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.