, the majority of people just want to get on with their job.  Someone might also choose to declare one of these illnesses when they move to a new job - this is great - there is a lump of money out there to help the new employer and employee.

If someone is covered by the Act then the school has to make "reasonable adjustments" to help (I suspect the school should do this even if the staff member isn't covered?). This might be by providing a larger PC monitor, a crate to wheel books around (rather than carrying them and making a sore back worse), a special keyboard for someone with arthritis, rest breaks, somewhere quiet to sit... It needn't be expensive. And it's a win-win - the member of staff's wellbeing is good, they are in work, the pupils have their teacher, you have a member of staff on your side.

Adjustments might, however, be outside the tight school budget and this is where Access to Work can help.  They provide money for equipment to help people get into work or stay in work. They can also pay for fares on public transport and in some cases pay for an extra person to help you do your job for a period of time.

I've used the system and it was pretty easy. I rang the number on the website and gave them my NI number and a brief outline of my illness. I got a case number and within a week someone (Neil) had called me back to discuss what I might need. At that stage I didn't know so they arranged for someone, with the same illness as myself, to come to school and do a workplace assessment. She looked at all the places I worked, discussed the adjustments I already had and came up with some ideas that no-one had thought of before.  She priced everything up and wrote a report. Once school had ordered the equipment, there was a short form to complete, invoices to attach, and the money was sent straight to school. If at any point I got stuck, I had the direct number for Neil and he was happy to clarify things, email documents and so on to help. I ended up with a great desk chair, identical to the ones the Met Office routinely have, that reduced my pain and fatigue (and so increased my wellbeing)

One of the little known things is that you can go back and ask for more equipment if things change at a later date, e.g. eyesight worsens or another hand starts to suffer with arthritis. This makes it worth applying for as a sort of insurance.

So, the Hidden Ill. As a Head, do you know who they are? Are you doing what you can? Did you even know you should be and that there was money to help you?

A final thing, The Education Support Partnership, once known as the Teacher Support Network. They've realised that a lot of great teachers are trying to leave teaching because of the workload and stress. As well as raising awareness they have a 24-7 helpline for school staff with counsellors who can talk you through things and links to financial advise and legal advise if you're not with a Union (Seriously, join a Union).  If anything in this blog sounds familiar then give them a call and ask for some advice. 

Wellbeing - Comfortable, Healthy or Happy?

Watching Twitter I see discussions about teaching drift by. One week it might be a headteacher asking parents not to wear their pyjamas to school, another it might be a celebration of a busted Ousted myth. One that seems to come along frequently is wellbeing - how are we, as teachers, looking after the wellbeing of our pupils? The internet tells me that wellbeing is:

"the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy"

There's a load of synonyms too - welfare, profit, security, safety, success, protection...

I think we can all agree that these are things we want for our pupils, in fact they must be safe and protected at school. However, I recently saw one tweet that said without staff wellbeing there could be no pupil wellbeing and that got me to thinking:

How much does your school look after your wellbeing? Are you comfortable, healthy or happy?

I asked around for anecdotes and here are a couple of possible situations:

A member of staff had to go into hospital very suddenly for an operation. They were in hospital for several days and many weeks recovering at home.  On their third day home a huge bunch of flowers arrived from the school, sending love and best wishes.  When the member of staff returned to work they thanked the Head's PA for the beautiful flowers.  It turned out that the flowers had been chosen, ordered and paid for by the Head himself.

Imagine how valued that member of staff felt? Their workplace was thinking of them, not in terms of a policy to get them back to work, but of their wellbeing.

A Head of Department notices that their staff are starting to droop, it's a tough term and the pressure is on.  They bring expensive doughnuts to work one morning.  The staff feel valued and pleased that someone has noticed they are struggling.

I'm sure there are more examples but I worry that the latest box-ticking, no money culture in schools means that these possible situations might occur:

A member of staff was recently diagnosed with diabetes.  The school were aware of some ill health but did not ask the staff member what had happened and if could they help. The member of staff used an office to test their blood sugars.  The school decided to rearrange the teaching areas and the member of staff was left with no safe, private place to carry out the tests. Was it up to the member of staff to tell the school about their recent diagnosis at the time or is it likely they would think it has no bearing on them being able to do their job? Who should they tell anyway? The Head? Or does the school have a duty of care towards that member of staff? To form a trusting relationship? To check that they are ok, regularly, in passing?

