On being a long-term mainscale teacher

A couple of weeks back I came across a Twitter thread about wanting to stay mainscale and become a better teacher, and it did make me chuckle to see how the teaching landscape is morphing from one of a relentless striving for promotion that I felt I was in when I started. Ben Newmark suggested he would like to hear my life story my experience, so here it is. 

Let me preface this by saying that I have never sought promotion because I’ve needed more money. I was a homeowner when I started teaching, which took some pressure off. I think this probably marks me out as in the minority. I stayed in the same school, doing basically the same job, for 11 years before taking middle leader post, which probably also marks me as a minority. 

Though I did my PGCE just for something to do, I quickly realised that teaching was for me. I loved the job, though it was exhausting and time consuming. Around my 3rd year, I started to notice that peers of similar experience were applying for more senior roles. All the conversation was about whether you wanted to take the pastoral or academic route up. There was nobody talking about staying in the same job, because this was met with stuttering silence. I got used to saying I hoped for an AST role, even though they were like hens’ teeth, because it was closer to what everyone expected to hear. I still did not feel ready for more responsibility, but I bowed to expectation and took an AGT role in 2007. This was a real pleasure, working with the geekiest students, and involved mainly planning enrichment and focusing on T&L across the school. It allowed me to further hone and improve my own practice, but I got the distinct impression, after not too long, that everybody else considered this role to be a stepping stone: today I guess it would attract a 1 year TLR3. School did not class me as a middle leader. I didn’t even have a line manager for half the time. 
By that point, however, other things were in the works. I started writing, firstly for GCSEPod, and got promoted at the exam board, first to team leader and then to assistant principal. I picked up writing and presenting jobs as a result of my experience. Being still essentially mainscale, but now with 6+ years’ experience, I had the time on my hands to be able to complete these extra jobs without my teaching performance suffering. At one stage I had 6 additional jobs on top of teaching. In school, I was a staff governor. I ran the AGT network for the local secondary cluster. I launched and ran the ski trip. I attended every inset I could find outside of school hours, using money I set aside from my other jobs as a personal inset budget. I was in the staff T&L group. I was busy doing a dozen things I loved. “Where do you find the time?” my colleagues asked. I’ve never been able to answer this. It’s just there, right?
And I learned. When a student can be gently teased out of a strop. When to go in tough. Why it’s important to maintain a healthy distance. How to spot the difference between a toilet request due to genuine need and one due to boredom. The stages pupils go through when they’re struggling with the work, and when best to intervene. How to answer questions before they’re asked (freaks them right out). How not to take things personally. What it’s like when (very rarely) it IS personal and how to deal with it. When best to use a quiet word and a public telling off. The power of one raised eyebrow versus the powerlessness of a screaming, rowdy sanction in the corridor. The importance of pitch and tone. Patience. How to completely change a lesson halfway through, or right at the start. Which activities are worth the preparation effort, and which activities are always going to work. How to turn around a set of books between 2 5-lesson days. How to teach disaffected classes, enthusiastic classes, bottom sets, top sets, wildly mixed ability sets, double GCSE lessons, classes of 32, GCSE classes of 32, double lessons with GCSE classes of 32 during an observation by 2 members of SLT (a personal favourite), A-level, year 9 on a windy Thursday afternoon. How to make the class feel like it is me and them in our own clique that nobody else would get. How powerful this can be. Why following the rules is so important. Trips: I racked up 185 nights away on school trips in 13 years. Consistency. How to take negative feedback and act on it. When I’m beaten. Humility. Where to look for help. Where not to look. When it’s worth putting in extra time. How to apologise. How to speak to parents. That I’m never, ever, going to achieve a complete repertoire of teaching skills, or see it all. I know the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours isn’t quite the whole story of the stat, but as I approached and then passed 10k lessons, I felt like I had enough experience to deal with almost everything thrown at me – or at a colleague, which meant being a supportive HoD became more doable.

