Celebrating Difference: A Whole-School Approach to LGBT+ Inclusion

This book is a comprehensive guide for schools to undertake the work required to make inclusive spaces for all sexualities and genders. The author Shaun Dellenty invests significant pages in the book to showing mindfulness, compassion and respect to all aspects of the approach making it read more as a philosophy that is accessible for all. I’ll be keeping this book nearby because of how practical and useful the contents are. In this blogpsot I’m going to reflect on a couple of the key aspects of the book that make it stand out.

Structure

The chapters in the book are divided into a six tier approach that are built upon a foundation layer of positive relationships, inclusive behaviour policies mindfulness and pupil voice (10-11).

  • Tier 1: Focusing as an individual – promoting self-reflection and building an authentic sense of our own attitudes bringing non-judgmental curiosity to our thoughts and feelings.
  • Tier 2: Focusing as a team – continuing this focus at a collective level.
  • Tier 3: Strategic development for organisational change – forming of the ethos and vision into a strategic plan.
  • Tier 4: Implementation – application of the strategic plan, including work on culture, curriculum, and the classroom.
  • Tier 5: Evaluation and realignment – Measuring impact and making appropriate adjustments and changes.
  • Tier 6: Celebration – inspiring growth and change outwardly beyond the school.

The approach of tiers I think is really meaningful here. Schools can find themselves at different levels of this strategic vision and can use the book as a means of investigating next steps.

Activities

Threaded throughout the book is a range of activities that could be used in professional development sessions. The nature of these activities are mainly reflective, promoting critical thinking related to developing compassion (as discussed below).

There are a range of powerful activities throughout the book. One example is stopping to pause after identifying bullying behaviour targeted at LGBT+ people and instead of making an assumption about the impact of bullying, unpacking what damage prejudice-relating bullying can cause (40). This brainstorm should lead to discussion of mental health, self-esteem, dropping out of education, self-harm, shame and much much more. Raising these ideas engages compassion and empathy, and gives an opportunity for the importance of this professional learning focus to resonate with the participants.

Compassion

I was regularly struck when reading by the promotion of a “honest and non-judgmental approach” (53). Time to reflect and mindfulness are regularly visited throughout the book to promote noticing our prejudices, biases and assumptions. The core of this idea is a compassionate approach to prejudice and acceptance and that prejudice is an inherent part of the human condition.

Compassion and empathy often make token appearances in educational discussions, but it is the integration of these values into all layers of this philosophy that felt powerful. The book argues that “effecting organisational change within education systems begin with changing hearts and minds at an individual level” (65). But this approach “must never assume that other individuals experience empathy in the same way as we do” (151). It’s a compassionate approach that takes time, but respects every individual’s understanding and experiences to make sustained and lasting positive change.


Dellenty, S. (2019) Celebrating Difference: A Whole-School Approach to LGBT+ Inclusion. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Education.

Switching on the Remote Learning

pexels-photo-1792056Recently I wrote a range of ideas about the issues around access, pedagogy and culture that have been highlighted by the sudden shift to remote learning. I wanted to extend that discussion by drawing together various sources and ideas about what remote learning should look like. 

Education was never the sole focus of schools, and it’s a shame it has taken a pandemic to prove itLaura McInerney

Vision

This is the most important time to lead with humanity, empathy and kindness. Individual schools’ visions will have values that relate to these ideas, but now is the time to really make them visible. Perry Rush from the NZ Principal’s association affirmed that “Our job at this time is to infuse any home learning plan with a deep sense of humanity.” This absolute focus on well-being means some other concerns might take a back seat for a while, but the bigger picture here is we are helping to equip our young people with resilience and grit.

What is needed at this time is leadership that has emotional resonance. This is not a time for you to be a transactional leader singularly focused on how learning may continue. It is a time for you to metaphorically wrap your arms around the young people in your care and embrace their families too – Perry Rush

Jacinda Ardern continues to emerge as a beacon of hope not just for NZ but for the global community. Many of the world’s leaders have focused on instructive messages, politically charged with contradictions or explanatory in their intent. However, Ardern’s value-led statements have repeatedly emphasised care and compassion while using the mantra of “be kind“. Our schools should be led with the same approach.

