I cannot believe that it’s only been two weeks since I started Teach First – it feels like months since I left my old job. Don’t get me wrong – I’m enjoying it hugely, but it just goes to show that when you get really absorbed in a bubble, it’s difficult to break out of it and to remember that other stuff is going on. If it weren’t for twitter I wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on at Wimbledon.
This past week has been a bit mixed in terms of how we’ve been spending our time, so I’m not going to go through it in minute detail – as per, I’ve gone through my notes and picked out the things that really struck me.
Two great things on Monday: discussing our reading for the “Identity, Community and Achievement” part of the Leading Self Workshop was really interesting (although I would beg Teach First to not make us start at 8am again!) The very short reading was about awareness of self-identity and the identity of others, and how this can effect teaching if the teacher – consciously or subconsciously – treats an individual or group differently because of their identity.
Since the vast majority of the West Midlands cohort is white, being aware of that privilege is extremely important in classrooms where the majority of kids may well be from non-white families. An interesting term I encountered was “naïve egalitarianism”, which denotes the kind of behaviour a teacher exhibits when they purport to treat their students “all the same”, regardless of race or background. While this might sound like the politically correct thing to do, this essentially contributes to systematic erasure of cultural identity and is tantamount to exclusion of the minority. On the other hand, marking a group out as “Other” because of who they are is equally dangerous. Something to think about in terms of maintaining a balance and designing a curriculum which will engage all of the kids. I like to think I’m already quite familiar with this concept, thanks to the work NUS has done in terms of Liberating the Curriculum* in Higher Education – but let’s see what happens when I get into the classroom.
We also had an excellent contextual lecture from the Director of the Institute of Education at Warwick, which essentially gave us the background of government policies and issues in urban education and urban schools. It was really useful to get a sense of where the notion of publicly funded school education came from and the legislation that followed it, given the shake-up currently going on in the sector under the Conservatives. The idea that the improvement of education must be premised on the “raising of standards” is evidently not a new one, but I still find it ridiculous as a concept – after all, as Sir Ken Robinson said in his RSA video, “why would you lower them?”
It was also interesting to remember that when the first City Academies were announced in 2000, they were designed for schools that were perceived to be struggling – now a lot more outstanding schools are becoming Academies. I’m going to try to blog on Academies and different types of school at some point as I still haven’t made my own mind up about the changes. I’ll also be interested to see Teach First’s work over the next ten years in terms of rural schools – currently it does target inner-city schools, but surely as it continues to expand rural schools will become actively included, and rightly so.
From Tuesday to Friday morning we were all in school for observation. I’m not going to write a huge amount here as to be honest, I’m pretty sick of observing lessons, regardless of how good they are – it was a real treat to be able to teach a class by myself on Friday, even if it was only for 20 minutes. I’ll say this though: the difficulties of teaching SEN kids really hit home this week after I observed a year 7 class that was made up of pretty much all SEN kids. I’m still processing how I’m going to deal with that if I have a class like that in my school.
It was also useful (if a little draining) to spend two days observing the year 6 cohort who were joining this school as year 7 in September. It was remarkably easy to jump to conclusions about what kind of person they are and what their behaviour was like after only a few hours – first impressions must make a huge impact on how teachers treat children so the onus on kids to behave on their first day is absolutely massive. They also put them through a series of Cognitive Assessment Tests, which most schools do. It terrifies me a bit that the standardisation of intelligence starts before they’ve even got their uniform.
On a more positive note, I was pretty pleased with how my lesson went on Friday and had some very good feedback, which was a big relief and now I can’t wait to start teaching properly! It was also interesting to see, in various observations, that strict teachers can still be engaging and approachable to kids – as long as they get the balance right.
Finally, on Friday afternoon we all re-grouped for Professional Studies, where we talked a fair amount about Behaviour for Learning. The real thing that I took away from this was a point that I raised – which was whenever we talk about BFL, we always seem to start with the discipline, punishments, sanctions and so on. We rarely, if ever, start with the positive basis for BFL – the praise, the reward. I think this is crucial for understanding how kids behave. If we start from the premise of what is expected, and why it is positive, rather than starting with what the kids should not do or X, Y and Z will happen to them, then I think this makes a huge difference. I’m not one for giving praise for the sake of it, but I don’t think we give it enough – especially for the good, but quiet kids who sit down, get on with their work, and never get any credit for it. It’s something I’ll definitely be keeping in mind as September approaches – as the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
In other words, when it comes to BFL, I’m using Pirates of the Caribbean** as my reference point.
Finally on Saturday I took part in the Challenge Day, which was loads of fun – we had to build our ideal indoor learning environment out of scrap materials (our group came top for creativity and second out of four overall, it was definitely the fishtank that nailed it!). Then we got together in groups to do some problem solving for various ventures or organisations – I was part of the group looking at the National Orchestra For All (NOFA), a fantastic orchestra for kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to play music. I think we came up with a lot of ideas to help them out and make them sustainable so hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them soon!
A last little thing that one of the participants told me this week which has really stuck with me: “you do have to build that professional wall with your kids, but you have to use glass bricks”.
I can’t wait for September.
*If anyone wants a copy of the study, let me know – short but worthwhile read!
**Obviously I’m referring to the “guidelines” concept here, nothing that amounts to piratical justice or keelhauling.