Friday, 22 June 2012

So much of life, it seems, is determined by pure randomness..

It’s been a good week so far: the rain came but the sun shone, I, unlike Hibernian football club, managed to get my hands on the Scottish Cup (if only for a few moments), the Primary 7’s arrived for a three day visit, I have nearly managed to remember all the names of the students in my new classes and we are all making progress and having fun.

I don’t find it easy to learn the names of new students, it always takes a while and this time around I have made a rod for my own back called randomisation. (Randomisation is an important teaching tool for any classroom. Every class has students that are extroverts and eager to respond. They also have students that are shy and reluctant to raise their hand and participate. Without randomization techniques the quiet students might be left behind and they will miss out on gaining valuable feedback. Every child should be potentially assessed during your lesson. If you begin using randomisation techniques as a norm in your classroom you will create a standard and an increased level of awareness and content retention with your students. Once students begin to realise that they may be called on at any given moment they generally will actively improve their levels of awareness and interest.) During my time studying for my PDGE we were introduced to Dylan William and his seminal book on classroom assessment, “Inside the Black Box”. Its like a bible for teachers, goes on about proven benefits of formative assessment and is in my opinion spot on. In response to this I use playing cards and lollipop sticks. Each student receives a playing card at the door and this guides him or her to his or her table. All four kings will work together, as will aces etc. The benefits of this for are two fold; Students get to work with absolutely everyone in the class, learning to tolerate and even get on with other students they may not be ‘best’ friends with, a skill needed for the workplace and life or at least until they marry rich or win the lotto. The second is that best friends don’t sit beside each other very often and as a result there is a lot less unproductive chat in the classroom. 

The second technique is the use of lollipop sticks to choose the pupil to ask a question. A stick is chosen at random with the name of the pupil and they get the question. The ‘deck’ can be stacked for differentiation purposes in both cases. The ‘Quadruple Chocolate Cookie Pot’, which holds the sticks, has assumed an almost God like status with some classes. Such is the euphoria surrounding the aforementioned box that when the supermarket chain changed it from a cylinder to a cuboid an angry S1 class wrote thirty letters of complaint. The best one being (in my opinion) from ‘Joe’ who went on a rant for two pages, insinuated that his life was over, ‘neither he nor his unborn children would ever shop there again’ (direct quote, you could not make some of the stuff they wrote up) and then signed off ‘love Joe’. The downside is you cannot associate any student with a seating plan, its impossible to give out to a child if you don’t know their name and higher students can pretend to have new names! All adds to the fun though.

The week was going so well it was time to throw a spanner in the works. Today was the day I let the students know that our paths would be separating as of the end of next week. It was a sad day in that respect but it had to be done. In my opinion you need to be honest about these things and just tell them how it is. It would have been really easy to hand the blame to the PT or the Head teacher but that’s not the way forward. I was offered the job in my new school on Wednesday last week. The interview for my current job was last Monday. The students found it hard to understand that I could not interview for my current school and if successful just tell the other school to jog on six days after accepting the post. I won’t lie I had considered this option but quickly dismissed it, even though I love teaching in my current school I could not change my mind and go back on my word once given. It would be the world’s worst example for children and if your word means nothing what does? It would probably also leave a black mark against your name and education is a small world. They did understand though that a job is required to live and you should not look a gift horse in the mouth. The reactions of the students ranged from crying girls (this is heart breaking let me assure you) to boys who thought the best course of action was to go punch someone (this not so much!). Now how punching an English teacher is going to get me a job is beyond me but I think that was more of a reaction to a punishment exercise wrapped up in a fake cloak of morality but who am I to judge?! 

There reactions could be summed up by four categories; 1. Protest emails (snail mail is dead to the youth of today*), 2. Protest (I think the idea more than actually doing it appeals but anyways), 3. Violence (again the idea I think) and 4. The few daddy’s girls who will tell their fathers and they will fix it (I want to be this innocent and idealistic again). All beautiful sentiments and its good to know that you have made an impression - the best kind of feedback to get is from the students, they are the ones at the sharp end, after all. Letting pupils have a say is empowering and, if handled constructively, is highly enlightening and can also have a certain entertainment value!

Next Monday I go into my new school to have a look. I won’t lie, the students in my current school were not overly complimentary about it but why would they? I am getting more excited now I have to admit but today was as the Scottish would say ‘Nae easy pal’. Anyways, onwards and upwards..