A school has an electronic card system to scan in and out of the building and a member of staff went to leave school late one evening. The school doors were locked, so they were stuck inside. The member of staff had scanned in, but no-one had checked the logs.

Which reminds me.... how many hours a week do you work? I've heard of 55-60 being common. How does that fit with wellbeing? How clean is your school? Does the winter cold linger like a cloud?

I don't have any easy answers, I'm merely observing and reporting. It doesn't take a genius to realise that overtired staff, with their own medical issues, who aren't taken care of, are in no fit state to look after the wellbeing of children.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

What my days are like now

After my physical collapse last year, and my subsequent ME diagnosis, things at work had to change. I've learnt a lot, and if even one person makes a tiny change to their day that helps them keep going, then it has been worth writing this.

I still arrive at work by 7.45am and I still grab a coffee and drop my stuff off. I'm fortunate that my partner works at the same school as me, so now I don't drive to work. It saves a bit of energy, surprisingly, and we've started listening to Radio 3 rather than shouting at the Today programme on Radio 4. It's a more relaxing journey for me - can you lift share with someone and give yourself a break early on in the day?

I am less frenzied in the morning, perhaps because I am getting more things prepared in advance. I always used to, and then I'd forget which class those worksheets were for, or I'd put them down somewhere and forget where.  I've reorganised how I store the class sets of books, and I put their worksheets on top of their books as soon as I collect them from copying.  A really simple trick is to write the class name on the top corner of the worksheet before it's copied - that's helping me a lot.

My form have been moved to my teaching lab and that makes a huge difference. I wander over there ten minutes before they are due to arrive and get set up for the first lesson, a little starter activity ready to go on the board, books out and on the right bench. Then I sit down. I stop. I close my eyes and take ten deep breaths. I relax my face, my hands, my shoulders. All that tension saps energy so it's important for me to check I'm relaxed before the first pupil meeting of the day.

My little year 7 form are still crazy, but now I get them to come to me with their planners, rather than me going to them. I sit.

The first class of the day arrive. I've stuck my "start of lesson" routine to the outside of the door ready, it seems to help them arrive more calmly. I can open the door to them, smile and greet them all as they arrive. It's a slicker start, and I can have a gentle lean on the door whilst they arrive.

At break I sit down in my room, close my eyes and have another tension check. I'll wander back to the office and chat to colleagues, but I won't check my emails or indulge in negativity.

Again, at lunch I try and stop somewhere. If my lab is being used then I've found myself sat in the staff toilets to get some deep breaths! At lunch I don't work. I'll leave the office ten minutes or so before the final lesson of the day and get back into my teaching lab if I can, ready to set up for the lesson.

At the end of the day, if there are no meetings, I stay where I am and check my classes books from that day. Often it's as quick as stamping "lesson objective met" whilst I can still remember what it was or putting a prompt on about how to improve - this gives me a ready made starter for the next lesson.  I only mark in half hour bursts, setting a timer to make sure I stop. A quick 2 minute break and I can carry on. Sometimes I have to take marking home but I am working with a member of the SLT to plan a marking timetable so I don't get swamped.

Once home I spend time with the Stop, Breathe, Think app. It gives me ten minutes or so of calm time where I can empty my head. I'm a scientist so I'm cynical of deep breathing and meditation as a cure all, however I wouldn't be without it now.

I'm not doing anything that the rest of the teaching world couldn't do, and yet I've managed to increase my resilience, get out of the latest ME dip and reduce my stress. My teaching has improved, my classes are happier.

If you do nothing else with your teaching, please look after yourself. Take 30 seconds to relax between lessons, it can't hurt.

What do you do all day?

Over the last few months I've had to change the way I work because of my diagnosis, and it's been a challenge. I started thinking about how my teaching day used to be and wondered how many other teachers do the same thing.

