A Love Letter To Miss Watson

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.

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.

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:

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:
Hmmmm…. any other ideas?!

Top 5 Myths About TeachFirst

People inevitably differ on opinions about TeachFirst, the training route for “high-achieving graduates”. We can debate those opinions all day and I’m happy to do so. But too often those debates are hampered by ideas about TeachFirst which simply aren’t true. So, below, I’ve written out the main ones and tried to put the record straight. What I have written is based on my years as a participant (2006-08), then a tutor, then an in-school participant mentor.
1. TeachFirsters only have six weeks of training. Categorically not true. Yes, participants do a six-week Summer Institute before starting in their classrooms. Think of it as a really really intensive way of doing those first PGCE bits (nb: it’s residential, 6 weeks, twelve hour days). And don’t worry, the tutors at the Institute are HE tutors – many of whom have worked for years with PGCE and GTPs, or still do alongside their TF work. Even so, this is not all of the training. For the whole first year participants also have two HE tutors – a professional and a subject one – who observe them regularly. They have an in-school mentor and a TeachFirst Learning Development Officer. They do similar essays to PGCE students (theory, development, SEN, etc). They complete their QTS folder (like everyone else), and they attend half-termly day-release subject training sessions. Beyond that there are optional activities: conference, evening workshops, and there is the online community where you can gain help or discuss issues. Oh, and there’s the journal – with weekly reflections. All this, plus having their own classes that regularly monitored and observed in-school. Hence, to suggest that TeachFirsters “only have six weeks training” is not only wrong, but when you have been through the programme it actually feels quite insulting.
2. TeachFirst only takes the “brightest” students, but being bright doesn’t mean you can teach. Of all  the myths, this drives me most daft. If accurate, it would read: “TeachFirst doesn’t even take the “brightest” students”. Academically you do need to be decent: a 2:1 or above (from any university). But on its own, that’s not enough. There are also 8 competencies that are tested over the full-day assessment centre all participants go through. A process which has been monitored and continually improved by one of the most professional graduate recruitment teams imaginable. If during assessment participants don’t meet a high score on each criteria, they can’t go on the programme. Every year of its existence (at least until 2011) TeachFirst recruited under-quota because it would rather have fewer trainees than take someone who doesn’t meet standards on the day. Why? Because doing training while also teaching a full NQT load is really very challenging, so they want people to demonstrate the abilities needed to do it well. The entry requirements are not there to say that someone with a 2:2 can’t teach or wouldn’t be an excellent teacher who is even better than a TeachFirster. But when there is so much for a trainee to do on the programme, it’s reasonable to ask for the ability to achieve well in a structured environment (as demonstrated by a 2:1) and then check this alongside all the other skills needed – resilience, leadership, etc.
3. TeachFirsters all leave after two years. On average 60% of participants stay in teaching for a third year. By 5 years that number dips to approximately 40%. Given that teachers through any route who teach in challenging schools have higher turnover rates this number is only to be expected. It’s also true that younger teachers have higher turnover rates, and TFs are predominantly (though by no means all) under 35. Given that general teacher turnover over five years is around the 50% mark you can see that 40% is really not so problematic. It’s also worth pointing out that an estimated 20% of participants also stay in education in other ways – e.g. my studying for a PhD in education, or going into HE to become teacher trainers.
4. TeachFirsters are unqualified teachers. No, TeachFirsters in their first year are trainee teachers. While unqualified in the technical sense, they are unqualified teachers on a programme to achieve QTS.  This is distinct from people teaching without qualification and not taking part in any training (so are ‘unqualified teachers’ in the classic sense).  In the second year TeachFirsters are newly qualified teachers. This confusion arises because schools, at a minimum, paid TeachFirsters at level 2 on the “unqualified teacher” pay scale in the first year.
5. TeachFirst is just a new name for FastTrack Teaching. Nope again. TeachFirst is a route for training new teachers. Fasttrack was a programme to help new teachers improve quickly and go on to become future lead practitioners. They are really quite different.
6. There’s a “secret handshake” that TeachFirsters all know. Maybe I’ll leave this unanswered just to keep a little mystery….. 😉
One final point: Hopefully this covers a lot of what people are confused about, but I can also imagine some people are now chomping at the bit. However, before you write in the comments that “I knew a TeachFirst and they were awful/boring/arrogant/brilliant/genius” do remember that this is likely true for every training route. Furthermore,TeachFirst isn’t bullet proof. An occasional participant makes it through on interview and falls apart at school for a whole heap of reasons. Whether that should be allowed to happen is one of the things we can debate but, please, let’s do it on the basis of what the programme actually is rather than on hearsay or the random TF duffer who once taught in a classroom next to you.
Okay, real final point: I’ve worked less with TF participants since 2011 so if something has changed for the latest cohort rendering something above unintelligible do let me know so I can change it.
Further Reading