I noted, however, that when I met other teachers they were a bit non-plussed by my apparent lack of ambition. The AGT role was clearly meant to upskill those looking to move up, was the feeling, and not really worth mentioning. My tenure at a single school was also a problem. “I couldn’t do longer than 3 years or I would be completely stagnant” was one of my favourite comments: I was at year 10 by then. It got to the point where I kept quiet about my length of service and my school role. My experience was not treated as something to be proud of. Sometimes I would point to the examining but the response was usually along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, I did that once, hated it” or something slightly sneery about the fact I did GCSE and not A-level. The exam board, meanwhile, were putting me forward for senior training and assessment courses, and couldn’t have been more complimentary about my service for them. My lack of responsibility at school meant that it was not difficult to get the time out. 

In my 11th year there was upheaval. A head came in like a wrecking ball, on a short term contract, and made my AGT post redundant. As the only History teacher without a TLR, I was first offered the History responsibility, included on the new structure, to make up my old protected-for-3-years TLR, but was then told that the responsibility was not going to be filled, by anyone, and I could best serve the school by being just a really good teacher. I seethed at the injustice, and the idiocy (why pay me a TLR to do nothing, except out of spite?) but that head moved on – as staff governor I was on the panel that appointed an external candidate for the permanent role – and within a year of the new head arriving, the Head of Hums, a History specialist, was promoted to AHT. The thought of someone else telling me what to do was unbearable. So, in the July of my 11th year, I finally became a HoD.

It was the right time, really. Stepping up did not feel challenging and I enjoyed having a bit more control. I was very lucky to be able to make a sideways move into a HoD job last year and I appreciate the autonomy and opportunity to immerse myself in History pedagogy. When I interviewed, the Head could not have been more complimentary about the breadth of my experience and I didn’t feel I had to justify my decision to stay at one school and in the same role for so long, although I had a carefully crafted line in my personal statement about this. 

I surveyed my peers. Around me were less experienced teachers now miserable in senior roles, teaching next to nothing and complaining about how much they missed the old days when they weren’t shoving paper around and making endless phone calls. “I just want to teach!” they wail. My turn to be non-plussed. Teaching is a bizarre profession where, the better you are at it, the less you are expected to do. Those who can make the biggest noise often leave entirely to be consultants. I don’t get it. I love the opportunity of being in the classroom and taking those students on a journey with me. And no, I don’t give two hoots about how cheesy that sounds. As the pressure now manifests, to keep moving upwards, I have to guard against losing that privilege.

This has been fun to write! 

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What I’m reading now

Now that down time is kicking in I am going back to the books to consolidate the year and prepare for next year. Here’s what I’m reading at the moment.

Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains

I’m teaching a brief history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to my year 12s in preparation for their NEA, and this has been recommended to me so many times it was my top pick to prepare for it. It is a cracking read and pacy enough to be good for the bus. I’m supplementing with a little from Hugh Thomas’s epic The Slave Trade, which I need to sit down with for a good hour to get my head around. I’ve got Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese waiting in the wings, as recommended by a local activist. Finally, I’ve got hold of a second hand copy of Black Ivory by James Walvin, for some accessible background for the students, and I’m excited to see he has a new book coming out in July focusing just on sugar, which I think will be helpful several units I already teach.

Daisy Christodoulou, Making Good Progress?

It’s time to review this year’s scheme of assessment and tweak for next year. It’s been about 18 months since I finished my course on assessment with the CIEA so it is good to get back to some of the theory with this book.

Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors

After a year of reading about the Tudors I now feel a lot of knowledgeable than I did at the start, so I’ve moved to something a bit lighter and chattier to finish off the school year. This one is good for dipping into at bed time.

Kim MacQuarrie, The Last Days of the Incas

I’m off to Peru next month, so I thought I should read something in preparation for that. My brother recommended this one.

Please feel free to share what you’re reading: I’m always looking for new recommendations.

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Policing other people’s teaching

When December rolls around, I get annoyed by the inevitable complaints of people proclaiming that it is too early to put up the Christmas tree. Why does it matter to people so much? There is no rule about this. If you don’t want yours up, don’t put it up. If you do, do. I was particularly tickled by this article on the Daily Mash, which I now make a point of sharing with people who make a fuss.

