The Easter 2013: “Well Worth a Twitter Follow” Education List

Twitter is as alive as ever with the chat of those in education – and it’s great. Once you’re comfortable on Twitter you will soon end up with a crowd suited to your own tastes. For me, it’s almost entirely education – for other people I know they mix in hobbies (football and cats seem particular favourites). Getting involved in conversations can be a bit intimidating, and knowing who to speak with can feel like being the new kid in the school canteen. Hence, below is a list of people who in the past few months have provided me with useful conversations, resources, ideas, said nice things about my writing, pointed out my inevitable types, etc. Hence I thought I would recommend them as all-round good eggs and a good place to start if you’re feeling a bit Twitter-lost. [Even the ones who come across as grumpy have barks worse than their bite!]

Obviously, these are not the only people I follow on Twitter but they do tend to be the most prolific, at least to me (and I checked my archive to see – this wasn’t a haphazard game!). So, if you want a ‘Twitter sure thing’ (err? easy now), then these are the people I wholeheartedly say are “well worth a follow”.
Have a great Easter.
Easter Twitter #FFs
Tweeters who help me know what education news to read:  @schoolduggery @giftedphoenix @miconm @LKMCo @annatreth

Tweeters who shared their classroom and education experiences:  @leedonaghy  @tessalmatthews @realgeoffbarton @johntomsett @bergistra @joe__kirby @learningspy @tombennett71 @hgaldinoshea @teachingofsci @a_weatherall @headguruteacher @soarpoints @teachitso @kalinski1970 @duncanspalding @Yorkshire_steve @SurrealAnarchy @Bio_Joe @ajjolley @HFletcherWood

Those who challenge me to look differently at education problems: @Samfr @informed_edu @drbeckyallen @oldandrewuk @heymisssmith @drleatongray @rosmcmullen @DrJohnLTaylor @mikercameron @bentleykarl @kevbartle @DrFautley @geogphil @Bedtonman @68ron @deevybee
Those who challenge my patience: @toryeducation
The most prolific retweeters, thinkers, encouragers:  @michaelt1979 @Mr_Chas @SurrealAnarchy @tothechalkface @ruthkennedy @foimanuk @little_mavis @drlangtry_girl @mikeyule @Nosheds  @danielhugill @gemmatombs @Chrisg4347 @bramble_head @DrDav @TomForth @StuartLock  @Barsacq  @Ingotian @ajbloor 
The Journos: @xtophercook @mrmichaelshaw @greghursttimes @alicewoolley1  @jonnelledge @alexhern @schooltruth @aljwhite @DotLepkowska @warwickmansell
The Politicians: @kevinbrennanmp @trussliz @lisanandy @matthancockmp
The bigger/wider audience reachers (but still great to engage with): @helenlewis @BorisWatch @guerillapolicy @NatEdTrust  @jonathanhaynes @thomsonpat @edaptuk @labourteachers @ProfCoe
Always makes me smile or interested: @MissJayG
Finally, if you can stand to watch BBC Question Time on a Thursday night then I recommend you do so with Twitter switched on. Shouting at the computer, collectively, with many of the people above, is way more fun than shouting at the tv on your own.


I wrote an article for LKMCo today about Gove’s Daily Mail outburst and his misunderstandings about education research. At the end I suggested that instead of drawing dividing lines in education we should draw all-encompassing circles that take in all practitioners who want to become more thoughtful about our practice.
The inspiration for this idea came from a poem I repeated often when working in the classroom and which I keep coming back to even now in the throes of academic debate and journal article writing.  The poem was Outwitted by Edwin Markham, and it’s really rather brilliant.

Outwitted by Edwin Markham

“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !”

Happy Easter to those of you who are off onto your half-term break. You deserve this chance to step off-stage.

