Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Becoming a HoD Part 1

In five days time I will be at work as Head of English for the very first time.  At results day I could still hide a little, safe in the knowledge that at that point, I was barely more than a cabin boy with some weird primary transition duties and a wee snifter of KS3 to look after.  However, come the beginning of the new school year, I have nowhere to hide.

This is an interesting position to be in, as I've never been in charge of much more than an EPQ before now.  As such, I expect this year to be jam-packed with trials and problems and issues and disasters and, with a fair wind, some successes too.  I have worked with some inspirational and excellent HoDs in my 7-year career, and would be ecstatic if I could measure up to them in any way.  I have also met some quite difficult leaders, and I hope that I may well have learnt from the experience.  Whatever happens, it will all be new and I will be under a great deal of pressure, so I think this could be the start of a healthy and possibly therapeutic series of blog-posts outlining my time as a proto-HoD, and the many adventures I have along the way.

I will attempt to blog weekly, as far as I can manage, but for now I shall content myself with outlining the focuses I have given myself for the first week, so we can track how they go over time.

1. Teach my lessons.

2. Get through the first day without forgetting I'm meant to be in charge of proceedings with my dept and waiting for someone else to start the meeting;

3. Finish the organisation for the year, including dates for CW, exams, moderation, meetings, reports and all the usual bumf;

4. Get my poor head around the intricacies of Performance Management and CPD;

5. Set my stall out re: expectations of behaviour, effort and progress;

6. Make my first major target for the dept clear: to be a 'famous' department that the students chat and yammer about, because interesting and chat-worthy things are happening there;

7. Have a chat with the new headteacher and see what he can offer English;

8. Sleep well;

9. Look after our two new starters in the dept, and make sure they know what's going on and how to get on well.

10. Minimise sobbing to around 5 minutes per day.

We shall see how it goes.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

My year as a 'Cross Phase Leader' Part 2

Now I had managed to communicate with the primary schools and agree to work with them, what did I actually do?

As I have already said, the main reason my job existed was to push our school and make it a more attractive proposition for Year 7.  I may have managed to soften this objective for my own sense of well-being into one that was primarily about helping students, but I still had to deliver for the powers-that-be.  This meant that any time working with Year 6 was essentially time wasted, as they had already made their minds up.  Far better to work with Years 4 and 5, as the decision was still pending for them, and therefore there was plenty of opportunity to get them to consider our little school.  The trouble was, the primaries were very keen indeed for me to work with their Year 6s - the looming SATs were clearly on their minds, and my offer of helping with 'reading and writing' was very attractive.  For the first two terms of this outreach (Christmas and January terms), Year 6 was all I was offered.

Aware that it was unhelpful to my main objective, I took the work anyway.  I reasoned that many of the students I was going to work with were to end up at my school anyway, so it would aid transition (especially useful now I am Head of English, so quite a useful 'familiar face' for them to have - though I didn't know this at the time).  It was probably going to help raise my profile within the schools too - allowing me to work with the Year 4 and 5 students later on in the year.  So I planned some a detailed writing unit for these Year 6 classes.  I had them once a week, for around an hour, for a whole term.  This meant I needed seven full lessons that really engaged them with writing (the skill their teachers had identified as being weaker).  I created a unit based loosely on The Demon Headmaster and Boy, by Roald Dahl: the concept was a short story, with character development and clear structuring, about a new headteacher who turned out to be 'odd' in some way.  Each week focused on a different skill, utilising 'slow writing' techniques a great deal: cohesion one week, detail and imagery the next, punctuation a third and so on, until the students were ready to create their delightful little tales.  With a clutch of level 5 and 6 workunder their belts, the students were happy to have made progress, and the primaries were more willing to let me work with students from further down the school.

I did some reading work, again based on Boy, with some Year 5s, focusing on the skill of inference and evidence gathering.  Year 4 students worked with me on a writing topic based on the Titanic, focused on finding the 'joy' in writing and developing vocabulary and simile creation.  Some Year 3 students, and goodness me they were tiny and quite frightening at times (they are so very different even to Year 7s), worked on a speaking and listening topic, again based on the Titanic (stick with what you know, that's my motto!) where they created really quite startlingly professional TV news reports on the sinking.  Jabberwocky was a focus for another group of Year 5s, where we worked on creating meaning through language, ensuring every word counted.  All of these units were around one hour a week for about a term, and I think in total I must have worked with over one hundred students from around the town.

