All good things come to an end. And while I might not be ending the blog, I feel like there has been a significant shift, personally, from my perspective from when I began it, back in February 2015, to now.
The main difference, I feel, is that I am far more settled into the role of supply teacher…sorry, freelance teacher, and I no longer feel half as embittered as I did back when I left full time teaching. Maybe I’ve just gone through the processes of grief, from anger, denial etc all the way to acceptance. Maybe it’s that I’ve recently got involved in another pet project that occupies a lot of my spare time but I don’t feel the inclination to write so much any more and I’ve certainly not the inclination to go on Twitter and get any sort of following there. Twitter just seems to be a mire of people shouting opinions and insults or ranting on about the debate of progressive vs. traditional education. A debate, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced voiced in the ‘real’ world (ie, an actual school).
As an aside, the trad/prog debate mostly seems to be people on the internet shouting that anyone who doesn’t follow a certain dogma of traditional education must be a ‘progressive’ who isn’t interested in teaching kids anything except how to discuss feelings (I’m obviously being belligerent, don’t bother responding to it. I do find traditionalists to be appear quite reactionary if you say anything contradictory to their education worldview).
Maybe it’s because the agency I’m with have been great and got me placements in good schools that I don’t feel as pissed off about the whole experience. Maybe I’ve accepted the different pace and work/life balance is much better for me and my family this way. Maybe I enjoy going into difference classes without having to worry about being judged everyday, deal with some idiotic parent or attend an interminable staff meeting about marking in different coloured pens. Maybe I’m just enjoying teaching, without having to be a ‘teacher’.
Whatever the reasons, I don’t feel I can or have as strong an urge to dedicate the time to the blog that I once did. Back in September, I resolved to post an average of one post a week, something I’ve kept up with since then, during term-time (apart from an occasional issue with auto-sheduling), and intend to round that off as we close down into the end of July. But after that? I don’t know.
I’ll still post stuff but mostly silly stuff (you may have noticed that my last few months of posts have generally been frivolous or shortsillythings, not ‘comment’ [translation: moaning]) but I doubt I’ll keep to my personal deadline of one post a week or produce as many heavy handedposts.
It’s been a pleasure but I just don’t feel as angry as I once did.
Connexus left me a voicemail today, asking that I call them because a school needing supply had asked for me by name. This is the first time the agency have called me this year.
Before calling back I was wondering which school it would be. It had to be the school I did a load of work with at the end of the summer or the one I got on really well with before then, right? No. It turns out that it was a school that I had no recollection of and where I did one day at, back in October. One of the 6.5 out of a possible 24 days that Connexus booked me during the first term.
However, I couldn’t do the placement as Versatile already booked me for an afternoon elsewhere. Some of you may think that is foolish, passing up a full day’s work but to get to the the school in question, I’d have to leave before 7am and do a round trip of 44 miles. That alone makes the sacrifice worth it.
I also felt a sense of pleasure in turning Connexus down, since I phoned them so many times only to come up against a continual wall of nothing from them. Then, there they are, asking me to do a placement for them because a client has specifically requested me. Proves that they’re getting work at least, it doesn’t explain why they stopped calling.
Going back to the booking for a moment, I miscalculated the date and thought that I’d originally visited that school after the October half term. If that were the case, I was going to get all data-focused and explain that it actually meant that 100% of the Connexus schools wanted repeat business, while Versatile’s repeat business requests stood at a limp 14.28%. Surely Connexus sounds like the better agency now and it’s Versatile that should be heading off the cafe…or it just demonstrates how you can warp data to suit a certain point of view. At some point in the future, I’ll expand that concept out into a longer post…
We think of Santa Claus as a benevolent, giving fellow, keeping his eye out to make sure that all the girls and boys have been good, when really it is clear that he should have been keeping a watch a bit closer to home. While he was focused on ensuring that the target of delivering millions of presents in one night is met (something we can all agree that he excels at every year), he has done so at the cost of the happiness of a key member of his staff.
