Back to School

It’s now two days until school starts again so half of me is extremely excited about getting back to work and half of me is anxious about the craziness that is about to ensue! The holiday has been absolutely wonderful (a trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar being the highlight) but when the weather is rubbish and you’re at home on your own all day, the prospect of human interaction again becomes very appealing!

This summer was my first experience of a GCSE results day when I’d taught a Year 11 class. I now know what it must be like for parents awaiting their children’s results: petrifying! When I realised that I was still going to be in Africa on results day, I was secretly relieved as it meant I wouldn’t have to see the children’s disappointed faces when they hadn’t got the grades they wanted. Instead, I asked the Vice Principal (who’s also an English teacher) to text me. Thankfully my actual nightmare that they all got Ds didn’t come true and the results were as good as I could have hoped for.

This time last year I’d just found out that I was going to take a bottom set Y11 Literature class. Due to timetabling issues, their Language teacher couldn’t take them for Literature as well, so it was down to me. I was apprehensive about this task. Taking on a class at the start of Y11 is renowned for being difficult (usually teachers take their students all the way from Y10 to the end of their GCSE course). Adding to my apprehension was the fact I’d never taught the course before and to top it off, I knew there were some extremely tricky characters in 11D. Nevertheless, something I’ve learnt from working at my school is the importance of rising to challenges – you can surprise yourself by what you can achieve.


Despite fretting for most of the year that my students were going to fail, their results were brilliant. Out of a bottom set of fifteen students, nine passed with C grades and one achieved a B grade. Two students’ results stood out to me in particular. One girl, who was not expected to pass any of her subjects, scraped a C. In fact, Literature and Art were the only subjects she did pass. She is now my hero. Another girl I was over the moon for was a student who had spent her whole time answering Section B on paper 2 and left no time for Section A. As both sections are weighted equally, I thought her chance of a C was gone but having now seen a breakdown of their scores, it turns out her answer for Section B was A* quality…she obviously knew what she was doing all along!

a level results celebrations

She wasn’t the only one to write an A* response to Section B either, which I think shows just how important it is to believe in the potential of every child, even if they’re in the bottom set. In fact in most schools, bottom set students are written off (they’re not targeted to get Cs so not as much attention is given to them). At Charter it’s different. Most bottom set students are targeted to pass, which may account for our exceptional results (81% of students get 5 GCSEs at A*-C compared to a national average of 68%). I’m also chuffed to say that all three boys in that class who are in care passed with C grades, even if at certain points of the year they made me want to tear my hair out!

Looking forward, I’ve got lots to be excited about. As well as a bottom set Y7 class and a second set Y8 class, for the first time ever, I’ve been given a top set. What’s more, they’re all girls. I’m hoping it’s going to be a delight. I’ve got so much experience of teaching low ability groups that I think it’s going to be refreshing to work with high ability students. As it’s a Y10 class, I’ll have to get my head around the brand new GCSE specification as well.

I’ve also got another bottom set Y11 class but I’ll be taking them for Language as well as Literature so double the pressure! I’ve taught most of them since they were in Y9 so I know them very well. Unfortunately, most of them flunked their mock exam at the end of Y10, which left me in despair, however in light of the recent results, my faith in my ability to get bottom set students through has been restored.

On top of my teaching and tutoring responsibilities, I’m taking on some wider-school ones too. I’m going to be a mentor for an English NQT, which will mean doing a weekly observation of her teaching and then meeting to discuss the observation, but also anything else she needs support with. I always found my mentor meetings extremely helpful so I hope I can give the same support I received. It will be weird being the one observing rather than the one being observed!

I’ve also now got the unusual job title of Staff Social Event and Well-being Lead. As part of the academy’s effort to reduce staff turn-over, especially amongst newer members of staff, we want to start enhancing the social side of school life. It will be my job to make sure new members of staff are properly introduced and inducted into the city as well as organising social events for the whole staff. I’ll also be responsible for creating a strategy for improving staff well-being because, as in any business/organisation, the happier the staff, the better the results.


It’s fair to say it’s going to be a jam packed year juggling Y11, the new GCSE spec and the new responsibilities, not to mention my other classes and tutor group. I definitely won’t get bored.

Finally, I recently found this incredible TED Talk. Entitled ‘How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard’, it is by a principal of a school in Philadelphia once labelled ‘low-performing and persistently dangerous’. It had so many echoes of the journey that Charter has been on that I was completely gripped. One message from Linda Cliatt-Wayman that stood out to me was that if we are serious about addressing poverty, we MUST have good schools in our poorest neighbourhoods. I’m sure remembering that will make getting out of bed at 6am in the depths of winter that little bit easier!