However, there was a problem.  I was able to collect work, mark it and share it with them, but I had no idea about progress over time.  It was difficult to liaise with their class teachers, so by the end of the year I was aware that I had no idea - really no idea at all - whether I had had a positive impact on their progress.  It dawns on me that this is likely the biggest downfall to the programme.  As a teacher who is very much led by marking and then developing work, this was hard to handle; in the end I had to content myself with the fact that I was very unlikely to be doing educational harm to these students, and to liaise with the primaries over their SATs results whenever I could.  As these things should always end with an evaluative note, checking progress would be an area of development for the next time I make it to the primaries.

So, my year was over.  I had managed to get myself promoted to Head of Department by May, so it is clear to me that I will be spending far less time in the primary schools in 2014-15.  Cross-phase standardisation, moderation and joint planning had taken baby steps, but were by no means fully implemented, and I had worked with more Year 6s than I'd wanted to.  On the other hand, the units of work had been enthusiastically received, and communication routes had been set up between the schools, and we saw a raise of around 25 students entering for Year 7, so all in all, it wasn't a bad year.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

My year as a 'Cross Phase Leader' Part 1

Back in May 2013, I was given a promotion.  It was a Second in Department job of sorts, having responsibility for KS3 curriculum and assessment, and a 50% timetable.  This seems very generous, but I was expected to spend that time doing something else entirely - working with primary schools.

Schools try many different methods of communicating with their partner primary schools, and can spend a lot of money, or very little.  The importance of such work is generally accepted, though it is often hard to pin down exactly what benefits we are expecting to reap from transition efforts.  Often it's a simple case of attracting Year 4 and 5 students to our schools - advertising the quality of the place to the main consumers; sometimes it's a worthy desire to help the students cope with the terrifying change of scenery and routine; occasionally, and I whisper it, it can be through a need to tick the appropriate box.

Happily, in my case, the first two reasons were paramount.  We are a small school, struggling in a very competitive area with two other, much longer-established secondaries.  The work of the four Cross Phase Leaders (English, Maths, STEM and PE) was in many ways simple: attract more students to our school, to help keep it viable.  However, this is a desperately 'private sector' approach, and clashed with my woolly lefty personality of education being for the kids, so I had to smother this core concern in a more Pete-friendly smock of 'helping students'.  I reasoned we in the English department could learn a lot from our peers in the primaries, and could engage in very practical issues such as cross-phase moderation, standardisation and possibly even planning.  I also wanted to take my own particular brand of teaching down to the Year 4s and 5s, hopefully working with them on projects that they wouldn't normally get involved in.  In short, I was trying to achieve quite a lot.

Once September 2013 came along, the order of the day was networking.  It's astonishing how few contacts we had with the primary schools.  We could easily get in touch with the heads of our main 'feeder' schools, of course...but what about the other schools - the ones we were interested in, as they would enlarge our catchment?  By the end of the year I had made contact with, and worked with, about 70% of the town's primaries, but what a hell of a job this was.  The break-through came in the form of the town's primary Literacy meetings which take place three times a year.  These have a teacher from every primary, and they spend time discussing curriculum changes and SATS.  Once I had infiltrated this - actually inviting them to have their January meeting in our school library - the rest was easy.  I chaired the meeting, chatted to everyone, got their emails and that was that: easy access to every primary.  Having a key contact in every school is very useful - it may be their Literacy Co-ordinator, their deputy head, or a class teacher, but it doesn't matter.  What you need is an ally who will organise things at their end, spread the word and act as a point of contact whenever you want to work with the students at their school.