I used to arrive at work between 7.30am and 7.45am, and make a quick stop in the science office to grab a cup of coffee and offload my coat and bag. Then it was across the school to my main teaching lab to set up for the day, or logging into a computer in the office to do some last minute preparation/printing or read the emails that had arrived since the previous afternoon. On many days there was a meeting around 8am - a staff briefing, a departmental briefing or a year group meeting. My form would arrive at 8.15, to a room at the other side of the school from my teaching lab. I'd register them, deal with planners, missing pens, detentions, exam timetables before waving them off for the day and dashing over to my teaching lab, often being beaten to it by the first class of the day. I'd have to log in again to the computer, because someone else might have used the lab for their form, and try and get the lesson off to a start. It'd waste ten minutes and there was never a smooth start to the lesson, which could lead to some behaviour issues.

I'd come up for air at 10.30, usually finding my coffee sat where I'd left it two and a half hours earlier (I recommend Tervex mugs!) Break was supposedly 15 minutes, it never was. I'd shove a banana in and probably teach another two lessons, making it to lunch at 12.50. Forty minutes for lunch.... usually spent trying to answer the urgent emails that had arrived during the morning, sort out planning for the next week, catch up with colleagues to talk about shared classes, then one more lesson before teaching ended at 2.30.  

One afternoon a week there is a department meeting or school CPD session that usually ran until 4. Six times a year there are twilight ones that go on for an hour after that. As exam season approaches there are more and more pupils who want help after school - that can easily take up every spare evening. Plus detention duty once a half term.

Of course there were PPA hours scattered around my timetable. They were clumped together at the start of the week, making Wednesday afternoon, Thursday and Friday the ultimate test of endurance.

Once home, there was always marking to do, based around a format that seemed to require triple marking a lot of the time.

It's no wonder I was exhausted. Worse, I see my colleagues still doing this. I read emails where the ICT support have delayed the evening back up until 11pm so that staff can still work up until that point.

Is this you? Can you get out of this pattern? You need to.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

CPD - Reflection on a course

With time and money pressures it seems that fewer teachers manage to get out of the classroom these day and attend training courses. This means that the only professional development they receive is from their own school, and often this is based on the school's agenda and not that of the individual teacher. So, I was really pleased to hear about the Science Learning Network's free, online, behaviour management course. I immediately signed up.

I've been teaching several years now, and I know that I have a lot more behaviour management skills than I had as an NQT, but I was also aware than my increasing fatigue meant I was more prone to losing perspective and over-reacting to poor behaviour, and that a refresher would sharpen up my skills regardless.  The fact that I could do it in my own time also appealed - it fitted in perfectly with my reduced timetable, I could do ten minutes here and there, and there was no impact on, or contribution required from, school.

The course ran over five weeks, with the expectation that it would take about three hours a week. I found that it didn't take this long, but only because I didn't often listen to the lengthy podcasts - I found it hard to sit and listen to my laptop!  Each week focussed on a different idea, often with a task to carry out during that week, and an expectation that you posted a comment on the forum the following week reporting back on what you had done. If you completed this then you would be emailed a certificate (yay!) and get 10% off the "real life" course.

The first week looked at how children perceive things and their often reflexive emotional responses, and how we could focus on protecting the relationship. I loved how the course (in every week) had short video clips of the excellent Paul Dix telling a story of how he, or another teacher, had reacted in a situation. I often recognised myself or a colleague and felt less alone. Over the week I tried to be a role model for emotional control; I empathised, I kept difficult conversations private, I learnt to deal with distracting comments (...."but Miss, he started it!"), I awarded stamps/stickers/vivos and I stayed calm. The thing that made the biggest difference was committing to greet the pupils as they entered the room. It took a bit of extra organisation to make sure there was always something for them to do, but I stood at the door, smiled at each and every one and said something nice to them. The smile felt false for the first few lessons (which concerned me!) but it was often returned and meant we started out in a positive way.

Week 2 was about rules and routines. I had fallen into the trap of many experienced teachers of just expecting the pupils to know what I wanted, and also of expecting the school routines to somehow diffuse into my classroom. The result of this, when I look back, ranged from chaos (with more challenging classes) to slow starts (with my well behaved classes). I continued to greet pupils at the door, making them feel valued with my smiled greetings.  In my free time I made a series of simple posters (promptly asked for by some of my colleagues) that I displayed on the wall of my lab.

Each one has an icon showing a cartoon figure doing the correct action, and they are all positive things (rather than "Do not...") - Stay on task, One voice at a time, Follow instructions, Be ready to learn, Hands and feet to yourself, Share, Speak politely.