Relationships

Humanity, empathy and kindness are central to the idea of positive relationships. In the classroom I consider my personality my most valuable asset – I use it to engage students, management behaviour, motivate and connect with the students. Now from a distance, it is still vital to connect virtually and maintain positive relationships. According to Core Education this means beginning with people – and people need humanity, empathy and kindness.

Parents will be under all kinds of new pressures in these situations so they too need reminding of these central values and the need to prioritise well-being and relationships above learning the times tables. Zoe Williams described the situation as a marathon done at a sprint: “We don’t have to win it – we just have to live it.”

Pedagogy

I had to check myself for a moment when I initially laid out this blogpost I had the subheading ‘technology’ – technology is not a pedagogy; it’s a vechicle and we can learn to be better drivers, but ultimately it is not a replacement for excellent teaching and learning. What does that look like in this context? I think there are a few considerations:

  • Project based learning: chunking learning into assignment style projects.
  • Beyond the classroom opportunities: community support activities, citizenship endeavours that focus on family well-being (i.e. cooking), and where appropriate subject scholarship.
  • Personalised: available to access anytime and anywhere, with plenty of options and approaches for learners at different levels, with different skills and interests.
  • Work ready focus: enrichment activities like online language learning, investigating careers through online talks and work preparation.
  • Collaborative: make students part of the planning and learning creation; have opportunities for their feedback and contributions.
  • Learning to learn: a fundamental underpinning of the NZ curriculum; for a lot of students this might be a deep end experience so a focus on how will help.

These considerations can be enabled by tools like Google Classroom, Canvas, Seesaw, Microsoft Teams etc. in different ways. I think the key is that whatever tools are used, they are collaborative, interactive, and promote agency. Furthermore, that the spirit of experimentation is encouraged. Many teachers will be encountering these tools for the first time, and a sense of there being one right way will only restrict the potential learning possibilities.

Structure

It was terrifying to read that many schools have maintained their classroom timetable for remote learning. This is not the time for business as usual. It’s not viable for most households to maintain this, and greatly reduces the opportunities that distance learning pedagogy can have. Claire Amos in a recent Spinoff article put it this way:

Life in lockdown shouldn’t have a predetermined timetable, and neither should learning. Replicating a timetable in a remote context is not kind, and haven’t we all been asked to be kind?

Bishop Carroll in Calgary, Canada is part of the Self-Directed Schools movement. Their approach is to timetable the teachers (so students know when they are available) and student co-construct their own time including masterclasses and workshops. Such an approach could very well be adapted to the current context. Teachers could be timetabled into an online chat space (with video to enhance connections) on a regular basis with students checking in to ask questions, seek clarification or feedback. The rest of the time a suggested programme could be provided helping students to fill the time in meaningful ways. 

Monitoring student connection on a shared google sheet (or similar) in lieu of attendance rolls will help to keep tabs on engagement and help inform tutors and pastoral leaders or who needs checking in on. But monitoring students for output should not be valued at all. This would not fit within the vision of leading with humanity, empathy and kindness. 

Assessment

This is a great opportunity to diversify the way we view assessment. So many assessment systems are stuck in traditional mindsets that view examinations as the dominant form of assessment. As these are no longer possible in the short term, perhaps we can consider how alternative approaches could be more authentic, integrated, and holistic. Performance over time can produce a significantly different result to a single high-stakes summative test. Which is a more accurate reflection of a student’s ability?

But perhaps a better consideration is to interrogate what we are measuring and how we are collecting that data. What skills and knowledge do we value in these times? Perhaps we should be finding ways to reward students who develop the skills to support their families and communities, or even volunteer for the NHS. How do we want to measure and collect this data? Perhaps we need to be looking at engaging students with more than just written work through social media, oral submissions, and multimodal methods.


I am by no means claiming this is a holistic take on all the issues that the current crisis presents. I’m sure school leadership in these unprecedented times is far more complex than my idealised take on it. Regardless, I think it is so important to keep emphasising the values of humanity, empathy and kindness.

You Can’t Change a Culture Via Emails

In the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, the internet has produced a wide variety of hot-takes on the implications on education. From definitive guides to home schooling to the articles in awe of teachers, there has also been cynicism such as “e-learning is no substitute for the real thing” and “E-learning [an] unlikely solution.” This negativity sometimes focuses on the perceived limitations of technology and distance learning, but also on the social and wellbeing challenges. I’m interested in how much this sudden forced shift to remote learning might be an opportunity to improve education and how access, pedagogy and culture have the potential to shift as a consequence of this crisis.

