A Love Letter To Miss Watson

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Miss Watson emailed me recently. Miss Watson!
She was my form tutor in year 9 and 10, and the only woman who taught me anything about how to break a wild class. She had poker straight hair, and huge glasses, and always wore a burnt orange jacket that she would only take off if it was 53 degrees and even then we still had to ask before we could take our blazer off.
I hated Miss Watson. And loved her. Because that’s how it is when you’re a teenager. The teachers who spend all their time moaning at you for your own good are often those you come to love most.
My typical crime at school was listening to my walkman. Miss Watson hated it and would steal my earphones if I refused to put it away.
Plus I was forever in the wrong queue. Miss Watson would make us line up outside her class on either side of the door. Boys on the left. Girls on the right. I would queue with the boys every time. If boys went in first, I would hang near the end, and she’d make me swap over when I got to the front. If the girls went in first it was a victory. I’d swan in last, with all the boys, to make my point. Miss Watson was smart enough to know this victory made me feel good. And I was dumb enough to believe I’d gotten away with something.
It was autumn 1996 when I first met her. Our form arrived in the stark blocky room of 9C. Unlike other form groups, whose letter reflected their tutors’ surname, we were exotically named after Miss Watson’s first name, Carole. Yup, with an ‘e’.
Our form group was not pleasant. We had decimated tutors over the year and become known as the ‘nasty’ form. Later, when I taught in London, I met the karmic reincarnation of our 9C selves in 9MO.  It was only then I realised how horrific we had been and felt terrible for every teacher we made flee from our classroom in tears.
Miss Watson was never going to cry. She basically told us as much when we arrived.
Her thick Wigan (Wig-uhn) accent clipply told us that she had heard how awful we were, and that we were going to stop it. Now.
She was about 4 feet 10 tall and blind as a bat. We were terrified anyway.
In one of our first form meetings she whipped out a record player and played ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to us. After the song she told us about how, at university, when the world felt a dark place, the  person she could rely on was Freddie Mercury. With the few pennies she had, she’d bought enormous headphones and spent days at university lying on her bed, listening to his voice. She hoped we all had Freddie Mercury’s who helped make our lives better. And she wanted to hear about them. Each of us was going to have to make a speech, just for a few minutes, over the next few weeks, about a thing we really liked.
We were flummoxed. And a bit outraged. What was this bullshit? We were used to swinging on chairs, and throwing things at each other, and boys pinging girls’ bras, and reading David Hughes’ copy of the Daily Star which he got from some builders on the train to school each morning. Reading speeches to each other sounded rubbish.
It was and it wasn’t. I don’t remember many of them, really. They probably weren’t very good. But I remember being amazed that we did it anyway. We actually listened. We didn’t shout, or throw things. We snoozed a bit. But we were placid. A definite break-through.
I don’t remember making my speech at all but I know it was about Terry Pratchett. A few weeks later Miss Watson gave me a page of the Sunday Times magazine featuring an interview with him. It was the kindest thing a teacher ever did for me. I’d never seen the Sunday Times. I didn’t know authors gave interviews. I kept marvelling at how she could have thought of me, on a Sunday, when she wasn’t at work. And I wondered what sort of human being does that? Who bothers to pull a page out of a newspaper, and put it in their bag, and carry it to work, and get it out at the right time and say “I saw this and thought of you”. I remember thinking, right then, that I wanted to be that sort of human being.
Years later, in my own classroom, I was forever doing the same thing. Giving pupils books that I thought they might like once I was finished. Passing them magazine articles; sharing music of bands they loved.
I still have the Terry Pratchett article, too. It’s in a small memory box I keep of the most important things from my teenage years. It’s a permanent homage to Carole-with-an-e.
*
More amazing, perhaps, than Miss Watson’s form tutoring was being in her French class. Here, she was Madame Watson. Not Miss. Never Miss. And never Laura, for me, but always Laure. In fact, she diligently called us all by our French names: James was Jean-Jacques, Clare became Severine, David … Daaarveeed.
I hated learning French. I still hate it. Languages are my Achilles heel. I don’t care for them, they make me uncomfortable, every time I utter a foreign phrase I feel like a hippopotamus trying to pirouette.
The amazing thing is that Miss Watson didn’t solve that. She just taught me anyway.  She taught me that a truly great teacher doesn’t make you love a subject. She just gets you an A* whether you liked it or not.
*
Ten years after I started in that blocky form room, I had my own form and subject classes. My classroom emulated everything I had learned from Miss Watson. Clear instructions on the board, rigorous routines for starting the lesson, constantly asking questions, giving resources out, ending the lesson in a clear and consistent way. I stole her clippy matter-of-fact way of speaking, and the way she always did fun games at the end of lessons and vocab tests at the start. And I wore jackets. Lots of them.
I gradually came to see how she had got our form on side. After those initial speeches, she broke us into teams. We were selected each half-term by raffle and the groups competed against each other for points in mini-quiz activities. My favourite was the A-Z game, where we wrote all the letters of the alphabet on a piece of paper, and then had to complete a word for each letter based on a theme. The team who could complete the most letters won.
Topcs included chocolate bars, car manufacturers, capital cities. Cries of “Rome? Is Rome a capital city? It’s got a football team…” would fill the air. And instead of 30 pupils battling the teacher – our prior modus operandi – there would be 5 groups each trying to work together and outpit each other.
Somehow she would mark the papers by breaktime and we’d pile into her room to see who had the glory. (I look back now and presume she had a free period, but to us it was magical). She would take the moment to check our ties, shirts, blazers, the walkman. It was only as an adult I realised she made several points in the day when she would see us (she would let us eat lunch in her room for the first 15 minutes of our break, for example) – not just because she was “cool”, as we thought, but because she wanted to reinforce her expectations for us, and also be there in case we needed her.
When I was 15 and split up with a dear boyfriend, (young love is intense, isn’t it?), I went to school 20 minutes early and put all the chairs down in our form room and flopped on a chair and sobbed in the corner. And all she said was “you’ll be okay, Laure” and she made me help her put some worksheets out. It was exactly what I needed.
*
The high-point of Miss Watson, however, was The Day of the Nail Varnish Incident. It is the story I have told most often to new teachers I have trained about behaviour.
The Nail Varnish Incident began like every other autumn term blustery morning. We piled into our form room: shirts had to be tucked, trainers changed to shoes, walkman taken from me again. Grr.
And, as was the ritual every morning, Emma had arrived wearing nail varnish. Loud, red, luscious nail varnish. Which Emma lovingly painted on her fingers almost every night and which, for weeks on end, Miss Watson had required her to remove each morning.
The routine never changed. Miss Watson would go into her stock cupboard, produce a bottle of nail varnish remover and plonk it on Emma’s desk along with a series of cotton wool balls. The removal would begin.
Only this day, there was a problem.
Two minutes into the cleaning Emma thrust the bottle onto the desk with force. Her eyes gleamed, her mouth smiling, her tone defiant. She announced: “It’s empty”. And leaned back in her chair.
For a moment we froze. For the first time it was possible: one of us might win.
That possibility was tantalising. But incredibly short.
In one swift move Miss Watson strolled from her desk, swiped the bottle with one hand, spun, threw it in the bin, caught the stock cupboard handle, swung it open, grabbed a second full varnish remover bottle, spun again and placed it in front of Emma. She slinked  back at her desk before the stock cupboard had even closed.
Emma never wore nail varnish again after that. And I learned that persistence is about 90 per cent of achievement when it comes to improving teen behaviour.
*
Someone asked recently if a teacher had changed my life. I’m not sure that Miss Watson did anything that changed my route through it. My french grade never mattered. I didn’t become a teacher because of her. No major change in my circumstances occurred because I was in 9C.
But I do think Miss Watson changed me as a person. She modelled a whole new type of human. Determined, smart, curious, fierce. But always, always intentional and kind.
After twenty years, I am glad I finally get to say a proper thank you.
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Should we be placing unqualified teachers in Inadequate schools?