I found immediately that I could tackle much low level poor behaviour by simply walking over, pointing to the rule and saying "Gerald, you are not following the..... rule. Please think about what you are doing." I think every pupil, amazingly, apologised to me and got back to what they should be doing. It's such a simple thing and it made a massive difference.

I also made lists of rules for specific routines, e.g. the starts and ends of lessons, being late and practical work. I printed multiple copies of these out and displayed them around the lab. I also projected the start and end ones up on the board at the appropriate time. Again, I was amazed how well these worked. When my fidgety year 10 class were all sat down at the end of a lesson, the lab was tidy, peace reigned...

I started to display the Late one on the outside of my lab door once the time had elapsed and slowly pupils became used to stopping and reading it when they were late, rather than charging in the room as if nothing was wrong. It also meant I didn't have to try and remember who was late that lesson because their planner was already with me as they came in, plus I didn't have to break off from teaching to deal with them!

The trick with the routines is to do them to death, over and over again, until the class beg for mercy. It became so ingrained in them, and in their expected experience in my lab. The security and consistency seemed to reassure them. In fact, some (unexpected pupils) took great pride in reminding others about the way they were expected to behave in different circumstances.

Onwards to week 3 - rewards. This week Paul Dix proved himself to be a man after my own heart. I've never liked rewarding classes with sweets and at times have been fed up with colleagues who do to the extent that classes expect it from everyone (hence I'm the "meanie") It always felt like bribery, and more the job of a pleased parent than mine as a teacher.  This week I dusted off the aged school praise postcards and made a point of sending three home every week. I selected the three pupils as the ones that had gone over and above what I expected of them in that week. There was a useful phrase I included on each card - "If you would like to follow up with a reward at home it would be well deserved", and I made sure in the following week I had a quiet word with the pupil to find out what had happened. The smile on the face of the year 7 boy who had been treated to a McDonalds was worth the 5 minutes it took me to write the card. I also made one phone call home every Friday afternoon - these became very popular. Again, I made one Mum's week by telling her how pleased I was with her daughter as she said all she had ever had before were calls of complaint! It was also helpful when I met these parents at parents evening, we had already started a friendly, positive relationship so the pupil immediately felt supported by both of us.

By week 4 I was learning to be more assertive, using phrases like "I need you to...", "In 5 minutes you will be..." I think I already used phrases like this but it didn't hurt to be reminded of them, making sure I did use them consciously. By using light touch interventions (standing next to the pupil, using non-verbal cues) I slowed down mine, and the pupil's, rush to anger and argument. The course used video clips of staged classrooms really well here - showing a poorly managed one and asking you to think about what could be done, but then, and more usefully, showing you a well managed incident. This meant I could model what I did on something helpful.

I ended up with a list of diversion and diffusion phrases designed to slow an escalation down. I found the diffusers more useful - "I would be cross if that happened to me" deals with "Miss he's got my pencil!" amazingly well. I developed a script that I used every time to deal with poor behaviour, this was great for someone as tired as I was, I didn't have to think up something every time and get frustrated with myself!

The final week was about reparation and restorative practice. This was the trickiest one for me as my school doesn't really deal with this. We have a central detention system that tends to remove the offending pupil from the offended teacher. That said a year 7 form tutor did make the point of sending one of his tutees to me to apologise for her previous poor behaviour, and chasing that up with me to make sure it had happened. I've also used it to some extent if I have been able to talk to a disruptive pupil after a lesson, resetting boundaries and expectations.

So, overall, an incredibly useful course. And free. I loved the video clips of classrooms and  anecdotes and the suggestions for rules and scripts. These meant I could implement them straight away. It was helpful to have one thing to focus on that week, it meant I actually did them rather than leaving after a two day course, clutching a massive binder, overwhelmed with what I needed to do. I would have liked to have notes available to print off but in the age of technology I just typed them into my iPad and always had it to hand.

If you see the course advertised again, run don't walk, to your nearest internet connection and sign up.

And, yes, I got the certificate!

UPDATES - 19 March 2015

I had my first lesson observation of the year last week, with a year 7 group. Their behaviour was rated as "Outstanding". I'm putting that down to the start of lesson routine and simple behaviour rules that make their lessons a calm, yet fun, place to be.

Plus, if you missed out last time, the National Science Learning network are running another Behaviour Management Course in June 2015.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

#Nurture1415 That was the year that was.