1. Access

Recently my flatshare’s internet contract required renewing and I was was shocked at how expensive the options were. Internet access, which many including myself assume is a human right, is actually a financial privilege. 22% of households in the US do not have home internet, 4 million of those with school age children; in the UK things might be better but there are still significant numbers not connected. 18% of my own tutor group do not have access to wifi or a computer at home. However, every student I teach owns a smart phone, but this is hardly satisfactory to undertake remote learning.

UK society is already so class divided, I fear the lockdown will create only further segregation and a wider divide. Lots of devices have been loaned to students, but with such a short time to prepare for this crisis, this is a small band-aid on a gaping wound. Internet access should be a human right and a shift in government policy is needed so that all our young people have access to both the internet and an appropriate learning device in their  homes.

It is also worth considering the technology teachers have access to. In the four schools I’ve worked at in the UK for longer than a week, only one (my current one) equips teachers with laptops. Cloud based storage is rare and most web technology that schools are using is limited. The potential of technology use is often squashed due to concerns about safeguarding and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). I think there are wide misunderstandings about technology and its classroom potential. I hope the tidal wave of online conversation occurring at the moment will inspire a new openness.

2. Pedagogy

My condensed experience of pedagogy in the UK is that teachers here are strong teaching a knowledge curriculum. The measurements of pedagogy are significantly focused on what the students learn and only mildly interested in the how. This is represented by how little scrutiny classrooms or schools get that produce outstanding results, therefore the focus is heavily on outcomes, finding little time for the invisible skills curriculum. These strengths and weaknesses presents both opportunities and challenges for remote learning. I expect most learning design will continue to be strong, but the need for focus on skills outside the explicit curriculum like digital skills and emotional and psychological wellbeing has never been greater.

The joint union guidance that gives solid pedagogical advice is all reasonable and shamefully being ignored by some schools.  Terrifyingly, some schools are expecting students to mirror their school timetables in their home context. Others are adopting forms of project based learning, or at least focusing on longer term assignments. My hope is in this high-stakes data-driven education environment that our shift to remote learning can find time to focus on the joy of learning. Allowing time for – dare I say it – fun, might help us all get through this crisis.

3. Culture

I’ve written before a few times about the clash I’ve had with the UK education culture. The current circumstances exaggerate those issues. I’m upset about the lack of a spirit of inquiry in regards to this situation. Some schools in NZ had the foresight to have a practice remote learning day, gave teachers the chance to trial a range of approaches and then measured engagement. The findings are not likely transferable to the UK because of the dramatically different cultures. In a climate of learning objectives, success criteria -lessons that are “do now” and differentiation is select from these three options – the lesson recipe is limiting our potential to inquire and shift practice.

I want to caution thinking that if we measure and study the effectiveness of the current practice of remote learning we might find robust evidence to shift education. We won’t. This will fail. Remote learning will not be successful. The Ofsted style outcome data we gain from this time will not be a valid measures. Without first addressing the barriers of access, and the gaps in pedagogy, this data will not accurately reflect the potential of online learning.

My hope is that more teachers will experiment, see the potential in giving opportunities for student agency, discovering the ubiquity of learning, and be reminded of the power of relationships. The greatest loss in shifting to remote contexts is the loss of the physical community and central hub that creates opportunities for connections and socialisation. In is those contexts that the social and emotional education of our learners takes place, and without an established online culture we are in a poor position to address this. BYOD schools are already dealing with these questions head on and they are beside students who are distracted by their devices, helping them to develop the skills to succeed in this world filled with technology. Without using technology in our classrooms already we are poorly positioned to shift the culture, no matter how many emails we send.

The UK is a long way away from prepared to deal with the educational challenges from this situation.  But the dramatic potential to finally address the issue of access, embrace different pedagogies and begin to shift the culture is exciting. I deeply hope there will be some positives from these truly dark times.