One of my fears about Schools Direct – the government programme allowing schools to ‘train their own’ teachers – was the apparent lack of checks on school-based support and the situations participants might be placed in. I’ve constantly been told not to worry as only schools with training capacity will use the School Direct system. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
Eleven years ago, when TeachFirst began placing trainee teachers in ‘challenging’ schools, it quickly became obvious that putting trainees in ‘Special Measures’ schools was a terrible idea (and that those whose school go into the status during their traineeship need a lot of extra help). Schools that are barely functioning well enough to teach their children are rarely able to give trainees the mentorship needed. This problem led the government to require schools as part of their Special Measures conditions to stop hiring any newly qualified teachers – i.e. even teachers taking their first job after university-based teacher training. It was rightly felt that new teachers needed to be in a more supportive environment while they were still learning to teach, and that students in schools which may have been struggling for several years needed more experienced teachers.
However, the introduction of Schools Direct now means that schools rated as ‘inadequate’ can recruit, and apparently train, completely unqualified teachers. 
When I mentioned that this might happen, the common cry was: “Yeah, but they won’t”. Except, they are.
The Academies Enterprise Trust are currently recruiting physics teachers via Schools Direct.
Job at Winton Comm
One of the schools they wish to place a teacher in is Winton Community Academy.  Winton Community Academy is currently rated as Inadequate.
Winton Community Academy
In fact, Winton Community Academy was rated last December as being inadequate in every category, including teaching & learning, and leadership & management.
Even though the school now has a new Principal and much effort going in to turnaround, if TeachFirst quickly learned that trainees struggled in those circumstances even given significant external support from TF, how can Winton expect to provide an adequate training ground for a participant whose programme will depend on a team whose main focus will be (& should be) making up for serious decline in the educational provision of its students?
If schools are to be given responsibility for training, they need to use that power responsibly. For everyone’s sake involved I hope they learn the lessons of TeachFirst and decide that an Inadequately rated school is not the place to put a brand new trainee teacher.