How I Survived the First Year of Teaching

“Nobody said it was easy, but no-one ever said it would be this hard” – Coldplay
On my fourth day as a teacher I was assaulted by a pupil who came back after school to attack me. A few months later I suffered a rib fracture from a student who tried to punch another kid – missed – and got me instead. One student ripped up his exercise book and set it on fire in my corridor, blocking me in behind a blaze. I was even in a serious bus crash during a school trip to Alton Towers. And, like most new teachers, throughout that first year I endured a never-ending monotony of poor behaviour leading to little learning in my classroom. As a consequence I regularly cried my entire trip home on public transport – a journey that took the best part of an hour.
By the end of the next year I was awarded the TeachFirst Excellence Award and the students in my classroom received the best results in the school. What caused the transformation? Trust me, it wasn’t glamorous; it was just down to sheer hard work. And any suggestion that it looked like Dangerous Minds will be treated with contempt. Mostly it looked like me writing detention forms and marking books.
First, what it didn’t involve. It had nothing to do with innate teaching ability. The first time I ever taught – and a lot of the subsequent times too – were complete and utter disasters. It is entirely to the credit of fellow TeachFirst Ambassador, Josie Brett, that I didn’t walk out in a wreck of tears on that very first teaching occasion. Sent to a school in Kent as part of our initial training we were to partner-teach a session about ‘global warming’ to Year 7s. Sweet kids, excited to be having lessons by young people parachuted in to give teachers a rest in the last week of term, they were easy fodder for cutting our teaching teeth on before ‘real school’ in September. Josie and I had spent several supervised hours planning our session. It all sounded great – I don’t remember much about it now – but in my head it was learning mecca.
What actually happened is that I froze. We opened the door and a seemingly endless number of children stood there looking at us, and I just….froze. Josie stepped up immediately: “Come on in!” she said in a warm, friendly, compassionate voice, as if she was naturally channelling an inner Julie Andrews completely alien to me. She told them where to sit, she outlined rules about their conduct, and she began playing some slides we had created as an introduction.
I was still open mouthed.
Little else is memorable from that session. I’m guessing my tongue arrived back in my mouth at some point and I ambled through the ‘great’ plan, all the while thinking that none of it was actually that great. I do remember a young girl who was diabetic explaining that she couldn’t recycle her injection materials and how mad it made her. In response I shuffled and looked apologetic.
Really, it was terrible.
Hence whenever teachers recount their first awful weeks at school I feel fairly confident in telling them that the way you start out is not an indication of anything. Josie also struggled relentlessly over the next two years, though she’s now an incredible SENCo.  I didn’t just struggle, I continually crashed and burned. But I also got there in the end.
Still, how? Just one thing repeated over and over again in my head got me through: Is life really worse for me than it is for these kids? The answer, always, was ‘no’. What I saw students going through in their lives, and yet still getting up every day and getting into school (and a school that was at times very chaotic), was truly humbling. Children whose parents neglected them. Children who were bullied by other children because they didn’t look right. Children in mixed race relationships who had people spit on them in the street. Children who’d left countries where they had seen family members killed in front of their eyes. Children who cared for sick parents. Children who had no parents. All of them, children. All of them still getting on with it.
In comparison what was I really complaining about? That I didn’t know how to do something? That when they took all the hurt inside them and threw it out at me that it pissed me off?  Well, I would think to myself – even through tears and gritted teeth – I can take it. Plus, while the students were often trapped inside their lives – too young, without the monetary or intellectual capital to get themselves out – I was not trapped. I could (and I did) read everything about teaching that I could lay my hands on. I had friends in ‘the outside world’ who listened, and empathised, and who got me resources for my classroom from their own organisations (I lived off Google pens for about 3 months).  I had colleagues who helped with behaviour, I had food, drink, shelter, people who listened to me cry, and cry, and cry. And I had a genuine belief that I (a) wanted to make a difference, and (b) could make a difference – at least some of the time.
If you want to get through your first year of teaching in a challenging school, there is no behaviour tip or lesson plan template I can give you that will matter as much as reminding yourself – every single day – that if your kids can make it through a day at school so can you, and that just by being there and giving it everything you have you are making a difference. It may not be the greatest difference anyone has ever made. It may not be a difference that you can see immediately. Heaven knows there were times when I was convinced I was making everything worse. But if you can stick it out, that you did so will matter – not least to the students who will be grateful for your consistency and efforts.
As for the practical stuff – the behaviour, the lesson plans, and so on. My best advice to you is to read. Read these books. Read other books. Try things out, work out what helped with the learning and what didn’t. Keep going.  If everything gets really black (and at times it will) you can be 100% certain that you are not the only person in your cohort going through it. Every single year when I taught on Summer Institute I would get a raft of emails about this time (Feb/March) from participants telling me how miserable they were and how no-one else on the cohort felt the same. Except I would always have emails from at least three or four other people in their cohort saying the same thing!
You are not alone in how terrible the first year is.  What matters, however, is your sanity. So if it gets too bleak, speak with your tutor, speak with your mentor, give yourself time off at the weekends, put it all in perspective. You are making a difference by turning up and trying. You are making a difference when you teach the kids something new. You are not making a (positive) difference when you hate the world and you ruin your health. No-one is expecting that of you. (And for some new teachers who I have seen get to that point then they have been absolutely right to walk away).
But if one or two (or fifteen) classes make your life hell – ask for help. And if the first person you ask doesn’t provide it, ask someone else, and then someone else. There were times when I burst into tears in the middle of corridors convinced no-one was able to help me – but someone always did. You know why? Because I was crying and that finally signalled to people that I needed help. What I had thought were fairly clear calls for help in my previous complaints had been interpreted as ‘just complaining’ and not as me asking for action. This does not mean you need to actually cry. But if you’re not ‘crying’ for help (in the talking, rather than actual tear sense) then no-one is going to know you need it. Make it clear when you need people and my experience is that even in the most hellish school someone will try to help – and when they do, let them, and then be grateful for the rest of time. The best way to show that gratefulness, of course, is to be the person who helps the next unfortunate soul in the new teacher assembly line (TeachFirst, PGCE, or otherwise). Because you too one day will be wise, and will be facing a newbie burbling wreck in the staffroom.  No really, you will.
If I was you I might now be bridling at the fact that I’ve read 1400 words and the only thing I’ve learned is “keep going”. Sorry about that. If you want more practical help – try my stuff about detentions, read Tom Bennett, read Learning Spy, etc. But, honestly, know that keeping going is about 90% of the difference. Keep turning up, keep thinking about learning, and keep pushing relentlessly toward it. After all, it’s only what we expect from our pupils.
Good luck. x