* Today in class we were talking about 3D shapes, the conversation went from Pyramids, to Egypt, to sand, to the beach, to someone swallowing sand, to a cat called sandpaper!, to a story about a cousin called Farquhar & a starfish, to Nicki Minaj's Starships song and finally to a Youtube V Google debate. It turns out 10 out of 15 students in this S2 class would Youtube a query before they would google it! I found that very interesting, I don’t think I have ever considered using youtube as a search engine, is it the way forward or simply the new default amongst the youth of today as opposed to reading for the youth of yesterday?

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Saints are sinners who kept on going..

SUCCESS!! I now have a permanent full time job starting next August. All the hard work going over and over applications (37 applications in total since this time last year), the many interviews, mock interviews and reflection have finally paid off! When I found out it was a great relief, followed by a sadness that has not quite left yet. The relief comes from not having to do another interview for a long time, knowing that the summer holidays will only be six weeks long and I have a job to go to afterwards! I have felt this sadness before when I got my current job and had to leave my last school but it will pass - it comes from working with great people and teaching and learning with wonderful students. I have been lucky enough to yet again work in a wonderful department with fantastic people. I have learned off each and every one and it would be unfair to name but a few. In my opinion in teaching you are on a permanent learning curve and the day you stop learning, or wanting to learn, is the day to hang up the boots. It’s easier to learn if you work with enthusiastic people who love their profession, care about their students and have a good (or unusual) sense of humour. The sadness comes from loving the students, the school and the people I work with. I will miss them all but we don’t get to plan out our route in life and you have to trust that what is meant to be is what happens. 

It was another big week, and its only half over! Four interviews in three days was a lot but I think it benefits people like myself - the more I do the better I get. It took many interview applications before I finally started getting regular interviews. It took me about three interviews last year to be confident in my ability and good enough to be able to talk about myself to get the job I am in now. And it has taken five interviews to get to the point of being offered this permanent job. This week has again been a great experience with both ups and downs. It started on Monday with two very different interviews. The first was a traditional interview but because of a mistake by someone in the school’s administration the job had only been advertised internally and as a result only two candidates had applied. Two in comparison to seventy for every other job I had applied for. This was the school which I needed my ‘Good Catholic’ approval for! The interview was ok but I had not quite hit my stride yet. The school decided to re-advertise the position for all of Scotland and rang me to let me know that I would be considered for two positions when this happened. The tiny pessimist in me says that if they thought I was good enough I would have been offered one so I decided not to hold my breath. The second interview in my opinion is a far better format than the traditional interview. It consisted of three parts and is more like the interview process that happens in public (private) schools in Scotland. The first thing you had to do was prepare a presentation about an unseen topic in fifteen minutes to then go on and give a five minute presentation. The topic was pretty vague and I made a mess of it. It was about equality and diversity and assuring parents that their children will do well. The interview itself consisted of students asking questions, then the presentation and finally questions from the two interviewers. I like this format especially giving the students an opportunity to ask questions, I think students are just as good at analysing a teacher as, to be fair, they spend more time with them than any and their opinions should be included in the process. I will remember this if I ever have to organise an interview. The interview I got was as you can image very good, the two interviewers made me feel at ease and I really enjoyed it. Good times.

I am tired now, I had not realised how much effort I had been putting in to try and get these interviews right and find this job, since I have come home I am just shattered. The sadness is still there but there is also a great sense of relief. I am now looking forward to the last few weeks with my colleagues, friends and students in my current job. There will be plenty of time to look forward to the challenge that my new post will bring shortly. It’s going to be exciting. I am a huge believer in karma and faith and it has not let me down so far. I have worked with some amazing people in many different jobs, in many different countries, and have had a wonderful life so far. My journey has taken me as far south as Australia and as far north as Ullapool (just south of the north pole!) and it has been fantastic. I have no reason to believe that the next chapter will not be as good so once again its onwards and upwards… J

I would like to thank all my friends and family who have helped me and continue to help me on this wonderful journey. To those that have helped out and those that have made me smile. Remember it’s the small things in life..

Monday, 11 June 2012

Do or Do not, there is no try..