Should TeachFirst add a pre-service year? (And post-programme support?)

Justin “Juice” Fong – Head of Internal Communications at TeachForAmerica (TFA) – yesterday wrote a blog describing upcoming changes at TFA and making his own suggestion for the future.

The changes should interest people in England because they echo concerns raised before about TFA’s sister organisation, TeachFirst.

As Juice explains TFA is making two big changes:

  • Introducing a ‘pre-service’ year for applicants applying to the programme while at university, and
  • Extending classroom support to 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th year participants as part of a drive to keep more people in the classroom

The pre-service year will allow undergraduates to take part in a year-long preparation programme while still at university. The details of how, where, what they will do are still to be knocked out, and it is certainly won’t be mandatory, but it signals TFA’s seriousness about ensuring participants hit the ground running, especially younger and more inexperienced ones.

The extended classroom support seems less interesting for TeachFirst, as its participants have always had second year, and some later year support. BUT a constant nag about TeachFirst is that its name somehow suggests it promotes people leaving after the two year programme is complete. (“TeachFirst, BankerNext, HAHAHA” is perpetually heard by anyone taking the programme. It’s not funny the first time. By the fifty-third time, it’s soul destroying.)

TFA does not suffer the same moniker problem, but its participants are accused of leaving the classroom early. As are TeachFirsters (whether they do or not is actually disputable). But as Fong says, the extended support that TFA is providing might start to disrupt that notion. He states: Teach For America aims to remove the mental breakpoint of two years and instead say to its teachers, “Stay in the classroom. The organization is set up to continue to support you in the classroom for the next several years.”

As mentioned, TeachFirst  has always provided second year support, and there certainly used to be a lot of provision for year 3 onwards. In my subsequent years I coached participants, taught at summer institute, took part in school visits, attended policy meetings, and so on. Those experiences developed my classroom skills and kept my learning thirst quenched.

As the organisation has grown it has been more difficult to keep a handle on opportunities, and I know it’s something that is still being fiddled with and reworked. Which is why I am interested in TFA’s move. They are being quite decisive about focusing on a reduction in retention and are making a specific statement of what will be offered. I don’t know if TeachFirst would be in a position to do something similar soon, I’m not even sure they might want to or should do it. After all, TF cannot do everything and it might be that their limited resources are best off served doing other things.