"It's Not About The Money": Why did so many 'Progressive Schools' of the 1920s close down?

On Saturday I presented at the Research & Creative Activities Forum here at the University of Missouri. It’s a competitive forum for graduate students to present their research and the whole day was mind-blowing. Quite unusually I was presenting a history paper and so was in the ‘Humanities & Literature’ group so felt massively out of depth but enjoyed learning about a gamut of research running from the origin of the word ‘Cajun’ through to the death of French Revolutionaries in the 19th century.
My paper presented a counter to the argument that lack of money was the main reason why schools opened by English progressives in the 1920s had mostly closed by the 1950s. Having trawled through the archives of the schools’ leaders, and analysing a variety of biography and autobiographies, I am of the opinion that the leaders used the schools to develop their careers and/or their personal (often romantic) relationships. Over time the reality of the schools, particularly the financial difficulties but also issues with student behaviour and staff recruitment, meant the leaders were no longer getting what they sought from the school.
Where schools did manage to stay open through troubled time they generally did so because the leader of the school only had one identity – they were a teacher – and they were usually fairly indifferent towards their familial relationships. (In this presentation AS Neill is used as the exemplar of just such a person).
The aim is to get the journal article for this research completed in the next month and then hopefully I will be able to share the full piece once published.

The "Political Spectacle" of England and New Zealand's Free and Partnership Schools