The Knowledge v Skills Debate

Hello and happy half term. This month’s blog post is going to be based around the knowledge v skills debate in education. In a nut shell it is as follows: a greater emphasis on building students’ body of knowledge verses a greater emphasis on equipping students with transferable skills. Those in the knowledge camp believe that the teaching of facts has been denigrated and consequently led to detrimental gaps in students’ knowledge. Those in the skills camp believe that it is much more worthwhile to focus on the teaching of transferable skills; the ability to analyse, evaluate and synthesise being the holy grail. In this blog post I am going to explain my position on this subject, using anecdotal evidence from my own teaching as well as sources including Daisy Christodoulou‘s ‘Seven Myths of Education’, Daniel Willingham‘s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ and Joe Kirby‘s ‘Pragmatic Education‘ blog.

I became an English teacher around 18 months ago having changed from a career in the media. Many things surprised me when I moved into this world, one of them being the style in which I was expected to teach. Gone were the days of text books (that’s a different, though related, debate), teacher-led instruction and repetitive practice. In it’s place were the creation of lots of powerpoints, student-led learning and self and peer assessment. For example, the first unit I taught my year 8 class was ‘Private Peaceful’. I had assumed that the study of a novel would involve a significant portion of time ensuring they had a solid knowledge of World War 1 and the societal mores of the time, so that they could understand the plot and characters on a deeper level. But at Key Stage 3 English isn’t divided into language and literature, it’s all in one, so rather than this unit being purely literary, it was also designed to improve students’ literacy: their reading and writing skills. So during a writing week, for example, parts of the text would be read but the main focus would be on teaching them how to use certain pieces of punctuation, certain sentence structures and the conventions of descriptive writing in order for them to achieve their target levels in their writing assessment. With no text books, this meant designing activities, with a Private Peaceful theme, from scratch or using the slides in the scheme of work if they fitted your class’ ability. In a way it felt like they could have been studying any novel, the content wasn’t particularly important, what was important was whether they improved their writing/reading skills and levels. Interestingly, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that “teaching content is teaching reading.” In this video, he shows and explains how once a child has learnt to decode, they can decode anything. However, that doesn’t always mean they always understand what they’re reading – that comes from making sure they have a background knowledge to what they’re reading and by activating their prior knowledge. Willingham claims that teaching other subjects such as science, history, music etc is also teaching reading because the knowledge students gain will enhance their comprehension skills.


The reason for this approach to the teaching of English is, in my opinion, to do with the pervasion of the idea that we must teach our children transferable skills. The idea of acquiring facts through rote learning and repetitive practice went out of fashion. In it’s place came the idea that children must discover new learning and the teacher should be playing a facilitating role in that learning, ie not doing too much instruction from the front. Indeed, Daisy Christodoulou’s research into Ofsted lesson reports (she studied 228) for her book ‘Seven Myths About Education’ found that of the lessons that are praised, very few involve the teacher teaching facts. In the lessons that are criticised, they are so for the teacher talking too much, imparting facts or students doing activities that involve factual recall. As Daisy states in her book: “I remember one teacher trainer telling me that if I was talking, the pupils were not learning.” Is it any wonder then that teaching has become massively focussed on children discovering new skills if that is what Ofsted are seeking?

Conversely, just because that’s what Ofsted seem to be looking for, despite Sir Michael Wilshaw stating the contrary, it doesn’t necessarily mean that is what is best for students’ learning. This might sound counter-intuitive – how can the opposite of what Ofsted is looking for be best for the students? Well, that depends on how you believe children learn.

A useful analogy I find is to compare learning to write proficiently to learning to play tennis to a decent standard. No one can just pick up a racket and play tennis well; it takes time and practice. In fact, in order to be able to hit a good forehand every time you step onto the court, you have to hit hundreds and hundreds of forehands over and over again. It is only when your arm muscles develop an automatic memory of how to hit a forehand that you can do it without thinking. When Andy Murray is playing on Centre Court he is not thinking about how to hit a forehand, he’s using his brain to think about tactics. This links to the idea behind our memory, which is divided between long-term and working. Our working memory is easily overloaded, this is where we’re processing new knowledge. Overloading the working memory is fatal, we can only learn a finite amount of new things at once, a maximum of around seven. The long-term memory, however, is infinite and can be relied upon. This is where we keep our times tables, our knowledge of what a verb is, what an adjective is, key historical dates, capital cities, symbols of the periodic table etc. Just like Andy Murray needs to be able to serve well under pressure, we want our students to write well under pressure (in exams). It’s no good if under the stress of an exam, they forget all their capital letters. The way to do this is to make a change in their long-term memory so that using punctuation correctly becomes second-nature – then students can devote their working memory to the actual content of their answers, just like Murray devotes his brain power to his tactics rather than his technique. In Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ he claims that “nothing has been learnt if nothing has been changed in long-term memory.”