But I think it’s a positive sign from TFA, and I am glad they are trying to keep more teachers in the classroom. If nothing else, TeachFirst should watch the results with interest.

Awww...This is from the days before my Michael Gove worrylines.
Awww…This is from the days before my Michael Gove worrylines.

Jesus is the Elephant

Owly Images

“If you tell people not to think about elephants, they will think about elephants. And, in US schools, Jesus is the elephant.”

Last Friday, the TES published my longest US feature yet: “The Godless Delusion”. The piece muses on the fact that American schools are most definitely not allowed to involve religion. Perversely, school leaders spend waaay longer than necessary worrying about it.

Many of the case studies described in the piece were raised in an ethics class I took last semester here at the University of Missouri. It’s amazing the cultural differences in such things. During one class we read a case study about a 17 year old student who was strip searched by the school principal and his assistant. The student had been watched for a few days due to an “unusual bulge” in his trousers (the case studies words, not mine). At the end of the school day he was therefore prevented from getting on to the school bus and instead escorted to the principal’s office. The principal called the student’s mother to ask permission for a pat-down. She refused. The principal therefore escorted the student to the changing room, where he locked the door (apparently for the students’ privacy) and then instructed the pupil take off all his clothes, in full view of both male staff members, before putting on his sports kit.
The lecturer stopped at the end of the case study: “Who felt that this was inappropriate?”
My hand shot up. A few other hands see-sawed. Most stayed down.
Not only did the people in the room not see it as problematic (in fact several defended it), but the Supreme Court’s conclusion on this case was that while the student’s right to privacy was contravened, the school district nevertheless imposed no punishment on the teachers. No disciplinary, no nothing. Mind-boggling.
Thankfully, this article is a little more gentle – looking as it does at US nativities and the Plastic Reindeer rule- but I hope it is still interesting. It certainly was to write.

How speed-dating on the Isle of Sheppey might save education

In last week’s Education Select Committee, an issue was raised regarding the spread of highly effective teachers. Loic Menzies raise the point that teaching in London schools serving the most disadvantaged pupils is commonly rated as good or outstanding. Schools serving disadvantaged populations elsewhere in the country, however, have much lower rates of good or outstanding teaching.
Now, highly effective teachers might be a different thing to highly effective teaching. But I’m making a leap of faith and assuming most teachers who bring about good results will do so in any environment. Yet, if that’s true: why are there more highly effective teachers working in London than elsewhere?
A further twist to this puzzle was added at the committee by Graham Stuart MP. He noted that even with the extra cash tacked onto wages, London teachers are relatively poorer because of the high cost of living and the higher median gross income of professionals in the city. With this in mind it then seems extraordinary that London would is attracting “the best” teachers given that they could be economically better off elsewhere.
This would be extraordinary except that education has a “2-body” problem or as Becky Allen called it:
[tweet https://twitter.com/drbeckyallen/status/410149702689366016 hide_thread=’true’]
Most teachers are in relationships with a partner who is not a teacher. If that non-teacher partner works (which they are likely to do, especially when couples don’t have children) then there is a need for the couple to live somewhere offering good employment opportunities for the teacher and the non-teacher. Given that teachers also tend to be well-educated, and well-educated people tend to be in relationships with other well-educated people, it is likely that the non-teacher will want some kind of ‘professional’ or graduate-level employment. The likelihood of getting this sort of employment in many rural, coastal, and even some suburban, areas is quite low.
This is a common problem faced by new TeachFirsters sent to work in a small town. I know this because I lent my parents to a few of them. Though no schools in my hometown employ TeachFirsters, some schools in St.Helen’s do (St Helen’s is about 3 miles from our doorstep). Now, as much as I heart St. H (it’s my mum’s hometown) there aren’t many graduates who decide it is the ideal place from which to forge a professional career. Hence, when TF sends its handful of intrepid teachers into the area, those graduates often move there with no friends, no family and a boyfriend or girlfriend who may struggle to find a career in the area so decides not to come along for the ride and instead jets off to a big city. (Hence, I lend out my parents, for tea and sympathetic listening).
While most participants make a valiant effort to get through their two years, there is then the lurking issue of a long-distance relationship, or an itchy-footed partner, or the friends and families calling from elsewhere meaning that Year 3 almost always involves a move elsewhere. And remember, this is in St. Helen’s, which at least has Liverpool or Manchester within an hour’s reach. When the school is in Accrington, or Halifax, or the Isle of Sheppey, you’ve got an even bigger problem.
And before anyone starts to suggest that this is a TeachFirst specific problem, or thinks that I am saying only TeachFirsters are excellent teachers, that’s not at all my point (I’m just using TF as an illustrative example because it’s neat and it’s what I know best). First, this issue haunts all graduate pathways. People who leave smaller communities and go off to university tend not to return home to teach in their home towns. Bright students who go to Northern universities still have an annoying tendency to schlep South (sometimes stopping at Manchester or Birmingham, if we’re lucky). Secondly, while there are many fantastic teachers in ‘non-metropolitan’ communities, there simply aren’t enough of them. Because of this the suggestion is that teachers can be spread around like confetti. To my knowledge, TeachFirst is one of the only programmes that (somewhat randomly) assigns people all across the country so knowing why its participants rebound back to cities is useful before we replicate its approach.
So, what are the solutions to the uneven spread? Golden handshakes and handcuffs have been tried in the past, but cost tends to outweigh benefits. There are also limited benefits of helping people buy homes, or building professional associations, or promoting teachers in these areas quickly and supporting them into management. And the reason why these don’t work is clear: it doesn’t resolve the 2-body problem.
Which really only leaves the one solution proffered by @xtophercook on Twitter this evening:
[tweet https://twitter.com/xtophercook/status/410150336419348480 hide_thread=’true’]
Hmmmm…. any other ideas?!

