On gratitude

We all recognise the awkward formalities of returning to the workplace:

“How are you?” someone asks.

“I’m okay…” you reply, or something similar.

I am roughly the one millionth[i] person to point out the feeling of dislocation that this ubiquitous micro[ii]-conversation provokes when repeated often enough and when the answer is a convenient lie, arguably the most common in the English language. For those people out there who are going through a rough patch and thus resort to this understandable dishonesty, there is thankfully another thought that this conversation can inspire: gratitude, though the route to it is a little tortuous. We briefly remember that our personalities are fragmented and shifting, that we each have various versions of ourselves that we present to different parts of our social network. Awareness of the ambiguous nature of our identities is familiar but uncanny, like consciousness of our own breathing. However, it illuminates something that we – or I, at least – too easily forget: that most of our acquaintances don’t find out about our problems, be they heart-breaking, tedious or – more commonly – both. Even if we do share, we inevitably photo-shop the descriptions of our lives, even the sad parts. Those of us blessed with loved ones know that it is only they who see the version of us with the filters removed. It is they on whom we rely for patience and generosity as we gripe and thrash against the padded-cell walls of our existence. Usually, this heroic tolerance is a team effort; sometimes, however, one person is doing most of the heavy lifting. And so this ubiquitous micro-conversation – and the most common lie in the English language – reminds us of those who keep us going, and all-too-fleetingly we feel commensurate gratitude for their presence in our lives. 

(In my case, she’s called Silvia.) 

[i] This is maths joke set up…

[ii] …and here is the punchline.

The fundamental unaddressed issue of education

Perhaps I’m totally wrong about everything that follows. The problem with being the person saying that the emperor has no clothes is that 99 times out of 100, the emperor really is wearing clothes and the person seeing a naked emperor is merely hallucinating. However, given how strongly I feel about this subject, I don’t feel I can keep quiet, so here goes: there is a fundamental unaddressed issue in education. I see a naked emperor, and either he needs a new tailor, or I need some strong medication.

So, what is this fundamental unaddressed issue? Well, it takes a little explaining. As all foundation stage and key stage one teachers are acutely aware, children arrive at school with a vast range of experiences and abilities. There is an overwhelming difference between a child who has just turned four from a challenging family background and a child who is about to turn five from a supportive family background. Attention spans, inhibitory control and social skills between these children vary to a bewildering degree. The first two years of education are spent desperately trying to get all children ready to learn, and teachers of the youngest children do a remarkable job… which brings us to Year 2 where I currently reside. At this stage, most children are just about ready to learn some academic content. And the fundamental unaddressed issue arises.

Let me give an illustrative example: the class is supposed to already be able to count up to and down from 100, according to the national curriculum objectives for Year 1, and around 2/3 of the average class can. This 2/3 is, in general, older and from more supportive family backgrounds. Around 1/3 of the average class, however, are completely lost. This 1/3 are, of course, on average younger and from less supportive family backgrounds. Their number formation is iffy, naming numbers above 20 is inconsistent at best, etc. All of the mathematics learning from the Year 1 part of the national curriculum is either dysfluent or entirely missing for the 1/3. The 2/3 however are ready to learn at a Year 2 level. They have practised number formation and counting at home and, in fact, much of the Year 2 curriculum is already understood by them before the year even begins. Of course, the split between the 1/3 and the 2/3 is actually more of a spectrum across the class, but this artificial split is indicative of a crucial dividing line between those who – in the time that is available – will be able to keep up with the pace of content, and those who will not, due to gaps that already exist in their knowledge compared to their peers. With the Year 2 SATs in the back of the teacher’s mind, they dive into the teaching of two-digit place value. After a couple of weeks the divide between the 2/3 and the 1/3 is apparent. The 2/3 understand everything – in fact, they knew most of it before the year began. The 1/3 are still lost. The previous gaps in basic counting and number formation have slowed any understanding of place value massively, and they need much more time on this. Unable to tolerate holding the rest of the class back, the teacher sets up an intervention group – 40 minutes per week with a TA during assemblies and art/music lessons – and hopes that the kids will catch up. They won’t. This is the a fundamental unaddressed issue of education, and – speaking as someone who has worked as an intervention teacher with every age group from A-Level down to foundation stage – its effects amplify as a child in the 1/3 moves through school.  