Andy Murray of Britain hits a forehand r

From my own experience, I have found it extremely frustrating that no matter how many times I give certain students feedback about their missing punctuation, or give them unpunctuated pieces of writing to punctuate or go over the rules of when to use a full stop, comma etc they still can’t use them in their own writing. Of course this isn’t every student, but it’s enough for it to be a concern, especially when they’re age 14+. How is it that this basic and fundamental aspect of English has not been mastered? How can they hope to produce a cogent piece of writing without the mastery of the full stop? It’s not just low ability students either. I did a placement during my training year at a very expensive boarding school and found myself inserting commas into an A* student’s essay when looking over it.

It is my belief that favouring skills over knowledge has been detrimental to the progress of students. What is the point of being able to write persuasively if you can’t use capitals correctly? I agree that using skills of analysis and evaluation is more advanced than factual recall, but surely certain facts need to be memorised and certain tasks drilled, in order to be able to access these higher-order skills effectively. You can’t analyse the character of Bill Sikes before understanding the society and world he lived in. You can’t write a soaring piece of rhetoric before being able to construct grammatically correct sentences. Moreover, you can’t master the fundamentals of the English language without constant repetition and practice, the type of thing Ofsted frown upon in the classroom.


You may be thinking so far so good, but how do you teach students to commit facts to memory without making the lessons boring? How do you make learning fun? Are you expecting sixth formers to learn by rote? In response to this, I think that practice and repetition is necessary for the novice. The student who hasn’t grasped what comprises a sentence. The student who can’t do their 8 times table. The student who can’t read without stumbling on every other word. Unfortunately, this can be the case for students as old as 15. Learning facts doesn’t have to be boring either: it’s a teacher’s job to bring their subject to life and there are tonnes of fun things you can do with technology and props to make even the dullest content interesting. Now at sixth form, you wouldn’t be there unless you had a certain level of mastery. However, that’s not to say facts should be neglected. In the introduction to Daisy’s book, she cites the example of a history professor who asked his first-year history undergraduates five fairly basic questions about British history: 89% of them could not name a nineteenth-century British prime minister while 70% of them did not know where the Boer Wars took place. As Daisy puts it, “If that is what Russell Group undergraduates do not know, then what can we assume that the 40% of school-leavers who fail to get five A*-Cs at GCSE do know?”

As part of Daisy’s role at Ark as Head of Research and Development, she has been instrumental in designing a new mastery English curriculum for year 7 that is knowledge-led. I am an English teacher at one of the pilot schools so have been lucky enough to teach this curriculum. The course is split into 6 hours of English teaching: 3 hours of literature, 2 hours of grammar and one hour of reading for pleasure. The literature is challenging (we did Oliver Twist in the first term and are now studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and there is a big focus on context before moving onto skills such as textual analysis. The grammar units mean that grammar is taught explicitly and the lessons are teacher led. Students complete activities that involve rigorous practice as well as repetition to ensure they are mastering how to use the English language, and they get immediate feedback in class. The reading for pleasure lesson takes place in our library and aims to instil a love of reading in children so they don’t just associate reading with exams and assessments, but something they can get life-long enjoyment from.

So far I have found this new curriculum to be outstanding. The amount of time devoted to context in the literature lessons means the students are able to have a much fuller understanding of Dickens’ and Shakespeare’s writing. The explicit teaching of grammar means students are cementing their knowledge of how the English language works. The reading for pleasure lesson means we’ve been able to read childhood favourites of mine such as ‘Northern Lights’ and ‘The Hobbit’, two novels that definitely shaped my imagination as a child. By focussing on mastery at Key Stage 3, I hope that by Key Stage 4 the students will be in a position to write accurately under pressure, understand how context influences literature and possess a real love of reading. And that’s a minimum expectation. Using this foundation of knowledge and facts, I want the high ability students to be able to write thought-provoking and perceptive literary criticism essays, compose beautiful prose and get top grades.

