Monday, 30 March 2015

Barriers and opportunities

I joined Twitter around five years ago whilst on maternity leave with my son.  He was a very calm, content baby.  A period of time we all remember fondly in our family! Anyway, that left me with a bit of time and I'd got to the stage where not only was the mood on Facebook  seriously getting on my nerves, but I also had a Facebook farm!  Disgusted with the person I had become and wracked with guilt about forgetting to feed my Facebook sheep I decided to give Twitter a go.

I can honestly say that Twitter has been the best source of support, friendship, professional development and interesting dialogue.  Online, over the phone and face to face whenever I have met people I tweet with.  The connections I have developed over that time have given me and our school opportunities we could never have dreamed of, much less afforded. 

Last week I got the opportunity to meet someone I have been in contact with on Twitter for all of that time. One of the first people I connected with actually.  I remember thinking his tweets were intelligent and immediately realising when I read his Twitter name and bio that he had been diagnosed with Aspergers as an adult.  Something a lot of people apparently miss.  That surprised me but I suppose perhaps it shouldn't.  Lots of people make the mistake of making life online two dimensional.  We also like lots of the same music and tend to find the same things funny.  

Over the years in several schools I have been special needs co ordinator, including in my current school.  The issue of labelling or not labelling children with a medical diagnosis has constantly cropped up.  The whole thing is a minefield for parents who often don't know what to do for the best and actually just want their child to be happy and valued at school and through their life.  It's also a hot potato for teachers as we are always mindful that we are not medical professionals but we want to help the child and family as much as we can.  Over the years I have come to use the term 'fixed thinking' when talking about behaviours that parents or medical professionals might feel need labelling with the term Autistic Spectrum Disorder.  After all, who are any of us to say that a person's thoughts are disordered?  What order are they supposed to go in?  My friend that I met last week has an IQ of 154, marking him out as incredibly gifted.  Presumably the order his thoughts choose to go in contributes to that intelligence.

'Arseburgers' as he calls himself on Twitter, put this very simply.  He explained that it means very little to him what the label is.  Hence his choice of Twitter name.  It has helped him very much to learn about the behaviours associated with the diagnosis though.  The way he described it to me was that he has to deal with a lot of extra peripheral stimulation.  Things I may tune out.  The colour of a passer by's coat, a car horn, someone else's tone of voice in a conversation over the road, he finds difficult to tune out. This can become over stimulating, exhausting and stressful. Over time he has developed the ability to filter out a lot of this peripheral matter.  There are also strategies that help him. He has lots of sets of pretty much the same outfit for example, cutting out the need to choose what to wear in the morning and limiting extra brain activity on matters that don't need thinking about. 

As we talked about this it became really clear to me for the first time after all these years as a teacher why children cope with some of this peripheral stuff better at school.  When parents have asked me that question, and I've been asked it a heck of a lot, I usually answer that school is more structured.  But it's more than that.  The innate culture of school is all about cutting down periphery noise and colour. As well as creating opportunities for supported active engagement and risk taking when learning.  Filtering for those too young to filter. School looks as expected, sounds as expected and smells as expected, every day.  Except at Christmas, and we wonder why some children struggle with that! In my school we favour quite traditional methods and children have the same teacher for two years.  It's quiet, it's calm and they know how the adult is going to speak to them and be, without having to think about it at all.  When I described that my friend said that is 'a luxury' to anyone that thinks as he does.  

School was not as positive an experience for him.  There was obviously a lack of understanding about his thinking and he was probably far more intelligent than most of his teachers.  Then there were the misunderstandings.  For example he was caned three times for refusing to call his teacher by her double barrelled surname.  He described his confusion over this 'I have one surname, everyone I had ever met had one surname.  I couldn't process the fact she had two surnames.'  After three encounters with the cane an adult eventually took the trouble to explain why she had two surnames and the issue was resolved.  I'm glad this wouldn't happen to a child now.  However the misunderstandings still do.  A parent recently told me that a pupil of ours thought all of the children at a holiday club they went to knew one another already.  The reasoning behind that was that they were talking to one another and knew one another's names.  They were wearing name labels.  We don't know always where there are misunderstandings because the pupils don't know they are misunderstandings.  That's just how they think.  