This is the status quo. Now, the easy answer to this – and one that regular readers of my blogs are probably expecting me to give – is some idealistic advocacy of a mastery approach, where the teacher doesn’t move on and provides deepening tasks that stretch the 2/3 while the 1/3 catch up. However, this isn’t that simple for two reasons:

1. The 1/3 is a long way behind. Catching up is a process that will take several weeks of teaching, at least, and probably require a much slower pace for the remainder of the year.

2. The vast majority of teachers, including relatively experienced ones like me, do not have the subject-specific knowledge to create these deepening tasks that genuinely stretch the understanding of the 2/3 while giving the teacher the time to catch up the 1/3.

Currently, from my experience, what happens in the majority of schools – though I’m sure that many will wish to pretend otherwise – is that this problem is ignored. The teacher moves on with the curriculum and the 1/3 is, effectively, written off. Interventions, overly scaffolded tasks and lots of adult support for the 1/3 help salve consciences, but make no mistake: the moment the curriculum moves on, most of the 1/3 have had their education utterly undermined, in most cases for no reason beyond the child’s poor fortune at being born in August or being from a family that didn’t teach them to count.

This fundamental unaddressed issue plays out across all subjects, through gaps in letter formation, phonics, etc, but it is particularly pronounced in strictly hierarchical subjects like mathematics. Some of the 1/3 do catch up, thankfully. Perhaps they are August-born children from supportive homes who just need a little more maturity and lot of help from mum or dad, but this is not the case for the majority of the 1/3. For them, education will be an increasingly demotivating process of watching the gaps between them and their peers grow and grow.

This isn’t an attack on key stage one teachers, who obviously are as talented and conscientious as the rest of the profession. Like all teachers, we operate within a system, and where problems arise, they are due to this system and the incentives that define it. There is no simple solution to this. The alternative to moving on with the curriculum is to accept that – for the long-term benefit of the entire class – the learning of the bottom 1/3 must be prioritised for a considerable period of time. Just imagine the uproar from middle class parents of the top 2/3 if this were an explicit policy of a school. And don’t forget Year 2 SATs; the curriculum must be covered, remember. And this brings me back to @Solomon_teach’s blog. He advocates a smaller curriculum across the entirety of a child’s education as a solution, as I see it, to the effects of the fundamental unaddressed issue. I agree with the sentiment, but I have to say that I only partly agree with the suggested solution. The curriculum is almost certainly too large in key stage one. However, I strongly suspect that there is plenty of time to teach the entire curriculum – as it stands – in key stage two and beyond if the gaps that exist between the 2/3 and the 1/3 are addressed when they first arise in key stage one as a matter of priority. The current slow pace of learning in key stage two and beyond is dictated by the gaps that exist between the 2/3 and the 1/3 and the impossibility of addressing them once they have become too large. (Teaching the rounding of numbers, for example, to children who have a weak understanding of place value does indeed take a long time, but with genuine understanding of place value, it really doesn’t take long to grasp.) The accumulation of the gaps between the 2/3 and the 1/3 slows the pace for everyone. We can teach the entire curriculum to everyone, but not without some difficult choices in key stage one.