I would like to end with a note on cultural capital. Children who come to my school are some of the most deprived in the country – that is no exaggeration. However, it’s not just financial deprivation that they face but cultural as well. Many students have grown up in houses without books, where knowledge and learning isn’t necessarily valued. This can result in some scary situations: students not knowing that Portsmouth is in Hampshire, students not knowing the capital of England, students not knowing the points on a compass, students not being able to tell the time. They are the extreme cases and tend to come from low ability students. However, if I think about our gifted and talented students, I wonder how many of them have seen a play on stage, how many have been to the West End, how many have been to art galleries, how many have seen breath-taking architecture? If we really want to bridge the gap between privileged and underprivileged students, we need to empower them with cultural capital as well as good grades. You can be sure that their middle class contemporaries are benefiting from exposure to such experiences, and it’s not just about impressing an admissions tutor with your knowledge of post-modernist theatre either. In a recent lecture on cultural literacy, Dr Catherine Alexander, former fellow of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, talked about the importance of “knowing stuff” when reading Shakespeare. She said that we need to know the dates in which he was writing; we need to know about Queen Elizabeth I and King James I; we need to understand the role of an actor; we need to know the names of his plays and how theatres worked; we need to know that his company had 12-14 actors; we need to know that young men played women’s roles; we need to know about iambic pentameter; we need to know what a sonnet is. In essence, to be culturally literate, we need knowledge.

Please leave any comments you may have about the knowledge v skills debate, I’d love to hear your opinions.

The Journey To Outstanding

It has been a good six months since I last posted on here so I would forgive you for thinking I’d given up on this blog. The truth is that I meant to post last half term but somehow time just got away from me, you know how it does sometimes. I guess, therefore, it’s also not a surprise that I’m doing this post on the last night of the Christmas holidays!

A lot has happened over the last six months in terms of my teaching career and I’m happy to say it’s been hugely positive. I’m now a Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) and if you remember, last year I blogged about the ups and downs of being a trainee teacher in an inner city school. You’ll be glad to know that it does get easier and in this post I’ll try to explain why.

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but by the end of the summer holidays I was actually bored! The last two weeks of August were dull and grey so I couldn’t even spend the time topping up my tan. With my husband and friends at work, my family miles away and no children or pets for company, I started to get itchy feet. So, like a good NQT, I set about doing some prep for the new school year.

I remembered my first few lessons as a trainee in September 2013 and shuddered….I could not let that humiliation happen again and I could not make the same mistakes twice – that would be unforgivable. How could I do things differently? How was I going to make an impression on my new students so that they knew I meant business? How was I going to inspire and motivate them?

I thought hard about this and then remembered a video ARK’s Head of Teacher Training, Marie Hamer, had sent me this time last year. It was of a teacher, Tyler Hester, in California delivering his expectations lessons to his class. He taught in a deprived part of the state called Richmond, so not a dissimilar context to mine. I remember watching it a year ago and not really gaining too much from it. Watching it through the eyes of someone now with a year’s experience under their belt was like a revelation. I could see all the subtle but highly effective behaviour management techniques that Tyler was using, ones that I’d read about in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion. I could see them working and I could see how he was motivating the students too.

I meant to just watch the first video, but ended up watching two more of his lessons plus an interview with him. I was completely mesmerised with how in control he was of his class but also how warm he was towards the students. I was even more excited when I found out that he’d had a terrible first year in teaching but had been able to turn it around by being “obsessive” about implementing behaviour management techniques. His success made me feel even more confident about going into my second year and brought home just how important those first few lessons are with your classes. First impressions count.

For me, there were a few key things that I found especially effective in order to create the right classroom culture. With my new year 7 class I made sure I was constantly narrating the positive. Something I noticed Tyler doing was saying “Period 3, you are all meeting my expectations”. That verbalising of what they are doing right makes them feel great about themselves right from the off.

I also made sure I “sweated the small stuff” early too. There was one child who whispered to another, despite the fact I’d asked the class to do a task in silence. That resulted in me having a private word with the child and letting them know that was their first warning. By picking them up on the small stuff, it prevents bigger issues later down the line. Being crystal clear of expectations is another thing I noticed Tyler doing well. During independent tasks he often says “In complete silence, I want you to…..” By making your expectations explicit, there can’t be any doubt in the students’ minds how they’re supposed to be working; you cannot assume that children know when they should and should not be talking.

Another idea I borrowed was clapping a beat to get the students’ attention. If you’ve set the pupils on a paired task, getting them to draw their conversations to a close can be difficult without raising your voice. Rather, the clap signals that they need to stop their conversations and they show they’ve understood this by clapping the beat back. This works brilliantly with my Y7 class (there’s 31 of them) and saves your voice box! I wouldn’t use this with my older students but lower down the school, especially with big classes, it’s great.

