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.

Diary of a London Supply Teacher

I’ve now spent six weeks supply teaching in mainly central London schools. I’ve had some short stints of continuity a couple of times and many one off days covering everything from IT to Spanish. It has been quite an experience and I’ve got some observations:

A good measure of a school is how the students treat supply teachers

Ready for a day of supply. 

Causation is a dangerous game to play in matters of education; however, without explicitly suggesting as much a trend is very clear. Schools where I’ve found the students treat supply teachers with respect tend to uniformly be schools that are welcoming and well organised. This means meeting both HR and a Senior Leadership Team member or appropriate Head of Department on arrival, receiving key information like a school map and overview of school systems, and appropriate access to the necessary classrooms or staffroom via a key or swipe card. The offers for assistance, frequent ‘check-ins’ and smiles in the coridors are all forthcoming as well.

On the other hand, schools where the students have more problematic behaviour offer a contrasting experience. The vibe of the school is clear from the reception where sign in procedures are offer unclear, the discourtesy can start with the office staff before a student has been sighted, and the important half an hour of preparation before classes is often wasting waiting in reception. These are the schools where cover work is sometimes hard to find: buried in a colleague’s email, left in the wrong classroom, requiring ICT access that a supply teacher doesn’t have, or simply non-existent. Often it is not meaningful – pages from a textbook which the students have no prior knowledge of, or worksheets that might be pitched entirely at the wrong level.

A day of relief offers a very small window. But I feel as though that experience is more than a little bit telling.

To survive there is a right level of care to bring to each day

When I began relieving I approached each day with an intent in the same ballpark of the way I approached each school day in New Zealand. Less than a week later I reached a feeling of rock bottom as the constant failure to reach my expectations weighed so heavily. It wasn’t necessarily the battle with the students to behave in a respectable manner, it was more the battle with myself. I found myself ill-equipped with the skills needed to deal with such challenging behaviour, shouting in the classroom for the first time in a very long time.

After deep soul searching I changed how I approached each day in order to survive. I became far more relaxed and flexible in terms of what each lesson entailed. Specifically this meant responding to behaviour issues by passing it on rather than feeling responsible, and being responsive in my expectations so that students may not achieve any meaningful learning outcomes, but at least they didn’t break anything.

You may only know them for an hour, but relationships are still the key

The more relaxed approach opened up the space for classroom conversations that I was far more used to. A student off task watching a football video under the desk got a football chat before being asked to put their phone away. A conflict between students was dealt with using humour rather than separating them. The result was less confrontation and more meaningful interactions.

Part of this was how I grew to set up each class. The pattern I developed was to introduce myself before introducing the work. This meant saying I was from New Zealand, asking what they knew about my home, whether they knew of our two official languages (te reo Māori and NZ Sign Language), teaching them to say “kia ora” and delivering my mihi. This made me more than a supply teacher, it made me a person and it enabled conversations that mattered a lot more than many of the worksheets I then had to pass out.

2017: In Review

Last year I wrote a 2016 in review to reflect on a year of professional learning and the blogposts that I had written. It was an interesting exercise, reaffirming the reason for writing this blog, which is more for personal assimilation than for any potential audience out there (the potential audience pressures me to assimilate). Three trends from reflecting on the blogposts I wrote in 2017:

Technology in the Back Seat

I’ve felt the ubiquity of technology (the second year teaching in a full BYOD environment) has made it less of driver around professional learning conversations. This came through my own refocusing on inquiry through the work of Kath Murdoch as well as the action research of my eFellowship.  The keynotes at uLearn also reinforced this shift. Eric Mazur’s focus on shifting from transferring information to assimilating information and Abdul Chohan’s articulation of the role of belief in change initiatives both moved away from the tool to the pedagogy.

The place of technology in education was really nailed for me by Richard Watson in his book ‘Digital Vs Human‘. He was very clear that technology needs to be purposeful and not driven by capitalism. Derek Wenmoth contextualised this when presenting the 10 trends, suggesting that any technology, any new trend in education, needs to be explored through lenses of ethics, citizenship, safety and equity. Using technology just to grab a student’s attention isn’t good enough in 2017. What is the point of presenting a new technology tool to a staffroom if you aren’t going to discuss how it impacts on student learning? Pedagogy is the driver.

The Politics of Diversity

In 2017 I continued to present the Safer Schools for all workshop also got to share this work at the CTU Pride Union Conference. I discovered the work of Peter DeWitt, which was inspirational to read. I was also very proud to peer review the vital ‘Supporting LGBTIQA+ Students’ inclusive guide on TKI. But it was Welby Ings and his book ‘Disobedient Teaching’ that really gave a political context for this work. He stated “waiting for permission means very little ever gets changed” and this work with promoting diversity is so often dependent on permission from straight white cis-males in leadership positions. My eFellowship research took aim at this in a way by working with teachers in the middle and making ripples to impact change. Going forward I want to hold this work with strong values while remembering being inclusive isn’t something that teachers need permission for.

He Tāngaga, He Tāngata, He Tānagata

The overwhelming trend in my thinking this year has been the importance of putting everybody (not just students) at the centre. From professional reading on this to a class EduCamp, there has been a clear theme of stories that has connected a lot of my journey in 2017. The eFellowship brought together seven stories to work alongside one another and the intersections between those journeys was often the most rewarding. One of those eFellows, Heemi, was exploring specifically indigenous narrative frameworks and story as data. Another moment this year that bought stories together was the ‘Learning with Our Community’ day. Having so many people from the community in the school inspiring the students with their personalised stories was a real special opportunity to be involved in.

Last year I drove away from Newlands College for the last time. After eight years I needed a change and shortly I’m going to be making my way to London to teach in a new system in a new country. I’m disappointed this comes at a time just as I’ve been woken up by Ann Milne who has helped me find my internal bias and my need for action to truly become a culturally responsive teacher. I’ve found through the process of reflecting on leaving along with Milne’s book and uLearn presentation this year that ‘people’ is the key to my educational philosophy. Something I tried to capture that in some of the last words I spoke at Newlands College:

Celebrate our differences, our uniqueness, our diversity. Champion our people, because it is the people that make this place so special. It is the people here that have made the difference to me. It is the people I will always remember. He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.