If you look at the Staff Welfare Policy for Llandrindod High School, (which just happened to be the fifth Google result for ‘school staff welfare policy’ and appears to be a fairly indicative of what a school staff welfare policy should look like) the opening paragraphs state that the policy’s general principals are that:
Every member of staff will be treated courteously, with dignity and respect at all times
Every member of staff is entitled to work in an environment free from discrimination or prejudice, be it based on gender, religion, age, sexual orientation or race
Duties and responsibilities relating to staff’s individual roles will be clearly identified
(Llandrindod High School Staff Welfare Policy, 2014: 3)
It is apparent, and I will explain why, that Santa Claus in his single-minded pursuit of his target driven enterprise, systematically failed to address all three of these points.
Robert May’s 1939 study, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, into the working practices of key members of Santa Claus’ senior leadership team makes for very enlightening reading. In the text, May highlights several examples of sustained bullying by a clique of eight reindeer against Rudolph, a younger reindeer with a nasal pigmentation condition. This victimisation appears to be based solely upon this condition and resulted in Rudolph being ‘called names, laughed at and excluded from any reindeer games.’ (May, 1939: 1) Already it is clear that Santa Claus has not ensured that ‘every member of his staff is treated courteously, with respect or dignity’ (Llandrindod High School Staff Welfare Policy, 2014: 3) or that they have been ‘entitled to work in an environment free from discrimination or prejudice.’ (ibid: 3) While skin pigmentation disorder is not listed as one of the protected characteristics in Llandrindod High School’s welfare policy, it is clear that the policy should cover the condition under the umbrella of disability (interestingly, a characteristic that Llandrindod High School themselves have failed to address in their policy).
It could be argued that Santa Claus was not aware of the actions of the senior leader reindeer team and the effect it was having on his newest member of staff, who may have otherwise felt intimidated by the actions of his more experienced colleagues. It is possible that Rudolph felt unable to voice his concerns to his line manager. Indeed, although speculative in this case, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is not uncommon for victimised staff to blame themselves for the actions of others. What makes Santa Claus an ineffective headteacher, however, is that he did not notice something was wrong with his Newly Qualified Reindeer (NQR) despite the fact that it must have been having a detrimental effect on his workplace performance.
One can only assume that Santa Claus was so focused upon achieving the highly challenging floor-level target of delivering presents to ‘just over 526,000,000 Christian kids under the age of 14 in the world who celebrate Christmas on December 25th’ that he lost sight of whether his team were able to deliver this in a way that would not negatively affect the very staff members he was expecting to deliver it. Some of the blame for this must also be laid at the door of the inspectorate (OFMAS) for creating a climate of fear and pressure across the sector, with such a heavy focus on results and present attainment.
Regardless of the above issues, if we refer to point three of Llandrindod High School’s welfare policy, it is clear that Santa Claus has not ‘clearly identified [Rudolph’s] individual duties and responsibilities’ (Llandrindod High School Staff Welfare Policy, 2014: 3). Why was he employed? The sole responsibility of Santa’s reindeer is in the sleigh pulling department and, although Rudolph has been employed as part of this team, until recently he had not been tasked with fulfilling any duties. It is almost understandable that resentment towards Rudolph would have grown if his colleagues perceived him to not be pulling his weight within the larger group. However, at no point does this make the bullying actions of Rudolph’s colleagues acceptable or appropriate.
Rudolph’s case reaches some form of resolution during one ‘foggy Christmas Eve,’ (May, 1939: 1) when Santa Claus finally calls on him to demonstrate his proficiency and unique worth within the team. After this event, the rest of the reindeers finally accept him as one of their own. However, prior to this, Santa Claus should have implemented regular performance management meetings where issues and concerns from both sides of the table could be addressed and dealt with, in a considered and professional manner. Had Rudolph had the opportunity to raise his concerns about his treatment, it would be hoped that Santa would have had a statutory policy for staff discipline and grievance or, if Rudolph was found to not be fulfilling his basic duties, that the North Pole would have a standard approach to staff capability procedures. Sadly, it seems unlikely that Santa Claus would have had these measures in place. Questions should also be asked about why there was also no reindeer union representation in the workplace.