Professionally I have learned as much from non educationalists on Twitter as I have from educationalists.  Sometimes a non school perspective really helps, particularly as I have never really left school! 

And so to the title of this post.  How pupils think isn't always a barrier and is often a huge opportunity.  My friend is extremely successful and has had jobs most people, including myself, would admire.  Not many of us have a list of IMDb credits lets just say!  A parent recently showed me a photo of a chair her 9 year old had built out of scrap wood found in Grandad's shed.  It could have been the work of a skilled carpenter. I often encourage parents to embrace the opportunities at the same time as navigating the barriers.  The way the child thinks and the way we react shapes who they are.  We really need to spend time thinking about that and planning our behaviour as adults.  

Sunday, 29 March 2015

'Good' to the tune of 'Love changes everything'

Good, good changes everything 
No one slates your Raiseonline 
Good, good changes everything
far less planning, that's just fine 

Good, means space to innovate 
Less constricted, far less fear
Good means you can keep your job 
Fear of sacking, not so near

Good, is such a world away 
From such pressure, constant pain
Good, like when the clocks go forward
No more dark days, no more rain

Good means that it isn't true 
That our vision is just crazy 
Good means that it isn't true 
That our teachers are just lazy 

Good. It is to be enjoyed
Isn't easy, takes some steel.
Good, the chance to have some space 
Lead your school just as you feel. 

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Work in process

I have to blog about this right now, before I forget a single detail.  Taking a third of the school to sing at Wembley Arena yesterday was amazing enough, and then today.  I am being shown something alright. 

Some of you may have noticed that earlier in the week I tweeted:

'Been reading my last two days worth of tweets.  This job is brilliant, this job is terrible.  Ooh cute baby hedgehogs!' 

As all of us in the system, and indeed the public sector, know at the moment the job is a rollercoaster.  Lots of us in Education feel that we are battling on for children against a culture of failure, fear and blame.  But many of us have that moral purpose and need to do right by children. And, actually, that passion and love for the job. It is who we are, part of our nature, our humanity. 

I attended a conference about values and culture today in London.  The venue was Drummond gate, near the Tate Britain.  Because of the late arrival back at school yesterday, 2am, I was running a little late. There was then tube chaos. 

I know delays get frustrating for people but it always upsets me when I overhear the following types of comments from other commuters 'passenger incident? Hmph another jumper. Now we're going to be late.' I've heard it before and it bothers me around humanity.  You'd have to be in an incredibly dark place to jump.  As it turned out that was a rumour (another rather unpleasant human habit) but I was relieved to find it had been an accident and the person was ok.  

At that point I didn't know that though and I arrived at my destination slightly disappointed with humanity and late for the start of the session. I decided to wait until the next session. Then I remembered that this is on at Tate Britain

'Perfect' I thought.  I keep wanting to stick a plaster on my fears about humanity, and desperately trying to find one.  I knew this exhibition would not do that, but it's art would make me think deeply.  I intended to buy the book also and knew at that point I would be taking away far more than a better understanding of social, moral cultural and spiritual values from my course. 

Sadly I didn't have the time today for the rest of the fabulous art in Tate Britain, so I went straight for the McQueen/Waplington exhibition.  I have always been inspired by McQueen and was sad to learn of his tragic death. A loss to art and the world is worse without him in my opinion.  I didn't know very much about Waplington's work other than what I had read about the 2009 collection and that interested me a great deal.  

Every now and then the universe cuts you a break just when you need it and when I got up to the exhibition Nick Waplington was there and had just started to talk a group of visitors through the exhibition.  He is a fascinating man to listen to and I had the privilege of being able to listen to some of what he said.  I wasn't part of the tour and I assume they had been invited or bought tickets so I felt it would be rude to gatecrash and also was really supposed to be over the road working.  However, at that moment listening to Waplington talk through the reasoning behind the collection was far more important to me. Ideas around the political situation in 2009, the banking crash, recycling and infinite growth versus finite resource.  The haves and have nots.  The perception and depiction of women in society.  He also talked about his friendship with McQueen and how he was as a person.  And the tragic fact that this turned out to be his last big gesture.  His final flourish.  

I recommend that you buy this, it is available at Tate Britain  

Waplington's photographs of the 'work in process' toward the 2009 collection are fascinating.  They give an insight into the process, the creativity, the ideas and into McQueen himself.  

