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!

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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….

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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!

Work/Life Balance

My blog post this week is going to be fairly short as I was on a very tight deadline with one of my university assignments over the weekend. On Monday I had to submit 4000 words – eek!

I will, however, take this opportunity to explain a little bit about what it’s like to balance the academic side of my qualification with the practical side.

In order to be awarded my PGCE in July, there are several things I need to do. Firstly, I need to prove I’ve met the ‘Teacher’s Standards’. There are eight standards in total and I need to submit evidence that I’ve adhered to them sufficiently. This might include examples of my marking, or lesson plans that show I’ve implemented differentiation.

On top of this I need to complete three 4000 word essays during the year. My first assignment was a ‘Professional Studies’ essay, which I chose to base on behaviour and the effectiveness of detentions as a sanction.

The assignment that was due on Monday was a case study on an element of my school’s Improvement Plan. The area I focussed on was assessment and how regularly it should be used to improve student outcomes.

While it is difficult to find time to complete these assignments to the standard I would ideally like, it is a great way to get new teachers to reflect on their practice and also critically engage with the systems in place at school. Through the reading I’ve done for the literature review sections of the assignments, I’ve definitely strengthened my professional knowledge.

During term time, it’s almost impossible to get much substantial essay writing done. Your time is consumed with school: planning lessons, marking books, preparing assemblies, organising trips, attending meetings, doing admin and running detentions! Instead, I’ve tended to use the holidays to make serious inroads into my university work, so that busts the myth that teachers’ holidays are overly long – we still work during them! It’s not to say the holidays aren’t great, they are, but they’re needed; I honestly think teachers would burn out without them.

Which brings me onto working hours. I think it’s fair to say that if you want to be an effective teacher, you’ve got to be prepared to put in the hours. I had no idea how long the hours would be before I started. I think I had the notion that I’d be leaving at 4pm every day. Not so! I get to school at 7.45am and usually leave at some point between 6 and 7pm. The reason I leave so late is because I like to get all of my marking done at school so that I don’t have to bring it home, then when I’m home for the evening, I’m done (apart from the odd sneaky email).

I have had to accept that, during term time, I’ll only have a one day weekend, so I’ll either spend all of Saturday or all of Sunday planning the week ahead’s lessons. I have tried planning the night before during the week, but found my brain didn’t work well enough in the evenings to plan engaging lessons. I’d much rather plan them at the weekend when I’m fresh.

Last weekend was tough as I had all of this week’s lessons to plan as well as my assignment to complete. However, it’s only a few days until Easter when I’ll get two whole weeks off, one of which will be spent on a beach! I don’t plan to take a single exercise book with me.

Even though the hours are long, it is worth it. There is a quote by the American writer Nicholas Sparks that reads: “Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy. Remember that.” I think this directly relates to teaching: it is a challenging job but the rewards are immeasurable. You’re investing in young people and their futures.

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela.

From the newsroom to the classroom…

Welcome to my blog, I’m extremely excited to be writing my first post! As this is my maiden attempt, I thought I’d take it as an opportunity to introduce myself and explain why I’ve chosen to start ‘Notes on a Whiteboard’.

As an English and Philosophy graduate, I always knew I wanted a career that satisfied my love of language. Teaching had always appealed to me, as coming from a family of teachers, I had grown up hearing their fascinating tales from the classroom. However, journalism had caught my eye too. Having immersed myself in student journalism at the University of York, I decided to pursue the path to Fleet Street after graduation.

In 2009 I found myself in London at City University on their prestigious Masters programme. I was surrounded by highly driven, intelligent wannabe hacks and inspired by the course’s illustrious alumni: James Harding, Will Lewis and Decca Aitkenhead to name but a few. The programme was intense (basically a three year newspaper journalism course condensed into one) but I was sure it would lead me to where I wanted to be: writing for a broadsheet newspaper…

However, I hadn’t accounted for the explosion of online news and the bite of the recession. Newspaper circulations started to drop rapidly as people began consuming their news for free online and companies couldn’t afford the big buck, double-page spread adverts any more. As a result, newspaper jobs, which involve spending time forging relationships with contacts, conducting original investigations and travelling the lengths of the country (or world) are now few and far between. Money is tight in the land of newspapers and consequently, desk-based journalism has prevailed.

Nevertheless, I was willing to give online journalism a go and am proud to say I worked for two global brands in their digital media departments: the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the BBC. It was through these roles that I learnt all about the power of social media and how to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to promote your brand and attract fans. It was incredible to be at the forefront of the digital media revolution but I knew something was missing; I had an itch that constantly needed scratching…

People. That was it. I wasn’t communicating with real people. I was living in this virtual world where I communicated with millions of people online but who were all faceless. I did get a buzz from my tweets being retweeted thousands of times and videos getting thousands of views but I also imagined how much more of a buzz I’d get if I had a job where I was constantly interacting face-to-face with people. A voice in my head kept telling me that I should be a teacher. Eventually, I listened to it.

As someone who had been working for three years, I decided to explore what train-on-the-job routes there were into teaching. I discovered School Direct which I thought sounded perfect. It provides the opportunity to train in the classroom and earn a salary at the same time, as well as tuition fees being covered. The eligibility criteria for this route is to have already been working for three years so it was the perfect match. Hungry to get into the classroom, I knew this was the route I wanted to follow.

Thankfully, I discovered the ARK Teacher Training programme. ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) is an international charity that focuses on three key areas: education, health and child protection. Its aim in Britain is to establish a network of outstanding schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country. By training their own graduates, ARK hopes to nurture future outstanding teachers. In total there are 27 primary and secondary schools located across London, Birmingham, Hastings and Portsmouth. It’s the latter city where I managed to secure a role as a trainee English teacher.

My home town is Southampton, so Portsmouth is just a 40 minute commute down the M27 (nothing considering I used to do a daily 2-hour-each-way commute to London!) I teach at a school called Charter Academy, which has transformed itself from one of the worst in the country to the second most improved nationally. Before becoming an ARK academy in 2009, it was called St Luke’s Church of England School. Its GCSE pass rate a decade ago was 3%; now it’s 68%. The school really is changing lives.

Working at Charter Academy is something I am immensely proud of but it is also very challenging. If you watched the BBC Three series ‘Tough Young Teachers’ (to which I was addicted!) you will have an idea of the challenges trainee teachers face in inner-city schools. Low literacy levels, apathy and turbulent home lives are all factors that produce obstacles to learning. But the more I practise, the more I learn how to overcome these barriers. I’m surrounded by inspirational teachers who are role models not only to me, but to the students. My aim is to emulate them and, one day, have people looking up to me for guidance.

When ARK asked their trainees if any of us would like to blog about our journey from novice to qualified teacher, I jumped at the chance. Writing a blog seems the perfect way to combine my love of writing, with my passion for education as well as showing my students that I practise what I preach! The life of a trainee teacher is a roller coaster: huge highs and tough lows. It has completely challenged my expectations. Rather than pouring out my opinions, experiences and thoughts to my long-suffering husband (ok it’s only been since September but I think he now knows my students as well as me!) I want to share them on here. This will be an honest account of my journey so far – I hope it’s informative, interesting and a little bit inspirational.