Unfortunately, a lot of this goes on in teaching, as well. I’m not talking about the big stuff: of course if someone’s teaching methods are (a) hindering student progress or (b), arguably as bad, not creating progress whilst at the same time being a massive time suck for the teacher or (c), being arbitrarily imposed on them with no basis in evidence, then it’s worth a discussion. However, I do come back to the leaving speech of an AHT, who reminded us that, once we’re in the classroom and we’ve kicked the door shut, it’s just us and them and we can do what we need to (that sounds a lot more threatening in type…it was quite motivational and moving at the time). We make dozens of professional decisions every day about the best way to teach, and that is what we have been trained for.

To wit: using PowerPoint. I use Smartnotes because I hate ppt, and it has considerably lightened my workload in the long term because the starters, assessment scaffolds and key words are already there, saving me writing them up every time, and the writing I add to the slides in the lessons remains for me to refer back to in subsequent lessons. Don’t want to use PowerPoint (or equivalent)? Don’t. Do? Do. Want to tell me what I should do? Not advisable.

Similarly, learning styles. Adopted wildly out of context and clearly scarred some teachers for life, particularly if they’d had to reference them in lesson plans (see b above). I’ve read a lot about them. I never bought into the idea that lessons should match learning styles because I’ve never really been in the business of removing what I see as reasonable obstacles in learning: your university lecturer isn’t going to provide a role play for you so you’d better get used to all the styles, kind of thing. However, I did, and continue to, plan activities that speak to a variety of learning styles so that my classes get a good smorgasboard of different things. This is partly to help them work out what activities help them learn best, which I think is vital self-knowledge to have before any serious revision kicks in, and partly because I prefer wondrous variety.

Want to use learning styles? Do. Don’t want to? Don’t. Want to tell me what I should think, why I’m wrong? Really, really don’t.

The frustrating thing about seeing these debates play out over and over again is how trivial it all is. I know it doesn’t feel trivial to the (seemingly very aggrieved) people who have found themselves under attack for not doing things they didn’t agree with – I get that – but in the grand scheme of things, as a profession we have bigger fish to fry. I am tired of seeing teachers attacking other teachers, like there aren’t enough people out there attacking us already. I’d prefer it if we recognised that teaching well is the work of an entire career; picked up bits and pieces from each other that we liked without needing to comment on what we didn’t; and, above all, supported one another’s professional judgement about what is best in our own classrooms.



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A Tale of Two Year 11s

I inherited two year 11 groups upon my arrival at the new school. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The best: sparky students, quicker relationship building due to seeing them more often, the promise of future down time. The worst: two sets of mocks, two sets of coursework that they handed in in June and therefore desperately want back, two sets of lessons to plan: to begin with I had to finish off the Germany course with one set and begin Medicine with the other. To add to the confusion, the school is following this course for the first and last time this year, having adhered strictly to Modern World previously. So, a dearth of resources too. Fun.

I thought, however, that once I stopped teaching Germany to group A, I could start reusing my lessons from group B to teach them Medicine. A few tweaks needed, maybe, but the same basic activities and so on. It has quickly become evident that this is not the case, in a way that helpfully demonstrates why I think pragmatism in the classroom, rather than a strict adherence to the church of trad or prog, is the best way to go.

In November I had a performance management lesson observation with group B. I wheeled out one of my favourite prog activities. It involved answering questions from a video, group work, animation (Commoncraft-style, which is one of the few I’ve found where the knowledge building isn’t subsumed by the process of animating) and using iPods. The class loved it. The observer loved it. I loved it. We all loved the resulting revision videos. It was a lot of love.

When the time came to try this with group A, it quickly became apparent that this was not going to fly with them. Group A like being told things. I apologised once, at the end of a lesson where we had timelined a period from the Medicine course on the board and I had spoken for nearly 45 minutes, for too much copying from the board. “Please keep doing this Miss,” they replied. “We like it. It means we have stuff to revise from. Most teachers don’t put enough on the board.” They did not like the video lesson. We sacked it off and I told them the stuff.

I duly planned more traditional lessons for group A, going forward. They overtook group B as they have an extra lesson a fortnight, so in the last week of term I recycled one of group A’s lessons for group B. “Miiiiissss we’ve done soooooo much writing from the board today! Can’t we do something else?”

Going forward then, a more pragmatic approach and different activities for each class, it seems.