What the prioritisation of the 1/3 in key stage one would look like in practice is up for debate. I’d imagine that many schools across the country have already recognised the fundamental unaddressed issue and have taken the radical steps required to address it. I imagine that these schools aim to get everyone to a similar standard by the end of Year 2 or even Year 3 so that all can learn at a good pace thereafter. (The brilliant @mattswain36 has discussed with me the idea of using timetable slots of ‘keep up time’ to – among other things – give teachers time to consistently address the gaps between the 2/3 and 1/3 in key stage one; this ‘keep up time’ then remains as a buffer for any child who needs a little more time with a new concept, facilitating a mastery approach to teaching.) I am convinced that prioritising the learning of the bottom 1/3 in key stage one benefits every child in a school in the long term. Sadly, I don’t see the majority of the profession accepting my view of this fundamental unaddressed issue any time soon. It’s much easier to pretend the issue isn’t there. Many will argue that I have presented a false choice between prioritising the 1/3 in key stage one – allowing them to catch up – and moving at a pace that suits the 2/3. However, in my experience, attempts to compromise between these two choices always drift inexorably towards the status quo, and once again the 1/3 are left behind.

Like I say, perhaps I’m wrong about all of this. Perhaps I’m seeing a problem that isn’t really there. Regardless, I see a naked emperor, and I cannot remain quiet. 

Coming to a staff meeting near you…

“Good afternoon. Is everyone here? Oh yes, of course. Don’t worry about Miss Boxer. She heard about this stuff at our SLT meeting. Let’s make a start. Today I’d like to take a little time to talk about pupil voice. Let’s start by chatting with our table about what you think pupil voice might be, and write whatever you come up with on to the post-it notes on your table…”

*Three minutes of talking about everything but pupil voice, except when the session leader is near*

“…Is that all of the post-its? Lovely. I especially like this one that says ’empowerment’. You’ve all clearly got the gist. The short version is that pupil voice is all about what the children think of the school and their learning. As you will already know, Ofsted is just around the corner. We’ve talked a great deal about the importance of knowing your subject inside out – hence the hour of leadership time you each received last term. However, from discussions with other school leaders, the word on the grapevine is that pupil interviews are a really significant part of the new Ofsted inspections. Our local secondary school was recently inspected and apparently around 300 students out of the 2000 were interviewed at some point. They were asked about every aspect of school life: classroom atmosphere, teaching, homework, clubs, bullying, the school’s leadership… everything, really. Now, take a few minutes to write down on your post-it notes what you think our children would say about this school…”

*Three minutes of discussion about the students’ complete lack of a frame of reference due to – in most cases, at least – their experience of only one school followed by one minute of finding something inoffensive to write.*

“This is all great: ‘Fun lessons.’ ‘Lots of clubs.’ ‘School council.’ Someone’s written ‘they all want more PE’. Yes… well, that’s definitely something to think about. I reckon we can all agree that our children really love coming to this school and the learning that they do. The challenge for us is to ensure that this love of our school that the children have is accurately represented in what they say to visitors. It can be hard for children to think on the spot, so it wouldn’t really be fair on them if we didn’t support them to express themselves clearly. Fortunately, we’ve been in touch with a school that recently achieved an outstanding grade for the first time ever, and they’ve kindly shared some advice that seems to have worked for them. Effectively, they recommended creating a set of school mantras that the children learn to help them better understand their school. We’ve managed to weave these together with our school values and these are what we’ve come up with:

Lessons are fun, so we work hard.

We behave well so that we can learn.

We learn about lots of exciting things.

We love our after-school clubs.

My teachers always deal with bullying and we feel safe.

I will work harder.

Actually, scrub that last one. It gives me an uneasy feeling for some reason, and I think that more than five might lessen their impact. The question now is how to familiarise children with our mantras so that they can really express themselves if any visitors happen to ask about our school. In our SLT meeting, we thought about teaching them daily in a call-and-response fashion, but we think the key thing is that children hear these mantras several times throughout each day as a natural response to various situations. So, what we’ll be looking for in the next set of lesson observations – and during learning walks – is teachers using these mantras at every possible opportunity. For example, when dealing with disruption in your class, best practice would be to say ‘we behave well, so that we can learn’ while giving the student their verbal warning card. Effectively, if these mantras are going to roll off the children’s tongues, they need to hear them hundreds of times. Encourage children to use the mantras. Don’t be stingy with the house points when you hear children saying one of them. Let them know that these mantras are a great way for them to express exactly how they feel about our wonderful school. Does that make sense?