I don't know if it is available elsewhere I haven't looked.  I bought it and then had that moment where I knew if I didn't rush back & ask Nick to sign it I would never forgive myself.  So I did.  He very graciously did as I babbled away in a Hugh Grant film character type way about how dreadful the biro I'd given him to sign it was. His guests laughed with a mixture of pity & awkwardness!

I couldn't possibly have explained why it was so important to me at that moment. How the universe had sent it.  How this wrangling in my job as a Headteacher between what the system is becoming politically and what I know is morally right is so resonant with the tension that is present in McQueen's work.  The layers, the texture.  The infinite growth.  The finite resources. 

Both men, both artists, making us think about it through art.  More than that, feel about it.  

Lee Alexander McQueen on the 2009 collection:

Monday, 2 March 2015

Ofsted, the Cancer of our profession?

After about an hour of observing quite stressed behaviours this evening I plucked up the courage to ask my husband if he associates becoming ill with their last Ofsted inspection.  Sadly I hadn't put enough time into thinking about what I would respond with when he just put all of his marking down and said 'yes.'  But what do you say to that?

I'm rarely speechless, I think he appreciated it! I responded with a lengthy silence and then asked how I could help.  I have helped him mark books.  I have fired questions about their Raiseonline.  I have helped plan his assembly. 

I would like to say Ofsted is not as bad as Cancer but actually I got much more stressed before our last inspection than I did when he had Cancer. I couldn't leave the house to buy milk at one point before our inspection whereas I never got like that when I was leading a school post Good Ofsted & nursing him at home during intensive chemotherapy. 

After the first day of their last inspection husband came home in tears.  The only other time I have ever seen him cry is when his grandfather died.  He was given outstanding but the school got RI & he felt it was an unfair judgement.  In the end our friend & mentor Nigel Utton, head at the time, decided to resign.  The pain of unfairness burns Andy and I very hotly. It's one of the many things we have in common. 

All of those feelings, less than 24 hours to deal with them. Alongside the prep & marking & Raiseonline. And checking in with colleagues to make sure they are ok.

Is Ofsted the Cancer of our profession? I have some wise Twitter Ofsted contacts who I have a good deal of time for.  But the Ofsted machine?  I think it's run it's course personally.  We have appraisal mechanisms & teacher standards that are far tougher than they were.  They ensure rigour. Ofsted is just causing rigor mortis. 

Ofsted causes the great teachers to overthink & feel too much pressure.  It does no more for bad teachers than us as school leaders can do. Except for scaring people into sacking a token case study.  It's inconsistent and fundamentally flawed in my opinion. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

Hands up, baby hands up for quality ITE

I think we're very fortunate in our area to have an excellent ITE provider.  Canterbury Christchurch University College produce fabulous teachers consistently. They are a respected institution. They have high expectations & standards of students and work well with us as schools but they also challenge us. They are full of professionals with research credentials who reframe our thinking in school about trainee teachers and where they are/what they need. They have an excellent blog at 

As a very small school I make trainee teachers a focus around every third year. We don't have capacity every year. We have two students when that is our priority and I throw myself into all things Chrischurch to make sure they get the best partnership between us and University.  I am passionate about trying to get it right from the outset so that the drop out rate improves among new teachers. I interviewed there for next year's trainee teachers this week and deviated from the set questioning on two points:
'How well do you deal with frustration about the system and why do you think so many new teachers drop out?' 
'Do you aspire to be a Headteacher?' 
I think these two questions are essential indicators of resilience now and of realism about our profession.  Of course I wouldn't expect most applicants to teacher training posts to see themselves as a Headteacher (I didn't!) but aspiring is different.  We need resilient, sparky folk who want to be in it to win it. I'm not saying everyone should be a Head either, of course not. To maintain life as a high performing teacher is as hard as the job of Headteacher. 

I also had the privilege this week of observing and interim grading our final practice trainee teacher alongside her University link tutor.  She is outstanding.  She is a joy to behold. She also has a work rate that is second to none and is reflective. She had graded herself cautiously and we upped many of her grades. 