In conclusion, Santa Claus would make an awful headteacher – or indeed any manager – because he has become so blinded to the larger picture of hitting targets (set by external agencies that come with their own unique set of pressures) that he had forgotten the importance of ensuring the happiness and support for all of his staff. By losing sight of the minutiae of his day-to-day operation, Santa Claus allowed divisions to appear within his team, which, although they may not have an immediate effect on achieving targets, did have the potential to sow seeds of dissatisfaction and unhappiness that could create far bigger problems at a later date. In spite of all the external pressures of the position; targets, OFMAS, parental expectations and concern over compromising situations with children’s mothers, it is one of a headteacher’s responsibilities to ensure the welfare of all of his staff so that they are able to fulfill their duties to the best of their abilities. If this approach is taken, the reindeers will feel they are valued and will want to hit their targets, rather than have to hit them.
The other week I wrote about The Black Dog of Planning and how planning gave me the heebie-jeebies. Since then, I’ve read a couple of other blogs concerning planning and the sometimes onerous levels that some teachers have to go to produce a plan and it’s made me think about how much time can be wasted on overly detailed lesson plans.
What’s the problem with planning?
Planning is important. Do not forget that. It guides your teaching, directs a sequence of lessons and shows that you know what you are doing but that’s all it should be – a guide and some direction, not an overly prescriptive opus. When I started out (as, I am told many NQTs do, my planning was extraordinarily overly detailed) but as you get more experienced you can drop a lot of that detail and hold the additional information in your head as you deliver it. You might forget some pearl of wisdom from your plan but, to be honest, that happens even when you’ve ascribed everything onto paper anyway – it’s not like it’s good for the flow of a lesson to stop everything and check that you’ve used all the terms in the Key Vocabulary box.
SLT don’t need long plans, and Ofsted say they don’t want them. So what’s the point? What can really be gained by spending as long typing a lesson plan out, as it does to teach the thing? Some schools insist that plans are printed out and handed to SLT or the Head weekly. The only purpose of this that I can see, is so that they can file them away, thus giving the impression that they’ve done lots of work as the shelves in their offices are buckling under the strain of 40 tonnes of pulped forest.
It’s inevitable that if you have ten detailed boxes to tick (eg subject, objective, starter, main teaching, plenary, differentiation x3, resources, key vocabulary, prior learning, next steps, directed support) you are probably spending more time on details that the planning contains rather than its effectiveness.
But the fear is that if all that detail is not there in black and white for all to see, it doesn’t exist and you will be hauled over the coals for it! So it is decreed, from above, that all teachers need to include this almost spurious information in what should otherwise be a simple snapshot of your intended lesson.
A fresh approach:
I taught in a school a few weeks ago that used this as their planning:
OK, I wouldn’t have wanted to start out using something that basic but just look how simple it is – a whole week of planning contained on one A4 page! Certain lessons (eg PSHE or phonics etc) would warrant their own individual plans but otherwise each lesson on that overview would be given coherence and detail by the resources and interactive whiteboards and any competent teacher would know the differentiation for each child in their class and be able to adapt their teaching accordingly. Think of the time saved producing that one sheet instead of x number of pages and who knows how many more boxes.
And just to sweeten the joy:
In my first school, I was horrified to learn that we had to hand our annotated planning in to the SLT (duplicates of course, as we had to retain our planning and the school had to ensure the photocopying spend was twice what it actually needed to be). Consequently, a number of teachers annotated their planning retrospectively, at the end of the day, not because it was useful but to show that they annotated their planning.
Now re-read that sentence and consider the stupidity and futility of that exercise.
Now you might think I’m just moaning without practical solutions but I suggest that a lot of the (literal) boxes do not need to be ticked. A good teacher knows the class and knows who needs what support and differentiation. A good teacher will know if something has worked and what the next steps are. A good teacher does not need a box for resources, key vocabulary, next steps, shoe colour, trouser length or number of pets. By all means let a teacher add detail to the planning if it helps but don’t force everyone into that same box.