Ah, Miss Boxer, just in time. Your enthusiasm for this sort of thing is always appreciated. Let’s all take some time to say the mantras together…”

Lesson 1 – Once upon a time, there was a daddy…

I am back in year two. I haven’t taught this age group since being an HLTA several years ago, and since then almost all of my teaching experience has been built in years 5 and 6. At some point, I have taught or tutored – at least briefly – at every stage of education from Foundation Stage to A-Level (with a bit of informal maths tutoring for chemistry undergraduates), and every age group has given me a slightly different perspective on how people learn and what it means to be an educator. Mostly that sense of a new perspective is revealed incrementally over the space of months and years, but sometimes there are epiphanies and sudden feelings that a tiny threshold of understanding has been crossed. One such moment occurred yesterday, a few hours after an English lesson on fairy tales. After reading the class some examples and asking the children to share with me the variety of such stories that they have encountered – filling the flip-chart with a long list of the typical characters within them – we began to write some sentences using the following sentence stem: Once upon a time, there lived…

The vast majority of children wrote sentences like these:

Once upon a time, there lived a brave little dragon called Sparkles.

Once upon a time, there lived a knight called Megan.

Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess with long purple hair.

After hearing some of these sentences read aloud, I asked one boy to share his example. He replied with unerring confidence, “Once upon a time, there was a daddy.”

I paused briefly to take in what the boy had said, and then suggested that maybe he might want to reconsider his choice of character to make it ‘feel’ more like a traditional fairy tale. I then thought about this no more.

Later yesterday evening, my partner asked me about my day, and I explained how difficult I was finding it to adjust to the academic level of my class. I told her about ‘Once upon a time, there was a daddy.

She gave me a sympathetic look and then asked, “What words did you actually use to describe the characters that you wanted the children to write about?”

I thought for a moment – groping to understand her point – and then, suddenly, I crossed a tiny threshold of understanding:

“I said to the class, ‘Perhaps your character is some kind of hero.’ ”

The sentence that the boy had written about his daddy –  a sentence at the time that flew past as one of a stream of minor frustrations at my own inexpert teaching – was actually rather beautiful. A six-year-old had been asked to think of a hero, and he had chosen ‘a daddy’. Not just ‘daddy’, but ‘a daddy’, indefinite article and all. To him, the vague notion of fatherhood and its monumental presence in his world was nothing short of heroic. In worrying about whether this child had really grasped the idea of a traditional fairy tale character, I had completely missed the naïve loveliness of what he had written. Of course, it is our job to educate children about their world and to help them mature, but we are fools if – as I was in my lesson yesterday – we are incapable of marveling at the fleeting beauty of their innocence.

I suspect I will like teaching in year 2.

Edutwitter’s insecurities on display

Counsellor: Good afternoon to you both. I know we’ve been here together many times before, but I think it’s important that before we begin we remind ourselves of some ground rules for what is said in here. The first thing to note is that coming to counselling is a step in the right direction. It shows that both of you understand that there is something valuable in your relationship, something worth repairing and nurturing. The second thing is that this is a safe place. There are no bad thoughts or feelings. This is a place where you can express yourself without fear of recrimination. Does that make sense to you both?

Trad: Yep.

Prog: Absolutely.

Counsellor: Let’s start by discussing your most recent disagreement. Has there been anything that has caused some tension?

Trad: Not recently.

Prog: Well, there was something, but it’s silly really. We got into a fight…

Trad: It wasn’t a fight.

Prog: Fair enough. There was some tension about our classroom displays. I merely spent a couple of hours…

Trad: More like a couple of days.

Prog: I spent some time making my classroom look warm and inviting for the children that I teach, and when I started showing a few pictures and videos of it, you’d think the world was about to end.

Trad: But it’s such a waste of time. Think of the cognitive load for the children. It’s all for show.

Prog: Well, you’re just as bad. Showing off to your colleagues about how sparsely decorated your classroom is. Maybe you would like to work somewhere that’s sterile and unstimulating, but that’s not what I want for my class. It’s just another example of a secondary teacher telling a primary teacher how to do their job.