Dear Front Half of the NZ Curriculum, I Miss You

In the UK I’ve met a different breed of student which has really challenged me. They are students who believe their teachers have never believed in them. They don’t believe in a power of learning, because they haven’t found success in a conventional way. They have little knowledge of their strengths and abilities beyond traditional academic results. They challenge and reject opportunities for new learning as a default, and often dismiss help and support because they feel they will be able to do it themselves. They have lost faith in education. And these students are across the academic spectrum. They are not just low level learners still trying to gain GCSEs in the second time around, they are also high achieving students who do not trust the system.

These students are really troubling for me because they really challenge my vision of the classroom. My passion for learner agency has really taken a battering from the endless data drive and high stakes assessment. I try to maintain a classroom with lots of students choice, independent learning and opportunities to explore connections and tangents. But the assessment regime is an authoritative beast with a ubiquitous presence. These students are confrontational: seeking approval but no feedback, support but no guidance, attention but no challenge. They struggle in my classroom because their armor of expectations is so thick.

My views come from teaching in certain contexts, and shouldn’t be read as representative of the entire system. However, I can’t help but see the roots of these observations in the system itself. Ultimately, the students don’t trust the system – and to what degree is the system to blame?

I have written previously on the difference that driving the NZ curriculum from the front half of the curriculum makes. The equivalent in the UK is the teaching of British Values and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC). These are usually dealt with in an isolated tutorial programme and rarely enter pedagogical conversations. This does filter through to students who don’t consistently hear the value of the skills and competencies that they are developing, or miss out on the explicit teaching of these skills or competencies.

The principles, values and competencies that guide New Zealand educators, and thus New Zealand ākonga is the fundamental difference that I miss most teaching in the UK. They play such an important role in developing learning rigor. The complexities of how students develop their attitudes and actions is admittedly far more complex than just what is written in the curriculum but it’s an important component of the conversation. More than anything it helps that conversation to be guided by a common language. It’s clear to me that the disparate education system in the UK doesn’t have one. The students I’ve described here are just some of the victims.

Parent-Teacher Interviews & The Shared Language of Education

In my first year ever parent-teacher interviews, I had an out of body moment. The generally accepted idea of what it means to be a teacher – in a traditional sense – was one I was desperately aspiring to in my early years. I was very prepared for the evening, but even armed with piles of student work and diligent notes on each student I still started off the evening very anxious and not communicating very clearly. After the first hour of five minute speed dating I started to find a rhythm and began to grow in confidence. Not long after I found my conscious slowly drifting out of my body and I looked back to hear myself spouting off all kinds of cliches…

I’m really pleased with the way that they are approaching their learning …  avoiding distractions …  focused approach to class … written work … ideas developing … try harder … more effort … better results … higher grades …

And as I watched myself from that hovering vantage point I thought to myself: I’ve made it. I really am a teacher.

I’m not particularly proud of my early efforts at parent-teacher interviews. I made a lot of conscious changes since then such as centering student voice, switching the dialogue to between the teacher-student instead of the teacher-parent, focusing on competencies and values rather than results. However, while these changes have helped, I’m still cynical about how much use the 5 minute speed dating style parent-teacher interview is.

After 18 months in London I’m now reflecting on a change terrifies me. I’m becoming imbued in the system and parent-teacher interviews are a symbol of this.

Parent-teacher interviews rely on a shared language to achieve shared understanding. One of the key pieces of advice that usually gets some staff meeting air time for a parents’ evening is avoid acronyms or education jargon. The shared language in my London experience appears to be results and grades. I have started to notice how little I now mention how well the students work with one another, their acts of kindness, and the way in which they navigate challenges and problem solve. However, the universal understanding of a percentage score or a number between 1-9 and the impact this number has on post-school options is a irresistible force. Data dominates home communication because it is the common language.

It feels somewhat cathartic to articulate this, but distressing that it’s only a cog in an overwhelming machine. Is New Zealand better at this because of the explicit front half of the curriculum? Is it just that relating to others is easier to understand than the complexity of NCEA? If education really is the joint venture between home and school that I believe it is, then how can we develop this common language to ensure we are teaching the whole human, not just a qualification?

The School Checklist

One of the intentions I came to London with was to use this opportunity to interrogate my values. I was expecting working here to be different and to challenge my assumptions. This post is composed to investigate and interrogate the aspects that are emerging as most meaningful for me when I look at a new school. This could be read as both a checklist for considering a new school, or it could be a checklist for potential change.