Slides from ResearchEd2013: An Intro to The Touchpaper Problems

Presenting at yesterday’s ResearchEd2013 was a terrifying, thrilling, exciting experience. The day has already been encapsulated by others so I won’t tread that ground here (see Sam‘s and Debra’s blogs for more), but I can wholeheartedly say it was a unique experience and that the quality of thinking in education at present is inspiring.
That said, I think we must start pulling together what feels like very disparate strands of edu-research and one way to do this might be creating a list of 7 educational “problems” that we most need to solve.
These problems should be:
* Focused on cognitive or social development
* Require the solver to undercover ‘principles’ rather than just create an invention, and
* Have a defined end-point
It is hard to write problems like this. It’s really hard. But I think we should try.
At present I do have a list of 7 (two were mentioned in the talk – see below) but using feedback from this weekend, and the #touchpaper problems people have subsequently tweeted, I am going to hold on and release the list at the end of the week for further debate (it took Hilbert a year to write his, so these are only a first draft). I therefore encourage people to keep thinking and throughout the week notice if any problems you face fit this criteria – and let me know!

In the meantime, below are the slides and a handout of my talk:
[slideshare id=26002927&doc=researchedpresentation3-130908144007-]
[slideshare id=26003812&doc=researchedpresentationnoteshandout-130908153127-&type=d]

Why The Grey Matters

By Kaysha

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in New York meeting people involved in education. The result of what I found is described in my latest LKMCo post here: What If Everything You Thought About Education Was Wrong?
In the piece I describe how watching a prescriptive form of teacher training, plus conversations with charter school and tech advocates got me thinking about my own views. One of the things I kept trying to do when meeting each person was finding information that disconfirmed my usual beliefs.  Humans are adept at psychological tricks that keep proving how right we are, and it is much easier to assimilate ideas into our pre-existing views than it is to disrupt them. However, I had the good fortune at the beginning of my trip to read a book by Samuel J. Freedman called “Letters to a Young Journalist” in which he describes the importance of grey matter – and not just the brain cell variety.
Freedman points out that issues involving humans are often complicated. For example, when covering a story about the rights of immigrants to have their children be taught in a way that keeps their home language alive, Freedman could see their point. On the other hand, he also understood teachers who argued that for every minute a child is not learning in English they were likely to be falling behind in the testing stakes (US tests are always in English) affecting their future education and employment choices. Justice was on the side of the parents, equity on the side of the teachers.
This doesn’t mean we can get away with a “let’s just say everyone is right” approach. As a recent blog by AndrewOld pointed out: at some point in education we have to make actual decisions – will we worry about kids being smarter or being happier? Will we teach generic skills or will we focus on factual knowledge? Even if we say “let’s do both” the finite amount of time that schools have for teaching mean we must prioritise. E.g. If making you memorise spellings for an hour every morning will make you smarter but miserable, do we do it or not?
But what New York did suggest is that it’s worth listening to as many alternative reasons as you can, and listen in a way that attempts to disconfirm your belief. So: even if I think that pushing children to revise for as many hours as possible is hideous, it is still worth genuinely listening to those who do it – to find out why they think like that, to find out the consequences of the situation, to find the evidence that corroborates what they say. After all, it’s unlikely that all the evidence goes against them. Few people are that easily fooled.