Trad: Plenty of primary teachers agree with me.

Counsellor: Can I pause you both for a second? I’d like to see if we can unpick what’s really being said here. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but this disagreement seems to be similar to the rest.

Trad: The rest?

Counsellor: Yes. The arguments about behaviour, pedagogy, outdoor poetry recitals, velociraptors… It’s the same underlying cause. The one that I mention every week.

Prog: Insecurities?

Counsellor: Exactly. Well remembered. Can you see where I’m coming from?



Counsellor: Allow me to explain. Think back to our first session. Why do you think the discussion of zero tolerance got so tense?

Trad: Because it really matters. It’s kids’ futures we’re talking about here.

Prog: Absolutely. The idea of children being stifled by authoritarian…

Trad: Oh, here we go again.

Counsellor: Pause! The reason why behaviour is such a tense issue is not its importance. It is that it relates to your own personal insecurities. For one of you, the discussion of behaviour often seems to invalidate the kindness and attention that you have dedicated to your students and implies that you and your school have failed children by not providing the tough love that allows children to flourish. For the other one of you, the discussion sometimes implies that you simply aren’t compassionate enough at the moment to be a good teacher and that you systematically dehumanise children. You can pretend that you’re both so offended out of a sense of duty towards the children you teach – you’re good people, after all – but I don’t think that this is the root cause. The only way through these muddles is to be open about exactly what it is that makes each issue so fraught.

Trad: I don’t buy it.

Prog: Me neither.

Counsellor: Bear with me. Let’s talk displays. I think that one of you sees other people’s beautiful, intricate displays and is forced to face the hours of work that you can’t or won’t do; you imagine the headteacher peeking into both classrooms and judging you as less conscientious; you see the race to the bottom and – more importantly – that inescapable fear that you’re being judged.

Trad: I don’t care what other people’s classrooms look like.

Counsellor: I don’t think that’s true. Your classroom is plain because of your own personal preference. Your neighbour has bought a Ferrari and – while you convince yourself and anyone who’ll listen that you’re above such materialistic demonstrations – deep down it gnaws at you a little.

Trad: But…but…cognitive load!

Cousellor: Just let what I’ve said sink in for a moment.

Prog: You’re so right.

Counsellor: And the other one of you has spent tens if not hundreds of hours over your career making classrooms look pretty and colourful. To be told that this might have been a waste of time is probably upsetting.

Prog: I don’t mind at all. Like you say, it’s just personal preference. I like a welcoming, colourful classroom.

Counsellor: Indeed. And why did you take all those photos and videos?

Prog: No reason really. The displays took a lot of hard work, and I like how it looks.

Counsellor: And why did you share it with everyone?

Prog: Um…I guess I wanted to give ideas to anyone who was stuck for what to do in their classroom. Yes, that was it.

Counsellor: Really? Was that your central motivation? Was it not, perhaps, that you felt understandably proud of what you’d achieved? Perhaps you shared your classroom in the same way that others post about their holiday or their house or their restaurant dinner or their five-mile run. Social media has conditioned you to instinctively share things about which you are proud. Have you ever questioned that instinct?

Prog: What?

Counsellor: Have you ever considered the possibility that sharing anything on the basis of pride is always, by definition, going to take a small bite out of the self-esteem of some other people. Surely, you’ve taught kids who loudly declare, “My drawing is amazing. I’m such a talented artist.” How do these children make the rest feel?

Prog: This is totally different. I didn’t claim that what I’d done was anything special or that anyone who hadn’t done something like this was somehow less of a dedicated teacher than I. That’s not on me. That’s just other people’s insecurities talking.

Counsellor: Indeed. And you’ve just learned that some people are insecure about their classroom displays and the feeling of judgement that comes with them. Perhaps you’ve also learned that showing off about pretty much anything – however seemingly harmless – always makes someone, somewhere feel a bit crappy. If you still want to show off something, maybe you just have to take this reality on the chin.