For my Y10 class, I had to think about how to motivate them. This was a class who I’d taught for half of last year and, as a bottom set, really need that motivation to keep them going. The first tactic I borrowed from Tyler was getting them to realise the correlation between literacy and their future. By showing them the stats to do with literacy and prison and education and salaries, I wanted to give them that kick start in realising just how important their time in the classroom is. I also borrowed Tyler’s reward system, which I thought was genius. Every time a student does something merit worthy they get a ticket (I bought a book of raffle tickets from the pound shop). If they get one ticket that results in a glitter pound (like giving some skin but with a twist), five tickets results in a positive phone call home and ten tickets results in me buying them a book of their choice from Amazon. This slightly unconventional method of rewards shows them that their good behaviour and effort is noticed and gives them even more incentive to make the right decisions.

My first term as an NQT has had its challenges (namely the workload) but it has also been really enjoyable. Yes that’s right, teaching has been a JOY! In general I wake up and get excited about the lessons I’m going to deliver and get great pleasure from delivering them. It’s not about getting through them any more, it’s about enjoying them and seeing the students flourish. My mentors continue to be highly supportive and comments such as “I was really impressed with what I saw in your lesson today” from the Associate Principal after a walk-through have all really helped to build my confidence. I even got my first ever “Outstanding” lesson observation judgement at the end of term – what a way to finish, I couldn’t have been prouder!

I’m now looking forward to building on the progress I’ve made over the last term in 2015. I think momentum, consistency and confidence are key. Whether you’re in teaching or not, I wish you all a happy and healthy new year and the best of luck in all of your endeavours! Watch this space for more updates on life as an NQT.


I Passed!

One huge thing has happened since my last blog post…..I passed my training year! So apologies for not blogging sooner but I have been rather busy. A lot of preparation goes into your final assessment, with the bulk of it going towards making sure your portfolio of evidence is ready. As I’ve mentioned in the post Work/Life Balance, to qualify as a teacher you need to prove you’ve met the eight standards – that proof comes in the form of evidence such as lesson plans, powerpoints, copies of students’ work, photos of your classroom, copies of your marking and lesson observation reports. It also includes a learning journal that has been kept up to date throughout the year.

Whilst I always knew that I had all the evidence that was required, putting it all together was another matter. Finding the time to devote to compiling an A4 lever-arch file of evidence is difficult when you’re still teaching and marking every day, as well as finishing your final essay. In the end I had to take a whole weekend out to get the thing done….but it was definitely worth it.

The second part of the final assessment was a 30 minute lesson observation which, despite being extremely nervous, was absolutely fine. Hopefully the more experienced I get, the less nervous I will be in these situations. When I was younger and I was playing a lot of competitive tennis, I used to get more nervous when my family were watching, but as I got older I learnt to “get in the zone”, which is where you’re so focussed, you forget about who’s watching. Similarly, in lesson observations I’m looking to forget that anyone is watching and to relax into the lesson more: easier said than done I’m sure but that’s the goal.

Now that I have passed, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. There are only two weeks left of term and then it’s the summer holidays; a chance for a well-deserved break but also a chance to get ready for the year ahead.

There is lots to look forward to next year. We are one of eight ARK Schools to pilot the new Mastery curriculum in Year 7 English, which is incredibly exciting. Depending on their reading age, students will follow one of two pathways, with those showing reading ages of approximately nine and below doing a phonics pathway to enable them to catch up and eventually reintegrate into the traditional pathway. The main changes to the curriculum include:

  • Explicit teaching of spelling and grammar for two hours a week;
  • A greater focus on the acquisition of knowledge as well as the development of skills;
  • Extended writing to be assessed three times a year, with more regular assessment to use multiple-choice style questions;
  • A reading for pleasure lesson once a week;
  • Levels to be replaced with grades.

A lot of the changes in the Mastery course address the issues I have with the current curriculum such as pupils leaving primary school without basic literacy skills and ambiguous level descriptors on the Assessing Pupil Progress (APP) grids for reading and writing, therefore I’m very excited to see how much progress can be made by pupils under this new design.

I’m also looking forward to taking on new classes and having the chance to start with a clean slate. When I think about how little I knew last September compared to what I now know about teaching, learning and behaviour management, I feel like I’ll be in a much stronger position to make a real difference to the outcomes of my students. Add to that the opening of our Sixth Form and my Creative Writing club going from strength to strength and 2014/15 could be one heck of a year! Happy summer everyone!

photo 1

My Time at Bedales

The last time I blogged I was about to embark on a three week placement at Bedales, an independent boarding school just outside Petersfield. I promised that I would update you about my experience, so here goes….