The link tutor and I had a bit of conflict though over children putting their hands up.  Her point of view was that the trainee teacher shouldn't be asking for hands up.  I pointed out that we use hands up as a school strategy. That's not all we use, the pupils know we don't always choose those with hands up. There is a lolly stick mug so those that don't put up hands know that if the teacher is holding the mug they'd better try & think of an answer if their hand isn't up. But that isn't used every time. 

I see this dislike of hands up as another easy thing for people outside of day to day school life to take a dislike to based on bits of research. Children love putting their hands up! Why wouldn't you sometimes ask the child who has their hand up so much they might pop? Why wouldn't you occasionally give the child who doesn't like putting their hand up a safety break? 

It's quite obvious my childrens' school use hands up as on occasion my children raise their hands at home! They are an outstanding school, and not just in Ofsted terms. 

So, I fought my trainee teacher's corner on that one and won.  The link tutor is excellent actually and I know she is just balancing what our trainee may find in the culture of other schools once she is employed, where perhaps the show of hands has been vilified as ancient practice. 

I think this type of discourse is so valuable though and I worry that without a University provision and discourse between school and University link tutor the quality of provision for training isn't there. We have had our County ITE program given 4 by Ofsted recently

The teaching schools are all developing provision but, as yet, I can't see the comparison between them and an established ITE provision. In my view Christchurch have an entirely different mindset to that which a teaching school has capacity for, particularly when it comes to educational research and research based discourse with schools. 

Saturday, 31 January 2015

You are braver than you believe

I fell down the stairs last week.  It's an unglamorous story that is connected with me having the bug my kids had & going to bed in the spare room. I look like Bowie during his Spiders from Mars phase. 

I've been at work this week, in dark glasses, and I'm ok. Sort of. I've done a lot of reflecting and talking to staff and I've realised that it was getting to me. 

By 'it' I mean the national picture.  The academy programme.  The fact we're one of the only small schools in the county not yet federated or part of an academy chain.  With my small cohorts meaning children carry as much as 17% we are also vulnerable to drop below key performance indicators.

I have led my school for 7 years.  We are full, solvent, in a fit for purpose well maintained building and 9th in our, large, county in performance tables.  The team is high calibre and really something special. I am happy, proud and privileged to lead them. We are part of a strong collaboration and have a steering company, of which I am on the board of directors.  We have good connections and exciting plans.

So why so scared? Today has been that moment when the sun shines in the morning and you can't even believe you were so scared of that horrid nightmare you had.  Both my irrational nightmares and my worries about school are based in the same place. My subconscious. 

So time to remember something simple. Simple's always best at such times. A while since I've mentioned AHT in my posts as she has been a Head of her own school for a year and a half now, and has taken on a second school this year*proud face.*This (link below) is a favourite of hers and one she left for me to remember going forward.  School leadership has to be brave, strong and smart.  Often we are more of all of those than we think.  And the most important thing, our moral purpose, will always be with us. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Friend, my friend.

Friend isn't the same term as it used to be socially is it?  Has it been redefined or is it just in the social realm.  Is a Facebook friend the same as a work friend? A Twitter friend the same as a pen friend (who has those any more? Shame) to 'friend' someone for teenagers doesn't mean to subscribe to any of the values of friendship. For some it does, but those aren't the social rules. 

Was it ever any different?  Is social networking just party rules unwritten? With (you'd like to think) less alcohol? But perhaps more. 

I do know that I had few old friends that could support when my husband was ill. Our Macmillan nurse told us that would happen and I didn't believe it.  But she was right.  My Twitter friends got me through. Jan Rush & Banno initially.  Banno turned tears to laughter with his tweet about the macdonalds milkshake machine explosion! Jan was so kind & then sent a pillow.  Charlotte sent me three hearts with the words 'love, hope & luck' they are still in my purse. 

We had some bricks of friends too.  Craig, Martin and Tina.  Online I was supported every day though.  It was almost like tag team. There was always someone there. You people are quite a team. 

The point of this is our friends online are friends, they don't mean less than those we regarded before as friends just because we met on the net. 

I'm really looking forward to Friday. I'm going to see @raliel first thing (who is one of my favourite folk) as I discovered he doesn't have a ukulele & that must be remedied! Then I'm off to the BETT show and will get to Friday hug @betsysalt for real this week! 

Sometimes I see people moaning about teacher Twitter feed.  There's a simple answer to that. Make friends with people who are not teachers too. Think wider.