Friday was a busy day, last of a short week thanks to the Queen and I hope she enjoyed her party (Must be tough being in the same job for sixty years without promotion but I sure she gets by). It all started with the first of five interviews on my continued search for the holy grail that is the permanent post. The interview was very similar to most, three interviewers and six questions. Two questions in this interview stuck out for me and to be fair I did not answer them brilliantly. The first was on a CPD event that influenced your practice. I have to be honest most of the CPD we are made do is pure crap, I remember one particular event where a lady started by showing a picture of the learning pyramid and proclaiming that this was her favourite picture.  This pyramid illustrates the best ways of learning and retention of information. The irony of this was that she then proceeded to lecture us (5% retention rate!) for the rest of the session. Death by powerpoint is a cruel and slow way to go! The Royal Society of Edinburgh in its advice paper 'Schooling in Scotland and its fitness for 21st Century purpose' does specify the need for high quality CPD in order to overcome the challenges that we face in schools today but how will this be achieved? And can they please stop sending people out to talk about powerpoint's they themselves have not even written? One can only hope that it does get better.
I remember another CPD event on Glow, the worlds biggest white elephant. I am not a fan, Glow is like walking into a huge mansion that looks good and promises loads in all its hundreds of rooms until you realise that you can't find anything and your mansion suddenly looks like it was built in the 70's! The Scottish Government needs to let this one go and instead of wasting money buy new computers for schools. I asked the man presenting the talk on Glow what positive things he had learned whilst researching for this talk. His answer was that Glow was already behind the times but the program he had used to make the presentation was class. I agree and if you are ever looking to make a cool presentation start by going to, its brilliant. Now saying that not all CPD is bad, I have been to some great talks and demonstrations, in my opinion its mostly compulsory CPD that sucks like an industrial vacum cleaner! The second question was on equality and diversity in my classroom. How do you go about explaining that everyone is equal in your classroom and not only that but you diversify for all students as well? I find it easy to do but very hard to explain, everyone is treated the same, you have to be 100% fair in class, you must take into account every child's needs, their different learning styles, the fact that they may be living in two separate homes, they might be a child carer, the fact that on Wednesday mornings they might be alseep because of a medication they are on and on Friday evening they are higher than a kite. Its hard to explain in 5 minutes that all are treated equally whilst taking into account the individual. You have to get to know each student, you have to get to know their background and find out all you can, its also about building good working relationships with students, working in conjunction with other teachers, SfL, other professionals and then facilitating to the best of your ability. I suppose its fair better to have a classroom of equality and diversity than to be able to explain about one!

After the excitement of the interview it was back to the chalkface and my S2's. I really like this class as they are a mixed group of characters. They are a busy bunch, they have to worry about looking cool, about pleasing their teacher, about the boy who has a girlfriend who is in the class, some have to worry about staying busy and you must know whats going on out the window. They also are busy trying to chat whilst also trying to give the impression of work. In the early days of a new class many students go with the tried and tested strategy of 'I have NEVER seen that before in my life!' A quick 'Are you sure?' normally works though for the die hard tricksters it must be followed up with 'I will just check with Mrs S..'. God loves a trier but me not so much! I have only taught them twice and after getting the names right which is hugely important its on to the difficult task of taking the word 'try' out of their vocabulary and mentality. Yoda taught me one of the most important lessons in life when he said..

(The other important lesson from Star Wars is that if you are ever in a film always get a percentage of the merchandise! Bet Luke wished he had worried more about that than the identity of his father!) Its a lesson for life, if your going to do something, do it properly, if not don't bother. So when a student says try I tell them not to bother, (reverse psychology is one of the most important weapons in a teacher arsenal along with the sticker, students may own iPhones and magic game consoles but they would crawl over glass for a colourful sticker!) sure enough after sitting there for a minute or two as everyone else is working they promise to give it there very best effort. One of the hardest things in a classroom is to get a student to put in their best effort and understand that it is in their best interest, this can take months and sometimes years but when you get there its a beautiful thing.