Bedales is no ordinary school: students don’t wear uniform, they call teachers by their first names and there are no bells or clocks. As one of the most expensive schools in the country, its alumni include Daniel Day-Lewis, Lily Allen and Cara Delevingne. As I said, it’s no ordinary school, which is precisely the reason why I wanted to experience it. What could I learn from this progressive institution that I could take back to Charter Academy?

One of the boarding houses

One of the main differences between the two schools is the atmosphere. Charter is run with almost military precision: teachers line the corridors ensuring students move to their next lesson in an orderly manner, they are then greeted by their teacher at the door and enter a classroom which has their books laid out in their places and a task on the board to get on with immediately. At Bedales, however, students are trusted to move between lessons sensibly, the teacher doesn’t have to be there before the students and pupils sit where they like and carry their own books.

All these differences make for two very different, yet effective in their own way, atmospheres. Inevitably, the latter produces a more laid back and tranquil culture, whereas the former makes for a more regimented approach. I think they both have their benefits and disadvantages. Our students need routines and structure whereas parents send their children to Bedales because of its unique style which gives the students more freedom and potentially more opportunities to express themselves and their creativity. However, I think the danger of having such an atmosphere is that it can make the students too laid back, to the extent where they’re not self-motivated enough to complete and stay on top of all their work.

A Bedales Alpaca

The time of year I was there was not ideal as it was in the run-up to exam season so several classes went on study leave shortly after I arrived and the lessons I did observe were mainly revision lessons. However, I think the main difference seemed to be the less structured nature of the lessons. Whilst the structure of Charter’s lessons aren’t as prescriptive as some ARK schools, the lesson plan proforma expects you to detail your ‘Starter’ activity, the initial teacher input, how students will develop new learning and how that new learning will be assessed. Lessons are expected to be ‘double-planned’ e.g. you should plan not just what the students are doing, but what, you, the teacher is doing to promote learning. On the Bedales lesson plan proforma there’s a space for explaining the context of the lesson and differentiation but apart from that, it’s pretty much a blank page.

I think the lesson style at Bedales does lend itself to slightly more teacher talk and questioning and the opportunity to go off at a tangent. Some teachers don’t use interactive whiteboards at all, which feels very alien to me. However, I do think that relying on the interactive whiteboard can make a lesson less engaging; you can end up reading off the whiteboard if you’re not careful. Nevertheless, used effectively, I think the interactive whiteboard can be a great resource which adds visual reinforcement and a multi-media element to your lesson. Overall, due to the more tightly structured lessons at Charter and the more punctual start, I think we’re able to be slightly more productive as every minute is accounted for.

One of the highlights of my placement was teaching my first ever A level lesson. Having observed the Head of Department’s lesson with the class, I could see just how crucial questioning was going to be to the success of the lesson. The class had been studying the poetry of Sylvia Plath for their AS level exam, which, if you’ve ever encountered it, is not the easiest! I made sure I’d studied the two poems I’d selected with a fine tooth comb and then planned questions around my analysis. I also borrowed an idea from a wonderful A level English lesson I observed at Burlington Danes Academywhich gets students to break the poem down into a MOPLIST (Meaning of Poem, Language, Imagery, Structure and Tone). I absolutely loved the lesson because I felt the learning took place through in depth discussion, led by me mostly, but also by the students. Rather than me imparting knowledge on students, it felt much more like the students and I discovered the meaning of the poem together through our discussions. The success of the lesson made me even more excited for Charter’s sixth form which opens in September.

The behaviour of the students was exemplary; pupils were attentive and focussed. However what was most impressive was not their compliance but their maturity. A lot of the students would thank you at the end of the lesson; they really seemed to appreciate the effort you had gone to in order to deliver the lesson.

The beautiful library

Whilst I was on placement there were a variety of people who came to talk at the school. A renowned Classics academic delivered a lecture, a professional poet came to lead workshops and Stephen Fry came to talk about the ‘The Key to Life’. On top of that, there are a multitude of clubs and societies for the students to take part in. Lit Soc takes place once a month, in the Head of English’s front room, with a roaring fire. They discuss a book they’ve all read purely for pleasure, what joy!

This links to exactly what I found most impressive about Bedales: their commitment to learning in a wider sense. Outside of the classroom students are able to develop a passion for their subjects through the clubs and societies so that when they are applying to higher education courses, they are able to express a love for their subject, not just a proficiency. By listening to prominent speakers, they are exposed to high order concepts that they will have to grapple with at university. For example, the visiting poet delivered a literature on the philosophy of poetry; year 10 students were considering ideas I was considering in my third year of university! What is more, Bedales refuses to be limited by exam board specifications; they teach far more content than the syllabus requires, in order to give their students a more rounded education – they’ve even designed their own additional qualification to supplement the IGCSE, in order to stretch and challenge their students in ways, they believe, the IGCSE cannot.