1. A Clear and Integrated Vision

A school’s vision is a fundamental. It is the first thing I click on a school website, and I actively look for ways that that vision is threaded through every other part of the school’s online presence. I’ve been part of a team that developed a shared school vision and I’m proud of how it was implemented and began the process of a culture change. The vision must be unique to the community that it serves. It must be present in the language of the leadership team, the staff and the students. I must be accessible to all layers of the school community and should underpin everything a school does.

2. A Teaching Community

I really miss New Zealand. There would be very few schools where teachers are anonymous. Staff will always acknowledge each other in the corridor and probably exchange pleasantries. People know your name, and use it instead of the impersonal “sir” and “miss” even when no students are around. Communication occurs in all directions and the doors in offices are generally open. Problems are solved together, in person, rather than disappearing by passing up. There is a shared understanding that the vision cannot be realised without collaboration.

3. Pedagogy is not fixed

Pedagogy is ever evolving. Some core truths hold firm, but I don’t believe we can ever rest on the myth of a “model lesson”. Derek Wenmoth said in a uLearn breakout session; “If you think you are doing something right, ask someone else”. There should be a space to debate pedagogy, introduce new ideas, explore new thinking. Teacher ‘experts’ should be avoided so as not to promote the myth of a pedagogy hierarchy. I’ve learnt so much from the student teachers I’ve watched teach. Behaviour management should be part of the conversation, but not dominate it. It should be led by concepts like student agency, cultural-responsiveness, inclusion, life-long learning, and – most of all – the school’s vision for learning.

4. The Arts & Creativity Are Valued

Media, film, and drama are integral components of the curriculum and should not be relegated into second tier or vocational streamed subjects. That is not to say they cannot be taught with a vocational focus, but they must be valued by the school as valid and significant parts of the curriculum. This could be indicated by the spaces, the resourcing, the placement in the timetable, the presence in the corridors, the numbers of students and the expectations for results. I absolutely believe that the arts should have an integral role in any person’s education.

5. Personalised Learning

A holistic curriculum framework is a flawed concept. It must exist, but so must an awareness of its limitations. As education increasingly pays attention to the outsiders who aren’t served by the curriculum, the more this is being understood. I believe that learning should be understood as a personalised concept. This is something that holistically encompasses curriculum and pastoral care. Every child presents different needs and it is important to me that the school is demonstrating the value of individuality from the front, and not just dealing with those that don’t fit on the industrial education conveyor belt in a withdrawal space.

6. The Staffroom

I’ve come to appreciate how significant a staffroom is to the culture of a school. An empty staffroom at lunch can say something about staff morale. A staffroom where teachers group to unleash complaints that they habitually repeat almost daily is another clear sign. A staffroom should be a safe space to speak to colleagues and break from the grind of the school day. It needs to be separate from a workplace, and a space for constructive conversations. A staffroom can represent how the school supports staff and approaches well-being.

7. Student Behaviour

This is the hardest one to write because I think it’s the biggest shift to my values. I don’t think I have the resilience or the patience to get the best outcomes for all students. I have learnt so much this year about myself and how I respond to challenging students with almost constant behaviour defiance and zero motivation towards learning. Much of this relies on consistency and perseverance. But I’ve really struggled to have the right mindset everyday. When it goes wrong and I go home at the end of the day I’ve struggled to shrug it off. I so admire teachers that have the skills to do this, and to do it everyday. Those teachers are who these students need.

8. An Inclusive Environment

I identify as a gay man, and in any school I will teach queer students. It’s important to me that I teach in inclusive environments that welcome all gender and sexuality minorities. An inclusive environment is more than a poster on the wall; it is evident in every aspect of the school. Staff and students must be able to express themselves, their beliefs and their values in a safe way. I am still passionate about triggering change and developing inclusion; however, I have no intention of starting in a school that isn’t open to being challenged on inclusion and prepared to do things differently.

Losing the Love: Where Did the Joy Go?

For me, teaching used to be a vocation; now, everyday feels like a job. I’ve taught for 9 years and it never occurred to me that one day I would feel like this. Why is this happening? Where did the joy go?

I have now taught in London schools for eight months after eight years of teaching in New Zealand. The change has certainly changed me. In this blogpost I want to consider three things that may have led to this loss of love. Maybe reflection can help me to start regaining that passion.