Last week I presented a poster at the Comparative & International Education Conference 2013 of some tentative findings from a discourse analysis of education policy implementation in England and New Zealand. The purpose of the analysis is to see what were the reasons given for the policy and whether their use was justified. Finding out how rhetoric is used by a government is important for advocates wishing to provide an opposing viewpoint (they can then address the rhetoric being pushed), and it is also useful to uncover ‘successful’ rhetorical pattern so that future policymakers will know paths through which they can promote additional policies.
The policy being looked at was the introduction in both countries of state-funded ‘independent’ schools that can be opened by applying to a government-led organisation. Based on US ‘charter schools’, in England the schools are called ‘free schools’ and in New Zealand they are ‘partnership schools’.
By analysing the newspaper articles, policy documents, ministerial speeches, parliamentary debates and press releases about the legislation in both England and New Zealand I sought to find out how evidence about the policy in other countries (particularly the US) was being used. The theory of ‘political spectacle’ argues that governments often employ two techniques – symbolic language and rational illusions – in order to pass legislation that if talked about more frankly might not be palatable to the electorate. The data showed that both governments used symbolic language, although in quite different ways (England more directive, New Zealand more concilliatory). The main ‘rational illusion’ however was the use of ‘achievement gaps’ as the reason for the policy. In England ‘free school meals’ pupils were continually referred to as the group who would most benefit from the change. In New Zealand, Maori and Pasifika students are labelled as those most in need.
The “evidence” used to show that the change to state-funded independent schools would close the gap tended to rely on international ‘example’ rather than anything more substantative. The US chain KIPP were regularly referred to in both countries. In the UK Harlem Children’s Zone was occasionally referenced as a school which had closed gaps, however across the documents very little evidence was considered. The Stanford CREDO study was commonly used by people opposing the policy, and in the UK an article by Caroline Hoxby was referenced to show the difference charters had made.
The poster presentation can be viewed (in very tiny writing!) below, or is available for download here:

Getting Zero

I got zero on a maths test this week. Zero. On a maths test. I’m good at maths, and I’ve never got zero on anything in my life.
Afterwards I was shell-shocked for about fifteen minutes. The tests are given at the beginning of a weekly matrix algebra class I’m taking. Being 30 and studying algebra is already infantalising, but I do it because it’s wonderful. Flashes of GCSE Maths keep coming back to me and making sense in new ways, and I’m finally understanding (really understanding) statistical models that I’ve ran for years in SPSS but which I could only previously complete mechanistically rather than conscientiously.
The tests, however, are less exciting. First of all they’re multiple choice, which is a long-known  achilles heel of mine. Secondly, they’re at 3pm on a day when I have usually been working since 7am and so haven’t had a chance to revise before I get there. Still, I like tests and for the first few I did self-chuffingly well.  Then came the zero.
What surprised me was my reaction. The depth of my humiliation was burning, and that was even though no-one other than my tutor and me were ever going to see the score. Then there were the self-scorns. You know what I mean, the internal radio that starts blaring: “Oh God. ZERO. You’re terrible at maths. Really, terrible. Well, not terrible, I mean you panicked, you blanked.” [It’s true, I did. For the first time ever in my life I looked into my brain and the usually detailed whiteboard of memories was, unfortunately, wiped-clean]. Then my mind began the climb-down: “Anyway, this test doesn’t matter so much. You’re allowed to sub one score. Also, you did well on those others. See, you’re not entirely bad at maths….”
The internal dialogue carried on for the next fifteen minutes. Periodically the not-so-nice stuff would rear up “Why am I so bad at this?” and I could feel myself overcome with waves of blushing [my poor tutor must have thought I was coming down with flu]. Then the other side would kick in and I’d have to talk myself back down again. For the whole thing I was entirely impervious to whatever it was we were being taught next. Not until I had finally calmed the inner voice could I re-concentrate.
What particularly blind-sided me is that I regard myself an avid learner. I love learning. I love classes, and tests, and I’m not one to be easily knocked-over when things go wrong. And yet there I was, lumbering and panicking about a tiny multiple choice test. Euck. Afterwards I started thinking about students I’ve taught who really struggled with their work. Imagine if every lesson at school felt like this – if every time I did something there was a good likelihood of a zero, and the burning humiliation, and the exhausting mental battle. No wonder some kids give up.
As a teacher it’s so very easy to forget how complicated learning is and anything that can remind us of how messy, and embarrassing it is the better. Learning an instrument, a new language, a new craft [even matrix algebra if you’re feeling particularly masochistic] will soon make you see the enormous mental and emotional effort involved in being in a classroom, and how important a teacher can be in making things bearable. I keep imagining what would have happened if the tutor had read out the scores (as I sometimes did in the past), or if she had made a comment about “expecting more from me” (yuck), or – on the positive side – how great it might have been if a student with a higher score had found out and had offered to spend some time revising with me before next week. I’m also trying to model what I would tell a student to do in this position – to learn from this mistake and try and do it better next time.  We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.