A caveat: I’m not advocating that everybody doubles their workload to ensure the activities are tailored to class preference. In this case, I’m going to do that as far as possible, because this is year 11 – they’ve had a year of building a relationship with one teacher, only to find themselves with a new one at the most critical time. I think I owe it to them to make this transition as smooth as possible. I’m the professional, after all. They’re stressed teenagers. I’m not pandering to their preferences to extract good behaviour from them. I’m packaging the topics in the way they will find most accessible, to build their confidence and knowledge of the course. I’ve been teaching a while and know Medicine inside out, so this is not a significant commitment of time for me. I also enjoy planning lessons…

However, I do favour a mixed economy across the board, which is why my KS3 lessons have a broad variety of activities in that cater to a range of preferences. A diet of fudge sickens the stomach, after all. Was it Tebbit who said that?

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WLFS History conference: Tamizian

Narrative construction.

Vartan begins with two questions:

What makes a good narrative?

What was the last narrative you read and enjoyed?

Definition. A story? Yes, but chronologically ordered and limited by evidence. An underrated skill – Lang, 2003. A form of text/thinking – Bruner. 

Or – the art or technique of narrating. 

Megill suggests narrative blends description and explanation, whereas Tosh suggests it blends description and analysis, sitting between them. 

It is the type of history that most of us choose to read when we have the time. 

Vartan talks about some narratives, referencing Narration, Identity and Historical Consciousness (Straub) as a good read on the problems of leaving out the narrative. He recommends some good narratives – Holland; Schama’s Citizens; Gombrich’s a Little History of the World; Larson’s Dead Wake, on the sinking of the Lusitania. He also recommends several TH articles. 

Vartan explains how students begin to construct narrative, to consolidate the knowledge before completing something a little more nuanced. They repeat this with KS4, pointing out that the narrative that construct – a bit at a time, over a couple of terms – provides their revision tool. Vartan has also done this with ks5 as a revision exercise.

Pick out context, characters, then timeline. This helps to connect slightly forced distinctions, eg domestic and foreign policies. Agree a narrative. 

It provides a bridge – fun for them to write but leads to analysis. Students can use to consolidate, transform their knowledge and revise. Teachers can use to engage, challenge (or access) and evaluate – helpful diagnostic that helps with intervention planning. 

Vartan then shares lots of examples from across the year groups and from History and RS. There’s a wealth of suggestions and ideas here on why to do it and how it contributes. Vartan warns that there is a time commitment and that some students might use it as an excuse to avoid other homework they find more challenging, but the arguments to include this sort of thing are strongly made. 

A good one to end with – write it as a film script; choose pictures/staging to go with it. 

Though these are probably my least coherent notes, the session was absolutely jammed with ideas. So much to take back with me. 

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WLFS History Conference: Walsh

Prosopographical! This is the term of the session for me. Definitely need to go and do some reading

Sources and interps for ordinary pupils in ordinary classrooms. 

Ben begins by talking about his experience of students as an examiner. Some ask for a C, or tweet that he is a prick. Some write long essays in their exam papers about why the system is broken. He says both approaches are common – from my previous examining experience, I strongly concur. 

The mindset he presents – that sources are difficult and not a fair test – comes from the idea that history is just stuff, and that sources are just unhelpful versions of the textbook – something that doesn’t agree with what they’ve been taught. They consider sources as information – unnuanced, factual and not open to interpretation. 

Why do they find it difficult to adopt the historian’s mindset?

(After Jim’s session, I wonder if this is because they are so rarely encouraged to adopt it)

Because it’s difficult. Building an argument is hard, particularly when you haven’t seen many examples of it.

‘You are not entitled to your opinion in this classroom. You are entitled to make an argument.’ I’d like to put this up in my classroom but I think there would be student uproar: maybe that’s a good reason to do it.

This is threatening – you have to open up and say what you think. 

It’s different from other subjects, which are often ‘Here is stuff. Write stuff down’ whereas we’re doing ‘Here is stuff. What’s the important bit of stuff?’ – Ben suggests we are against the signature pedagogy of the classroom. 

Finally, it flies against binary thinking – there’s not always black and white – and confirmation bias – the source does not say what they think it should. Historians ask why it disagrees, whereas students tend to dismiss it or ‘torture the source until it does agree’.