Five Highlights of 2014

1. Discovering that "Everyone is tired, you'll be fine" wasn't something that applied to me. I'm fairly certain that by making this public I'll alienate lots of (narrow minded) employers, and that in itself is a shame.  Following a period of immense stress (that to my credit I spoke up about at work, and kept speaking up about) my body physically shut down.  This has now been officially diagnosed as ME/CFS. I have an answer, this means I can form A Plan.

2. The astonishing number of friends who supported me this year, both in person, and online. I don't want to be asked how I am every time someone sees me and treated like an invalid but I have appreciated the texts and phone calls out of the blue, and the twitter conversations that passed a sofa-bound afternoon.

3. My exam classes that took on the independent learning skills I'd been drip feeding them all year. This worked for them when I left school in the middle of May - they continued to work hard, knew what to do and got excellent results.

4. Cooking. Being at home on my own all day meant I had to make my lunch (rather than a sandwich, shoved down in 15 minutes). I discovered a range of salads via Pinterest, paced myself to make them, then enjoyed eating them over the following day or so.  I started to eat more fresh food and I started to feel better as a result.

5. The Science Learning Centre online behaviour course. The idea of a free online course is excellent, especially given my current limits (travelling, concentrating all day, release time from work, cost) This course was easy to complete - I could do it in little chunks when I felt capable and it changed the way I did things in my lab (I have routines that are public, the classes follow them, we all feel better!) I'm gushing - it was the best CPD I have done in years.  There's another one coming up soon, I think about assessment, I can't wait.

Five Hopes for 2015

1. Get back to work, successfully, full time.  The occupational therapist says I can do it, the specialist says I can do it. My hope is that I am given more time to make it work.

2. Smooth out the bumps.  ME gives me a boom-bust pattern of energy, some days I can feel fine but 24 hours later I am unable to stand. The trick is not to go crazy when the energy is there which is tricky if you are someone who loves to get out there and live life.

3. Exam marking. What can I say? I enjoy it (once the first 40 papers are out of the way) and I'm looking forward to getting back to it this summer (and taking on the challenge of a new exam board)

4. A new perspective on my teaching. After years of taking on new ideas and trying lots of different things I think it's time to take it back to basics - good classroom management and treating the kids as people not data points. More smiles all round.

5.  Me. If I'd spent more time in February-March thinking of myself, standing up for myself and asking for medical advice, I might just have avoided becoming ill. I'm now more conscious of how I'm feeling so this year I'm going to do more crochet/doodling/drawing/lego-building/cinema-visiting, all the things that give me energy so I can better cope with the things that drain it.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Where am I now?

Recently someone on twitter was compiling a list of teaching blogs that had been updated in the last six months - it reminded me that mine hadn't been. So, where am I now?

My resolution at the start of the year working, up to a point.  I happily zumba'd and WI'd and still managed to stay on top of my marking and planning.  I had a couple of job interviews but they weren't a good fit for me. I also suspect that being publicly honest, all be it via this blog, about wanting a work-life balance was putting some schools off.  I suspect that says more about them, and the state teaching is in, than about me.

I've had a set back with my health but I am determined to overcome it. After some time at home I was relieved to discover that I can still teach. Well.  I just need to pace myself and make sure I don't go racing around the lab anymore than I need to.  There's a lightness that comes with realising that teaching isn't everything I am - I'd love to work at a school where that is appreciated and celebrated.  More balanced staff, more relaxed staff, surely means better teaching and more care for the children.

I do wander what I would do if I wasn't teaching. What's my plan B (other than winning the Euromillions)?  I enjoy the intellectual challenge and I love spending time with young people.  

As much as I can I am building up my examiner skills - I have marked the iGCSE Alternative to Practical paper for a few years, and I've now got some experience with iGCSE Further Science (that made my unused chemistry brain hurt a bit!). Doing this, and perhaps getting into question writing and paper checking, is an alternative to teaching full time.

I know I'd miss the contact with the kids, so I've recently been looking into volunteering with the Girl Guides.  I went through the whole system as a kid, it's about time, as much as I can, for me to give something back.

I'm not really sure where I am right now, or where I'm going.  If a great opportunity came along, that fitted with what I now know, then maybe I'd take it.  Until then I'm living each day as it comes.