The final action of the day was taking the rugby team I coach to the Edinburgh S2 7's competition. I have the privilege of coaching along with a friend a very talented bunch of young lads. We have a great team at both 15's and 7's. There main foe is laziness and mindset. Confidence grows slowly in these boys. We have only lost two games all year, one was to a better team and one was the worst day at the office that 22 boys can have. They are very good but every time they take to the pitch they foster the idea that the other team is made up of demi gods or supermen. As soon as we have let in a try and found out that they are human, probably not as good as us we can kick on with our own game and normally win. Today was no different. The first obstacle was to get the 12 man squad organised. The weather was a typical June day in Scotland, slightly overcast with drizzle and no sign of the sun. (No one comes here for the weather!) This did not appeal to some of the lads and when I asked three of them were they coming they started 'if'ing and wondering, they did not like the weather but said they would try, so I told them it was ok they did not have to come. Reverse psychology works wonders again and sure enough they were back to me by break to say they really wanted to play. There is no try and there are no passenegers on this boat. The draw did us no favours as we had to play the favourites first. The boys were still not eager or excited despite my best efforts but I knew as soon as they started playing and got involved all this would change. We lost 2 tries to 1 but the boys were now excited, they knew they could have won and this gave them great confidence. We won our other group games easily and were ready to challenge for the title but the format was changed due to the rain and instead of a final round robin all we could play for was third place. We won but the lads were disappointed that they could not have another crack at glory. I sat them down and we talked about the fun we had, the great day out and finally we talked about the importance of starting off on the best foot and giving it all, Yoda summed it up for them and I believe they have turned a corner. Next year they will go from strength to strength hopefully. It was a great day and mighty fun, as for myself I have four maybe five interviews, as always onwards and upwards..

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone..

Last week was 'trips week' which for me meant going with 14 other teachers and 193 first years up near Aberfoyle to an adventure centre for a week. Last year I had taken, along with three other teachers, about 30 second years away for a week to a different adventure centre which was great but this was an adventure on a bigger scale. It was an amazing week even though on day two 1 billion midges turned up for a feast and stayed with us for the rest of the week. We built rafts, climbed tall trees, walked up hills and generally had an amazing time. The students in fairness to them kept their spirits and energy levels up for the entire week and despite being eaten alive and having to live in midgey nets had a great time too. What stood out for me was how the different up bringing of boys and girls from much the same area and basically in the same socio economic group can produce such different characters. The vast majority are extremely polite, fun loving children who will give anything a go, trusted in their friends and were there to support each other. A small minority had obviously never heard the word 'no' before or if they had they were unsure of the meaning. A few were obviously spoilt at home and it was clear that Mammy, Daddy or even Jeeves did most of the picking up after them. I wonder do parents fully understand the burden they are placing on their children by spoiling them? How will Little Johnny cope if he ever has to leave the home fire and go off travelling or off to Uni. By giving them more dining options than a Michelin star restaurant at home do they think they are preparing for student life when you need to cook Bolognese on a budget on £4 so you can pay the rent and afford a six pack of Danish Gold for the social engagement round at Dave's place?? Some of these children could not find there own suitcase if they were sitting on it, how by packing for them, running after them and picking up for them are they ever going to learn any responsibility for themselves? The Scottish government provides all they need in School, Mammy and Daddy give all they need at home and if anything is lost or broken, be it jotter, book or phone a new one is quickly supplied. I can't help but feel that we are letting them down in this respect. (Insert 'back in my day' story here!) It looks like the children of today will have to learn responsibility the hard way but then maybe everybody does.

 On a positive note it was an amazing week, it was great to get to know the students on a different level and to get to know some of the staff who I had never really talked to before. The craic was great and the banter was mighty especially when one poor teacher who will rename nameless managed to let the fire alarm off at midnight because it was in the spot where the light switch should be! That's his excuse and he is sticking to it! I will also never forget 190 kids singing the chorus to Nikki Minaj's song Starships, its not a fantastic choice for a kids disco but to hear a room full of kids roar out 'you're higher than a motherfuk@r' six times throughout that song was very funny, when we first heard it your just thinking it can't be that but it it dawns on you! Needless to say when the DJ tried to play it again as the students roared out 'one more tune' the boss stepped it and sorted it out. It was a great week and one I will remember for a while.

Now back to reality of looking for a job for next year. I have applied for seven different full time jobs in the Edinburgh area so fingers crossed one will go my way. I applied for one at a Catholic school which was fine as I am a Catholic but it turns out you need proof that you are in fact a good Catholic! You must seek approval from the Bishop in the Diocese that you live in. I had not realised that this was how it had to be done but you learn something new everyday. To become 'approved' you have to write a religious belief and character statements. I also had to get my priest from home to write a reference. I can't help but think to myself that if you have to tell everyone how good a person you are does it not contradict what one learns at mass that you should be humble? It's even more frustrating than going into an interview and telling people that your the bee's knees! Fear not though I am now a certified good Catholic and have a letter that proves it, I will be first in at the pearly gates when the time comes unless the letter has an expiry date! Anyways I have one interview Friday, though a friend of mine does have a temporary job there and would be considered favourite, so maybe we should consider that one a practice and another one on Monday. Onwards and upwards...