An exam factory Bedales definitely isn’t, which is the accusation thrown at the majority of state schools today. However, it did come as a surprise to me when I learnt that about a fifth of students got a C for their English IGCSE last year. Considering we get the majority of our pupils C grades for their IGCSE, students who come from the other end of the economic scale and haven’t had the privilege of having books at home, trips abroad or consistently good teaching throughout their life, it surprises me that more pupils at Bedales don’t hit the higher grades. It also brought it home to me just how much we push our children and how much we get out of them, in terms of grades, which will hopefully lead them to brighter futures.

At the end of the placement I was ready and excited to go back to Charter. Stepping outside of the ARK bubble had made me appreciate even more just how high the standard of teaching is at my school and how well I’ve been trained. Having had the space to develop some fresh, new perspectives and ideas, I was looking forward to putting them into practice.

Apart from a disastrous observation, my first week back at Charter was fine. The children were happy to see me and I already feel that my lessons are more engaging and creative. Apart from a mini-break in Scotland, the rest of half term was dedicated to assignment writing, scheme of work designing and portfolio assembling….only four weeks left until my final assessment!



Charter Goes to the Countryside

Rather than going back to school last week, I was lucky enough to accompany (along with two other teachers) a group of twelve students on a residential creative writing course in Totleigh Barton, Devon. It was an inspirational week and something that was enriching not just for the students, but the teachers too.

The twelve students consisted of six from Charter Academy and six from Bedales, an independent school near Petersfield, with which my school has links. The Portsmouth pupils chosen were all identified as Gifted & Talented and selected on merit.

The purpose of the trip was primarily to serve as enrichment for the pupils; an opportunity for them to practise and sharpen their creative writing skills. But it was also a chance to live in the countryside for a week (middle of nowhere, patchy phone signal and no internet!), mix with children from different backgrounds to their own and learn some culinary skills too (groups of three pupils took it in turns to cook the evening meal.)



Students hard at work in the kitchen

The course was run by the charity, Arvon, and led by two professional writers who were our tutors for the week: Catherine Smith and Christopher Hill. Both of them had us in stitches with their jokes and impressions but more importantly, lapping up their literary expertise.

Mornings would consist of workshops in a converted barn with low hanging beams and comfy sofas. Catherine came up with imaginative ways of getting us to write different forms of poetry, from magical realism to character sketches. Chris brought out our inner playwrights by making us think about our own conversations and personalities in order to create believable characters and dialogue.

All of the children were engaged with the process and were not afraid to open up about their own perceived flaws and personal lives in order to stimulate their imaginations. For some of the Charter pupils especially, this trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and their hunger and eagerness to learn was impressive and rewarding to see.

After we had devoured the delicious home made lunches made by the Arvon staff, we would have the whole afternoon to develop the writing we had started in the workshop. However, if you were on cooking duty that evening, you had to be in the kitchen by 4.30 to get the meal on the table by 7.


Our home for the week

I think the cooking element of the week was really beneficial to the students. They had to work as a team to get the meal ready on time and it also taught them handy skills, such as how to use a can opener!

After the evening meal, a different group of students did the washing up and then we headed back to the barn for readings. On one night Christopher and Catherine read some of their published work and on another night we each read an extract from our favourite authors.

On Wednesday we were visited by Naomi Alderman. Author of three published novels, all which were influenced by her Jewish upbringing, she is also the lead writer on two video games: Perplex City and Zombies, Run, which, as you can imagine, particularly impressed some of the boys. What impressed me was that she was mentored by literature legend, Margaret Atwood, for a year….not bad!

Not only did Naomi read two extracts of her work, one breathtakingly traumatic, the other, a hilarious piece of magical realism, she offered some sage advice to the aspiring professional writers amongst the pupils, which was gold dust.


Naomi’s reading in the barn

On the final night, it was the pupils’ turn. One by one they read out their poetry, dialogue or prose they had been finessing all week. A range of themes and ideas were conveyed and each pupil’s artistic voice shone through. It was brilliant to see the progress the students had made in their own writing since the beginning of the course. One student from Bedales said, “I used to look at a blank piece of paper and be intimidated by it, but now I just see it as an opportunity.”

Personally, I took a huge amount away from the week. I was able to bond with the Charter students in a relaxed, creative environment and I was inspired by their desire to learn, so much so that I would like to start a creative writing club at school so that they can build on their experience in Devon and also enable other students to explore their creativity.