Burn Out

For eight years I was warned about burn out. I was actively monitored by senior staff and managed through some busy times. My work output in NZ was immense. I was devoted to work in a way that rarely impacted on my life outside school, but the energy and endless hours I found for work seems momentous retrospectively. Part of this was being young and ambitious. Part of this was my DNA – I’ve always had an enormous capacity for work.

I don’t really know what it looks like, but I never ‘burnt out’. Articles have helped me to understand what the signs of burnout are and the enormous pressures that make the professional “unsustainable” and maybe I’m experiencing something like that now. I’m learning how to be a teacher that only works regular hours and leaves on Friday to have a weekend without a pile of marking. But that’s coming from my own personal drive to make the most of living in London, not because the profession is structured in a sustainable way.

A New Context

The education machine in the UK is a terrifying beast. I am troubled by the prescriptive curriculum, the endless data drive and high-stakes assessment routines. After eight months I have come to accept a lot of the world around me, and my questions have faded. I read local media articles with  statements like “London schools are in the throes of a growing crisis” and the teacher’s union saying that “our own research shows…81% of teachers have considered leaving the profession in the last year because of workload“. There’s clearly a massive issue with the state of the profession.

The context is working against my passion and my love for teaching. I’m not being enabled in the way that I was in New Zealand. NCEA gave me the opportunity to be creative with the curriculum, data was largely naturally occurring and captured in a variety of ways, and assessment may have been too frequent but at least the students had multiple opportunities to succeed, not one day to prove three years of successful learning. In NZ a full time teacher has 20 contact hours. Currently I have just over 24 contact hours which is under my allotment so I am used for relief lessons nearly every week. Is there a way to be as passionate about education in a system that is designed this way? …I’m looking for it.

The Nine Year Itch

Part of me does wonder how much this loss of passion is part of a natural career ebb. Perhaps this post-modern feeling of self-reflexive understanding – it is just a job – is completely unremarkable. Perhaps this is just career maturation as I learn to be more selective about where I apply my energy. Perhaps this is a process we all go through to some extent. Perhaps…but isn’t is a shame that there are clear external factors that suppress my sustained passion for teaching?

From NZ to London: Teaching Agencies

Agency Teachers

This kind of question is thrown around all the time and one I struggle to answer without an extended story. My experience of teaching agencies in London has been mixed. I hope this post can help at least one person to make more informed decisions. Furthermore, I’m not putting my experience out there to rag on particular agencies that I had negative experiences with. This is not a name and shame post – anyone who wants more information can DM me on twitter. However, I know if I had done more research and if I had read a story like this one, there are mistakes I would have avoided for sure. Bullet point advice at the bottom of the post.


Agency One

I came to London with one agency organised months in advanced and was spun a convincing story that they would be able to get me a permanent placement before I arrived. As D-day drew nearer I became increasingly concerned that no viable schools were on the table. The closest we got was a school in Canvey Island which is a 2 hour commute from central London. I was expecting to get at least a Skype interview before arriving in London, however, the only interview that eventuated from this agency was scheduled for two weeks into term with no work prospects before then. My response was to search for jobs myself and send them to this agencies saying ‘what about these?’ One of those turned into trial and a job offer. But after experiencing that school I turned it down for a range of reasons. It wasn’t right for me. The job interview that eventually came around was promising, but I wasn’t offered that position because I didn’t have enough UK experience. No further job interviews or opportunities came up before I left the agency a couple of weeks later.

I found this agency lacked relationships with London Secondary Schools. While I often want to support the little player – a agency without connections is not much use in this market. I found that their consultants to be inexperienced in education and were poor communicators. Furthermore, their lack of transparency around pay lead to massive complications and they were responsible for losing my DBS certificate which became vital later on down the line (and actually lost me a few days of work). It took four months to be paid for the two weeks of work I did with them. Throughout that time there was countless emails and answerphone messages. It took contacting the CEO to have the matter resolved and get the pay sent to me. I am still trying to get a pay receipt for that sum for tax purposes so the nightmare is still not over.

My next move was to sign up with multiple agencies. I contacted six over a weekend and started back to back meetings on Monday. By Tuesday I had signed up to three more agencies and the race was on.