"Let's Talk About Love"

Click if you dare

Carl Wilson so hates Celine Dion that he begins his book by arguing she is “bland monotony raised to a pitch of obnoxious bombast”. Harsh. Given his burning dislike, when he’s subsequently requested to write a retrospective about Dion’s 1998 album “Let’s Talk about Love” (the one involving the nauseating My Heart Will Go On) he feels entirely unprepared for the task. In order to avoid writing pure bilge Wilson throws himself into a three-month quest, finding anyone, anywhere who has ever loved Celine Dion, all of which culminated in him writing the most strangely powerful book I’ve read all year. In its pages Wilson weaves a complex history of Canadian Kitsch acts alongside stories of ballad-loving refugees and transvestite impersonators. Through the journey Wilson’s icy heart begins melting until – suddenly and quite inexplicably – he finds himself weeping inconsolably as he watches Celine belt out her album’s title-song at a Vegas sell-out uber-concert. Accompanied only by the tiny Filipino lady sitting alongside him (a woman who we come to presume has spent her life savings to be in this precious moment) is also teary and she, like everyone else in the room, is understanding what he feels. It’s at moments like this throughout the book that Wilson can barely remember why his hatred was ever so important. Love, it seems, really does matters – even to a cynic.

Yet love is hard to talk about.  Just last week a conversation on Twitter blindsided me about this very matter and it’s stayed with me ever since:

As the words above leapt from my keyboard I could hear my inner demons yelling. “You’re going to get hammered for this” I thought, hearing the sound of hard-line dissenters on the horizon…. “LOVE? Love’s all very well but what about exam results? What about life chances? What about escaping poverty? Must teachers do it ALL?”

And, of course, I don’t disagree. Exams are important. Life chances are important. But lack of love also affects how many children do in exams and, far more importantly, in their life going forward. In my opinion, lack of love (and the confidence it belies) is one reason why even the most incredible schools – despite all their money and selective testing – still can’t manage to get every child to achieve as well as could be expected given talents previously shown in the classroom.  Some of it is neurons, or rubbish teachers, or “lack of motivation” (though at what cause?) – but at least, in part and for some children, this difference is down to love.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think such children have parents or carers who are consciously not loving; often they’re trying their damndest in the face of inadequate models from their own childhoods. This inadequate modelling is all too commonly paired with the thinly-veiled ‘adulthood’ coping mechanisms – addictive behaviours or abusive relationships – which then compound things even further, so that as the parent . And attempts loving their own child they miss the mark and the end result is a child who does’t even have a minimal feeling of being loved. And before you jump to conclusions; this isn’t about poverty. It’s about love. I can assure you that being wealthy doesn’t protect anyone from addictive behaviours, abusive relationships or the emotional markers of lost love.

You see it all the time in teaching (particularly if, like me, you’ve ever worked in a classroom on a hidden corridor away from prying eyes). You see children who sit in your classroom and sob because they’ve been abandoned to an aunt they barely know, or they’ve been ignored for weeks in favour of a parent’s new partner, or their clothes aren’t getting washed because their parent is busily drinking the night away, and now they know they smell but there’s no detergent left and they don’t have the money to go and get some. While still young, some of these issues are notionally resolvable through child protection pathways, though inner wounds tend to hang around even once the immediate neglect dries up. Then, as students get older options wane and all too often they end up taking on more and more responsibility – so that by 17 they’re feeding, clothing, consoling, paying for their younger siblings: an army of the unloved trying to stop their fate from spreading.

Now imagine among the neglect, and lack of love – and the practical problems it brings – there’s school to traverse with its weird bundle of daily lessons. Do you have a protractor for trigonometry? Possibly not, if your parents have never bothered to get you one. Food is of course provided to students most in financial need, but this is about love, not cash. And there are many children who’ve looked in wonder at children whose parents always provide a ready-wrapped meal, or who remembered to put their money out for lunch each morning, and wondered what it must feel like to have someone care about how hungry you are every single day.