Ben makes an argument for using a simplified pyramid instead of exam board markschemes with students, to show the hierarchy or how to tackle a source – comprehension, inference, the story *of* the source rather than in it. 

He shares his favourite source ever – a weight change diagram of a year in the life of school children in 1906. He uses it as a source that enables a clear inference generator, but also encourages us to consider how the publication of the source itself is important: why was it made? What had changed to enable it to be made?

An interesting side conversation occurs this point about teaching to the test, in which Ben points out two things I strongly agree with – that exams and marlshemes should not inform lessons and that if the exam asks them to go a mile, you make them go two in a lesson.

The dreaded useful question. Ben gave his students sources and asked then to consider – what are they useful for? Bringing their knowledge of the period will help them to make this assessment. He gives us a couple of source examples, showing how content and provenance can both be pulled in by simply asking students to assess what they are useful for, rather than just if they are useful. Giving students source collections can help them when considering this question because they can begin to create a hierarchy.

A good way of characterising it is to give students sources and tell them they’re going to sell them on eBay. How much would you charge – which ones would have the highest starting price? 

We tend to have a view of history and struggle when a source does not meet it: a picture of a medieval woman cutting someone’s head off; a conscription appeal for someone who wasn’t a CO. Can consider *why* these things are surprising/shocking – what’s skewed about our view of history?

Just after Ben recommends that we look at Putin’s rehashed interpretations of Stalin, the projector goes blank so we are forced off to lunch. Ben finishes by saying that he doesn’t think students need to construct their own interpretations to critique historians: why get into the ring with a grizzly bear when you can choose another grizzly bear to fight back? But, I guess you have to know a few grizzlies for this to work. 

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WLFS History Conference: Carroll

Jim Carroll on, how can we get students writing more like historians? 

History is an argumentative discipline. 

Scrap “I think/believe” – don’t encourage then that beliefs are important, because it’s about evidence, not belief. 

Make the cause the subject of the clause, where it will begin to act as the agent. “One reason” gives no indication of the relative importance of clauses. Similarly, “because” gives no indication of the role of the cause. (Fig 1)

Having picked out some problems, Jim returned to scholarship to look for solutions. How does Kershaw do it? He talks us through a paragraph to model. He packs in an enormous amount in a small space, bundling up events into abstract phrases like “consequent government stalemate” and uses verbs instead of connectives to link and characterise causes – adds nuance and flavour. 

Having considered academic historical writing, it’s hard! Key tenets?

Literacy can’t be ‘bolted on’ to history. 

Construction of argument must be explicit. Even writing a narrative is an argument, says Jim. 

Create writers from readers. Give them scholarship and teach them to read it. 

Don’t model language that a historian wouldn’t realistically use; avoid heuristics that shut down scope for argument. 

Lexicogrammar. Jim started with just providing vocabulary but then started to think about sentence structure: you can’t write a counterfactual without knowing how to structure a counterfactual clause, for example. 

Secure substantive knowledge enabled students to think about argument construction. I like to point out to students, when they ask me how much they need to write, that they should think about how much they could write about themselves in half an hour – because that’s how well they should know the topics. They can then focus on modelling their clay, so to speak. 

Consider the different linguistic demands of specific second order concepts, and make them clear to the students. 

Abstract generalisation also needs to be made explicit to students. 

Support working memory in essay planning to help students avoid ‘knowledge vomit’ where they just blurt out all they know without considering relevance. 

We look at some examples of abstract generalisations by students and I am struck by the difference between a student who can do this from a place of knowledge, and students who trot out the generalisations that clearly are not underpinned, and the very subtle differences in language that indicate the two. Something to think further one. I find students will argue well with logic and struggle to see why this isn’t enough: I wonder whether I can get onto abstract generalisations until they can understand how to use knowledge to construct an argument.

We do a cardsort and I get too busy to take notes. We have to organise the cards into groups and then make a generalisation about them. A favourite activity of mine: just did this with year 8 on why the British Empire grew, but I begin by giving them two categories and challenging them to place as many of their cards in categories of their own choosing as possible – this seems to provide a place of safety for the confused.

Jim circulates like a good teacher should and at one point asks the insightful question, what changed to create the cause?

A great session, providing lots to think about. Here are the handouts: 

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