Agency Two – ANZUK

I had a really positive experience with ANZUK. Their specialty is day-to-day supply and short term teaching placements for largely inexperienced teachers from Australia and NZ. I starting working for them only a day after our first face-to-face meeting (they fast-tracked my clearance) and their systems for on the day supply are exceptional. The communication is clear and they are connected to a large range of quality schools around London. They also host a range of events and this can be a great way of connecting with people in a similar situation. I did several one-off days at various schools with them and one four week placement. It wasn’t 100% positive: they did unprofessionally promote an umbrella company on me (more on this later), and I found the quality of their professional development fairly poor. It’s worth mentioning that this is the type of experience one can have when supply teaching, but I think there’s a lot to learn from this too.

Agency Three – SMART Teachers

I also signed up with SMART Teachers. Of all the introductory meetings and interviews with agencies I had, I was most impressed with Kayleigh from SMART teachers, she got me and my experience straight away and listened to me in a way that made me feel valued. I’m disappointed that I didn’t end up working with a school via this agency. They didn’t win the race, but I would have no hesitation in recommending this agency.

Agency Four

The last agency I signed up with ended up winning the race. They were connected to a school with a position that was a superb fit for me. I did a trial day, which quickly evolved into an interview and it was a done deal very quickly.

My first impressions of this agency were really strong. It was great at establishing a relationship that was personable and friendly. However, these first impressions didn’t last and things quickly fell apart. As the process went on, I felt increasingly uncomfortable about things I was told that turned out to be…shall we say…a stretch of the truth. The worst interactions came between the job offer and my acceptance of the job. Even though I owned the decision in the end and said yes on my terms, I still felt manipulated. Disappointingly, it was several months after I had started the job when the conditions of my acceptance actually all came through (this included salary, start date, and subjects I had agreed to teach). I am certain the agency is more at fault for this than the school. The money situation was the worst, as I was put in the uncomfortable position of being between what the school thought they had agreed to, and what I had agreed with the agency. We came to the right resolution, but I should never have been in that position. Finally, I found out from my HR department that they are one of the most expensive agencies the school has ever hired from. I did not feel good about this.

I would absolutely not recommend this agency as they also ended up owning me money that took over two months to settle. The kicker was after I sent my last polite email confirming that the money had arrived, the reply that came was:

Pleasure, the least I could do!

In Summary…

  • Sign up to multiple agencies. At least three. Each will have different contacts and relationships with different schools; it will maximise your chances of getting in the right school for you.
  • If possible, request a day of relief as an interview. It’s a much better way of getting a feel for a school and it offers the school a way of getting a feel for you. A trial lesson is fine, but it suits the school more than it suits you so keep that in mind.
  • On a related note, I never got my head around how to read a school from the outside. Some of the worst days teaching were at schools with the best online appearance. The only effective way of judging a school I found was spending a day on the ground.
  • Get your head around Umbrella Companies as soon as possible. It will come up. I believe that when you weigh it up, the benefits are largely the agencies, and you will be worse off. I felt forced into an umbrella company contract and had I been informed I would have not gone down this road.
  • Use email as much as possible and have all promises and agreements from the agencies in writing.

The Solo Traveler Sitting In Your Classroom

Since mid-February I have been travelling through Vietnam and China on my way to make a new home in London. For most of Vietnam I had travel companions, for most of China I have been a solo traveler. By myself I’ve felt like the outsider at times, being the only European and English speaker in many situations. Particularly in China I’ve been in environments that by their very design exclude me from particpating.

While I’ve enjoyed the extended break, I’ve been missing the classroom and pedagogy has never to too far from my mind. Traveling and education are much the same in how they are both about journeys. Traveling from the south of vietnam to the north of China could be a metaphor for a student’s journey through school: its about making sense of new environments, gaining knowledge, achieving success. There is also the challenge of maintaining your own identity and agency in the face of systems that tend to favour homogeneity.

An important part of my identity is that I am gay. It has been a struggle at times to have that part of my identity validated on this trip. Buying clothes, most shop assistants will attempt to sell me something for my girlfriend; arranged marriages with local girls have been proposed more than once after locals discover I am traveling alone. In Vietnam, I spent some time in Yen Duc Village a couple of hours from Hanoi. At my homestay I had to give up trying to explain I had a male partner. At first I was laughed at, then later I was reasoned with – my homestay mother explaining through a translator that if I only held other boys’ hands then it would be ok. This might not be homophobia, but more of a cultural clash where my identity cannot be seen for this family in Vietnam.