Inevitably someone will now suggest that “children are resilient” and that “lots of children with miserable childhoods nevertheless do great”. It’s true, they do. Some children turn school into their escape and learning is their joy. These students become ‘miracle stories’ and teaching them is unbelievably inspiring. But, sadly, other students seek belonging elsewhere – gangs, sex, sometimes both. Or they turn their lack of love into self-hatred, and then turn that hatred into eating disorders, self-harm, obsessive behaviours, aggressive behaviours, all of which begin to distract from studies and start stripping away the chance of getting those longed-for ‘test results’ which were perhaps once thought might bring the so-desperately-craved love but it now all seems like more effort than it’s worth. After all, if no-one’s going to love me, whatever I do, why bother with this school crap? Especially if it’s difficult and the people that do love me (the gangs, the partners) don’t care about it? And that’s when we start to lose them – not because the curriculum is ‘too easy’ or because of ‘low expectations’ but usually because of the hopelessness. And with time, and effort, listening, consistency, we teachers can try to be a proxy for that love, but it’s not our priority and it never can be when we must (rightly) worry about the academic minds of 30 people all at once six times a day.

Yet, though we teachers know this and see the issue time and again, we never even breathe a word about it. Maybe because we fear there’s nothing to be done. Instead, as Sam says, we talk of ‘engagement’, ‘collaboration’ ‘school culture’. We don’t talk about why, really why, some of our students never make adequate progress. No, we talk about levels and pedagogy – the important adult rational stuff. But if we can’t talk about the lack of love in some children’s lives then there’s no chance for trying to improve it. We’ve given up before we’ve even tried because we taken the cynic’s pill and we believe it’s just not possible. Not trying, however, seems too defeatist – and even if I think it can’t be solved, I’ll be damned if I think we should continue pretending it doesn’t matter.

So the ‘policy’ I suggest is this: Let us, whenever it feels appropriate, not be afraid to talk about the importance of love and its impact in education. We must mention how the lack of it (or a wonderful abundance of it) has made a difference to children, to staff, even to us. It’s not really a policy, of course, it’s more a… personal stance. But it’s one that I’m asking you to think about taking. People won’t be impressed at first. They’ll want to get back to the ‘safe’ and manageable concepts: knowledge, ‘engagement’, exams. That’s okay, it makes sense to want to focus on what we “can do”. Plus those things are all very, very important and I don’t want to constantly distract from them. But, no matter how much we want to kid ourselves, they are also not everything, and the occasional reminder – when it feels relevant – shouldn’t require an argument with oneself in order to be able to ‘say it out loud’ either in reality or on Twitter. And from now on if it seems important I’m going to speak up.

And what of the hard-hearts among you still left crying that love is irrelevant? Those who say it’s only for the weak-minded with no interest in knowledge? About you, I do not worry. Somewhere out there in the world I am certain that a small Filipino lady is awaiting you and one day, when you least expect it, she will be right there to remind you that you are a human too, and that being so is difficult, it involves pain and it means needing to feel like others are willing to stand with you and understand you. Because that’s what love is. And it matters. Even to a cynic.

Gove and the Socialist Wreckers

At today’s Education Oral Questions in the House of Commons, Michael Gove was asked about the impact of the impending reform where anyone receiving housing benefit and deemed to have a ‘spare’ bedroom will have their income docked. ‘Spare’ bedrooms include those occupied by people’s children away at university, those serving in the military, children who only live with a parent for part of the week, and foster children. The docking is significant – 14% for one room, 25% for two – and is causing considerable distress among vulnerable groups.
Gove’s response:

“I don’t know why the honourable lady, and indeed her honourable friends, keep referring to this bedroom tax. It is not a tax. It is timely and necessary action to deal with our out-of-control welfare bills, and that action is needed because of the way that our economy was driven into the ground by the Labour Party.
Thirteen years during which no effective welfare reform took place and in which time money was spent on a series of vanity projects which only left the country saying “thank heavens that a coalition government has two parties clearing up the mess left behind by that crew of socialist wreckers on whom we wish nothing, NOTHING, but a rapid path to contrition”

The phrase was delivered with venomous emotion and met with jeering bewilderment by the party opposite. On Twitter a few people pointed out that “wreckers” is a favourite Ayn Rand term.

For me the most disappointing part of the whole quote is the idea that Labour spending 13 years rebuilding hospitals and schools was a vanity project. To those who spent the early 90s rubbing shoulders with newspaper moguls maybe it seemed frivolous.To those of us who spent the 90s living in broken towns denudated by Conservative policies, it felt really rather necessary.