Before starting the job, we CPLs had been warned of the difficulty of communicating with primary colleagues.  We were told horror stories of teachers who never check emails, or who are actively hostile to any secondary teachers who dare to enter their domain.  I was expecting to meet endless walls of resistance, but what I found in reality were warm welcomes and eager requests for help.  Most of the primary colleagues were incredibly keen to let me work with their students on 'different' work.  Any extra input on reading or writing skills was instantly snapped up, to the point where it became difficult for me to juggle everything.  The 50% timetable began to look too heavy.  In truth, I was astonished at how willing primary teachers were to get me in front of their students; but then I considered - if someone was willing to drop in and teach my Year 10 class once a week, freeing me up, I'd jump at the chance too.

The horror stories had been over-elaborate and exaggerated.  The job of working with multiple primaries across town seemed to be a little more achievable.

Part 2 will be about what I actually did in the primaries.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

A teacher and his ticks.

We teachers all love ticking work.  That green, unaccompanied tick on every page of an exercise book - a solemn nod to the Ofsted inspector that this work has been read by teacher, and that the student must, therefore, be making lovely rapid progress.

Ah, sarcasm.  Can't beat it.  But as a slightly foolish and over-excitable relative of irony, very relevant indeed.  For this week, the ticks were not a teacher's best friend at all; no, they made life a complete misery.

Exmoor is a beautiful, wild zone separating the Bristol Channel from the A361, a realm of heather-smirched rounded hills and terrifying steep descents into sleepy seaside towns.  It is famous for its scenery, its cider, its horrifying 1950s floods and its beautiful population of red deer, which have wandered the place since God-knows when.  These deer are content to bellow maniacally and smash each others' heads in, seemingly oblivious to the grim creatures that stud their exterior.  Deer, you see, are the Pearly Kings and Queens of Exmoor, studded with tiny, shiny humps of pearlescent white and marbled brown - often resembling the branch of Selfridges in Birmingham, so cloaked in blood-sucking ticks they are.  For these arachnid vampires are a very real presence anywhere that large mammals such as red deer, roe deer, dogs and people interact with each other through the medium of long grass: a lesson I have learned well this week.

Exmoor's coast, near Lynton.
A picture of a tick would just gross you out.
Pitching a tent by a river on a flattened plain of trampled long grass seemed a splendid idea at 6pm in the evening, after a long drive along apparently endless hills of 25% gradient and above.  Get the tent up, crack open a beer and sob by the camp fire - that was the plan.  And it worked.  The tent was up in no time, the beer was rivaling the stream at our feet in volume and swiftness of flow, and the exhausted sobbing of amateur campers could be heard in Tiverton.  In fact, the whole time there went reasonably well.  Maritime vistas were photographed and instantly spread by Facebook, steak was consumed in dusty old inns tucked under perilous cliffs and dogs were befriended and sat by the campfire like sentinals.  It wasn't until we had packed our tent and made our way home that we discovered we had stowaways, presumably picked up from the long grass that had become our carpet.

No red deer had been seen at all in the week, so ticks had been of little concern to us; our hubris would have made Macbeth tut and shake his head in worry.  For my part, I had never even seen a tick in the wild, and was of the opinion that ticks only ever happened to 'other people' - people who liked carrying maps in plastic envelopes around their necks and ate Kendal mint cake more than once a year.  They never happened to folk who drank lattes and drove a Fiesta.  Well, they did happen
.  Four separate ticks, all nuzzled in that peculiarly intimate way of theirs into just one individual.  Four tiny little beasts - spiders drawn by toddlers - all eagerly burrowing down to the artesian well of blood that lies beneath the skin.

Cue a brace of days frantically tumble-drying every single item of clothing taken on the trip, at a high heat, for twenty minutes.  Cue panicked research online into the order of symptoms and likeliness of death from Lyme Disease.  Cue endless - limitless and deathly boring - examinations of bare skin every time an itch was felt.  Believe me, the experience was so icky that itches were a constant, dull reminder of the body's ability to freak itself out unnecessarily.  Everything itched.  I'm fairly certain that for a short time, even my pockets were itching.

It's all over now, but I'm painfully aware that should another darling little critter rear its abdomen at any point in the next week, we'll have to go through the whole de-ticking process once more, at which point I will probably just give in to their whims and allow them to turn me into a walking nosebag.

I look forward to September, where I will once again be dishing out the ticks, rather than being a dish for them.