It’s been interesting being offered supply work by my new agency. They seem determined to offer me unsuitable, Y6 full-time positions (bearing in mind they know I can only work part-time and hate teaching Y6). What’s has been interesting is my reaction to their offers of longer term work. Instead of being with the same children every day, a regular commute or the prospect of being with the same colleagues all the time, what really makes me feel angsty about longer term placements is the prospect of planning.
Planning…be it Y2, PPA cover, nursery or whatever, the prospect of having to plan really makes me feel queasy and unsettled in the stomach.
This reaction has been a bit unexpected. Planning is one element of teaching you can just get on with in your own time and in your own head space but at the moment that is the one aspect of teaching that I really don’t ever want to have to do again.
In my first school, we were just kind of free to plan how we wanted. As long as the kids were going in the right direction and no-one died, SLT appeared content. I took this approach to my next school, to find that the SLT did not appear content with it. From the off, my planning was dissected and deemed unsatisfactory, which lead to weekly ‘support meetings’ where every aspect of the planning that I’d spent most of the weekend producing was analysed.
It was down to me to justify each choice I’d made with, seemingly, a retort or response about why each choice was not satisfactory and questions about why I was doing what I was doing or why I wasn’t taking a different approach. It got to the point that each Monday afternoon my anxiety levels would be raising as I anticipated this ‘support’ and then spent the entire meeting trying to second guess what the SLT would like to hear, so as to not have the next aspect of my weekend’s work torn to pieces.
You will note that I don’t feel like this was a particularly supportive experience. It certainly didn’t help me improve my practise or make me feel supported.
I’m definitely not saying that teachers who are seen to be struggling should not be supported but often, in schools, support comes in the guise of more and more observation and deconstruction of the exact thing that you have been told is a weakness and, consequently, now feel insecure about. For some people – myself included – that additional focus and attention just makes the problem ten times worse as you expend so much physical and emotional energy trying to second guess the correct response to questions you don’t know you will be asked. Time and energy that could be better spent actually thinking about how to produce a better quality lesson.
To be honest, I’m not sure what the answer is to ensure that teachers that need support are given it in a supportive way. I’m not sure how one would support an area of concern without drawing additional attention to that area. Thoughts?
Considering leaving your full time position to become a day-to-day supply teacher? Fancy a better work/life balance that day-to-day supply offers? Here are 9 don’ts of day-to-day supply teaching (all of which I have done or still do on a regular basis).
DON’T…believe what the supply agency tells you.
The supply consultant has a job to fill and needs to fill it, otherwise they don’t get paid. What you are good at teaching is secondary to that need.
In one instance, the agency called and offered me a ‘horrible Y3 class’ (my words, not theirs) for two days time. I said I’d prefer to wait and see if anything else less horrific came in (my words, not theirs but they agreed about the class). The following day they called back and offered me Y2 in the same school. On arrival, at the school, it was the Y3 class. I was the only supply teacher in school that day. That was not a mistake on the school’s part. That was the agency being ‘creative with the truth’ to fill a job.
DON’T…expect there to be planning.
There is usually some planning in place for you to work from or helpful colleagues to hand but you will occasionally turn up at a school with no idea what to do and absolutely no indication of what the class have been doing. In these circumstances it is perfectly acceptable to do ‘whatever you want to do’.
DON’T…think doing ‘whatever you want to do’ is a good thing.
Despite the potential to throw the rule book out the window and go off piste for the day, being able to do ‘whatever you want to do’ is about the worst thing a supply teacher can face. You’ve no idea what the class are like, you have no context in which to teach the class, you have to plan a day’s engaging lessons in 30 minutes (otherwise the kids will go off piste) before they arrive. I once had a Deputy Head tell me to do ‘whatever I want to do’ with her class and it just struck me as exceptionally lazy on her part, especially since she was in school that day. However, on days like this, feel no obligation to do anything that requires marking!
DON’T…assume that the regular teacher will look at anything you’ve done.