It was also fascinating to see how the students interacted. Taking a group of inner city school children with a group of public school children to a remote part of the Devonshire countryside sounds like some kind of social experiment, but the children seemed quite oblivious to any apparent class divisions and made some real bonds, and hopefully lasting friendships.

For the next three weeks, as part of my ARK teacher training programme, I am going to be on a placement in a contrasting school. And guess where I’m going? Bedales! It might take me a little while to get used to being called by my first name and wearing jeans to work, but I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes on here….


The team

The Journey So Far…

As it’s the Easter holidays, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on the last seven months and think about how far I’ve come.

I joined the ARK teacher training programme because I found their vision inspirational: to combat educational inequality by establishing a network of outstanding schools in some of the UK’s most deprived areas. However, I don’t think I was really prepared for the reality of working in such an environment.

Whenever I told people that I was going to become a teacher, they were really positive and always said what a great teacher they thought I’d make. One of my colleagues sent me a lovely note saying: “Good luck. You’ll be a great teacher. The children will be very lucky to have you. I think you’re principled, funny and engaging and they will love that.” All of these comments filled me with confidence and assured me I was doing the right thing.

So you can imagine my shock when, come September, I was standing in front of my classes, doing my upmost to make them be quiet but ultimately failing. It was embarrassing. How was this happening? I thought my students would love having a fresh, young teacher but instead, they sensed my nerves and took full advantage!

I never thought I would be one of those teachers who couldn’t control their class; I thought that was reserved for teachers who had the wrong image, a weak voice and no personality, but that Autumn term was a battle. A battle to get the students to come into class respectfully, to not talk over me when I was trying to teach and to work in silence when I asked them to. It also showed me that behaviour management isn’t all about personality, rather it’s a skill you can learn through training and then set about applying.

By the end of the term I was quite demoralised. The whole point of working in a deprived area was to make a difference; what was the point if I couldn’t get through to all of the students and help them progress? Yes, some of the students hung on my every word, but I wanted them all to! You can imagine how I felt when I was told that I was going to be taking on another class in January: the notorious 9D.

Year 9 have a reputation for being difficult: their hormones are raging and they’ve been at the school long enough to have found their feet. Add to the mix the fact that this is a low attaining class and I thought this could be a recipe for disaster – I wasn’t looking forward to this new challenge but agreed to take it on.

Over the Christmas holidays I did a lot of reflecting about the past term: what I’d done well and what I could have done better (What Went Well / Even Better If to use ARK feedback speak). What mistakes had I made in September that I could address with this new class in January? I realised I’d been far too smiley to begin with; I should have been stricter initially and then gradually have become more relaxed. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.

I also reread my notes I made at the ARK summit in October when I heard Tom Bennett speak. The ARK summit happens once a year and is an event where the staff from all 27 ARK schools come together and celebrate successes and attend workshops.

Tom Bennett is a teacher in London who has made a name for himself as a behaviour guru. After 10 years working in the night clubs of Soho, Tom thought the transition into teaching would be smooth. He was horrified in his first lesson when a child asked him his name, to which he answered, to which the student replied “F*** you, Mr Bennett!” Tom learnt the hard way but now people seek his advice, and I can honestly say he is the most engaging, hilarious and inspirational speaker I’ve ever listened to.

So I bet you’re wondering how things turned out with 9D? Well, I think taking on that class has been the making of me. I went in with an authoritative tone but also tried to buy into their hearts a bit by telling them how much their progress mattered to me. They do have the odd day when they’re not focussed, but in general I feel that a lot of progress takes place in lessons and I enjoy teaching them. It also helps that their previous teacher was the Head of Department, and my mentor, who also happens to be the holder of ARK’s Most Outstanding Teacher of the Year award! She had instilled confidence in them and a desire to succeed.

As for my other classes, they’ve improved too as I think the confidence I’ve gained from taking over 9D has made me more assertive in general. The students respect me more and we’ve forged relationships. There are some students who I feared I would never get through to who are now showing a real appetite for learning

While these last seven months have undoubtedly been tough, there have been some wonderful moments too, here are some of them:


  • A student writing me a letter telling me how much she enjoys my lessons.
  • Taking a group of students to the Southampton Daily Echo where they met the editor and learnt all about how a newspaper is put together.
  • Marking work where I can clearly see evidence of my teaching.
  • Learning that since one of my students joined Charter, she has rekindled her love of English.


I hope this post has given you an insight into some of the highs and lows I’ve experienced since becoming a teacher. My advice to any new teacher reading this would be to go in hard. Those first few lessons with your class are crucial in terms of them forming an opinion of you and how far they can push you…show them who’s boss!