Bring on the wonky!

Our local supermarket has started selling a range of ‘wonky’ foods. Apparently, a carrot has to have a certain degree of straightness, smoothness and texture to be acceptable, just as a banana supposedly needs a certain curve. This week I bought a tub of ‘wonky’ raspberries. Raspberries? They looked the same in colour, size and texture as the ‘regular’ ones alongside to me, but hey – I’ll take the cheaper tub any day.

So does value come with conformity?

The UK education system is regularly accused of only celebrating a certain type of student – one which learns in a certain way, and who responds well to examinations. Our teaching model is accused of being built on an outdated approach that stereotypes children, asking ‘fish to climb trees’ and creating feelings of inadequacy in students who don’t fit.  Some would say that schools have turned into exam factories, only valuing academically-oriented students.

Yet last week my school appointed a new Head Boy and Head Girl, and I know that within the selection process, academic achievement was not the defining factor. Our leadership group looked overwhelmingly at character, attitude and reputation of applicants, and rightly so. Over the years we’ve awarded senior student roles to many who would be deemed ‘wonky’ against any academic-only measurement. Why? Because ‘wonky’ just means individual, and our school rightly celebrates individuality.

Yet I fear that nationally, ‘wonky’ is less celebrated. According to a BBC report, the number of students taking at least one creative GCSE subject recently reached a 10 year low, and many schools are removing subjects like dance, photography and drama from their offerings. What a tragedy – that a Mathematician, Scientist or Engineer is supposedly all that society needs or values.

So what should our response be?

Surely we must commit to celebrate and value students of all types of intelligence – just like Educationalist Dr Howard Gardner suggested. Students are diverse, so any form of ranking or priority on skills must be handled carefully. Our current and future society needs Musicians, Artists, Sculptors, Writers and Performers as well as Inventors, Engineers and Programmers.

Whilst I can only imagine the financial pressures felt by school leaders as a result of continuing cut backs in budgets, we must try to keep variety and creativity in the subject menu from which students choose. Much of this is a result of national education cuts, with Headteachers being forced to prioritise away from subjects seen as ‘optional’ or non-core. However I suspect that a more long term and irreversible result of national austerity is that parents are discouraging their children from choosing subjects that they perceive to be less financially rewarding. Instead, children are being led by family pressure towards careers that may not inspire or excite them, but will pay the bills.

So in these difficult days, schools must continue to celebrate individuality, and parents too must make sure that their children are not discarding creative or reflective subjects, thinking that Maths is all that matters. Maths does matter, and I’m a natural advocate for Maths, Engineering and Science careers, but other subjects matter too and I believe the message in school and at home needs to be one that values an array of subjects.

As students are about to embark on their GCSEs, I look forward to tasting amazing food, hearing amazing music, seeing amazing performances and reading amazing articles. Bring on the wonky and we’ll celebrate amazing achievements both in the examination hall and outside of it.

Teacher Workload Worries

Today in my inbox, I see yet another article relating to teacher workload. That’s in addition to two similar emails last week and many in the last month or so. I can’t believe how much the teaching community goes on about it. It’s like the British talking about the weather – the default conversation.

Whilst I initially understood the position of those I heard complaining about their workload in secondary schools, increasingly I began to ask the genuine question ‘so what do you fill your time with?’. People’s responses include a number of things like meetings and marking, but the big one seems to be ‘preparing for lessons’.

This is where I become unpopular – sorry but I just don’t get it.

I came from industry into teaching a few years back. Previously I founded and ran a small business for 10 years, requiring prioritisation of tasks and making systems/processes efficient whilst delivering content to adults (rather than children). I did this without the need for therapy or pills because I was efficient – a skill that I brought into teaching and which enables me to feel totally balanced as a teacher today.

Yet those who complain seem to have one common trait – inefficiency.

I tell them about my digital library of class resources and homeworks and they look at me like I’m from Mars. I tell them about my use of peer marking of homework (which has many benefits by the way) or that I share resources with colleagues through network and cloud drives and they think I’m from a sci-fi movie. Therein lies the problem – a national if not global epidemic of duplication both personally and departmentally.

But the great news is that it isn’t hard to fix – school leaders need to teach efficiency to their staff. That’s it.  Yes we must tweak lessons to tailor to the needs of students and yes we adapt what has gone before in response to previous knowledge and curriculum changes, but apart from that, we should reuse and recycle the best of lessons we’ve delivered successfully already.

So my suggestion is that in the first years of teaching, ask your colleagues what resources exist already rather than creating from scratch. Then week by week, store materials electronically and methodically in an accessible system, then as tasks, worksheets, slides or homeworks are refined year on year, share them with peers and especially those coming into the profession below. This will not only relieve hours of preparation contributing to ‘teacher workload’ issues, but will likely increase the consistency and quality of teaching in school as well!  Businesses have learned this lesson because if they didn’t, they’d cease to be in business! Teachers (many who sadly haven’t worked in industry) need to go through the same realisation – inefficient means unsustainable.

So my workload worries are not related to my workload, they are worries that other teachers are making a rod for their own back through inefficiency which will cause many to leave the profession, and ultimately deter new people from joining it.


The White Stuff

I hear and read so much in education about supporting, assisting, nurturing and caring for students, and rightly so most of the time. Some students find themselves in difficult and sometimes cruel situations, largely outside of their control, and we care for those as best as we can. Yet I wonder if in some cases, we support, assist, and molly-coddle so much that resilience (backbone) is missing.

Today is a Saturday, but schools and businesses have been closed since Thursday due to unbelievable snow storms and blizzards. The country is covered in snow and after two days of lethal road conditions, the roads are just about passable if you can get off the housing estates. Therein lies the signs of ‘the white stuff’.

I live at the end of a cul-de-sac largely filled with hard working families who live no lavish life, but who are dedicated to their jobs.

I’ve just finished about 2 hours of snow-shovelling in the road outside my driveway, but I didn’t do that alone. Almost every house in my road had 2 or more people shovelling, and together we cleared that road. There were teenagers, parents and the elderly all mucking in to get the job done, and there was a great sense of community.

Yet to get to my estate you have to go through a street of houses containing a different kind of people. Not one of those families had anyone shovelling snow outside their doors. Not one of those healthy and able teenagers offered help, yet there were plenty watching whilst they smoked on their doorstep.  Some of these young adults are the same ones who demand and require lots of support and encouragement to attend school, bring a pen to class, wear the right uniform, and take an interest in their education. We beg and beg and beg them to take an interest in their future, and for some, the more we give the more excuses they find.

Exams are in many ways a flawed measure of learning, but they do one crucial thing for an employer. They expose attitude, just like adversity in the snow.  The sad thing is that not only will jobs and stability be elusive to people with a ‘do the minimum’ attitude, they miss out on the sense of contribution and achievement that my street enjoyed today.

We do students no favours long term if we indulge laziness in school. As students begin to prepare for GCSE exams once again, it’s not the school or the support mechanism that are the cause for particularly high or particularly low grades – it’s the work ethic of the students and it’s all too evident in the snow.