More overt homophobia happened later in Chengdu, when an Australian in a food tour group delighted in telling us his ‘awful’ story about accidentally going to a Chinese gay bar. He told us he didn’t know what type of bar it was, found it was full of only men and experienced guys hitting on him. He then explained how he got out of there as quick as he could barely disguising his disgust in his reenactment. This form of homophobia pales in comparison to the young fabulous boy I saw being spat at in Shanghai. While that was disturbing to witness, the ubiquity of spitting in China makes me doubt how directed an attack that was. But then again there was no attempt to apologise.

In our classrooms, students may find our educational spaces similar to traveling in a foreign country.

How do we ensure we are validating our students’ identities? How are we ensuring that everyone feels like they belong? Are our classrooms inclusive of all the differences that our students bring? Alienation can be brought about through language barriers and cultural practices that don’t find space for difference. The challenge here isn’t for China and Vietnam to change, it is for educators to make our classrooms inclusive destinations for all our travellers. I think I’ve learnt a lot from the reminder of both what it feels like to be the outsider and the privilege of experiencing this so rarely.

A sample from a series titled ‘Jerome standing in front of things’ – in this instance a street in the Old Quarter of Hoi An, Vietnam

Digital Vs Human – Richard Watson

9781925321173My previous holiday read ‘Mobile Learning Through Digital Media Literacy‘ was a strong advocate for the integration of digitally based learning through careful application of several key principals. This book, “Digital Vs Human” by Richard Watson, is a far more cautionary tale. Watson is a futurist (interviewed here on Radio NZ) who was mentioned and recommended by Derek Wenmoth in his presentation on future trends.

The main them of the book was around the impact of automation and digitalisation: “How new technologies change the was that humans relate to one another, and ultimately, how technologies change human identity and purpose” (172). However, Watson is clear, boldly announcing in his preface “the problem we currently face is not technology, it’s humans” (xv). He encourages us to take control of the changes going on, to ask questions about purpose and impact, and evaluate ethically any technological change.

He considers the impacts of technology change on jobs, the economy and privacy, identifying that an “imbalance has emerged between work and life…individuals and community …liberty and equality…economy and the environment…physical and mental health” (16). The imbalance is leading to loss of connections and isolation of individuals. Watson implores us to stay in the driving seat, keeping creativity and empathy at the fore. Instead of blindly accepting new technology as progress, we need to ask what is it for? Who does it serve? Watson also considers the development of AI in depth. Where is the line between human and non-human? To what extent will humans “be happy to use machines in place of people and in what roles? Is there an obvious limit?” (58).

A chapter is devoted to education, but strung throughout the book is a challenge to rethink the relationship between technology and education. We live in an era “where our opinions are increasingly based on very little knowledge” where “knowledge of the fact a thing exists or is happening” is more important than knowledge itself (153). Are we over-schooling and under-educating? Are devices conditioning young minds “away from deep reflective thought”? (157). Is our tiered education system skewing our outcomes through the favouring of wealth and social status?

I think the issues discussed pre-date our current era; however, they have been exacerbated by technological change. The underlying issue, which he tackles, is the emphasis on learning to pass, or short-term knowledge. He promotes education through portfolio and people. Watson is particularly cynical about MOOCs and CoOLs which contradicts the research that people and relationships are what make the biggest difference to learning.

The final chapter of the book contains some ideas to address the themes in the book:

  • “consider the physical and digital domains as one” (240)
  • “challenge the myth that the intelligence of a large number of people online can exceed that of a single individual” (241)
  • “individuals should be granted the legal right to be forgotten…this might encourage more experimentation and act as a counterweight to conformism” (242)
  • “we must be vigilant against the threat of human extinction” (243)

Earlier in the book Watson suggests only when things are rock bottom, does humanity really truly reflect: “the threat of impeding death or disaster does focus the long lens of perspective” (93). I think the biggest takeaway from the book is the need to promote this wider perspective more often to have more ethical conversations about the progress society is making. The last six words of the book are a great question to start with:

Who do we want to be?


Watson, Richard (2016) Digital Vs Human: How We’ll Live, Love and Think in the Future. Scribe Publications: Croyden.