The Best Blogposts about TeachFirst
How I Survived My First Year of Teaching
Brett Wigdortz’s Autobiography which explains why and how he set up the company

Teacher Recruitment AND Retention

At present the government’s entire focus on teacher quality is on recuiting ‘higher calibre’ graduates and in trying to improve professional development through Teaching Schools.  The first is happening through specialised bursaries, the introduction of the Schools Direct programme and a reconsideration of entry requirements for PGCEs. The latter (Schools Direct) is happening in some places, but still not many.
But, is England’s issue that we can’t recruit enough high-quality graduates into teaching or is it that we can’t retain them?
Over years of promoting the top graduates recruited and placed by non-profit organisiation TeachFirst I’ve increasingly heard Heads say: “They were excellent, I’d have one again in a heartbeat, but they always leave.”
Some have argued that TeachFirst’s allegedly high turnover rate is a problem, and demonstrates the organisation isn’t working. Actually, the figures for getting from starting the programme to achieving QTS are higher than PGCEs (many fewer drop out) and the 4 year rate is roughly equal.
The bigger issue is that most people who enter teaching leave within seven years. Those who stay longer than seven years tend to stay forever. Both sides of this equation have implications, including: Who leaves in that first seven years? The lowest quality teachers? The highest?, and Why is it that most people who do seven plus years stay forever? Are they caught by a teaching bug and in love with the profession? Or do they feel stuck there? (And what does that do to the quality of their teaching?)
Many researchers have pointed out before that when looking at teacher quality it is vital to look at recruitment, development AND retention. Without organising the latter you are in the situation of continuing to fill up the bath because you forgot to put the plug in!

The Puzzle of the Free School Teachers (Re-direct)

*This post was originally at the LKMCo website and was published on 17th May 2011*
Recently I’ve noticed a puzzle I can’t solve.  As the writer of a booklet about Free Schools I’ve worked with several Free School applicants and I keep a close eye on who is planning to do what.  Hence I noticed a pattern forming in the rhetoric of most schools’ websites – can you spot it?
“(We will) attract and retain outstanding teachers” [West London Free School]
King’s…will boast an outstanding teaching and leadership team who have an excellent track record for raising attainment” [King’s Science Academy, Bradford]
Our small size will enable us to organise teaching in small groups of excellent staff” [Bedford & Kempston Free School]
These statements appear on the websites of the three schools mentioned. Similar statements appear on all other Free School websites I have ever visited.  The puzzle is this: how will you guarantee outstanding teaching?  Are your local schools so packed with surplus super-human teachers that they will flock to your gates?  Even if they do, will they honestly be instantly brilliant even though they have never worked with the management team or the students before?
Being fair, Bedford & Kempston claim that their ‘small size’ is advantageous.  Sadly for them, the opposite is true.  25% of teachers leave their jobs in Charter Schools each year compared to only 14% of public teachers (see here for report).  A main cause? The small size of the schools and the limits this puts on professional development and promotion (see Chicago University research for details).
Mind you, keeping teachers is not as difficult as finding them in the first place. With a nationwide teacher shortage in maths and MFL all schools are struggling to recruit although the inner-cities struggle most. Free Schools aren’t constrained by national pay scales but there is no guarantee that paying more means you will automatically get outstanding teachers applying; just those who need the money most.
The only way to be certain you will have excellent teachers is if you make them.  Recruit judiciously, sure, but also plan how you will make them brilliant because – as I describe in the book – even if you do get good teachers, there’s no guarantee they will stay that way.
Successful US Charters worked this out a long time ago.  For example, The Friends for Life Schoolschedules daily collaborative planning time among teachers.  MATCH Public School runs a teacher ‘residency’ model providing new trainees each year to run extra-curricular activities which frees planning and development times for its teachers.  MATCH also have a ‘teacher coaching’ service.
The puzzle of excellent teachers is therefore solvable.  No matter how good your vision, it won’t be enough.  So if you’re planning a Free School I urge you to say how you will find, develop and maintain your staff.  It will inspire the best to apply and it will avoid you walking into the predictable disaster of promising excellent teacher and finding, later, that all you have delivered is mediocrity.
“The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools and How to Avoid Them” is published by L.K.M Consulting and available here 
L.K.M Consulting is working with prospective Free School founders to help them ensure their schools are successful
L.K.M Consulting has significant expertise in school based teacher training and development and offers a mentoring and coaching program as well as a “4,3,2,1” program of observations and feedback to rapidly raise the standard of lessons.