Let The Private Schools Take 25% At Random

The FT’s Helen Warrell today ran a piece suggesting that momentum is developing behind a campaign to subsidise the cost of private school tuition for the poorest pupils.
She wrote:

Under the programme, the government would divert the average £6,000 spent on a pupil in the state system to a child from a lower income family entering an independent school. Since the estimated £180m a year public grant would not cover the full cost of the private school places, richer parents paying fees would provide cross-subsidy.

This policy also existed in the 1980s, known as “assisted places”, but was stopped by Blair in 1997. This time around it is being branded as “open access” which is a bit odd given that it won’t be open to everyone. Private schools are not suggesting they will waive the entrance exams pupils must take to enter their hallowed halls. Hence, even if the places are paid for, all the policy really achieves is taking us back to a system of more selection .  (Not as good an idea as people like to believe).
If private schools really want to help the poorest, why not learn from India’s “25% Rule”?
In 2009, India’s “Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act ” made it compulsory for every unaided private school to admit 25% of their intake via a random lottery of disadvantaged students.
Unsurprisingly, the policy has caused quite the stir, with many people trying desperately to stop its faithful implementation. Of the Indian teachers I’ve spoken to some argue the private schools are not right for the poorest students because they are made to feel like ‘outsiders’; others argue that while the policy provides a good education for those who win it doesn’t help those who don’t.
Either way, it is a radical policy. And it shows how much more imaginative private schools could be if they really wanted to help. Taking in the “poor-but-bright” is yawnsome and risks repeating the grammar school problems of the past.
If India can come up with something more interesting, surely the masters of our top private schools can do so too?

All You Will Hear About Charter Schools Until 2017

From the 2013 CREDO Study http://credo.stanford.edu/documents/NCSS%202013%20Executive%20Summary.pdf
From the 2013 CREDO Study http://credo.stanford.edu/documents/NCSS%202013%20Executive%20Summary.pdf

This is Figure 1 from the 2013 CREDO Study Executive Summary. Get used to seeing it. I suspect it will soon become a new classic reference in education debate.
By matching every student in a Charter School with a similar student in a nearby school, CREDO aims to see if there is a difference to reading and maths scores depending on the type of school a student attends.
If you read all the Parliamentary debates about Free Schools in the UK & New Zealand (as I did) you soon realise the enormous power of the Stanford CREDO studies. The 2009 CREDO was the most referenced study in the debates and not just by free school advocates – it is referenced by everyone.
The reason why both sides like CREDO is that it presents a mixed picture, manipulable to fit one’s long-held views. Back in 2009 CREDO showed that about a 1/3 of Charter schools were doing brilliantly, and about a 1/3 not so brilliantly. Advocates for the policy talked, constantly, about the first statistic; its opponents carped on about the latter.  (For a great read about such behaviour, I heartily recommend Henig’s “Spin Cycle” which forensically examines education stakeholder’s preference for point-scoring over proper debate).
From what I’ve read of the study so far, this 2013 study also presents a mixed picture. Students from groups who have traditionally received less good schooling and have been ‘underperformers’ look to be doing better in the new charters when compared to their “twin” in a traditional public school. This picture differs dependent on state, and dependent on the company running the school the student is in.
No doubt much commentary will start to pull these issues out. Until then, Figure 1 is likely to be the hit home message.