Trad: Hang on! I didn’t feel “crappy” about their display looking so colourful and inviting. It has nothing to do with a feeling of inferiority.

Counsellor: Sure it doesn’t. We’ve been here before. If you don’t open up a little about the insecurities that underpin your stake in each disagreement, we’ll never get anywhere. Anyway, that’s our time. See you next week.

(Trad and Prog step outside the counsellor’s office.)

Prog: That guy is the worst.

Trad: Tell me about it. “Ooh, I think I understand why Edutwitter is so needlessly combative.” The arrogance of him!

Prog: Yep. People like that who try to position themselves above the fray are just painfully condescending. I’ll bet you twenty quid that he even writes a blog.

Trad: Oh, totally. He’s probably had about four people compliment him out of politeness, and now he’s self-indulgently messing about with the format.

Prog: Ugh, sounds ghastly. Who’d want to read that?

Protesting and the role of teachers

It happened towards the end of my NQT year in year six. Two pairs of ashamed eyes struggled to look at me as I asked the usual question: “What exactly happened on the playground?” I already knew some of it, but wanted to hear their interpretations. The boy spoke first. He was often in trouble so knew his best chance was to leave out key details:

“She pushed me into a bush.”

Nothing else. The girl’s turn:

“He followed me around for the whole of break time. He told me I was fat. And a hippo. And that no one liked me because I was fat. And because I was a hippo. I ignored him, but then he drew on my jumper on purpose in pen. He was right in my face.”

There was a pause before she struggled to say the last part:

“He said the reason my dad left was because I was so fat and ugly.”

Both children admitted to what they had done. She confessed because this was her first time she’d ever really broken the school rules. He confessed, reluctantly, because there were several witnesses to his crimes. Once I had spoken to the boy and sent him to sit in silence at the back of my classroom, I spoke to the girl who at this point had just managed to stop crying. The girl was the sort of child that makes teaching easy: polite, pleasant and attentive. Without being asked, she apologised for what she had done. In that moment, a part of me desperately wanted to say,

“You know what? Go back out to play. I’d probably have done the same thing, and I know you’ll never do anything like this again anyway.”

But this isn’t what I said. What I really said was something like this:

“I understand why you were so upset. There will be major consequences for the hurtful nonsense he said to you and the damage he did to your property. However, it’s never right to push someone, even if they say awful things. The moment he started saying nasty things you should’ve told an adult.”

I then dished out the school’s mandatory sanction for unwanted physical contact. In this moment, I didn’t get to express exactly how I felt. I didn’t get to admit that it would’ve taken a saint to have not reacted in that situation, that I felt bad for adding to her obvious feelings of guilt. (After all, she pushed him into a bush. She didn’t do – or intend to do – any actual damage.) No, in this situation it was my job to hold the line; to understand and sympathise, yes, but to hold the line on our school rules nonetheless. I’m wasn’t her father, her uncle, her grandfather or her friend. To her, I was the establishment.

We often forget that as teachers we are, whether we like it or not, establishment figures. Other than perhaps politicians and the police, teachers are the first group who come to mind when people conjur up their own personal representations of ‘the man.’ We all know or have been taught by teachers that would flinch at the thought of being representatives of the establishment – often the ones that call pupils ‘mate’ – but it is the truth. And being part of the establishment brings compromises. It means holding the line. It means that when children don’t turn up to school in order to protest – however worthy the cause – our role is not to encourage. The last thing they want, or need, are their teachers cheering them on. It is our role to hold children to account for their actions. It is our role to show them that civil disobedience comes at a personal cost and that they must carefully weigh up their actions without the guidance of authority figures. The tacit support of teachers for such actions would make the schools the protestors, not the students themselves. Like a mature parent, we provide the safe, responsible ballast against which young people can rebel. Part of being an authority figure is knowing that sometimes there has to be a difference between what we think and what we say.

*** Naturally, the details of the anecdote in the post above have been somewhat altered to protect the children involved.***