When I had supply teachers in my class, I’ll put my hand up, that I often did not look at what they’d done, especially if they’d not bothered to mark it. I once came back from a week on paternity leave to find big piles of work about The Gruffalo, that the supply had produced. Good stuff, I’m sure (story sequencing, labelling and so on) but I didn’t once look at it. As harsh as it is, I didn’t have time to dedicate to looking at and filing a load of work that wasn’t relevant to that term’s topic, especially as I then had the current work to mark. Similarly, a couple of moths ago, I found some work from three years ago that I kept meaning to mark because the supply hadn’t bothered. It’s probably not worth it now.
DON’T…think you will make a difference to the kids.
Admit it, when you became a teacher, you thought you’d be like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Vic Racine…(what do you mean, ‘who?’ You know, Vic Racine the substitute teacher in My So Called Life who is given a short term contract at Angela Chase’s school, tries to shake up the system and, completely unsurprisingly [spoiler alert], gets sacked).
The sad thing is, you are not any of these pillars of Hollywood education, and you will not be. It is not your place or ability to change the lives of the children in the class you are covering on a cold Thursday morning. And if you did, their regular teacher would probably be really pissed off to find that their class had completely changed while they were off on a training day about only using blue ink to mark.
DON’T…think the kids care about you.
At best, you are an interesting distraction who might come with the promise of getting a sticker for good work. Some kids will aim to please you, some kids will goad you for an angry response, some kids will be totally indifferent but when the regular teacher returns the next day, they probably won’t even remember your name. And I say this after one child said to me today “You’re the best boy teacher I’ve ever had.”
DON’T…think the school cares about you.
Even if you get a longer term placement, where you can begin to build some relationships with the children and staff, it’s dangerous to think that, as a supply, there is any guaranteed permanence. Until recently, I was doing a day a week in the same class and, in consultation with the regular teacher, I’d worked out a sequence of lessons for the children. I had been there for about six weeks when the agency sent me a text telling me my services were no longer required (due to cost, not quality, I should add)! Similarly, at the school I resigned from, numerous ‘long-term’ supply teachers were only given a couple of days notice to leave.
DON’T…get angry with the kids.
Of all the things on the list, this can be one of the hardest. While most kids will be fine and quite pleasant, very often there will be one or two (or if you go to one of my ‘regular’ schools – six or seven) children in a class who treat the appearance of a supply teacher as the opportunity to completely run off the rails. The worst thing you can do is take the bait and respond angrily: they get a reaction, you lose authority, feel angry yourself, and generally, since there is no real consequence, it makes sod all difference and they carry on.
I was very proud of myself last week, as I had a nightmare 9 year-old being a nightmare. Refusing to work, kicking chairs, crawling around the classroom floor and showing off. All of which he did with one purposeful eye on me, looking for the reaction. I refused to give it to him, calmly explaining consequences and expectations but at no point getting angry. He continued to be a nightmare but other kids didn’t join in and I finished the day feeling tired but not angry.
DON’T…take it personally.
The most important thing on the list. Remember, you are a supply teacher, it is your job to fill a gap; a sticking plaster on a cut. The kids might be horrific but that just reflects on their home lives and regular teacher, not someone who has taught them for five hours. The school just needs a short term solution – that is you. As soon as the short term is finished, it is not your responsibility to worry about it. A supply teacher’s job is to go in, babysit the kids (sorry but it’s often true) then go home and leave all the rubbish in the school. And that is the best reason to become a supply teacher.
N.B. The above 9 points might be don’ts for supply teachers but remember, every single one of them can become a DO for the long term or permanent teacher.
As a regular class’ teacher, DO expect there to be planning,
DO ‘whatever you want to do’ (because you know best what will work for your class),
DO think you can make a difference to the kids,
DO think that the kids care about you,
DO think that your school cares about you and
DO take it personally because then you will care. That’s what being a good teacher is about.
But do still try your best to not get angry with the kids, they’re just kids. Annoying, irritating, unsocialised kids. But still kids.